I continue to look at prayers that pull me and others through. I have been using the suggested prayers of Scripture from my own tradition’s prayer book, the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, as a starting place because of the value I have come to find in liturgy as a gift from God in times of trouble. So often when I work with patients as a chaplain who are in those liminal moments where life and death touch and the veil between this world and what ever lies beyond is so very thin, it is on the old, familiar repeated words of faith upon which people cling like sinking women and men to ropes. I have found that having words given to me when I was in such moments, words that guided others on their journey and which gave voice to their wordless heart cries has truly been a help when I too felt adrift at see.
So I continue to use the words given me by my own community of faith. I hope you will share some words of liturgy with me which shape you.
The next prayer comes from Psalm 121:
“If I lift up my eyes to the hills, where shall I find help?
My help will come from the Holy One,
Who made heaven and earth.
Would God let your foot stumble?
Would God, your guardian, sleep?
The Holy One, the guardian of Israel,
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Holy One will keep you from all evil,
Will guard your life.
The Holy One will guard you going and your coming,
From this time forth and forevermore”
There is a simplistic beauty to this prayer of Scripture, a recognition of God present in the beauty of the hills, a presence that carries and supports us all. Whenever I read this prayer, I can’t but think of my own experience of the mountains as a holy place, a thin place in my life.
Every summer growing up from the time my parents deemed us all old enough, we would take a camper to the NC mountains, camping out on those rolling hills and mountains always aglow with color. When we hike trails or drive the blue ridge and stop over the overlooks, I was always amazed. I could see the bigness of the world all around me, like a surrounding blanket of greening life. I could look up and see the sky looking so close I felt I could reach up and touch the heavens, all surrounding me like brilliant blue and white walls of light and wind. And in such moments all our family dramas fell away and we simply were. Were us. Were family. Were together. Were ourselves.
The hillsides have always felt holy to me, in a special way. A place that I sit or stand and am near to the heartbeat of creation, so much that I feel it echoing in my veins.
In fact the hills have become points in which such breaking through of help has come repeatedly for me.
I remember when a dear relative tried to take her own life, and I rushed up to St Josephs Hospital in the NC mountains to sit vigil for the first of a few times I sat, held their hand, and prayed “let them get through it. Let them know they are enough. They have always been enough. Let them know how worth it they are and their life is to me, and to the rest who hold them dear.”
I wrote a poem about this some many years ago:
Fire on the gate
I wonder about you, old Abram,
while I sit here, watching you
with your pretty wife and flocks
waiting outside Ur’s dark gate.
What will it be for you, old Abram,
when you see this now familiar sky,
cool as some watery nest,
burst aflame with Yahweh’s outstretched wings?
Will you, too, feel that deep chill
which spreads over men’s flesh
making most to turn and flee?
Or will a fire light in your breast
when you hear him say,
“So you seed shall be.
Go! Go! Go!”
I hear it too, oh Abram,
here on Appalachia’s high hills
as I wait for one so dear
who lies sick,
on the brink of life.
He comes to me,
live as lighting,
falling as drops of liquid flame
across the horizon of my mind.
I hear his voice,
as tumultuous as mountains
yet quiet as the crash
of feather on pavement,
crying out to me
but one word,
For me, while that dear one lay on hospital bed, I felt sitting by a bed on the mountains that I too was sitting with them upon the gate of heaven.
Likewise, it came to be a holy place again for me these last few years of my marriage to Kat, when I did not know it but my wife was slowly painfully dying from Arnold Chiari Malformation. We had two holy events we went to in the hills. The first was the Wild Goose Festival, which we went to until her health was so bad she could not bear how incredibly inaccessible this event is for people with disabilities. But it was a weekend of worship, of learning, of fellowshipping with open-minded Christians like us who were trying to live out a faith full of compassion and understanding, not prejudice and exclusion. Just sitting with Kat around the campfire, holding her as we watched the fireflies dance over the roaring French Broad River… Well, those were moments so holy. I felt the Spirit a-dancing all about us.
