I was glad when they said to me,
“Let’s go to the house of the Lord.”
Our feet are standing inside your gates, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built to be a city
where the people are united.
All of the Lord’s tribes go to that city
because it is a law in Israel
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
The court of justice sits there.
It consists of princes who are David’s descendants.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you prosper.
May there be peace inside your walls
and prosperity in your palaces.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends, let me say,
“May it go well for you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek what is good for you. (God’s Word Translation)
The spiritual life is a pilgrimage—a journey of constant growth, sacrifice, and faith in what we cannot see. As both pilgrims and disciples, we continually move and learn.
The biblical psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134) were sung by worshipers as they made the journey to Jerusalem for the annual feasts, and up the temple mount to unite together in worship.
Many pilgrims spent hours and/or days walking to the holy city. In the great anticipation of collective worship, the people quoted and sang the several psalms of ascent together. They enjoyed the journey.
I once spent some time reading the journals of several medieval Christian pilgrims who went to various holy sites in Europe, and some who even made the trek all the way to Jerusalem – on foot. Early in their journals, they mostly wrote about the anticipation of reaching their destination. These pilgrims went into great detail about the hospitality they encountered, and friends made along the way.
I was struck, however, with the profound lack of space and detail devoted to visiting the actual holy site – especially when they returned home and reflected on their experiences. The vast majority of pilgrims had the journey itself as their most memorable time.
Of course, we all can worship individually and personally anywhere and anyplace. Yet, if we want to have worship experiences which truly shape our spiritual lives, then we will need to have plenty of corporate encounters with fellow pilgrims on the same path as us.
Within today’s psalm, we are told that part of Israel’s decree in approaching the Lord is to give thanks. The Jewish pilgrims were to have an attitude of gratitude when they came to Jerusalem and the house of God. Each pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to have a marked expression of thanksgiving to God for giving them a place to worship and a land to dwell within.
I cannot help but wonder if attending church services would be much more appreciated and impactful if we took the mental and emotional posture of gratitude when approaching worship.
Within some church buildings and sacred spaces there is a flight of stairs that one must ascend to reach the sanctuary. Slowly going up the stairs, we can give thanks for one thing in each step. Even if you attend a church with a zero entry, you can still give thanks to God while walking from the parking lot to the building.
The point is that the worship of God needs some thought and intent behind it. Simply showing up and flopping down in a seat – almost daring the worship leaders and/or pastor to bless them – is far from the imagination the psalmist had for approaching a sovereign God.
Pilgrimage is about more than a long walk. It’s about the soul in community with others and God.
One way of being a pilgrim close to home is through walking a Labyrinth – an ancient practice of the Church meant for spiritual centering, contemplation, and prayer.
Entering the serpentine path of a Labyrinth, one walks slowly while quieting the mind and focusing on a spiritual question or prayer. A Labyrinth is not a maze. It has only one winding path to the center and back out.
The wisdom of the Labyrinth is that it reflects the way life actually is – that our lives are not about the destination but about the long circuitous journey. The Christian life is consistently described in the New Testament as a road or a way. We walk with Jesus.
Labyrinths can be found within some church buildings, on church grounds, in hospitals, or park spaces. There are also “finger” Labyrinths. Rather than physically walking, the pilgrim can slowly trace the path on a paper or small Labyrinth object with a finger.
You might also get creative and make your own homemade Labyrinth within a space of your home or out in the yard. labyrinthsociety.org has free printable Labyrinths, as well as a virtual Labyrinth walk.
The Labyrinth is not meant to be a race to the center; it only “works” if we move at a pace which enables us to meditatively pray, paying attention to what God is doing within us. Generally, there are four stages to the walk:
- Releasing on the way toward the center – letting go of all that weighs us down in the Christian life. “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, CEB)
- Receiving in the center – accepting the love God has for you. Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (John 16:24, NRSV)
- Returning through following the path back out – integrating what you have received for the life of the world. “I will give them a heart to know me, God. They will be my people and I will be their God, for they will have returned to me with all their hearts.” (Jeremiah 24:7, MSG)
- Responding to the love of God through gratitude – thus finding joy, even in the most troubling of circumstances. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1, NRSV)
The penitent heart will resonate deeply with the psalms as worship liturgy. This is because liturgical practices impress the spirit and bring spiritual freedom.
Walking together in a common spiritual journey is like going through a gate into a new reality and rejoicing with all the other redeemed pilgrims who are walking the road to Jerusalem.
Lord Jesus Christ, you call me to follow you, and I choose to walk with you. Open the eyes of my heart to see my life in a new way. With each step I take, help me to be open to change. As I walk this pilgrimage, give me the grace to journey deliberately and patiently. Amen.