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Category Archives: Old Testament

Under His Wings

(An Online Message for August 2, 2020, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 91)

It was a blistering hot mid-summer day, not unlike a few we’ve experienced in New Hampshire and Maine this year. Luckily, however, my family and I were riding out that particular heat wave on the shore of a cool and crystal-clear pond at the foot of the White Mountains.  Granted, this was a public beach at a state park, and it was in the days before Covid-19 and social distancing, and so we were sharing the experience with a few hundred or so of our closest friends (!); but that was alright, because all that really mattered is that get in the water and beat the heat!

However, late in the afternoon and seemingly out of nowhere, there was this massive thunderstorm that hit with a vengeance.  The rain came down in sheets, the wind blew like crazy, there was thunder crashing and lightning flashing from every direction – and since the storm had come on so suddenly, everyone on that beach followed their first instinct, which was to find shelter and to get there fast!  However, the only real chance for that was the bathhouse, a very basic (and extremely small) structure at the edge of the beach. 

Well, you know the old saying, “any port in a storm!”  That was us, friends, and for the next half hour or so, we were up close and personal with just about everybody who’d been on the beach. Actually, it was quite interesting, in that the women and children were sent into the inner parts of the building – both sections, incidentally – where there were benches and it was dry.  The men, by contrast, being manly and protective men (!), were all huddled together in the entryway and along the eaves of the bathhouse – the wind and rain blowing the whole time and soaking us to the bone, prompting one of the men beside me to ask if this was what it was like for the men left on the deck of the Titanic! 

Now, don’t get me wrong – as the storm raged on we were all very glad for any kind of shelter; and the storm did pass eventually. But I must confess, I came away from the experience convinced that there are certainly some places of refuge much better than others!

The bottom line is that we all need refuge; as the old song goes, it’s a bare necessity of life!  And there are many forms of refuge: certainly, the kind of physical shelter that keeps us safe from the elements – our homes, our vehicles, even a bathhouse at White Lake State Park.  But there are places of emotional refuge as well, the places we go when our lives start to feel a bit stormy: a corner nook or an easy chair at home where you can really relax, or a private retreat somewhere in the woods. Or for that matter, maybe the refuge comes in the love of a caring family member or friend.  The point is, we all have those places of refuge in our lives that bring us rest, security and peace.

 But what happens in life when all the physical and emotional shelters we seek are nowhere to be found; or worse, when the ones we cling to have been denied us or taken away? Not to sound all foreboding here, but where’s our refuge then?

I think, for instance, of those whose homes have been destroyed by flood or tornado or some other natural disaster; in just about every sense, where do they find shelter from the storm?  And what kind of refuge is there for those who suddenly find themselves without financial resources, or who are reeling from the shock of a broken relationship, or have just gotten a horrible diagnosis from a doctor?  In other words, what kind of security really exists when the world we live in is forever shifting beneath our feet?  After all, as Richard Gelson writes, “we need to know what is left to us when we strip away – or have stripped away for us, voluntary or not – the varnish of all worldly vanities.”  What comes to us when everything and everybody else is gone – that’s the refuge that really matters.

And that, friends, is what the 91st Psalm is all about. In fact, everything in Psalm 91 is about the strength, the presence and the utter reassurance of God in the midst of life’s utter chaos!  This psalm is about spiritual shelter; about our living “in the shelter of the Most High,” and abiding “in the shelter of the Almighty,”

There is no lacking for powerful imagery in this psalm! We’ve got God as a “refuge and [our] fortress,”  and because of him we will not “fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,” staying safe even amidst pestilence and destruction; that even though “a thousand may fall at [our] side, ten thousand at [our] right hand …it will not come near us,”  because God and his angels will be right there to guard us and protect us from any and all harm, bearing us up “so that [we] will not [even] dash our foot against a stone.”  It’s no wonder that long before we were singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” going back as far as biblical times, this psalm was actually sung as a worship song on the eve of battle, as a prayer for soldiers going to war.

Understand, this psalm is not saying that in the refuge of the Most High, nothing will ever happen to us – in whatever battles and storms we face, there are injuries and casualties; and much as we hope and pray otherwise, the reality of life is that sometimes we get hurt.  And it’s important to know that, especially where our faith is concerned: as a pastor, I have known people whose very faith in God proceeds under the assumption that they will be somehow always be miraculously and supernaturally protected from all the difficulties, struggles and pain of human life; but these are the same people who inevitably end up deeply disappointed and in a fractured relationship with God when the storms of life come …and they do come. 

