In Praise of Beauty
I’m not sure whether it’s a curse or a blessing, but I can’t help finding fodder for the pulpit even on vacations so it has become traditional to share those experiences with you on the first Sunday morning back home. Visitors will be forgiving, I hope. It’s light stuff, but it’s to hot a day to be heavy. Billie and I have just completed a 5,000 mile trip through the Pacific Northwest and Canada in search of magnificent natural beauty, and we found it beyond even our most fervent hope. I suppose we saw it not simply because it was there, but because it was what we wanted to see…. and I was reminded again a day or so ago how much our interests dictate what we see. When our 16-year-old grandson showed us pictures of his own recent tour of Germany there were the conventional shots of cobblestoned villages and cathedrals and castles and the Lorelei Rock, but about every third picture was of cars — West German Mercedes and BMW’s, and that little 2-cylinder thing the East Germans turned out by the thousands. He even had a picture of a Ford Probe struggling to keep up on the autobahn….cars, cars, cars because like most other boys at 16, Blue is more fascinated by cars than by ancient history. “Here’s a church,” he would say dutifully to his preaching father and grandfather. “Where is this, Blue?” “I don’t remember.” But the level of enthusiasm really soared when he held up a photograph of a taxi cab and said, “Grandfather, look at this big Mercedes! All these cab drivers whiz around in Mercedes and BMW’s.” For his sake, I tried to care, but the pictures I held longest were of things I really cared about: lakes and rivers, mountains and valleys.
Sometime this winter, when I try to show him videotapes of my own vacation, Blue will probably yawn at the cobalt blue of Canada’s Peyto Lake and ask me how our friends’ Suburban performed and what kind of gas mileage we got….exactly the things I was interested in at 16 when manhood and freedom depended on having wheels. But what I care about now is the beauty of wild animals and waterfalls, snowcapped hills and deep glacial lakes and — because I am forever coming back to a pulpit — how the glories of the natural world are described in some of the Bible’s finest poetry. All of you know how God’s creation praised in the two creation stories of Genesis I and II, but I invite you this morning to hear part of still another creation hymn, the l04th Psalm which is not nearly so well known. I read it partly because it is so lovely in its praise of the created world, but even more to set the mood for some remarks I wish to make in a moment. What you are about to hear is a conflation of three of the best translations I know in English: the Catholic version known as the Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, and the latest major translation which is known as the New Revised Standard Version. Please don’t just hear the dictionary meaning of the words. Put your aesthetic sense into high gear, let the music of language have its way with you, let each image shape itself in the gallery of your imagination, and feel — above all else, feel — the writer’s delight in the glory of the natural world:
O Lord, my God, you are great indeed. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in a robe of light. You stretch the heavens out like a tent, and build your palace on the waters above. You make the clouds your chariot, and ride on the wings of the wind. You make springs gush forth in valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to wild animals. Nearby, the birds of the air make their nests, singing among the leaves. The high mountains are for the wild goats, the rocks make a hiding place for rabbits. You have made the moon to mark the seasons, and taught the sun where to set. You make darkness — and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. When the sun rises, they go back to lie down in their dens, while men and women go off to their work and labor until the evening. Countless are the things you have made, O Lord. The earth is filled with your creatures, large and small, and the vast expanse of ocean teems with life. May the glory of the Lord endure forever.
Wonderful stuff! How strange it is that the Bible embraces the intolerable dullness of parts of Numbers and Leviticus, and then surprises us with the l04th Psalm! If you like that song, you would enjoy four closing chapters in th book of Job where in magnificent poetry God is represented as rejoicing in the wonder of his own creation: how the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly host shouted for joy, how the great tides of the sea are restrained before they overwhelm the land, how the sun shakes out light across the dark world at dawn, how deep the sea is and how no mortal has known the depths of it. [Footnote: That last statement is no longer true, but we can’t blame the ancient Hebrew poet for not having advance knowledge of deep-sea subs like Alvin, in which my granddaughter recently descended two and a half miles to the ocean floor. Bound by his own time and place, he could not imagine such a thing, so he wrote of the things he saw, and of what lay within the reach of his imagination]. He has his God speak of the mystery of hail and snow, of great storms and what makes it rain or freeze, of the majesty of constellations like the Pleiades, Orion, and the Great Bear — not that God is actually bragging on himself in this poetic drama, which could be offensive, but that the poet puts into God’s mouth the overwhelming joy with which he — the poet — looks at the world of nature.
