I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to….

David begins the 122nd Psalm with the words, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to….’”

That opening line gets me thinking: What place on earth might generate such an exclamation from me? 

Two places come immediately to mind:

I would rejoice any time someone would say to me, “Let us go to Yosemite National Park.”  I feel such a thrill inside of me every time I descend into that valley and catch my first sight again of those amazing peaks and waterfalls.  The beauty of that valley makes my senses spring to life and makes my heart leap within me.  I have such wonderful memories of hiking to the top of Half Dome (several times), of swimming at the top of Yosemite Falls, of watching deer and bears, of ice skating under stars in winter, and of playing cards under lantern light in the summer.  Every time I go there I am flooded with memories from the past, and I am filled with the anticipation of making wonderful new memories.    

And I would rejoice if you could say to me, “Let us go back to your parents’ home on Golden Gate Avenue in Oakland, California.  When my mom was alive, every trip to our family home was filled with the joy of her love and the delight of her baking.  She always welcomed me warmly, telling me that I was “the light of her life and the joy of her heart.”  In her later years, she repeated her stories often, but I never minded hearing them again because they were always filled with love and joy and affirmation.  Though the house has been sold and gutted and transformed from the home I grew up in, I still get a thrill driving past it because it remains filled with so many wonderful memories. 

My reminiscing helps me to understand and appreciate this psalm more fully.  David is not referring to Yosemite or my childhood home in this psalm, but the thrill of those places touches on what David has in mind when he sings, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”

When we come to the Lord’s house to worship we get the opportunity to behold a beauty that is beyond the natural.  We open our souls to something bigger and greater than ourselves.  We are filled with anticipation of great things to come.  Our senses spring to life, and our hearts leap within us.  I think that is a bit of what David had in mind. 

And when we come to the Lord’s house to worship, it’s like we are coming home to the One who will welcome us warmly and will assure us that we are the apple of His eye and the joy of His heart.  Yes, we might hear some stories over again, but each of those stories is filled with His love for us.  Worship connects us afresh with the true source of love in our lives.  I think this is also a part of what David had in mind.

Interestingly, the psalm goes on to say, “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.”  That may strike us, at first, as a strange comment, but Derek Prince points out, “Now that word translated ‘closely compacted together’ is formed from a root that means, ‘a fellow, a comrade, somebody very close to you.’  It’s one of the most affectionate words describing commitment between two persons that you can find in the Hebrew language.  It’s still used that way in modern Hebrew…. The mortar that binds God’s people together in true unity is not doctrine, it’s not the time or the place of a meeting, but it’s that personal commitment, heart-to-heart, that makes each of us fellows, comrades, brothers together, brothers and sisters, members of the same home, members of the same family, committed one to another.” 

Part of the life-transforming nature of worship is in how it binds us together with one another.  F. Arlin Nave shares one example: “One time, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in a Soviet prison in Siberia, he was exhausted from the hard labor, weak from starvation and suffering from an untreated illness.  He felt that he could not go on.  He stopped working, knowing that the guards would beat him severely and maybe even kill him.  Then, another prisoner, a follower of Christ, took his shovel and in the sand at the feet of Solzhenitsyn drew the sign of the cross and then quickly erased it.  Solzhenitsyn says that the hope and courage of the gospel flooded his soul, and it enabled him to hold on.  Was he saved by the sign of the cross?  Yes!  But was he not also saved that day by that caring fellow, a Christian person who cared enough to remind him of hope?  Of course.”

Even in a Siberian prison, even with a call to worship that is as brief as a cross traced in the sand then erased almost immediately, life-saving hope can be passed along from one believer to another.  No wonder David declares, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”

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Look Beyond the Mountains

I wish I had greater self-confidence.  I wish that I felt certain that I could handle every challenge that comes my way.  But the truth is that when struggles mount up against me, I have a tendency to get discouraged and afraid.  I look at the problems and they seem huge and intimidating; I look at myself and I find that my weaknesses and incompetencies are glaring.    

Where can I look for help?

Psalm 121 tells us, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all harm—He will watch over your soul; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” 

Psalm 121 seems to have been written for people like me—people who want to know where to turn for help.

