Sunday Night Worship – 10/5/08

October Song

Psalm 19

One of my favorite places I have ever camped or backpacked is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once you make your way through the strip malls and tourist traps and theme parks of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg the most beautiful unspoiled land is all around you.

To be honest, there are still a lot of cars around you at that point, too. But if you get out and lace up your hiking boots and take a walk in the woods it is exquisite. Over the years I have had a lot of backcountry adventures in the Smokies with my hiking pals. There were the bear-like noises in the dark, the wild boar, the torrential downpour that sent us wilted and wet to a nearby motel, the snowstorm that kept us huddled in the tent eating M&Ms all night “to keep warm”…

One of the best nights out in the backcountry was not particularly notable in most ways. Now, I don’t even remember who else was on the trip. What I remember was the creek. About 4 or 5 miles in we stopped for the night at a creek-side backcountry site and all night long I listened to the comforting babble of the water gurgling over rocks and past the banks a few yards from my tent.

I think it was some time after that that I ran across a quote by the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. Something about it reminded me of that night by the creek and also of many other nights spent listening in the woods or days spent in the falling snow among the trees or napping while it rains – especially under a tin roof.

Here’s what Merton wrote (“Rain and the Rhinoceros,” in Raids on the Unspeakable):

What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

…I ended up transcribing Merton’s quote into my hiking journal, the one I keep in my backpack and write in only when I’m out camping or hiking. When I’m up early in the morning with camp coffee or snuggled in my sleeping bag at night with the flashlight on in my tent, I pull out the journal to give thanks for where I am and what I’ve seen and who I’m with. Every time I open it I see this Merton quote and, together with the experience of being back out in the wider creation again, I gain a little perspective. I am reminded of how small I really am and of what a good thing that is. I am reminded that I have a place in the vastness of God’s created order and that I’m – we’re – not the only ones talking about it and praising God for it.

What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!…The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19: 1-4a).

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           We are in my favorite month now. October. I don’t know when it became my favorite but I remember clearly when I realized it had its own song. I was living in Lee County, Virginia, way over in the very southwestern tip of our state. For a few years between college and seminary I worked for the Appalachia Service Project and I lived in a little metal building on the side of a mountain with a view of Tennessee and the sound of my neighbor’s cows mooing up the hill behind us. Though my dad grew up farming, this was the only time in my life I ever lived on property with its own barn.

I used to take walks there, down the hill and then up and down several more hills on the little country road where I lived. I would walk about 2 miles to a church with two brilliant trees in its yard and over the course of my walks one fall I watched them turn yellow and red and drop vibrant carpets of leaves in the parking lot.

I love being out in the fall weather – the clearness of the air and the blue of the sky, the smell of cooling air, the feel of a slight chill creeping in towards November. Walking to the church and back I used to pass a few tobacco leaves fallen onto the road from the heaps in pick-ups. The sweet, unburnt smell of tobacco would mingle with the crisp freshness of the air and the sight of birds flying in lazy spirals on up-currents of air.

Ever since that time I’ve waited each year for October’s song. For some reason it is the time of year when I can most clearly hear the talk of the rain and the watercourses, when it is evident to me that day to day pours forth speech. Maybe you’ve heard it, too…

There is a reason many of us feel a special closeness with God when we are “communing with nature.” God who redeems each of us (v. 14) is the same God who created and continues to create, the One who provides the warmth and energy of the sun (vv. 4-6) and who gives us Torah (vv.7-13) and lives with us in Christ. God is the potter with hands covered in wet clay. God is creating every day, as each day pours forth speech. Like the psalmist, we may not recognize words or speech, but, if we commit ourselves to the practice of listening, we might, like Thomas Merton, feel cherished by what we hear.

In Hebrew adam means “human” and adama means “earth” or “ground” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IV, p. 753). A visual and auditory signal that we – all of God’s blessed creation – are family (NIB Commentary, p. 753). We are made of the same stuff, as we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday each year: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. People, animals, trees, earth, sky, all that rain and all those days pouring forth speech. Created, related, all speaking and singing songs of God. The psalmist reminds us that the rest of creation praises God, too. The rest of creation has its own speech and relation to God.

What does that mean? Whether we camp out by a creek and sit in the hollows to listen to the rain, or whether we live life in cubicles and shut our windows to shut out the noises of crickets, what does it mean that all the rest of creation is singing psalms to God? Whether we try to hear them or try not to, whether we ever think we understand the pouring-forth speech or not, what does it mean that it is there?

