We've arrived at our psalm’s last verse, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.”
In the style of Hebrew poetic parallelism (as I discussed with verse 3), verse 8 follows closely in meaning from verse 7. To say that “the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in” is another way of saying God keeps our lives (verse 7), but with the added, perhaps obvious but crucial promise that God will keep us “from this time on and for evermore."
Throughout this psalm, we’ve seen examples of God’s “keeping.” In this last verse, God keeps us through.... everything: family places, our kitchens, our living rooms, our daily chores, our errands, our employment places, our yard work, and all the time we’re in and out of our homes. God keeps us now, and also forever. You and I are inseparable from God, always!
Going Out and Coming In
Barker, in his article that I referenced in the first post, writes that this expression “going out and coming in” is used elsewhere in scripture: “to field for work (Deut. 28:6; 31:2), of carrying out duties as a military leader (Josh. 14:11) and as a king (1 Kings 3:7), and the comings and goings of life in general (2 Kings 19:27; cf. Isa. 37:28).”
I don’t mean to become nostalgic, but this eighth verse brings to my mind the contemporary time, and the main doors of our homes---the ways we come in and go out. What is your main doorway now, and what have been the main doorways of your life? In the 1990s, my family and I lived in a house on a corner; the front faced a cul-de-sac, but our carport and kitchen door faced the other street. Our kitchen door became the major entrance, which in turn made the house more homey. We (and visitors) stepped right into our kitchen and adjoining family room. Our comings and goings connected to our family space.
My childhood home was a late 1950s ranch house with large picture windows. The walkway to the front door was parallel rather than perpendicular to the house, and anyone coming to the door was already walking next to the house. The picture windows faced onto our street---a busy street for a small town, since the high school was nearby---and an overgrown pasture eventually cleared and readied for a new Presbyterian church. Our home and its “goings and comings” stays in my memory because I lived there from the age of 3 until I was in my 20s, and I was 50 when we sold the house after Mom moved to a nursing home: http://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2009/12/24/christmas-nineteen-sixty-forty-nine/
Think about your own residence (and those of the past) and think about God’s guidance. Was your home a safe place, or one filled with tension and trouble? How about your places of work? What were/are signs that God has accompanied you through good and bad times?
Also, think about ways God accompanies you as you come and go. When you perform your day’s tasks---going in and out of your residence----imagine God guiding and protecting you as you come and go about your chores, your everyday business. What worries do you have as you leave and return? What choices are you facing? Picture God’s life surrounding you. Imagine being “hidden” in God’s life, as we thought about in the previous post. If you don’t memorize any portion of our Psalm 121, memorize that last verse and keep it in your mind as best as you can.
The Faith Journey
Through these posts, I’ve been reflecting on faith as a journey, analogous to the journey made by the psalmist to the Jerusalem temple. I’ve thought about how our journeys are filled with uncertainties, anxieties, questions, and the like---but God doesn’t disdain our anxieties and questions. In fact, God is all the more tender and watchful when we struggle, as a shepherd leads a flock of sheep.
As I chatted with an acquaintance the other day, he referred to himself as a “doubting Thomas.” I always feel like Thomas (John 20) gets a bad rap. After all, Jesus didn’t disdain his questions but addressed them. We should not think that God becomes snooty if we have concerns, questions, and ideas; the psalms, not to mention the book of Job, are filled with concerns and questions about God.
The following page was posted on Twitter recently: http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Galleries/Faith-Is-a-Journey.aspx?awid=8716204990796046183-1820 The author talks about faith as a journey through questions and struggles. She quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” That has been true of my own faith journey, which I date from my childhood Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School, through my college decision to take Christian discipleship seriously, to my present middle age. Some things that were hurtful and disappointing in one stage of my life gained an answer or a context farther on in my life. In fact, the most profound ways that God has answered my prayers have been through longer periods and “story arcs,” if you will.
One thing I wish I'd known earlier, is to have patience and a sense of humor about the faith journey. There is often a subtle temptation to think that, just because you are on a faith journey guided by God, that you are the sole object of God’s concerns---and that your ideas and perceptions about things must be God’s, too. That leads to disappointment or arrogance. God loves you but also loves folk with whom you’re in contact, and God may be working through you to enrich someone else’s life. The long walk of a faith journey becomes even happier as you gain a mature sense of humility and an ability to take things cheerfully in stride.
Having a sense of humor about other people and their foibles will also help you. “Oh, it’s so great he became a Christian,” someone might say. That’s true---but just making a decision to be a Christian is only the beginning. Some of the biggest jerks I’ve known in my life were strong Christians! They saw things only their way, or they thought they knew best about everyone else, or they had mean attitudes, etc. etc.
