Reliance: To Sing in the Wilderness
In the tenth century the Russian prince sent emissaries to Constantinople, present day Istanbul, to survey the legendary Hagia Sophia, the stunningly ornate 6th century Byzantine Cathedral church located there. They were transported by the majesty and magnificence of that iconic place of worship. On returning home they reported to their prince, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
The psalmist whose words we just shared could easily be expressing that same otherworldly rapture—swept up in the grandeur of God’s presence and majesty. O, God, you are my God—I seek you. I have looked upon you in your holy place, beholding your power and glory. Your love is better than life. My lips will praise you. I will bless you. I will lift my hands and call on your name . . .
When we are in such awe-inspiring settings the adoration of God can seem almost involuntary, whether it’s a beautiful sanctuary, a mountaintop vista, a sunset, or an ocean shoreline. Except the context in this psalm is not a sanctuary or a mountaintop or the seashore, but an arid desert. And the psalmist is not on a pilgrimage to the soaring vaulted spaces of the Hagia Sophia; he is a fugitive, fleeing for his life. The notation at the beginning of the psalm tells us everything: “A psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.”
David is in the desert—but not to encounter God in nature. He is there hiding out from one who is seeking to vanquish him. A little back-story: David has been anointed by the prophet Samuel as the next king of Israel. This proleptic act on Samuel’s part has kindled a fierce jealousy, even paranoia on the part of the sitting monarch, King Saul, who decides that the best way to remedy this threatening situation is to simply eliminate his successor. He sends his army to hunt David down. David flees into in the Judean wilderness for cover. In that context, these words are spoken.
Now we see this ethereal psalm in a different light. This is not a spiritual mystic waxing poetic about a breathtaking scene that has drawn them irresistibly into God’s presence. This is a person on the run, fearing for his very life. And in a profound demonstration of what we might describe as sheer transcendence, David turns his sense of disequilibrium, disorientation, and fear into praise, an opportunity not only to proclaim, but to delight in God’s sustaining mercy and love. Austerity has somehow kindled within him a sense of abundance. Where panic might be predicted, David sings. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast. And my mouth praises you with joyful lips. In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
G.K. Chesterton once suggested that the worship of God is not so much doxology as paradoxology—praising God in spite of things, or in light of things, in the full awareness of realities that are seemingly adverse to the praise of God.
In one of his poems, the Austrian poet Rilke put it this way: Oh say, poet, what it is you do. I praise. But what about the deadly and monstrous? I praise. How do you keep going, how do you take it all in? I praise.
Paul captures a sense of this paradox, this transcendence with his definition of grace, found in his second letter to the Corinthians: By the grace of God, when I am weak, then I am strong.
David might have said, By the grace of God, when I am in the wilderness, hungry, thirsty, frightened, my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast; and when night falls, with its own array of hazards, I consider myself to be in the shadow of God’s wings; and there I sing for joy. When I am weak, then I am strong.
To sing in the wilderness, in the darkness, is to reframe an untenable circumstance such that God is near, not only making provision, but providing abundantly, even as we continue to seek deliverance from that difficult place. Our affirmation through this season, lifted from the Letter to the Romans, echoes that improbable assurance: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not life, not death, not height, depth, this, nor that. Paul lists everything under the sun—and over it, too. Nothing can separate us. The word separate shares a root with the word “crisis.” And so we could easily read Paul’s words this way: “Nothing can crisis us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” No national crisis, no global crisis, no health crisis, no family crisis, no personal spiritual crisis. Nothing can crisis us away from God’s love.
The disciplines we traditionally observe during Lent—prayer, fasting, simplicity, abstinence—there is a sheet in the breezeway outside the sanctuary that can serve as a guide—these are not quaint practices of the pseudo-spiritual. They are fundamental ways by which the ordinary pilgrim learns reliance on God on the practice field so as to ready our souls to rely upon God when it’s no longer a practice field, but a time in real life when the darkness deepens and comforts flee.
Lonely is the night for the fugitive would-be king, and dark and menacing the shadows. Yet from that very shadowy place David sings his paradoxology: In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
Sue Monk Kidd shares about her son, Bob, who at three would wake up in the night frightened of the dark. His parents talked through it with him; no matter. They put a night light in his room; no better. One night when she was far along in her second pregnancy she was called to little Bob’s room in the middle of the night. Once again he had been frightened by the darkness. She held him; he placed his hand on her swollen tummy.
Mama, is it dark inside there where my little brother is? (The baby was a girl, but Bob was convinced otherwise.) Yes, his mother said. It’s dark in there. He doesn’t even have a nightlight, does he? No, not even a nightlight. He patted her abdomen; she patted him. Finally he said, Do you think he’s scared all by himself in there? I don’t think so, because he’s not really alone—he’s inside of me.
And then she said, It’s the same way with you. When it’s dark and you think you’re all by yourself, you really aren’t. I carry you inside me, too. Right here in my heart. Bob was silent for several moments. Then he lay back down and went to sleep. Never again did he call out in the night frightened by the darkness.
Reflecting on this moment, Sue Monk Kidd writes words we might find familiar: I used to think of God as only “up there.” And then, in time, “all around us.” And then, “within us.”
“Now I understand not just that God is within me, but that I am within God. Even when God seems far away, or things seem very dark, I am carried in God’s womb, God’s heart.” And we might say, I along with those for whom our hearts ache; I along with the beautiful and hurting world.
The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast, and with ah . . . bright wings.
It’s David’s transcendence; his paradoxology; and ours, too. In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.