Our hymn this week is a setting of Psalm 121 by the Korean poet Song-suk Im (b. 1933). It was set to music by Song-chun Lee. The psalm is a pertinent one for our times, but I picked this setting because I was struck by its intimacy and simplicity. There’s a simple elegance that serves to redirect your attention back to the central theme of the psalm: life is out of my control, but God is here with me. Let’s start with a listen.
Psalm 121, The Message
A Pilgrim Song
121 1-2 I look up to the mountains;
does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God,
who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.
3-4 He won’t let you stumble,
your Guardian God won’t fall asleep.
Not on your life! Israel’s
Guardian will never doze or sleep.
5-6 God’s your Guardian,
right at your side to protect you—
Shielding you from sunstroke,
sheltering you from moonstroke.
7-8 God guards you from every evil,
he guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return,
he guards you now, he guards you always.
Psalm 121, Common English Bible
A pilgrimage song.
121 I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.
3 God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
4 No! Israel’s protector
never sleeps or rests!
5 The Lord is your protector;
the Lord is your shade right beside you.
6 The sun won’t strike you during the day;
neither will the moon at night.
7 The Lord will protect you from all evil;
God will protect your very life.[a]
8 The Lord will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.
Friends, our common life together is scary. Covid-19 is a worldwide threat. Maybe it’s better or worse in your community. Maybe, regardless of the statistics and data, you feel scared, or maybe you’ve taken the sanity-saving path of not thinking about it. Maybe you live in Iowa and were hit by the derecho this week and that feels more pressing. Maybe you live in Lebanon and the explosion in Beirut still has you reeling. Maybe you live in New Zealand and are shaken by the unexplained reemergence of covid-19 in your community.
Whatever your struggles, they matter to God. I don’t do as good a job of trusting my life to God’s care as this psalmist seems to. I compare myself to the psalmists sometimes, finding ways to count myself coming up short. I think, ‘this was a simpler time and it was easier to trust God’ or sometimes ‘they didn’t have the modern healthcare and welfare system we have, so they had to rely on God.’ Neither of these are lines of thinking that really get me farther on the road to trust. Really, I have no more control over my life than someone in ancient Israel or Judea did. Disease, famine, storms, wars, personal and communal suffering are all still present. I think there are so many psalms about trusting God because the psalmist needed that reminder just as much as we do. While I can’t do anything about the virus, I can record for you a piece of music that gives me comfort, in the hope that it brings you comfort, too.
Doing this series of music from Christian communities around the world reminds me of our shared humanity. I truly believe that when we listen across cultures and across countries, we can do and learn and grow more, individually and as a community. I have made a concerted effort to look for new avenues of growth and learning these past few months. Responding creatively in how we approach our difficulties and struggles is a calling. For example, in learning the piece for this week, I practiced Korean, got help in grouping the Korean words (because that changes the musical phrasing and expression), and did some background studies that, to be honest, I probably would not have done were things “normal” right now. That is not to say that I think God sent the virus “for a reason”–this is toxic positivity and really bad theology. But we can, individually, look for ways to ‘suffer creatively’ as Joyce Rupp calls it, and to lean into the difficulties. Nothing right now is “normal”, and rather than trying to make it normal, or beat myself up for things I can’t control, or try to control how others act and react, I’m trying to learn and grow in how I interact with my world and myself. I struggle with a lot of Paul’s writings, and as annoying as it can be to have someone lecture you about ‘boasting about suffering’… I think there’s some personal revelations to be gained from his assertion that in suffering we build endurance and character. I have spent a lot of time this week feeling afraid, sad, and angry in the face of disasters striking around the globe, but I am practicing giving it all to God, and then working at the small contribution I can make.
This psalm setting is a beautiful offering for worship or to memorize and sing with your children. As with learning anything, repetition is key. I love to sing to my son in the car, or at random moments when we come upon a random thing that reminds me of one of the many, many random songs I have memorize (in truth, I actually ad lib lyrics quite often). The music for this hymn can be found in Glory to God and in Psalms for All Seasons. If you want to push yourself into something completely new, you can go on YouTube and watch any of the myriad of second-language learning videos, which is one of the ways I practiced Korean… Alas, I just couldn’t get secure enough to sing in Korean and play piano, but it was a useful exercise! Perhaps there is another psalm that speaks to you. Preparing your own paraphrase/poem inspired by scripture is a wonderful creative spiritual practice.