This 91st Psalm is not the promise that everything will always be good in our lives – but it is the promise that all will be well with our souls.  It’s a reminder that of all the shelters we seek out in this world, the only true failsafe for hope comes to us from God.  In fact, it is in the very midst of the storms of life that sometimes even unbeknownst to us, God is there: holding us close and giving us refuge until the storm has past.

An article in National Geographic a few years back described the aftermath of a raging wildfire that had engulfed much of Yellowstone National Park.  On a trek up a mountain to access the fire’s damage, a ranger spotted a bird that had been literally petrified in ash – looking almost like a statue perched on the ground at the base of a tree.  The ranger, who was actually a little sickened by the sight of this dead bird, took a stick to knock it over – but when he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried out from beneath the dead mother’s wings.  You see, this mother bird, sensing impending disaster, had carried her babies to the base of that tree and gathered them under her wings to protect them, instinctively knowing that the smoke would rise and her chicks might survive the fire if she could keep them low and covered. 

Imagine; the mother bird could have flown to safety, but she refused to abandon her babies; and even when the heat of the fire had singed her body, the mother bird stayed steadfast.  Because of her willingness to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.

That’s how God is, friends!  That’s what the Psalmist was saying when he sang, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”  Whatever the disaster, no matter the struggle and difficulty of life, we are surrounded by the strong and tender presence of a Heavenly Father who stays with us through every moment of the storm.  If I might quote another psalm, the 46th Psalm, “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas …the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” 

These are actually two psalms I’m fond of reading at funeral services, particularly when the occasion follows a sudden or tragic death.  That’s because when you and I find ourselves in a situation when our whole world seems to have crumbled at our feet with every one of life’s dangers are bearing down on us, we need to know that it’s the Lord who is our refuge; that it’s God alone who will see us through.

That’s the joy of this psalm, friends.  But, in all honesty, that’s the challenge of it, too.  I know that in reading these psalms, it’s hard sometimes for us to reconcile the promise of God’s protection with the terrible reality of life’s dangers; I mean, really, what does saying, “I will deliver you,” mean to the one who’s just lost everything in a tornado, or, for that matter, what does talking about how “no evil will befall you” say to the families of the victims of increasingly commonplace violence on our city streets?  We cannot ignore that there are things in this world and life that are truly “wicked,” and bad things do happen to good people… but the good news here is that even in the midst of these dangers, God’s promises are real; because if God is with us then that evil need not consume us.

The fact is, there are many storms in this life, and not just of the thunder and lightning variety.  There are storms borne out of life’s many unexpected and utterly uncertain challenges.  There are storms of illness, and transition, and grief.  There are storms that rise out of society’s relentless propensity for division and self-destruction.  And there are storms that have absolutely nothing to do with us… but nonetheless will seek to beat against us with everything they have. And we may well be scared and shaken, roughed up a bit or even a lot.  In the end, we may well be bruised and very sore.  But no matter how the storm rages we are safe, we are protected and we are loved because we are under His wings, these incredible pinions that have never folded, nor collapsed, nor abandoned us… that is ever and always good news, yours and mine.

So in all these storms of life, let us call out to the Lord; that he might truly “raise us up as on eagle’s wings.”

And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!      

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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Unto the Hills

My own personal “thin place” in northern Maine…

(an online sermon for July 12, 2020, based on Psalm 121)

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

The Celtic tradition has a wonderful phrase for those unique places in our lives that have a great spiritual attraction and meaning for our lives – they refer to them as “thin places,” those places where this world and heaven seem to meet. Thin places, it is said “are ports in the storms of life, where …pilgrims can move closer to God …where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the divine presence.”  Call it a “retreat,” a sanctuary, or call it holy ground, but I suspect we all know of special places where a sense of God’s presence and strength and love are palpable; as though you could literally reach out and touch the hand of the Lord!

Well, friends, what you’re looking at here today… for me it’s most definitely my “thin place.”

