Joy, Wonder, and Praise
First United Presbyterian Church
“Joy, Wonder, and Praise”
Rev. Amy Morgan
July 22, 2018
24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so.
25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Psalm 104:1-5; 10-33
Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty,
2 wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3 you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
5 You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,
15 and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.
24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
27 These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works--
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
As a child, the interconnectedness of humanity and all living things was never a concept. It was my reality. Growing up on several acres of land in the Texas hill country, my daily life included feeding horses, collecting eggs from chickens, and chasing ducks. There was excitement around the birth of baby bunnies and the mischief of the goats. We had dogs and cats, too, as part of this little menagerie.
Even after my family gave up on farm animals, we still had more exotic creatures in our environment. I remember standing out in the front yard one afternoon when a large armadillo when tearing by, attempting to outrun our Siberian Husky. In the sixth grade, I chose to write my first research paper on mountain lions because we had one roaming around the property. And in high school, my first short story featured a magical talking deer, because they were plentiful on our property.
In addition to the mammals that populated my childhood, we lived among snakes and spiders, scorpions and snapping turtles. I learned early on that even those creatures that were bothersome or even dangerous had their role to play in creation.
And so when I read Psalm 104, it seems perfectly natural that humans should be mentioned in the same breath as cattle, that humans follow the same pattern of rising and sleeping as young lions. My dog, Watson, needs to eat, and so do I. When I go to sleep, my cat, Rupert, begins his nightly stalk. And when I get up to go to work, he’s generally found snoozing under the furniture.
If you spend enough time in nature, living within the vast diversity of God’s creatures, we can all observe this interconnectedness, same as the Psalmist did thousands of years ago in ancient Israel. But the gift the Psalmist gives us is a theological framework for our experiences. Rather than reduce the interconnectedness of the species to a scientific claim or ethical maxim, the Psalmist responds to these experiences with joy, wonder, and praise.
Mary Oliver writes, in her poem “Don’t Hesitate,” that “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Joy is something great and transformative. Joy moves us, changes us.
I remember the day my family went grocery shopping at the H.E.B. and came home with a bunny. Because that’s how we do it in Texas. We sell live rabbits in the parking lot of the H.E.B. You can buy it as a pet or as supper. That’s your business.
But we bought our rabbit, Lily, as a pet. And me and my siblings were elated. Our joy overflowed as we felt the bunny’s soft fur and watched it hop around. Our joy transformed these kids who were allergic to work into industrious caretakers, fighting over who got to feed the rabbit and clean its cage.
Yes, “joy is not a crumb.” It is a feast, it nourishes us “until giving feels like receiving,” as Oliver says.
Joy transforms us through experiences that are life-giving, overwhelmingly positive. But wonder has another power altogether.
Most people would say that the opposite of fear is courage. But I believe the opposite of fear is wonder. When we experience something wholly “other,” even something that is threatening, we can respond with fear, or we can respond with wonder.
One afternoon, I was walking along the creek bed that ran through the back of our property in Texas. There was a low overhang that looked shady and secluded, like a secret cave. The afternoon was hot, so I ducked inside. I sat there a while, enjoying the break from the Texas sun. And then looked up to see the entire roof of the overhang pulsing. A mass of daddy long-leg spiders, with their legs bouncing in what felt like some sort of unison beat, blanketed the rock over my head. It was the sort of experience you hear about and think you’d run screaming from, but I was mesmerized. I looked at it for a long time in wonder, in awe of these creatures and their long, spiny legs and tiny bodies. I wondered why they all hung there together, I’d never seen so many of them in one place. Did they know each other? Could they communicate with each other? What would it be like to be able to talk to a spider?
Several years later, we had a bit of an infestation of these spiders in the house. I walked into our bathroom one day to find the bathtub pulsing, just like the top of the overhang. Okay, yes, that was pretty gross, but I wasn’t afraid. The spiders had to go, but they were still fascinating to watch. I wondered how so many of them had gotten in there so fast! I wondered why they would want to hang out in my bathtub. I wondered how we were going to get them to leave.
Wonder can transform us even through experiences that are unpleasant or frightening. The Psalmist exclaims, “There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” Now, we have to understand is how terrifying the sea was for ancient Israelites. The sea was full of hidden dangers, including the mythical beast Leviathan. Typically, if ships and Leviathan were mentioned in the same sentence, the tone would be “Ahhhhhh! Look out! There’s a Leviathan near the ships! We’re all gonna die!” In other words, ship plus Leviathan equals fear.
