The summer after my first year of seminary, I served my time in CPE. Clinical Pastoral Education or the Church Punishes Everyone is a time for would-be pastors of many denominations to get their feet wet in the world of pastoral care. You can't learn Pastoral Care from a book, you just have to do it, so every summer thousands of untrained “chaplains” are dispatched upon unsuspecting patients in hospitals, trauma centers, hospice programs, and long-term care facilities to “learn” how to be pastoral. I spent my three months at Goodwin House, a tiered care retirement facility in Alexandria, VA. There were 9 of us in my program and each of us was to be assigned a hospice patient at some time during our tenure at Goodwin House. When it became clear that 9 people would not be entering hospice in our 3 months they began to double us up, and I worked with a friend and colleague, Peter with an Alzheimer's patient. She was a sweet woman who was convinced it was 1936 and each time I arrived, she was sure I was calling to pick her up for a date. So we would walk the circular hallway of the Alzheimer's unit, and talk and talk about nothing at all. Eventually she took the inevitable turn and was bed ridden, having not eaten in weeks. Peter and I weren't really sure what to do with her at that point, and since nobody had given us any direction, we prayed what is commonly called “Last rights” with her. Of course she didn't die that day, but how were we supposed to know. Anyway, in the days that followed she received Last Rights like 7 times, but Peter and I noted her most at peace when hearing the words of Psalm 121 - “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?”
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” This is not a rhetorical question that the Psalmist is asking. There is sincerity in these words. Psalm 121 is the second of the fifteen Psalms of Ascents; fifteen songs that were ritually sung on the pilgrimage into Jerusalem; the holy city of God set atop the holy hill. As the singing began, the hill was in view. Sojourners lifted their eyes to see the hill in the midst of a hot and dangerous trek and more than likely honestly asked themselves “from where is my help to come?”
Over the years, of course, it has left the context of the Ascent into Jerusalem and Psalm 121 is now on many a top-5 list of favorites. Its opening line is emblazoned on posters depicting bucolic country churches nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. It is probably second only to the King James Version of Psalm 23 in usage during memorial services. It is the story of a dangerous journey – a story with which we can all relate.
So, then, from where is our help to come? Certainly not from the hills. They just make the journey more difficult. The steeper they go, the harder our walk. The trickier the path, the more likely to encounter robbers hidden in the sweeping turn of a switch-back. Nope, there is no help in the hills. Nor is there help in the people we meet along the way. Sure, it is nice to have companions for the journey. We enjoy one-another's company. We were built to be in relationships. But trusting in people only leads to heartbreak. They can't be there all the time. They can't give fully of themselves in the midst of an arduous journey because they need to keep some energy for themselves. They can help, some, but they can't give all the help we need.
As we lift up our eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The one who made all this was and is and ever will be. The one who created the vast expanse of interstellar space, the galaxies, the suns, and the planets in their courses. The God of all creation is where our help comes from. As we journey along the dangerous path of life, our needs arise in all shapes and sizes, and the Lord God promises to protect us from them all. Not to free us from them all, but to protect us, to stand firm alongside us whether it is in the searing heat of the mid-afternoon sun or the witching hour deep in the middle the night. He neither slumbers nor sleeps; instead he stands guard alongside “from this time forth for ever more.”
In the case of my hospice patient, his protection didn't keep her from a lengthy battle with a debilitating and ugly illness. Instead, it meant that when her hazy eyes looked up, she saw her God with arms wide open, offering her the peace that surpasses understanding. I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, from this time forth, for evermore. Amen.