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.

A Spiritual Pilgrimage

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It seems strange sitting here in my home with no anticipation of being around children waving palm leaves.  It feels awkward facing the beginning of Holy Week with the prospect of no physical gatherings of Christian believers.  Perhaps with the exception of this year, every year on Palm Sunday thousands of Christians, from all over the world, gather in the small town of Bethphage, located just two miles outside of Jerusalem – to walk to Jerusalem like Jesus did in his triumphal entry on a donkey.  Many of those pilgrims carry palm and olive branches.  All the people sing hymns as they walk up the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and then up Mount Moriah into the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a worship experience filled with gratitude. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1)

Every year there are others along the pilgrim path appearing out of place for such a joyous journey.  Spread out along the way are Israeli military soldiers wearing full combat gear, carrying automatic weapons over their shoulders and gazing on the spectacle of worshiping Christians before them. Other Israeli Jews look on with a mix of indifference or concern.  Maybe we can imagine that Jesus encountered a similar experience with people laying palm branches along his path; Roman soldiers all around; and, Jews looking on with curiosity.  It might have been easy for Jesus to avoid Jerusalem and not face the cross that he knew was coming at the end of the week.  It might be easy for us to avoid adversity and suffering. Yet, Jesus continued his journey into Jerusalem because of joy and gratitude. Psalm 118 ends like it begins: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his love endures forever.”

Joy and gratitude can be our strength in times of adversity.  Yet, it will only come as we join the spiritual pilgrimage.

Psalm 118 is a liturgy for worshipers coming to Jerusalem and the temple from all parts of Israel in order to celebrate Passover.  Like the Christian pilgrims on Palm Sunday, the ancient Jewish worshipers ascended Jerusalem with great anticipation.  They sing of God’s love and remember the deliverance from Egypt and slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land.

The word for “love” throughout Psalm 118 is my favorite word in the Old Testament.  It is a rich word which is difficult to translate in English because the term is so dense with meaning.  The Hebrew word is chesed and the New International Version translates it in various ways:  grace, covenant loyalty, mercy, compassion, kindness, and consistently translated in Psalm 118 as “love.”  It is the kind of love that is graciously given despite whether a person deserves it or not.  It is a steadfast love that holds on and does not let go.

God is a God who consistently gives grace when we fall short; shows unflagging commitment where we are fickle; gives unbounded mercy when we are broken; provides constant compassion when we have been hurt; provides kindness even when we are unkind; and, dispenses enduring love which, for the Christian, finds its ultimate expression in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who embodied “chesed for us so that we might experience life to the full.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

We may be under directives to stay at home, yet, we have the gracious opportunity to walk on a spiritual pilgrimage every day to the very heart of God and meet love face to face. How might you and I do that?

Labyrinth

One way is through walking a Labyrinth.  This is 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 life, that is, our lives are not about the destination – life is 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.

Although many Labyrinths are typically found within churches, church grounds, or in park spaces (and many or most of these are currently closed) we can utilize “finger” Labyrinths.  Rather than physically walking, you can slowly trace the path with your finger.  You might also get creative and make your own homemade Labyrinth in a space of your home or yard.  Click The Labyrinth Society to get free printable Labyrinths, as well as take a virtual Labyrinth walk.

ChartresLabyrinth

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, The Message)
  • 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.  We will only find this odd if we have nothing to repent of.  Turning from sinful liturgies of life and turning to a new liturgy of following Jesus is like walking through a gate into a new reality and rejoicing with all the other redeemed pilgrims who are walking the road to Jerusalem to be with Jesus.  Our Lord himself said,

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:9-10, NIV).

In this time of virtual presence and electronic communication, I take comfort in the reality that we do not need to text or email God and hope he answers – we have the joyous opportunity of walking the pilgrim way and crawling into the lap of God.

Just like everything else, what you put into something is going to affect what you get out of it. If we go into the Labyrinth half-hearted, we will leave half-hearted. If we go into prayer or worship thinking only of the obligation, we will only fulfill the obligation. Yet, if we come ready to meet God, if we come ready to receive his grace, if we come expectantly – Who knows what God can do?

So, let us enter prayer, reading of Scripture, virtual fellowship, and the worship of God each day with the heart of a pilgrim. Let us enter with a song on our lips and joy in our hearts. Let us enter knowing that worship is the place where we connect with the love of God through the Son of God. Let us enter expecting to come out of worship changed, carrying in our hearts the anticipation of great things to happen.