Songs for the Journey

Psalm 121

A Song of Ascents.

1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

3 He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

The sun was hot and high in a cloudless sky.  The barn red paint on my brush seemed to almost dry before I could slap it on the thirsty hundred-year-old boards.    A few days earlier, while Dad and I were working out back near the apple orchard, we both commented on the fading look of the old barn. I always loved that place: the stable, the apple sorter and tractor implements, the flashing lights that reminded us that the electric fence still worked and the horse would stay home.  I told Dad that I’d paint it if he wanted me to; he quickly agreed.  I saw it as a way to improve what to me was a tree fort.  The north and south sides of the old building had a very gradual pitch that led to the central part which was more pronounced and towered above the rest.  Many summer evenings, I would climb to the north side with my old Silvertone guitar, rest my back against the center wall and strum along with Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot, or my favorite – JT.

I’d already fallen in love with the shared melancholy of James Taylor’s, “Fire and Rain,” when, as I stood sweating and painting the old barn, I heard the drop D tuning and the guitar string-hammering on his new release “Country Road.” Suddenly I felt like I knew the guy.  So authentic was his style that I felt the line of his creative truth come straight for me to pick up my hitch-hiking soul.

“Take to the highway won’t you lend me your name, your way and my way seem to be one and the same…on a country road”

And so I sang along with JT and painted my way around the barn during those dog days of summer. The hot sun didn’t deter me and neither did the bees from the nearby hives in the orchard.  Even when our horse, old Prince, came around and nudged my ladder before munching windfalls from the few untended trees near the barn, I just sang and painted till I was done.  Then at days end I climbed the north side slope of the barn one more time, with my Silvertone in hand, and tried out those hammers and pull offs to make my guitar sound like JTs.

It’s no hidden mystery that music can make a tough task seem easier.  Even Disney reminded us to “whistle while you work.”  But long before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Israel’s King David employed the idea In Psalm 120-134; a section known as the Songs of Ascent.

Of the seven feasts that God gave Israel, three required travel to the House of God for offerings, sacrifices and celebration.  Those three feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, served to help Israel remember and rehearse her freedom, the Law and God’s provision.  Living near Jerusalem posed few inconveniences for the worshiper. For those, however, who lived a considerable distance away, the notion of taking the family, closing up the home place and heading to Jerusalem was quite an ordeal, and a risky one at that.  Along the way there were many potential threats: the heat of the day, the cold of the night, highway thieves, wild animals, and the chance for injury along Israel’s sometimes rugged terrain.  Those challenges and the time it took to make it to Jerusalem posed yet another distraction; the worship of idols in the high places along the route to the House of God.

The smoke rising atop a nearby mountain where pagans offered strange fire to idol gods with a costly mix of sensuality and mysticism sometimes seduced the would be pilgrim.   Their smoke signals flashed like a billboard in the wilderness; “turn in here, vacancies!” The idea that these gods of convenience could be engaged so close to home without the long trip, not to mention the titillating thrills of idolatry, was surely a tough temptation to ignore.

For this reason, David assembled a collection of songs, to help remind the pilgrims of their mission and the true joy that awaited them in God’s presence.  They were headed up to Zion.  These journeys were also a reenactment of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem.  As the worshiper started out on the road, and eventually encountered the lurid invitation of false worship and smoke rising from the high places, Eugene Peterson suggested they sang, “I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? No, my strength comes from God, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.” (The Message)

In much the same way, the conviction that we serve a greater God helps us close our eyes and resist the magnetic pull of the gods of this age as we move toward what Jesus referred to as true worship – in Spirit and Truth.

What must you pass up each day, as you make your way along life’s road.  What gods of convenience beckon you to take a short cut – to skip church or prayer, the Word or worship, – and to feast your eyes and senses on temporary pleasures that promise you soul peace but leave you empty and jaded?

The same year that JT sang about his country road exploits, Diana Ross expressed the sentiment of Psalm 121 in her first #1 solo, “Ain’t no mountain high enough
ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from you .”

Thoughts of the soulfulness of Motown and the raw authenticity of James Taylor can help us put a new spin on a timeless Psalm.  The truth that we are on the road headed for a better place and that nothing can stop us is as valid for us today as it was for David.  God does not sleep and He watches over the worshiper through heat of day and cold of night. His promise to guide our steps and keep our souls from evil as we come and go in this life is a song worth singing.

Safe on the road,

Ken


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