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.