I think I first heard those words in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. As a child, I knew God loved me. I knew I loved God. I knew the Bible was important, but most scripture was completely meaningless to me. I might as well read it in the original Hebrew, for all the sense I could make of it. This was not the case, however, with the opening verse of Psalm 121. The beauty and power of the words captured me. It was a song; it was a promise—God’s power is as real as the mountains. When we cry out to him, God’s justice will flow down from the summit.
Seminary ruins everything. Years later I learned that this verse means exactly the opposite of what I thought it meant. At the time he wrote it, most people weren’t praying to God. They were praying to idols—poles dedicated to the goddess Asherah, poles they erected on the tops of hills. So when the average person got into trouble, first they looked up to the hills. Then they climbed up and made a sacrifice. They paid a priest to perform a ritual. They looked to the shrines they built to their manufactured Gods, and they waited for help.
The psalmist does not take this view. “I lift my eyes to the hills, but where does my help come from?” Not from there! The verse continues, “My help comes from the Lord—the maker of heaven and earth.” Our help doesn’t come from what we build with our hands; our help comes from the Lord who built creation. We don’t build a God to save us. We trust the God who built us.
My church is in a perilous time. It’s a redevelopment congregation. The challenges stacked against us are legion: no money, a “bad” neighborhood with a high violent crime rate, lots of foreclosures, “failing” schools, and a dearth of wealthy or middle-class neighbors.
Just a few years ago, the congregation was scared of its neighbors and had a death grip on tradition. But God sent us on an impossible mission—to be born again as a new church where young and old, rich and poor, black, white & Latino, believers, seekers and doubters come to know for themselves the life-changing, life-giving abundant new life we have in Jesus.
The unbelievable thing is, it’s actually happening. Through a lot of sacrifice, a lot of fear, a lot of loss and a lot of death, something new is being born here. Neighborhood children and their parents gather here to take dance lessons, to join a soccer league and a drama troupe, to learn English, and to pray. A local bank rebuilds our playground, another corporation plants 10 raised bed gardens. Our members begin to join in the ministries tutoring, delivering meals, starting a community supper, walking through the community to meet neighbors and invite them to worship. The liturgy and the music, slowly and oh-so-painfully, change and become new. People leave, we cry. People come, we cry. We are different than we were before. We are transformed.
Still, the road is difficult. There is more work to be done than we have people to do it. Money dries up, pressure mounts, and budget projections progress from grim to fatal. As a pastor, I do what I’ve been doing all along; I scramble. What grants can I write? Who can I meet? Where can I tell our story? How do I find a partner to support us? Ironically, I am the last to hear the gospel that I preach.
All these years, have I been looking to the hills for my help? First I turned to the denomination. I wrote grants. I courted officials. I attended meetings, and I came to the realization that this well is dry. We no longer believe transformation is our work, and perhaps we no longer even believe it is possible. Then I turned to the local judicatory body. I wrote grants, attended meetings and heard good-faith promises spoken with integrity. But things fall apart, covenants break. As a friend says, “If you are looking for them to save you, you are in big trouble.” Finally, I turned to banks and other local partners. I shared our story, and heard their sincere words of affirmation and encouragement. “We believe in you; we see the marks of the Holy Spirit in this ministry, but…there is no viable chance for you. You are growing, you are light and salt in a despairing community, but you are not a good investment.”
I lift my eyes to the institutions—national, regional, local—and none can answer. I’ve looked everywhere I know to look, knocked on every door I can find, written every grant, taken every long shot, and come up short. From whence cometh my help now?
As I write this, my office is thick with the perfume. A new friend brought me a pungent flower which sits in an empty mason jar. She told me she’d been trying and trying to grow ginger, but she couldn’t find seeds. One day a stranger stopped to admire her beautiful garden and said, “what a beautiful wild ginger plant you have growing there.” The whole time she had been searching, the plant she was seeking was already growing in her garden. She didn’t plan it, she didn’t plant it, she didn’t even recognize it, but she receives it now, as she receives every good thing, as a gift from the Lord who made the very first garden.
In this difficult season, when the way is painful and the path threatens to loom toward death, I struggle to turn my eyes away from the hills. My help won’t come from there. We will not find life through the works of our own hands—even the work we undertake with great humility and faith. We will not find help from the normal places. The hills are good and there is much of God in them—but they are not sovereign.
Our help comes from the Lord, who causes the wild ginger to grow, the Lord who provides for us with a grace so extraordinary it is often literally unrecognizable. But when he opens our eyes to see, we are astonished, and we see–our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Photo by Andrew Ratto, http://www.flickr.com/photos/94989596@N00/3297662034/, November 7, 2012. Used by Creative Common License.