July 10-14 I was privileged to speak a bit each day at “Breakaway: A Lift Family Retreat.” Focusing on the Psalms of Ascent (theme for the week was Psalm 121:1-3), here is the first:
Tuesday, July 10: “The Big Picture”
Ascend! Climb! Great metaphor to guide us this week as we think together about pressing upward in Christ. I’ve got my commemorative Scout hiking stick! And we are hoping that, trusting that, this week will be a time you will look back on fondly on this as a time when you perhaps reached new heights, even if it is merely resting and relaxing, breathing deeply as we walk together this week.
Many people go through life approaching Christianity as if they were tourists rather than pilgrims. The tourist life wants things to be immediate, pretty, interesting, exciting, easy, and casual. This is all very American and very modern. In fact, I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal last week about this very thing. Apparently, you can even be a mountain climbing tourist now days too. But listen to this guy as he talks about the experience:
“[E]very time I hiked into the Bugaboos, I passed a fancy lodge run by Canadian Mountain Holidays, which flies skiers and hikers around the hills. And every time I hauled a heavy pack up the trail and huddled in a wind-battered tent, I wondered what it would be like to experience the mountains and retreat to a comfortable bed at night.
“So a couple of days after walking out of the woods in the rain, I helicoptered up to the Bobbie Burns Lodge in the Purcell Mountains, north of the Bugaboos.
“Instead of getting up in the middle of the night and choking down an energy bar, I slept in, ate a fantastic breakfast, and then, at the crack of 9, climbed into a helicopter with guides. We were dropped off in an alpine meadow and spent a day hiking up to a ridge, admiring wildflowers, the rugged terrain and expansive views. In the afternoon, a helicopter ferried us back to the lodge for cocktails and a fine dinner.
“While I certainly had a pleasant day, I didn’t feel the connection to the natural world that I usually seek by going into the wild. A helicopter was a radio call away to whisk us back to the comforts of the lodge in case it started raining, which it did.
“After a few days of what most people would call an awesome vacation, I was literally climbing the walls—both the climbing wall in the exercise room and the rock-studded pillars in front of the lodge. Everything was first rate: the food, the mountain views from the hot tub and the glass-walled sauna. The pace was leisurely and there was even Wi-Fi. I was being treated like a king. I was miserable.”
. . . he went on to say that after being “fattened up,” he needed to conquer something real and challenging on his own, so”
“[A]t 3 a.m. [he] set off for South Howser (10,800 feet). We crossed a glacier, climbed a pass, trudged over another glacier and dropped into a valley on the other side. By daylight we were looking up at the sinuous buttress of South Howser, a beautiful, soaring sweep of granite, as elegant and as simple as a single brush stroke on a canvas.
“Fifteen pitches of flawless yet challenging climbing and some scrambling put us on the summit 10 hours after starting. The sights were incredible. Fingers of sheer granite rose out of the surrounding glaciers, mountain after mountain ranged in the distance. It was like being back in a helicopter.
“Only this time, I felt like I had earned the view.”
This is more like the life of the pilgrim. The tourist helicopters in, and gets back to the clubhouse for the five-star dinner. The pilgrim life is a journey through this world, not merely sights to be seen and photographed, but experiences to shape us for the destination. And the destination is not retirement in Boca Raton. There is no quick short cut for the pilgrim, no microwave instant solution. And I see a lot of parallels between the pilgrim life and living with disability. Life with disability is not a vacation tour, it is a long journey. It’s slow, hard, often dull and boring, and many time quite frankly (can we admit it?) . . . overwhelming. It’s not the ticket we intended to buy for this trip – it’s not according to our plan! Speaking of which, let me read another piece – perhaps you have heard this before – about someone planning a trip to one place, but ending up in another. [Read “Trip to Holland” – see below]
So what are we going to do this week? We are going to “Breakaway” – to leave the daily routine, and set out to find something new. Not as tourists – as pilgrims. Here’s what I mean:
In ancient Israel, the people of God saw themselves as on a journey – and this idea has continued through into the Christian experience for the last 2000 years as well. We are on a journey through this life. This life is not our final destination. This place, Central Florida, Winter Park, Winter Garden, Holland as the case may be, Earth!, is not our real home, not our final destination. That destination is God’s presence. And all this life is preparation for that. We are made for something much more. The writer of Hebrews captured it when he said, “Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” That better possession, that more abiding place is the Kingdom of God in its fullness. Our final and eternal home.
