One week from today Becky and I will be on the floor of Yosemite Valley celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday. The very day, Friday the 13th. When my brothers and sisters and I began to think about how we would mark this wonderful occasion, the “where” part of the festivities came easy. Yosemite Valley.
My mother loves Yosemite. We camped there as a family when we were young and as adults we have returned to Yosemite, this great cathedral in John Muir’s Range of Light.
Mom won’t make it as far up some of the trails as she did 20, 30, 40 – even 70 years ago on her first visit. But she will cover her own good distance, and surrounded by children and grandchildren, what better way to celebrate being 90 and able to take in God’s blessings in so many ways.
So we will be in the mountains, these mountains, this Sierra Nevada that has meant much to all of us. During my college years and for a decade afterwards, I spent a fair amount of every summer hiking the wilderness of the high country with youth and family groups from the church I served as youth director – Goddard Peak and Hell for Sure Pass; Mosquito Lake and Bear Creek. Some of the best memories Becky and I have from the early years of our marriage are mountain memories. I think my mother taught us well when she taught us to love the mountains.
It was only natural, then, that as I came to know the psalter, Psalm 121 would be a favorite. It begins:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
The scholars aren’t altogether sure what the psalmist has in mind when he writes of the mountains. Perhaps he is looking faithfully at the hills that surround Zion, the mountain of God. Or maybe he is being tempted by the statues of the false gods placed on the high places of Judea. Whether the mountains inspire or tempt, the psalmist quickly affirms that it is not the mountains themselves, but the One who created them who is the source of our help.
In my life God has used the mountains, especially those high places of alpine meadows above the tree line, the places of clear streams and blue lakes fed by glacier melt, the places of polished granite and gentle wildflowers, to teach me of his grandeur and creative power, his love of beauty and intricate design.
I love the mountains and can hardly wait to lift my eyes to them. But in the end, C.S. Lewis is right. It is not to the mountains or the beauty of nature that we must look to find the God who will keep us safe from all evil (Psalm 121:7). Speaking of nature he says, “Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our backs on her; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some poky little church, or (it might be) going to work in an East End Parish.”
Our trip to California is long-expected and much anticipated. The days in the mountains will be refreshing and renewing. But then we will return to our poky little church where we gather around the Word and the Table, where people go to work at the homeless shelter in Bristol, the food pantry in Penndel, Hunting Park Christian Academy in North Philadelphia, the villages around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala or the favelas of urban Brazil. More than in the mountains, it is in those places that we find the One who shades us so well that the sun shall not strike us by day nor the moon by night (Psalm 121:6).
In fact, my mother who taught her children to love the mountains also took us Sunday by Sunday to our poky little church and taught us, too, that love of beauty is meaningless without love for those whose lives are surrounded by so little beauty.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains… Thanks, Mom.