But instead, the Psalmist expresses wonder. “Oh, look! There are some boats. There’s Leviathan. Leviathan looks like he’s having a little fun! Isn’t that amazing?” It’s more like a dolphin playing basketball than a terrifying sea creature.
Wonder, not courage, is the antidote to fear.
And this is critically important. Because fear makes praise impossible.
Fear is the dominant emotion with which we approach creation right now. We cannot praise God when we see “springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow[ing] between the hills” because we are too preoccupied with fear of our well running dry or e-Coli in Lake Loveland. We cannot praise God who makes the “grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth” because we are consumed by fear of invasive weeds, pesticides, and genetically modified food. We cannot praise God, who created “the high mountains for the wild goats; the rocks as a refuge for the coneys” because we are so desperately fearful of the next wildfire. We cannot praise the regenerative power of God, who brings life out of death, whose creative spirit renews the face of the ground, because we are solely focused on the destruction humankind has wrought upon the earth while we bemoan our impending doom.
Now, hear me when I say that, just like a bathtub full of spiders or a mythical sea creature, all of these things are worth being fearful about. But fear is not the response that will produce effective change.
Joy, and wonder, and praise are much more effective in calling us to action than fear. Cold, hard, scientific facts or moral judgment can make us fearful or shameful. But they aren’t very effective in making us change.
Think about a child who receives a stuffed animal they dearly love, a toy that brings them joy as it opens up their imagination. They are grateful for the gift and take pleasure in it. They marvel at its softness. It has a wondrous ability to comfort them when they are sad.
And when the toy loses an eye or gets chewed up by the dog or accidentally tossed in the trash bin, they are heartbroken. There is an outcry of pain, a deep feeling of loss. The child begs someone to fix it or find it. They tell the dog he must say he’s sorry for what he’s done.
On the other hand, we can understand, scientifically, that our desire for more and larger houses to hold our more and larger stuff is encroaching on the habitats of real, live animals, but we keep building and buying. We know that we should, morally, purchase food products that are made with ethical treatment of animals and cosmetics and other goods that don’t use animal testing, but we don’t always think about it. We don’t always bother.
But what if we, like the Psalmist, lived in constant joy, and wonder, and gratitude for all of God’s creatures? What if we treasured each of them as a child treasures a new stuffed animal?
Then, we would feel the brokenness of creation in a different way. We wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. We would cry out, demand change, do everything possible to repair the damage, hold ourselves and others accountable for the injury.
The trick to transformation is not more or better knowledge. It’s not trying harder, or feeling guilt or shame. It’s not even the cryptic “unless” left by the Lorax. Transformation comes through joy, and wonder, and praise.
The first account of creation in Genesis describes a slow, unfolding, wondrously detailed event. Day by day, the creation takes shape. And God is enjoying it. It is good, God says. Tov, in Hebrew. The sun and the moon are tov. The land and the sea are tov. The birds and the sea monsters are tov. The cattle and the creeping things and the wild animals are tov. The humans are tov. And when all this has been created, God steps back, in joy and wonder, and praises the creation, declaring it all to be “very good,” Tov Ma’od in Hebrew. I just love saying that. Tov Ma’od.
The transformation of a dark and formless void into the amazing diversity of our interconnected creation came through joy and wonder and praise.
One morning, I was out walking near our home in Michigan, when I came upon a great big turtle that was attempting to cross a busy road. Thinking myself quite the animal rescue good Samaritan, I picked up the turtle to return it to the creek bed on the other side of the road. As I did, it peed on my hand. Talk about ingratitude.
But later that evening, our family went for a walk on the chip trail that ran along the river. The walk was full of joy. The coolness of an early fall evening. The sound of the rushing river. Birds flitting about overhead. Greeting other folks out for a peaceful stroll. We came around a bend and saw my ungrateful turtle. She was sitting on a nest full of eggs. We were filled with wonder at the coincidence. Then we looked up to see two enormous bucks munching on leaves on the other side of the river, their coats the color of copper in the late-afternoon sun.
We stood for a long time watching the deer, and then slowly began our walk again. Dean began to hum quietly. When I picked up the tune, I smiled and began to sing along. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” Jason and Dean jumped in. “Praise God all creatures here below. Praise God above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
I’m not sure if anyone else on the trail heard us. But we didn’t care. We’re not a family prone to random outbursts of public singing. But our joy and wonder burst forth into unstoppable praise.
I want to leave you all with a piece by Mary Oliver, from the end of her poem entitled “Sometimes.”
“Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.”
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.