(This was the message I gave last Sunday. I know it’s a long read, but new birth never happens all-of-a-sudden. I’ve decided to continue with The First Morning, because of what you’ll read here, and because of what so many of you have written in such encouraging ways. Blessings!)
The Womb of God
One of my favorite biblical authors is Abraham Heschel who, in 1962, wrote the definitive book on the prophets, called The Prophets. He described the time period around 400-500 B.C. when some of the great Old Testament prophets had begun to write and speak in alarming, revolutionary, and largely unlistened-to ways (I’m going to paraphrase just a little, because his words can be difficult at times):
Heschel wrote of that time- “Religion had declined not because it had been successfully argued against, but because it had become irrelevant, dull, oppressive, uninteresting. When faith is replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crises of today are ignored because of the remembered splendor of the past; when faith becomes an inherited heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority and rules rather than the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”
Part of my personality- my vision of the world, the universe, God, and all things and beings contained therein- is summarized in that statement. I listen to and read other preachers, so many other Christian teachers and thinkers, and I end up feeling lonely sometimes, embarrassed even because what I see and believe seems so different from what I hear being proclaimed as God’s Truth, God’s Word by almost everyone else, including many of my own denominational colleagues. And that sometimes leads to a kind of situational depression on my part. I wonder if I am wrong, and if I am even being fair in sharing some of my deepest insights and doubts and wonderings with you because they so often seem to run counter to what is considered orthodox and traditional in Christian thinking and doctrine.
That is this preacher’s burden. Robbie, primarily, and some others of you catch the brunt of that odd depression from time to time, maybe too often. But I hope all of you also hear and feel- underlying that confusion and what is a very real sadness at times- I hope you also hear a real hopefulness on my part. I don’t believe Jesus intended to lead us in circles around and around in 2000 year old cultural realities and perceptions. In fact, I think that following Jesus is God’s way of leading all people, in all times, out of the Bronze Age that religion had irrelevantly, dully, oppressively, and uninterestingly become stuck in, and into an always-being-made-new Creation.
I sit by the ocean watching the waves in early morning moonlight and think about these things. I walk beside the evening’s incoming tide, watching the records of that Creation in the scampering of sandpipers and the 200 million year old ballet of pelicans. I stand on Carolinian sand dunes blown into existence by winds which blew across the continents of Africa and South America long before there was a human present to scratch boundaries of ownership across them. Around me are pairs of ragged claws, as T.S. Eliot called them, crabs scuttling in and out of their ancient habitats, in and out of holes dug among the tangle of vines, the cacti, the wildflowers, and the swaying salt marsh grasses.
One morning, as I am making what is for me a jaw-dropping discovery that the horizon is not a perfectly straight line, but a series of barely discernible ups and downs of tidal risings and forming waves, like letters, words, and sentences- a kind of oceanic story being written in circles around the globe, and on that morning that story is punctuated a mile offshore with two large spouts of water. A whale.
That same morning, a little later, dolphins- 3 of them- appear near my son and daughter and others, ten yards away, jumping from the water in perfect, almost friendly formation. Then, later that same day, two sharks- small ones- appear just beside the shore, gulping the small fish caught in a temporary lagoon caused by receding tides. Those who are swimming leave the water quickly, but are unable to stop watching this scene, an unchanging scene, a wild and eternal scene older even than the time of dinosaurs.
I watch episodes like these shoulder-deep in the water, or from my sandy seat atop a dune, or hunkered down beside the water’s edges where waves born in the meeting of Caribbean currents and sub-Saharan winds are wetting my feet as my toes curl into the million and millions of tiny worn shards of ancient shellfish, now grains of sand. Other shells lie all around me, saltwater shelters abandoned by ten thousands of mollusks and crabs, shells which one day, wave after wave after wave away, will also be pummeled into the granular debris of other beaches, other shores.
I am caught up again and again in the transcendence of moments and minutes, of time and eternities. All that is around me on this shore- on any shore, and on beyond these shores to the mountains far behind me and the plains and rivers and lakes and fields beyond; all that is around me, beside and behind me, over me and under me, from the verdant green of every flower, to the forests of trees beyond them in the Great Smoky mountains, from those creatures in the seas which are too small to be seen, to sharks and whales, to crabs and the pelicans, the gulls and sandpipers, to each and every animal that burrows, flies, swims, crawls, slithers, or hunkers down near the waves watching it all- all of it, all of them, emerged in their primary, first forms from the ocean. Life- all life- has been born in these salty wet depths. All life has surged upward and outward and forward from this womb of God, this birthplace of an always new Creation.
Above me, and I cannot look elsewhere now, the morning sun is rising between scattered gray, yellow, and white clouds moving from east to west in massive air currents I cannot feel, but only see. Clouds formed by the endless evaporation of water from the ocean’s surface in response to the 10 billion year old sun’s invitation to rise toward its light and warmth. Clouds which, when laden with the many tons of hydrogen and oxygen atoms formed into molecules of water, attracting each other, joining together and spilling in heavier-than-air raindrops on the lands over which they pass. Gentle spring rains or summertime deluges, the ocean pours through them onto lands beyond, where the grasses absorb them and grow. And then the oceans are eaten in their now green and leafy incarnations by cows. And dairy farmers gather the now milky white drops of the ocean together into pasteurization vats and stainless steel tank trucks, some of which, not far away, will be made into ice cream.
