Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. Psalm 84:5-7
Worship is pilgrimage; just ask David. King David the psalmist is a complex character in Bible history as well as in folklore. We know that he was a great king, warrior, lover, poet, musician. He was a true renaissance man: he calmed the troubled soul of his king and future father-in-law; killed wild animals with his bare hands; felled a mocking giant with a stone and then cut off his head; compiled Israel’s song book; ran for his life and then spared the lives of his pursuers; checked out the beautiful bathing lady-next-door and broke a lot of hearts; was disciplined for counting Israel as though they were so many human assets; built a temporary place of worship and paved the way for his son to make a more permanent one; but probably his greatest human legacy is that he is the first character in scripture to share his feelings with the rest of us. Yep, Mr. Right was also transparent and proved that strong and vulnerable are not mutually exclusive ideas.
A brief examination of the Psalms also reveals the breadth of his creativity and expressiveness. The book is made of five divisions to mirror the first five books of the Old Testament. Some are antiphonal psalms, a sort of call-and-response musical dialogue that underpins many musical traditions. Some are coded with acrostic messages. Like Psalms 1-22 where verses are alphabetically ordered with each first word commencing with each Hebrew letter of the alphabet. Psalm 119 is also a famous example, written with 8 verses for each of the Hebrew consonants in order. There are also the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120 – 134, which gave Israel some traveling music as they made their way to Zion during the four important feast days as they went up to Jerusalem. One of my favorite books on the subject is the very readable A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson.
And then there’s Psalm 84, written by the Sons of Korah, “These are they whom David set over the service of song in the house of Yahweh, after that the ark had rest. And they ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of Yahweh in Jerus” (1 Chronicles 6:31,32). After an opening discourse on the beauty and joy of worshiping in God’s House, the writer describes a more invested account of what it is like to get there – you know, to do more than go to church but to have church – to press through the difficulties and emotions of our unique human heritage and to find the pressing through – the pilgrimage – a worthwhile experience.
Worship is pilgrimage. However, we live in a time when it seems that we have to coax people into the church experience: to coddle them, to reward them and patronize their sensibilities in a way that nullifies the pilgrimage and turns it into yet another scheduled event. In less affluent parts of the world, it is common to find folks who sometimes walk for days just to make it to church and be with God’s people in God’s House. They are pilgrims on the move from the place of their last spiritual victory to the next. The stuff, the noise, the assault of this toxic world that comes hurling at the pilgrim on the move is astounding – yet the true pilgrim will not be denied. No coaxing needed for this group when they make it to church. Instead, they come rejoicing, singing the songs of Zion and the praises of our God on their lips.
While recently visiting with a friend at his mother’s funeral viewing, he noted that during the last days of her grief and fight with cancer, when the morphine would do no good and her body writhed in pain and rose against their hands in twisted agony, all that came from her mouth were praises and thanksgiving to her Jesus – the sweet sounds of a pilgrim on the move up to Zion.
Psalm 84: mentions a place called the Valley of Baka – or the vale of tears as it is often rendered in songs and poems. Baka – the place of crying – has many stories attached to it from various traditions but the Sons of Korah knew in a personal way that when the worshiping pilgrim is on the move to the next place of victory, and they must pass through the vale of tears, their praises “make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.