Saturday, May 25, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

Psalm 8
Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2013
Willliam G. Carter

    O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
     You have set your glory above the heavens.
      Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
       to silence the enemy and the avenger.
    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?
    Yet you have made them a little lower than God,             and crowned them with glory and honor.
    You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
       you have put all things under their feet,
    all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
    the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
    O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

“I didn't need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”
― Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith


The question comes early and stays quite late: who do you think you are?

A few summers ago, I heard the question. I was sitting in a room with about three thousand smart people. Most of them run Fortune 500 businesses, or preside over universities, or play in major symphony orchestras. They made room for me and said, “We will let you sit here.”

It was a lecture by Margaret Geller, an astronomer at Harvard. She was describing her life’s work of mapping the universe. Whenever she has the itch to look at the heavens, she phones up a governmental observatory in the mountains of Arizona, and they always take her call. Dr. Geller goes down there, peers through this enormous telescope, and adds the data to a map she is making of the universe.

She asked the crowd, “Would you like to see some of what I see?” Without waiting for an answer, she started clicking through some slides. We saw swirls of light in colors that I have never seen before. She mentioned distances that my little brain cannot calculate. Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, sat in the row ahead of me. As he looked at the images, he wiped away a tear, stroking his chin, too dumbstruck to compose a couplet.

A few thousand smart people – and I – sat humbled. It was impossible to comprehend the size and spaciousness of our galaxy. That’s when I heard the question in my soul: who do you think you are?

Most of the time, we have a ready answer. I am William, son of Glenn and Ann, husband of Jamie, father of Katie and Meg, step-father of Josh and Lauren. Here is my social security number, here are my GPS coordinates, here are the people I love and live among. Here are schools where I have studied, here are the products of my labor, here are the dreams in my soul. But who do you think you are?

I was telling my youngest kid about my first day in college. There was no internet to register for courses, so we stood in a three-hour line. The college freshmen started playing the game of “Who’s Who.” How big was your high school? Where else could you have gone to college? How many A.P. credits do you have? I finally asked somebody, “What are A.P. credits?” Everybody in line stopped talking and turned to look at me.

I mean, I didn’t think I grew up in the sticks, but it was just then I discovered I had a modest upbringing. I went to a high school that had two academic tracks – college and work. I was the first person in my family to go to college right out of high school. I was registering for courses in the only university that accepted me, one of about thirty-eight-percent of my high school class who had that opportunity. I was eighteen years old and thought I was hot stuff; but standing in that registration line of Long Island high-achievers, the question rose: who do you think you are? I was feeling pretty small.

The poet who composes Psalm 8 is lying on his back beneath a star-filled sky. He sees the Milky Way spilling across the black velvet expanse. Darkness is punctured by a billion points of light. The moon smiles kindly. The poet exhales awe – and suddenly feels very small. He says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established” . . . who do I think I am? Who do we think we are?

The answer is that we are human beings. We are not mules. We are not angels. We are made to be human beings. That’s our lot. The dictionary says the Latin origin of the word “human” comes from “humus,” from the soil. Just like the old story from Genesis: God scooped up some mud from the river bank, shaped it to resemble the divine image, and blew holy breath into the nostrils. The first human critter was called “Adam,” a Hebrew word that means “dirt creature.” That’s who we are. When we get too far from the soil, life gets out of whack.

There is a parenthesis around all of this. The poet puts the same line at the beginning and end of the psalm: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” God has a really big name – bigger than “Spirit,” bigger than “Jesus.” Even the name “Trinity” can only point to the God who is behind everything we see and cannot see. God says, “I am – I will be – That is my name.” God is Source and Destination of everything. Everything! If such immensity does not make us feel small, then we haven’t been paying attention.

Sometimes we recover a sense of God’s size when we go outdoors. Modern life gives us machines that promise to manage and reduce the universe, tempting us to presume that we humans are actually in control. But if you are outside and a storm blows in, the sheer force can stun you into submission. To quote the cover of this week’s Time magazine: “Sixteen minutes – That’s how much time you have to save your life. The story of the Oklahoma tornado.” Did you see the pictures of a whole town flattened? Anybody still want to hang onto the myth that human beings are in control of anything?

True wisdom begins when we perceive our complete dependence on God, when we live and breathe and stay flat-footed on the ground, thanks to a God who thought gravity is a good idea. When John Calvin, the great theologian, wrote his most famous book, he says, “Our wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” The poet of Psalm 8 gave him that insight. You look at the grand glory of the heavens, trust there is a God behind it, and it pushes you to ask, “Who do you think you are?”

We know the limits of being human – we have only so many days and time is short. Our bodies can only do so much. We cannot protect ourselves from the force of tornados, only send in the ambulances and the bulldozers to handle the wreckage. Illness might strike at any time, weakness may reduce us. We can never know all that is going to happen today, much less tomorrow. And all the while, we are prone to the misfire of thinking too much about ourselves in a universe that does seem to care about us very much at all.

Anthony de Mello, in a tale from his recent book One Minute Wisdom, describes this paradox. "Before I was 20," he says, "I never worried about what other people thought of me. But after I was 20 I worried endlessly -- about all the impressions I made and how people were evaluating me. Only sometime after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly ever thought about me at all."[1] So often we presume ourselves to be at the center of everyone’s attention, and end up performing for an audience that isn’t there.

The astonishing thing is that God should ever take notice. The God who created quasars and moonbeams is the God who knit together our DNA and says to the baptized child, “You are mine, all mine.” The Holy One who tosses the comets across our sky and swirls the wind like cotton candy is the same God who weeps when the tornado flattens the elementary school after spinning out of control, the same God who calls on us to care for every broken soul. O Lord, our Sovereign, who are we that you are mindful of us? Who are we, that You, the Immortal One, should cares for mere mortals like us.

That is what gives dignity to each person. God regards us. We are not accidents. We are not mistakes. Certainly we have bad hair days, get lousy grades in algebra, and crash our cars into trees. Yet God regards us, setting us a “little lower” than heaven, giving us responsibility for one another and for all the critters. Not only that; God has such high regard for human beings that God became a human being. This is the greatest affirmation of our species.

Who do you think you are? Child of God, brother of Jesus, temple of Holy Spirit – that’s what we are. And perhaps our greatest similarity to our Maker is our imagination. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to.” He goes on to say:

(Imagination) is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather's voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the four hundred and fifty degree oven.

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father's arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. Feel what it's like to be who they are -- chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.

When Jesus said, 'All ye that labor and are heavy laden,' he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that. [2]

Who do you think you are? I am what my neighbors are. I am a child of God, brother of Jesus, temple of the Holy Spirit. And all of us are worthy of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the friendship of the Holy Spirit.



(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] One Minute Wisdom
[2] Whistling in the Dark

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