Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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“You Noticed!?” (Chicago Public Television)

January 6th, 2010 · No Comments · Sermon Bin

You Noticed?!

Psalm 8:1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.  2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.  3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.  9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

My maternal grandmother once showed me how, if I held a Bible on its spine and allowed it to drop open in equal halves, I would be looking down at the Book of Psalms.  I liked this trick.  It gave me something of an edge in Sunday School drills where the goal was to find Bible verses and find them fast.  Although, I think my main rival in these exercises, young Karen Ekgren, used this device too.  It probably goes without saying that my grandmother’s motivation for demonstrating this easy way to locate the psalms was not to help me defeat Ms. Ekgren and her speedy fingers.  She sent me to this spot midway between the dawn of Genesis and the “Amen” of Revelation to discover something that she dearly loved—a portion of the Bible that she thought I should be reading too.

Evidently, my grandmother’s nudge in that direction worked; for today I regularly recommend that other people read the psalms.  It has become an almost blanket prescription for me.  If you are depressed and wonder whether other people of faith doubt the existence of a loving God, read the psalms.  If you are giddy over some news and want to do a “happy dance,” fling yourself down in the grass, and thank God for life, and love, and luck, read the psalms.  If you are angry and feel betrayed by “close” friends and family members, read the psalms.  If you are convinced that corrupt people out there in the world will never get theirs; if you worry that the scales of justice are anything but balanced, read the psalms.  If you feel abandoned, alone, and lost, read the psalms.

The psalms cover the gamut of human feeling.  This can be surprising to those who think that spirituality flinches an turns away from the tough stuff.  A few weeks ago, I was talking with a person who kept apologizing to me for feeling downright furious with the path of her life (and God’s apparent indifference to its shoddy turns).  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I know…  I know…  I am supposed to be counting my blessings.”  “Maybe,” I responded.  Then, picking up my Bible, I cracked it in half, turned to Psalm 13, and handed it to her.  As she read the first verse, her eyes widened, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”

Lowering the book, she looked up at me, “I didn’t think a person in the Bible could say that!”  The raw honesty of the psalm was a surprise to her, and it was also, I think, a relief; for in Psalm 13 she found a kindred spirit.  This is one of the great gifts of this literature.  At its center, our holy book has dared to record brutally honest prayers—prayers written by people whose lives and loves, worries and questions are still very real to us—still very current for us.

Take today’s text, Psalm 8; at its core this prayer poses an ancient and yet still-pressing question, “What is a human being?”  To get at this question, the psalmist paints an evocative scene.  The psalm begins, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established…”  Can you picture it?  The psalmist is lying on her back, arms folded behind her head, gazing at the night sky—the winking stars, the amber moon, the deep black of space.  Now, I don’t know exactly what was going through her head when she looked up at the vast dome of darkness and light.  I don’t know what she thought moon was.  I am pretty sure she didn’t imagine that stars were balls of burning gas billions and billions of miles away.  Still, I am certain that she felt the same way that I did in looking at recent photos from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Small.  Insignificant.  A microbe in the vast universe.  In this posture of humility and awe, she asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

What are human beings?  It’s a great question—a classic question; one posed by psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, artists and priests for as long as our species has tried to organize its thoughts.  The great thinkers of world history have all grappled with this question.  A human being is pure spirit shackled to impure flesh—Plato.  A human being is a creature ruled by its subconscious fears and longings—Sigmund Freud.  A human being is a chamber of possibility—Emily Dickinson.  A human being is a highly evolved primate—Charles Darwin.[1] And on and on and on…  It is not surprising (is it?) that we are always wrestling with this question.  Perhaps that is what it is to be human… to puzzle over our identity.  To be human is to ask: Why are we here?  Where did we come from?  What are we supposed to do with ourselves?  Who are we?

Psalm 8 articulates one of the earliest-recorded responses to this question.  To be a human, writes the psalmist, is to dwell on a continuum somewhere between God and the animals.  Our place in universe looks like this:  God is sovereign.  God made all that is—the world and all its creatures.  Yet, in ordering creation, God gave human beings a special role.  God said, “I care for you mortals, and (in turn) I want you to exercise this same loving care for the planet and all its creatures.”

