Smoky Mountain Psalm
This week Captain Kirk flew into space. Finally. At age 90! For years, he only pretended to do so, on the starship Enterprise in the old Star Trek series.
His name is William Shatner. He lives in Kentucky. On a farm not far from Lexington.
He took off on Wednesday morning way out in West Texas. With three other persons. It lasted all of ten minutes!
Which reminds me of a line from a John Prine song: For if there’s life out there somewhere beyond this life on earth then Linda must have gone out there and got her money’s worth.
I’m certain William Shatner got his money’s worth...because he did not pay one penny!
He certainly testified that way: when he climbed out of the rocket capsule and he said, “What you have given me is the most profound experience. I am so filled with emotion, just extraordinary. Hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now.
We know that feeling, don’t we? It is how we feel when we gaze into the night sky, and it is all clear and unclouded with more galaxies than we can count? It is how we feel when we wade in the water on an ocean beach and sense the rhythm of the waves washing against your feet and ankles and legs? It is how we feel when we drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mt. Pisgah right here in our back yard and hike out to the overlook and take in ridge after ridge of these Smokey Mountains? Makes us want to say, Praise the Lord! Made the psalmist write, Let all that I am praise the Lord!
What we see when we gaze into the sky or wade in the water or hike to the edge is the glory of creation and the glory of the creator. The Bible, our hymnbook, and our vocabulary are full of these exclamations of ecstasy. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
But there is another side to this story.
The reality of our environment also invokes a fear of creation. This doesn’t find voice in the psalms or in our hymns. The world of nature is a fearsome place, full of danger and death. Fires in California, hurricanes in the Caribbean, tsunamis in southeast Asia, and rising waters all over the globe. This week a crocodile unseen in a common creek grabbed a little girl and ate her, right in front of her playmates. YouTube has many videos of animals in combat, fighting to the death.
And we have all watched this year and last as 700,000 people died, stricken by the virus, including the aforementioned John Prine.
The Psalmist tips his hat to this side of things in his poetry. He describes how the wild animals prowl at night seeking their food. He mentions the ocean vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small, including the leviathan which you made to play in the sea. He neglects to describe the way sharks open their giant mouths with rows of razor-sharp teeth and gather up thousands of sea creatures in one swoop. It is the strong eating the weak.
These facts do not fit his purpose. But these facts also do not disprove God and undermine our faith in God. But they are part of the whole picture. The purpose of our ancient poet is praise. Not some rational argument: first this (creation) then this (a creator). Not some explanation of why things are this way and not that way.
It is true: Many people do indeed look at the world, the universe, this way. With curiosity. With a commitment to understand how and why and when. They have a concentrated effort to examine and watch and listen, to measure, and count, and compare.
This approach to things is what we call science. Science is not a denial of God, any more than acknowledging the dangers around us is a denial of God. In fact, many scientists, including Galileo years ago, are devout believers.
One famous scientist resigned his post. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health. He led the team that deciphered the human genome. He has been a major player in the campaign to vaccinate the population. “The vaccine is an answer to prayer,” he said this summer. He wrote of his conversion while a med student at Duke and how he interprets our place in space in his book The Language of God.
We may be wary of things out there: the bees that sting, the sun that scorches, the lava that levels everything in its path to the sea. But we can still say with the psalmist: Let all that I am praise the Lord! And we may be fascinated by the facts of things out there: their origin and demise, their structure and sounds, and their habitations and habits. But we can still say with the psalmist: Let all that I am praise the Lord!
Not everybody who walks in the woods understands the dangers. It takes experience, and learning, and good guides. And not everybody who wades in the water and watches the sun rise from the east pauses to praise God. Not everybody who hikes to the peak is serious about the science behind it all. Who knows when and how that fascination emerges?!
I once asked my grandson Sam where he would like to go in the United States. He said, To the archeological digs of Wyoming. I want to see the dinosaur bones. I took him instead to the Smithsonian! I love his curiosity. Where does it come from? Where does this spirit of wonder and worship come from?
Not everybody has it. Years ago, the Russian president Khrushchev said in public after the first space flight, by a Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in 1961: “Gagarin flew into space but didn’t see any god there.” Some go to space and see; others go to space and don’t see.
The British poet put it this way: Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit around and puck blackberries.
Our desire to praise God does not come from nature itself. We cannot look at the stars and conclude that God exists. We cannot study the cells in our body and surmise that a divine creator first imagined them. We cannot walk in the woods and based only on that exercise expect to be converted. There are plenty of unbelieving people who walk the same path and see the same plant and look through the same telescope.
