God’s hope for creation is Peace, and fear gets in the way of that peace, that shalom, that wholeness. The Psalms help confront the fear that gets in the way of that peace, and helps all best discern the will of God.
This is a Psalm about mountains, and as I was reading this Psalm this week, I was reminded of one of my own moments, deep in the mountains. A few years ago I set out to climb Mt Rainier in Washington State, just outside of Seattle, if anyone has been to Seattle and had the opportunity to look south on a clear day, then the sheer size of Mt Rainier is a familiar idea. So to climb Mt Rainier, it is so big, climbers have to depart for the summit at midnight. The trail the most people take, myself included, is called disappointment cleaver, and before climbers get to the trail’s namesake, climbers must traverse a large glacier and travel below an active ice fall. Now, climbing mt rainier, I had spent a lot of time in mountains, but I had never encountered anything like this. I had been on one glacier, once, and it was a small one, a fraction of the one I was just about to cross on my way to the summit. And I had never encountered an ice fall before. An Ice fall is kind of like it sounds, it is an area where big chunks of ice fall on a regular basis, many of them the size of washing machines. What is so terrifying about coming to the ice fall for the first time, is that climbers approach it in the middle of the night, when it is pitch black, and all a climber can see is the faint outlines of the mountain set against expansive snow fields, the headlamps climbers wear only illuminate a few feet in front, just enough to see the where one places their crampon clad feet. As my climbing partners and I were preparing to cross below the ice fall our esteemed guide, who had crossed this same ice fall countless times, told us that if we heard anything break loose above us, the best thing we could do was to try and spot the chunk of ice with our headlamp and then try to dodge it if it looked like it was coming near us. But it was so dark, the icefall became a enlarged in my imagination, it was a thousand feet tall, with huge chunks of ice and crevases, with car sized chunks of ice and rock ready to break loose and crush the climber below. The darkness and not being able to see the ice fall made it that much scarier. And as we set out, we passed these pillars of ice, that looked like 4 foot tall white mushrooms, products of the combination of the moving ice and the wind that swept the mountain’s slopes. I felt like I was on the moon, and the scale of it, it was huge and I just did my best not to freak out and keep moving, about half way across the ice fall, I did hear a piece of ice break free and start to tumble, and I quickly shot a glance up towards the looming blackness of the ice fall above me, but my weak beam of light couldn’t find the ice, and after a few tense moments, I realized the ice fell landed some distance away, lost to the black of the night. By the time we got across the ice fall, I took a deep breath, and was comforted by the fact that we had made it past the unknown, and by the time we got to the other side, the ice fall, in my mind, had taken on mammoth proportions, and I was just happy to be alive.
This is the kind of fear that mountains bring, there is the fear of slipping or tripping over a cliff or getting caught in a giant storm, but he real fear in mountains is the unknown. When that fear has been experienced, the words of Psalm 121 can be comforting, they offer some solace.
Psalm 121 was written specifically for pilgrims that travelled from the countryside of Israel making their way to the temple in jerusalem. In the gospels, there is the story of Jesus and his family making this same trip, and the young jesus getting lost and being found in the temple. It was expected that all jewish people in those days would make trips to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is surrounded, not by mountains per se, but by hills.
Now, truth be told, the hills that surround Jerusalem, they are nothing like Mt Rainier, they are not covered in glaciers, or capped with snow, or laced with dangerous ice falls. In fact if you look at images of Jerusalem, the hills surrounding Jerusalem are only a few hundred feet tall, and are fairly rolling affairs, think of the hills that stretch out across southern california, or that cover the coasts of the meditrieanian sea. The pilgrims were not confronted with the prospects of falling in glaciers, or getting smashed with rock fall or car sized chunks of ice. But this psalm written for them, still address that unique fear found in mountains, something about the unknown.
