By Lynn Gill

Reflections from the Journey: A Model from the Psalms of Ascents

When I began thinking about the journey God has brought me on over the last twenty years, I was drawn to the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134).  Pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles likely sang these fifteen Psalms. 

Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine, so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. We know Jesus traveled with his family to Jerusalem for the feasts from an early age. The ascents for the pilgrim were not only literal but also a metaphor for life, life lived upward toward God—advancing from one level of maturity to another.

Eugene Peterson in his book on discipleship based on the Psalms of Ascents, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, writes:

One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once.  We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials.

In my own life and ministry over the last twenty years I see how change comes not with a quick fix but with small daily choices to follow Jesus.  We do not become more compassionate, kind, or patient by getting up one morning and declaring, “Today I will become more compassionate, kind and patient.” Instead it is seeking to walk faithfully on a daily journey with Jesus.

The Psalms of Ascents provide a necessary antidote by directing people of faith to remember who we are and where we are going.

Beginning the journey

Psalm 120.1-2

I call on the Lord in my distress,
    and he answers me.
Save me, Lord,
    from lying lips
    and from deceitful tongues.

The Psalms of Ascents begins with a pilgrim crying out to the Lord from his or her distress.

The journey begins with a choice.  Who will I listen to?  Who will I follow? Just as these pilgrims did not make the journey to Jerusalem only once, we too must come back to these questions:  Who will I listen to?  Who will I follow? Who will I cry out to in my distress?

My calling to mission began at Urbana ’93. I did not know what following this calling would look like. I did not know what sacrifices would be required. I did not know who would join me on the journey.  But I did know whom it was I wanted to follow.

I also had a clear sense that I was not to leave graduate school to join InterVarsity staff at that time.  I was in my first year of my PhD program in analytical chemistry.  This was not going to be a typical route for preparing to be a campus minister. While I would have preferred the big picture, God gave me the next step.

Questions for reflection:

  • Who do you call when you are in distress? 
  • Who do you find yourself listening to?
  • How do you listen?
  • Who do you follow?

Daily meetings with God

Psalm 121.1-3

I lift up my eyes to the mountains —
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip —
      he who watches over you will not slumber . . .

In Psalm 121 the Pilgrim has begun the journey. You can picture the pilgrim looking up at the mountains putting one foot in front of the other on the rocky path.

This pilgrim is reminding herself along the journey that while the journey may be long, difficult, or potentially dangerous, her help comes from the Lord, the same Lord who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

Daily as pilgrims we are called to remember where our help comes from. We do this by meeting God through scripture and prayer.  It is through spending time in God’s presence meditating on his word, his character and his mission that we are changed, little by little.

This daily meeting with God has had to look different for me at different points of the journey.  As a single graduate student and as a married staff with a husband in graduate school I could spend an hour or more each morning soaking in scripture and praying.

As a mother of a two-year-old and newborn infant it was often singing a hymn while nursing in the early morning hours before the sun came up or a quick prayer as I cooked dinner, changed a diaper, or fell exhausted into bed at the end of the day.  At the time I felt very guilty that this was all I had to give God.  I wanted those longer and what I thought were richer times.  But I now realize our God, who is a God of grace, was at work transforming me as much in the short times as the longer times. At each new stage I have to find a new spiritual rhythm for meeting God daily.

Questions for reflection:

  • Where do you look for help?
  • How has God met you in scripture or in prayer?
  • How do you make time to meet with God?
  • How has that changed at different times in your life?

Corporate worship

Psalm 122.1, 4

I rejoiced with those who said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord . . .”
That is where the tribes go up —
    the tribes of the Lord —
to praise the name of the Lord
    according to the statute given to Israel.

Worship gives us a workable structure for life.  Worship takes our eyes off ourselves and places them rightly on God.  Worship is something we are commanded to do. Along the way I needed to learn that worship is not something I do when I “feel like it” but instead is something I do as a follower of Jesus.

As Eugene Peterson states, "Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship."

What I have experienced is that even when I don’t “feel” like showing up, God is faithful in meeting me when I join others in corporate worship. As is stated by the pilgrim in verse 1, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”  Sometimes it takes our fellow pilgrims on the journey to encourage us to go and worship at the house of the Lord.

Questions for reflection:

  • How might worship give you a structure for life?
  • How have you been encouraged by corporate worship?
  • What place does worship have in your life?

Retreats to refocus  

Psalm 123.1-2

I lift up my eyes to you,
  to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.

Focusing our eyes on God in worship is a prerequisite for the call to service we see in the next Psalm.  In Psalm 123 we are called to serve God as “slaves who serve their master.”  When I seek to serve God, and God alone, then I find peace. 

If instead I try to serve or please others or serve or please an organization, then I easily become anxious, bitter, or resentful.  I focus on what I don’t have rather than on the enormity of what I do have.  I compare myself to others rather than being content with whom God created and called me to be.

I have found that to serve God alone I must take extended times away to refocus my heart, soul, thoughts, and actions on Christ.  In a particularly difficult time in ministry it meant getting on a plane or two and flying from Albuquerque to Boston to join others in an extended guided retreat. 

God would speak powerfully through his word and his people giving the strength and encouragement I needed to continue on the journey.  These retreats came at a high cost:  two long days of travel, two small children who had to be left at home to be cared for by others.  But I was able to return to the desert both literally and figuratively refreshed by living water.

These retreats and the spiritual formation retreats that I participated in later continually refocused my eyes, hands, and heart on the Lord. 