In terms of theology, this is pretty basic stuff for a religious person to assert.  Yet, the foundational notion behind this whole set-up for the universe stops the psalmist in her tracks.  “What are we that God cares for us?”  Hold on there?  She’s got a point!  When you stop to think about it, this seems like an outlandish assertion.  Imagine looking up at the night sky, feeling small under its vast umbrella, the wildest claim that you might make at such a moment is not that God exists, but that God cares.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove or disprove God.  Yet, to observe the universe, whether you are on your back staring up at the stars, or in a chair watching images of people digging for their loved one’s in the tangled aftermath of an 7.0 earthquake is to be assaulted with evidence that makes a person feel small and insignificant and anything but “cared for” by some unseen, benevolent power.

And yet, despite all the evidence against us, this is precisely the hope that we, the inheritors of the psalms, continue to offer to the world.

A couple of years ago I had a chance to travel to Italy.  As part of the trip, we went to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, the 12th century monk whose life and ministry were dedicated to working with the poor and the sick.  He was also known for his compassion for animals, and is now considered by many to be the patron saint of the environment.  Assisi is a stunning town.  Its buildings and streets are all composed of cream and pink stone that is native to the area.  At one edge of town, constructed from the same luscious stone, is the massive Basilica of St. Francis.  Adorned with vivid frescoes and precious altarpieces, it is also is beautiful place.  Although, I must admit, I felt a bit strange going inside it.  I am probably more skeptical than most when it comes to such an edifice.  All around the building, shops were selling St. Francis trinkets.  And it seemed, well honestly, strange to think that such a massive structure had been built to honor a man whose life was dedicated to simplicity.

Inside the sanctuary, we descended two floors to the tomb of St. Francis.  The tomb was a medium sized room.  In the center, the saint’s bones lay in a marble casket perched atop a massive rock.  There are places to sit.  Incense wafted through the air, and piped-in music set the tome with a solemn Latin chant.  Peering behind one of the columns, I noted that the monks use Bose speakers.  Ah, I thought skeptically, the monks are playing us.  It was a tasteful production, I told myself, but a production nonetheless.

Moving forward, I approached the casket on the large boulder.  People were lighting candles on an altar positioned in front of the saint.  On the other three sides, the boulder was encased in a metal cage.  The bars of the cage were set far enough apart so that a person could reach through, and inside, on the surface of the boulder, I could see splashes of color.  Peering closer, it became clear that people had placed pictures, hundreds of small pictures of their loved ones in the nooks of this stone.  There were old, lined faces and young faces.  There thin faces and fat faces.  There baby pictures and wedding photos.  They were beloved faces, the faces that appear in our minds when we pause at work and that rattle around in our hearts when we bow our heads in prayer.  They were the faces that we want to hold up in front of God.  And skeptical Protestant that I am, I was suddenly overwhelmed.  Tears streaming down my face, I sat down, and prayed.  Doggone it, the monks got me.

Then I thought a bit more… What was tugging at my heart in that holy space was not mere sentimentality coaxed to the surface by Bose speakers and cedar perfume.  What was happening in the tomb of Saint Francis was a glimpse of God’s word for the world.

I have no doubt that people will always struggle with what it means to be human.  Great thinkers and not-so-great thinkers will persist in asking the question, “Who are we?”  And they will continue to come up with good, bad and indifferent ways to answer.  That’s as it should be.  We should attend to and debate these answers.  For that too is human!  But as people of faith, we do this immersed in the wisdom of the psalms—bathed in the belief that if we want to talk about who we are, we must first talk about who God is.

“God,” sings the psalmist, “you are the sovereign one who notices us mortals, the lofty king who cares.”  This conviction will always seem naive to some, and on certain days it will appear foolish even to us—something silly and old, like candles and incense.  And yet, as crazy as it sounds, looking at the tomb of St. Francis, I suddenly felt that the wisdom of the psalmist may be the most important thing that we have to contribute to the world.  It is the gospel:  the seldom-substantiated conviction that God Almighty looks upon the faces of humanity, all the faces, the snapshots poked between metals bars and the digital thumbnails posted on websites, your face, my face, all the faces, with compassion and love, and then patiently waits for us to respond to each other in kind.

[1] For a wonderful treatment of this, see:  James L. Mays, “What is a Human Being?  Reflections on Psalm 8,”  Theology Today, Vol. 50, No. 4, January 1993.

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