For me, I look up at the mountains of problems that overwhelm me, and I wonder: Where can my help come from?  For those in ancient Israel at the time this psalm was first sung it was a bit different.  They, too, faced immense troubles and fears: Would their crops grow?  Would their sheep and goats thrive?  Would their families be healthy?  Would they be safe on their travels?  But they imagined that their help could actually be found in the hills above them. 

Eugene Peterson explains, “During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship.  Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops.  Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil.  There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road.  Do you fear the sun’s heat?  Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god.  Are you fearful of the malign influence of moonlight?  Go to the moon priestess and buy an amulet.  Are you haunted by the demons that can use any pebble under your foot to trip you?  Go to the shrine and learn the magic formula to ward off the mischief.  From whence shall my help come?  From Baal?  From Asherah?  From the sun priest?  From the moon priestess?…. A look to the hills for help ends in disappointment.  For all their majesty and beauty, for all their quiet strength and firmness, they are, finally, just hills.  And for all their promises of safety against the perils of the road, for all the allurements of their priests and priestesses, they are, all, finally, lies.  As Jeremiah put it: ‘Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains’ (Jeremiah 3:23).” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 36-37)

This psalm told the people of long ago to look beyond the hills—beyond the counterfeit help they offered—to the One who made the heavens and the earth.  And this psalm tells me to look beyond my apparent mountain of troubles to the One who actually made the towering mountain ranges. 

Amidst all of our troubles, this psalm invites us turn our eyes toward God, for this psalm describes God as

– The Source of our help (verse 1)

– The Maker of heaven and earth (verse 2)

– One who will not let our foot slip (verse 3)

– One who watches over us without slumbering or sleeping (verses 3-4)

– The One who shades you (verse 5)

– The One who keeps you from all harm (verse 7)

– The One who watches over your coming and going both now and forever (verse 8)

The promise of this psalm is that troubles of this world may come against us but, with God’s help, they will not bring us down.  Eugene Peterson argues, “All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside.  Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us.  that is the promise of the psalm…. ‘The Lord will keep you from all evil.’  None of the things that happen to you, none of the troubles you encounter, have any power to get between you and God, dilute his grace in you, divert his will from you.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 38-39)

The First Step in a New Direction

Anyone paying attention to the news this week knows that the world is in a mess!  More mass shooting murders across our nation, fueled by prejudice and bigotry.  Deepening threats of war with Iran.  The world’s hottest year on record, stirring up growing anxiety over the dangers of climate change. 

What are we to do with our angst over the fears and the troubles that surround us?

For centuries, the Jewish people have identified Psalms 120-134 as the Songs of Ascent, the psalms to be sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem.  The first of these (Psalm 120) sounds like it was written in response to present-day news coverage.  The psalmist speaks of personal distress, of lying lips and deceitful tongues, and of being surrounded by those who hate peace and are for war.  The psalmist declares “Woe to me” for living amidst such turbulence. 

As gloomy as this psalm may be, it is actually the fitting start for a pilgrimage journey, for the journey toward God begins with the recognition that my world is a mess and with the longing for something better. 

In his book about the Songs of Ascent (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction), Eugene Peterson writes, “People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel like they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet.  Such dissatisfaction with the world-as-it-is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship.  The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.

“A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way.  As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith.  A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.

“Psalm 120 is the song of such a person, sick with the lies and crippled with the hate, a person doubled up in pain over what is going on in the world.  But it is not a mere outcry, it is pain that penetrates through despair and stimulates a new beginning—a journey to God which becomes a life of peace.” (p. 22)

This first Song of Ascent expresses the reality of our spiritual lives: The movement toward God begins with a level of disgust over one’s present situation and taking a step in a new direction.

James Colaianni shares, “A number of years ago a man picked up the morning paper, and, to his horror, read his own obituary.  The newspaper had reported the death of the wrong man.  The caption read: ‘Dynamite King Dies.’  The story identified him as a ‘merchant of death.’  He was the inventor of dynamite and he had amassed a great fortune from the manufacture of weapons of destruction.  Moved by this disturbing experience, he radically changed his commitment to life.  A healing power greater than the destructive force of dynamite came over him.  Thereafter, he devoted his full energy and money to works of peace and human betterment.  Today he is best remembered as the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize—Alfred Nobel.” 

