Eighteen years ago, an event was on the horizon. Something longed for with eagerness; the source of tears of joy and expectancy as- Michael and I learned we were expecting our first child-an answer to prayer; the long awaited moment for our parents- the first grandchild. As months passed you can probably imagine the energy invested preparing for "the Big Event." I just couldn't wait for "it" to happen, for the promise to be fulfilled. When the first contractions started, like every other first- timer, I reminded myself NOT to go the hospital at the first twinge, but to visualize the culmination of events. The waiting was almost unbearable.
Hours later we actually arrived at the hospital. The twinges weren't so slight anymore. In the midst of the pain the promise seemed more elusive than ever. It wasn't fun, it was burdensome. Talk of neatly arranged outfits and color coordinated nursery was replaced by thoughts that I would never survive the excruciating pain, and the sincere belief I was about to throw up. The reality of this time was more struggle than I bargained for. It was neither glamorous nor instantaneous. I tried looking back on the joy. I tried to see forward to the fulfillment. It was harder and harder to remember that the question was not "IF" I would have a baby, but "WHEN" - stuck in the weariness of "How long?" I guess that's why it is called "labor." We came to see that the announcement and the delivery are part of something more. Raising children brings joy and labor, weeping and rejoicing, energy and weariness in something much bigger and longer- Catherine's birth was not only an event but part of a pilgrimage- a journey that would change me forever and continues to do so.
After delivering a baby one breathes a sigh of relief, placing the labor pain into distant recesses of the mind, replacing it with that harvest of joy. Until the next moment of labor, or when another fellow laborer has a story to share that reconnects that part of us. It's perhaps a universal human quality that in recalling historical journeys, we minimize the reality of the process. The farther away we move from events in time, the more likely we are to focus only on the bright line events, setting aside all of the tension or the wrestling that accompanied its emergence. This is part of the same sentiment of the people of Israel, who've been brought back from the exile in Babylon.
Though the opening of the psalm is a rejoicing for past action of God, this is not a song of "mission accomplished." There has been laughter and joy, but one can believe that the wonderment of "pinch me I must be dreaming" was the announcement of what is not yet a done deal. To read otherwise would belie the reality of what we hear from Ezra and Nehemiah. The Israelites have been brought by God's activity out of exile to be restored, but they don't immediately experience the expected or hoped for. "Restoration" turns out to be a work in progress. The "pardon our mess under construction" sign is still there. Fields are in ruin, buildings toppled, and not a thing is growing in the parched, scarred and seemingly barren land. Work on the city and the relationship is incomplete. How can we sing this song of celebratory joy in the midst of the bleakness of the situation on the ground?
After praising God's great things, the song shifts to "Restore our fortunes, Lord." "Do it again"- Not words of triumph, but of a hopeful community in distress-seeking God's continued action to end the crying and bring forth the joy. The Israelites call to God to restore again- not simply the physical place of Jerusalem, but to restore Zion. Zion represented that longed for place- that city on the hill-the perfect place where their God dwelled with them. "Zion" symbolizes not just a place but a sense of cosmic perfection- that "all is right with the world." Longing for Zion had sustained them in exile, like the photograph of a lover kept close by. Longing for Zion allows the people to forget a lot of the in-between moments.
The rebuilding of Zion has begun for which one can rejoice! But ultimately, rebuilding Zion is about more than replacing a few stones and plowing a few fields. Restoration is assured, but it's hardly an overnight project, but a process with a completion date far into the future-an ongoing pilgrimage in hope.
I suggest we contemplate being on that pilgrimage, individually and collectively. With a much longer timeline than we would prefer or can even perhaps grasp, living between moments of God acting and the completion of the fullness of it all, somewhere after the hope of beginning, laboring toward a point seemingly beyond our horizon. "Bring back the golden days" we may say as perhaps we too long for this and search the spectrum of time for THE MOMENT when it all seemed perfect- in our lives, our church, or our world. Where is our Zion? While I'm not suggesting we wallow in negativity, I suggest that when we entirely collapse our history into only bright and happy moments, we create disillusionment over our memory of "what was" and impatience that can erode faith in the present and for the future.
