Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lenten Reflections: Part 1

Dear Blog Readers,
God has wonderously saved me so many times, and I have prayed so often "Lord open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise," but I have not praised God an iota of a percent of what God's saving mercies deserve. This year I want to devote the season of Lent to praising God with a series of devotional reflections on the hymn Rock of Ages. The lyrics of that song have captivated my heart these past months. I am finding them far richer than I had known, full of paradoxical and evocative metaphors. So my plan is to work my way through this hymn with reflections annotating the verses. If they are helpful to you in your lenten observance, so much the better. But I write because God is good and I am compelled to proclaim God's praise. In this first reflection, I will write of the very opening words "Rock of Ages."


I live in a land of crags, cliffs, buttes, and stone escarpments. My Honda CRV rolls up thousands of miles each year as I roam the Great Basin’s Mojave Desert, once a vast inland sea, now parched beneath the bluest skies on Earth, a land now home to coyotes, lizards, jack rabbits, and me – a nomad bishop with a Bible, prayer book, and shepherd’s staff in the back seat. 312 mountain ranges divide the territory I traverse to visit churches in the scattered centers of mining, ranching, and farming. Hawks, ravens, and eagles fly overhead.

This land speaks. Sky, raptors, Joshua trees are its words. But the greatest word, hardest and truest, of this bare and barren land is rock. From the vertical cliffs of Zion National Park on my east to Yosemite’s El Capitan on my west, rock speaks a voluminous silence. Passing through the stony arroyos, I feel the holiness of a cathedral. The rock formations of Cathedral Gorge make it explicit and tell me this intuition of holiness is not just my idiosyncrasy.

One evening, just before sunset, a low hill, but a steep one, caught my eye. It was a pile of black stone, no doubt volcanic. The earth’s depths send messengers of rhyolite, basalt, and pumice. I pulled over and scrambled up the hill, standing there looking out over the plane as the sun set behind me and the shadow of night extended into the softening air. But the stone did not extend. It did not soften. It was immovably there. That is the rock’s way.

“Rock of ages” – what does it mean? A rock that has endured the ages. A rock that the ages rest upon. The rock which arises from the ages. It is an evocatively multivalent phrase, a symbol that goes back to some of the very oldest verses of our sacred text. Half way around the world, thousands of years ago, rock spoke to people in another desert. It told them something about God, something they needed to hear, as I need to hear it now. Perhaps if we listen closely to their words, we may glean something of their experience, the experience of simpler people, closer to the earth, maybe closer to life. Perhaps we may learn something that will save us from becoming lost in the shifting sands of post-modernity.

In you O lord, have I taken refuge
Let me never be ashamed . . . .
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
You are my crag and my stronghold.
Psalm 71: 1, 3

Verse 3 must have been a recurrent longing. “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.”The same words appear verbatim in Psalm 31, v. 3. It is a cry for deliverance and protection.

O Lord, I call to you;
my Rock, do not be deaf to my cry;
lest if you do not hear me,
I become like those who go down to the Pit.
Psalm 28

The Psalms give voice to the variety and complexity of human emotion in a primitive rawness unequalled in any other ancient text, more than Roman odes, more than Greek drama. No passion is more pronounced in the Psalms than fear, the primal cry “Save me.” It is not fear of God. It is fear of the world and a scurrying to God for safety. “Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you.” Psalm 16: 1; “O Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me.” Psalm 7:1.

When help was not forthcoming, the people of old complained bitterly. “Why do you stand so far off, O Lord and hide yourself in time of trouble?” Psalm 10:1; “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Psalm 13:1. But the prevailing theme is expressed in the rock Psalms. “Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.” Psalm 95:1; and :

I love you, O Lord my strength,
O Lord my stronghold, my crag, and my haven.
My God, my rock in whom I put my trust,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, and my refuge;
you are worthy of praise.
I will call upon the Lord
and so shall I be saved from my enemies.
Psalm 18: 1- 3

Do the rocks still speak to us? Do the stone escarpments of the Mojave say to me what the crags of the Sinai said the Psalmists?

Modern people assumed a heroic posture, a Promethean defiance. When atheism chided the religious for our fear of the world, we were ashamed. If we kept to our religion at all, it was an ethical religion of which we need not be ashamed or perhaps a cheerful religion of celebrating what a wonderful world we have been given. We did not want to admit to anything infantile. We did not want to admit we are afraid of the dark, the thunder, the shadow on the x-ray, the fragility of the eco-system, the avarice that devours an economy wiping out life savings, the fine print in our health insurance policies. We did not want to admit that life still scared us.

