Last week, I preached a sermon about how we have to welcome the Word of God into our lives before we can welcome anyone else. But can we really welcome the Word unless we can welcome our self, in all of our honor and dishonor, our saintliness and sinfulness? We have to be honest, we have to be real with ourselves, if we want God to be real for us. And that means that we are going to have to take a good long hard look in the mirror. Sounds easy, but we are really good at looking and not seeing what there is to see. French writer Malcolm de Chazal said, "Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey." But we have a habit of looking into a mirror and seeing everything but who we really are. We may see the person our parents or our spouse or boss want us to see. We may see the person we thought we were going to be or the person we failed to be. There are times when we look into the mirror and say, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the biggest loser of them all?"
As I pondered these questions, I looked out at the still water in the percolation pond just a few feet away from the labyrinth. It’s part of a system of ponds that was built decades ago to recharge the groundwater and keep the valley from sinking. It struck me that what the valley needs, our spirits also need right now. In order to be good shepherds of the Creation, we need to let Jesus be the Good Shepherd of our souls. We need to let the living water of his love percolate deep down into our dried up aquifers. You know what happens when you drain an aquifer? It collapses on itself and can no longer hold water. The same thing will happen to our spirits. So we need to let Jesus recharge our groundwater, refresh our commitment to life in all of its amazing forms and variety so that we can obey his command to love, not just in word and speech, but in truth and action, and by the grace of God restore the Creation.
This is the real gift of the psalms. All the rest of the Bible is full of what God wants to say to us. But this one book contains everything we always wanted to say to God, whether we knew it or not. The psalms give us permission to think and to feel and then help us put those thoughts and feelings into words that can heal. So I wrote down some of what I prayed yesterday.
Now, we can look at the mechanics of this eruption in our lives and see nothing but devastation. Or we can search for the meaning and find the first fragile signs of our new creation. The first plants to come back to Mount St. Helens were the wildflowers. Nice touch. So, if you are ever lost in the ash fall, read Psalm 29 and remember this: wherever the oaks are whirling, the deer are surely calving. Wherever something is being destroyed, something else is being created. Isn't that, after all, just what the Gospels are saying? Doesn't Jesus spend a lot of time trying to tell his disciples that he must suffer death in order to bring new life? Doesn't Paul say we have to be united with Christ in a death like his in order to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his? [Romans 6:5] You see, this relatively young volcano and this New Testament witness to the very same truth: the old creation must pass away or get blown away so that the new creation can come, and we're going to come, one of these days. [2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22f; Revelation 21:1-5]
But that’s not the conclusion I came to. Leaving the movie, I realized that Mr. Roger’s neighborhood is still around. You can find it in lots of cities and towns and even out in the country. You can find it at Willow Glen United Methodist Church. I heaved a great sigh of relief when I realized that church is one of the last places where it’s still OK to be a nerd, where you don’t have to be hip, where you can wear your old sweaters and the same sneakers every Sunday. Church is where you don’t have to move fast or be on the cutting edge of anything. Church is where being a little slow and behind the times doesn’t get your show cancelled. And church is where we still think we can make the world a better place by loving children and making them feel loved.
This hymn has been one of my favorites ever since I encountered it as the opening hymn of the 1982 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Thrilled at having been elected a delegate to our church's national convention—and thinking that that might be a start to a kind of political career in the national church—I thrilled at the stirring words and melody of the hymn, and it has stirred and moved me ever since.
It seems that sometimes we have to be down before we ever think to look up. We have to be in the depths before "deep calls to deep" and the reality of God washes over us like a wave. But it is in the darkest, stillest night that we can sometimes hear heaven singing. "At night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life." It is in those situations of extreme adversity that we occasionally find inspiration for great works of creativity. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, as they say. Many of the hymns in our hymnal were written when the authors themselves were lost in a dark night, so they wrote the song they needed to hear God singing.
So for your spiritual wilderness survival, I suggest that you get yourself a sturdy, water-proof copy of this book and stash it in your backpack, so you can read the psalms on a regular basis. As you read about all the good things God did for Israel, you’ll start thinking about all the good things God has done for you. Then you can say: “With God’s help, I met that challenge. I triumphed over that trial. That crisis didn’t kill me. That trouble taught me a very valuable lesson. I can readily see that God was with me then, and I’m going to trust that God won’t abandon me now. So, I’m not going to focus on all the horrible things that have happened to me, some of which happened because of me. Instead, I’m going to give thanks to my God who has wondrously loved and cared for me.”
So the cross of Jesus Christ challenges all of our assumptions about how God's power works in the world. It works in weakness. Now, how does that work for you? How does the cross help us deal with something like cancer? I know that I'm not alone in wondering why an almighty God would create a world where cancer kills almost 8 million people a year. Cancer is so widespread it almost seems to be a built-in feature of life on this planet. And in fact it is, when you consider life from an evolutionary perspective. It's ironic that gene mutation, the cellular process that drives evolution and makes life on earth possible, is the same process that makes cancer inevitable. If God had somehow made our immune system so strong that it could kill off all mutant cells, we human beings would never have evolved in the first place. But understanding the science doesn't help us come to terms with the sickness.
You may remember that in several places in the Bible, God says, “Vengeance is mine” [Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30] not because God likes to get angry at us and punish us, but because God wants to take that hate away from us and turn it into something that can actually help us. That’s what God did last week in Texas. And when you think about it, isn’t that what Jesus did for us on the cross? Didn’t he take our anger and turn it into love? Didn’t he take the vengeance directed at him and turn it into forgiveness? Didn’t he take all that energy that we have put into destroying the world and convert it into a power strong enough to save the world?