I Was (Not) Glad When They Said, “Let’s Go to Best Buy” (Psalm 122)

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the Lord’s house.”
And now we are here,
    standing inside the gates of Jerusalem!

Jerusalem is a city restored
    in beautiful order and harmony.
This is where the tribes come,
    the tribes of Israel,
to give thanks to the Lord
    according to his command.
Here the kings of Israel
    sat to judge their people.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May those who love you prosper.
    May there be peace inside your walls
    and safety in your palaces.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I say to Jerusalem, “Peace be with you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God
    I pray for your prosperity. (Good News Translation)

I am confident, on this Black Friday, that the vast majority of Americans are on a different pilgrimage than the type described by David. They’re singing an alternative song and reading a secular psalm:

When they said, “Let’s go to Best Buy,”
    my heart leaped for joy.
And now we’re here, O Circuit City,
    inside the walls of electronic heaven!

The gaming systems! The glorious computer firewalls,
    all built as a place for unceasing worship!
Sin City, er, I mean Sim City, to which the gamers ascend,
    allows us to build a New Jerusalem in our own image.

Give thanks to all the Skylines and Rimworlds—
   
 this is what it means to be master of a small world.
Game of Thrones is the righteous judgment in my petty kingdom,
    a Kingdom at War with me as sovereign.

Pray for the peace of Wal-Mart!
    Prosperity to all you Target-lovers!
Friendly insiders, get along!
    Hostile outsiders, keep your distance!

For the sake of my family and friends,
    I say it again: live in peace, once I conquer you all!
For the sake of Amazon sales,
    I’ll do my very best to land the best deal on this holy Black Friday.

It’s not my purpose to try and be a prude (but I’m clearly not above doing some parody!) I just like how my spiritual forebears have chosen to mark time, events, and seasons – instead of how corporate and secular America chooses to. And I’m convinced I have a better life because of it.

As for me, I’ll stick with the ancient and historic way of pilgrimage, not the secular liturgy of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, etc. I’m going to sojourn through the year, as I do every year, marking my calendar with the rhythms of Christ’s incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification.

We have now entered the new Christian liturgical year. Whereas most of Western society is holding to all sorts of holidays, mostly centering around a market economy and past political events, I’m choosing to build my year around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

If you’d like to participate in the movement of seasons and events along with me, then this is what we will be observing in this next liturgical year:

Advent (November 27–December 24, 2022)

Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Eve: December 24

The Christian Year begins not on January 1, but four Sundays before Christmas Day and up to Christmas Eve.  The purpose of Advent is to anticipate Christ’s incarnation and prepare Christians to celebrate the coming of Jesus. We are also reminded during the season of Advent that Jesus will return again at the end of the age.

Christmas (December 25, 2022–January 5, 2023)

Christmas Day: December 25

Yes, Christmas is more than just a day on the Church Calendar and encompasses the “12 Days of Christmas”.  Christmas is a full twelve days of celebrating the birth of Christ.

Epiphany (January 6–February 21, 2023)

Epiphany of the Lord: January 6

Baptism of the Lord: January 8

Transfiguration of the Lord: February 19

Epiphany follows Christmas up to the day before Ash Wednesday. The term Epiphany means “manifestation.”  This is a celebration of God’s revelation, his manifestation to the entire world, not just to the Jews, but to the Gentiles, as well. Epiphany emphasizes Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry of teaching, healing, and preaching.

Lent (February 22–April 8, 2023)

Ash Wednesday: February 22

Holy Week: April 2-8

Palm Sunday: April 2

Maundy Thursday: April 6

Good Friday: April 7

There are forty days (not including Sundays) in the season of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Lent is a time to recall Christ’s temptation, conflict, suffering, and death. It is a season to contemplate Christian discipleship through the light of Christ’s Passion, engage in repentance, and put deliberate focus on spiritual disciplines that connect the penitent with Jesus.

Easter (April 9–May 27, 2023)

Resurrection of the Lord, Easter Sunday: April 9

Ascension of the Lord: May 18

As with Christmas, Easter is not just one Sunday; it is a season of fifty days up to the day of Pentecost. Easter, or “Eastertide,” celebrates the resurrection of Jesus; helps believers recognize new life in Christ; and includes celebrating the Ascension of the Lord.

Pentecost (May 28–December 2, 2023)

Day of Pentecost: May 28

Trinity Sunday: June 4

This season runs from Eastertide to the Sunday before Advent. Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, acknowledges personal and communal spiritual power, and calls Christians to rejoice in receiving God’s power.

