Dust

January 21, 2011

I have been reading the Psalms these past few days for the Great Books program I am in; for our first session we will be discussing 44 of them, categorized thematically. After an entire semester of Medieval Theologians from Pseudo-Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas, the poetry of the Psalms is a much-needed reminder that God appreciates beautiful sentences (though imagine how much more beautiful they are the original Hebrew!).

The last group of Psalms I am reading is “Psalms on Creation” (8, 24, 33, 65, 104, 136). I was expecting, from the categorization, to read about “nature”—trees, sunlight, squirrels. After all, when someone talks about enjoying or caring for “creation,” he usually means the forests, the environment, the earth. But I found that I was also reading a lot about myself. In Psalm 65, God doesn’t just “still the roaring of the sea,” He also stills “the turmoil of the nations”—and in the same sentence.

Now, I know the appropriate reaction to this is supposed to be something like “can you believe that the same God who created the universe also hears our prayers?” And in my better moments, I am overwhelmed by that truth. But yesterday, I found myself resisting this lumping: I’m not sure if I like the direct comparison of the waves of the ocean to the wars of men.

And then I remember Psalm 103 also:

“…for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.”

Beautiful. True. But so difficult. People rarely say these words to a parent who has just lost a child, or to a teenager watching a grandparent die of cancer. But there’s another side to this truth, as there is so often. (I am slowly learning to appreciate, instead of be intimidated by, the complexity of Scripture.)

In J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny hates that Jesus discriminates against birds when he says,

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

My reaction is just the opposite of Franny’s*. The suffering of humans saddens me far more than the suffering of birds, and so it makes sense to me, emotionally especially, that while God cares for birds, he considers man “more valuable.” (So valuable, in fact, that He would die to save him.)

But God doesn’t always make sense to me. Too often I forget I am a created being, that my friend, sick in the hospital, is a created being…that, as Annie Dillard puts it, “our breath is not our own.”

 

* this particular section within Franny and Zooey is saying much more than I can understand… I just read it yesterday and have only picked a very tiny part out to reference, but I want to write again when I have thought about it more. It is a brilliant book.

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