Even the drive there was anxiety-inducing. It had been well over a year since we had been back; the attempts here and there by well-meaning friends to get us to try again in their own places of worship only made us cringe even more. The language remained the same from sanctuary to sanctuary—a place of refuge or safety. It was ironic that we were looking for one after ours became unsafe. But we showed up, my throat tight as we searched and scanned faces familiar and unfamiliar. We’d been sitting at the bottom of the mountain for a long time now.
I lift my eyes up to the hills.
I learned the first two verses of the Hebrew song as I moved to the East Coast from the Midwest on my own six years ago. I began a master’s program in a place where I’d hardly see any of my gender in classes. But I had found my calling long at last in the language of the Old Testament, immersed and sleepless, surrounded by flashcards for two months before the school year would even begin. This was what I was made for. I was unafraid.
Classes and books and professors tried to prepare us for all of the wounding that was sure to come. People are imperfect, fallible, and that’s a conservative doctrine. If one were looking for a solid foundation to surely keep the faith, I would have told you mine was built strongly on the merciful disciplines and zeal, throwing in gospel as an adjective somewhere in there.
Like most young seminary graduates, I was maybe too naïve and a little too self-righteous. No class, book, or mentor can prepare you for the rejection from your church family of ten years. The people that had helped stir the powdery mix of my faith and set the parameters for where to lay the base of my zeal. There were cracks in the foundation. We left quietly, having been told to be silent, unsure of ourselves anymore.
But the two verses of the Psalm of Ascent I learned in the ambitious years before stuck with me. I taught the song to my husband. We sang it when we had no words to say. We sang it when we had tears streaming down our faces. We sang it when we didn’t believe it.
From where does my help come?
Tradition says the psalms of ascent were sung by pilgrims making the journey either to or from their own sanctuary, the temple in Jerusalem, for one of their several feasts and celebrations. Those hills not only are a physically exhausting place, but also conjure up the reminders of what high places meant to the Ancient Near Eastern peoples: this was the place where the divine were, the heavens meeting earth, where even other gods may dwell. They seemed to capture the feeling of smallness that one feels when looking up to the peak, as well as a knowledge of the humility necessary to cry out for help when it seems you’ve not even started the climb.
I was already preparing my own sermons to give respite to a friend who leads a church when we sat down in a pew near the back, nervous as to what we might hear or see that just might hit us the wrong way, nervous that once more the “church shopping” we were hardly doing would be perpetual, never ending.
The sermons I was working on were for the first two weeks of Lent. I had been readying myself for the upcoming intentional rhythms of repentance and death as I sought the liturgy for passages to preach on. Psalm 121 happens to be the passage for the second week of the Lenten season, and most often the verses are used for funerals.
This was Transfiguration Sunday, where Jesus himself would meet, in his revealed glory, a few of his disciples on a mountain top. We sang, we listened, we dipped spongy bread into a common cup, we reflected, and we left.
This isn’t where we thought we would be as we made our five-year plans. Not denominationally, not theologically, not any of it. The Lenten theme of desert has been a warm, comfortable blanket for longer than the normal season’s timing. But the promise of rebirth’s heartbeat became flesh, when I thought that maybe God was sleeping. Maybe when we thought we were at the bottom, we have actually been waiting for transfiguration.
My help comes from the Lord, maker of the heavens and the earth.
Cover image by Annie Spratt.