Beautiful Law

Sunday, March 11
Third Sunday in Lent
Focus Theme
Beautiful Law

Weekly Prayer
Holy One, Creator of the stars and seas, your steadfast love is shown to every living thing; your word calls forth countless worlds and souls; your law revives and refreshes. Forgive our misuse of your gifts, that we mat be transformed by your wisdom to manifest for others the mercy of our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading
Psalm 19

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.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
   which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete 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 God is perfect, reviving the soul;
   the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart;
   the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of God is pure, enduring forever;
   the ordinances of God 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 God, my rock and my redeemer.

All Readings For This Sunday
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Focus Questions

1. How does nature speak to you of the glory of God? 

2. How do you respond to the word “law”? 

3. Have you ever had to defend your faith? 

4. How do you think wonder and repentance go together in Lent? 

5. Does speaking of our “hidden faults” make a post-modern person uncomfortable? Why or why not? 

by Kate Huey

Many years ago, when I had much more free time, I had the great experience of reading Will Durant’s entire series, The Story of Civilization (it took me many years to read it). To be honest, I can’t recall much from those eleven very big books, but there are several passages that remain vivid in my memory even now, and this week’s reading, Psalm 19, reminds me of one of them. In The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII in the series), Durant writes at length about Blaise Pascal, the 17th century writer that he considers “the most brilliant defender of religion in all the Age of Reason.”

It must have been really tough to defend your faith in an “Age of Reason,” when everyone around you was feeling their intellectual oats, so to speak, throwing over the old patterns of thought and the lens through which they viewed their existence (more than a little like us today!). Pascal didn’t shrink from the challenge, but he was no dry theologian, either: he was more like a poet, and a defender of religion who wrestled with it all the while. I like that in a writer, especially one writing about faith. 

This week’s psalm feels like two meditations in one: the first on nature’s magnificent witness to God’s awesome power and glory, and the second suddenly bringing the focus down, from the farthest reaches of space to the law (Torah), if not printed on a page, then living in the human heart, given by God and guiding the life of the community of faith. However abrupt the transition, the two meditations are closely related, perhaps even two sides of the same coin, for many people of faith. There are those who say that there are two “books,” Scripture and nature, and we need to read both of them. Here Celtic spirituality is particularly helpful, in fact, it’s where I first heard of the “two book” approach to listening for the Stillspeaking God. Philip Newell’s beautiful work, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, is an excellent way to approach creation as speaking to us of God, and telling of God’s glories.

With open minds and eager hearts, then, we read Pascal’s marvelous meditation on the vastness of outer space, where our psalm begins, and listen for nature singing of God’s handiwork, “Nature entire in her full and lofty majesty.” We begin with the sun, “an eternal lamp to illuminate the world,” and the earth “but a point within the vast circuit which that star describes.” Pascal’s description of our solar system and its place in outer space is stunningly contemporary: “this immense circumference is itself but a speck from the viewpoint of the stars that move in the firmament.” And then he calls us to an awe-inspiring but faith-based realization: “All this visible world is but an imperceptible element in the great bosom of nature” (from Pascal’s Pensees, in Durant’s The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization).

Infinity and anxiety

Getting lost in our imaginings is not always a pleasant or reassuring thing, of course. Even Pascal admits that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” That was one line that has remained with me all these years. So has his exquisite reflection on the polar opposite of the vastness of space, as Durant conveys it: Pascal, Durant writes, pondered “another infinity–the infinitely small, the endless theoretical divisibility of the ‘uncuttable’ atom: no matter how tiny the minim to which we reduce anything, we cannot but believe that it too has parts smaller than itself. Our reason wavers perplexed and appalled between the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute.” It is as if we live suspended between these two overwhelming realities, and in both cases, we feel so small and perhaps so…disorganized and aimless in the circumference of our own lives. Pascal shares our anxiety, but perhaps, “seeing [ourselves] sustained…between these two abysses of infinity and nothing, [we] will tremble…and will be more disposed to contemplate these marvels in silence than to explore them with presumption” (Pensees). (That last line is a cautionary one to us today, in the age of science!)

How beautifully the psalmist sings of creation telling, proclaiming, bursting with God’s inexpressible goodness and glory. No, there may no be words as such, but the “voice” of the heavens, of all creation, goes forth, “through all the earth” and “to the end of the world,” and, we assume, far beyond, telling of God’s majesty and glory. No words, but much joy, and the warm sun that no one can escape or avoid (indeed, we cannot live without it!) participates in that joy, running its course like an exuberant runner or an ecstatic bridegroom.

