Sometimes the best way to read the Psalms is to do it out loud. And with this week’s psalm, notice how it breaks down into three distinct parts:  to celebrate God’s creation;  to recognize the worth and power of God’s torah (teaching, instruction, commands, law); and  to recognize the need for repentance and forgiveness.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his 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. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. –Psalm 19 NRSV
William Willimon, a United Methodist bishop and one of my favorite religious writers, once had this to say about this week’s lectionary passage from 1 Corinthians (concerning the wisdom of this world and the “folly” of the gospel): “As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one’s point of view” (The Christian Century, March 10, 1982). Something along those same lines of Sunday-morning and Monday-morning ears can be said in regard to Psalm 19, as well.
It’s a common thought expressed these days by people who’ve pretty much given up on the church that they can worship in the midst of creation far, far better than in a religious meetinghouse. I understand and to a certain extent sympathize and empathize with them. On the other hand, I love both locations, although for different reasons.
In the summer of 2009 my wife and I stopped in to visit a good friend from our home congregation who’d been helping a relative at a “conference center/dude ranch” halfway between Boulder and Estes Park, Colorado. Chuck took us up an extremely bumpy road to a hilltop looking out over not just the ranch but a magnificent scenic vista. Many years before a previous owner of the ranch had built a chapel on the spot, and it continues to be used as a popular wedding site.
There was something more than just the quaint beauty of the little chapel and its scenic vista going on in my mind (and soul) as I contemplated that moment. I recall having difficulty identifying exactly what I was feeling, but for some reason the beauty before me contrasted with the stress of my then work environment. The thought of spending several more years in that situation before my anticipated retirement just added to my discomfort and unease. Why couldn’t I just enjoy the scenery in the moment.
What was it about the stunning and calming beauty of that spot that drew my mind to the work situation I’d be returning to within three days? Remember that children’s song that goes something like, “Oh, be careful little eyes what you see” and then goes on to consider hearing and thinking and doing? Well, the beauty of God’s creation set a course for the “meditations of my heart” in an uncomfortable and disconcerting way.
Of course, I couldn’t have guessed then that on the following Monday morning, my first back in the office, that I would be stunned with the news that my job had been eliminated and that, after 23 years of employment with the church and its publishing house, that I would soon begin an early retirement–at the age of 58, no less. Given our existing economic environment, job searches much less career changes are let’s just say highly unlikely for my demographic.
That Monday morning and for several days and weeks to follow the “meditations of my heart (and mind)” would not blissfully return to my literal mountaintop experience of a few days prior. I admit those thoughts (and privately to a few other folks, the words of my mouth) were by no means lofty and pleasing. Looking back, there’s at least some small comfort in knowing my experience was not unlike most people suddenly confronted with job loss.
I think I’ve managed to get pretty much past all that in the years since then. (Perhaps you noticed the “pretty much” in the middle of that sentence. OK, let’s just leave it at that.)
Certainly the glory of God is evident in creation, whether it’s to be found in the Rocky Mountains or on a Caribbean cruise or in the middle of a Kansas wheat field. And as the psalmist points out in the middle passages of Psalm 19, divine glory arises, too, within God’s instruction (torah, teaching, scripture, the “word,” or in any number of other descriptions). Experiencing the glory of God in all places and at all times can be more of a challenge.
I suppose none of us should be too surprised to find mountaintop experiences directly adjacent to the valleys and shadows and depths of life. It happens. God is present in both–and all–places. I’ve never bought into the all-too-common “blessing in disguise” nonsense that gets thrown in our faces whenever something really bad happens. Or, for that matter, the equally repulsive “everything happens for a reason” response. No, sometimes stuff just happens. But it’s what we do next that matters. And the next day and the day after and the days and months and years after that.
Yes, Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart–both on Sunday mornings and Monday mornings–be acceptable unto you.
[From the 2012 ForeWords archive]