Which Way Is Up?

I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1-2).

I took flying lessons many years ago. I never got my license, but the twenty-five hours or so that I flew were a great experience.

One of the most rewarding things about it was the sense of literally “rising above it all.” Whatever was going on down on the ground, you could get into your small plane, accelerate to a speed no faster than cars routinely go on the interstate, and soon, effortlessly, you were climbing into the sky. As the ground fell away below, so did everything else—problems, schedules, demands, to-do lists—until there was just the hum of the engine and the openness of the air. It was peaceful up there.

After I stopped flying, mostly because it was expensive and other needs were more pressing, I would often be out on the highway and imagine pulling back on the car’s steering wheel to rise again into the sky over the countryside. Once you’ve had a taste of tranquility, there’s a longing for it that never quite goes away.

I’ve thought since then that the notions of looking “up” to see God and the image of Jesus ascending into heaven make a lot more sense than some people imagine. When I was young, popular writers on theology and the Bible liked to describe how the ancients believed in a “three-story universe,” consisting of the earth, and hell below, and heaven above, and how we moderns no longer have such a naïve view of things. Of course, we don’t take such notions literally today, and I wonder how literally even many of the ancients took them, since people lived more comfortably with poetry and metaphor and myth in olden times than most people do now in technologically advanced societies. Still, there’s something about the notion of God and heaven being “up” from the earth that’s compelling and illuminating.

Up, after all, basically means away from the center of the earth. Anyone who has a globe, as I have on my desk, can see at a glance that, from the perspective of outer space, a person in the United States and another in China, both pointing up, are pointing in roughly opposite directions. Up is relative, in other words. It has to do with rising above where we are now, lifting our gaze to someplace higher, from which, if we could look down again, things would take on a whole new perspective.

That sounds to me very much like what it means to look toward God. I understand that God is everywhere, so of course we don’t have to look up to find God, as though God was located someplace above the sky and was not as near as the air we breathe. Yet surely God is also greater, wider, higher than our immediate surroundings—not to mention our preoccupations. “Up” seems like as good a metaphorical direction as any to find the comfort, strength, guidance, and peace that God alone can give, putting everything else into ultimate perspective.

So when the psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” maybe he really does know which way to look.

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