And not just the lake, mind you, but also and including all the hills and valleys and green forests that extend from here for miles in every direction. Friends, I can’t even begin to express to you just how influential this place has been and continues to be in my own spiritual grown. There’s a hill in back of the camp that I used to climb when I was young which led to this hayfield that overlooked miles and miles of Maine woodlands; I spent a good many summer afternoons up there, soaking in the sun with all of nature around me, sometimes playing guitar and singing (albeit rather badly!), learning how to pray and making some real discoveries about my faith and my life. In fact, this was the place where a great many seeds for my own call to ministry were sown; when I was on that hill, I really did feel that God was there with me.

Like the song says, I stood “in awesome wonder” at God’s creation, and as far as I was concerned it was about the closest thing to heaven that I had ever seen. And I remember thinking about how great it would be to actually live out there, to dwell with God out in the wilderness!  Hey, sometimes I still feel that way!

Of course, as a grown up who’s growing older by the year, I’m admittedly a bit more hesitant!  Truth is, these days I gaze out at such places and wonder if anybody actually lives out there, and if I did, if I’d have all the amenities we’d need?  And I’d think about how isolated a place like that would be, and what we’d do if there was an emergency; in the dead of winter, could an ambulance get to us before it was too late?  For that matter, how would we get to the store for supplies?  And let’s not even talk about bear, coyote and other assorted animals? Say what you will, it could well be dangerous to live out there in the wilderness – I might look out “unto the hills,” but who would be there to help us?

Oh, yeah …my help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

You know, after a fashion, that’s really what this particular psalm is all about.  There’s actually a very interesting question of biblical translation and scholarship regarding the 121st Psalm: you may have noticed that the words with which I began this sermon (the first verse of Psalm 121) were different than those from the scripture reading.  That’s because between the King James Version (the familiar words with which I began the sermon) and the more modern translations (including the New Revised Standard Version we read here), there is a difference in punctuation and syntax that shifts its meaning a bit.

In the King James Version, that first verse is translated as one sentence:  “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help,” which suggests that the beautiful hills become the source of our inspiration, “the hills of God,” that “thin” place where the Lord, who made heaven and earth dwells.  Modern scholars, however, translate this as two sentences – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”  In other words, it’s a question, and in fact, a question of concern.  You see, people of biblical times recognized that the “hills,” specifically, the hills surrounding Jerusalem, were a very dangerous place.  The road between Jericho and Jerusalem, for instance, were (and still are) lined with limestone cliffs pocked with caves in which robbers would hide before swooping down to attack travelers – needless to say, a journey through those hills was not to be taken lightly!

So, according to these scholars, what you have here is the picture of the traveler looking at all the hills before him on the journey and wondering where he’ll find help on the way – and the answer is, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  Now, I still love the older translation of this verse, and I’ll always see the hills as an inspiration, but I suspect that both interpretations here have some truth to them. In other words, there’s both beauty and danger to be found in the hills – and God is with us in the midst of both.

This is all borne out in the way that this psalm, which might be called a “psalm of assurance, unfolds.  Incidentally, you’ll notice that in scripture, this psalm and several others is also referred to as “a song of ascents,” or a “song of degrees,” as the older translations put it.  Historians believe that this psalm might well have been a hiking song, sung by travelers as they climbed those hills on their journey toward the feasts at Jerusalem!  This song is all about how God will be their strength and protector along the way!

For instance…

“He will not let your foot be moved” – God will be there to keep you from stumbling on the loose rocks, lest you fall and sprain an ankle.

“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” – you won’t burn in the relentless heat of the desert sun, and neither will you suffer in cold and damp of the night.

“The LORD will keep you from all evil” – he will see you through any and all temptation and discouragement and danger along the way.

“He will keep your life” – yes, just as the Lord created life, making the heavens and the earth and also you and me, so the Lord will also keep us and protect us!  And he will not sleep on that watch – the one who keeps all of Israel will extend that same care even to you and me, all along every part of journey.

And the beauty part is that whether that journey is “unto the hills,” or in and through the chaotic and often confusing obstacle course we call life, or in that larger journey that each one of us makes from earthly life to life eternal, God shows that same incredible concern for our well-being.  You know, one of the things that has always drawn me to the Psalms has always been this incredible imagery of nature – mountains and eagles and so on – but also that it always points us to a God who is relentless in protecting us, even and especially when we aren’t noticing.

