Sunday, January 13, 2008

Psalm 29: Caution No Swimming

Laura Kuster, great guest preacher

Psalm 29

1Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.

3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, "Glory!"

10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.

11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

It’s amazing how quickly the liturgical cycle moves us through Advent, to Christmas, then Epiphany, and now to this Sunday, on which we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. I, for one, have always wondered why we celebrate this day now … and what it is, exactly, that we are celebrating. Is this a day on which to give thanks to Jesus, who sought out, in some eccentric and soggy fashion, the blessing of his divine Father? Or, do we celebrate the exalted Parent, who at baptism appears to publicly and officially “claim” Jesus and Son and Savior? Heck, do we give thanks for John, who seems to have started this whole fad to begin with, and who, in all his befuddled unworthiness, nevertheless dunked Jesus in the waters of life? All of the above? None of the above? Jesus, parabolic as usual, lets us know that, for now, being baptized by John is means to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). And confirming all of this is God’s voice, breaking through the heavens, blowing over the waters, claiming and loving.

What surprises me is that nothing caught on fire, blew up, or drown when God’s voice descended from the heavens. I’d thought there might be an echo from the Psalmist in the Matthew passage, but no. There is no report of the riverside cedars being broken in half, no whirling oaks or stripped forest. No earthquake in the wilderness. No fireball, no flooding arroyo. As far as we know, everyone emerged from the scene more or less physically in tact, without even a singed beard or a splinter. So what of the violence woven into the Psalm? What of the breakage and destruction? What of the thundering majesty of God, the wild cavorting of the world ablaze in worship? What of the blessing and peace bestowed by our Creator, conqueror of the violent, flooding depths?

Admittedly, the flooding depths imagery is somewhat innocuous for me; I have never experienced the visceral violence of water. Growing up in Minnesota, water was everywhere. Winter or summer, we ran outside and flung ourselves in it. I began to swim when at 9 months of age (I was slightly older when I learned how to operate a snowblower. ) I simply did not understand how anyone could be frightened of water – until I spent the summer after college graduation working at Ghost Ranch, teaching swimming lessons to the local community. And by local I mean a 45 mile radius. Kids and their parents would flock in from as far away as Tierra Amaria for a 50 minute swim lesson and a day at the pool. They were thrilled with the novelty. Yet it never failed…one out of every two parents who walked their child over to the edge would say, “have fun. But don’t drown.” At which point I’d spend some minutes convincing the petrified child that water was fun, water was your friend, and here was a fluorescent green noodle floatie to help prove the point. By the end of a session, they believed me, and couldn’t wait to come back. Those were the kids. I also had one class of adults, who met on Tuesday evenings. Four women in their 30’s and 40’s who wanted to learn to swim. Trusting the water was a bigger issue for them, but even then I succeeded in teaching the majority of them to at least paddle across the width of the shallow end. Except for one woman. Night after night, while her classmates were splashing and kicking, I would stand in the middle of the pool with her, cradling her as she floated on her back. I still remember it – very distinctly. My head down next to hers, murmuring comfort and encouragement as she took deep shuddering breaths. How we would just stand there, in intimate watery embrace as the sun set over the mesa and the stars came out. Never once in the 10 weeks I taught her was I allowed to let go. Eventually I came to understand why. Her brother, she told me, had drown that spring. There was a reservoir a few miles down the road. He and his buddies had been out in a boat. Alcohol was involved. They never found him. But she came every Tuesday night, in a black tank suit, to step gingerly down into the 3 ft. and let me pull her back against me until her head rested on my shoulder in the water. Then we’d process out into the middle of the pool and just…be. I was dense at 22 – I pushed her a few times to front float over even doggie paddle – always with me supporting her. Then I’d applaud madly while she looked non-plussed. I didn’t realize that her accomplishment was simply getting in the pool every Tuesday. Surrendering herself to and seeking harmony with the very element that killed her brother. Life and death, literally on her skin. Her being submerged in synchronous violence and salvation.

I have come to know a visceral violence of a different sort. And my fear of it meant a different sort of submersion. I was 24 and a newly married military wife when the planes hit the twin towers. I was 26 when my husband rode the first wave that besieged Baghdad. For me the first months of the war were ones of uncertainty, denial, loneliness, and fear. When my husband came back physically in one piece, we faced a death of a different sort – one manifested in post-traumatic stress, domestic violence, and the ultimate destruction of our marriage. I emerged from that abyss afraid of so many things…yet when an opportunity came to travel in the Middle East, I jumped at the chance. And so I waded into Jordan, Lebanon, Syria… until I stood 90 miles from the Iraqi border and got no further. Then my group circled round to Israel, to the very wilderness of Kadesh today’s psalm refers to. It’s in the northernmost quadrant of Israel, north even of the Sea of Galilee. It’s in this area that the streams rushing down from Mt. Hermon form the headwaters of the Jordan River. And don’t let anyone ever convince you that the Jordan River is only a docilely meandering stream. At the headwaters it rushes and boils and cascades and one takes heed of the “Caution: No Swimming” signs posted. But even though I didn’t actually get into the water, I understood that I had submerged myself in something similar to my swimming student years ago. I’d allowed myself to sink into that which had caused me so much pain – I’d followed Iraqi oil trucks across the deserts of Syria, driven by the anti-aircraft guns that dotted the wasteland. I’d stood very still in the midst of the swirling hate of religion and politics and, in the arms of my travel companions and tour-guides, I’d felt a lifeline and a hope for life after pain, after war, after death.

So, there was to be no swimming in the headwaters of the Jordan. But I didn’t see any signs warning “Caution: No Baptizing.” The Matthew text doesn’t say where exactly John was. Jesus just went out from Galilee to meet John in the wilderness. Perhaps in the wilderness of Kadesh. Perhaps near the head of the Jordan, where the waters are icy and dangerous and very, very alive. What’s more, aside from any peril the river itself might impose, if those present were anything like you and me – and I think they were – they already knew death of a sort. In our world there are so many things that kill us, parts of us, pieces of us. There is so much intrinsic violence. The violence is not of God, yet it permeates God’s world. And realizing this makes Psalm 29 seem much more real, and more comforting. We live in a broken world, as broken people. God claims the breakage, embodies it, masters it, and defeats it. The ultimate result is that God sits enthroned above the very waters that would drown and destroy us, and offers us strength, blessing, and peace. So no, I guess nothing had to blow up or overflow when Jesus was baptized. There was going to be enough of that to come…at a different time when the same Beloved Son was to drown on top of a cross on the mount of skulls. And what we celebrate in Jesus’ baptism was the presence of God amidst the destruction. The life swirling into and dissolving death. The submerging and the re-emerging. The drowning of the old ways and the resurrection of the new. We celebrate the gift of the Creator, the sacrifice of the Son, and the arms of our fellow mortals who hold us in connection with the Body of Christ. Such, perhaps, in the words of Jesus himself, is the “fulfillment of righteousness” – the foundation laid for salvation and healing, between ourselves and the elements, between one person to another, and between ourselves and God. It’s a physical, visceral experience, and God calls us to feel it on our very skin, that we may feel it in our very souls.

Thanks be to God.


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