From outer space to the law within

And then, all of sudden, our focus draws down, or better, in, to the God’s law, Torah, the decrees, precepts, commandments and ordinances of God, who has given them not as burden or taskmaster but as gift, perfect, life-giving, wise, simple, right, clear, enlightening, and enduring. All these good things, and more, bringing us into a harmony with all the grandeur above and around us, from the immense but orderly courses of the sun and moon and stars to the infinitesimal and unfathomable minuteness of the atom and its inner workings. There is order in all this, and glory and goodness, the psalmist sings, and our own lives participate in that glory and goodness, especially when we find our place and rhythm within the order God provides. Rather than fear or guilt, we feel amazement at how all this unfolds in the grand and sweeping vision of the Creator God.

Thousands of years ago, the psalmist wrote about us as if he knew us, the inner workings of our hearts and minds and spirits, whether or not we admit to our “hidden faults,” whether or not we are “insolent,” or longing for blamelessness. The instruction of this songwriter is clear, and Lent is an excellent time to meditate upon it, asking God to keep us traveling on the right path, acknowledging who we are and to Whom we belong, and holding fast to the ways of God.

What then would our lives look like, lived this way? Wouldn’t it show in our relationships first, with God, with one another, and with creation? How much of the suffering of the world today is rooted in these relationships being out of balance, disordered, and broken? We live in an age, long after Pascal, that chafes at what we perceive to be limitations and curbs rather than freedom itself. We like to speak of grace, but we don’t think about its effects so much, especially if it involves changing our ways. Yet that may be just the thing about which the psalmist sings, finding the law “life-giving,” Dianne Bergant writes, “and not restrictive, ennobling and not demeaning. Reverence for the law seems to promise the best that life has to offer.”

Both law and grace

Still, the whole subject of law provokes mixed reactions, especially from us Christians. When we speak about salvation and grace, we often look back to the early arguments about the law, in the writings of Paul (the Pharisee, as we recall), as well as the 16th century Reformers. Charles Wiley describes the three ways that John Calvin described the law: as mirror, fence, and guide. The first reflects back and judges a person, and tells the cold, hard truth as it does; the second makes some kind of order possible in society, restraining bad human behavior; and the third, most important one, provides a guide for our living.

For our Lenten reflection, Psalm 19 provides an unexpected (at least, during Lent) entry point into deeper spiritual growth: as Thomas Edward McGrath suggests, we might add wonder to our Lenten themes of repentance and humility. We are growing numb to the notion of “a billion” of anything, now that hundreds of billions of dollars are in the nightly news, every night. But a dollar is not a galaxy of stars: “Can the human mind,” McGrath asks, “imagine billions of galaxies? How much is a ‘billion’? If you planted a thousand tulip bulbs each day from the day Jesus was born until today, you would still need to plant 1,000 bulbs every day for the next 750 years to reach one billion.” (This may not be a good thing to think about too much while watching the evening news these days.) In a sense, we live in two “universes,” the one with stars and infinite spaces, and the one down here on earth, the one that needs its own kind of order: Like the stars overhead, our life here on earth is made orderly, McGrath writes, by God’s law, despite the “the otherwise chaotic moral universe of human existence.” McGrath suggests that we meditate on just one phrase in the psalm at a time, such as “enlightens the eyes,” connecting it to the story of Jesus and the lawyer who asked about the law, and about who his neighbor was, the lawyer who needed to have his own eyes opened by the story Jesus told.

Repentance, wonder, and awe

Wonder and awe do indeed provide a very different path in Lent, unexpected in a season associated with repentance and doing without. Do we hear the song of creation, the proclamation of the sun and stars? Do we join, at least with our hearts, in the song of praise, wordless but full of power? Susan Marie Smith claims that nothing will stop nature from praising God: “Each sparrow is counted–and according to Psalm 19, even if humanity forgets the source of life and all good gifts, creation itself does not forget.” In what ways will you remember God’s good gifts during this Lenten season of repentance, humility, and wonder?

For Further Reflection

Howard Thurman, 20th century
We must try to look out at the world through quiet eyes.

Jack Kornfield, 20th century
Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement.

Francis of Assisi, 13th century
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him….
Praise be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

C. S. Lewis, 20th century
I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting

The Dalai Lama, 21st century
Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.

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