For the pilgrims, the fear wasn’t the mountains themselves, but rather what the mountains were hiding. The hills surrounding Jerusalem were not very big, but they held within them many tight and curvy valleys, they had caves and a multitude of shadowy places. In these shadowy places hid many shadowy people. Bandits and theives lined the most popular routes, hiding out in the nooks and crannies of the canyons and behind turns. On top of that, the hills also held wild animals, most notably wolves, who could also take advantage of hiding places to pick off children that might linger at the back of a caravan of pilgrims. These were the very real fears the unknowns of the mountains for the pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem.
Imagine the pilgrims, after days of travel through foriegn lands, and across deserts, the hills around jerusalem finally come into view, my guess would be towards the end of the day, just before setting up camp for the night somewhere. And imagine being a first time pilgrim, and having spent a life hearing about these hills, about how “so and so” was robbed and beaten, about how “who’s her do” lost a child to wolves. There, in the night, on the edge of the hills, the fear starts to set in. The hills, they become twice the size, the bandits become countless, the wolves become roaming packs, existing at every turn, the trail becomes treacherous. The fear takes over, and it becomes paralyzing. What is a pilgrim to do.
I remember as a kid, and going on camping trips, and my first few, the older kids loved to tell scary stories around the campfire. There is something about a campfire, the way it casts shadows, and creates these unseen areas, where after hearing enough scary stories, it feels like there is an ax murderer lurking in every shadow. And I also remember that if enough scary stories were told, somehow, the whole group would manage to break out into song at some point, usually something silly, or something somber, I remember one song in particular, softly falls the night of day as our campfire fades away. And something would always happen when those songs were sung, the fear started to disappear, almost immediately, and by the time it came time to sleep, those dark shadows, those unknown places that surrounded that campfire, they were forgotten, everything came back down to life size.
Imagine the pilgrims, spending the night in sight of the hills surrounding jerusalem, unsure of what the shadows of those hills hid. And imagine them sitting around the campfire, maybe telling old stories about the bad things that had happened in those hills. But then imagine, someone sings out, since it is important to remember that Psalms were all written to be sun, and imagine someone singing out My Eyes Look up to the Hills, From where will my help come? The fear is justified, it is now shared in the group, there is an acknowledgement of fear, and the next line then is sung, My Help is in the Lord, and oh, this is not just any lord, the line continues, who created heaven and earth. I have to imagine that suddenly the fear begins to dissipate, the hills shrink in size, the number of bandits ready to pounce is reduced, the wolves suddenly seem further away. There is something about singing isn’t there, that brings the world back down to its actual size, that manages to push out all the irrational fears.
And then the next day, as the pilgrims navigate their way through the hills, they come to a canyon where they can’t see around the corner, and they know there is a possibility bandits lay in weight. The whole column of people feel it, everyone slows down, they become quiet, hushed, almost paralyzed by the fear, and then someone starts to sing out, at first their voice trembles, My eyes look up to the hills, and then other voices slowly join in, from where will my help come from? And by the time they get to the line, he will not let your foot be moved, the whole group is singing and the trembling voices are gone, and the fear subsides, and the column moves forward, into the unknown.
Now, I could preach about this pslam, and give the instruction, anytime you feel afraid, just sing, and the fear will disappear, but thats too simple. The psalms aren’t just meant to ease fear, in my first sermon in this series, I talked about the purpose of the psalms, according to trappist monk Thomas Merton, the purpose of the psalms was to find peace in the will god. Singing helps one find peace, but what does that have to do with the will of god? Remembering Psalm one, and its discussion of the wick paths, the ungodly paths, and the righteous paths, the godly paths, how does this Psalm, which on the surface seems like nothing more than an effort to ease the fear of pilgrims in dangerous places, how does it help illuminate the godly paths of the world.
Fear, fear it a powerful thing. Adverstisers have figured this out, they know that if they can scare someone, and then offer their product as a way of ridding the threat, folks are more likely to purchase the product, home security companies are particularly good at this where they show a burglar breaking into a home, igniting fear in the hearts of so many, and then showing how their product acts as a deterint, with a confident operator calling the police. And these security systems, they are expensive, I look at my own neighborhood, a very very safe area, and I am amazed at the security systems, and how much people spend on them, fear can get people to do some pretty crazy things, fear can make folks irrational.