I will not judge the hearts of others. I don’t know what happens in those secret chambers. But I, for one, am still afraid. Granted, I may be more afraid than others. I have anxiety disorder. In my worst bouts, I have rolled xanax like prayer beads in my pocket, afraid of sundown for no reason I could articulate. I have also known fears that had real causes. I have seen my life teeter on the precipice. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “I was, in short, afraid.” A religion that begins with the assumption of human self-sufficiency -- a “religion of happy mindedness” William James called it – will not do for me. I have no need of a polite tea with God. Truth be told, I tend to forget God when I feel self-sufficient. I have prayed fervently at times, but my most unadulteratedly sincere prayer has always been, “Help!” I do not long for the beauty of the Lord. The law of the Lord does not delight my heart. I am Peter sinking on the sea.

But when (Peter) saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink
he cried, saying Lord save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand and caught him . . . .
Matthew 14: 30-31

“Rock of ages.” “Who is our God, but the Lord? Who is the Rock, except our God?” Psalm 18:32. “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken.” Psalm 62:2.

The Psalmists are not being spiritual. They are not concerned about the afterlife. They are afraid of the perils haunting this dusty earth. Just so, many of us are afraid our children will be sent to war, afraid of tornadoes, afraid of pandemics. The Psalmists, in their fear, remembered the rocks of the Sinai as we might remember the rocks of the Mojave. The rocks spoke to them about God.

Part of what the rocks said about God, who created them to express something of the divine nature, is that God is strong. The power of God works wonders. One can take refuge in the strength of God because God is stronger, vastly stronger, than the forces that assail us. I have been saved by God’s surprises again and again. I know others have not apparently been saved. For that I have no answer, only hope for some future redemption that I cannot yet see. But my experience and what I have seen in the lives of others is that God’s power moves inexplicably in the affairs of this world effecting gracious ends. The power of God sometimes seems to intervene from outside. But it is not really an intervention. God is already here, already the rock solid foundation of reality itself. We can take refuge in that. Even if what we want is deliverance from a particular threat and we do not receive the deliverance we wanted, there is still a rock solid foundation to reality, a place in which we can take refuge – if that foundation is kindly, if that foundation cherishes us and has not cast us off.

There is something more to the rock metaphor than strength. There is fidelity. God’s love for us is as unshakeable as rock. The word most expressive of God’s heart in the Hebrew scriptures is hesed. We usually translate hesed as “loving kindness.” But the word has more to do with dependability than sentimentality. It means a love you can count on, a bond unbreakable and sure.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of Gods,
for his mercy endures forever . . . .
Psalm 136

And so the Psalm continues recounting God’s act of creation and his assistance to people throughout history, echoing again and again, a full 26 times, “his mercy endures forever.”

The foundation of reality is merciful and gracious. Our human foibles and the vicissitudes of history cannot shake that foundation. The love of God cannot be defeated even by our unlovableness. We may refuse to love God or each other, but we cannot stop God from loving us. Even our deaths will not end God’s love for us and what God loves cannot finally die – not if God is the rock solid foundation of reality.

I have imagined that people who lived as long before the Pslamists as the Psalmists lived before us must have been awed by the majesty of stone. I have imagined them worshiping a stone mountain like El Capitan in Yosemite, Northern California.

My fathers bowed
before your granite face
sun crowned terrifying.
But what had they worthy
for sacrifice to you
gargantuan monolith?
What could they offer
colossal you who already consumed
the very sky?

The Psalmists saw such stone not as idol but as icon, as a sign of the divine nature, a silent word of God. That word spoke awesome majesty, a place of refuge, and a promise of God’s eternal mercy. When “the changes and the chances of this life” are shifting beneath my feet, I need to hear that word.
Copyright Dan Edwards 2010

1 comment:

Martha Watson said...

First, "Rock of Ages" is one of my favorite hymns. Thus, seeing your Lenten meditation drew me back to the imagery in that I love. But it also drew me back to hikes at Red Rock that took me into box canyons where sheer rock soared on each side of me. Those amazing rocks rising to such heights also inspired me as one perfect image of God.