So why start out like this on a hot final Sunday in August? The answer is that these were parts of the Bible that came over and over into my mind over the past three weeks during a journey through what I consider the grandest scenery in North America and the Canadian Rockies: out through Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and up into what even their license plates confidently proclaim as “Beautiful British Columbia. I have criss-crossed the Rockies from Colorado to Montana, but for sheer concentration of majestic beauty I have never seen anything better than the hundred miles between Canadian Lake Louise and Jasper. Soaring snow peaks and glaciers, deer and Rocky Mountain sheep, elk and black bears, porcupines and eagles and coyotes and a wolf -once – loping across a valley, and for several days on the lawn of our cabin just outside Jasper we had elk grazing at dawn and dusk. When we needed a bull with antlers to make our video complete, someone told us to drive out to Moraine Lake at dusk — and we found two of them. I kept thinking, as I reveled in that country, of the lines from Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” And how much of it might have been lost, when Banff National Park and Jasper National Park were both beginning to be despoiled, years ago, by commercial interests until the federal government stepped in to preserve them forever for those who crave the solitudes of unspoiled wilderness. I thought of the current barrage of angry criticism of the federal government and I whispered under my breath, “Thank you, Lord, for this particular intervention!”I tried to imagine as we crossed Glacier National Park on that incredible Going-to-the-Sun Highway what the author of the 104th Psalm would have made of it, or of the endless sky and immense lonely landscape as one descends some 300 miles from north to south down Montana’s Interstate 90. I tried — not very successfully — to explain why that is without question my favorite daylong drive in all of America. Not so much just a drive, for me, as a strange, time-arrested, slow-motion fall down the continent from the peaks of the Rockies down to the flat plains of Wyoming, with the afternoon sun slanting across the rounded hills, stretching out the long shadows of grazing cattle, touching the meadow grass with pale gold — making me as drunk with delight as anyone has ever been on drugs or alcohol.
But the greatest thrill of all, for me, came on my birthday when we pulled off the road because we thought we saw a moose. It turned out to be a wild grizzly, nonchalantly stripping berries as close to our car as I am to those of you in the third row. Unlike grizzly sows, with cubs, who are extremely unsociable, this huge male simply ignored the paltry humans who had stopped to gawk at him. (I have videotapes for any sceptic in the house!) He didn’t pose a serious threat that day, but one of life’s lessons is that Nature is amoral and can exact a terrible penalty from those who are careless. We stood on the lip of the thunderous Athabasca River falls one day where a young German tourist had just ignored a warning barrier, stepped closer to the edge to shoot a better picture — and slipped on a rock. In that roaring torrent his life was gone in an instant. They had not found his body three days later, and in that long wild river I am not sure they ever will.
But sermon seed came from other things, even from the questions you get asked when you cross the border from the U.S. into Canada. An officer strolls to the window, looks you over with a weary, practiced eye, and asks his brief litany of questions. Some of them, I thought, could be asked with other and deeper meaning in a beloved sanctuary back in Wichita. So….here they are:
“Good morning,” he said, “and who has come today to visit Canada?” It was best that I was not at the wheel, to give an answer about our identities, because I had already found myself thinking that the whole question of identity is not something easily gone into at the Canadian border with a line of cars waiting behind us. Fortunately, my friend Paul is a more practical man who knows better than to tax the patience of border patrolmen: “We are the Magees and the Meyerses, friends traveling together.” I didn’t confess it to my carmates, but I was thinking, “When I get back home, I want to remind my friends at church of what, of course, they already know: that identity is infinitely more than just our names. We are nurses and teachers and lawyers and mechanics, liberal or conservative in politics, single or married — and it is even possible that there is a single definition overriding all the others? If one were to say, “I am a child of God,” would that not color all the rest? Just wondering….
