When’s the last time you stared up at the night sky, gazing at the clouds, the stars, the moon and pondered the wonder of Creation? With the snow we’ve had of late perhaps it hasn’t been too long, watching those big flakes fall, blanketing our land is really something. But beyond a big weather event like that do you ever look up and ponder the what or the why or the how it is that we’re here?
As adults we get busy with all the things that make us busy, stuff like fixing the leaky faucet, grocery shopping, zipping off to work, getting kids and grandkids from one activity to another. But before all that we had a little more of something: we had time.
Earlier in life it’s easier to stop and just gaze at the moon, to notice the stars. Both my children have done this, religiously, to my delight since they were infants. When Graham was just a year old this became an evening ritual, something the two of us would do together most every night.
Graham wasn’t walking at the time, and only spoke a few words, so I held him in my arms as we’d stare into the night sky. It was a monolog for a while, daddy would point, daddy would voice the words trees, stars, moon. Graham didn’t do any of that, but his eyes followed my finger, searching for each object, looking to the heavens every time. He was definitely paying attention.
Then, one night, after a couple months of this, Graham decided to take the lead.
He looked up, high in the night sky, pointing in the direction of a large off-white object and blissfully proclaimed moon!!!! My heart melted just a little. I was in awe at his sense of awe.
Even now, with both kids older, and running all over the place, with vocabularies exploding exponentially, on occasion, they’ll still play this simple game. “Hey Dad!” Hannah announced recently, “I found the moon. It’s huge!”
It can be easier to stop and gaze at creation when we’re older as well. In my role as a hospice chaplain during seminary I visited people struggling with a variety of health challenges. One of the toughest challenges I encountered was Alzheimer’s, a disease that slowly eats away at a person’s memory, eventually eroding their ability to even speak. Around the same time Graham first pointed up and exclaimed moon!!! I visited a new patient with Alzheimer’s. Notes left by a previous chaplain described her as a 95-year-old Lutheran, a peaceful, pleasantly confused person, someone that talks and smiles a lot.
Our time together started like visits with many other hospice patients, trying to build relationship by making connections. I tried asking about her childhood, family, meaningful friendships and the role of church in her life. Unfortunately it became quickly clear her short and long-term memory were pretty far gone. I asked her if she liked music, she said “no”. We prayed, and that didn’t seem to draw her out either. So after 45 minutes, and feeling somewhat defeated, I began to guide the wheelchair she sat in back to her room. I’d tried all the tools we’re given as chaplains. Nothing seemed to work.
Then a funny thing happened. We passed an aquarium and I noticed her head turn toward the fish tank. On a whim I moved her wheelchair right up to the aquarium glass, pulled up a chair and the two of us sat there, gazing at fish. For a while neither of us spoke. We just enjoyed the movement of the fish, the swaying of the plants, the bubbles floating to the surface. Then we started to talk. I would point to a red fish, she’d smile, nod, and point to a blue fish. We talked about big fish and little fish. Fish swimming alone and fish swimming in schools. It almost felt like we were living in a Dr. Seuss book.
We noticed the one flower in the tank. And watched the Plecostomus fish – that’s the one with the big sucker mouth – open and close his mouth again and again and again. We did this for an hour, the time just melting away. Despite having lost so much memory, so much vocabulary, this hospice patient found joy, found life, staring in awe at a microcosm of Creation in a tank of fish. I was in awe with her sense of awe.
In between these extremes – of a 1-year-old infant and a 95-year-old hospice patient – it can be more difficult to just gaze at the moon or the fish.
Mark 9:2-9 tells a similar story, of how difficult this gazing can be.
Voice of God
Walking up the mountain with Jesus, Peter understands suddenly, amazingly, that he is walking alongside the divine. How does he respond? He exclaims to Jesus, “Rabbi! Let us make shelters as memorials.“
Instead of experiencing the moment for what it is, as celestially magical, Peter, always the active disciple in scripture – he’s the talker, he’s the doer, not surprisingly he has trouble calming his urge to go and do something.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for building memorials that celebrate our faith – these days we call them churches – and a time for worship, boy I sure hope you value the importance of worship. But in this moment God calls Peter to something else. Scripture tells us that a cloud overshadowed the disciples along with Jesus, who now appears in dazzling white clothes. Even more, there Jesus is, standing beside the long since dead prophets Elijah and Moses. That must have been a fairly epic scene for a mere mortal like Peter to take in. Then, in the middle of that grandiose scene, a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen.”
Notice the voice from the cloud – that’s the voice of God – it doesn’t tell Peter to get going on building that memorial. It also doesn’t tell him to fall down and worship, as fitting as that may seem. It doesn’t even tell him to set the alarm, to make sure he’s on time to work the next day, as helpful as that would have been. Instead the voice of God does two things. First, it confirms identity for the disciples gathered there: Jesus is the son of God. With this identity now established the voice offers just one more word, an imperative: listen.
Think of all the other action verbs God could have used here, words like believe, confess, follow, forgive, pray, heck, even build. But the first step, according to God the Father, right after recognizing Jesus as the son of God, involves none of those action verbs. Instead Peter, and the other disciples gathered there, and as Christ-followers by extension us, we are first called to listen. Simply listen, as difficult as that can be.
As the season of Lent draws near – Ash Wednesday is right around the corner – I ask you to consider adding something to your 40 days: the spiritual practice of listening.
We can listen to God through the study of scripture. We can listen by sitting in silent meditation. We can listen in worship, absorbing the music, being attuned to the message. We can listen by lending an ear to people of all ages, from 1 to 95 and beyond, and everything in between. We can listen for their joys, listen for their sorrows, listen for the brokenness, be it of body, mind or soul. And we can listen when we stare, in awesome wonder, at a creation filled with stars, moons and fish.
For it is when we listen that, just like the disciples gathered there that day, we too are open to hearing the voice of God. And it is when we listen we can hear all sorts of other valuable verbs that call us to lives of purpose, lives of meaning. For it is when we listen we gain clarity in why it is we’re here, and can embrace fully, the active role we are to play, in the healing of a broken world. Amen.