The first time I saw someone die, I was twenty-one years old. The youth group I started during my first year as a pastor included a boy named Rod. He was fourteen years old, and one day, a week or so before Easter, he came down with a bad flu. His parents gave him two aspirin and told him to get some rest. He never woke up. Neither his parents nor I had ever heard of Reye’s Syndrome, but we learned about it quickly and after several days he was declared brain dead. On Good Friday, just before noon, I stood with Rod’s parents as life support was removed. On the day after Easter, the high school closed so a hundred students could squeeze into our tiny church for the funeral. Rod’s parents asked for just one Scripture to be read at his service: Psalm 121. Rod was a popular athlete, and the coach of the track team shared it with the runners. Rod had memorized the words so he could recite them as he ran around the track in sight of the Allegany mountains. “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? …The Lord is my keeper, my shade at my right hand. …The Lord will keep me from all evil, God will keep my life.”
Rod’s parents were pretty simple, rural folk who maintained a belief in a powerful and benevolent God despite the greatest personal tragedy imaginable. I struggled with the words of the Psalm, though, as I read them. Why didn’t God intervene to save this boy’s life? Why read about help coming from the hills and a deity who is so concerned about our well-being that she doesn’t sleep and guards all of our comings and goings when in reality, such promises obviously fall short of a sure thing?
In tiny, italicized print in my Bible, Psalm 121 is introduced with the title, “A Song of Ascents,” ascent with an “Asc” as in moving upward. Jerusalem is at one of the higher elevations in Israel, and worshippers coming for celebrations at the temple ascended from the surround countryside and desert areas. The Psalm is sometimes known as the “travelers song.” Jewish families often recite it before heading out on a journey, closing with its words, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” Others post it in hospital delivery rooms, baby carriages, and children’s bedrooms. It’s both a prayer for and an affirmation of God’s protection for those who are in a vulnerable time of transition.
This week it was announced that the Christian ministry Compassion International has been banned from India. 145,000 children in India are currently sponsored by donors from around the world who make sure that they have adequate food and can go to school. The current government is cracking down on religious diversity and claims that the ministry has engaged in proselytizing. Compassion International denies that charge, saying that their mission is to release children from poverty, not to convert them. Amnesty International is challenging what India claims are decisions made for the sake of “national interest.”
There seems to be a larger movement afoot about national interest that is isolating countries and diminishing the benefits of the cooperation that has existed it in the past. That kind of isolationism clearly affects children, as it does in India. In our own country children have been separated from parents in crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.
Who is looking over these children? What will happen to those whose sponsorship suddenly ends? What about those American-born children whose parents have been taken away? We live in a real world, and actions that affect children have real consequences.
The writer of Psalm 121 could not possibly be a stranger to reality. One verse says “God will not let your foot be moved,” yet certainly the author had known shepherds whose misstep had plunged them into a canyon. Another verse states that “the sun shall not strike you by day,” and undoubtedly the writer had seen victims of sunstroke in the blistering deserts of Judea.
I was frustrated this week reading commentaries on this Psalm and trying to find anyone who dealt seriously with the questions it evoked for me. They all seemed to write with glowing words about the amazing promises about God’s care and protection summarized in these eight verses. No one seemed to acknowledge the disconnect between the confident assertions of protection and the reality of those who suffer personal tragedy. The closest I came to finding that were the opening words of a reflection by New Zealand minister Silvia Purdy. She writes about Psalm 121, “Is this my fantasy? A Bodyguard God; a Helicopter Parent God; a Bubble-Wrap God? Doesn’t sound like my God. Doesn’t sound like my life.”
A friend was diagnosed with cancer this week. He lives far away but sent a note describing the anticipated surgery and the prognosis. He wrote, “Your prayers are appreciated. I am confident that all will be well in the end.” I don’t think my friend is in denial; he is choosing to embrace hope and focus on the possibilities.
Psalm 121 begins with the words, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Someone has written, “Hope requires a lifted head.” I thought a lot about our beloved CUCC member Susan Dunn Lewis while preparing this sermon. She was diagnosed ten years ago with cancer and she passed away on February 24. “The Lord will keep you from all evil; God will keep your life,” said the Psalmist. When Susan was stuck by the evil of cancer, she did not accept her diagnosis as a death sentence. She lifted her head. I have not met anyone more determined to live than Susan. For her, life was not as much about extending days on earth as it was about experiencing life to its fullest expression for as long as she remained here. In that sense, I guess that the words are true: “God will keep your life.”
I don’t like the easy platitudes that pastors are often expected to share. On the occasion of another passing, this time a young father with two children, the distraught wife begged me for some words that would help her make sense of the loss. We were still standing beside the hospital bed before the body was removed, and I responded with some hesitation about mystery and grief and whatever else seemed to make sense at that moment. She stopped me and said that what she really wanted to hear right then was that God had a special reason for taking him. That God needed him more than she and her boys did. I just couldn’t make myself say it, and I think I disappointed her.
It’s pointless to deny the pain of loss or to try to spin grief into something else. So how do we reconcile the optimistic words put forth as promises in Psalm 121 with the reality of life and all of its dangers and uncertainties? Maybe the Psalm is something other than a magical formula assuring God’s protection.
The writer asks a good question: “Where does my help come from?” The words that follow are really a song of encouragement. To assure another person who struggles by sharing words that engender hope is not the same as promising that everything will always go the way that we desire. Do I want to be reminded when I go on a journey that I could be side-swiped by a semi or pickpocketed by a thief? Of course not. I want to know that despite any fears, in the end God will make sure that I’m OK. In the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the manager Patel assured his anxious guests after their long journey by quoting John Lennon: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end”
In the reading from Genesis, Abram and his wife Sarai were told by God to leave their home and their extended family to travel to an unknown place far away so that a new nation could be established. A bunch of promises were included, mostly about blessings that would follow them. So Abram went, the text says, as he was told. International Woman’s Week was still far in the future, so it only mentions that Abram’s nephew Lot went with him. Unwritten is the far more relevant fact that Sarai went also. They were both at the age when most people would be thinking about retiring or at least slowing down a bit. Instead, their journey launched new possibilities that they could barely imagine when they said yes to God. There were many dangers along the way, and in fact they encountered famine when they arrived at what was supposed to be their destination. They kept traveling and eventually found a place of safety.
The season of Lent is often referred to as a journey. We started in the desert last week with Jesus’ determination to say “no” to temptation and “yes” to possibilities that shaped his ministry and which we are still trying to embrace and imagine for ourselves. The Gospel of Jesus takes us to new places and introduces new realities that are often fraught with risk and danger. Jesus called his disciples to follow and adopt a new way of living. That life looks different for everyone, but it always includes resistance of any form of injustice and oppression. It seeks what it best for the common good and is empowered by hope and light and love in the face of any darkness.
We are traveling with Jesus and Sarai and Abram and the Psalmist. There is danger at our left and our right. We don’t know what is up ahead, around the next corner. So where does our help come from? What do we see when we lift our head and look to the hills? Our hope remains in God, even when things don’t turn out the way we desire. Even when death seems to win, we know that God has nevertheless lovingly kept our life and has watched over our coming and our going. We are not alone in our efforts to make a difference for good, and God continues to keep us from the evil that could discourage and destroy. We need a song for the journey, and that song keeps rising up when we are disheartened. May the God of mercy give you a song when you need it most, and may you sing it loudly so others can catch the melody, hear the words, and sing along.