Charles Krieg writes, “There is a legend that says that once upon a time the angel Gabriel called all the angels together.  Each one was asked to visit earth and bring back to heaven the one gift that he thought would be most pleasing to God.  One angel saw a martyr dying for the faith—he brought back a drop of his blood.  Another brought back a small coin that an old destitute widow had given to the poor.  Another returned with a Bible that had been used by an eminent preacher.  Still another brought back dust from the shoes of a missionary laboring in a remote wasteland for many years.  One angel, however, saw a man sitting by a fountain in a town square.  The man was looking at a child playing nearby.  The man was a hardened sinner, but looking at the little child playing he remembered his own boyhood innocence.  As he looked into the fountain he saw the reflection of his hardened face, he realized what he had done with his life.  Now recalling his many sins he was sorry for them.  Tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks.  At that point the angel took one of these tears and brought it back to heaven.  And, according to the legend, it was this gift that God chose above all the others as the one most dear to Him, the one that pleased Him most of all.”

 The movement toward God begins with a level of disgust over one’s present situation and taking a step in a new direction.

To Be a Follower (not an admirer)

When Jesus concluded the “Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew records that “the crowds were amazed at His teaching….” But Jesus is very clear with His words at the close of the “sermon.”  He was not looking for people to be amazed at His teach; He was looking for people to put His words into practice.  He was not looking for admirers but for followers.

Soren Kierkegaard puts it this way: “It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression ‘follower.’  He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents.  No, he calls disciples.  It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices.  He always plays it safe.  Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, will not reconstruct his life, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.  Not so for the follower.  No, no.  The follower aspires with all his strength to be what he admires.” 

Mark Labberton adds, “Jesus does not say, ‘Believe me,’ but rather ‘Follow me.’  If we are going to pursue God’s call, it’s an act of trusting and following—of behaving and living in ways that reflect our life and purposes.  We aren’t saved by our actions, but we are saved for our actions to become those that make God’s life in Jesus Christ visible.”

An old story is told about a new minister in a small town.  One afternoon he visited the home of one of the parishioners while the husband was away at work.  When the husband returned home and the wife told him about the minister’s visit, the husband asked, “What did he say?”  The wife replied, “He asked, ‘Does Christ live here?’  I didn’t know what to answer.”

With a flushed face, the husband asked, “Why didn’t you tell him that we go to church and say our prayers and read our Bible?”

The wife answered, “He didn’t ask me any of those things.  He only asked, ‘Does Christ live here?’ and I didn’t know how to answer that question.” 

That’s the critical question for us: Does Christ live here?  Can His life in us be seen in how we work and play and interact with others and conduct ourselves in public and in private?  Do I merely admire Him?  Or do I follow Him?

Bill Donahue points out, “The English word obey means ‘to hear toward’ or ‘to submit to the control of,’ which is why we can obey our passions, our instincts, our conscience, our teachers and so on.  When we obey God, we place ourselves under the authority of God and we listen to His voice.  As a result we feel His love.” (In the Company of Jesus, p. 157)

That’s what Jesus wants for us.  He wants us to listen to His voice and to put His words into practice, and, as a result of that, to feel His love.  Jesus compares this to building one’s house upon rock.  Such a life will withstand the toughest storms of life.

Gracious God, I admit that I am inclined to be an admirer of You rather than a follower.  I am inclined to prefer a faith that looks for blessings to be poured upon me rather than a faith that calls for sacrifice from me.  But I want a faith that is real, and a faith that is real involves putting Your words into practice.  So I pray for You to help me to be Your follower rather than Your admirer. 

Look for the ‘spittin image’ of Jesus

Stuart Briscoe shares a humorous story with a serious moral:  “One of my young colleagues was officiating at the funeral of a war veteran.  The dead man’s military friends wished to have a part in the service at the funeral home, so they requested the pastor to lead them down to the casket, stand with them for a solemn moment of remembrance, and then lead them out through the side door.  This he proceeded to do, but unfortunately the effect was somewhat marred when he picked the wrong door.  The result was that they marched with military precision into a broom closet, in full view of the mourners, and had to beat a hasty retreat covered with confusion.  This…story illustrates a cardinal rule or two.  First, if you’re going to lead, make sure you know where you’re going.  Second, if you’re going to follow, make sure that you are following someone who knows what he or she is doing!” 