These are harsh things to say, but I want to talk honestly about a pitfall in the faith journey: don't let other people derail your life's most important relationship. None of us are perfect and all of us make mistakes and fight inner battles and demons. It was years after my initial faith decision that I felt like I had my own act together. You’ll do well on your faith journey if you don’t base your faith upon other people. Have a good chuckle about human frailties and the fragile egos of people----including pastors, who struggle, too. Don’t let your disappointments define your faith journey.
Our Covenant Relationship
As I write all this, I never want to imply that a “faith journey” is a wholly individualistic thing. It's individualistic in the sense that you, with your unique qualities and talents and experiences, are special to God. But remember that our psalmist is a Jew who was conscious of the covenant relation God has with his people (verse 4).
We, too, are in a covenant relationship with God. God wants to guide us, but God also wants us to be disciples and to be faithful to God’s will. "The Lord" is a title of authority; he wants us to define our very lives around his teachings and direction. When asked (a trick question) about following God’s will, Jesus quoted from the Torah: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matt. 22:37-39, Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18b). These two commandments, he said summed up the whole law and the prophets (that is, the expressions of God’s will within his covenant relationship with Israel).
That great commandment in Deuteronomy (a text addressed to Jews about the Torah, but which we Gentile Christians now also take to heart) continues with God demand for a life obedient to his teachings---that is, a life that encompasses our goings and comings.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (6:6-9)
When we moved to our present home, I noticed a small mezuzah outside my daughter's bedroom. Mezuzahs are cases containing Bible verses, to be affixed to a doorpost, as explained at this site: http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm#Mezuzah. They are literal responses to this passage from Deuteronomy: God’s words, affixed to the doorposts. Barker, in his article, writes, “Pious Jews today, as they leave or enter their house or a room in the house, touch the mezuzah, a small metal cylinder that is placed on the right hand door post and that contains a piece of parchment inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and they recite Psalm 121:8.”
This passage in turn remind us about the task of being faithful to God, whether at home or out and about.
And... how to do be faithful to God? To return to Jesus’ quotations of Torah, we’re faithful to God when we love.
But Bible-defined love can be a very difficult thing: treating your enemies with kindness and benevolence, putting away your prideful feelings, refraining from revenge, working together with people without competing for praise and credit. It’s easy to say you love people, if you’re talking in easy, meaningless pieties like “hate the sin but love the sinner.” But really loving people is a challenge: to demand nothing in return; to love instead of retaliating; to build people up rather than tearing them down; to pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse. Really loving God can be difficult too: because if it’s difficult to love people whom we see, how can we love a God we do not see (1 John 4:20)? Love requires much prayer as well as strength, advice from mature friends, and common sense. Love always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).
In other words, love requires an active “faith journey” with God wherein we’re open to his power to help us love, and to be more kind and gentle. Love doesn’t mean cranking up our will power to something we despise, and then loving grudgingly. If we’re feeling unloving (and unloveable), God is ready to help us--and probably already is helping us. A great thing about God's commands for an obedience life, is that his commands are never separable from his power to help us, his readiness to show mercy, his forgiveness of all our sins and failings, his faithful care when we're at our best or worst, his ability to lead us as we face the major choices of life, and his unbreakable promise to share his divine life with us for eternity.
The Divine Keeping
As Barker writes, “God is Keeper, everywhere, now and forever. Such is the widest possible vista for God's constant help for the pilgrim of faith.” In concluding this study, I can’t really improve on Barker’s own words at the end of his article:
“In this beautiful psalm of trust the people of God are encouraged to trust Him in the pilgrimages of life. The problem arises when reality confronts poetic call. Does this psalm guarantee unconditional protection from all harm and danger to the pilgrim? Did believers never suffer from sunstroke or fall into the hands of bandits? It is apparent that while the psalm speaks of such blanket protection, the pilgrim must understand that everything that invades his or her life is under God's watchful care and providence. The spirit of the psalm is to evoke trust in Yahweh, the Keeper of the pilgrim, and the Keeper of Israel, the Maker of heaven and earth. Often things that happen in the life of the pilgrim would not be his or her choice. But the psalm is not pointing in this direction. The direction is upward, toward God. The believer must recognize that life is a gift from God, the Giver of life. The pilgrim can rest confidently, knowing that God's glory will prevail, and that justice ... and righteousness ...will ultimately rule.
“The confidence expressed in Psalm 121 is rooted in the grandeur of the psalmist's vision of God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth; He is the Keeper of Israel. In spite of the perils of one's pilgrimage, the believer can exercise trust in the Lord. God is neither too great to care, nor are God's people too insignificant to be noticed. This quiet psalm reflects on God who quells the anxiety of the pilgrim's heart, who watches over him or her with a shepherd's gentleness and a guardian's vigilance, and who gives thoughtful benediction to one's daily routines.”
If you haven't heard John Rutter's setting of this psalm, it is lovely. Here is a choir of young people performing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0t9e1YVzyQ&feature=related