Let’s take this one step further. You cannot look at the baby in the manger and conclude: He is the messiah of Israel. We cannot listen as Jesus speaks the beatitudes and say, “Yes, you are the anointed one of God.” We cannot watch as Jesus heals the sick and comforts the grieving and denounces the religious establishment and say: I told you so! He is the real deal. This is the son of God.”
No, it did not happen that way.
Remember the day Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi? It was a royal retreat east and north of the Sea of Galilee, in what we call today the Golan Heights. He asked them,
The people you talk to: what do they think about me?
The disciples said: Some think you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. There is a certain reasonableness to that. Some think you are Elijah, sent by God to prepare the way for Messiah. Yes, the Hebrew Bible reads that way and the Jewish people thought that way. Some think you are one of the prophets. Why wouldn’t they think that?
It is quite possible that some of his own disciples were thinking in these ways. They also were trying to discern: who is this Jesus? It is surely true that many who sit in the pews from week to week think these things.
Fifty years ago, Jesus Christ Superstar came out of nowhere and asked these same questions, offered these same answers. You can hear it in person next April when they stage it in Greenville, South Carolina. It opened on Broadway 50 years ago this past week, asking the question: Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?
On that day in the Golan Heights, Simon Peter spoke up: You are Messiah of Israel and the son of the living God!
How did he know this? How did he know that Jesus was sent by God? How did he know that Jesus was the anointed one of God? How did he know that Jesus was the friend of sinners, the savior of the world?
In a few weeks we will sing these words:
Hail the heaven-born prince of peace! Hail the son of righteousness.
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the new born king!
This faith, this confession, this certainty: where does it come from? Jesus had an answer to Simon Peter: Blessed are you, Simon Peter. You did not get this from any human source. My father in heaven revealed this to you! My father in heaven revealed this to you!
Yes, there may be things in your experience that pushed you to this conclusion. Yes, you may have analyzed all the evidence and put forth a logical summary. Yes, you may live in a tradition that makes this confession unremarkable. Yes, even your sacred texts, your Bible, your Hebrew Bible and Christian gospels may pull you away from doubt and predispose you to believe.
But at the bottom it is a word of revelation. At the center of it, it is an awakening of your human spirit by the indwelling holy spirit. At the first and last and all around, it is nothing more, nothing less that God, the everlasting and almighty creator of all there is that has given you the light to see and the words to say.
Whether you are looking at the baby in the manger or the stars in the sky, it is the Lord who inspires you today, Glory to God in the highest. Whether you are watching Jesus feed five thousand people or staring through a microscope at the world hidden from view, teaming with life, it is God, our father and mother in heaven who inspires us, enlightens us, and awakens us to the true source of all things. Whether you are shocked by the blood running down the face of a suffering savior hanging on the cross or stunned by the ecological intricacies of the forests all around us, it is the Lord of God, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer of all people, friend of sinners, a very present help in a time of trouble that allows you to see and hear and feel and believe. And say, with the psalmist, Let all that I am praise the Lord.
Speaking of those forests around us, I was attracted to the sweatshirt I saw downtown. It carried the text. May the Forest be with you! These Appalachian Mountains, Smokey Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Pisgah Mountain have given rise to the regional slogan: MAY THE FOREST BE WITH YOU.
It is simple, clever, evocative, suggestive of good things. It is seven syllables. It is one of the phrases I wrote down when we began our search for a way to describe who we are and what we are called to be.
But it is not so original. It is a riff of a much more popular phrase, from that other epic, Star Wars: May the Force Be with You. And that, in turn, is itself derived from the liturgical phrase, from the greeting that has been spoken in church for centuries, The Lord Be With You. To which the faithful reply, And also With You.
It is the evolution of a half sentence, from something very religious, very churchy to something not so much so. From a phrase familiar to Christian people, it has become something earthy and every day, something winsome enough to sell caps and attract travelers and sum up what we find so delightful about this place we call home.
Maybe our Lord, the one who reveals to us all things, will take this exclamation of the ancient poet—Let all that I am praise the Lord!—and transform it into something slightly more earthy and everyday, into something that connects with people who never darken the door of a church or stop to give praise to God, into a compelling testimony to what we are called to be and do.
More importantly, may our Lord, the one who has saved us and sanctified us and sent us into our community to be witnesses to the goodness and glory of God, transform us into the people we need to be.
May it be so!