Monday, 8 June 2015

Beginning in the Right Place

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
Psalm 8:1-4

NASA recently released what was quickly hailed as the largest picture ever taken – an image of the Andromeda Galaxy, a near neighbour of our own galaxy. Each tiny dot in the image is a star – an estimated 100 million of them – each of which could have its own planetary system. It takes a mere 8 minutes 17 seconds for light to reach Earth from the Sun, but it would take 2.5 million years for light to reach us from Andromeda.

And yet, all of it, the psalmist declares, is formed by God’s finger tips – like the delicate, up-close work of an expert carver or sculptor.

David asks the age-old question about the nature of humanity – ‘what is mankind?’ – but he doesn’t begin with us. Nor does he give a theological or philosophical treatise, or offer a course in biology, sociology or anthropology. He starts in the right place, and in the right way, in wonder and praise. So it is that the psalm begins, and ends, with God: ‘LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ And humanity is understood within the frame of God’s own glory. In a psalm which celebrates the royal dignity of men and women comes the reminder that we rule on behalf of God only insofar as we acknowledge God’s prior rule.

And with submission goes worship. For David, this includes children and infants, whose praise establishes a stronghold against God’s enemies – those who don’t and won’t submit to God. Somehow, the way God responds to foes and cynics is by putting praise on the lips of those who are apparently helpless. There is mystery here, to be sure, but it resonates with what the Bible says elsewhere: what seems to be weak overcomes the strong, what appears to be of little consequence overwhelms the mighty.

So, before David asks the question, ‘what is mankind?’, there is already an indication that the answer will challenge the dominant cultural narratives about humanity.

What we were made to be is still threatened by hostile powers – not just militarism, but racism and sexism, exploitation and addiction, fear and hate. Scripture speaks of an alternative power at work – in creation and redemption, in praise and worship – often operating through the seemingly weak and apparently insignificant, but who overcome evil in the name of the Lamb.

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