How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Making the Most of the Journey
You would probably have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic that is spreading virtually unchecked around the globe. This week a few cases finally popped up in my home state of Michigan, and experts say it will likely be months before we see a significant reversal in the rate of infection. While it’s important to note that the virus is especially dangerous for certain “at risk” populations (older, immunocompromised, other pre-existing diseases and health concerns), it is also true that it infects indiscriminately—no one, apparently, is immune.
The good news for travelers is that flights are really cheap right now and hotels have plenty of room! The bad news is that no vacation spot seems to be worth the journey. In fact, to many of those wonderful destinations, the journey is impossible…travel has been restricted until further notice.
Meanwhile here at home, governments, businesses, entertainment industries and even churches are opting for a “better-safe-than-sorry” approach—cancelling large gatherings and events, postponing celebrations and festivities. No matter how much we desire those things, no matter how life-giving they are, we’ll just have to wait a little while…until this crisis is over.
Psalm 84 is considered a song of pilgrimage, but many scholars conclude that our pilgrim songwriter is not so much celebrating the journey, but lamenting the travel restrictions. Perhaps the psalm was written during the time of Israel’s exile and captivity; perhaps other circumstances have thwarted the pilgrim’s travel plans. Whatever the reason, the songwriter longs to go to up to the Temple—the “lovely dwelling place” of God—but he can’t. His soul “yearns” and “faints” for it, his “heart” and “flesh” desire it, but it’s not possible to visit right now. Not yet. He notes, perhaps a bit sardonically, that the sparrows and swallows are enjoying the Temple and altar, while the faithful pilgrims are forced to wait and persevere. No matter how desirable or life-giving it is…they will have to wait a little while longer…until this crisis is over.
This dual perspective of joyful anticipation and unfulfilled longing in Psalm 84 have led generations of faithful saints to interpret the “pilgrimage” to be referring to the ultimate journey—our spiritual pilgrimage toward the permanent presence of God. The great composer Johannes Brahms, for example, includes words from this psalm in a beautiful section of his Requiem, written after the death of his mother (go ahead, give it a listen). St. Augustine observed how this psalm contrasts the peace of God’s presence with the turmoil of our present human condition. The martyr Sir Thomas More sang words from Psalm 84 as he awaited his execution in the Tower of London.
The psalmist points out that those who arrive at that ultimate destination are “blessed” because they are able to engage in eternal worship (vs. 4). But so too are the saints who haven’t arrived yet, “whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage” (vs. 5). Their patient perseverance transforms every “valley of tears” (Baka) to “a place of springs” (vs. 6). These hopeful, longing saints aren’t just lying around moping as they wait to enter God’s presence, they are bringing life and joy to the world on each step of their journey—going “from strength to strength, till each appears before God” (vs. 7).
The life of the pilgrim isn’t simply about arriving at our long-awaited destination when we die. It’s about patiently going from strength to strength, faithfully bringing the peace and presence of God to all the hurting places (Baka) we’re stuck in…each step of the way…every day we live. Not only do we long for what will be most pleasing to us some day, we choose to journey in a way that is most pleasing and honoring to God today and every day. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).
No doubt about it, the ultimate destination is going to be awesome! And it’s not restricted—there is still plenty of room for everyone who truly believes and follows Jesus (John 14:1-4). But even though the ultimate destination is out of reach for now, the daily journey with Jesus is better than anything else we can pursue. Like the psalm-song says, Better is One Day in His courts than thousands elsewhere (yeah, you should listen to that one too). You may be stuck at home for now, but you’re on your way to God. Make the most of your journey…take a drink from the Living Water, and offer a drink to everyone around you. Jesus is the joy on your journey…always stay thirsty for him!