Whats interesting about Mountains, is that most of the time, at least in my case, you descend the mountain the same way you go up it. And I remember descending Mt Rainier in the daylight. And I remember passing under that same Ice Fall I had gone under only a few hours earlier. And in the light of day, it was smaller than I had imagined it, and the chunks of ice that broke off, they were smaller than I thought they’d be, and this distance, it was smaller, in the fear of darkness, my mind had created something bigger and scarier than the real thing. This didn’t mean that when I went back though the ice fall, that all my fear was suddenly removed, but it was controllable, it was less than.
Peace in the will of God. One of the things about the will of God, particularly as embodied by Jesus, is this commitment to serve the powerless and the oppressed. Jesus constantly went out to heal lepers and cripples, he even conversed with samaritans and women and tax collectors, and all sorts of people who were considered unclean and to risky to serve. I can say from my own experience in working in Homeless shelters, that going out and serving the poor, it can sometimes be a little scary. In my work leading high schoolers and college age kids to soup kitchen and drop-in shelters in New York City, I took them to some of the most notorious neighborhoods in New York, places like Mott Haven in the south bronx, brownsville in brooklyn, areas that even today, nearly 10 to 15 years later, are still listed on the “do not visit” list on tourist brochures. Part of really committing to serving those in need and living into the will of god is overcoming fear in one way or another.
Besides getting folks to do all sorts of things they might not normally do, fear also keeps people inactive, fear creates a list of reasons why someone shouldn’t do something. Going out and getting one’s hands dirty in service to others, that can be a scary proposition, and fear really gets in the way.
And there is something else important to note, those pilgrims in Jerusalem, the singing certainly eased their fears, but it did not completely remove the very real threats that still existed from bandits and thieves. Rather the singing put them in the mind set that allowed them to appreciate the risks were part of the journey and if they wanted to get to the temple, and deepen their relationship with God, then they had to face those risks. Singing the Psalms, reciting the words, the lord will keep your coming in and your going out form this time on and forever more, knowing that the risks still existed but that they weren’t alone.
It reminds me of some of the things I have read about the civil rights movement in places like Montgomery and birmingham alabama. In Birmingham, the city’s sheriff was this guy named Bull Conor and he was a racist as they came, and he was vicious. As african americans in birmingham protested, peacefully, for equal rights, bull conor would release dogs on them, and spray them with fire hoses and beat them with clubs, no city was a dangerous for african americans and Birmingham alabama under Bull Connors. And protesters were regularly jailed, often times with no treatment for their injuries, or still wet from the fire hoses. And Bull Connors did this, I imagine, in an effort to break their will, to scare them so much, they would give up their fight for equal rights. But you want to know what would happen in those jails, in those moments that should have been the darkest moments for the civil rights movement, the stories go that people sang, they sang hymns and spirituals and psalms, and that singing, it gave them strength, it didn’t remove the risk, but it helped them manage their fear and trust in the righteousness of their path, that by gaining equality, they weren’t just saving themselves, they were helping to progress equal rights for all oppressed people, from southern blacks, to poor whites, really to folks all across the globe. The singing became the heart of the movement, just as the pilgrims singing in jerusalem found the will to continue with this psalm, and so many have found that same will since.
Reciting a Psalm like this in times of fear, it doesn’t magically remove the risk, but it helps manage the fear, and it strengthens a person to be better prepared to live into the will of God. It is another kind of spiritual disciple, just like praising god in times of joy and offering up lament in times of sadness and hardship. Singing in the face of fear is just another form of prayer, and it is just another way to cultivate the heart to discover the will of God, to remove some of the noise that surrounds folks all the time, and help them become better discerners of God’s quiet whispers. This is Good news, that God seeks for all god’s created to be at peace, to find solace, and these psalms are a reminder of God’s great love for humanity and God’s creation of all that exists. What wonderful news we do receive. Amen.