AAA reported that 49 million Americans were expected to leave home to celebrate our nation’s independence this past weekend. That’s a mass migration! Miraculously some of our church folks stayed home and marked the holiday weekend with a joint worship service uniting three congregations. There were no red solo cups for our communion celebration but we had some out for the potluck that followed the service!
On July 3 I traveled down to my family’s cottage just south of Saugatuck on Lake Michigan. My brother and his family were spending the week there so I joined them for an evening. Upon arrival I approached the bluff, bracing myself for what I would see. Over the winter the bottom flight of stairs to the beach were torn away, destabilizing the rest of the structure. A storm about three weeks ago destroyed our neighbor’s stairs so that no one on our stretch of the lake has access to the beach.
In the early 80’s lake levels were high. We built our cottage in 1974 but the eroded bluff forced us to move a three-story A-frame back through the woods to a secure setting. We have been spoiled with relatively stable lake levels for 25 years but that ended this past winter. I looked over the bluff to see new trees that have fallen down. The lake laps menacingly at the base of our property. Real estate washes out with each wave and the promise is that the lake will continue to rise. Our neighbors to the south are banding together to place huge boulders at the base of their bluff as a protective seawall. I wished them well but said that we weren’t planning to attempt any intervention with Mother Nature. My parents paid for a seawall when we moved the house back in the 80’s and it had minimal effect. We’ve learned to have a respectful awe for God’s creation, discerning when we can impact our surroundings and when we cannot. The very water that has drawn my family to the Saugatuck area since the 1890’s is now an aggressive force tearing at our land. The lake is always awe-inspiring–sometimes in very different ways.
So where are you going on vacation this year? What attracts you to your vacation spot? When I meet with families to plan the funeral for a loved one I ask them about their memories with this person. Inevitably stories surface about moments that took place on the lakefront, at the cabin, fishing with grampa, spending the night on the boat, cooking s’mores over a campfire. In these settings the usual chores are put on hold. The distractions from the demand of job and home ownership are minimized. Kids get the undivided attention of the adults in their lives. There is a reverence toward this more intimate interaction with God’s creation. These moments fill our cup—for a lifetime!
In the patriotic songs that we sang in worship yesterday I heard a theology of awe. A breakdown of the word “theology” is “Theo” = God and “ology”= study of. A theologian studies God. So a theology of awe could be understood as Godly reflections on awe. We choose to live in places that inspire us. We pick vacation spots because they take our breath away. Some of our church folks just returned from a mission trip to Honduras and the beauty of the land and people indelibly marked them! When God shows up we can expect to be awestruck.
Psalm 60 addresses an era of divine rejection by the Israelites. Consequently a divine anger shook the land. God’s people experienced desperate times because they were relying on their own strength. This psalm marks a turning point because the next 12 psalms showcase an increased reliance on God and a widened inclusion of all the peoples of the earth. Rather than rejecting God, Psalms 65-68 urge believers to praise the One whose goodness will inspire awe in those near and far.
We focused in worship on Psalm 65. It’s a perfect companion to the beloved hymn, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Psalm 65 has three segments. Verses 1-4 offer praise to God for the gift of forgiveness. Verses 5-8 give praise for God’s stabilizing power. Verses 9-13 celebrate the blessings of the land.
The first segment begins with Zion and ends with a reference to the holy temple. From whence does our awe originate? It derives from our relationship with God and the community of faith. Zion, as Jerusalem was called, was the place where Israel’s religious and political hopes converged. There was no separation of church and state. It was a natural marriage for the Jews and Jerusalem was the locus of their devotion. The writer of this psalm states, “…to you shall vows be performed…” What vows do we make to God? With baptism, confirmation and new membership into a congregation, we take vows. When we get married in a Christian ceremony, we take vows to love each other out of an overarching love for God. What vows do we fulfill as Christians—in our homes, offices, neighborhoods, church meetings, interaction over the fence with our neighbor who consistently plays loud music on their back deck all summer long? What promises do we understand that we have made as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?
