In Washington state, one of the remarkable features of the area is the vertical landscape. On a clear day in my neighborhood, I can look and see Mount Rainier out in front, the Olympics in my rear view. My senses are overwhelmed by beauty.
As I have made a point of walking outside in my neighborhood daily during the lockdown, I have thought of the ancient words from Psalm 121 often. “I look to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” Some would argue that just gazing at Mount Rainier is a religious experience. The snow-capped mountain, its look of rugged power and immensity adorned in soft yellow sunlight, hits you at a visceral level. I understand why some would look to the mountains for help.
As we journey through the coronavirus crisis, we are all looking for answers. We want clarity on when the vaccine will arrive and when the proverbial light will come. For some, though, this is not merely about getting answers, but about finding healing amid loss. And that is what most of us are feeling right now: profound loss on so many levels. Whether it be financial, social, or even worse, loss of life, there is a sense that we lack something or someone now that we had before the global pandemic.
One of the striking trends buried beneath the debris and chaos of this moment is the fact that we, as a general public, are asking questions. We are asking big questions that we have not asked in a long time, if ever before. Questions such as, “What is the purpose of my life?” “How do I find personal peace?” and “What do I really want to do?” Philosophers call these the ultimate questions, and understandably so.
Back in college, I had a professor who irritated me. I think the good ones do that. They prod you with their pointed questions and provoke thought with their dramatic pauses. In my professor’s case, it was a statement he made in the first class. In a throwaway remark, he raised his voice and said, “Ask good questions. You want to ask good questions because it is the questions that are going to keep you up at night, not the answers.”
I remember walking out of the lecture room afterward and thinking to myself that my teacher was one crazy guy. What if I want to sleep at night? Clearly, I missed his point.
As years have gone by, I have realized he was simply pushing his students to ask the questions that really matter. After all, that is one of the most beautiful things about being at university: It is a place where one is encouraged to ask the big questions.
One of the activities that has brought me peace during this pandemic is simply sitting on a hill in my neighborhood and gazing at Mount Rainier. There I have pondered the words of Psalm 121. I cannot help but think that my college professor would like the fact that the writer centers this particular psalm around a question: “Where does my help come from?”
Since the psalm inspired a deep interest in me, I decided to look into the original context in which the words were written. To my surprise, I discovered that there was a deeper meaning in what this ancient writer was intending to convey. The ancient Palestinian hillsides were filled with places of worship, shrines and idols.
So, when he looks to the mountains, he is not only looking at amazing scenery; he is also looking to different places that are offering help. It’s as though he does a panoramic view of the hillside and asks, “Will my help come from any of those places?”
Having considered the many options, he then states his conclusion: “My help comes from the Lord.”
Where does our help come from? If this global pandemic has revealed anything to us, it is the fact that we all need help. We are not so independent as we once thought we were. It might be easy to forget our current questions when life returns to whatever normal we find ourselves in. But we will still be looking for help. Surely this is a question worth giving considerable thought.
I am now convinced that my professor’s encouragement was some of the best life advice I ever received. Maybe it is worth missing some nights’ sleep for the sake of asking good questions. Crisis or no crisis, we all need help, and the tested and tried words of Psalm 121 might just be the balm that we all need right now.