Standing Within the Gates
I love that scene in the old Cecille B. Demille movie, The Ten Commandments, in which the Israelites are leaving Egypt: hundreds of people streaming out of captivity and heading into the wilderness where they will learn how to be a free people.
A few hundred years after the Israelites left Egypt, King Solomon used the resources collected by King David to build a temple to replace the tabernacle made by those escaping Israelites. For about 400 years, pilgrims would gather for an annual pilgrimage to Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.
Along the way, and probably over the years, the Israelites sang and collected a number of hymns that expressed their aspirations and beliefs, and they would sing them as they ascended the paths to Jerusalem, which was located at the highest point in the region. Because of this physical and spiritual climb, the songs came to be called The Songs of Ascent and they were collected in the Jewish hymn book that we call The Book of Psalms. They were placed right after the long meditation on the glories of the law of God (119/120) and we know them today as Psalms 120-133 (or 121-134).
Other than perhaps I Kings 8, where Solomon dedicates the Temple to God through prayer, worship, and sacrifice, there is probably no more concise summary of the spiritual life to be found in the Old Testament.
The first words of the first Song of Ascents, recited by pilgrims as they set out on their journey were these (KJV), no doubt chanted antiphonally (one person or group says the first line and a second says the second):
In my distress I called to the Lord
And he answered me.
The next begins,
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
From whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD...
My favorite Song of Ascent is the third (Psalm 122/123), which opens with these soul-lifting thoughts:
I was glad when they said unto me,
Let us go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
They draw me upward because I have been reflecting on the story in Acts 3 where Peter and John, shortly after the Resurrection of our Lord and perhaps only days or weeks after Pentecost, go up to the temple to pray.
It was about three in the afternoon, the time when our Lord "gave up His spirit" a few weeks earlier, and the world was in the early days of being recreated. The story is in Acts 3, where we read:
And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple.
We learn later that this man was in his forties and that he was well known to people who went regularly to the temple. He was, we might say, a regular. But he could not go in.
They, whoever they were, laid him at the Beautiful Gate every day. Who are they? For how long had they been doing this? It doesn't say. Perhaps 20 years. Perhaps they were friends. Perhaps family. Perhaps they had a plan for who would carry him each day. We can't know. But every day he was laid at the Beautiful Gate where he would beg alms.
How often, I wonder, did they come to get him in the morning and say, "Come on, let's go up to the house of the Lord,"? That morning, if they said it, was he glad?
Luke tells the story with great care, highlighting elements that show us how the hand of God works through His faithful people. When he sees Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asks alms of them.
And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, "Look at us." So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them.
How often had anybody fixed his eyes on this man? For how many was he simply an embarrassment, one of whom most of us perhaps would say, "I thank you, God, that I am not like him"?
Peter fixed his eyes on him and in that action a great deal always happens. Who knows all the ideas that might have passed through the great Apostle's mind? Certainly we can be sure that he noticed him, perhaps in a way that this man had not been noticed in a very long time. I find it fascinating to watch people's eyes when they speak with or meet others. Frequently, they dart around, not knowing precisely what to look at, trying to establish the sort of relationship potential or aspiration that can be found in the other.
Peter fixed his eyes on him. For how long? Long enough that the lame man could look away, for Peter said to him, "Look at us."
I can't help but think about this encounter through the eyes of a teacher and a parent. Before he said, "Look at us," he fixed his own eyes on him. This is our duty. We have no real right to ask anybody to look at us if we are not looking at them. If we can't see the student because we are repulsed by his flaws or because we are distracted by curriculum demands, assessment, comparisons, job security, or any other anxiety, we have no right to ask him to look past our flaws or their own distractions, which are every bit as legitimate as our own.
Godly teaching must begin with the teacher fixing his or her own eyes on the student. Then, and only then, can we justly say, "Look at us."
Consider the consequence: "So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them."
We are about to find out that he didn't expect to receive what they gave him. Probably, in fact, their first words offended or discouraged him. He knew what he was there for. He was in distress. He needed a few shillings to get through the day. That was what he expected.
