October 10, 2010
“Creating Steadfast Love”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
“Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” the psalmist says, and the psalmist goes on to describe the enemies cringing because of God’s great power. “Come and see what God has done” the psalmist says, and the psalmist goes on to describe the Exodus; the sea turning into dry land, the people of God passing through the river on foot. “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of God’s praise be heard!” the psalmist says, and the psalmist goes on to describe a people being tested by God, “tried as silver is tried”. “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what God has done for me”, the psalmist says, and the psalmist goes on to describe a God who truly listens when the cry goes out, when the prayer is lifted up, a God who gives heed when words are spoken.
Make a joyful noise. Come and see. Let the sounds of praise be heard. Come and hear. A psalm of praise. A psalm of thanksgiving that ends with this: “Blessed be God because God has not rejected my prayer, or removed God’s steadfast love from me.” God’s power. God’s Exodus. God’s testing. God’s hearing and heeding. God’s steadfast love. The song of the psalmist; it begins with God’s power and it ends with God’s love. It begins with God’s creation and it ends with God’s never ending love. It begins with all the earth giving glory to God and it ends with God’s steadfast love for me.
If one were to look at a table of contents of the Book of Psalms, you would notice themes or types of psalms often grouped together; psalms of lament here, psalms of praise there, psalms in celebration of the kingship of God, psalms of deliverance. Psalms where every instrument and all of creation joins the song. Psalm 66 takes its place among a few psalms of thanksgiving and praise. On either side of the psalm, the psalm before and the psalm after the one numbered 66, the song of thanksgiving offered to God is for a bountiful harvest. The last notes sung, the last words spoken in those psalms reverberate with the harvest. “the pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together with joy.” Psalm 65. “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us; let all the ends of the earth revere the Lord.” Psalm 67. Songs of the harvest.
Right there inbetween, right inbetween the harvest song, is Psalm 66. With Psalm 66, the harvest celebrated is the steadfast love of God. With Psalm 66, the lingering echo rings of the steadfast love of God. Blessed be God, because God has not rejected my prayer or removed God’s steadfast love from me.” Psalms of praise. Psalms of thanksgiving. Meadows and valleys shouting and singing together with joy. The earth yielding its increase. God’s steadfast love never removed from me. God’s steadfast love for me. The bountiful, overflowing, increase yielding love of God for me. Thanks be to God.
Just this week, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America and how one’s perception of God influences one’s opinion on various issues of the day. The research comes from a book by two sociologists from Baylor University, a book entitled “America’s Four God’s: What We Say About God and What That Says About Us.” The four characteristics of God defined by the researchers are authoritative, benevolent, critical, and distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God (authoritative 28%: according to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the world by good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried, concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful God guiding this country. Distant 24%: these are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of the unknowable God behind the creation of rainbows, mountains or elegant mathematical theorems, critical 21%: The author’s describe folks who perceive “a God who keeps an eye on this world but delivers justice in the next” Benevolent 22% According to the researchers, their God is a force for good who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all." Benevolent. Distant. Critical. Authoritative.
The book is a few years old but their survey is still up and running on the website. As people take the survey, the percentages change. The distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the authoritative God falls behind, and the benevolent God gains a few points. When I arrived at the website, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, not at all. Other qualities in the twenty ratable questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.” I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world. When I finished after about 2.5 minutes, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men age 35-55). You may be interested to know (but probably not surprised) that the survey says that your pastor maintains a perception of a benevolent God.
It struck me that I was never asked if I believed that God loved me. There’s a difference between postulating a loving God and believing that God loves me. The closest thing to a personal question was whether or not my sin angered God, or whether God had any concern for my personal well-being (which I guess could mean my health, my countenance, my family, my job performance, food in my belly, a roof over my head). The survey never asked if I believed that a God who created the heavens and the earth could love me too. Truth is, I’m not sure how often, or if ever, I’ve been asked. By you, by the PNC that called me years ago, by a presbytery committee when I was ordained, when I was examined on the floor of presbytery, by one of my parents when they sent me off into the world, by the pastor of my church in high school when we talked about the ministry as a vocation. “Hey Dave, do you believe that God loves you?”
The psalmist sings of God’s power, God’s Exodus, God’s testing. God’s hearing. God’s heeding, and biblical hymn of praise ends with God’s steadfast love for me. Blessed be God who has not removed God’s steadfast love from me. Come and see what God has done! Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of God’s praises be heard. Come and hear, all you who worship God, and I will tell you what God has done. The psalmist proclaims, God who created the heavens and the earth, God creates this steadfast love for me as sure as the rising sun, as essential to faith history as crossing the sea on dry land, as real as the challenges and testing that come day by day. As much as I believe God hears my prayers, the psalmist concludes, I believe God’s steadfast love is for me.
