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A song of ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
I have come to the conclusion that I hate Highway 81, with a deep, crimson passion.
My husband and I were headed back to Pennsylvania after spending the weekend with family in Virginia. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, and it will always retain a special place in my heart. My heart at the moment was actually a bit heavy, as we had just left my kids with my sister-in-law. She and her husband had graciously agreed to take them with their family to The Great Wolf Lodge for three days of waterpark fun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go because I had to continue my radiation treatments at home. So, as we drove north on 81, I was already on my way to a pity party. The party was interrupted by something worse, however: a blinking sign, stating that a major accident was blocking both lanes and all drivers needed to find an alternate route. Great.
My husband and I got out the map to consider our options. Two highways run relatively parallel to Highway 81: Route 11 and 42. Route 11 (on the east side) and Route 42 (on the west side) are two very old roads that, at one time, were in regular use before Highway 81 split them down the middle. The exit to Route 11 was backed up for miles, so in a split-second decision, we chose to take an exit toward Route 42.
Route 42 was surprisingly empty, and it wound gracefully through some of the most beautiful countryside I have seen in Virginia. We passed stately old brick farm houses, majestic red barns, serene cattle and sheep, and countless deep-green fields, all nestled between the Appalachian mountains on the left and the Blue Ridge on the right. We realized that as long as we were headed north and the Blue Ridge mountains were on our right, we would eventually make it back to an exit that would lead us back to 81. Those mountains have been a source of wonder and comfort to me my entire life, and resting my eyes on them calmed me, as I recited silently Blue Ridge on the right.
I was immediately reminded of the famous Psalm above, as its words are contained within Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” from his Mass. The words from the song include the phrase “For the Lord is my shade, is the shade upon my right hand.” Why is the shade provided by the right hand? More than likely because most people’s dominant hand is the right hand (apologies to my left-handed friends). It is strong, and therefore, is a symbol of protection in the Bible. (Keeping the sun off your back could save your life, after all.) Furthermore, in laying on hands for blessings, it was the right hand that was placed upon the head of the one receiving the blessing (Gen. 48:18, for example). Being seated at the right hand of a host was culturally significant and constituted favor as well; according to the Creed, remember, Jesus is seated “on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
Even more interesting is that research indicates many scholars view Psalm 121 as a Psalm for travelers. Its subtitle claims it is a “Song of Ascents”—as in climbing up something. In his article, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners,” James Limburg claims that “ascents” is “a reference to the “going up” to Jerusalem for the annual festivals held there” (p. 181). Each verse offers strong encouragement and assurance to the traveler as s/he climbs. In a nutshell, this Psalm says to me:
“In every uphill climb in your life—every stumble, every rock, every burning ray of sunlight—God is watching over you. He does not prevent every fall, but he will stand by you. He may seem quiet; maybe He even seems to be asleep. He is not. If you are not sure, then look up to those mountains and the clouds above them, and remember who created them. Don’t look down at your feet; look UP.” Blue Ridge on the right.
We made it home safely and avoided the accident on 81, but we were also thankful to traverse “a road less travelled.” It was a wonderful diversion from the curse of Highway 81.
My cancer journey is almost over. As the highway winds through the valley, my heart continues to whisper: Blue Ridge on the right. Blue Ridge on the right.
Limburg, James. “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners.” Word World: Theology for Christian Ministry, 5/2 (1985): 180-87. Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Viewed on August 7, 2017 at http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/5-2_Psalms/5-2_Limburg.pdf