Christian psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck has written, “When I put together the times I just missed being hit by cars while on foot, on a bicycle, or driving; or times when I was driving a car and almost struck pedestrians or barely missed bike riders in the dark; or times when I jammed on the brakes, coming to a stop no more than an inch or two from a vehicle; or times when I narrowly missed skiing into trees or almost fell out of windows; or times when a swinging golf club brushed through my hair – I asked myself: ‘What is this? Do I lived a charmed existence?’”  No, says Peck. “T’was grace that brought me safe thus far.” It wasn’t luck or fate, or instinct or wits; it was the unseen presence of the infinitely loving God who was his maker and ever continues to be his keeper.

And it’s also love, friends; for what else could it be that we’ve gotten this far?  I’ve got to be honest here; as I read that wonderful quote from Scott Peck this week, I found myself thinking, well, that’s great, but what about the times that we have stumbled?  I for one can name you a whole lot of times in my own life (several in 2020 alone!) when it seemed as though that swinging golf club somehow managed to hit me square upside the head!  As much as the hills fill us awe and anticipation, the fact is we usually face the dangers there head on; and yes, sometimes along the way we get hurt and wounded, “smote” by the sun and moon and the utter difficulties and tragedies of life and living.

And then I realized – the fact that I’m here right now, in this beautiful place talking about the journey — says that I’ve made it through; and have come to the other side of the challenges and dangers that were there on the way.  And most certainly, that I arrived had much less to do with my strength or cleverness than it did the goodness of God’s own heart surrounding me every step along the way.

Let me share a little secret with you this morning, friends: not to shatter any illusions here, but where this is concerned, even we ministers have a hard time figuring it all out!  I know that’s certainly true for me – I struggle sometimes to understand why things happen in life the way they do; why so often the road ahead has to be so incredibly, and frustratingly difficult (!); and why, O Lord, can’t once in a while, things just go a little bit more smoothly?!

I can’t say I’ve gotten any answers to those lamentations; but I can tell you this with great assuredness. Whatever, as the hymn puts it, “the danger, toil and stress” I have faced; whatever struggles I’ve ever had on the way to keep the faith and just keep going; whatever “adventure” there has been for me on the journey – be it good, bad, or just plain old HARD – I only made it because God took that journey along with me.

And I dare say the same could be said of each one of us here.

Truly, with each new day and every new journey of life, as we lift up our eyes unto the hills– we know from whence our help will come.  And come what may, we can walk on with confidence and even joy, because we know that “the LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

Thanks be to the God of the Hills who is the God of our lives!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2020 in Faith, Maine, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon

 

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A Little Bit Lower Than God

(a sermon for June 7, 2020, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 8)

That particular summer had been incredibly hot and humid, and up at the lake, we’d been going for a lot of “night swims” before going to bed; and friends, let me just interject here that there are very few things in life more refreshing than swimming in a spring-fed pond in the dark of a hot August night! 

And this night was special: it was about 11:00, there was a new moon, the sky dark and unbleached by city lights, and one could see the expanse of the Milky Way stretched wide across the heavens.  Moreover, it was the night of the Perseid meteor shower that year, and for a good couple of hours floating there on the water, as John Denver used to sing, we saw it “rainin’ fire in the sky!” It was incredible!  But what I remember most is that all the while this was going on I was filled up with this incredible sense of wonder and it made me feel utterly and amazingly… puny.

It was one of those moments of life that comes around once in a while when you suddenly realize what a speck of dust you are in relationship to the universe!  I mean, it’s one thing to feel a part of nature in a way that’s up close and personal; but to be literally enveloped by an infinite canopy of stars, bearing witness to the grandeur and might of God’s creating power, you cannot help but feel so very small in comparison; not only in relation to the world around you, but also in relationship to that world’s creator!

“O LORD, our Sovereign,” sings the Psalmist in our text for this morning, “how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens… when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

 I dare say that that’s truly one of the big questions of life; quite possibly the biggest.  After all, it gets down to the basics of our very existence, yours and mine: why would God would ever be mindful of us, anyway?   Why should you and I ever think of ourselves to be anything more than mere specks on the vast horizon of the universe; just another entrée on the lower end of the cosmic food chain?   Not to sound callous here, but how could we possibly count for anything more than that in God’s eyes?

And yet, the good news is that we do.   As W. Sibley Towner of Union Seminary suggests, what’s clear from the opening verses of scripture is that in the beginning “God set all this teeming creation in motion for one reason above all others – to make human life possible… [to coax] from this buzzing mass of creatures a creature so like God’s own self that it was said to be the very image of God… [to be] the crowning glory of God’s creativity.”

