As I read the devotion for today in the Catholic guide Living Faith, I saw that one of the lectionary lessons for today is Psalm 121.
A few years ago I found a sweet book at a used book website: Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, written by J. R. Miller and published in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago—my grandparents were young in 1899—and the strength another person derived from these same verses as he read them in a different time.
Miller writes, “Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay in the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.”(4)
He continues, “We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen.”(5) It’s not just unbelievers whom Miller describes, but also people of faith who neglect looking to God, for one reason or another.
“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. Negative people are a drag upon one’s morale. Unfortunately, negative people find kinship with one another, feed each other's negativity, and soon you have a group of negative people who make you depressed! (Fellow Christians can be just as big a drag on your morale as anyone, if they’re negative people, and congregations can be “downer” kinds of places, too. TV and radio commentators most definitely feed people's anger and negativity, as well.)
But looking up in the theological sense means to focus our feelings, plans, opinions, and everyday lives upon God. Remember that famous set of verses in Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). That doesn’t mean we should jump, foolishly and headlong, into a circumstance: insight is one of the precious ways we can discover God’s will (along with prayer, the advice of friends, serendipitous reassurances, and so on). But our insight also does not substitute for God’s all-knowing wisdom! By trusting in and acknowledging God we affirm his overall guidance.
I never look forward to life’s trials, and their prospect worries me. Having an optimistic outlook isn't natural to me because of my tendency to feel anxious and blue about certain things. But I’ve a long series of amazing evidences of God’s guidance in my life to which I can and do look. I can affirm that God has never failed to be with me in every situation and circumstance, even those I can’t understand.
One of the greatest things about “looking up” to God, is that God does not at all rely upon either our attentiveness or faithfulness before doing great things!
Luke 24 illustrates how Jesus takes the initiative even when we’re not in a good spiritual “place”. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. Jesus appeared to them unrecognized and talked with them. They did not even recognize after he talked with them a long time. Finally he became recognizable to them when they shared bread. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” They thought there was no longer reason to look to Jesus. And yet their hearts must’ve been sufficiently open that, when Jesus broke the bread, they suddenly knew the truth.
Isaiah 42:3 reads, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Sometimes the smallest flicker of faith is all we have, but God's goodness and power are already at work on our behalf.