Well, in the OT, the people of God were reminded at least three times each year that they were pilgrims. Out of obedience to God, they left home and set out for Jerusalem – that symbol of God’s presence – in order to make sacrifice. The Psalms of Ascent – Psalms 120-134 – most scholars agree are the songs they sang on the road. These psalms became a sub-set of the hymnal of Israel, a collection that many people think were liturgical songs meant to be sung during the three journeys every year when people went up to Jerusalem for the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Rosh Hashanah. From everywhere in Israel, going to Jerusalem means going up. Now I realize that this is a hard concept for us in Florida – the highest point of land is the interstate over pass (still looking for the “mount” in Mount Dora!). But think about being in the mountains – going up is hard. So these songs were song of faith, as the people trudged upward, seeking God in their journey. It was not a vacation, it was pilgrimage.
And so our lives as well.
The 15 psalms seem to break into five triads, five groups of three – nice for us because we have three more talks like this Wed/Thurs/Fri morning before we gather for one final time together on Saturday morning. The three broad topics also depict three potential aspects of a long journey: Trouble, Trust, and Triumph. Another way to see this, a way that I want to use this week is “Distress, Dependence, and Deliverance.” So five times, the psalms seem to take us through this cycle of trouble and distress, to trust and dependence, and finally to triumph and deliverance. We see this three-part idea in the first lines of Psalm 121, our theme for the week.
First, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” He sees trouble coming, so it’s an expression of distress. We look up and see the obstacles, the challenges of life, the trouble we are about to encounter. There is no way around this mountain – we have to go over. We are troubled and we face trouble. There is no interstate highway weaving nicely through the mountains with cuts and fills. It’s scaling, climbing, and at first glance, it’s distress and trouble.
Have you ever been there? Like in the last day or two? I know that sometimes, it is hard even to get here – things seem to happen, trouble gets in the way. Sometimes the mountains seem unscaleable. But as Bilbo Baggins told Frodo, every journey begins with a first step. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Isn’t that the truth! Some of us stepped out the door and have been swept off our feet into the land of disability. And we live, unfortunately, in a culture that has very little patience for the long haul – people want you to fix it, get over it, recover and move on. But for many of us, there is no moving beyond the new reality we face. We’ll talk tomorrow morning about this idea of Trouble and Distress and how this is part of the pilgrim’s journey.
But Second, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Here is trust, an expression of dependence. Trust is surrendering your self-sufficiency and placing yourself at the mercy of another. The psalmist admits he cannot conquer the mountain on his own – he needs to place trust in another; he needs to depend upon another. It’s admitting our inadequacy and recognizing God’s amazing bigness for us. And trusting God is far different from capitulating to defeat. We will talk more about this trusting and dependence on Thursday morning.
And finally, Third, “He will not let your foot be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber.” Here is triumph. This is a declaration of deliverance. It’s also, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a statement of faith in something we do not see. It’s making it to the top through the sheer grace and mercy of a God who loves you and carries you to see new things from new places.
So we are going to spend this week talking about climbing, hiking, struggling, step by metaphorical step upward, fighting gravity, fighting the downward pull of the fallen nature of creation. One of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, calls this act of faithful journey “a long obedience in the same direction.” Think about that. None of us necessarily asked for the challenges we face and we live with. But we are called in God’s providence to plod onward, upward – not in defeat – but with expectant hope that even though we may be in distress, with hope in God and His goodness, through dependence on Him, we move, with the Holy Spirit’s help, toward deliverance.
And the amazing thing is, while the “final” deliverance may be some future release, there can be – here and now – real deliverance in this journey, in this long obedience.
But let’s admit up front that we live in a world that is so focused on the here and now that we swim against a strong current, we walk against the flow of the traffic. Everything around us tells us to give up, cash it in. Resign ourselves to the reality and make the best of it. C.S. Lewis saw this and said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
That’s the perspective we want to cultivate here. We don’t want to “settle” for less. So let’s climb this week, make some memories together in our journey with Christ.
Aim high – look up. Yes there are mountains, but the view from the top will be amazing.
Let’s get going!
WELCOME TO HOLLAND
By Emily Perl Kingsley
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this……
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. Michelangelo’s David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”
But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around . . . and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills . . . and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.” And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away . . . because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.
But . . . if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things . . . about Holland.
c1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All rights reserved