Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer and Psalm 19: "Their Sound has Gone Out…"

The heavens declare the glory of God, *
 and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another, *
 and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language, *
 and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
 and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
 it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
 it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
 nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
                                                                          (from Psalm 19)

One of the joys of Christian faith and life is knowing we are not living in an impersonal, dead universe or floating alone in a meaningless vacuum bereft of unseen relationships and cosmic mystery. While our secular contemporaries try to enliven the emptiness of the absurd mess they have constructed from the beautiful revelation God has given, the Christian lives in a glorious community of praise, presence, and relationship. Psalm 19, a gift from our ancient Hebrew ancestors in the faith, expresses this well and raises some points to consider over a Willamette Valley summer.

We often hear people talking about finding God in nature. What they mean by this is usually rather vague; sometimes it is used as a kind of anti-church jibe, as in “I don’t need to go to a building to experience God: I just go out into nature!” This, of course, assumes that those of us who worship in church can only find God there.

Instead, the Liturgy does nothing to confine God to a building “made with human hands.” Our prayers point us to the Lord of heaven and earth, the one who created and sustains all things, and who is worshipped by all creation. It is up to us to live out the words we pray, including those of the Sanctus: “heaven and earth are full of your glory.” If this is indeed true, it means that every dimension of the creation has at least the potential to reveal something about God’s presence and purpose.

That revealing is made, however, in a special language. The Psalm knows this: “Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.” For those who are listening, the creation speaks still. It requires patience, training, and a keen desire to hear…but the sound of God’s creative, free, awe-inspiring Word is constantly being made by the cosmos. The ancients called it (among other things) the “celestial harmony,” and found it not only in the exalted landscapes of land and sea, but in the intricacies of nature and beauty of mathematics.

The language of creation is, to a great degree, the language of beauty; and beauty—as we all know—cannot be put into words or reduced to a product available in a store. It requires a relationship, an appreciation, and an inner sensibility to receive and delight in it. That is why the Psalm emphasizes the notion of communication and sound: just as there must be a maker, so there must be receiver for sound to be complete.

The creation declares the glory of God, and we who are both part of creation and yet stewards of it must listen for creation’s “voice” in order to be truly human ourselves.  We are both part of the celestial harmony and its audience. This is one of the wonders of being alive, of being in Christ, and of being listeners rather than only speakers.

By entering into the world as Psalm 19 understands it, we are participating in a continual, cosmic liturgy of love and knowledge. The love of God the Holy Trinity creates and sustains the myriad forms of creation; participating in that love allows us to grow in a knowledge of God, creation, each other, and our own selves. This, too, is part of the celestial harmony, and what it means for us to become more and more like God through sanctification in the Holy Spirit.

That cosmic liturgy means we are never really alone, never abandoned, and certainly never irrelevant. Just as the course of the sun is a source of wonder and awe for us on earth, so is the course of our life—when run in faithfulness, love, and humility—to the angels above. Like the “champion, running its course,” our journey contributes to the whole symphony that glorifies God. Your life, my life…they matter ultimately to God and to the unseen multitude with whom we travel on this eternal pilgrimage.

When I stand on the ocean’s shore, or gaze across the valley from Mary’s Peak, feel the shimmering heat across a lava flow in the Cascades, or look at single-celled animals in a drop of pond water under a microscope, my faith allows me both the delight in the science that describes these things and to rejoice in the God who brings them into being and sustains them. The unheard song of creation described in an ancient Hebrew song of praise then rings through me, and I understand more with my heart than with my brain both who I am, and whose I am.

It is this tale, this knowledge, and this embrace we share in the Holy Liturgy and in the our encounters with the world fashioned by our God. May the celestial harmony find root in the ear of your soul this summer, and may we each take our appointed part in that symphony of joy and love!