In this psalm the writer acknowledges our sinful nature: “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.” In more modern language it might sound like this: “When we’ve blown it predictably and again, you forgive us! Amazing!” The writer goes on to state that those invited to live in the temple, where God was understood to dwell, will be blessed. There could be no better place to live. Psalm 84 describes the yearning to be with God: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of the wicked.” In other words, I would rather stand all day as an usher at our poorly ventilated church, welcoming people for prayer than drink margaritas belly-up to the bar in the coolness of air conditioning with scheming pals! Right?? Right!
The second segment of Psalm 65 praises God for the awesome deeds that deliver us from our troubles. The places we seek out for vacation show off God’s power. Sometimes we travel far from home and discover that even those who live on the other side of the earth are filled with awe at their slice of creation! But awe does not take away the challenges of each day. The water levels rise. Wars are fought. Relationships are fractured. Migrants flee and a nation reacts. Amidst all this tumult, God shows up as a the Great Stabilizer! This reminds us that we are NOT the ones in charge gives us both hope and joy.
We hear this awe for displays of God’s power in the hymns we sing around this time of year:
My native country, thee/Land of the noble free/Thy name I love;/I love thy rocks and rills/Thy words and templed hills;/My heart with rapture thrills/Like that above. (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps; They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, His day is marching on. (The Battle Hymn of the Republic)
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way; thou who has by thy might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray… (Lift Every Voice and Sing)
The last segment of the Psalm offers praise for the blessings of the land. God’s provision is celebrated and the images given of God as caretaker of the earth still resonate with us: rivers, rain, ridges, grain; hills and valleys, pastures, flocks. Together all of creation sings out praise for the Creator who so abundantly meets our every need. The land throws a party in response to God’s grace. Picture the team that has just won the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Series: victorious players spill out onto the field and what do they do? They grab each other, jump up on each other. Grown men hop up and down, up and down! Some fall to their knees and raise their hands and faces heavenward in an act of praise. These images of victory are fitting as we imagine the joyful chorus that sings God’s praise from every corner of the globe.
This psalm was probably used by the Hebrew people as a liturgy for national thanksgiving for a rich harvest. For much of their history the Jews didn’t have their own land. When they were able to build homes and plant fields in the Promised Land, they had much to celebrate! It’s interesting to note that their thanksgiving begins with repentance. Theologian Walter Brueggeman interprets this psalm for us: “Let us not miss the dramatic claim. The whole people (together with the kings, presumably) concedes its guilt and celebrates its forgiveness. Such a scene is nearly unthinkable in our public life…Psalm 5 reflects a public imagination capable of a troubled spirit, not so full of self, but able to reflect on its life in light of the majesty of God, a community forgiven and therefore ready to begin afresh…If we were to use this psalm, we might reflect on the dimensions of guilt which vex public life, e.g., colonialism, exploitative economics, or misuse of the ecosystem of creation. Our public life is not lacking material for such a liturgical act…” (Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms, p. 135.)
Can you imagine us doing that sort of corporate confession on the Fourth of July, beginning with our President, Congress, the Supreme Court and our local elected officials? The Jews, whose political and religious life were inextricably tied together, knew that confession cleared the way for awe which brought hope in the most difficult circumstances. Inasmuch as we can acknowledge that it is truly and solely in God that we trust as a nation, the well-being of every person who lives in our alabaster cities and purple mountains majesty is assured. But if, as is increasingly evident, it is in national pride, partisan politics, and personal greed that we place our trust, we will lose our ability to sing songs of praise to the God who shaped such a beautiful country that we call home.
When the British government was putting together a worship service for the “victory” of World War II, Archbishop Temple wanted to begin the service with the words, “Our spirits are troubled.” No hopping up and down. No excessive celebration of the sidelines because of a military triumph. Rather a humbling before the God of all nations that acknowledged our corporate sin. Brueggeman assures us that Psalm 5 is instructive to us because it “reflects a public imagination capable of a troubled spirit, not so full of self, but able to reflect on its life in light of the majesty of God, a community forgiven and therefore ready to begin afresh.” (Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms, page 135.)
On this holiday weekend we celebrate the presence and provision of God in a country that fills us with wonder in so many ways. As we head to cabins and boats, campers and parks this summer we do so as followers of Jesus who are willing to confess, repent and wildly rejoice in the gift of being forgiven! Forgiveness fills us with awe and that is what will make us noteworthy among the nations!