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.

Psalm 126 – Planting in Tears and Harvesting with Joy

The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881

When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem,
    it was like a dream!
We were filled with laughter,
    and we sang for joy.
And the other nations said,
    “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.”
Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us!
    What joy!

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    as streams renew the desert.
Those who plant in tears
    will harvest with shouts of joy.
They weep as they go to plant their seed,
    but they sing as they return with the harvest. (New Living Translation)

Many people are familiar with the phrase, “You reap what you sow.” Although the saying is typically referred to in the context of avoiding poor decisions (Galatians 6:7) the principle is woven throughout Holy Scripture in other scenarios, as well, as it is in today’s psalm.  

Sowing and reaping are, of course, agricultural terms. Farmers and gardeners tend to the soil through tilling, planting, cultivating, weeding, and eventually harvesting. The images of farming and the growth of plants serve as fitting metaphors for the spiritual life. Growth does not occur quickly. Instead, constant and vigilant attention to one’s spirit eventually brings a harvest of good works and godly attitudes. 

Jesus said, “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. My food is to finish the work that he gave me to do.” (John 4:34, ERV)

In a culture which values immediacy and having things now, the slow growth of the spiritual life can be a difficult principle to grasp. We may think that whenever we sin – with no immediate lightning to zap us – that therefore what we did must not have been so bad. 

Eventually, however, our implanted seeds will sprout and become visible to all. Conversely, we might believe whenever we dedicate ourselves to altruistic service, and then see no immediate results, that we must be doing something wrong. So, we may easily become discouraged and give up.

Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love. Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12, NRSV)

The psalmist reminds us of the need for patience. Just as it takes continual watering to reap a harvest in the field, so the Christian’s life of weeping and tears, of tilling deeply into the things of God, is the necessary work to eventually spot a sprout, see growth, and finally bear fruit. 

The tedious cultivating and weeding of our souls is the task before us. If we are patient and consistent, we will realize a harvest of righteousness. 

The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Jesus taught his Beatitudes to help us understand that righteousness, peace, and joy come through connecting with our poverty of spirit; mourning over personal and corporate sin; embracing humility and meekness; hungering and thirsting after righteousness.

Only through the blood, sweat, and tears of spiritual agony will we come through to the deep happiness of seeing the Lord accomplish great things in our lives. In other words, joy is neither cheap nor easy. It is the fruit of many tears.

Spiritual farming involves sound practices of sowing and reaping. There is suffering before glory, tears before joy, lament before healing.

Just as a farmer cannot take short-cuts in the planting and cultivating process if he wants to have a bounteous and delicious harvest, so there is no getting around the painful work of grieving our changes and losses.

Avoiding the hard work of spiritual farming leads to a bogus harvest where we bite into a fresh ear of sweet corn only to discover a mouthful of worms.

Remember this: The person who plants a little will have a small harvest, but the person who plants a lot will have a big harvest.

2 Corinthians 9:6, NCV

The bulk of our lives are played out in the liminal space between sowing and reaping. The farmer plants and waits, attentive to the land and the weather until the time of harvest. We, too, exist in a time of patience. So, we pray, recalling past harvests and anticipate that with God’s good help, we will enjoy abundance.

This in-between time is often characterized by tears.

As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38, NIV)

I grew up on an Iowa farm. I only saw my father cry twice in my life. The first time, I was just a boy, two days after my eighth birthday – a devastating hailstorm destroyed the crops that had been planted just six weeks before. Despite farm equipment and technological savvy, the farmer is still at the mercy of the weather.

And we will always be at the mercy of God. Because God is good, just, and fair, the Lord does great and benevolent things. To be blessed, we need to embrace the dog days of summer in all its banality and its tears until we reach the time of reaping. There is joy, and it is coming, if we do the work of spiritual farming and wait patiently.

Likely, none of us awake in the morning, sit up on the edge of the bed, and say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see, I think I’ll cry and be sorrowful today.” We might do that with joy, but not with sadness. It can be easier to gravitate toward the fulfillment of dreams, laughter, and happiness than tears and weeping.

Yet, if we want to experience authentic joy, the path to it is through crying because it is our tears which find a better way.

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

Vincent Van Gogh

Whether it comes from a certain denominational tradition, ethnic background, or family of origin dynamics, there are many Christians who love to emphasize Jesus as Victor and camp in resurrection power – while eschewing Christ as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief and sadness.

By viewing only one dimension of Christ’s redemptive work, pastoral care often falls far short of true help. Trying to engineer cheerfulness and create solutions to a person’s genuine grief is, at best, not helpful, and at worst, damaging to their soul. It only leads to cheap inauthentic joy.

