First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
June 16, 2019
“Oriented For Praise”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Psalm 19 (CEB)
Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
the sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork.
2 One day gushes the news to the next,
and one night informs another what needs to be known.
3 Of course, there’s no speech, no words—
their voices can’t be heard—
4but their sound extends throughout the world;
their words reach the ends of the earth.
God has made a tent in heaven for the sun.
5 The sun is like a groom
coming out of his honeymoon suite;
like a warrior, it thrills at running its course.
6 It rises in one end of the sky;
its circuit is complete at the other.
Nothing escapes its heat.
7 The Lord’s instruction is perfect,
reviving one’s very being.
The Lord’s laws are faithful,
making naive people wise.
8 The Lord’s regulations are right,
gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure,
giving light to the eyes.
9 Honoring the Lord is correct,
The Lord’s judgments are true.
All of these are righteous!
10 They are more desirable than gold—
than tons of pure gold!
They are sweeter than honey—
even dripping off the honeycomb!
11 No doubt about it:
your servant is enlightened by them;
there is great reward in keeping them.
12 But can anyone know
what they’ve accidentally done wrong?
Clear me of any unknown sin
13 and save your servant from willful sins.
Don’t let them rule me.
Then I’ll be completely blameless;
I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing.
14 Let the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart
be pleasing to you,
Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I’d long heard of it’s importance in being able to find your way in the dark: The North Star. Long heard of for a ten year old probably means that I’d read it in a Jack London book or heard it once on Bonanza. I’d go out at night and wonder which one of those bright stars was the North Star. If you can’t find the North Star, how will you find your way in the dark? Then, someone showed me. “Can you find the big dipper?” Sure, that was easy. “Just draw a line from the bottom of the front of the dipper and the first bright star you come to is the North Star. And it’s worked… every time.
An internet article about stargazing starts off by stating “The key to stargazing is points of orientation.” If you start somewhere you know, you can find your way to that which you seek.
It’s all about finding that starting point, that place of grounding from where you can locate other things. Find that which you know and move out from there. It works for star gazing. It works for walking around on earth. From a starting point A, go to point B, then to point C and on.
When we moved first moved to Iowa, we discovered how often people used the location of places that no longer existed as points of orientation. Numerous times we were given the instruction to “go to Skinny Patton’s corner and turn left.” No where was there anything to indicate where Skinny Patton’s corner was. No street sign. No pin on a map. No stone marker. Yet, it seemed everyone, except the newcomers, knew where Skinny Patton’s corner was. It was their point of orientation.
At some point, there was a guy known as Skinny Patton and he lived on the corner of Country Road 25 and Highway 65. There was some question about whether Skinny Patton was still alive when we lived there but his former residence definitely hadn’t survived the years. But, the corner where he used to live was one of the known points of reference. If you were headed north, it would be this corner that would be the start of how many miles you needed to go to… wherever. If you were going east or west, this is the place where you would make that right or left turn. Skinny Patton’s corner is the big dipper that orients you to finding your way in the country.
Since life is a continual moving object, it’s helpful to have those non-movable things for orientation… to help us know where to change directions. Places from which we can measure how far we’ve gone or need to go. Places that help us find our way in the dark.
Some of the Psalms are precisely this. They are the big dipper that helps us find the way to North Star. They are the Skinny Patton’s Corner. Years ago, Walter Brueggemann presented that many of the Psalms fall into three categories: Psalms of Orientation; Psalms of Dis-Orientation; and Psalms of re-Orientation.
Isn’t that what much of life is? Orientation; Dis-Orientation; Re-Orientation? We think we’ have things all figured out and know where we’re going and what is certain and then life happens and we get shifted off-course… sometimes onto a whole different path and have to get re-oriented again… and again… and again… sometimes to a new place and way of thinking, being, believing.
