04 November 2010

Better is One Day in Your Courts: A Meditation on Psalm 84

There is a right way to worship.

I can't count the number of discussions I've had over the years regarding this way to worship. Yet, looking back, I realize that most disagreements about worship dealt with items within the worship service--hymns, scripture readings, sermons, prayers.

There is another way to worship--a right way, a true way--and it takes place en route to worship. After all, the psalmist writes
"Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise;" Psalm 100.4
Worship is something that begins outside the sanctuary. It is carried into the holy place and fulfilled there.

(Incidentally, I look back on other theological questions I have struggled with, and I realize now that many dealt with a misunderstanding of the word, "way." When Christ states, "I am the way," is he claiming to be the way/method or the way/road?)

In Psalm 84, like the psalms of ascents later in the book, the way to worship is a road--one paved with celebration and one that ends in worship.

It is fun to look back on times that I worshiped and try to remember how I got there. For many years here in Portland, the kids and I walked to church most Sabbaths on a path I had carved through the woods. When I was a kid, the way to worship followed the winding, hilly roads of southern Ohio.

One way to worship comes to mind when I read Psalm 84. In June of 1996 I spent a weekend with relatives in Diedelsheim, Germany (a village so small it is now a vorort of the town of Bretten, about 25 miles outside of Karlsruhe). On Sunday morning, the bells of the village's Lutheran church summoned me to worship, much as they had summoned my ancestors who had lived in the village from 1589 to 1901 (when my great-grandfather emigrated to America).

It's funny. I remember very little about the service that day, but I can recall nearly every step down Albert-Schweitzer-Strasse to Steinzeugstrasse to the church.

It was the way to worship--a worship I had never known. Or maybe I had. It was a way to worship that generations of Ditteses had known, after all. (Pictured at right, the caption, translated, reads, "Church with old Dittes House, today Guhl." The Dittes House is in the foreground. Perhaps the walk was even shorter--the bells louder--when my ancestors roamed these streets!)

Psalm 84 celebrates the way to worship.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
or the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God (verses 1-2).
The vigor of this psalm overwhelms the reader. It seems like I am already in worship. Maybe I am, but "the courts of the Lord" are still some ways off. "My soul yearns [and] faints" for them. I haven't entered yet.

Temple worship began outside the temple, often a long way off. Summoned by trumpets, worshipers filled the streets of Jerusalem, dressed in their brightest colors as they danced to the Temple Mount. Pilgrims hurried through the valleys on either side of the city, their journey having begun before the sunrise.

The way to worship was a melange of sight and sound, too. Chariots of the king and his nobles clattered along the pavement, and heralds made way. Animals lowed as they were herded through narrow streets, destined for sacrifice.

One of the best visual images of this way to worship was captured by Athenian sculptors in the frieze around the Parthenon known today as the Elgin Marbles.* The scenes presented there show the procession of worshipers who celebrate the Panathenaic festival.

One of the great senses that one gets from viewing the Elgin Marbles is the joy of the worshipers. Boys grin and gesture as they rise toward the Acropolis. Cows struggle and buck as they are led to slaughter. Women parade in their finest clothes. This is a vivid scene from Athens. It hearkens to Jerusalem in the moments that led to worship--the moments described in Psalm 84.

A Search for Home
"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,
O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you" (verses 3-4).
I love this break in the meditation on God's dwelling place. A sparrow nests there. The temple is a place of worship, but it isn't pristine. It is a holy place, yet the humblest of creatures also has a dwelling place there, perhaps close enough to the altar to sing before kings!

When this stanza closes with the words, "blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you," the songs I hear are bird songs, not (yet) the hymns of priests and Levites.

The Pilgrimage
The next section of the psalm is a pilgrimage allegory. See if you can catch the double meaning before I explain it below:
"Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They grow stronger, ever stronger,
till each appears before God and Zion" (verses 5-7).
This is a psalm of the way to the temple. These verses fill my imagination with dreams of pilgrimage: climbing from the Jordan Valley, cresting the Mount of Olives, and hurrying through the Kidron Valley, always looking up toward the temple, listening for the sounds of trumpets.