If a tree sings to God in a forest and there is no one there to hear or comprehend the song, does it make a sound? And does God hear it? And are we able to truly hear God if we don’t listen to the rest of the family?

What is clear from both Psalm 19 and the Pentateuch – the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament – is that creation comes first. Just as the book of Genesis comes before the book of Exodus – creation before redemption – in Psalm 19, the created order comes before God’s gift of the Torah. (NIB Commentary, p. 754) “God whose sovereignty is proclaimed by cosmic voices is the God who has addressed a personal word to humankind – God’s Torah…which makes human life possible and orders it rightly” (NIB Commentary, p. 753). We have a rightful place but it doesn’t start with us. We aren’t the only ones in this family and we aren’t the only ones God is speaking to or whom God hears.

What are we going to do about that? How do we cherish all of creation and join the song?

Today happens to be World Communion Sunday, begun in 1940 with the express purpose of gathering all Christian churches to celebrate Communion together on the same day. At that time many Protestant churches celebrated Communion only a few times a year so this special Sunday was one set-aside time for everyone to have at least one Sunday Meal together.

Over the years as liturgies and worship patterns have changed, most Protestant churches celebrate more frequently. At Wesley Memorial we celebrate on the first Sunday of each month and at the Wesley Foundation we celebrate each week during our Sunday Night Worship service. As trends in worship have changed since 1940, so have some of the associations and meanings of this day set aside for World Communion. Now many churches focus on our common mission throughout the world (www.gbod.org/worship).

This year at the Wesley Foundation we have begun praying through the Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer published by the World Council of Churches (http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=3038). Each week of the year we pray for several countries of the world, moving through all the regions and countries over the course of the whole year. It’s a way to remind ourselves that we are joined in prayer to our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. It’s also a way to keep our hearts and minds open to a bigger perspective than just what’s on our own plates or in the news this week. It’s a good thing that we are listening for praise and prayer in all sorts of speech, as this week’s countries include the hard-to-pronounce nations of: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.ÂÂ

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Including these prayers in our weekly prayers has enriched our worship. But what if today, this year, we were to get really ecumenical about it? What if we took another look – or listen – and celebrated World Communion as our communion with all of creation? What would that celebration look and sound like? How do we sing this October song, harmonizing not just with other peoples but with other creatures and with all of creation? The gospel of John proclaims that the reason for the incarnation of Christ is that “God so loved the world” (John 3: 16, emphasis mine).

We are called to love as God loves and to love what and who God loves. It is a difficult call but it is ours. How do we act like family with species we haven’t seen? How do we listen for the pouring-forth speech of all of creation? How do we understand our role as stewards and caretakers? How do we act like family to a polar bear or a buttercup or a glacier or an oak tree or a rain drop?

Our country is voting in another few weeks and in between conversations about the economy you might hear politicians talking about “the environment.” Psalm 19 challenges even that language. “The environment” is not an adequate term for the other parts of our family created by God. The term “environment” simply denotes the place where we find ourselves and what surrounds us in that place. Is that an adequate description of our kinfolk, the heavens and firmament continually praising God (v.1)? It may be acceptable language for a politician but is that language good enough for a Christian?

Our country and our world seem to be encountering so-called environmental problems we don’t know how to solve. At the very least, we are grappling with problems whose solutions will call for sacrifice of one sort or another. Since our allegiance is not to the Republicans or Democrats, but to Christ, perhaps changing our language is a start. How would our hearts and minds and public policies change if we were to adopt St. Francis of Assisi’s language – “brother sun and sister moon”? How might we conceive of the problems differently if we were to remind ourselves of where we stand, this holy ground proclaiming God’s glory?

How do we love the world as God does? How do we cherish it and allow ourselves to be cherished by the rest of creation? How do we sing a new song?

The thing about the way creation sings is that, if you listen, you can hear more than rain and trees. Can you hear October’s song? The voices are many and the speech comes in many languages and infusing it all is God’s Holy Spirit. And God is singing along. Listen…

The poet Jane Kenyon may have been hearing a song like this when she wrote the poem “Briefly it Enters, and Briefly Speaks” (Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems). Hear both praise of God found in and from everyday details and the voice of God in those same details. Listen:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years… .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper… .

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me… .

I am food on the prisoner’s plate… .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills… .

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden… .

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge… .

I am the heart contracted by joy… .

the longest hair, white

before the rest… .

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow… .

I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit… .

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name… .

Thanks be to God!

© 2008 Deborah E. Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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