Speaking and believing… isn’t that what faith is, too? It grows. It shifts. It changes. It evolves. Not just in our own lives as we learn and grow and experience life. But over all. Faith… Christianity… is not stagnant. Because creation itself is not. People are not. When the Psalms were written, people literally believed that the earth was flat and held up by pillars. They were certain that the sky formed a dome and the clouds moved across the dome, as did the sun and the moon and the stars. Eventually, we figured out that the earth was round but we thought we were the center of everything. Eventually, we figured out that that wasn’t the case at all. The earth home that sustains us is a very tiny dot that swirls around a huge sun-star with a bunch of other objects. (Although we still have a tendency to think that we’re still at the center of everything.)
Since life is in a continual state of motion and since the world around us is ever-changing and since faith and religion itself won’t hold still either, from where do we orient ourselves? What is it that forms the two points on the Big Dipper that points us to that immovable object? What is our Skinny Patton’s Corner?
Perhaps it’s not a “place” at all but a way of being.
If you haven’t done so for a while, I would encourage you to watch a young child explore nature. It’ll give you a visual reminder of where we should be oriented as people of faith.
I remember my own children getting lost in the wonder of something… a flower, a bug, running water. They would literally zone out of everything else around them to look deeply into something. They would be in awe of the color, the shape, the texture, the smell. And, when they were through exploring, they would often come back with a sense of peace and joy that just oozed out of them. Those sometimes very few moments that they took to stop, look, and wonder served to orient them in awe and reverence. It’s this trait, this ability of children to express awe and wonder that tells us they usually have a better understanding of worship than most adults. It’s not that they are taught, it’s that it’s where they are oriented. They are oriented for praise.
“Heaven is telling God’s glory,” the psalmist says. “The sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork,” come the ancient words through time to our ears. It’s a Psalm of praise of one who, long ago, recognized the value of awe and wonder. It’s a Psalm that extols the order of creation and the structure upon which the ways of God bring goodness to those who live into them.
If we follow Brueggemann’s claim about the Psalms – that of orientation, dis-orientation, and new orientation, and that this pattern reflects life and faith, the Psalms might be telling us that our place of original orientation, like a child, is that of praise. Praise – some say we were created for it… that in everything there is room and a purpose for praise. It orients us out of ourselves towards something beyond just our own needs and purposes. It helps us find our way in the dark times of life. It provides markers along the journey of life and faith. Don’t the hard things that consume us seem so much less difficult when we stop, look outside ourselves and get re-oriented for praise?
Our children and the Psalms take us back to that which we know – awe and wonder and praise. If we can go back to that which we know, we can find our way in the dark. What we know, from the core of our being is awe and wonder and praise. It’s our North Star. It’s our Skinny Patton’s Corner that, if we can find it and let it be our orientation, will help us find our way in the dark.
Sometimes it feels as if we are oriented to anything other than praise. We are drawn to be oriented to political sides… parties… ideologies. But we’re not. We’re oriented for praise. We live as if we are oriented to a particular culture and way of life. We’re not. We’re oriented for praise. We’re not oriented to our jobs, our paycheck, our hobbies, our yards, or even our families. We’re not oriented for Netflix, HBO, Hulu, MSNBC or Fox. We’re oriented for praise. We’re not even oriented for our sexual orientation… we’re oriented for praise.
It’s summer in Montana. The gentle days and cool nights are what we’ve been waiting for all winter long. I’ve been amazed at the sky these last few days filled with all kinds of clouds from the big billowing thunderheads to the thin whispy horsetails trailing across the deep blue. I’ve loved listening to the crazy love songs of the birds and even the threatening cries of the magpie. It puts a perspective on things in life and faith that reminds me that, in the big scheme of things, there’s order and purpose and movement and change. There’s goodness. And as people of faith, we are called to orient it all towards praise of the one who creates goodness out of chaos, liberates the oppressed, sets in motion the making of stars and galaxies as well as caterpillars and rosebuds. As people who have vowed to follow in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, we are oriented to praise for the one who loves and blesses the child who stares in wonder at a cocoon as well as the old one who wonders what will be next. As a church that is called to call and nurture disciples we do so in praise of the one who nurtured us in our own times of doubt and fear.
Heaven is declaring God’s glory. The sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork. That is our orientation. That is how we will find our way in the dark…. By doing the same.