I love the mountains. Some of the richest experiences in my life have taken place in the mountains: as a young boy our family sometimes took trips to the Smokies and my imagination was filled with the possibility of bears...some of my most important Christian experiences as a teenager were in summer camps in the western North Carolina mountains.
I was ordained at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, near Asheville; our older daughter Elizabeth was baptized in the Memorial Chapel there. I think about vacations, going down Sliding Rock, standing on the top of Mount Mitchell, the fall colors, hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail, renovating our cabin. It's easy for me to gaze at the mountains and see God's strength and majesty.
But when the Israelites looked at the mountains, they saw something different, as Eugene Peterson notes in his classic A Long Obedience In The Same Direction. Much of the pagan worship in ancient Palestine took place on hilltops: spells, enchantments, fertility cults, priests to the moon and the sun. Folks went to the mountains to feel better, to solve life's problems, to flee from evil. Call it the ancient self-help movement. Call it the "old time religion".
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From where will my help come?" This is a good question, perhaps it is the question. Someone has observed that we should leave room for a significant pause between the first and second verses of this psalm. Most of us live much of our lives in this silence between these two sentences. Most of us are asking the question: where is the source of help? Then the psalmist answers his own question: "My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
This psalm was a part of a small hymnal loved by pilgrims, known as the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134. Many of us have a hymnal within a hymnal, the songs we are moved to sing, and the Songs of Ascent spoke to these pilgrims who were searching, yearning for more. I think of the Bidding Prayer in the Service of Lessons and Carols, where we speak of those we love "who stand on a distant shore and in a greater light."
These ancient pilgrims had it right: there had to be more. The best way to find what they were looking for was to get moving. They would sing these psalms as they undertook the journey. I think pilgrimage is easy for us to grasp. We all feel like we're on the way to something.
We're about to get married, or we're about to get that job, or we're about to have a child, or our child is about to start school, or go off to college, or leave home; we're about to retire; we lived there a few years ago, now we're here, in a few years we'll be somewhere else, nothing is a constant.
We are pilgrims, we're on a journey. And when you're on a journey, life can be difficult, even treacherous. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Frodo, "It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." The journey can be treacherous.
Along the way we stumble, we get burned, we go a little crazy. If we're going to make the journey, Psalm 121 insists, we're going to need some help. Now you would think help would be a simple subject. But it's not. I once served on the board of a non-profit organization, and at our annual meeting I listened to the leader of an organization of which I was a part. The leader, at one moment, would say "help, help". Then she would say, in the next breath, "back off, leave me alone, I can do this". Help, back off. Help, leave me alone. Help. Stay away.
But as I share this I know there is some of that in me. Maybe you've been there, too. Most of us need some kind of help. But we also want to give the appearance that we have it all together. We pretend. And yet, our help, the psalm teaches us, comes from God.
There is a wonderful image for this in the Psalm. The one who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. God is engaged with all of life, God is paying attention . The one who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
Years ago I participated in a retreat with a very diverse group of clergy, men and women, black and white, liberals and conservatives. Among the group was a female pastor who had grown up in a very evangelical, almost fundamentalist background. Nothing in her tradition told her that it was okay to be a pastor, as a woman, and yet the Holy Spirit had overcome the rigidity of her community. Such is the power and mercy of God. Sometimes God even overcomes our own inflexibility!
We were reflecting on our spiritual journeys and she shared this experience. She said, "I had just given birth to our first child, a daughter. It was the middle of the night, and I was exhausted. But she would not go to sleep. And so I took her into the den and began to rock her. She grew calm, but in the quietness of the room I could also hear, from the nearby bedroom, the sound of my husband, snoring.
"And for some reason a verse of scripture came to mind: the One who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. I began to imagine that God had to be more than just male. This was very much opposed to what I had always been taught. And yet, in the moment, I wondered: what was God really like?" God watches over us, God helps us, all along the journey.
In the history of the Lutheran Church this psalm was read as the parents brought a child to the font for baptism: "The Lord preserve your coming in and your going out, from this time forth and forever more". This is a psalm that is often read at memorial services, chosen by the family. Six times in this psalm we are reminded that the Lord is our keeper. God watches over us, from the cradle to the grave, from the infant who is held in her mother's arms to the beloved who is placed into a casket or columbarium urn.
This psalm is deeply rooted in the orthodox belief of the church-the One who makes us also watches over us, it bears witness to the creation and providence of God. And yet it has always been true that our believing is linked to our praying. With pilgrims across thousands of years we ask the question: I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come?
And if we listen, we sense a response: Our God is as strong as the mountains and as gentle as a mother who holds us close in the middle of the night, always with us, every step of the way, keeping our feet from stumbling, One who neither slumbers nor sleeps, who watches our coming and our going, from this time forth, and for ever, our "help in ages past, our hope for years to come."