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.

Numbers 10:11-36 – The Center of Worship

On the twentieth day of the second month of that same year, the cloud over the sacred tent moved on. So, the Israelites broke camp and left the Sinai Desert. And sometime later, the cloud stopped in the Paran Desert. This was the first time the Lord had told Moses to command the people of Israel to move on.

Judah and the tribes that camped alongside it marched out first, carrying their banner. Nahshon son of Amminadab was the leader of the Judah tribe, Nethanel son of Zuar was the leader of the Issachar tribe, and Eliab son of Helon was the leader of the Zebulun tribe.

The sacred tent had been taken down, and the Gershonites and the Merarites carried it, marching behind the Judah camp.

Reuben and the tribes that camped alongside it marched out second, carrying their banner. Elizur son of Shedeur was the leader of the Reuben tribe, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai was the leader of the Simeon tribe, and Eliasaph son of Deuel was the leader of the Gad tribe.

Next were the Kohathites, carrying the objects for the sacred tent, which was to be set up before they arrived at the new camp.

Ephraim and the tribes that camped alongside it marched next, carrying their banner. Elishama son of Ammihud was the leader of the Ephraim tribe, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur was the leader of the Manasseh tribe,and Abidan son of Gideoni was the leader of the Benjamin tribe.

Dan and the tribes that camped alongside it were to protect the Israelites against an attack from behind, and so they marched last, carrying their banner. Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai was the leader of the tribe of Dan, Pagiel son of Ochran was the leader of the Asher tribe, and Ahira son of Enan was the leader of the Naphtali tribe.

This was the order in which the Israelites marched each time they moved their camp.

Hobab the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses, was there. And Moses said to him, “We’re leaving for the place the Lord has promised us. He has said that all will go well for us. So come along, and we will make sure that all goes well for you.”

“No, I won’t go,” Hobab answered. “I’m returning home to be with my own people.”

“Please go with us!” Moses said. “You can be our guide because you know the places to camp in the desert. Besides that, if you go, we will give you a share of the good things the Lord gives us.”

The people of Israel began their journey from Mount Sinai. They traveled three days, and the Levites who carried the sacred chest led the way, so the Lord could show them where to camp. And the cloud always stayed with them.

Each day as the Israelites began their journey, Moses would pray, “Our Lord, defeat your enemies and make them run!” And when they stopped to set up camp, he would pray, “Our Lord, stay close to Israel’s thousands and thousands of people.” (Contemporary English Version)

“The most important feature of sacred space is found in what it is by definition: the place of God’s presence. The cosmic-temple idea recognizes that God is here and that all of this is his. It is this theology that becomes the basis for our respect of our world.”

John Walton

These verses from the book of Numbers might, at first glance, seem irrelevant to contemporary worshipers of God. The Old Testament book of Numbers matter-of-factly informs us of how the ancient Israelites set out in the desert by stages according to their respective tribes and how they proceeded when stopping their sojourns. Yet, if we take the time to engage in pilgrimage with the Israelites, we observe the heart of worship and life for God’s people.

The tabernacle, that is, the ark of the covenant with its accompanying tent and holy articles, was the primary symbol for Israel of God’s presence. As such, the tabernacle was at the actual center of Israelite life, both physically and spiritually. The tabernacle would leave first and be set up by the tribe of Levites before the other tribes came and encamped around it – completely encircling the tent housing the ark.

Observing this constant ancient ritual in the desert begs several questions for us today: 

Is God at the center of our life and worship? 

Or do we expect the Lord to come and bless our already camped-out thoughts, ideas, and practices? 

If God is truly at the center of all we do, what is the evidence this is so? 

Are we patient to wait for God’s leading to present itself? 

Or do we act and then seek God to give his stamp of approval over it? 

The wise believer will allow God to set the agenda and pace of our life journey, and not the other way around.

Sovereign God, you always lead in a way that is good, just, and right. Help me to slow down long enough to enter into the rest and connection with your will that I so desperately need through Jesus my Lord. Amen.

*Above painting: Israel Encamped Roundabout the Tabernacle in the Wilderness of Sinai
by John W. Kelchner (1866-1942)

Daniel 6:1-28 – A Time and a Place for Prayer

Daniel in the Lions Den by John August Swanson

Darius decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of his extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators—so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption.

So, these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”

So, these officers and chief administrators ganged together and went to the king. They said to him, “Long live King Darius! All the officers of the kingdom, the ministers, the chief administrators, the royal associates, and the governors advise the king to issue an edict and enforce a law, that for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions. Now, Your Majesty, issue the law and sign the document so that it cannot be changed, as per the law of Media and Persia, which cannot be annulled.” Because of this, King Darius signed the document containing the law.

