Whistling Past The Graveyard?

Passage: Psalm 121

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

While our mission group was working in a rural village in Honduras, we were asked by the Honduran minister from our mission organization, if any of us were interested in going out to pray with the residents of the village, as a number of folks had requested prayer. While I found the manual labor we had done in the homes quite meaningful – pouring concrete floors over the dirt floors on which they normally lived and building latrines – I also welcomed the chance to share a time of prayer with the people with which we were working. The experience was eye-opening and poignant. As the minister translated, one young woman sought healing for a digestive system malady, likely a problem with her gall bladder, the minister gathered. Another older gentleman requested relief from the difficulties and pain caused by a serious hernia. A mother and father wanted healing for their daughter, who was sitting there with us, from a head injury which quite obviously had affected all aspects of her life.

While we were praying with these devout persons, the full reality of the situation began to dawn on the three of us who accompanied the minister. We weren’t able to pray for them to find the right doctor to heal their particular health issue, or for proper medical attention to reach these persons. Such help is simply not available to nearly all persons in the remote areas of Honduras. Only one general-practice physician serves the nearly one hundred thousand residents of the entire Agalta valley. And most of those folks have no means of travelling to see the doctor. Our prayers were for God to provide healing and comfort directly to meet the needs of these persons.

In that moment, I realized that prayer for healing there was quite different from a prayer for healing at home in the United States. At home, the expectation that God might heal us directly, isn’t really a necessity, is almost an “add-0n”, with the knowledge that we are certain to receive suitable medical care for our ailments. Such prayers for healing are much easier to make under those circumstances. A prayer for healing in Honduras lays one’s faith bare, with the knowledge that only God and ourselves will be present in any way to help bring healing and comfort to those for whom we pray.

Now with the growing threat of the coronavirus, we find ourselves increasingly more exposed to conditions that are out of our control. We too are becoming acquainted with the insecurities of life that are commonplace in much of the world. How do we read the passage above now when our confidence, in the ability of the government agencies and our medical care system to keep us safe and healthy, is in question? “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Will we read it as a pep-talk, an optimistic statement touting a God who is in charge in of our world and will protect us from all harm? Will the psalm merely become “whistling past the graveyard”, an attempt to calm our fears and bolster our confidence in a time when we are weighed down with anxieties?

It’s safe to say that the faithful of Israel who sang or chanted this psalm had no health care system or police presence or unemployment benefits to give them any confidence that life would remain dependably safe and secure. Much like with our prayers in Honduras, the faiths of those invoking this psalm were laid bare in the moment of voicing these affirmations. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper … The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Only those who had completely entrusted their lives to this God, could affirm such claims with real conviction. Only those who had thrown in their lot fully with this Lord – in good times and bad, in abundance and scarcity, in health and in sickness – would be able to proclaim these words so as to find great comfort in them.

While I do not believe in any way that God has visited this pestilence on humankind, our situation has provided us with an occasion for reassessing the foundations of our faith. Might it even offer us the opportunity to rediscover the real basis for our life as Christians? Might it remind us that our security can never be found in the safety and abundance of our American lifestyle, can never be assured by our own efforts to protect our lives from the slings and snares that all of us will surely encounter. My time in Honduras, and our time with the coronavirus, might help us remember that as Christians our security and hope is built on our trust in the “faithfulness of Another”; the faithfulness of One who chose to be with us, to know our doubts, our pain, our vulnerability. “Faith means trust,” wrote Karl Barth.

Trust is the act in which a person relies on the faithfulness of Another, that God’s promise holds. … “I believe” means “I trust.” No longer must I dream of trusting in myself. No longer am I required to save myself. … In God alone is there faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold to him, to rely on his promise and his guidance.

In this time when uncertainty threatens to overwhelm us, this passage reminds us that the only real security we are offered is entrusting our lives to this One who came to be with us, and gave himself for us.

Prayer: Gracious God, who is faithful to us in both our belief and our unbelief, give us the courage to live our lives depending on our trust in you.

Remember, the psalms were originally designed to be sung/chanted, sometimes even accompanied by music, as they were expressions of the heart, not simply reflections from our heads. Perhaps you might want to reread this passage while listening to the piece linked to below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7SvBtJuh3Y

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