Words from the page, moving into our lives
Text: Psalm 121
It’s summer, 1981. I’m floating on glass-smooth water. Ahead of me, on either side and behind me are mountains. Their granite and timber faces tower, some as high as 6,000 feet, only to plunge another 1,000 feet out of sight beneath the sea.
The skier in the water behind me gives the signal and I hit the throttle. The V8 engine growls to life. I can feel the wind over the windshield pull my hair straight back, and I can smell the wonderful mix of cool salt air and warm forest aroma as we make our way down the inlet. It’s a clear blue day, and the snow-capped peaks show in the distance.
Those mornings I start my day sitting in a deck chair, during a summer working at Young Life’s Malibu Club in British Columbia. Just a few feet away the salt water forms a rapid with the tide, rushing like a river. The high school campers have yet to stir, but the nearby kitchen is in full swing. Bacon smells waft by every now and then.
During this quiet time, I’m reading the Psalms. I come to 121. “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” Pretty easy to do here! “Where does my help come from?” It hits me. The incredible beauty, the sense of mission, the budding relationships, the challenging work. “...my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” God is with me, in spectacular fashion.
How does God’s word hit you? Let me be blunt: if we’re not getting in front of it, it’s not as likely to hit us. My experience is that God honors any attempt to read or listen to his word, and the more consistent the better. If you’re relying only on a passage read on Sunday morning, or perhaps the occasional wedding or funeral, I’ve got good news: diving into Scripture will change your life for the better.
Reading takes some effort, especially to get going. We must find or make time for reading, we must decide what passage to read, and even what Bible version to read. Find a version you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to mix it up. At various points in the week I use my New Revised Standard version, a New International version, and a Kindle app with a version I’ve never heard of. The Message is a great version to read more extensively, and the King James is fun to try to understand. The point is just to read.
I read every morning in my devotions, or “quiet time.” I also use a devotional book of some kind to help me draw out the text. There is something about starting the day with a word from the Lord. Each day holds its promise and challenge, and I find it helpful to give God a head start on the activities to follow. I also read every evening just before bed. While this is often a short reading, it helps me to give God the last word of the day. Other study times are way more sporadic, and are usually driven by some other involvement at church or in the other places I serve.
Jesus sets us a great example. He often went to a lonely place to study and pray. He knew the value of knowing scripture, and was always ready to share it. His words from God led others to believe in him, which led to their transformation and salvation. Similarly, I’m convinced that the more often we read, the more opportunity there is to see how God’s character, provision, guidance, and redemption intertwine into our lives.
Consistent reading may be simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. Lots of things intrude: interruptions, sleep, other urgent commitments, laziness, lack of desire. I have come to understand why the ancients referred to reading scripture as a “discipline.” Some days I have to seemingly force myself to read, knowing it will somehow be good for me, like eating vegetables. Frequently, on those days, God hits me with a particularly relevant passage, as if it was something I really needed to hear. I am then humbled, amazed or humored by how he addresses my sour attitude. Like any discipline, however, the more we do the better it gets. My encouragement is to get started if needed, power through the dry times, and keep at it. God honors both the fact that we’re reading as well as what we’re reading.
Does all this reading ever turn into just a habit? I’ve found that these daily words from God are similar to some other habits I have, like eating and breathing. I can choose to go without, but it’s not long and I acutely miss their nourishment and sustenance. I’ve yet to meet an elder in the faith that regrets their life spent in God’s Word, and in fact find quite a connection between deep faith and consistent reading. I have vivid memories of our departed family friend Flossie Jarvis, which I observed many vacation mornings with her well worn Bible and dog-eared devotional, reading quietly with husband Burt. Hers was a legacy of faith and discipline for all of us kids to follow.
When in faith we place ourselves in front of God’s word, we are not alone. God has promised the Holy Spirit to come along side us to help. This speaks to the mystery of scripture…that it is not just a book of knowledge, but a book that leads to new life. The work of the Spirit guides and interprets for us just what God wants us to comprehend, and in just the right time. This is how the Spirit works …God himself revealing his own words to us. The Spirit moves the words off of the page into our lives: affirming, convicting, comforting, teaching in ways we barely understand.
Let’s dive into the text. There are any numbers of ways to read scripture, and this is just one. We’re going to try to answer three questions: What does the text say? What does it mean? What does it mean to me?
