This Is What It Means To Be Israel
Y’all, I’m trying. I really, really am.
I’m trying not to get caught in the vortex swirl of current campaign. I’m trying not to slide over the edge into despair when learning of the latest atrocity taking place somewhere in the world. I’m trying to stay present and focused on the terrible beauty of life that surrounds me everyday instead of choosing to veg out in the distraction of the moment.
So I’m trying to keep my mind focused on what is “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise”; in other words, I am trying to keep my mind centered in the things of God.
The writer makes clear the reason to go to Jerusalem: to “give thanks to the Name of God.”
It ain’t easy. But when has it been? Our minds are prone to wander in good times and bad, times of ease and of affliction — for different reasons and on different levels maybe, but wander nonetheless.
Maybe that is why the psalmist in what we call Psalm 122 is so excited to “go up to Jerusalem.” I mean, the writer is genuinely pumped up. (Read it here if you don’t believe me.) It’s easy to think this is a kind of “night before the big trip to Disney World” excitement. And sure, that might be part of it, but I think there is something else.
Because in the fourth verse, the writer makes clear the reason to go to Jerusalem: to “give thanks to the Name of God.” And in that giving of thanks, the people find the meaning behind their name, the reason they are called what they are called.
Israel, which literally means “He who struggles with God,” was to find their meaning in giving thanks to the name of God. And not in any ol’ generic or gauzy way, but by going to a certain place and singing certain songs and performing certain practices; by ordering their entire life around these things.
I find this oddly encouraging. I think it has much to offer us. It means that I can find my “meaning,” my identity, if not in the exact same practices or location, at least in the same praise, the same heart, the same focus. As Christians we don’t have one temple, but instead become “the temple” whenever and wherever we gather in the name of Jesus. We don’t have a specific city that defines us; instead we have an ancient, present, Kingdom coming that we proclaim wherever we go. All the practices and relationships we commit ourselves to — things big and small, temporary and eternal — offer us a way to focus in this cacophonous world, a way to stay present when tempted by lotus-eaters and fear slinging carnival-barkers.
The struggle is real, y’all. But it lessens its grip just a little even as I write this, as I hum along with the psalmist the praise of the names of God and learn what it means to be “Israel.”
John Ray is a missionary, spiritual director and the elder responsible for teaching at Grace Church of NWA. John and his wife Jane spend way too much time packing and unpacking, vacuuming dog hair and chasing raccoons off their porch. They much prefer sharing good food and good coffee with friends, reading and trying to keep up with their daughters.