Or in the words of the Psalm, “…you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  A little lower than God?  Amazing!  Rather than being regarded as something small and utterly insignificant, it would appear that in God’s sight we have no equal in creation!

What’s interesting is that biologists and anthropologists speak of how it is our ability to speak and communicate and reason that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.  Theologians, on the other hand, say that of all the creatures of the earth we humans are the only ones invited to talk to and work with God.  In other words, ours is a direct relationship with the Divine, the result of “God’s own image” of what we should be.  So in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, we might well be infinitesimal, but that doesn’t matter because in God’s eyes we are great, important and, and in a very real way, “large and in charge;” entrusted as stewards of all creation, and keepers of the relationship that God has with that which he loves.

Knowing that that’s what we’re meant to be, friends, has a way of changing how we view things:  the ways that we care for our environment, for instance; and the sanctity of life in all its many forms. It forces us to see that we have some responsibility regarding dominion over the works of God’s hands, and for the many gifts we’ve been given; most especially each other.  Yes, to be a steward of creation is to be steward of the people around us, all the people whom God has created and who God loves.  And that has everything to do with our relationships with one another, the choices we make in this life, and the differences those choices make in the care and nurture of those around us.

Way back when I was still both a student pastor and single, I was a regular patron of the local movie theater.  I just liked to go to the movies – always have(!) – and those days I used to go to almost all of them that came to town!  But I could always count on the fact that if the movie was, shall we say, questionable, the woman at the ticket counter (who, God bless her, happened to be a distant relative of mine, and knew I was a pastor) would lean over and very quietly say to me, “This one’s probably a little rough for you, dear.” 

At the time, that really offended me; I was an adult, after all, capable of making good and right decisions for myself, thank you very much!  But over time, I began to realize that some of my choices, especially as a young pastor, had an effect on others; such as, for instance, on the kids in my congregation who got busted for sneaking into an R-rated movie they were too young to see, but who told their parents it was OK because “Rev. Lowry was there!”  In retrospect, it wasn’t even that bad of a movie, but I realized this wasn’t the kind of message I wanted those kids to get from me; that by inadvertently glorifying something violent or degrading, I was not only devaluing my relationship with them, but also, in a very real sense, my relationship with God!

A small thing?  Probably… but the point is that if we’ve been created to be “a little bit lower than God,” then it follows that our lives ought to reflect the same kind of care and love God extends to his creation and the people who are part of it!

Not that the world sees things in this way.  Have you ever noticed that whenever we hear of someone who has been caught at some kind of immoral or unethical behavior – which seems to have happened a lot lately (!) – inevitably it’s described as “a human failing.”  Which is one thing, but such behavior is then explained away by saying that that person was “only human, after all.”   As if being human means that we’re bound to be failures at every level of life; as though our “human tendencies” are the lesser parts of our personalities!  

You see, that’s the very opposite of God’s intent, which is that our humanity is ultimately not  wrapped up in what’s bad or undesirable about us, but rather in what makes us precious in the sight of the Lord! 

Yes, friends, we are human, and we’re human because God made us that way:  crowned with glory and honor as we live out our lives in partnership with God; carrying out a vision of creation that’s been in place from beginning of time; equipping us and empowering us to take care of the world with joy and delight, protecting and nurturing one another with love and justice.  By the grace of God, dear friends, we have been shaped as the very pinnacle of all creation; you and me, dear friends!

Our challenge is live that way.

Truthfully, we do have that propensity toward self-involvement, and we do turn away from God far more often than we ever should; and if you want a theological term for that, it’s “original sin.” Moreover, you and I tend to fall into the temptation of not believing what we’re really worth, and that’s where patterns of despair, self-doubt and self-hatred take root.  But that’s why it’s good for us this morning to remember another central truth of our faith…

…that when God wanted to show the world his great and limitless love, God chose to come to us as one of us, as the example of the very pinnacle of his own creation: wholly God, yes, but also wholly human: in Jesus Christ our teacher, our brother, our Savior and our friend.  

What other assurance do we need of our place in God’s creation and our role in God’s plan?

Something to think about as we feast at the Lord’s table this day.  Thanks be to God, and

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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