Ordinary Time (May 28–December 2, 2023)

All Saints Day: November 1

Christ the King Sunday: November 26

This is the same season as Pentecost. Ordinary time (also known as Proper Time) refers to the ongoing work of the church to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the typical, expected, proper and ordinary work of ministry that Christ’s followers are to do.

Everybody likes a good deal, which is why everyone ought to love the good news of grace and forgiveness. It’s free but not cheap, and wildly generous while being, at the same time, costly, but definitely worth it.

Journeying with Jesus throughout the Christian Year helps us to receive the gospel of grace, especially when our post-holiday budget begins judging us.

Psalm 122 – A Spiritual Journey

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.

Luke 13:31-35 – Blessed Is He Who Comes In the Name of the Lord

“If Thou Had’st Known” by William Brassey (1846-1917) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/if-thou-hadst-known-186809

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you – you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (New International Version)

King Herod of Judea, who was in the pocket of the Roman Empire, was issuing threats against Jesus. And those threats had some teeth behind them. Herod had recently beheaded Christ’s friend and cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Yet, Jesus seemed unconcerned by the warnings. He made it clear that he was going to keep doing what he was doing, unfazed by Herod’s bluster.

Jesus had no intention of halting his travels, even because of a credible threat by the governing powers. Christ emphasized his words by assuring his listeners that the work he is doing will be done today, and the next, and the day after that—building ultimately to his greatest work of securing redemption through his crucifixion and resurrection. 

I hope to be always journeying towards Jerusalem with a heart full of compassion that will not waver in the midst of violent killing and injustice. That isn’t easy, yet I know that my humble pilgrimage with Jesus will be worth it all, in the end.

A pilgrimage is an apt description for the Christian season of Lent. Believers journey with Jesus, making the slow trek with him through his earthly ministry and to Jerusalem, up the Mount of Olives. There Christ is crucified – and we with him:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)

So far, we have made a stop in Bethlehem, following the star to the place where the newborn king was laid in a simple stinky feeding trough. The juxtaposition of that reality could not be more pronounced. The rightful Lord of all, far more powerful than old King Herod or the Roman Emperor, comes to earth not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)

In our walk with Jesus, we observe him deliberately posturing himself as a lowly servant throughout his earthly ministry. Whereas Herod acted the predictable part of a power hungry worldly ruler, squelching all rivals to the throne, Jesus shared his authority with others, along with a promise of continual presence. (Matthew 2:16-18, 28:16-20)

There is nothing romantic about this journey, this walk with Christ. It is often a hard road, and many count the cost of discipleship and choose to walk away.

Yet, Jesus is down for the struggle. He knows that injustice and systemic evil must be carefully rooted out. He understands that hearts and minds aren’t changed overnight. It will take time. So, we walk slowly with our Lord because Christ is in it for the long haul. We see Jesus is patiently, and sometimes imperceptibly, using divine power and authority to preserve the good and weed out the bad.

Dealing with human sin and the awful fallenness of this world will take a while. It will be an extended process because there are so many hard hearts. Jesus was ready, willing, and able to gather people together, as a mother hen gathers her chicks – yet there was an unwillingness to it.

And Christ, the heavenly ruler, isn’t in the business of twisting arms and manipulating others, like Herod, the earthly ruler.

Instead, Jesus invites. He doesn’t squeeze people like an orange to get their juice. Christ carefully prepares a meal. He sets the table himself. He gives of himself. Like some wildly potent superfood, a bit of wine and morsel of bread is more than enough to fill the hungry soul and the thirsty spirit.

With Jesus, there is always room at the Table.

There is room for you and for me. There is room for every kind of person – from every nation, race, gender, ethnicity, class – no matter the distinctions and no matter the past. It is the love of God in Christ, not the judgment, which brings people peace and salvation. It comes through a baby who grew and learn and suffered, just like us, and not through some wily old fox of a ruler.

Eventually, the phrase will be uttered, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus pulled this phrase from the Old Testament psalms. He did this, knowing quite well the context surrounding the verse:

The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

Lord, save us!
    Lord, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (Psalm 118:22-26, NIV)

The chicks may scatter and refuse to be gathered. The builders might reject the crucial cornerstone and still try to build. Yet, it will not always be this way. As we journey with Jesus, eventually along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering, the road to Calvary, with an eye to where this will all culminate at an empty tomb and a great celebration of new life.

We will not be looking down at our feet forever in sorrow but will lift our faces toward the clouds. Just as we see Jesus ascending, we shall see Christ coming again. The time is near….

Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven.
    And everyone will see him—
    even those who pierced him.
And all the nations of the world
    will mourn for him.
Yes! Amen! (Revelation 1:7, NLT)

The triumphal entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday is followed by a triumphal entry into my heart, and the hearts of many. And there is coming yet another triumphal entry, back to this earth. All things will made new….

“There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.” Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” (Revelation 21:4-5, GNT)

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls so that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm 84 – Sacred Space

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    Lord of heavenly forces!
My very being longs, even yearns,
    for the Lord’s courtyards.
My heart and my body
    will rejoice out loud to the living God!

Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
    the swallow has found herself a nest
    where she can lay her young beside your altars,
    Lord of heavenly forces, my king, my God!
Those who live in your house are happy;
    they praise you constantly.

Those who put their strength in you are genuinely happy;
    pilgrimage is in their hearts.
As they pass through the Baca Valley,
    they make it a spring of water.
    Yes, the early rain covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength,
    until they see the supreme God in Zion.
Lord God of heavenly forces,
    hear my prayer;
    listen closely, Jacob’s God! Look at our shield, God;
    pay close attention to the face of your anointed one!

Better is a single day in your courtyards
    than a thousand days anywhere else!
I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house
    than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!
The Lord is a sun and shield;
    God is favor and glory.
The Lord gives—doesn’t withhold! —good things
    to those who walk with integrity.
Lord of heavenly forces,
    those who trust in you are genuinely happy! (Common English Bible)

I want to be where God is.

That works out quite well, since I believe God is everywhere, anyway.

Yet, there are those special sacred spaces for us, and holy places where we especially sense and perceive a connection with the divine.

That’s why the psalmist’s heart was set on the pilgrim’s way. He was longing for the chance to go to that sacred place of basking in spiritual grace.

I know the feeling. There are times when I begin itching to go to a particular place, a hermitage, which I try to get away to, at least once a year. In 2020, with the coronavirus raging, that didn’t happen. And now, this year, with so many current responsibilities, I’m not sure when it’s going to happen. Yet, happen it must.

Even though we don’t always have the opportunity in traveling to a sacred site, having small spaces set aside just for divine connection can make a real difference. After all, we don’t need to walk a thousand miles to a grand cathedral in order to meet that deep spiritual need. It could be as simple as walking a few steps to a special chair, perhaps with small rituals of lighting a candle or incense, playing contemplative music, and/or having objects, such as a cross, which enables us to enter that connection with God.

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.”

Joseph Campbell

Unhappiness can settle in rather quickly when we go for long stretches without a break, not properly attending to our spirit in special ways. Loneliness, and feeling as if no one understands, are normal responses when there is disconnection.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always aware of what’s happening within us. Then, all of a sudden, we wake up – as if having been in the lower deck of a boat – and discover we are in the middle of the sea, unable to see the land. The disconnection becomes palpable.

I strongly urge walking. It has more than physical benefits. The spirit also needs some movement to remain healthy and happy. Do a pilgrimage around your neighborhood of prayer walking, or purposely trying to notice things you’ve never seen before. If limited, do what you can. Even a stroll around the living room can have a therapeutic effect.

The point is to have a sense of God’s presence. For the psalmist, it was taking the journey to Jerusalem, ascending the temple mount, along with other worshipers, praying and singing along the way. It was about enjoying the process of getting to the temple, reveling in the experience of being in the temple, and descending the mount with a heartful of peaceful satisfaction – knowing that, deep down, everything is going to be okay because God is with me.

Just a single day in the sacred space is better than a thousand days elsewhere. I picture it something like enjoying those rare days when our girls and their families, with grandkids and dogs in tow, are with my wife and I for a meal. It doesn’t happen often. Yet, when it does, all the loud hubbub becomes sacred time. I take off my shoes because I realize I’m on holy ground.

Indeed, all of life is sacred and holy. And yet, those special times and places help us remember how sacred and holy life really is.

Just as good nutrition, hygiene, diet, and exercise are part of the continuum of care for the body, a personal sacred space for prayer, meditation and spiritual thought is part of the spiritual self-care that can enrich and support our practices of regular worship within a community of faith, as well as service to the world.

And we must never lose sight that the most sacred space we each have to maintain is our own heart, where the light and life of Christ resides. The fruit of the Spirit come from a humble life surrendered to God’s guidance and healing. That can happen as we visit sacred places and create sacred spaces in our lives.

Lord, let me dwell for a moment on your life-giving presence. I open my heart to you. I can tell you everything that troubles me. I know you care about all the concerns in my life. Teach me to live in the knowledge that you care for me today, will care for me tomorrow, and all the days of my life. Amen.