Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Unto the Hills

When I was a college freshman in the 1970s, I taped a religious poster on my dorm room wall. I must’ve purchased it at our local Christian bookstore. The poster became torn and beat-up from being removed, rolled-up, and transported during moves from dorm rooms to my home, so I didn’t keep the poster more than a few years. But I remember that it depicted a white country church against a green, timbered hill and the caption read, “I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.”

The poster gave me comfort. The scene was pretty and also gave me a peaceful sense of my rural home places in southern Illinois, although the poster was surely intended as a generic place. Not only the peaceful-looking church but also the hills in the distance: because we perceive distant things as smaller and paler, they are visible but not present; we must travel to them to perceive them in a more accurate way.

A friend more knowledgeable in scriptures than I thought the poster was theologically incorrect! The caption lacked the question mark after “help,” so the help seems to come from the hills—from the peace and beauty of nature—rather than from the Lord, who made not only the hills but heaven and earth.

A fine distinction, I suppose, since the poster did include a church and not simply a view of landscape. But even a landscape would not be a farfetched way of symbolizing, if not God, then our longing for God, our longing for a location where we feel close to God. A country church captures a sense of nostalgia: perhaps, when times were simpler, we felt more close to God than before. Similarly a country scene (and I’ve seen other devotional wall hangings and plaques captioned with Psalm 121:1). Here is a place of peace, where the pace of life seems less hurried than our own. A rural road, a field, a barn; a bright sky with peaceful clouds, and hills.

But maybe I’m being too sentimental. Any kind of place may fill us with a sense of peace, but the important thing is to have the peace of knowing God, which includes but transcends beloved places.

Years ago, someone pointed out to me that the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner--the one we always sing--ends with a question mark: the poet does not yet know if the battle is over and the American flag is safe! We stop singing before we know (from the poem's standpoint) the important news. Similarly Psalm 121:1: if you end the poem there, you don’t yet know if help will come. But the next line (partially quoted in the Apostle’s Creed) answers: “My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.”

The psalm affirms God’s protection:
God guides our steps, morally and spiritually, but also through power and attention.
God never sleeps. Some people like to think of God‘s angels watching over us.
God’s constant vigilance is proved by his protection of his people, Israel.

What is the image, “He will not let your foot be moved”? The psalmist is on a journey toward Jerusalem, but more generally, the psalmist is on a journey from a lower place to a higher place. Have you ever walked on a hillside where the footing is precarious? Or have you driven along a mountain road where you wish the guardrail were a little more safe looking? (I always think of Route 89A north of Prescott, AZ.) What a great image of God’s protection: God is like a mountain traveler who knows where the hazardous places are.

The psalmist promises that the Lord protects us from hazards associated with both the day and the night, and all our comings and goings. If God is like a mountain guide, then we can trust that God is not aloof and far-removed from human circumstances but rather is close by.

Perhaps the hardest part of the psalm is the affirmation that God protects us from all evil. All evil? Plenty of wonderful people suffer at the hands of evil people and circumstances.

A good connection-verse is Col. 3:3: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” From an everyday aspects we may have as many problems and terrible situations as anyone else, but God’s power surrounds us so that God rescues us from the ultimate power of sin and death. Compare that promise to the lovely repetition in the psalm's verses: keep, keep, keep, keep. God keeps us not only in the sense of protection but of ownership: he's not going to give us up!

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