Speak of ‘strange land’ and musicos will immediately think of the great, anthemic album by Keane. Older people (ahem) might recall an echo of Boney M or, even, Don McLean, both of whole recorded versions of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. And anyone who wonders where that came from will remember that it comes from Psalm 137.

What do you do when your world falls apart? What can it look like when everything you assume to be ‘that’s just how it is’ collapses and, amid the disorientation, you find yourself living in a different country, looking out at different horizons and listening to different languages?

Well, we don’t have to face this for the first time when the great virus brings the world to a halt and changes the way we live, relate, touch, hear and smell … possibly for ever. As usual, the resources go back a long way – like 3,000 years in the Middle East.

The people have been exiled from the land that gives them history, identity and meaning. They now live in a strange land where their oppressors have a laugh at them: “If your God is so powerful, what are you doing sitting on our river banks and looking so miserable? Go on – sing us the songs of you cosmic God who appears to have been defeated by our tribal deity!” That’s the scenario. Everything that gave the people meaning and identity swept away to be replaced by bewilderment and fear, any future looking radically different and totally unwelcome.

Now, exile in Babylon, subject to an alien and oppressive empire, is not quite the same as being grounded by a virus. But, what many people are now experiencing is. The end of a way of life. The prospect of having to change the way we live and move and have our being in a world that we thought was familiar. Wondering how to fill time when the normal contours have been wiped out. Questioning what we are for when the things into which we had invested such meaning have dropped out of the picture.

It now begins to sound more familiar, doesn’t it?

Well, Psalm 137 is really uncomfortable. These people have both a loving memory of home – of how life used to be – and a recognition that they would now have to live differently. In this strange land they would need to get their bearings, find a way of life, then shape a different future. And while doing it they would have to re-think the resources their story held for them, re-imagine what their (land-rooted) faith now meant, and begin to sing new songs without forgetting the songs of home.

My chapel this morning. The light shines in and the darkness will not have the last word.

I think this is going to be the task for our times – for Christians, of course, but, actually, for everyone. Stripped back to the bare bones, why do we think we are here and why do we think we matter? How do we cope with mortality and contingency … even before we get to morality? How, then, shall we live?

Psalm 137 ends with a horror prayer: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” Embarrassing? No – essential. The psalmist doesn’t vindicate the ethic; he expresses the emotion. In other words, tell God the truth. Don’t pretend to say “hallelujah” when your heart says “shit”.

Prayer in these days can become an expression of honesty that compels us to face the truth about ourselves – our rank selfishness in stockpiling, for example? The prayer might change over time as we seek to live faithfully in a strange land. But, it must always be rooted in reality and honesty, exposing us to the possibility of change and transformation as we learn to trust that the God of the past will be faithful in a different future – that the strange land might even become a familiar home.

Here's the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. The guests on the show today were Chas n Dave, Keane's Tom Chaplin and Darcey Bussell. Rather cheaply I called the script 'Mustn't grumble' – an early song title by the Rockney duo – and I smuggled in a title by Keane. Not very adventurous, I know, but I ran out of inspiration.

A couple of weeks ago we had the Bishop of Khartoum in Sudan staying with us. On my day off I agreed to take him – Ezekiel – to Liverpool for the day because he wanted to see Anfield. No, really, he did. So, when we got there I took a photo of him standing next to the statue of the great Bill Shankly. On the plinth beneath Bill it says: “He made the people happy.” Ezekiel said to me: “He obviously wasn't a bishop, then!”

Ha! Well, he was right, wasn't he? The job of a bishop is not primarily to keep people happy and being happy isn't always the best thing to aim for, either. Especially if my happiness is achieved at the expense of someone else's misery. Ezekiel had left behind him tens of thousands of people whose homes in Khartoum had been washed away when the Nile flooded recently – and most of these people had fled from violence in Darfur and elsewhere in the first place. He needed to know that they aren't forgotten by those who live in safety elsewhere – like being “silenced by the night”.

People suffering this week from violence in Syria, Pakistan and Kenya need the assurance that their plight is not being ignored by an apathetic world that cares only about its own satisfaction.

But, happiness need not be simply selfish or self-indulgent. What if it is about opening people's eyes to joy, awakening curiosity and teasing the imagination, offering hope of a new start and forgiveness and reconciliation and love… and helping people hear – amid the cacophony of the present – the music of the future? What if making people happy has to do with enabling them to know that they are infinitely valuable and eternally loved – that whatever the world throws at them, they matter? Or, that however dark life gets, the light cannot be extinguished? That they are loved to death and beyond?

Well, they'll never put up a statue to me – in Liverpool or Bradford or anywhere else. But, I think there are worse epitaphs than Bill Shankly's: “He made the people happy.”