Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 121) transports me back a few hundred years to a time when these mountains around me were populated by a different people. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, the poet writes. I can never read that verse without thinking of the outdoor drama in Cherokee, Unto These Hills. European explorers looked unto these hills and saw prospective treasure troves they could transport back to the motherland. Once gold was discovered in them thar hills, the Cherokee looked unto their beloved mountains and saw a way of life destroyed. European settlers converted many of the Cherokee to Christianity; I wonder how the new converts’ experience and history shaped the way they read the end of today’s passage: The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. For some of those who were driven out, the Lord kept their going out and coming in until they lifted up their eyes on the foothills of the Ozarks in Oklahoma. But several thousand never finished that pilgrimage. The only going out and coming in the Lord could keep for them was their exit from this sad world and their entrance into a happier hunting ground. For others, the Lord kept them hidden in the hills of north Georgia and western North Carolina until the hero Tsali made his dramatic sacrifice, after which the rounded-up remnant all came into the reservation. Ironically, streams of people now make regular pilgrimage to the mecca of Cherokee to lift up their eyes and see the bright lights of Harrah’s Casino.
Psalm 121 is a song of ascents, or a song of pilgrimage, sung by the throngs of pilgrims who would make long journeys to Judea to ascend the hills of Jerusalem and see the bright lights of the Temple for feast days. It was also sung by the exiles who returned home to the hill country after 70 long years on the Babylonian reservation. When they lifted up their eyes to the hills, their minds and hearts must have been full. For in the Hebrew stories, hills represented many things – the abode of a protecting and watchful God, a place of renewal, a hiding place, but the hills also had negative connotations of corrupt imperial power, pagan worship, and danger. In the march toward this mountain of hope and fear, the pilgrims had good reason to ask, from whence cometh my help? And they had good reason to place themselves in the care of God.
Lifting my eyes unto these hills brings to mind my great friend Bill Baldridge, a Cherokee Nation member whose ancestors survived the going out and the coming in of the Trail of Tears. Bill is one of those people I can always look to when I am going through a particularly tough time, when my eyes are downcast. He has a unique ability to open my eyes and shift my perspective. Bill has has done a lot of things in his life; he has been a pastoral counselor, a theological educator, a social worker, and a photographer, to name a few. His photographs demonstrate a brilliant eye, an eye for deep beauty in the midst of often overlooked people and places and things. Check out Bill’s work on his Flickr website; it’s amazing. In addition to all his other endeavors, Bill is also a fine bluegrass singer/songwriter. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he lifts his mind’s eyes unto the hills of his youth (imagine a fiddle and banjo in the background):
I remember long ago, Tom Downing used to sow
A garden in those Oklahoma hills
Brother Bob and I would search a cloudless sky
Memories, how they linger with us still
Yes, old Tom was poor, because the clothes he wore
Were faded jeans from Dottie’s General Store
Frankly half the time we paid no never mind
He had a heart of gold, and Lord, his eyes were kind
Summer in those Oklahoma hills
Old memories that are calling to me still
As I’m growing old it’s in my mind to go
To summer in those Oklahoma hills
Old memories call to me, too, as I wake up every morning and lift up mine eyes unto these hills around me here in the Land of Sky. I remember hopes and fears, protections and dangers; I remember weal and woe. From whence cometh my help? From the Lord, whose ways are beyond my ways, whose protection and preservation from evil is a long mystery, especially to the exiles and expatriates who used to inhabit this same space.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.