Sincerely singing spontaneous songs of joy, with a sense of abundant satisfaction, comes through suffering and sorrow. There must be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection. In the agrarian culture of ancient Israel, the metaphor of sowing a reaping connected well to the importance of planting tears and allowing them to flower later into an abundant harvest of joy.

Perhaps in contemporary American culture, a more apt metaphor would be financial investing and cashing out. The investment we put into attending to our grief with expressions of lament through tears, will eventually get a return, and we shall be able to cash out with a rich bounty of joy.

Easter is coming. Resurrection and new life will occur. The journey of Lent, with seeds repentance carefully planted, watered with tears, shall bring an abundant harvest of joy.

Gratias Deo. Thanks be to God.

Joshua 4:14-24 – The Importance of Visual Reminders

That day the Lord brought honor to Joshua before all Israel. They respected him all his life, just as they had respected Moses.

The Lord told Joshua, “Instruct the priests carrying the ark of the covenantal laws to come up from the Jordan.” So, Joshua instructed the priests, “Come up from the Jordan!” The priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord came up from the middle of the Jordan, and as soon as they set foot on dry land, the water of the Jordan flowed again and returned to flood stage.

The people went up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month and camped in Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. Now Joshua set up in Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken from the Jordan. He told the Israelites, “When your children someday ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones represent?’explain to your children, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you while you crossed over. It was just like when the Lord your God dried up the Red Sea before us while we crossed it.He has done this so all the nations of the earth might recognize the Lord’s power and so you might always obey the Lord your God.” (New English Translation)

On my hospital office desk, where I can see it every day, is a scapular. “Scapular” is the Latin word for “shoulders.” A scapular typically consists of two small pieces of cloth, a few inches in size, which has a religious image on one, and a message on the other. There are two bands of cloth connecting the message or image.

The wearer places one square on the chest, rests the bands on each shoulder and lets the second square drop down the back. Worn by some Catholic faithful, the scapular serves to remind the believer of their commitment to live a Christian life.

The particular scapular I have in my possession was given to me by a patient when I was first starting out as a hospital chaplain. I was called to the room of a dying patient. He was afraid of death. So, we conversed together for an hour about his life, his fears, and his devotion to faith. At the end of the conversation, the patient took off the scapular he was wearing, which states, “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”

Regardless of what you think about scapulars and the particular message on this one, most important to me is what the patient said next with tears in his eyes: “I’ve worn this scapular every day for the past forty years. Here, I want you to have it. I don’t need it anymore. I am no longer afraid of death.”

The patient died. But he died at peace with God and without fear. I keep his scapular on my desk as a constant reminder of why I am a hospital chaplain, and how important the work I do is. Anytime I get discouraged or have a hard day, when I return to my office, the scapular reminds and reorients me that the spiritual care of patients is a privileged and sacred responsibility.

The ancient Israelites were finally ready to enter the Promised Land. The twelve tribes miraculously crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. God had stopped the water from flowing. After everyone crossed over, the river went back to flowing again.

Joshua, their leader, instructed people from each tribe to take a large stone from the river and place them in a heap for two didactic reasons:

1) To educate future generations inside Israel that God kept the promise to bring them into a land of abundance; and

2) To educate those outside Israel that God is mighty.

It’s important that we all have a continual awareness of why we are here on this earth and what our purpose is. Our history is significant and needs to be remembered.

Yet, there are many families and faith communities in which the children know little about how God worked in their parents’ lives, not to mention the many previous generations. Having tangible reminders of God’s past actions helps everyone remember. 

Just as people ask me about why I have a scapular on my desk, so having reminders of God’s grace in prominent visible places serves to aid all ages of folks to ask why those mementos are there.

It is good to have visual reminders of faith and the faithful people who influenced us around our homes, places of work, and communities so that others may discover and know the redemptive acts of God, that the Lord keeps promises.

Almighty God, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in faith and patience. May we remember them and their service well. We humbly pray that, at the day of resurrection, we and all who are members of the mystical body of your Son may be set on his right hand, and hear his most joyful voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen

Luke 13:18-21 – What is the Kingdom of God Like?

A mustard seed

Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? What can I compare it to? It’s like a mustard seed that someone planted in a garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds nested in its branches.”

He asked again, “What can I compare God’s kingdom to? It’s like yeast that a woman mixed into a large amount of flour until the yeast worked its way through all the dough.” (God’s Word Translation)

I grew up on a rural Mid-West America farm. Working with seeds was our livelihood. And making bread was second nature to us. Even though my parents worried incessantly about the weather and the price of groceries, there were two things they were never anxious about: seeds and yeast.