“Where are you coming from?” he asked, and we knew what he meant so we said Dallas, Texas and Wichita, Kansas but in my own eccentric mood at the moment I thought of the other way of understanding that question. Out of what context comes your life? What are your biases and predispositions? How has experience shaped what you believe and hope for? our view of life? I’ve been trying to answer that form of the question in recent months, writing an autobiography for the children and grandchildren, and it has seemed to me that we don’t really know who we are or where we are until we look back to see where we came from. That is, unless we make it as simple as Chico Marx made it once when Groucho asked, “Where are we?” And Chico answered, “You can’t fool me. We’re right here!” Well, so we are — always — but there are better answers than that, and this is one of the places where from week to week we have the great joy of being together while we look for them.
“Where are you going?” the man asked us, and we answered simply as he expected us to do, but this worship hour on Sunday mornings asks the question more profoundly, knowing that some who come among us have no idea where they are going and have not thought about it much, while others are actually trying to find “home” — not just a house on a street but a place of love and meaning where mind and heart can be at peace. One day in London, on a reporting assignment at the BBC, racing down the stairs, I bumped into a British movie star some of you are old enough to remember: David Niven . In the Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, Niven recalls a true story from World War II about a British officer who was driving through Germany in the first days after the German surrender. This is how the British officer told what happened:
I passed a farm wagon headed toward a village. I glanced casually at the two men sitting up behind the horse. Both wore typical farmer headgear, with sacks thrown over their shoulders to protect them from a light drizzle. We were just past them when something made me slam on the brakes and back up. I was right! The man who was not driving was wearing field boots. I slipped out from behind the wheel, pulled my revolver from its holster and told the corporal to cover me with his Tommy gun. I gestured to the men to put their hands over their heads and told them in fumbling German to produce their papers. “I speak English,” said the one with the field boots. “This man has papers — I have none.” “Who are you?” I asked. He told me his name and rank — a general. “ “We are not armed,” he added, as I hesitated. I motioned them to lower their hands. “Where are you coming from, sir?”
He looked down at me. I had never seen such utter weariness, such blank despair on a human face before. He passed a hand over the stubble of his chin. “Berlin,” he said quietly. “Where are you going, sir?” He looked ahead down the road toward the village and closed his eyes. “Home,” he said, almost to himself. “It’s not far now….only….one more kilometer.” I didn’t say anything. He opened his eyes again, and we stared at each other. We were quite still for a long time. Then I said, “Go ahead, sir,” and added ridiculously, “Please….cover up your boots.” Almost as though in pain, he closed his eyes and raised his head. Then, with sobbing intakes of breath, he covered his face with both hands, and they drove on….to home.
I am probably foolishly hopeful, but I like to believe that if someone is here on the brink of despair, brought down by the waywardness of a child, the breakup of a marriage, the death of a loved one, sick or fearful in the twilight of life, this place will sometimes be home.
My favorite traveling companion thinks it would be more relaxing if I did not do this, but when it is Sunday on a vacation I always become aware of time again and start checking a watch or the car clock. I knew the very moment when John Conlee or Bob Scott or the Kelleys would be stepping into the pulpit, and I missed you. I am grateful this morning for the days of re-creation which you granted, and to John and Bob and Jim and Chris for their ministry to you on recent Sundays. I come back having refreshed my spirit in the great tabernacle of God’s created world….and I come back thinking of that great hymn which so eloquently speaks the gratitude I felt day after day on that trip. It’s called “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and it praises hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light, friends on earth and all the joys of human love. I decided that on this first day back with you I would like more than anything else to have you cap these remarks by singing it, happily. We will make it our closing prayer and walk away at the end of it, so please stand now and praise the beauty of creation in the first four verses of Hymn No. 66.