|A common sight all over France, if only you look up.|
When I was in Paris a couple of summers ago, I got a horrible headache, and found out quickly that finding painkillers in a foreign country is a dicey proposition. As I and my friends had walked the streets of Paris, we had passed innumerable green neon signs in a cross motif without thinking much about them, busy to see and hear and taste all that the City of Light had to offer.
Finally, we found someone who understood the “French” I spoke (menu and directional French with a dollop of Oklahoma twang), and they finally led me straight to a shop with one of those neon cross signs hanging outside. Guess what? That was the French version of a drug store! After much more consulting with a translation app on my phone, I managed to get the clerk to understand what I wanted, and he gave me a tube of painkillers the size of a half-dollar (if you are younger than 40, you have no idea what I am talking about—it’s basically the size of your index finger curled toward your thumb as if you are making the sign for “okay.”) This is not some dainty little pill I am talking about. But I was desperate, so I put a large bottle of water near me, and started chewing, slugging this down with a slurry of water. I had finally found my help had been near me all along—I just needed to lift my eyes to the signs, and see and understand them correctly.
When we are traveling—or even when we are in more familiar surroundings-- we often do not know where to find help. We don’t know how to read the signs. Our psalms today in the daily office point out the signs of God’s never-ceasing love and protection, which are everywhere just like those green cross signs— if we just know how to recognize them for what they are. They arew rightly called “psalms of ascents”—not just because they may have been recited by travelers to the Temple as they climbed the steps into the Temple in Jerusalem, but because they have a decided upward movement of hearts, eyes, and hopes, all being lifted to God. Psalm 121 among these is a psalm celebrating the protection received from God, a psalm that demonstrates the trust that those who abide in the promises of God have that their faith in God is absolute.
The first two verses are set in the first person (I, my), but the rest of the psalm is in second person (you). Perhaps it is a conversation between one who asks about where he can turn for help, and a priest who responds and explains the answer. Where can we turn for help? To the Lord our God, who shields us throughout our life, guards us unceasingly, and protects us from the slightest harm. The psalmist, perhaps a pilgrim on a journey, or possibly metaphorically upon the journey of life, turns his eye to “the hills,” literally “mountains,”-- perhaps the hills of Zion. Yet it is not the hills or mountains themselves that reassures the psalmist—it is the God who made the hills and mountains, streams and fields, the heavens and the earth and all that is in creation. When we are traveling, we need to know where to go to get help. God acting as a shade during the day was certainly a vivid image in the desert places of ancient Israel.
After meditating upon Psalm 121 a while back, not long after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I was inspired to pray this prayer:
Let me sit in silence and abide with You, my Savior.
O God, I lift my eyes to You, for You are my heart and my help.
I lay upon my bed at night knowing You watch over me and keep me safe, and I am at peace.
You hear my cries, and know my fears: your hand rests upon my head to bless and protect me.
Evil cannot enfold me, for I rest in the embrace of the Almighty, whose love never sleeps or turns away.
The maker of heaven and earth loves me and tenderly cares for me: who can do me harm?
God watches over me in all my journeys: God sets my feet firmly upon the way of love and compassion.
The God of Peace calls me to the path of righteousness, whose foundation is justice and equality.
The heat of anger and fear may beat down upon me, but my God shades me and shields me, and I am at peace.
Let me raise up the needs of your children, my kindred souls, who put their trust in You. Amen.
(This was first published at the Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul, on August 16, 2016)