Many of you know that I am an avid Steeler fan. I grew up in Pittsburgh. My father played for the Steelers. We are a Steeler household. My wife Cathy converted after marriage. My children had absolutely no choice in the matter. Even if I didn’t require it, which I probably did, it would have come through osmosis. There was no nature vs. nurture debate here. It was both nature and nurture. My children are Steeler fans. Some may consider it overbearing, others would call it good parenting. As Ben and Hannah continue to grow, our conversations about similarly important things broaden. You could imagine the topics; from ethics and values, to self-worth and self-respect, to sexual behavior and standing up to peer pressure, to understanding others and treating all with dignity, views on money and saving and spending, of course church comes up, and God, and faith, and theology and interfaith understanding challenges. More and more we talk about current events and world events, and politics, and the Steelers. The older your kids get the more you share, the more of yourself that is revealed. And I’m pretty confident, by God’s grace, that my children know how much I love them. But I am not sure I have ever told Ben and Hannah that I believe deep within my heart, with all the confidence that I can muster, that God loves me; that before I am a father, or a husband, or a brother, or an uncle, or a friend, or Steeler fan, or a minister, or a preacher, or a pastor, before all of that, I rise each day and go to bed each night giving thanks for God’s steadfast love for me. That I am a child of God who yearns to nestle into that love, knowing that I belong, in life and in death, to Christ Jesus. And that God will never remove God’s steadfast love from me. That I am the Dave of God. God’s beloved.
I was with a group of pastors from Presbyterian churches all around the country a few days this last week. Our presentations ranged from quality assurance in health care and electronic medical records to ecological studies of water and river keeping, from university mental health and substance abuse services to estuary wildlife. Our roundtable conversations ranged from current realities in church budgets to denominational issues. We also spend some time talking about the role of church membership in a post-denominational age, the rising lack of any interest in joining that comes with current emerging generations. Sociologists confirm that joining is down for everything. This group of pastors all affirmed more and more folks for whom membership, joining, be a voting member just wasn’t a defining part of their life in the congregation. Membership no longer defines belonging.
After this particular conversation, as our time together was coming to an end, the pastors gathered for a service of worship. We were led by a young associate pastor and a few elders in the host congregation in a service of wholeness and healing. At one point a dozen or so of us lining up to receive an anointing with oil. All the education, conversation, study, current challenges, all of our preaching and moderating and marrying and burying and budgeting, all of that set aside, as an elder marked us a fresh and said “May the God of all love and grace, fill you with God’s Spirit, that any brokenness may be healed by the God of life.” Or in other words, know again, right now, that God loves you.
Later in the day, a few of us were golfing together. It was a stunningly beautiful day. A breeze blowing, the sun setting. We hit some good ones. We hit some bad ones. At one point I realized I could smell the oil. I could still smell the oil from my forehead. Actually, it smelled like baby oil. Probably appropriately so. Getting a whiff again, an aroma reminder of God’s love. That I am a child of God. I could use of whiff of that every now and then.
It occurred to me than, that the oil on my forehead, that closing worship service of a community of pastors, it had everything to do with our prior conversation about membership and belonging. Membership never did define our belonging to one another and to God. Our belonging begins and ends with the steadfast love of God.
It’s probably not good parenting that I have never told my children. It’s probably not good preaching that I have never told you. That I believe God loves me. Our belonging to God, our belonging to one another, it starts there, with the steadfast love of God.
Thanks be to God.
It surprises the mind,
jutting from the neural thicket
like the brick-and-mortar
staircase I found
in the woods, the relic
of a homestead, a few stalwart stairs
that led nowhere but to a weave of branches,
leaves, and to a question, the mid-air
threshold between what’s everlasting
and what never lasts.
The steadfast: it’s not a concept
to wrap a head around,
but a heft, a bulk, a knuckle
in the ground to stub a toe on.
To grasp what the psalmist
sings of, I’ve to fasten it
to an object hard, eternal-seeming—
like the ceramic urn of loose change
that props open
the bedroom door,
all those presidents in tireless vigil,
their wigs untousled,
the dime’s torch never doused.
I’ve to craft what’s abstract
into something implacably present
as a cast-iron skillet,
an epic history of kitchens,
centuries of fire, twisted
into a thumb-smudge lifted
from the handle. The steadfast:
not quite an old water-pump,
but the concrete plinth that cradled
the pump, that remains, long after
the pump corrodes and flakes away,
in a tuft of grass
and catches the mower blade—
a flinty backyard navel,
primordial, present, a gnurl of endurance.
When I think of the solid,
the faithfully un-erodable, I think
of those squat granite hitching posts
that line, like molars,
certain historic boulevards;
and wonder if I pulled and pulled, yanked
at their iron rings hard enough,
uprooted one, would I release
the plug on the whole sensorium,
would the whole visible world
swirl in a rainbow flux
and slip down the drain
to some deep-down source?
The steadfast: ballast, stanchion,
cinder-block, the cast-iron,
oak stump, the root that rejects
the pickaxe because it’s part of the net
that holds all this in place.
The steadfast: a promise, unrelenting
as a box of nails in the garage,
a hydrant, a tractor wheel
tangled in weeds and…always there.
Covenant like an anvil.
Love irremovable and real
as a cobble that leaves
a bruise on my heel.
© Jake Willard-Crist, 2010
© 2010, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
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