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  • Reverend James Squire

Hills or Mountains

There are two biblical statements that are familiar to most people that speak to the needs of our soul. One is Matthew 17:20 regarding faith that can move mountains to encourage us that nothing is impossible. The second is the first verse of Psalm 121, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who created heaven and earth.” I have climbed mountains in Colorado, but much more frequently I run up and down hills. They are two different experiences that speak to us at different times. They constitute our spiritual terrain. We think of faith as one size fits all. I have found different challenges require different kinds of responses from our soul.

Certainly, climbing a mountain can cause us to feel that we have achieved a significant feat so I find myself thinking about that image when someone is coming up with a tough diagnosis such as a brain tumor and overcoming of the odds against us or a loved one so that the shared journey is like climbing a mountain. When I have a very difficult process to go through, I usually pretend that I am climbing a mountain. It seems to take a great deal of grit and sometimes as much patience. Both hills and mountains require a different kind of training or faith awareness to go up or over them. They require different muscles and different strength in our beliefs.

However, I spend most of my daily life on hills. I love to run. I run in all kinds of weather with all kinds of injuries. I like the exhilarating feeling of running up and down hills. As is true of life, hills can be deceptive. When driving a car, we don’t tend to pay attention to them in the same way we do when driving up a mountain. But people spend much more time on hills than mountains. When you drive up onto the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, be aware of how steep it is to go up it from either side. We don’t notice it. But run up it in a race as I have done on multiple occasions, I found myself always thinking, “Man this is steep.”

When you run up a gentle hill, you just see it as part of your life. Recently I injured a calf muscle doing hill work in my neighborhood. I had to go on flat surfaces until it got better. I found it kind of boring like running on a track. Flat surfaces create an illusion that you are running uphill as you look forward and when you are going back on the same flat surface, it seems to be going up as well. It is like those puzzles that we see where we are asked to find the beautiful woman or old hag in the sketch. It is a matter of perception. However, that running example is a cautionary tale. When we are living our life, we sometimes feel that there are challenges that aren’t there. An example is anything that has us saying “no” to life as opposed to “yes”. The “no’ can come about when we are slowed by perceived challenges that are based in unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others or seeing injustices done over and over. Stay the course. Be positive! We will have enough uphill demands that come to all just in in our normal day to day lives.

It is difficult to run up a hill without lifting your vision. It just is the case as we lean slightly forward. It is automatic until you think about it. It is only then that you notice it.

Faith to move mountains seems to be the metaphor for facing impossible tasks and hills call forth more of the metaphor when we are not noticing the rigor to get over the slope. We were required to think of both mountains and hills during the Pandemic and Black Lives Matter Movement. It reminds me also of when students came to see me to talk about the hill in their life and they didn’t realize that it was a mountain of impossibility. Some will say, “This is no big deal, but…” and they go on to describe a very big deal. Sometimes we need to help others to know the spiritual terrain they are on. When I am counseling others, I must help them know when they are running on hills of ordinary life or on mountains with extraordinary demands. Each requires a different strategy. Each requires a different pair of shoes, light running shoes for the person that requires quick movement up and down the hills whereas people require a sturdier footwear to meet the slow climb over rock and crevices up a mountain.

Psalm 121 is the psalm most often chosen by people who are dealing with the death of a loved one. It is the top choice that I am asked to include in a memorial service. People realize that it will be the hills that we know to be part of our daily life and not the mountain of praying for help from God to cure an incurable illness. Each mountain or hill has a place in the spiritual terrain of our life. Faith is not a one size fits all. Different aspects of our faith are needed for those two different descriptions of the spiritual terrain. I think that is why the biblical writers of the Psalms and the writers of the Gospel of Matthew chose different images of our spiritual terrain.

(Scholars know that more than one person wrote the Psalms even though they are attributed to King David and more than one person wrote the Gospel according to Matthew as other sources were used most notably Quella which is an unknown source from which the first three Gospels received information.)

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