Livestreamed service

Psalm 84
Psalm 84 as rendered by Nan C. Merrill

        We have just heard two versions of a beautiful psalm-song about our longing for and delight in God, which is to say, our longing for and delight in our our spiritual home.

        Most of the time we fail to even be aware of, much less, acknowledge and celebrate this longing that is so central to our humanity. Much of the time we don’t really understand our feelings of incompleteness, aching, and longing as spiritual desires to be at home with the Ineffable Holy, the Divine Infinite, and so we try to satisfy them with any number of lovely and tangible, immediate and finite things.

        Occasionally we realize that the things we buy, the meaning we strive for, and, sometimes, even the ways we love are misguided efforts to find the the spiritual sustenance and holy union we were made for.  But most of the time we just carry on, both driven and enlivened by an ache we can’t even name.

        The psalmist is having one of those all-too-rare epiphanies in which he realizes not only what he really wants and needs, but also understands that being at home in God is ever available to him.

        My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord, he says;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
        How lovely is your dwelling place, O God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.

        The late Quaker mystic and psalm interpreter Nan Merrill renders it this way:

        My soul longs, yes, aches for the abode of the Beloved;
        All that is within me sings for joy to the living Heart of Love!
        Blessed are they who put their strength in You, who choose to share the joys and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; they are quickened by divine light and power; they dwell within the peace of the host High. They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.  . . . A day in the Heart of Love is more to be desired than a thousand elsewhere.

        Just how, you may be wondering, do I become one of those people who finds their home in God, who puts their strength in God? What does it mean to dwell in divine peace? Sure, God’s dwelling place is lovely, but how do I get there? Do I even believe that it’s possible? How do I make that connection and feel that joy? How do I satisfy my deepest, God-given, God-seeking longing?

        Well, I don’t know about you—and I’m not so much recommending this as observing it—but I find that while the joy of encounter is wonderful, there’s nothing quite like failure or struggle, loss or a new awareness of finitude for putting me in touch with my longing for, my need for, the infinite love and the safe and secure dwelling place that is God.

        And it just so happens that all of us—the entire world, actually—had one of those unsettling, even alarming, experiences just last week. I’m speaking, of course, of the latest report on climate change released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a group of climate scientists convened by the United Nations.

        The gist of the sobering, even devastating, report was this: When it comes to the serious impacts of climate change, we have passed the point of no return. Significant changes—things like extreme drought, severe weather, rising sea levels, and biblical-scale rains and flooding—are already happening. What’s worse is that the evidence is clearer than ever that these changes are the result of human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

        I’ll come back to that—because the report does also contain a glimmer of hope—but first I want to share with you another poem—a psalm, if you will—of human anguish and holy longing. This one was written by my clergy colleague and friend, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner, the day after the climate change report was released. It goes like this (and I share it with his permission):

On the road
to the farmstore
in my electric car,
the baby starting
to doze in her safety
seat, and the man
in his cold British
tones, explaining
to the listeners
an inexorable future
of unmanageable heat,
and the hostess says:
I’m sorry, but
that’s all the time
we have, and
she moves on to
the new war
in Afghanistan.

In the mornings,
when I wake
too early, and hear
the sound of cars
on the highway
by my door, I
lie as still as
possible, willing
the fixity I can
no longer uncover
in the outer world
to sink into my bones.

When the baby
comes in, I hold
her with vague
arms, and stroke
the softness of
her skin, and run
my fingers through
her red-black hair
like a comb, and
say a little prayer
in my head to
ward away the
pleasure that will
only hurt me
in the end.

I go downstairs
and, for a brief
moment, cower in
the beauty of my
bursting son, then
outside to a grey
rainless sky,
the garden in bloom,
no longer by divine
right, but accident,
the maple, tall
and proud like
a grandfather who
doesn’t know
he’s dying, and—

when it isn’t the panic,
it’s just the dull
relentless ache
of nothing certain
but mortal change,
and things not being
what I want.

        And there you have it: “the dull, relentless ache” prompted, in this case, not by an ecstatic encounter with the Infinite Holy but by a devastating account of our earthly and mortal finitude, highlighted by a passing experience of the banality with which we communicate what is too horrible to imagine. Sorry, but we don’t have time to more fully address the latest evidence that our earthly home is dying; we need to move on to other bad news.

        How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
        What a mess we have made of your dwelling place, O God.
        My soul longs for the place where you are in charge and all is right with the world.
        My heart and my flesh cry out for deliverance from this crisis that is making my home less habitable.

        All of it is real and true: feelings of joy and songs of praise and feelings of despair and cries of anguish. Those who honor the longing in their hearts for acceptance and love, who recognize their need for God and indulge their yearning for the security and home God provides, will find what they seek and will, indeed, find God along the way. All the way to God is God. The psalm reminds us that, however long and challenging the journey, those who set out to find their home in God will discover meaning and healing, blessing and beauty.

        And so it is with the fundamental challenge of our time: Whether we,  as a nation and as inhabitants of this planet, can trust that we are in God and God is with us even as we work to prevent further irreversible damage to the climate our children and grandchildren will inherit? For as devastating as last week’s report was, it also noted that if we act immediately to significantly cut carbon emissions, the current warming trend would be limited and the climate crisis could stabilize in about 30 years.

        If we act immediately. If we substantially reduce emissions.

        We must understand that pursuing God and working to stop climate change are not mutually exclusive. Being the church and calling for the healing of the earth go hand in hand. Indeed, to have any hope of success, we will need the steadfast strength and unfailing love of our God, as well as the faithful and prophetic imagination of the community of the Risen Christ.

        And, in the words of our friend and neighbor, the Episcopal priest and climate activist Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “praising God can be an act of political resistance.” Indeed, worship itself “is an act of human liberation.”

        So let us heed the longing in our hearts and recommit ourselves to finding and making our home in God’s heart. And as we watch all creation groaning, let us put our grief and love to work to preserve a lovely dwelling place on this earth for all God’s creatures.

        For a day in the Heart of Love is more to be desired than a thousand elsewhere.