When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went to his house. Now his upper room had open windows that faced Jerusalem. Daniel knelt, prayed, and praised his God three times that day, just like he always did. Just then these men, all ganged together, came upon Daniel praying and seeking mercy from his God. They then went and talked to the king about the law: “Your Majesty! Didn’t you sign a law, that for thirty days any person who prays to any god or human being besides you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into a pit of lions?”

The king replied, “The decision is absolutely firm in accordance with the law of Media and Persia, which cannot be annulled.”

So they said to the king, “One of the Judean exiles, Daniel, has ignored you, Your Majesty, as well as the law you signed. He says his prayers three times a day!”

When the king heard this report, he was very unhappy. He decided to rescue Daniel and did everything he could do to save Daniel before the sun went down. But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, “You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed.”

So, the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and hurled him into the pit of lions.

The king said to Daniel: “Your God—the one you serve so consistently—will rescue you.”

A single stone was brought and placed over the entrance to the pit. The king sealed it with his own ring and with those of his princes so that Daniel’s situation couldn’t be changed. The king then went home to his palace and fasted through the night. No pleasures were brought to him, and he couldn’t sleep. At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.

As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”

Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”

The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God. The king then ordered that the men who had accused Daniel be brought and thrown into the lions’ pit—including their wives and children. They hadn’t even reached the bottom of the pit before the lions overpowered them, crushing all their bones.

Then King Darius wrote the following decree:

To all the peoples, nations, and languages inhabiting the entire earth: I wish you much peace.I now issue this command: In every region of my kingdom, all people must fear and revere Daniel’s God because:

He is the living God.
    God stands firm forever.
His kingship is indestructible.
    God’s rule will last until the end of time.
He is rescuer and savior;
    God performs signs and miracles in heaven and on earth.
Here’s the proof:
    He rescued Daniel from the lions’ power.

And so, Daniel was made prosperous during the rule of Darius and during the rule of Cyrus the Persian. (CEB)

“If your day is hemmed in with prayer, it is less likely to come unraveled.”

Cynthia Lewis

When Daniel learned about King Darius’ decree, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had always done. (Daniel 6:10).

It was Daniel’s regular habit of prayer which gave him the strength to ignore the king’s edict. Daniel was kept safe, not by being saved from the lions’ den, but in the lions’ den. Daniel is our best model in the Bible of one who consistently prayed, no matter the situation. Two characteristics of Daniel’s prayer stands out: a planned approach to prayer; and perseverance in prayer.

We need a plan for prayer.

Daniel had an intentional plan for prayer. He also prayed spontaneously throughout his life – all the time. That, however, was not his bread-and-butter daily life of prayer. Daniel had set times in which he prayed three times a day. 

I am not insisting we all ought to pray at the set times of 6am, 12pm, and 6pm, as Daniel did every day (although that is good biblical plan to emulate!). Yet, I will insist there needs to be some planning behind carving out time for prayer every day. We need to approach prayer with the same deliberate discipline we approach anything else – like housework, writing a paper, sports practice, or getting work accomplished on the job.

Prayer is the way we escape the gravitational pull of our fleshly lives and enter God’s orbit. It takes much planning, energy, commitment, and focus. And it is all worth it.

We need a set time and a set place to pray. Just as we set aside a special room in our house for sleeping (bedroom) and a particular place to sleep (bed) so we need a sacred space just for prayer. We understand the value of a good night’s sleep. So, we plan to go to bed at night and arise in the morning. In the same way, we must arrange a time and place for prayer. The value we place on prayer is demonstrated by our planning for it.

We need perseverance in prayer.

Daniel was a teenager when the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, tore down the wall, and took the best young people of the city into captivity. When the lions’ den event unfolded, Daniel was an old man of about 80 years old. For over sixty years, Daniel prayed three times a day, every day, without fail. His prayers were consistent and sustained. He never gave up. 

The reason Daniel always opened his window and prayed toward Jerusalem is that he was praying consistent with God’s promise. The exiles would someday return to Jerusalem. So, Daniel looked out his window every day, three times a day, praying repeatedly for God’s help and peace.

Daniel was so consistent about prayer that when the jealous rascals in the king’s service went after him, it did absolutely nothing to deter him from his usual routine. Daniel maintained his focus without being sidelined by all the drama. He kept up his regular practice of prayer in the same place at the same time. It is interesting his enemies knew exactly when and where Daniel would be praying every day, and they set their trap according to that knowledge.

Daniel was incredibly calm in facing the lions because of his planned, deliberate, and consistent practice of prayer. Daniel’s ability, confidence, courage, and lack of worry was not simply because he was some extraordinary person. Rather, he had decades of practiced prayer which equipped him for just such an encounter.

