By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept
When we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps
Upon the willows in the midst of it.
For there those who carried us away
captive asked of us a song,
And those who plundered us
Saying, “Sing us one of the
songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)
Thus lamented the people of Israel while exiled in the land of Babylon. Their nation had been conquered, their city laid waste, their temple destroyed. How could they sing to the Lord in a foreign land, a land not only of foreign peoples, but of foreign gods? How could they praise the Lord while in such a state of misery and defeat?
And yet, they did. In the midst of their exile there was also blessing. God had sent them into Babylon, but He had not abandoned them there. Though their temple was gone, He was not absent. While chastising the nation for its unfaithfulness, He also preserved it and provided for His people — even in Babylon. And the faithful of Israel did sing the Lord’s song in that foreign land, a song of thankfulness in the midst of suffering, a song of hope in the midst of exile.
Daniel, before facing the lions of King Darius, is found doing this. “In his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days” (Daniel 6:10). When the Lord made us of Esther to save the Jews living in exile from the evil Haman, the Jews proclaimed a feast and gathered together in gladness. And while the Biblical book of Esther does not speak of God’s actions directly in this account, apocryphal Esther says: “This is Israel, who cried out to God and were saved. The Lord has saved His people; the Lord has delivered us from all these evils; God has done great signs and wonders, which have not occurred among the nations… God remembered His people and vindicated His inheritance” (10:9, 12). History tells us that it was during the Babylonian exile that synagogues were first established, places where the Jews, lacking a temple, could meet to hear the Word of the Lord and to sing the songs of Zion. And yet, even though God was present with them in that foreign land, even though He had blessed them there such that we could say that they thrived in exile, they longed for more. They longed for a return.
One day the Lord answered that longing by bringing them out of exile to Jerusalem. Sorrow was turned to rejoicing; hope, to blessed fulfillment. The nation was restored. The city walls were raised up. The temple was rebuilt. And the people sang:
When the Lord brought back
the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great
things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
And we are glad. (Psalm 126:1-3)
In 1940 the Minnesota District Convention decided that there wasn’t a pressing need for a campus chapel at the University of Minnesota. It would be enough, they determined, to have a campus pastor who could conduct the ministry without one. Three years later, at the 1943 convention, they realized they had made a mistake. The motto of the 1943 convention echoed the theme of the exiles returning from Babylon: “Let us rise up and build” (Nehemiah 2:18). And while the convention essay rightly focused on the building that takes place through the faithful preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, the convention delegates applied this theme to the needs of the campus ministry at the U of M, approving a resolution instructing the District Board of Directors to: “prepare plans and gather funds for the erection of a university chapel.”
In 2012, the Minnesota South District (though the convention was denied the right to vote on the issue) decided that the chapel that had resulted from that 1943 action was no longer needed at the U of M; that such a place was superfluous – a hinderance even – to the work of campus ministry. Three years later, at the 2015 convention, held just a few weeks ago, the District realized they had made a mistake. The delegates passed a resolution (with a 92% majority!) that recognizes: “University Lutheran Chapel (ULC) lacks worship space on or near the campus it serves,” and that resolves to put together a Campus Ministry Plan which will, in part, “Provide financial support for adequate worship space on or near the campus being served.”
Since 2012 ULC has been worshipping in exile, so to speak. God has not abandoned us. Indeed, like with ancient Israel, He has blessed us greatly during this time of exile. But it is an exile. We worship at an ELCA chapel where the foreign gods of post-modernity, social justice, and liberal theology are the chief deities of the land, whose images surround us in the art, architecture, propaganda and literature of the place. And though we are very thankful for a place to worship, it is not our homeland. We feel rather like the Jews in Babylon. While there is much rejoicing among us because of the Gospel we have and receive, as well as the fellowship we share in Christ, it is still hard sometimes not to weep “when we remember Zion.”
It took seven years from the time of the 1943 convention to build a chapel. We pray it will not take us until 2022 to build the new chapel. But we have an advantage over them in this: we have already raised 2/3 of the funds needed for the project. The land has already been purchased. A plan is already underway. Now the District has determined to help. We don’t know how much yet. But we do know that we continue to need your help too.
Our goal is to dedicate the chapel at Reformation 2017, the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses. Please help us rise up and build. Help us so that weeping may turn to rejoicing, and that we may also say: “We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.”
This article appears in the Summer 2015 ULC Newsletter. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.