I wonder what is one of the most romantic things you have done in your life? For me it relates to this object… a tape cassette! I was once keen on a girl who was spending a year travelling around the world. To show my interest in her I created a mixed tape of all the songs that she had been missing as she travelled. I then sent it to her parents so the tape would be given to her when she got off the plane back in the UK. It seems to have worked well, as we’ve now been married for almost 30 years!
Nowadays we have moved beyond mixed tapes and you may have used services like Spotify to create playlists of songs meaningful to you that can then be shared with the whole world.
Today we’re going to look at a mixed tape or playlist that was specially created and crafted for us over hundreds of years and one particular song from it. As we look at this ancient song collection, called the book of Psalms, we’ll briefly look at how they can still be meaningful to us as we pray and worship together.
Within this collection of 150 Psalms there’s a mini-collection called the Songs of Ascents. These songs, Psalms 120-134, existed as a separate collection for some time, but were brought into the larger collection pretty much untouched and in their entirety. It’s like doing a mixed tape or playlist of the songs of Elton John and including the whole of his album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. These songs of ascents were used both in major religious ceremonies and sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem. Within these Song of Ascents is Psalm 121, one of the highlights of the collection. Today we’ll look at how this is a song for our times and one that can be deeply relevant for all of us. I’d like to do this, if I may, by sharing with you three different journeys I have taken over the years up the same hill – my favourite hill, that of Stac Pollaidh, up in the Scottish Highlands.
Many years ago when I was in my twenties, I was travelling on a hot Sunday afternoon with a group of friends in the Highlands, when we spotted this majestic hill called Stac Pollaidh.
We couldn’t resist attempting to climb it. And so we set off with no map, no proper footwear – and headed straight up to the summit. We had no idea how hard the climb might be or what we might see when we reached the top, but there was excitement and a little trepidation as we headed up the hill. And what a view we saw on that clear day! It’s one of the most beautiful views in the world, stretching out over the Assynt lochans and hills on one side and out to the sea on the other. It was a fantastic experience and an amazing journey.
Psalm 121 is a song for the beginning of a journey. In traditional Jewish families, this psalm is often inscribed on an amulet and given to an expectant mother, to prepare her for the birth. And in the birthing room, the words of Psalm 121 are mounted on the wall as the first words for the new mother and child to see at the beginning of their life’s journey together.
And through the years, many people have used it as a prayer before they start on some new journey in their lives. Some Christians use it as a prayer before they travel on a long journey, others before they go into hospital for a major operation, or when they are starting a new job.
Speaking of which… we do have someone in our congregation who has just started a new job. And so for you Claire, for Chris and all your family, we’d like to dedicate this song to you! And in the words of the psalm, we pray that God would be your keeper, to protect and guide you throughout your time here at St John and St Stephen.
Well, that first journey up Stac Pollaidh was such a success that we decided to return there a few years later. But the second trip was very different. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Scottish word ‘dreich’. It describes a dreary, gloomy, dark day, usually cold and with horizontal rain. And so we travelled up Stac Pollaidh in a deep mist, hardly able to see the path, feeling miserable and wet. And of course at the top all we could see were small glimpses of hills, emerging through the fog and rain. We knew that the beautiful view existed somewhere on that dreich day, but it was difficult to be anything but gloomy about it.
Often we face day, weeks or even years where we can feel as if we’re part of such a journey, and that the fog has drifted us off course. When I left University, I was convinced that God was calling me to either be a priest or a teacher. I twice tried for the ministry and was turned down both times. And it took me eight years as a teacher to realise this wasn’t the right path for me. Now, I am so grateful for the journey I’ve been on since then, the people I’ve met and the amazing projects I’ve taken a small part in. I have never been more content than where I am, now. But for a number of years I felt I had failed God, my family and myself.
Reading Psalm 121 at a glance, it can appear that this psalm is a song of certainty, that God won’t let anything harm us. But this isn’t the purpose of the psalm. For those original pilgrims that sung it as they journeyed to Jerusalem, it was a cry for help and for reassurance. The journey to Jerusalem was incredibly dangerous. It was highly lucrative for bandit gangs to attack, injure or kill pilgrims on their journey, as it is to this day. I had a friend, James, who was the bass guitarist in my first ever band and lived down the road from me. At 20 years old, he set off to travel to Tibet to meet with his girlfriend. Sadly, he never returned. His body was found amongst the hills where he’d camped, beaten and left for dead by robbers.
And so for these pilgrims, when they looked to the hills all they could often sense was danger: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come?’ The rest of the psalm is a prayer to balance this fear, to remember how God is with us still – our watcher, our friend and our guide through all that we face. The Hebrew word ‘shomer’ or keeper is repeated time and time again in the psalm, to remind us of this fact. ‘he who keeps you will not slumber… 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.’
In the extraordinary world in which we live, we seem to be living in ‘dreich’ times. But through the present crazy political situation, the overwhelming demands we face individually and as a community, God remains the watcher and keeper for us all.
Recently, I returned once again to climb Stac Pollaidh, and discovered a significant change. The route had become so popular that they had prevented people climbing directly to the summit. Instead, you have to walk around the base of the hill to the other side, climb up a longer but less steep incline and come back down the same route. As a result, the view emerges gradually as you climb up the far side of the hill and you are much more likely to be travelling with others during your journey.
For the original pilgrims to Jerusalem, they too gained great comfort and safety in travelling as a group. Together they faced all the challenges of the journey and of course they all sang together. You might have noticed that all our songs today are based on Psalm 121. You may also have noticed that the original Psalms don’t use rhymes like our modern songs do, but instead repeat words and thoughts to give strong rhythm and movement through the song. This is called parallelism and this psalm has a good example of step parallelism as we’ve seen in the repetition of the word ‘keeper’. It’s almost a marching song that you can imagine the pilgrims singing wearily again and again on their long journey towards Jerusalem.
Singing the psalms as the congregation here at St John and St Stephen helps us to share this reassurance that we are travelling on this same journey of faith that other pilgrims like us have trodden over thousands of years. The same God remains as our protector and helper throughout this journey. And even though the journey can be tough and relentless at times, we are here as a community to support each other along the way. There is an old African proverb that says: ‘If you want to walk fast, go alone. If you want to go far, walk together.’
Wherever you are on your own journey of faith, I pray that you may continue to know God as your keeper, your friend and your guide. In the words of Psalm 121:
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.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
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 for evermore.
Photographs by Angus Bruce at http://highlandpix.co.uk/