Daniel’s posture in prayer was consistently on his knees. It reminded him of his true position, not as a high mucky muck in the kingdom of Darius with all its rights and privileges, but as a humble servant in God’s kingdom with all its joy and responsibility.

Considering Daniel’s example of prayer, it would be wise for us to do some solid planning. Identify and set aside a dedicated space for prayer. Arrange your schedule so that prayer is a priority. You’ll be glad you did!

Our Beloved Father, dwelling in the heavenly realms,
    may the glory of your name
    be the center on which our lives turn.
Manifest your kingdom realm,
    and cause your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth,
    just as it is in heaven.
We acknowledge you as our Provider
    of all we need each day.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves
    release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
Rescue us every time we face tribulation
    and set us free from evil.
    For you are the King who rules
    with power and glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, TPT)

1 Corinthians 3:10-23 – The Ultimate Sacred Space

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

So, let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (NRSV)

You have an incredibly special position and status which no one can ever take away.

We were made by and for God. In the beginning, the creative activity of God achieved its pinnacle in the formation of a man and a woman. Only humanity carries within them the image and likeness of God. People are unique, special, and set apart as the creatures who can enjoy a close relational fellowship with their Creator.

However, humanity fell into disobedience, which introduced sin and death into God’s good world. Ever since that time, God has been on a rescue mission. The Holy Scriptures are an unfolding drama of redemption in which a heart-stricken God goes out of the way to make and keep promises to a sinful people. The Israelites, a people set apart from all other people, were meant to be devoted to God in such a way that the world would be drawn to their relationship with the Lord and with the created order.

Yet again, even with an impressive temple where people met God in sacred rituals and activities, the people went astray and followed their ancestors into worshiping other gods. God, ever the gracious Lord who does not forget the divine covenant of love, sent his Son, Jesus, as the ultimate fulfillment of all the good promises made.  Through the redemptive events of Christ’s cross, resurrection, and ascension the deliverance from all that is wrong and broken in this world is reversed. We are blessed with pardon and redemption from the slavery of sin.  We are given a renewed status as God’s people.

If this were not enough, God has given us the Spirit to help us. Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, are never alone. A merciful God makes us a holy people and the temple where the Lord dwells by means of the Spirit. In the Old Testament, the sacred space of worship was a physical building. Approaching the holy God meant entering a holy temple, set apart for connection between the divine and the human. The midpoint of history in which all events hinge is the cross of Christ. His redeeming work has transformed the world. 

Now, we are the temple of God, the sacred place where God meets with us. The glory of God is to be found, once again, in human beings. It is in this rich understanding of God’s activity and humanity’s new status that the Apostle Paul appealed to with a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

“The church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ himself who has taken form among people.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Corinthian church was in grave danger of doing the thing that all lost humanity had done through the ages.  They were breaking down into divisions and conflicts and were not thinking of others as God’s special people.  Paul named them collectively as God’s temple. They were not individual temples but one holy sacred temple together. This theology and anthropology were meant to teach, persuade, chastise, and encourage the Christians that there was no place for special-interest groups in the church; no room for following pet teachers and preachers; and no reason to ostracize others who didn’t agree exactly as you do.

Believers in Jesus Christ are collectively the people of God, the temple in which God dwells. This makes them a holy people, set apart for the exclusive worship of the triune God. We are to live up, not down, to who we are in Christ, in the Spirit, in the realm of God’s kingdom.

We are meant to return to the foundation of the temple. If the foundational works of this great temple of God are the redemptive events of Jesus, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone of the structure, then we are meant to return in this great season of Lent to Jesus. With meekness and humility, we are to come to God in Christ by the Spirit and confess our many sins, repent of them all, and return to God as the special, holy, and loved people we are.

For far too long Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has been used to poke at people for smoking or drinking too much or generally not caring for our physical bodies. This was not so much Paul’s understanding. He was thinking much more along the lines of church unity, harmony, mutual love, grace, encouragement, and making decisions which are best for the common good of all. To break down Paul’s instruction to individual habits which harm the body is a woefully truncated view of his teaching. 

Instead, we are to have a high view of one another. We, together, are the people of God. We, together, are meant for holy worship of the triune God. We, together, are the complex expression of God’s creative action – a temple set in the middle of a watching world. 

Therefore, we are to be concerned for one another. We are to act as one holy people of God. We are to reflect the love, unity, and fellowship of the Holy Trinity in our life together. Let us then encourage each other toward love and good deeds; upholding the common good; and extending grace in all circumstances. For this is what temple living looks like.

Holy God, you have set us apart together as your holy people. Help so to live up to our status as your beloved creatures that we are continually mindful of you, one another, and the grace you give for all circumstances.  May our foundation be strong in the person and work of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, as the Spirit dwells in us together. Amen.