These “rules” become even more critical when it comes to matters of integrity and trust and the treatment of people in the church.  Andy Frost speaks on behalf of people who have lost their faith because they were abused in churches: “They have not been let down by Jesus but in some way they have been let down or hurt by the very people who claim to represent Him.  Their stories are painful to listen to…stories of cover-ups, hypocrisy, gossip and the abuse of power.”

An unidentified victim of molestation in a church shared this report of personal disillusionment: “Shocking, bewildering and devastating.  I was taught to unconditionally trust the church and clergy.  The actions of [the priest] broke this trust.  I had nowhere to go.  I was too embarrassed to tell my mother, and I did not trust the church.  This led to inner conflict, confusion, fear, trauma and anxiety.  I lost my faith, my respect for the church, my self-confidence and esteem.”

No wonder Jesus uses such harsh language when He speaks of abusive spiritual leaders in Matthew 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

How are we to discern which leader we can trust as opposed to which leader we should avoid (or repudiate or report)? 

Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:16 and 7:20, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”

In other words, we are to look for evidence of integrity, humbleness, and compassion in the life of a “leader.”  If such qualities are lacking, turn away. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower pointed out, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.  Without it, no real success is possible no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in the army or an office.”  Athanasius of Alexandria, who lived about 16 centuries before Eisenhower, adds, “You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.”

Integrity, humbleness and compassion are obligatory qualities for a Christian leader, because a Christian leader must bear the likeness of Christ.  Without bearing the likeness of Christ a person is not fit to be a Christian leader.  Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw explain, “In the South we have a saying: ‘You are the spittin image’ of someone.  Folks still speculate over how exactly the phrase originated, but I’ve heard it put like this: It’s shorthand for ‘spirit and image.’  Spittin image.  It means more than just that you look like that person. It goes beyond just appearance to include character and temperament.  It means that you remind people of that person.  You have their charisma.  You do the same things they did.  In the truest sense, Christians are to be the spittin image of Jesus in the world.  We are to be the things he was.  We are to preach the things he preached and live the way he lived.  We are to follow in the footsteps of our rabbi so closely that we get his dust on us.  We are to remind the world of Jesus.”

When the ‘spittin image’ of Jesus is in a leader, marvelous things can happen.  William Willimon shares, “Philip Haille wrote of the little village of Le Chambon in France, a town whose people, unlike others in France, hid their Jews from the Nazis.  Haille went there, wondering what sort of courageous, ethical heroes could risk all to do such extraordinary good.  He interviewed people in the village and was overwhelmed by their ordinariness.  They weren’t heroes or smart, discerning people.  Haille decided that the one factor that united them was their attendance, Sunday after Sunday, at their little church, where they heard the sermons of Pastor Trochme.  Over time, they became by habit people who just knew what to do and did it.  When it came time for them to be courageous, the day the Nazis came to town, they quietly did what was right.  One old woman, who faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house, later said, ‘Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus.  When our time came, we knew what to do.”

When people follow a leader who genuinely seeks to be the ‘spittin image’ of Jesus, marvelous things happen. 

The Openhearted God

Do you picture God as having a closed fist or an open hand?  Do you picture God as clinging tightly or giving generously? 

The way we answer these questions affects the way we interact with God in prayer.  If we perceive God as tightfisted, why should we bother praying?  Why should we waste time or energy waiting for an answer from a miserly Deity?  Why would we expect a clinging God—a selfish God—to give open-heartedly to us?

