Over the years, the words therefore and nevertheless have laid hold of me. Therefore sought me out and became my first “Word of the Year” while nevertheless was introduced by a friend. It’s funny how peripheral something can be until you stare directly at it; then, once it’s seen, it cannot be unseen. That has been my relationship with these two words. While I used to visually walk right by them, now I all but trip over them at every turn. Though I try, with pen in hand, to tag them as I read, sometimes I have to let one or two slide by (to be captured at another time) so I can focus on the words around them.
Our Lives – a Psalm of Ascents
“Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens.” –Psalm 123:1
Before I even begin, let me say that I know. I see it; I hear it; I feel it. Grammatically, it is not correct…unless…unless it’s Scriptural, in which case grammar no longer rules because God’s word, in content and in context, is always correct. And so, yes, I stand beside the phrase ‘a psalm of ascents’ even though I have to cock my head to the left in order to say it smoothly. I will deal with this grammatical enigma shortly, but felt the need to address it before, in a literary sense, I undress it later. Just as Monk had to touch each light pole, I have to touch each subject/verb inconsistency or I just can’t move ahead. Okay; I’m ready now.
Today is January 2, 2016. It’s the start of a new year and a new beginning in many ways. While in the big scheme of things it is just the Saturday after December 31st, in a smaller, calendar-centered sense, it marks a new start for many of us. It is a point from which we look back over the unveiled past twelve months and ahead at the still covered future twelve months…and we ponder, and we plan. What will we do differently? What will we do the same? What will we vow to never do again and what will we vow to never not do? Whether you are prone to make New Year’s resolutions or not, you probably do a little life reflecting as the proverbial ball drops and a new year begins.
For the past two years, I have traded in the practice of making a New Year’s resolution for the profit of choosing a New Year’s word. It’s kind of like writing the shortest mission statement ever; a one word mission statement, which makes the choosing of the word very important. It has to be a word that will serve as both an anchor and a catalyst for future actions and decisions. It has to be both powerful and permeable, allowing helpful things to flow in, honorable things to stay in, and harmful things to be kept out. I always search the pages of my Bible for the right word. And, as much as the word has to stand alone, it also has to stand beside. For each word that is added joins the word(s) that came before and as such must find its place upon, beside, and even within its predecessors.
As December arrives, I ask God to reveal the word He has for me for the upcoming year. Then, as I read through the pages of Scripture, I keep my eyes attentive and my ears attuned for the revelation of the word, of my word. Two years ago, my word was therefore. It pushed me to be…to do. It is the ultimate combination of “cause and effect”: because of this…now do that. Last year, my word was sanctify. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary gives this definition, “To sanctify someone or something is to set that person or thing apart for the use intended by it designer. A human being is sanctified, therefore, when he or she lives according to God’s design and purpose.” It was the perfect word for 2015 and it beautifully complemented its predecessor: therefore…sanctify. This year, my word is whatever. I know…I had the same reaction when it was given to me. Whatever? Really? But I could not deny that it came from God so I had to accept it. Then, when I looked further into the occurrence of the word (did you know it appears 173 times in Scripture?), and the meaning of the word (did you know it means complete surrender?), and the use of the word (Phil. 4:8 having the highest concentration of whatevers, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure…meditate on these things.”), I realized this word is both powerful and permeable. It is “word of the year” worthy!
Having had my newest word delivered, I wrote it out alongside my previous words: therefore, sanctify, whatever. Then, I wrote the words as I saw them in my mind, in ascending order.
And that’s when I thought about the psalms of ascent. I quickly went to that collection (Psalm 120-134) and read over them. These were the songs that the Israelites sang when they made their pilgrimage up to Jerusalem three times a year. I thought about their pilgrimages from the homes where they resided to the temple where God abided and I saw the parallel. We too are on a pilgrimage from our earthly homes to our heavenly home; every day that we live is a step away from the temporary and a step toward the eternal. Our life is a pilgrimage and as we journey we sing. Just like the Israelites, we sing of our deliverance and of God’s defense; we sing of our fear and of God’s faithfulness; we sing of our restlessness and of God’s redemption. And as we sing, we climb; ever higher, ever steeper, ever nearer to our ultimate high place and to our ultimate High Priest.
As I looked back over the psalms, I read their subtitles and above each one this was written: A Song of Ascents. Every time, every one, all fifteen: A Song of Ascents. That is when I took notice…because the teacher in me didn’t want to say it that way. It should be the Songs of Ascent or, when referring to only one, A Song of Ascent. And yet there it was, defiantly staring back at me. How could this wording hold true as I knew it had to; there are no errors in the Bible? How could a single song be one of plural ascents? How could one song be cyclical, spiraling, ascending? How could it be fluid, as if it was moving from within to without…from covered to uncovered…how could…oh! Oh! Of course it could! Of course it does, just as God’s greatest commandment is cyclical, and spiraling, and ascending: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) God’s life verse to the nation of Israel, Jesus’ life verse to His followers, and our song of ascents that we sing on our pilgrimage to His throne!
If we do nothing else, we are to heed this verse. (Well, this one and the one that follows it in which Jesus says we are also to love our neighbors as ourselves!) It starts with a softening of the heart, where our desires lie; it moves to a swaddling of the soul, where God wraps His desires around our own; it rises to a submission in our mind where God’s desires override our own; and it is activated through our strength as our actions are the evidence of our surrender to God’s desires. It’s a song, but not of one ascent but of continuing ascents. It’s a life lived in constant movement, not just outwardly but inwardly; it’s a pilgrimage in the heart, soul, mind, and strength of the believer. How beautiful. How grammatically incorrect and how theologically perfect!
And so as a new year begins, our pilgrimage…our life of ascents…continues. And isn’t that how it should be? Isn’t that how we should look at life? If our spiritual muscles aren’t burning, we’re not climbing or gaining ground. If we’re not out of breath, then why are we breathing at all? If our destination is to be with God, shouldn’t we always be ascending? We look for easy trails and flat lands, but they only take us farther and not higher. We should never want our path to become more leveled out but steeper with each passing year, for the steeper the climb, the nearer we are to the summit.
So, here’s to another year of climbing. Here’s to worn out shoes, aching calves, scraped knees, outstretched arms, and uplifted palms. Here’s to resting in the shade and enjoying fruits along the way. Here’s to sights we’ve never seen and rushing waters we’ve never crossed. Here’s to whatever: whatever God asks, whatever God assigns; whatever God wills, whatever God wants; whatever God gives, whatever God takes. Here’s to a whatever kind of life, for a whatever kind of Savior who, despite whatever I’ve done and in spite of whatever I’ve not done, did whatever it took (death on a cross) that I might have whatever God has stored up for me in heaven. And so I climb, and so I ascend; and as I go I sing my song of ascents…“Therefore, oh LORD, sanctify, Jehovah, whatever…”