Questions for reflection:

  • When have you needed to refocus on God?
  • What has been your experience with retreat?
  • What would it take for you to spend time in retreat?

Building ministry

Psalm 127.1-2

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat —
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

After extended time with the Lord, it was no longer about what I accomplish but instead what the Lord wanted to do through me.  It was not about the results or the numbers but it was about me recognizing who was building the ministry. 

My first two years as an area director I helped more staff to leave then I hired.  Again, not necessarily how I expected the journey to go. Of course if I had known how this particular part the journey would go I might have had to spend three days in the belly of a whale to get me there. And whales are hard to come by in New Mexico. Daily I had to release my plans and trust in God’s plan.  Daily I had to seek strength from God to have the difficult conversations that were necessary to hold staff accountable to their call. 

To summarize, the disciplines that continue to help me the most on the journey to serve God alone in mission are daily meeting God, corporate worship, and retreats of silence. From these disciplines God has provided fruit in the forms of friendship, joy, and a calm and quiet presence.

Questions for reflection:

  • Where have you seen God change your ministry or work in ways you did not expect?
  • Where have you had to rely on God for your ministry or work needs?
  • What disciplines have been critical for you on your journey?

The gift of community

Psalm 124.1-5, 8

If the Lord had not been on our side —
    let Israel say —
if the Lord had not been on our side
    when people attacked us,
they would have swallowed us alive
    when their anger flared against us;
the flood would have engulfed us,
    the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters
    would have swept us away . . . .
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

It is through the trials that I saw some of the greatest fruit developed in the form of friendships with fellow pilgrims on the journey.  God does not make us walk alone and one of the greats gifts of journey that I am most grateful for are the colleagues in ministry.  When we are open with one another about our trials, fears, and struggles we can carry one another’s burdens to the Lord in prayer.  I know there is currently a growing ministry to graduate students and faculty in the west because of colleagues from around the country who lifted our region up in prayer.  I know I am still on this journey because of fellow pilgrims who have lifted me up in prayer when I thought the road was too difficult to continue.   I count it a privilege to have prayed with others when their path was difficult.

In Psalm 124 we are reminded where our help comes from.  It is clear that our help is from the Lord but looking at the pronouns what strikes me is how they are all plural. It is not only the individual that God meets, but the community. 

Questions for reflection:

  • Where has God given you community to share in your journey?
  • Where have colleagues, friends, or family shared your burdens?
  • What could you ask your community to help you with on your journey?
  • Where have you been able to support another person’s journey?

The fruit of joy

Psalm 126.1-3

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
    Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

As a community, we are called to share one another’s burdens. As a community we find our strength in the Lord.  In community as well as individually we also experience another fruit of the journey: Joy.

How often do we take time to laugh or sing songs of joy?  For myself it is not often enough.  It is easier to focus on what is difficult or hard rather than what is really good. It is easier to focus on what isn’t than what is.  But when I take time to stop and give thanks I realize how much God has given me and I am filled with joy.  There is joy in seeing new ministries, new staff being hired and funded so they might serve him, students and faculty using their gifts for the kingdom, individuals transformed as they come to know Jesus for the first time or as they make greater sacrifices to follow him, God providing year after year through ministry partners, and new friendships developed and old friendships growing deeper.

It is also in the little things that, when we stop to notice, there is joy: a beautiful sunset, a smile, a shared meal.

With each of these there are names, places, and stories too long to share. But when I take time to stop and remember, there is joy.  I am still a work in progress but looking back I am quicker now then I was 20 years ago to recognize God’s grace in the big and little things around me.

Giving thanks in community helps us to share this joy with others.  It helps us to realize how much God is doing.  It can also help us to give thanks when we are having a hard time finding something to give thanks for.

Questions for reflection:

  • Where do you find joy in your ministry?
  • Where do you find joy in other areas of your life?
  • Where could you give thanks for God’s work in your life?

A humble trust 

Psalm 131.1-3

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

Finally, following God in mission is developing in me a humble trust in God in all things.  I no longer desire the 25-year-plan but can be satisfied with knowing the next step.

When I feel myself drifting from the calm and quiet self to the grasping, anxious, unsettled self, I return to scripture, prayer, worship, and extended times of silence in God’s presence to refocus my eyes on him and his ways.

Recently there was a week that felt overwhelming in the amount that needed to be done. Partially out of desperation and partially out of prompting of the Holy Spirit I spent the first two hours on Monday morning in prayer.  God used this time to refocus my eyes on him and at the end of the week when some things were not done, I had this overwhelming peace that the things that had to get done that week had been accomplished and some of them in miraculous ways that only God could do and the things left undone could wait for another week.

Questions for reflection:

  • Where do I need to let go and trust God for results?
  • Where am I anxious?
  • Where do I need to turn from anxiety to trust in God?
  • Where have I seen God meet needs I could not?
  • How might I live with more trust?

A call to worship

The Psalms of Ascents end with a call to worship and I close with it now:

Psalm 134.1-3

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
    who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
    and praise the Lord.
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
    he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

Questions for reflection:

  • Looking back over my life, what do I praise God for?
  • Where might I continue to seek God’s blessing?
About the Author

Lynn Gill completed her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at Purdue University. She worked in the pharmaceutical industry before joining InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries in 1999. Since then she has been planting and building graduate student and faculty fellowships first in North Carolina and most recently in southern California and the west. She is currently the Regional Director for the GFM West Region. Lynn lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her husband David, son James, and daughter Julie.

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