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Sunday Message for March 5, 2023

Stalking the Holy

I would like to talk today about 'Stalking the Holy.' Because we need to take action to have God in our lives. God is not hiding from us - we have been hiding from Him. So, let's become a stalker of all things holy.

Our prayer might be: God of mystery, who inhabits the silences and the spaces, who knows and is known by the creation you have fashioned, grant me courage to seek you in the wild, hidden places. Fill my vision with your wisdom, that I may perceive your holy dwellings.

(Psalms 104:1-9) says Bless the Lord, O my soul.
     O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
     wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
     you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
     you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
     fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
     so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
     the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
     at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
     to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
     so that they might not again cover the earth.

This scripture talks about God's majesty in the heavens and the creation of the sea, and the dry land. Everything we set eyes on invites us to bless and praise God. God, and all that God is, is clearly shown by the things which He created. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Jesus, the Son of his love, is the Light of the world.

Annie Dillard writes in her book An American Childhood, "When everything else has gone from my brain, - the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family - when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology; the dreaming memory of the land as it lay this way and that."

Annie Dillard is an author and a poet who writes about this "dreaming memory of the land." From the hills, mountain valleys, and rivers of her hometown to the surrounding land, Annie unravels her sacred landscape and weaves it into reflections on beauty, terror, mystery, and the holy. In the eyes of a weasel she has stalked along Tinker Creek, in sunlight slamming down a hill in Washington State during an eclipse of the sun, in a moth becoming a flaming wick atop a candle, she probes the glory as well as the shadow side of God with a unique sense of sight.

We need to see with new eyes the landscapes that surround us and those that lie within us. Annie reminds us that the contours of the land and of our lives speak of the glory of the holy. To perceive the sacred requires both focused pursuit and a radical openness to the unexpected.

In the book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie writes, "In summer, I stalk. Summer leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me. I have to seek things out. The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways.

The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the Via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature's passage, like spring Eskimos at a seal's breathing hole. Something might come; something might go. I am Newton under the apple tree, Buddha under the bo.

Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow, doggedly, like Eskimos haunting the caribou herds. I am Wilson squinting after the traces of electrons in a cloud chamber; I am Jacob at Peniel wrestling with the angel."

So have you ever stalked God this way? To just empty yourself and put yourself in the way of His passing. This is called meditation and like Annie says, "Something might come; something might go."

Or are you a more active stalker like Jacob. He wrestled with the angel and said, (Genesis 32:26) "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."

Jesus told us, in (Matthew 7:1) Seek, and you will find. So, ask yourself, what do I seek in my life?

And how do I discern when to wait for and when to pursue that which I seek?

Annie writes, "When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw "the tree with the lights in it."

It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.

The flood of fire abated, but I'm still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam. "

So, think about it, and recall a time when something in the landscape of your life suddenly shifted. What poured in through the cracks?

Because it's not about a failing economy - it's about watching for the blessing, watching for the miracle, watching for God to show up in our lives.

It says in Psalms 104:10-18)
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
     they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
     the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
     they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
     the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
     and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
     and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
     and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
     the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
     the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
     the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.

These verses talk about how God provides for all creatures. And they worship God by being exactly what God created them to be. Yet, we forget that we enjoy the largest measure of God's kindness. We have the earth with all its variety of lands. And we have many spiritual blessings. We have God's grace, everlasting life, opportunities to change, and joy if we choose to have it.

In Teaching a Stone to Talk Annie writes, "Several months later, walking past the farm on the way to a volleyball game, I remarked to a friend, by way of information, "There are angels in those fields." Angels! That silence so grave and so stricken, that choked and unbearable green! I have rarely been so surprised at something I've said. Angels! What are angels? I had never thought of angels, in any way at all."

"From that time on I began to think of angels. I considered that sights such as I had seen of the silence must have been shared by the people who said they saw angels. I began to review the thing I had seen that morning. My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits - spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time - thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground. Only their motion was clear (clockwise, if you insist); that, and their beauty unspeakable."

"There are angels in those fields, and I presume, in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact. What all this means about perception, or language, or angels, or my own sanity, I have no idea."

So, what do you think of angels? What landscapes have offered images of holiness to you?

Annie writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "That it's rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time, we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, "The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?" It's a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest?

Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creators, once having called forth the universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. Is this what we think happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears round the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey?

"God is subtle," Einstein said, "but not malicious." Again, Einstein said that "nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning." It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God "set bars and doors" and said, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"

So, what do you think of the created universe? Of nothingness? Where do you find yourself more comfortable - rowing into the thick darkness of the questions or playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?

Annie writes "Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star."

"The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his casual step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."

So, think about it - where do you encounter beauty and grace in your life? How could you be more present to such moments?

It says in (Psalms 104:19-30)
You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
     the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
     when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
     seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw
     and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
     and to their labor until the evening.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
     In wisdom you have made them all;
     the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
     creeping things innumerable are there,
     living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
     and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

These all look to you
     to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
     when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
     when you take away their breath, they die
     and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
     and you renew the face of the ground.

These verses talk about the regular course of day and night and God's sovereign power over all the creatures. We are so used to the natural progression of day and night that we forget to be amazed at the divine order of it all - we forget to be grateful for the perfection of the universe.

The psalmist wonders at the works of God. The works of nature are as works of art. They are all made in wisdom, for they all answer the end they were designed to serve. Every spring is an emblem of the resurrection, when a new world rises, as it were, out of the ruins of the old one.

In Holy the Firm Annie writes, "I am drinking boiled coffee and watching the bay from the window. Almost all of the people who reef net have hauled their gears for the winter; the salmon runs are over, days are short. Still, boats come and go on the water - tankers, tugs and barges, rowboats and sails. There are killer whales if you're lucky, rafts of harlequin ducks if you're lucky, and every day the scoter and the solitary grebes.

How many tons of sky can I see from the window? It is morning: morning! and the water clobbered with light. Yes, in fact, we do. We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what [God] cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel's worth of sense into our days.

And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do; churn out enormity and beat it, with God's blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God? (And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?) We forget ourselves, picnicking; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. "God is at home," says Meister Eckhart, "We are in the far country.""

"We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all. We sleep to time's hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it's time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it's time to break our necks for home."

So, what calls you home? How do you know it's time to go there? What do you toss aside in order to get there?

(Psalms 104:31-35)says,
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
     may the Lord rejoice in his works--
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
     who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
     I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
     for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
     and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

These last verses of scripture are a resolution to continue praising God. Our glory fades, but God's glory is everlasting. Creatures change, but God is always there. And so, we need to continue stalking the holy through the glories of creation.

While God with pleasure upholds all, governs all, and rejoices in all his works, let our souls, touched by his grace, meditate on and praise him.

Thomas Merton wrote, "There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues." There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won't have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Annie writes, In the bible "Ezekiel rebukes false prophets as those who (Ezekiel 13:1) have not gone up into the gaps. The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit's one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish, too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock - more than a maple - a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you."

So, think about this, what are you making or raising with your life? How are you spending your time? What gaps are you stalking, squeaking your way into, unlocking?

By earth and water bless me, Creator God; with wind and flame inhabit my spirit. Bless my sight to perceive the holy and my hands to heal your sacred earth.
Let it be your way.

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