By Eugene C. Scott
Today we begin a journey.
Several times a year the ancient Israelites journeyed from their outlying cities, towns, and farms to Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple on Mount Zion, 2,428ft above sea level and one of the highest spots in their desert world. On this journey they sang songs.
A Psalmist eventually recorded some of the poetry these pilgrims sang climbing the final slopes of those mountains. Those fifteen psalms are called the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). These psalms are filled with heartache and hope as well as beauty and art.
They reflect the world in which the Israelites lived. A world inhabited by a desert God. The desert and hills around Jerusalem are stark, rugged, carved by wind, glowing with every color variation of earth and sand. Not a landscape one would readily recognize as one of beauty. Yet, in my trip there in 1996, I found it holds an artistic beauty both material and spiritual. Moving. Psalm 121, the most famous of the Songs of Ascents, reflects this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come?” Those hills, with the Temple of God crowning them, centered Israel, always letting them know who and where they were. They saw God in those hills.
I too love mountains and Psalm 121.
“I look up to the mountains;
does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God,
who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.
He won’t let you stumble,
your Guardian God won’t fall asleep.
Not on your life! Israel’s
Guardian will never doze or sleep.
God’s your Guardian,
right at your side to protect you—
Shielding you from sunstroke,
sheltering you from moonstroke.
God guards you from every evil,
he guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return,
he guards you now, he guards you always.”
I grew up in southwest Denver, the Rocky Mountains beginning their ascent just fifteen miles west of my house. During the day, they towered over us. At night, from anywhere in my little world, I could look west and see them darker against the night sky with a huge lighted cross hanging on Mount Lindo. Just one sweep with my eyes told me where I was (the city was simpler then) and centered me, though I would not have called it that then, and though I had no idea what that cross symbolized.
One night as a middle schooler, I came out of a local theater after watching the confusing, frightening film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The movie disturbed me. I didn’t know what on earth to make of it. I felt lost. A vast dark, empty sky hung above me. Then, standing, shivering in the parking lot waiting for my mom, I looked west and found the cross hanging there in the night sky.
“Look, the cross,” I said to my friend. Suddenly, I was not lost in Kubrick’s weird, meaningless universe. I knew where I was.
Years later, after I came to know Who hung on the original cross and turned it from an instrument of murder into a beacon of hope, the cross on Mount Lindo not only reminded me where I was, but who I was: a child of God, cherished by the God who created my beloved mountains, the God from whom my help comes.
I have been frightened and lost since then too. But mountains to this day symbolize God’s great strength and beauty for me. They call me home. They lift up my eyes to my true home.
What moves me? God’s unmovable, and mightiest of creations: mountains.
So thus begins our journey of ascents, climbing into the higher things of God in our world. But just as I and the Israelites found, the higher things often lay at our feet. Or, at least, with-in our reach and sight. This Lent our goal is seeing God in landscapes, paintings, beauty, pain, poetry, music, prose, stories, nature, movies, scripture, prayers, and whatever else moves our eyes, hearts, and minds in the direction of God. What moves you? Tell us about it, won’t you?
Eugene still doesn’t understand Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Now “Hugo,” by Martin Scorcese, that he gets. Eugene is also co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church and writes another blog, The Year of Living Spiritually.