On Our Way Home
I find a lot of comfort in the image presented in Psalm 84 of our spiritual journey being a journey home. Throughout Scripture (especially in the Old Testament) there’s lots of verses that support the vision that our time on earth is a journey to God’s Promised Land. Applying these old, old stories to my own situation, I take comfort in seeing my life as a continuous journey homeward, sometimes hoping that I’m somewhere near my destination, sometimes discovering that I’m in the middle of unfriendly territory, and sometimes realizing that I’m just walking around in circles lost in the wilderness. Let's again soak up the image from the first few verses of Psalm 84, where I hear, in Verse 1, a description of being home … in the house of the Lord. If you listen carefully, you’ll find that what follows this image is a longing to come home. It seems that, this psalmist’s experience of living in the house of the Lord is like mine, experienced internally, as a heart-felt hope, rather that externally in the day-to-day world.
Psalm 84: 1 - 5
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
3 Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
In the remaining verses of Psalm 84, I see a vision of what the journey home to God may look like, one where outward, life-giving transformation occurs, where we sometimes falter, only to recover by seeking refuge in God wisdom and strength, which, in turn, fosters inward transformation and deeper resolve to follow God’s voice and path.
Before listening to the remaining verses again, I’d like to give some context to the likely meaning “the Valley of Baka.” It seems that ancient versions of this psalm called this place “the Valley of Weeping.” One commentary I read said, that,
“as the text stands, we think should of a place devoid of water but which the pilgrims’ courage and faith treat as if it were well supplied with that indispensable requisite, thus turning adversity itself into a blessing.”
In other words, our inner eye can find a blessing, whatever the circumstance.
Psalm 84: 6 - 12
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka (the Valley of Weeping), they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
8 Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty; listen to me, God of Jacob.
9 Look on our shield, O God; look with favor on your anointed one.
10 Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.
12 Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.
Psalm 27 also offers perspective on the prospect of what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord. In Psalm 27, the psalmist also describes a situation that doesn’t sound like he or she is home, in external reality, at least, and also offers a clue about how to keep steadfast on the journey to God’s dwelling place, even as that journey passes through the wilderness, through unwelcome places that feel dangerous, daunting and defeating. The psalmist offers, as we have heard so often here at 8th Day and elsewhere, that the key to staying on the path home is to trust in God, to step forth bravely, and to not allow ourselves to get distracted or diverted by fear-filled thoughts and emotions. When I read this psalm, I see two side-by-side realities living together, offering their competing interpretations of reality. And I also understand that this journey home requires a disciplined mind as well as a heart that is open to transformation to turn from interpreting reality through a lens of fear or anger to a lens of love and forgiveness.
In other words, home is where the heart is. Ever if our every day realities are discouraging or even threatening, as for the Psalmist, our hearts can be at rest with God, drawing us onward. Please listen carefully:
Psalm 27: 1-11
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27 describes much of the swirling conflict that I feel internally as I struggle to be faithful on my journey. What I hear in Psalm 27 is fear of the encroachment of those who are set against me, as well as a trembling and fragile conviction that God is accompanying me which, on my better days, gives way to a longing and heartfelt desire to be with God which, in turn, transforms into the assertion that God is surely with me. This certainty is accompanied by an uncertain pleading: God are you there? You told me to look for you and I am doing that. Please don’t hide from me. Help me by making the path plain for me, so I don’t get confused, especially with all the awful things that are happening around and to me. I have to believe this so I don’t feel lost, lonely and scared. God I’m listening for your voice to lead me home.
I don’t know about you all, but 2017 was a very discouraging year for me. I've clearly been wandering in the wilderness. I entered 2017 gripped by fear and disbelief, anxious about my country and the people who live here, somewhat for myself, but, given my privileged position in our society, mostly for my neighbors, both those whose names I know and those I haven’t met. And as the year went on, there were ups and downs. I witnessed ongoing assaults on policies and practices that I understand are based on God-inspired values of love of self and other. I’ve also been encouraged by brave souls and communities who have risen to stand in resistance, to publicly, visibly embrace the vision of community based on inclusion and compassion. I’ve taken part in some of those activities, and so have many of you. But I feel fear rising in me. It's not enough. To me, it feels like we are entering into increasingly dark times, the Valley of Weeping from Psalm 84 or the Valley of Death from Psalm 23, where unrighteousness meets us at every turn. As 2018 begins, I sometimes feel as if the walls of injustice closing in and I am helpless to hold them back. The journey seems so much longer and "home" so much farther away. Does God’s House exist at all, or is it just an imaginary place in my mind?