My dad knew that when we planted seeds in the Spring, there would be a harvest in the Fall. That’s because he knew the seed already has within itself everything it needs to germinate, take root, grow, and produce a harvest. His role was simply to tend to it all by keeping the fields free of weeds, worms, and critters.

My mom knew that when she put the bread in the oven, it would bake and rise into a glorious loaf. That’s because she had full confidence that the little bit of yeast she worked into the dough would do it’s job. Her role was simply to ensure the proper amount of ingredients and oversee the time and temperature of baking.

Since I was the youngest, I typically got the grunt work of our massive garden. I was always excited when we planted things because I knew what was coming in a few months: some delicious veggies on my dinner plate which were fresh from the garden I tended. I never wondered whether there would be food on the table, or not.

Seeds are, of course, small. If you think about it, they appear quite unimpressive. Yet, we know better. We understand that when planted, watered, and cultivated, those seeds turn into amazing plants. 

But it takes time. Even as dumb little kid, I clearly knew that my planting seeds would not result in seeing anything above ground the next day. I understood it would take a few weeks before new growth would break the ground.

The kingdom of God, Jesus told us, is like a mustard seed – a very small seed which can grow into a tree big enough for birds to nest. Unlike the mighty Roman Empire, or contemporary powerful national governments, the kingdom of God had humble beginnings. It grows, over a long period of time, to become a force greater than anything the world can produce.

While our world races forcefully on with the speed of the hare, Jesus is carefully and patiently building his church at the pace of a tortoise. In the end, the kingdom of God will rule over all creation, while the kingdoms of this world shall no longer exist. 

Even though many of us now live in a society where the quick, the fast, and the strong dominate everything, still the best things in life come as a result of tedious perseverance over an extended period of time. 

We are in such a hurry to accomplish our goals, make as much money as we can, and keep constant vigilance over our work. And for what purpose?

“What an unspeakable comfort it is to know that in the midst of humanity’s mischief, in the midst of their scheming and bad speculations, their shaping and misshaping, their activism and their failures, there is still another stream of events flowing silently on, that God is letting divine seeds grow and achieving divine ends.” 

Helmut Theilicke

Quiet, humble submission to King Jesus is at the heart of the kingdom. God is working-out good purposes in and through us with all the care of the farmer expecting to eventually reap a harvest. To get ourselves into the groove of God’s unforced rhythms of grace, we must learn to slow down, so as to not miss Christ’s benevolent kingdom. So, how do we do that?

  • Listen to yourself. Our bodies send us signals all the time, telling us what we need. There is a time for work and a time for rest, a time to hurry and a time to slow down. If we continually stressed, it could be that we are trying to force God’s kingdom into our lives or the lives of others.

But if you listen to me,
you will be safe and secure
    without fear of disaster. (Proverbs 1:33, CEV)

  • Practice gratitude. Count your blessings. Keep things in proper perspective. Sit with joy and happiness. Whenever something really good happens, slow down and savor the moment – don’t just quickly move on to the next thing. The kingdom of heaven revolves on thankfulness, not criticism.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1-3, NRSV)

  • Use breath prayers. Take some deep breaths. While inhaling, pray, “More of you, Lord.” And exhale saying, “Less of me.” Or inhale, praying, “Fill me with your Spirit,” then exhaling, “So that I may be a blessing.” Go ahead and develop your own prayers, as well.

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10, NRSV)

  • Say, “no.” If we are in the habit of helping others, it can be hard to say “no.” But if we are working to understand how to slow down, learning to say “no” is a skill we need to develop. We must set boundaries and manage our time responsibility. That means leaving plenty of time to slow down, rest, observe, and relax.

Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong. (Matthew 5:37, MSG)

  • Walk outdoors. Nature walks are an opportunity to stroll through God’s creation and notice the wonder that is all around us.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
    The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
    night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
    their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
    and their words to all the world. (Psalm 19:1-4, NLT)

  • Ask for help. To ask for what we need and want is neither selfish nor a sign of weakness. Rather, piling on responsibilities only causes us to run ragged and never get around to slowing down. Asking for help requires humility, which is the very thing needed to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8, NIV)

Spiritual formation and development are dependent upon slow growth over a long period of time. Don’t short circuit the process through accumulating more and more responsibility and constant busyness. Let God’s grace do its work and sense the kingdom of God near you.

Lord God, everlasting Father, you have brought me to this point in time.  Preserve me according to your unassuming power so that I might not be seduced by worldly might, nor be overcome by the rantings of politicians, but in all things daily direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.