Also the church home which carried both of us through these beautiful but pain-wracked years of this autumn of Kat’s life meets annually for a retreat at the old Blowing Rock Assembly grounds, now called Blowing Rock Convention Center, for a weekend of worship, fellowship, and learning at its annual church retreat. We went both years we both attended that church and were uplifted so much by the event. It was not just the beauty of the hillside, which as always was stunning to me, but also the time to simply be, be in the presence of God, be in the presence of friends, be with each other. It was on a hillside afire with fall colors at the last retreat in Blowing Rock that my dear late wife and I last spent a weekend together.
Unknown to me that whole time I was looking to the hills. I was looking to it as a place of respite, healing, and renewal. And I found it, as did she. That last week of her life she lived with such passion, strength, and dignity even though it was clear her health was so painfully bad. She found strength on the hillside.
I think that for all of us we need to know where are hillsides are. Where is the thin space in our life that we can turn to and, even in pain and fear and agony, open up to that found of all live and eternal livingness that allows us to embrace the beauty, the joy, the love, the freedom that is possible even in the deepest moments of pain and darkness?
We each have memories of God touching us we can draw on. We have practices we can turn to. We have friendships we can lean on. We have holy places and holy things we can connect to.
Lift up your eyes to the hills, from whence shall your help, my friends.
I also notice the promises held in this prayer. I can’t but think of when I was a little boy and would wake up with night terrors. Looking back I think that the neighborhood cats that liked to fight outside my window, the howling owls in the trees nearby, and the crash of summer storm in Carolina may have been a large part of my waking up in sheer fright. I remember rushing to momma’s side and daddy in the bed, just to be sure they were there. When they were, I could go back. Go to bed. Rest.
It is so easy to in our moments of pain, of fear, of trauma, of loss, to really genuinely feel we are forgotten. We are forsaken.
I know many a time when I wanted to scream at God and say “What are you doing? Are you sleeping on the job? Have you taken a blasted vacation?”
I felt this way when my dear wife’s stroke hit. I did not blame God in a negative way for her dying in her sleep as that is what she prayed for if ever another neurological event would make me have to be her nursemaid again as I was some two months after her first big stroke-like event when she had trouble moving, talking, caring for herself. But I did really question God why, when finally I was in the place in my work where we could do all the things we had dreamed about our whole marriage – get a nice place, adopt kids, travel. Why now?
I didn’t feel so much that God was sleeping, but not paying any attention to timing. Or worse yet, playing a cruel joke.
I bet you’ve been there.
I don’t have words to help you through it. I’m still working through that now, from my loss.
But I do know what has helped me was going back to look up to the hills. To see where I can go, be, totally vulnerable and open, and touch the Holy. Be touched by the Holy.
In meditation. In prayer. In sacred friendships that remind me there are ones who love me and will not give up on me. In liturgy. In worship. In playing with the dogs. In exercise that makes me feel at home in my body. In writing like I am doing now, and in using creativity to redecorate my home so I feel at home again. In so many ways I reach out and touch the Source of Life and find I can be alive again. I can laugh. I can sing. I can be whole.
Friend, I do not know what cruel and painful moments you face. But I do know, you are not alone.
It may feel as it did to me that God is not paying you mind. But God is. God is waiting. God is present. In fact, if you take a moment and really look, you can know – God is there. God is there in the sunrise that comes up when it feels like it will be all darkness. God is there in the friend who doesn’t let you pull away from life, but persistently reaches out. God is there in the puppy dog or cat that will not let you stay in bed asleep. God is there in the song on the radio, in the falling of the rain that settles your soul.
As I told a friend once in the midst of my great grief, “I have moments I cannot see or feel God. But then I look and you are there. Your words in my ear. Your hand on my shoulder. And it is enough. People like you are God enough for me now. When I see you, I can believe. For I know God is in you”.
May you find your hillside friend, and now God is not sleeping. God is not ignoring. God is working, silent yet persistent. And you are safe in that One’s loving embrace.
Your progressive redneck preacher,