we lift our eyes
Last month, I sat in a lean-to just big enough for eight people, listening to high schoolers tell the stories of their lives. The lean-to sat on a hill overlooking Long Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. The sun had set, the bugs had come out, and we were huddled around a small candle, its flame flickering dimly on our faces.
These students had it hard. Their lives have held darkness and isolation, just as every life does, but still, my heart ached for them. I myself had traveled there with my own burdens, preoccupied with myself and tunnel-visioned by my anxiety. We were a bunch of lonely, melancholy, anxious people.
That same evening, after we had finished eating and cleaning up camp, we read Psalm 104 together. Our voices rose along with the smoke in a chorus, harmonizing with the loons, proclaiming the glory of God made manifest in God’s creation, in the earth, full of God’s creatures. After a day in the wilderness, we unreservedly praised God for the canopied sky, for the expanse of the lake, for the well-watered cedars of the Adirondacks, for nighttime in a forest, for the life born out of God’s Spirit.
Over the next few days, we lived in that psalm. We read it together again. We meditated on it on our own. When we watched the sun fall gold and white into the night, I whispered, “You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers upon the waters.” When we were rained out by a storm that lasted all night, we laughed and said, “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.”
And somewhere between Sunday and Saturday, the little boats of our lives started to change course. When I’d ask a student how he had changed since we arrived in New York, he’d say—without fail—that his heart was lighter, his spirit brighter. A sense of companionship, of hope, of confidence had begun to blossom within him.
For too long, we had each been caught in our own little eddy in the stream. Stuck. Spinning in circles. Some of us were working frantically to paddle out, but to no avail.
With the help of the psalm, though, we started to look up, to see what was around us, to notice the expanse of the sky, to see our companions on the water. One of our leaders pointed out what a small role humanity plays in the psalm. Instead of reinforcing our isolation, the psalmist invites us to take in the spacious, glorious created world.
When we lifted our eyes from the nose of our boat to the horizon and up to the green-garbed mountains, it became easier to steer out of the swirling water. Our view suddenly included the whole of creation—from the clouds to the cattle to the coneys—and we gained perspective on our troubles.
But it was more than the mountains that lifted our spirits. If mountains themselves were that powerful, the remedy for depression and heartbreak would always be to escape to the backcountry. Instead, the reason that the mountains carry that kind of power is because of the one who dwells there, the one to whom we lift our eyes. The Lord. Our help.
From his lofty abode, he waters the mountains. He clothes the lilies of the field, watches over the birds of the air. He opens his hand, and his creatures are filled with good things. The earth is satisfied with the fruit of his work.
The psalm depicts a God who cares for his creatures. Over the course of our days in the wilderness, we began to trust that God would carry us out of the stuck places. We looked to God to give us our food in due season. We were hungry for something new, and God fulfilled our yearning.
He fulfilled our yearning by sending forth his Spirit and creating us anew.
Who can say exactly how God’s Spirit moves, because all we see is the way the trees rustle in the wind, and the way our souls grow spacious. But I knew it was God’s Spirit, being sent forth into our huddled little group as we canoed down the river. Because we were moving. Things were changing. We were being created anew.
That kind of creation doesn’t happen without a great big exhale of the Spirit.
The same Spirit that hovered over the waters in the beginning and brought order out of chaos was hovering over us. The Spirit gave bounds to the water and ordered it not to overcome us. The Spirit held the dark waters at bay and made room for Christ’s light.
Our lives, which had seemed unendurable, were thrown open to the light. Our spirits were filled with hope, which is exactly what we were hungering for.
We returned home to Michigan, leaving the mountains behind, but retaining the space the Spirit had created in our lives. The same sun sets up its beams on this water. Clouds still bloom white as sails in the sky. Here, too, God extends his hand, shines forth his light, sends out his Spirit, and we are created.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!