What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-9-19
This Sunday will feature the first in a “My Favorite Scripture” worship series. We’ve invited individuals in the congregation to identify their favorites Scripture texts and share what makes them their favorite. Then I design a worship service around that text.
This week’s favorite Scripture, Psalm 121, comes from Nancy Rodney. Nancy chose Psalm 121 in part because of a revelatory experience she had with the text. Nancy went to high school at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, an idependent boarding school in the Berkshires. At that time Scripture study was included as part of the curriculum at NMH. When she first encountered Psalm 121 at NMH, Nancy understood the famous first two verses of the Psalm as pointing in the same direction: God.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills–
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.”
The conventional reading, the one Nancy learned in high school, goes something like this: A person is wandering alone in the wilderness looking for help. Perhaps she is discouraged or downcast. She looks up and discovers that her help is found in God.
But later in life, Nancy learned another reading. She made a tour of the Holy Land led by a group of pastors. While on the tour she saw with her own eyes the Judean hill country: barren wildnerness hills not unlike the ones the Psalmist might have looked to for inspiration. She learned from one of the pastor-guides that in ancient days the indigneous people of this land would set up shrines to the various local deities on the tops of these hills. She learned that another, more historically informed reading of Psalm 121, might be an anitphonal one that points in two different and contrasting directions.
One voice says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come?” This voice is pointing the reader to the hilltops where the local deities reside: the conventional gods of the day, the familiar places we turn to and the small comforts we cling to for security and help. Our 401k, the cup of coffee in the morning, the voices from our phones, TVs, and computer screens that reinforce our political and cultural biases, our job titles, our Instagram feeds, our social circles. The question: “From where will my help come?” The answer: Not here! There’s a note of despair: look at these hills surrounding me on all sides, more than I can count, stretching to the horizon, each one with its little god dancing on top, begging for my attention and loyalty and not one of them can help me! Not one can heal the depth of the wound in my soul.
The second voice (maybe another voice in the same person’s consciousness?) shifts the gaze from the hills and their small, ultimately powerless, idols and toward God, who is God not only of the high places, but of the low as well and every place in between. Question: “From where will my help come?” Answer: The Creator of heaven and earth who is not limited to this place or that, to this group or that one, to this political party, to that nation, to this religion, belief system, lifestyle, tribe, race or tradition. Either God is God of all or no God at all.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently gave an emotionally vulnerable TED talk about what he describes as a “time in the valley” following his divorce in 2013. During that time he went through many changes and developed some profound insights into what he calls “the lies our culture tells us about what matters.” These include: 1) Career success is fulfilling; 2) I can make myself happy or “the lie of self-sufficiency”; 3) the “lie of the meritocracy” or you’re worth more if you accomplish more. I imagine these lies and others as those idols dancing on the tops of those ancient Judean hills tormenting the Psalmist to the brink of despair. As an antidote to our culture’s lies, Brooks proposes devoting oneself to deep, authentic relationship. He calls folks who do this sacred work “weavers” and has founded an organization called “Weave” that supports this kind of holy community building.
In this time of tribalism and disaffection when people cast about for this silver bullet or that one, this savior or that numbing drug, when powerful corporations and noisy political leaders have unprecedented power to capture our attention and sell our identities, I wonder what would happen if we shifted our gaze from the “high places” to the every day places. I wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves to our neighbors–the real flesh-and-blood people who live right next door or just down the street? I wonder what would happen if we took up the unglamourous work of looking closely, listening deeply, and making a genuine, human connection. My guess is that we would find the maker of heaven and earth right now, right here.