The arid valley suddenly turns green as springs burst from the ground. The "autumn rains" are soothing and gentle (there is no winter in the Holy Land, and these rains would be the equivalent of the soft rains of January and February I remember from Arizona). This imagery brings to mind the Passover celebration, wedged as it is at the end of winter/autumn and just before the full rush of spring.

I thought I knew the valleys around Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley to the east and the Hinnom to the south. These verses took me aback, trying to find a valley called "Baca" or weeping. That's when the double-meaning really struck me. This wasn't a literal pilgrimage from Jericho to Jerusalem; it was a metaphorical pilgrimage through the "valley of the shadow of death."

As believers pass through a valley of weeping, "[their tears] make it a place of springs." How deep the suffering must be! This isn't a place of sadness, but despair--so much despair that the cool autumn rains are an afterthought which "also" fill the pools.

This valley of weeping is only a part of the journey for believers, who "go from strength to strength" (I interpret this line as "grow stronger and stronger" above) until they reach the temple courts in Zion, also known as the presence of God.

The Prayer
The pilgrimage is at an end. The psalm ends with a prayer and a dedication.
"Hear my prayer, O Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob
Look upon our king, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
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 tens of the wicked.
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.
O Lord Almighty,
blessed is the man who trusts in you" (verses 8-12).
This prayer takes me to the temple courts--even to the inner courtyard that surrounded the temple building. The king is here. He joins the sparrow--he joins me--in worship. I think, 'I could dwell in this place forever, just like God does.'

I've had the privilege of visiting many beautiful places in my lifetime--places where I would be happy just living in a tent or trailer, waking up to the beautiful view. You could give me a cave and a sleeping bag anywhere on the Gower Peninsula of Wales, and I would wake every day happy. A heater and a yurt would give me year-round pleasure in northern Wyoming. The shade of a Ponderosa is all the shelter I would need along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

As I think back to those beautiful places, I realize that I spent very little actual time in any one of them. A weekend camping trip, perhaps, or a glorious moment of sunset. Even so, they inspired a thousand moments of reflection, wonder and peace. "One day in your courts" is indeed a culmination of pilgrimage (both physical and spiritual), but it is also the moment of worship--of wonder--from which we gain inspiration over a lifetime.

What if there could be more? More wonder, more worship, day after day, leading to months, years, a lifetime? This is the feeling of the singer of Psalm 84. A doorkeeper isn't a great job. You sit around most of the day; you say, 'watch your step,' over and over again. Yet even this lowly job is superior to the luxuries of the wicked. (When the psalm mentions "the tents of the wicked," it isn't talking about "roughing it." These tents--of foreign nobles, of generals at war--were often as luxurious as palaces, with carpets, fine draperies and golden flatware.)

Besides, who needs warmth or shelter when "the Lord God is a sun and shield"?

There is one right way to worship. Psalm 84 shows the way.

It begins with a longing. It prevails through sorrow and weeping. It grows stronger as it climbs toward Mount Zion. It ends in a resting place where God himself is our warmth, our shield, our dwelling place.

* The Parthenon was built atop the acropolis in Athens about 150 years after the destruction of the first temple, so I'm not saying the images are contemporary in any way, only the way of worship through the streets of the city and the spirit therein.

1 comment:

Edgar said...

JD. Thank you for the insight and reminder of where worship begins and is ultimately fulfilled. This journey, the road we travel, is strengthened by the fellowship we have with each other. This journey is of the heart, mind, body and soul longing and rejoicing at the very thought of dwelling in the very presence of the Holy One. I revel in your thought of the temple as a place of worship not a pristine place. What an incredible reminder that as a sinner, The Almighty wants me to commune with Him in His temple.
May God continue to bless you, Jenny and your children on the journey to "dwelling in His very presence".