But if the material world reveals anything to us about its Inventor, we find evidence to the abundant generosity of God.  Jill Foley Turner remarks, “We know that the whole of creation declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), but it also demonstrates His generosity.  Our…Creator perfectly crafted a world which sustains our human lives…. But God did not stop at life and breath and sustainability.  Beyond our survival, the Bible says He considers our delight (1 Timothy 6:17).  He made seas and mountains and rivers.  He made 750,000 species of insects, 400,000 species of flowers, 200,000 species of edible plants, 10,000 species of birds, and stars too numerous to count.  Every good thing a person enjoys in life is a gift from God (James 1:17).  He created our universe with perfect elegance and complexity.  He designed with superfluous creativity.  Then He gave us senses of sight and sound and touch and taste, so we could experience the richness of these gifts.  The Provider of our needs is also our source of never-ending pleasure (Psalm 16:11).”

No wonder Psalm 145:16 proclaims, “You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”

We see the generosity of God in nature because God is generous by nature.  God’s heart is inclined toward giving generously to His children.    In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus announces, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”

God is generous toward His children whom He loves, but His generosity is not a fairytale—they-all-lived-happily—kind of generosity.  Kate Bowler, an Assistant Professor at Duke Divinity School, has experienced this.  At 35 years of age, when her son was just 1 year old, Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.  Despite surgery, her cancer is considered incurable.  Every two months, her doctors decide whether she is able to continue with the trial medication she is taking.  As a result, she says that she lives in two-month increments.  In the preface to her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, she describes what went through her mind when she found out about her cancer: “One moment I was a regular person with regular problems.  And the next, I was someone with cancer.  Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch.  A new and unwanted reality.  There was a before, and now there was an after.  Time slowed to a pulse.  Am I breathing?   I wondered.  Do I want to?  Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me.  Save me.  Save me.  Oh, God, remember my baby boy.  Remember my son and my husband before you return me to ashes.  Before they walk this earth alone.  I plead with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years.  It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.” (p. xiv-xv)

The struggles Bowler faces are real and daunting.  The conclusion to her story is uncertain.  But later in her book, Bowler shares, “At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes.  I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement.  They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.  When they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.” (p. 121)

Bowler experienced the generosity of God amidst her struggles through the care of others.  No wonder Jesus goes on to instruct us in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  As we receive the open-heartedness of God toward us, we are called on to pass it along to others.

Measure by Compassion

As I read the Sermon on the Mount I find myself challenged deeply by the things Jesus says. 

In Matthew 7:1-2, He says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

This does not mean that I am to avoid identifying evil as evil or that I should ever sidestep taking appropriate actions to confront evil.  Martin Luther King, Jr. correctly comments, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.  He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

We must be quick and conscientious to judge evil, but we must be careful about how we judge people.  Specifically, I must take to heart that the measure I use in judging others will be the measure that is used in judging me:

If I hope people will be understanding toward me when I have had a bad day, I should keep in mind that the person who is irritating me may be having a bad day.

If I would like others to be sympathetic toward me when I fall on my face and make a fool of myself, I should try to be sympathetic toward others when they fall on their face.

If I want others to give me a second chance when I have messed up, I should be willing to give others a second chance.

If I want people to hear me out before jumping to conclusions about me, I should be willing to listen carefully and thoroughly to what others have to say.

If I hope people will speak respectfully to me and about me, I should be intentional about speaking respectfully to and about others.

If I long for God to handle me with grace and forgiveness, do I dare withhold grace and forgiveness from others?

The “measure” we use makes a difference on the people around us.  Dorothy Law Nolte observed the truth of this in the lives of children.  She wrote,

“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.  If children live with hostility, they learn to fight…. If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy…. If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.  If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.  If children live with tolerance, they learn patience…. If children live with acceptance, they learn to love…. If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.  If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.  If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.  If children live with fairness, they learn justice….” 

The “measure” we use also makes a difference in us.  In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning quotes from Anthony DeMello’s book The Way to Love

“What is indiscriminate compassion?  ‘Take a look at a rose.  Is it possible for the rose to say, “I’ll offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people”?  Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds its rays from a wicked person who seeks to walk in its light?  It could do that only by ceasing to be a lamp.  And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature—even to the one who seeks to cut it down.  This is the first quality of compassion—its indiscriminate character.’”

If I hope to be as genuine (as consistent) as a rose or as a lamp or as a shade tree, then I must seek to be genuine (consistent) in my own life.  If I hope for compassion to live within me, then it must be something that flows naturally (indiscriminately) from me.  “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”