The psalmist starts with “I” in verse one. This is personal, as are most of the Psalms. He’s not speaking for others; it is his own experience. “Lift” is an action word, requiring initiative on his part. He doesn’t mention lifting his head, but his eyes. We are created to be visual beings, by which we take in vast amounts of information. It is often how we learn best. “Hills” are his focus. They have height and scale that are both considerably beyond us, especially if they are mountains. One becomes quickly aware of their vastness compared to our smallness.
“Where does my help come from?” The table has been set for this question, and we are now at the heart of the psalmist’s intimate longing. He’s looking for help, and he knows enough to look up beyond himself. Then comes the resounding answer, “...my help comes from the Lord.” Whatever his need, whatever his prompt for help, is satisfied by God himself, “The Maker of heaven and earth.” The hills not only point to God, but they were also made by him. It is not the creation that saves, but the creator.
Next comes the meaning. What is the psalmist communicating? The need for help is universal, varying only in intensity and how often it is needed. He is very clearly stating the sole source of his help without specifying its nature. God may use a variety of ways to deliver help, whether through others, through circumstances, or even directly to us, but God is the source. There is power in God’s help, just as there is power in God’s creation of heaven and earth. I think it is most significant, though, that the psalmist asks for God’s help, both in words and actions. By his admission and initiative, he not only knows he needs help, but he intentionally places himself in a position to receive it. The help he does receive is intimate and directed personally at him. It is not generic or universal help, but help given by God specifically to address his need.
Here comes the harder part: what does this mean to me? Often before I get to the point of admitting my need for help I work to exhaust all of my options for helping myself. By that time I too am exhausted. Then I might wallow in my pain, live in denial, or suffer a lot of anxiety. This Psalm suggests a radically different approach to my natural tendencies: look first to God, the source of all my help. I can look figuratively to the hills, which not only point the way to God, but also to stoke expectancy on my part as to how God will provide the help. It’s as if the psalmist is suggesting to me that by looking for God’s help, I may actually see it coming. I need to constantly learn to look first to the Lord.
While my need may be overwhelming to me, it is not overwhelming to God. God is ready and waiting to help, and with just the exact help I require. This kind of trust is something else I must continually learn.
April, 1994. I’ve been lying in an Overlake Hospital bed for about 24 hours, recovering from seven stab wounds and a punctured lung. The day before, our former pastor, Dave Kersten, and I had attempted to help an ex-church member suffering from mental health issues. Our visit turned tragic when he attacked us both with a kitchen knife. Through the grace of God we each survived.
It’s now late in the afternoon, and the room is hospital quiet, with the bubble machine gurgling away helping to re-inflate my lung. In walk Lynn and Lennart Akerlund, two fellow congregation members, for a visit. The terror of the previous day, the uncertainty ahead swirls around me. We can hardly speak. Lynn says, “We’re going to hold a prayer service at church. Do you have a favorite scripture that we can read?” The tears flow from all of us. Psalm 121, I tell her. All I can think, however, is “He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber.” I lay back in the bed, profoundly thankful.
Here’s our challenge. What is at your center? The first affirmation of the Evangelical Covenant Church is that there is no higher authority in our faith than the Word of God. Our legacy as Covenanters is to ask of each other “Where is it written?” Yet the challenge is not just to be knowledgeable of Scripture, but to intertwine our lives within it, constantly listening, learning, breathing, and living the Word of our Lord. As we spend time intentionally reading, God will use his Word to transform us and draw us closer to him. We will find ourselves at the center of the heart of God.
Do you have a scripture verse or passage that has been central in your life? If not, look for one that you refer back to again and again, one that informs your life like few others. Share it with those around you, along with why it is so meaningful. You will be a blessing to others, and will point the way to God who is at your center.
My hills are a little lower these days, at least the ones I see regularly from Lake Washington in my own boat, while feeling a little less hair pulling in the wind. It’s now the top of Newcastle, or Somerset, or Mercer Island, although sometimes I can glimpse Mount Rainier. Instead of skiing campers, I now ride with very dear friends and family, who constantly remind me of God’s care and provision in my life. Yet the figurative hills seem higher now…the health of loved ones, the needs of so many, the brokenness of this world.
All the more reason to turn once again to those affirming words: “The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”