Monday, August 3, 2009

Help from the Hills

I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

                        Psalm 121.1-2

Valley So Low

Valleys look most beautiful from distant heights. The land is lush and green. Lakes glisten. Peace abides. But if you’re in the valley, you’re less aware of it than what surrounds it. Hills are steeper than they seem. Mountains cast long shadows. You’re isolated from the world and reminded how small you are. That’s why “Birmingham Jail”—the folk song about a lonely inmate—opens with “Down in the valley, valley so low.” It’s why David sings, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23.4) It’s why we call hard trials deep valleys and crises valleys of decision. Valleys are far less benign and bucolic as they appear from afar.

Mountaintop life sounds far more appealing. With the world’s beauty spread out before us, we’d spot trouble coming from every horizon. We’d watch rising problems lose their footing and fall away. Life would be as good as it gets were it not for one fact. We’re not built for summits and they’re not built for us. The air is too thin, weather too harsh, and nothing that sustains us exists at their altitudes. So we climb mountains, pause to enjoy the panorama, and look ahead. Then down we go, regretting our descent from great heights when we should rejoice in it as the first step toward ascending another mountain. And we should also remember even the most adaptable valleys aren’t adoptable. Valleys are for crossing, not staying. Whether it’s sunny and serene or darkly disturbing, the valley holds danger. We’re less aware of this since science has improved valley safety a thousand fold. But the ancients knew well the constant threats of valley life, and they wrote about them often and at length.

Pleasingly Unpleasant

Literally and metaphorically, biblical writers describe valleys as pleasingly unpleasant places to land. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, when political instability and turf wars turn Israel into a vagabond nation, security and comfort it initially finds in valleys are quickly replaced by vulnerability and anxiety. The mountains hem them in and open them to surprise attack. Being cut off from adjacent plains leaves them unprepared for rapidly multiplying insect swarms that regularly sweep the valley. Rainy season sends torrents of hillside mud, while flooded rivers and lakes with no overflow outlet drown the crops. Dry seasons are worse, as the valley has no access to outside water sources. Famine becomes a cyclical event. Eventually, Israel leaves the valley’s sour promises and prevalent dangers behind to go mountain climbing.

Head for the Hills

The moment we grow weary of defeat and turn from living in valleys to crossing them, mountains that menaced us with fearful worry become pinnacles of hope. Because they’re humanly inhospitable, God reserves them for His habitat. In Psalm 24.3-4, we read, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.” Pleasing God by trusting Him above all else propels our climb. And while scaling earthly heights for sport pits the climber against the mountain, spiritual climbs work on a completely opposite premise. The mountain is our ally, a holy place where God keeps close tabs on our safety and success. Psalm 121.1-3 says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber.”

We linger too long in valleys of defeat, thinking we’ll never muster the strength and courage to climb out. Instead of looking at the hills, look to them. That’s where God is. He sends help from the hills to lift us over them. He guides and guards our steps. The valley low’s life is lonely and cold with God feeling so high and removed from us. When we’ve had enough of it and decide to head for the hills, His presence on the hills means we won’t climb them alone.

Valleys look lovely and peaceful from afar, but they’re dangerous places made for crossing, not dwelling.

(Tomorrow: Proof Without Pudding)


johnmichael said...

Wow, what perspective.

I've always thought that living on top of the world was the place to be...but reading this I've realized that being up there (without God) is the reason that those who are seemingly on top, seem to be the loneliest. There is no proper air and it suffocates and you can't breathe (no I need to listen to Michael W. Smith's "Breathe"--or Rebecca St. James' version too).

Tim said...

You're so right, JM. Living on mountains is no better than living in valleys--it's static. As the old song goes, "We just pilgrims and strangers" here. That's why we keep traveling. What an excellent point you make here.

Be blessed--and hope you're having a spectacular summer!


PS: "Breathe" is probably one my favorite worship songs of all time; it speaks to me in ways I can't really describe...