So he gave them his attention.
But Peter said...
Do note the conjunction.
But Peter said, "Silver and gold have I none..."
An awful lot passes through the mind and soul of a human being in the instants that carry words to us. It's hard to imagine that in this moment this lame man's soul didn't sink and perhaps, depending on how depressed he had become, that he didn't become angry, if only in that instant.
Silver and gold have I none.
But such as I have, give I to thee. In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.
Only a lame person would find these words interesting. But a lame person would find them interesting indeed.
"In my distress I called unto the Lord," were the first words of the songs of ascent. He who is not in distress will not cry out and will not care about walking. He'll just want silver and gold.
The school that is driven by the siren song of the market, the family that fears for what the child will eat and wear in the coming years, the teacher that thinks that he is preparing his students to make silver and gold - all might mean well, but all are failing to fix their eyes on this lame man who sits every day at the Beautiful Gate.
We are an anxious people, but we fail to realize our distress. Rather than rise up and walk, we continue to beg for alms. May God give us the grace to fix our eyes upon ourselves, so that we will cry out to the Lord in our self-perpetuating distress.
But here is something fascinating, because Luke keeps telling the story. He says:
And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up.
I wonder if you have ever lifted a lame person. One thing you notice: though they might want to help, they can't. It's heavy and awkward. It's work. But Peter did it.
And immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. So he, leaping up, stood and walked...
I wonder if this is the source of the proverb that tells us to "walk on our own two feet." Prior to this moment, this lame man was a slave. He could get around only when others carried him and he could go only as far as they were willing to take him. Now he was a free person. He could go where he chose to go and do what he chose to do.
It is not even a slight stretch to say that this is the goal of a Christian education. Not to think what others tell you to think and do what others tell you to do, but to be a free person, able to walk on your own two feet. As Dante's Vergil said to Dante's Dante when the pilgrim had ascended the seven circles and stood on the threshold of paradise:
I now crown and mitre you
Lord of yourself
Here in this story is the whole process of a liberating education and of a liberating lesson:
- The teacher, filled with the Holy Spirit, is going up to the temple to pray (as we must always be doing)
- Seeing the lame, he fixes his gaze on him - he gives him his full attention from nothing other than the love of God
- Then, he asks for the students attention, having first given his own and also having established a just expectation that it will be worth giving
- He looks past what the student thinks he needs, which we cannot give anyway, and offers something much better in the name of Jesus Christ: the ability to walk
- He takes on the burden of lifting the student
- He trusts the resurrected Lord Jesus to do the miracle of healing
Because he will, you know. If we can remember that Christ really is risen from the dead, we might be able to believe that He can raise us too.
If we don't see education as embodied in this experience, if the context of our teaching is not this resurrection power, if we are educating so our students can collect silver and gold and not so that they can rise up and walk, then whatever name we claim to be teaching in, it is not the name of Jesus Christ.
So he, leaping up, stood and walked, and [don't miss this!!!] entered the temple.
Do you understand that he had been sitting at the gate called Beautiful day after day after day, but had never been able to enter the temple?
Do you understand that you and that child you are teaching are the temple of the living God, the throne room of the resurrected Christ? Go up to that temple to pray. When you get there, look at the beautiful gate. See if there is somebody there crying out to the Lord in his distress. If there is, don't just give him alms, give him the resurrected Christ.
What do you think it meant to that formerly lame man when the Psalms were chanted and he heard the last of the songs of ascent:
Behold, bless the Lord, All you servants of the Lord
Who stand by night in the house of the Lord
Lift up your hands to the sanctuary,
And bless the Lord.
May the Lord bless you from Zion (ie from His temple)
He who made heaven and earth
Is this not the fulfillment of all our pilgrimages and the satisfaction of all our desires? No wonder he walked, and leapt, and praised God.
I am that beggar. Will you pray for me?
by Jessica Hooten Wilson
by Lindsey Brigham Knott
by Joshua Gibbs
by Cheryl Swope