Lick the ice cream and savor the ocean’s journey onto your lips. Taste the ocean’s always new and endless Creation on your tongue. We are a part of it. It is a part of us. The boundaries of difference among living things are blurred and obscured by the commonalities of our origins. Our own saltwatery blood pulses in rhythms begun by the oceans and the moon in gravitational, tidal dances, and I am overcome, again. I put my earphones on and listen to the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” as I watch and wonder in gratitude and humility and I raise my arms in the same form in which I earlier saw the whale’s spouts, and I listen, and I try to sing, because I must. I must.
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
When I come back up to the house and onto the porch my son and his girlfriend are sitting there drinking coffee and Joshua asks me, with a tinge of worry, I can tell- “Daddy, what in the heck were you doing down there?” (I didn’t think anybody would be out of bed yet!) “What in the heck were you doing down there with your arms in the air?”
And I tell him, “Becoming sane.”
1 The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof, and all who live in it;
2 for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.
I need those words. I need those words to wash over the curse of my own jabbering ego; I need those words to clean and scour the false priorities I schedule for myself constantly. I need those words, in waves crashing against my pride, I need those words to remind me that, at the bottom of everything I am nothing, but that me and you and every living thing are a part of the whole of everything. We are the intricately, intimately related parts of the earth’s fullness thereof. And we are loved very, very, very, very, very, very, very much.
Matthew 5 from ‘the Message’, verse 3: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4″You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5″You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6″You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7″You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
Here’s the truth the ocean was drowning me in that morning, and during those days there. Here’s what I can see so much more clearly now- what Jesus is able to lead me, and all of us toward, if we are following him.
Continuing in Matthew 5, verse 13: “David, Let me tell you why you are here. (No, my name is not really there. But there’s a white space there- insert your own name in it!) David, let me tell you why you are here. (Do it, let Jesus talk to you here) David, Joey, Sarah, Nancy, Manuel, let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
Verses14-16: “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
So, I cannot be quiet. I dare not be quiet. If I feel the saltwater kiss of God on my lips, what else can I do but share that caress in these ways available to me, with you? I must continue to shout that I can learn almost as much about God from a wildflower field as I can from the first chapter of John. I must admit without embarrassment that I learn as much about the active presence of Jesus in a roomful of sentenced-to-life convicts as I do from the letters of Paul.
And I must stop being ashamed or otherwise discombobulated, when I tell you or others, or even admit to myself that an hour beside the ocean, lost in the eternal mysteries of blue-green waters tinged with golden sunlight, is better than any sermon, any day. Even this one.
So, on a gray Friday morning a week ago, August 15, the day after Sarah and Travis’ wedding, I got up, almost as usual before everyone else, walked down the catwalk across the dunes, sat on the last step, and wrote what follows. I didn’t know then if I would ever share it with anyone. Having read these words of Jesus just now, though, I know that I must:
August 15, 2008, Holden Beach NC
Through the smallness of my words, I cannot explain to anyone, least of all to myself, who or what you are.
Through the inadequacies of language and grammar, whatever I write leaves so much unwritten that it might be better to tear this blank page into a thousand pieces, lift them to the wind and, as they are blown across the beach say “There, there is God.”
But if I don’t write something, right now, I might cease to breathe.
I know that Genesis says humans were created in the image of God, but I think we have done a much better job of recreating God in our own image. I would rather watch the image of God I see in these pelicans, or in these scampering sandpipers, than think about the image of God which fueled the hundreds of slave ships which crossed these waters in front of me.
My heart soars as I watch the image of God in this rising sun, and know what the ancient biblical writers could not have known: that this is one of a trillion sun-stars, and a fairly minor sized one at that. I see God better in the golden explosion of these early morning, sun-reflecting clouds better- infinitely better- than I do when I read the church-blessed history of the “godly” men who came to these shores 400 years ago with ships full of guns, germs, and plans to baptize and bless the “savages” who had lived here 6000 years on land they called “Father” near the waters they called “Mother.”
My heart aches as I think about the Japanese trawlers chasing down with high powered, 21st century harpoons the whale I saw yesterday, because a Japanese god wants whale oil burning in his temples. And my heart breaks when I think of the creature-killing weapons-testing happening beneath these waters because an American god says “My country, right or wrong, my country.”
It is the man-created images of God which infect my soul, not this billions year old image in front of me! The truest maps of creation are written on the backs of these seabirds, and in the God-writ words on the horizon. I can taste God here in the spray of saltwater. I can hear God in the symphonies of the sun and moon and the harmonies of the ceaseless waves. I can see God in paths of crabs and the nests of sea turtles. And I can touch God here, simply by lifting my hands.