For Sunday October 3, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
NOTE: This essay focuses on Psalm 8. For a reflection on this week’s Old Testament and Gospel readings, see “Bone of My Bones” from the JwJ archives.
I grew up with parents who encouraged me to memorize long portions of scripture. On Sunday afternoons after church, my mother would write out the week’s “learn-by-heart” assignment on a large index card, and by the following Saturday, I would recite the assigned portion back to her from memory.
When I was little, the assignments were little, too: “God is love.” “Rejoice always.” “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As I grew older, the assignments grew appropriately longer: The Ten Commandments. The Lord’s Prayer. The Beatitudes. The “Love Chapter” (1st Corinthians 13.)
The assignments I remember receiving most frequently, though, came from the Psalms. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “I lift my eyes up to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” “Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”
I remember my mother telling me that I’d be grateful when I grew up to have the beauty, honesty, and wisdom of the Bible’s hymnbook stored in my heart and mind. She said the words would come back to me when I needed them. She was right. Sure, I did my fair share of complaining about her assignments when I was a kid, but now, I am beyond grateful. The words do come back, and they are gifts every time.
One of the first psalms I memorized in its entirety is the psalm from this week’s lectionary. I’ve been reciting it to myself over the past few days, and finding yet again — just as my mother promised — that its ancient wisdom speaks beautifully to our contemporary moment.
At the heart of Psalm 8 is an existential question: What are we? Specifically, what is humankind, or (more accurately in the Hebrew) what is a single human person, in the grand scheme of God’s vast and magnificent creation? What value, significance, purpose, or merit does a human being have, such that God chooses to be “mindful” of her? That God bothers to care for him? How should we measure and situate our species in relation to the cosmos that surrounds us? What sort of scale should we use?
The Psalmist arrives at this question by gazing at the night sky: “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?" Like many of us who find ourselves blissfully undone by a star-studded sky, the sheer expanse of the ocean, a mountain range that grazes the clouds, or the staggering diversity of the animal kingdom, the Psalmist loses his sense of scope and scale in relation to the celestial wonders above his head. Even without the benefits of modern science, he recognizes that the vastness he’s observing requires a recalibration. His own measurements are useless; he needs God to show him who and what he really is.
What does he discover? He discovers two seemingly contradictory truths. Human beings are laughably insignificant. We are mere specks, fleeting and tiny in the big picture of God’s grandeur. But we are at the same time glorious because God considers us partners and co-creators, caretakers and stewards of all that God has made. We are invaluable because God has decided that we are. God is mindful of us. God cares for us. God trusts us. Under God’s loving and attentive gaze, our place in creation has become profoundly meaningful. We have a vocation that matters. A vocation that carries consequences.
As I mentioned before, this is a psalm for our time. Why? Because I think many of us have forgotten who we are. Or at last, we’ve forgotten half of who we are. As a culture, we have lost our capacity to hold the paradox of Psalm 8 — the paradox that we are simultaneously small and big, insignificant and grand, peripheral and essential. We’ve forgotten how to hold this tension, and order our lives according to its wisdom. We tend to spend our days leaning too hard in one direction or another. As soon as we war successfully against insignificance, grandiosity steps onto the battlefield and knocks us over.
How might we remember, and correct our course? I wonder if the psalm itself can show us a way forward. I wonder if it can reorient us when we forget either our smallness or our grandness. Here’s how:
We can begin and end with praise: The writer brackets this psalm with an exclamation of praise and worship to God: “Oh Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” It has taken me many years to figure out why worship really matters in the Christian life. As a child and young adult, I didn’t understand why God needed my worship; was God really so arrogant? So greedy for compliments? So desperate for adoration?
Of course not. Praise is essential, not because God “needs” it, but because we do. We need to remember that God’s transcendence, glory, goodness, and compassion are the foundation we stand on. They are the parentheses within which we live, move, and have our being. We are not in charge; God is. We are not the masters of the universe; God is.
So the Psalmist begins and ends his poem by decentering himself and centering God. It is God who is sovereign, God who is majestic, God whose name is imprinted throughout creation.
We can gaze, wonder, notice, and contemplate: It is too easy in our digitized and curated lives to forget that our own experiences, emotions, opinions, and preferences aren’t the only ones worth privileging. Fortunately, God has infused creation itself with the medicine we need. “When I consider…” writes the Psalmist. When I gaze, when I contemplate, when I position myself in the big picture of God’s huge and varied world, my sense of scale shifts. It is in God's handiwork — the stars, the moon, the laughing mouths of babies — that accurate proportion lies. It's good to feel tiny at the edge of the roaring sea. Good to stand beneath a tree that has lived a thousand years before me, and will live another thousand after I’m gone. Good to remember that I'm only here for a fleeting time, and that the supposed enormities of my life are tiny in God's patient eternity. It's good to feel small, young, and new against the backdrop of the timeless.
We can take our place in God’s good order: If half of our trouble lies in forgetting our smallness, the other half lies in forgetting our grandeur. Consider all the ways in which we devalue human life, treating each other as insignificant and even expendable. Consider how quickly and viciously we judge ourselves when we fail in some endeavor or another, as if our lives have no value beyond what we can produce or perfect. Consider how seldom we bask in what we actually are: the beloved creations of God.
“You have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor,” writes the Psalmist. No, we are not God, but we are also far from nothing. We have a “crowned” place in God’s created order, an intrinsic value that does not depend on our own achievements and accomplishments. Our place is simply our place; God has ordained it for us in love. We benefit no one when we shy away from the honor God has freely chosen to bestow upon us.
We can dedicate ourselves to our vocation: While our place in God’s creation is a gift, it comes with a responsibility. This is where the question of our value, our significance, our tremendous power in relation to the rest of reality, becomes urgent. As the Psalmist puts it, “You have given [human beings] 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.”
We human beings don’t have a good track record when it comes to honoring our vocation as stewards and caretakers of creation. We have exchanged “dominion” for domination, twisting our divine vocation into something mingy, greedy, short-sighted, and destructive. We have stripped, extracted, exploited, and impoverished in the very places where God wants us to plant, cultivate, tend, and nourish. We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that our imprint is small and negligible when in fact it is huge and powerful enough to be catastrophic. We’ve neglected to see the interconnectedness at the heart of God’s creative design, our dependence on the wellness of the earth, and the earth’s dependence on our tenderness and generosity. In short, we’ve forgotten that it is no small thing to be entrusted with “dominion.” Ours is a responsibility to approach with holy fear and trembling. A responsibility that should bring us to our knees. And yet it is a responsibility that has the potential to reorient us. A responsibility that can give proper and humble shape to our “grandness.” We have been crowned with glory and honor, not for our own self-aggrandizement, but for the thriving and blessing of God’s good creation.
What are we? What are we that God’s mindfulness rests on us? What are we that God cares for us with such intensity? So much depends on how we answer this question. So much depends on our holding tight to both our smallness and our bigness, our humility and our grandeur. May we find ways to cling to all of who we are. May we live out of the fullness of our insignificance, our crowning, our dependence, and our divine vocation, so that God’s name will be honored through our fleeting days.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com
Image credits: (1) Curious Christian Reflections on Christianity, Art, Nature, and Culture; (2) Classical Christianity; and (3) Russian Icon Collection.