I can never read Psalm 121 without thinking of an old friend. His name was Chris Vais, and we met when we both were in grade 4, in Sunday School. We played community club soccer against each other, went to camp together one summer, and were both active in a high school ministry called Young Life. We landed at the University of Winnipeg at the same time, and even ended up taking some of the same courses. By that time I’d begun to work at Marymound as a youth care worker, while Chris was doing the same sort of work in a group home. Our stories—our paths—just kept crossing like that.
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When I moved to Toronto to begin my theological studies at Trinity College, Chris was just across the campus at Knox College, preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. We were both serious music lovers, and Toronto offered us endless opportunities to see great shows… though on our student budgets we had to pass on more than we actually attended. In 1987 we saw U2 at Maple Leaf Gardens on their Joshua Tree tour, but the real gem was getting tickets to a fundraiser headlined by Bruce Cockburn in 300 seat club.
When it came time to move back to Winnipeg, it was Chris who volunteered to drive the truck with me, making the long journey through Northwestern Ontario in a U-Haul that had clearly seen better days. That trip marked the end of an era, as he soon returned to Southern Ontario to pastor a congregation. But whenever he was in Winnipeg, we’d get together for a visit, picking up the conversation pretty much where we’d left off at the end of his last visit.
When Chris was in his mid-30s, he was diagnosed with ALS; a disease that over the course of a few years would slowly weaken his body until he would no longer have the strength to breath. His response? Well, after the predictable things like denial and then that “why me?” sort of anger, he started to speak of embracing the experience of getting weaker. If, he reasoned, Paul was right in saying that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness; and if the great work of the Incarnation is done through Christ turning the defeat and weakness of death into the dawn of a new day, then he had much to learn from his own growing weakness. It was extraordinary to hear him talk like that, and to read the letters he would painstakingly peck out on the computer keyboard with his weakening hands.
When he died, a mutual friend named Glen Soderholm—also a Presbyterian minister—picked up his guitar and composed a song to bid Chris farewell. The song was essentially a pretty direct setting of Psalm 121, and as Glen recounts things, it pretty much poured right out of him. He didn’t so much compose it as discover it.
You’d think that it would have been a lament psalm that Glen might have taken hold of, but instead it was one of the “Psalms of Ascent”; a traveling psalm used by the pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the feast. Psalm 121 is marked by deep trust, voiced in the assertions that the God “who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” and that “the Lord will keep you from all evil.” But didn’t it seem that God had fallen asleep on Chris? And for Glen, who lived in southern Ontario and visited Chris regularly as he weakened, and who had joined with a circle of other pastors and friends in providing community to their dying friend, how could this death be anything but a kind of evil?
Yet that’s precisely why this psalm leapt out, ready to be set to music. Like the ancient pilgrims who sang it and prayed it on dangerous wilderness roads, Glen knew he needed to sing it from a posture of deep trust, even as he grieved the death of his great friend.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
We might assume that those hills are meant to speak of the glory of God, in much the same way that people find themselves awestruck by the glory of the Rocky Mountains. In all likelihood, that’s not what is at work here. As Jerome Creach points out, on those roads “the traveler surely observed worship sites devoted to other deities (on “the hills”)… Thus, to confess that the Lord was ‘maker of heaven and earth’ was to say these other deities were imposters.” Where does my help—our help—come from? Not from those shrines up on the hills, but from the One who made those very hills.
Wilderness terrain was dangerous; the hills harbored thieves who preyed on travelers. You needed to travel together—in community—otherwise you were likely to meet the fate of the traveler in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. So eyeing those hills, perhaps a bit nervously, the community responds, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And it is only in the company of others that you can really learn that sort of trust.
The psalm sings of how “the Lord is your shade at your right hand” such that the “sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” In the wilderness, the hot sun was dangerous, sunstroke a very real threat. And in that world-view, the moon was believed to be tied to mental illness and instability; “lunacy,” as it were. It is all but paradoxical, then, for travelers to dare to sing that are protected from both, but again because it is sung in community such trust is possible. It is possible precisely because that community had to care for those who were getting in trouble; the community had to shade the person who was wilting in the sun or who was experiencing the pain of some emotional or mental anguish. They needed to know when to stop, to rest, to take water, to bear one another up. Then, and only then can you sing such words.
It is like Glen, steadfastly visiting his weakening, dying friend, or like that circle of friends who kept coming around even when Chris could no longer speak. Not backing away, as so often happens when someone is dying, but insistently, faithfully, and trustfully bearing him up.
What is at stake here is a kind of trust that is born of knowing how life really is, and of then being prepared to live with those paradoxes and still sing.
In the gospel reading tonight we get a glimpse of someone not able to trust like that, and certainly not able to yet sing. Nicodemus the Pharisee, intrigued by what he’s heard of Jesus, comes to see him under the cover of the night’s darkness. He comes with words that at first seem respectful: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus, though, will have none of it. He could have responded in a pastorally sensitive manner, accepting the polite salutation and then trying to coach Nicodemus along so that they could find some common ground; “agree to disagree” and lets not let our differences get in the way. But Jesus has too much respect for him to do that, and so he engages him, pushes him, pays him the honour of challenging and pressing him. Jesus doesn’t want Nicodemus to just slip back into the dark night, his curiosity satisfied. Jesus doesn’t want Nicodemus to have just a little more insight, a new idea to ponder, a respectful appreciation for these new teachings. No. Jesus wants Nicodemus to move from his posture of safe and measured religious thoughtfulness to embrace a new posture of trust. So he pushes him. And we don’t know what Nicodemus was thinking that night night as he left. John doesn’t go there.
Nicodemus does appear again in this gospel, when he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to claim the dead body of Jesus and bury it in its tomb. I think that is really striking. No longer coming alone under the cover of darkness, the Pharisee now comes in the company of another, and together they quite openly express their connection to Jesus. He’s learned to trust, in other words, however provisionally. And he’s learned to do it by keeping company with another who has also learned to trust. Oh I know, it was just for the sake of giving a dignified burial to that broken body, which hardly seemed a particularly world-changing act. Little did they know.
And little do we know the power of singing paradoxical songs, marked by mystery and by a trust that seems—at least at times—rather thin. But like those ancient pilgrims traveling through the wilderness, we do sing, and we sing together.