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
This week marks three years since the COVID-19 pandemic came onto our radar here at The Living Well Church. I remember how difficult the decision was to close down services on March 15, 2020. In those early days of the pandemic, no one really knew what to expect. Was this going to be a momentary interruption of our “normal” life, or something much more serious? Of course, as we look back on it now, we realize it was far more disruptive and devastating than we could have ever imagined. More than a million people died of the disease here in the U.S. And that number is now nearly seven million worldwide! Our world was in chaos.
Governments, businesses, restaurants, schools, churches—COVID brought everything to a standstill. One area of life that was particularly affected was travel. Whether for business or pleasure, we found ourselves grounded. For me and my wife Heidi, it meant cancelling a long-anticipated 35th anniversary trip to Europe. It didn’t matter how desirable or life-giving our travel plans were, travel restrictions meant we would have to wait a little while longer…until the crisis was over.
Psalm 84 is considered a song of pilgrimage, but many scholars conclude that it’s pilgrim 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 had 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 faithful pilgrims are being forced to wait and persevere! No matter how desirable or life-giving this pilgrimage was…they would have to wait a little while longer…until the crisis was over.
This dual perspective of joyful anticipation and unfulfilled longing in Psalm 84 have led generations of faithful saints to interpret this “pilgrimage” to mean our ultimate journey—our spiritual pilgrimage toward the presence of God. St. Augustine (354-430) observed how this psalm contrasts the peace of God’s presence with the turmoil of our present human condition. The martyr Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) sang words from Psalm 84 as he awaited his execution in the Tower of London. The great composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) used words from the psalm in a beautiful section of his Requiem, written after the death of his mother (go ahead, give it a listen).
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, in Hebrew) 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 destination. It’s about going from strength to strength, bringing the peace and presence of God to all the hurting places we’re stuck in, each step of the way, every day we live. We long for the thing that will be most pleasing to us, but we choose to journey on each day as we wait in hopeful anticipation (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).
That ultimate destination will be awesome! And there is still plenty of room for anyone who believes and follows Jesus (John 14:1-4). But even though the ultimate destination is beyond our reach for now, the journey with Jesus is better than anything else we can pursue. We’re on our way to God! Make the most of the journey…take a drink from the Living Water…and always stay thirsty for him.
SONG: Better is One Day
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