Thursday, October 1, 2009
Living Praise- Psalm 8
These last few nights I have been watching the PBS series by filmmaker, Ken Burns about the creation of the National Parks system. It documents the movement that created the parks amidst much controversy and resistance, highlighting some key individuals who have had an almost missionary fervor for setting aside these vast unique spaces in our country. The controversy largely part centered around control- who should control of the land, the resources and the valuable artifacts. The resistance has come from those who want to “cash in” on the timber, the waters, the minerals or the ability to charge others to see the sights. Even after lands were “set aside”, it is probably not surprising that people continued to timber the sequoias, to graze cattle that fouled pristine waters, and more recently to urge lawmakers to permit drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuges because it is a more important purpose for human needs.
The fact that these parks exist at all has been the work of some very devoted, driven men and women who repeatedly use words like “glory, majesty, awe, communion, and divine” to speak of natural wonders. One such man, Charles Sheldon, is credited with creating what we know as Denali National Park and Preserve. Ken Burns speaks of Sheldon as a man with “an amazing life as one of those well-connected rich people at the turn of the 20th century who could therefore, in the best sense of noblesse oblige, get things done.” In essence, Sheldon used his capacity for dominion in ultimately beneficial ways. Burns quotes a striking observation of Sheldon who speaks of feeling “the atomic insignificance of oneself” standing there in front of Mount McKinley. Burns adds- “I've always thought of that. That's exactly right… That you stand…at this massive mountain, the most massive mountain in North America, and you feel your atomic insignificance. And yet that makes you larger, that makes you connected to everyone and everything else…It's just that sense of feeling, both how fragile and short our lives are but also what a glorious web of interconnectedness… it suggests we can participate in.” This is the essence of our psalm for this day.
Psalm 8 has a slightly different context. It was created for night time worship, when at the end of a day when one can reflect on all the hours have encompassed, where as darkness has enveloped the world, one could imagine the beauty of the stars glimmering remind the psalmist there is still a light that shines. The psalmist marvels at the night sky, like my younger daughter, Alexandra and I like to do. Go out in the backyard and gaze at the stars and planets, maybe see a comet, or a shooting star. If we go a mile further down the road, beyond the last of the light pollution, the last of man’s efforts to re-create habitat, we can see even more and can join in the vision of a God traced the pattern of the stars with a fingertip. On a clear night, in the quiet of fields, we feel like miniscule specks compared to the cosmos. James Luther Mays, writes that “The comparison between ourselves and all the rest of reality… when noticed, brings with it an overwhelming sense of insignificance and displacement. Now we understand that the universe is not measured to the smallest degree by the reach of our sight, nor the march of time by the length of our lives. Astronomers and their planetariums show us the miniscule proportions of our solar system. Beyond our cosmos, the universe stretches from galaxy to galaxy through unlimited void until space curves back on itself.” Then Mays puts our human life span into perspective, much like our psalmist-“Geologists work out cosmic calendars, informing us that if the measurable course of earth's career were reduced to a year, the history of our civilization would occupy only the last minute of that year.” Awesome and fragile come together.
It is at this moment that the center of the psalm, verse 4, breathlessly blurts out- “What is humanity that God should be mindful, should pay attention and care for us?” Not only to care for us, but to place us in unique privilege- a little below God. But we are not God, and we are still placed within the community of creation, not separate. So how is it that we so often get this equation all wrong?
Somehow we struggle, since the time of the creation in Genesis which Psalm 8 reflects, to the present. We struggle with accepting our place in it all. In the mid 1500’s, furiously contested debate erupted over what was the center of the solar system, the Earth or the Sun? Nicolaus Copernicus, was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, a fancy way of saying that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe. His work, entitled On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was published in 1543 just before his death, and is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution. In spite of brilliant work, in 1616, the Roman Catholic church issued a decree suspending distribution of Copernicus’ work until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the doctrine that the Earth moves and the Sun doesn't must be "false.” We must be the center. We can often fall into the trap of believing that we are the center of the universe even now.
This highlights disparity between God’s vision of humanity and the reality of humanity. We as humans are gifted in a way that the rest of creation is not with unique intellectual capacity-a source of joy and tension. We are the species that creates its own habitat, has mastered tools, has complex emotional and rational capacity. These abilities that we are given create our ability to have dominion. But these powers are intended by God, not exclusively for ourselves, but as representatives of the sovereign Lord for all- as stand-in rulers whose vocation and role are intended to reflect, not ourselves, but our God. And dominion has responsibility.
The National Parks movement exemplifies the tension between thinking that all of creation is here “just for us” and thinking that all of creation looks to us to maintain order and not chaos in community. Psalm 8 echoes the creation story in Chapter 1 of Genesis, where in verses 26-30, after God has spoken and created an ordered and arranged world out of chaos, the pinnacle has been to create and designate humanity to maintain this order. Created in the image of God- created to praise God. And we are designated to demonstrate the same love and care as God. Created not just speak praise, but to live praise.
Though the entire Book of the Psalms in Hebrew means “praises”, Psalm 8 is specifically a praise psalm, which lifts up both aspects of rejoicing but also hints that praise can be a two edged sword. For it asks what kind of reign, what kind of praise do we enact in the midst of God’s work and world? If we praise God’s majesty but do so at the expense of others and of creation, is this really glorification of our God? Patrick Miller, in his book, They Cried to the Lord, suggests, “ One cannot exalt the power and consistent grace of God that lifts up the weak and lowly, the afflicted and the needy, and then put down those same weak and afflicted…Praise that is a lie becomes an act of self-indictment.” When we do this, we have turned dominion into domination.
It is therefore sheer grace that we are spared from ourselves by a God who continually pays attention to and cares for us anyway even now. And it is I suggest not only God’s intention, but God’s gift to us that we are created into community. For it is in community that we can appreciate that praise and thanksgiving come out of relationship with God and our world, as does awareness of one’s shortcomings and fragility. Many of the leaders of the Park movement were moved to tears in speaking of the awareness of the divine in times of need in the midst of this overwhelming creation- where in silence and solitude, they found a healing voice, an answer to prayer, a re-connection to order out of the chaos of their lives. But that was not the end of their experience. What happened next was their unstoppable desire to share this praise and thanksgiving and to urge others to join in this sense of joy and wonder. This created a ripple effect as the sentiments and awareness spread, opening others up to that unique human quality of the ability to appreciate both awesomeness and fragility and praise. And this is ultimately the language of the psalmist- a reminder of the connection of human existence and praise of God through all things.
In our Bible study we have discussed trying to hear the words of the psalm as though they are your prayer, and then to try to hear them as though they are the words of another. It doesn’t take a natural wonder to give us a reason to praise God. When we experience a healing moment, an unexpected but welcome event, and answer to prayer, or order out of the chaos of our own days, we find cause for praise. When someone else is need of the same in their lives, we can give praise by inviting and sharing of the God at work in our world. We can live praise in the ways we care for others and for creation. In all of our communities, we can carry out praise, not just by ourselves, but in proclaiming to others in words and deeds what we just cannot keep to ourselves- How majestic is your name, O Lord!