Even within Lutheran history, as we approach Reformation Sunday, perhaps it's easy to forget that the nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg was not in itself an all-encompassing and completed life-altering event. The genesis of the Lutheran Church was not an overnight creation. We wax eloquently and exuberantly about the Reformation, but overlook the chaos and even violence that occurred as changes took shape.
In truth, over many hundreds of years there was and is an ongoing ripple of living into reform in the church. Not so violent these days, but also not finished- more pilgrimage than destination. Perhaps the Presbyterian Church rightly proclaims "the church reformed, always reforming." Somewhere every day, someone is crying out to God in response to something. Maybe sometimes it is us crying out.
So how can this Psalm sustain our modern day journey? In practice, Psalm 126 was gathered up in a collection of psalms called the "Songs of Ascent"-songs for the faithful to inspire them during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as they ascended to THE sacred place where God dwelled and had been experienced. Pilgrims to Jerusalem in particular, then and now, find a fundamentally life-altering experience, occurring in the midst of a city that's not at all a testament to "all is right with the world." Considered sacred by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it's a city none have been able to claim to "complete" their vision, yet people experience profound reconnecting with God in the midst of such unresolved circumstances.
As we contemplate our own ongoing pilgrimages as people restored by God, living in the "under construction" and in-between time, we experience journeys that take us away from our daily lives, into new places with new perspectives, with chance for renewal and discerning the deeper sense of the sacred in everyday life. Moments where we find ourselves, somewhere past leaving the bon voyage and the edge of town wishes, in the middle of the long time of travel. Uncertainty and challenge await, perseverance is tested. The journey seems an endless time of laboring, weariness and trying to hold on to the vision. We encounter others who challenge our world. We discover what binds us together. We're changed not only by the destination, but the process. Perhaps we begin to not simply wish for that golden moment, but instead see that the good was and is present in the midst of what seems like weariness and labor, mixed with our hope.
Our living is a time of constant restoration, but God's faithfulness allows us to living in hope that the question is not IF but WHEN. This hope sustains our labor and rebuilding -within our world and its cries for justice, peace and sharing the harvest. This hope sustains our own inner seeking of deeper relationship with God- places where we seek restoration for our hurts, injustices, ailments, fears and struggles. And in hope, while we seek, we plant seeds, even when we too experience, literally or figuratively, what it means to plant seeds watered only by own tears, wondering if God can bring any good from it.
We plant seeds in hope because God is in the restoration business, from the time of ancient stories of Sarah and Abraham, Joseph and his family, the Exodus people to the greatest restoration story- of the God of the resurrection. The story of the ancient pilgrims is ours as our hope springs from a God who speaks abundance out of that nothingness. We experience the modern day gushing springs of the Negev, where though it is an arid desert that floods only occasionally, when it does, the rains bring life and seem to defy nature. Reaping with joy and surprise comes to pass. Though the waters will dry up again until the next time, there will BE the next not-so-predictable time. We know it will happen even though we don't know when. We can wait expectantly.
By putting history in its proper perspective, we can more fully appreciate the joy of those springs, and can begin to imagine the holy not just in one perfectly special sacred space, or moment, but in the many small sacred moments of life, little restorations interspersed on the pilgrimage alongside those dry spells. We can see our pilgrimage, like others is not just about the destination, but a journey that starts long before and continues long after any single event seems reached. Events, anecdotes, conversations, people and places on the way become new sources of insight, wisdom and ongoing transformation. Our eyes can no longer see the world in the same way, instead connected to a deeper truth and yearning. And in that space, fellow pilgrims, may we join in singing of the hoped for, not as a question of "if" but as a proclamation of eager expectation that the Lord who has done great things has forever altered not just us, but our future.