Sometimes I scold myself with a reality check that I first heard voiced in the African-American community. What’s different now is not how far we are away from home. Instead, what’s different is that I am more aware of how far our society has strayed from God’s vision for community, and how barren and unforgiving the land where we live really is. It has always been a desert out there; I’ve just had more than my share of the water and was ignorant of (or unmoved by) the thirst of others. So the difference is really only that I’m just a little more aware of my surroundings than I used to be and of the injustice that I have also tolerated, that is absolutely intolerable to our God. All that's happened is that the shadow side of our life together—where racism, oppression, prejudice, hatred flourish—has become more visible to me. It’s been there all along; I just haven’t been aware. I’m just waking up, as I’ve heard Patty Wudel say.
Following this logic, it makes sense to me that becoming more aware of, and less oblivious to injustice in the world, is simply part of the work I need to do to find my way home to God. Psalm 27 verse 11 pleads: Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path. In other words, make plain to me BOTH an understanding of (1) where I am today and (2) where I am to go. Give me the vision both of what a community built on the bedrock of Godly love looks like and a clear-eyed understanding of my current condition. Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me on a plain path. Transform me from my trembling fear-filled self to a faith-filled disciple walking the path you have laid out for me, if I only choose to step forward.
In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King challenges us to be both of A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart. He says that
Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials and the intransigence of the protectors of the old order. He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” … We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.
In other words, we must develop a clear-eyed understanding of the world in which we live, tempered by a clear-hearted longing to find our way home, to God’s home. This dichotomy, in turn, rises up within us and demands that we choose: Our journey home requires us to walk not only a path of the inward search for God, but also the outward demand for justice. This journey begins with inward transformation, conforming our hearts to God’s desires, which gives rise to the impulse for outward transformation, reworking relationships to reflect God’s love for all of us. At 8th Day we have found value in engaging in this work in community. And I would caution us to nurture our community life with love. As acrimony, accusation and blame becomes normal in our country, let’s take extra care to not allow that way of relationship to seep into life at 8th Day. Let’s assume the best intentions of one another and seek to resolve our differences with love and affection, as we travel this difficult journey together.
In 2017 my sense that I am a stranger in this unfamiliar land that I thought might be closer to home has become more acute. And as social interaction based on values that I believe are opposite of God’s values appear to be more acceptable, commonplace and entrenched, I have realized that I must take even more care to consciously set myself apart, with discipline, so I remain firm footed on my journey home to God.
Martin Luther King states “every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds, the world of time and the world of eternity.” Psalm 23 offers us this same dual image of reality, one in which we are surrounded by enemies as we endure hardship and walk through dangerous valleys, all the while accompanied by a shepherd who offers us …. everything we really need. Dr. King continues,
we are, paradoxically, in the world and yet not of the world. … the responsibility of Christians [is] to infuse an unchristian world with the ideals of a higher and more noble order. … As Christians we must never surrender our supreme loyalty to any time-bound custom or earth-bound idea, for at the heart of our universe is a higher reality—God and God’s kingdom of love—to which we must be conformed.
As we have embraced here at 8th Day and the Church of the Saviour, the journey home is one of transformation, both internally and externally. Internally, we take an honest stock of where we are and what our personal landscape looks like. We need to be honest about our fears, our brokenness, our resistance to be transformed by God’s truth. Externally, we do the same. What is our communal landscape? Where do anger, self righteousness, fear and resentment shape our relationships? It is only when we are honest about where we are, compared to where we want to be, that the path to that place where we can be fully known, experience overflowing love and live in peaceful abundance, opens up.
In the liturgical year, we are nearing the season of Lent. Next week we remember Christ’s transfiguration, when three of Jesus’ disciples accompany him to a mountain and see a vision of Jesus conversing with Elijah and Moses. This transfigured vision gave the disciples a better understanding of who Jesus really was. The events that follow over the next weeks of Jesus' life on earth are vivid descriptions of Jesus’ own descent into the Valley of Weeping, his own Valley of Death, only to open us to the opportunity for new life (for himself) and all of us, thanks to his faithfulness to the path that God had made plain to him.
As a church we will soon enter into a season of Lent, six weeks of self-reflection and prayer, as we examine the landscape of our current reality. Let’s use this season as an invitation to seek out a clear-eyed understanding of who we are as individuals and community as a means of make plain God’s path home. How far away are we from God’s vision for us, individually and communally? It’s then our opportunity to set out again on this journey home, the shepherd at our side, and the vision of God’s desire for our lives before us. Christ is our example. And the choice is ours.