All Nature Sings: Sky

Proclaimer: Emily Hull McGee | Scripture: Psalm 19 | Sunday, April 28, 2024


In about week three after the pandemic shut down our schools and churches and common spaces and shuttered so many of us indoors, my family had made our way through the initial disaster response in a burst of adrenaline. We’d stocked up at the grocery store, and set up Zoom school, and made a Lysol-based plan for our entry and exit, and eagerly asked our sewing-proficient friends for one of the handmade masks they were sharing. But by that point, the adrenaline had worn off and the panic set in. Twitter was telling us that pandemics last years, and that anyone who still thought we could all go home for a few weeks and covid would pass was simply fooling themselves. And it took everything within me to stave off a meltdown. 

I remember the afternoon I’d read that article on Twitter, we were out in our backyard – the only place I didn’t feel immediately claustrophobic. We spent all the hours out there, it seemed: morning Zoom school and work, turned to afternoon play, turned to dinner time, turned to dusk when all the fear for me was at its worst. “Come see what we can do!,” our kids hollered to Josh and me from the trampoline that day, and we joined them. Jumping turned to sitting turned to lying down. Annabelle got cold, so Josh ran in for blankets. I thought a pillow would really elevate the experience, and sent Liam in for pillows. Silas grabbed an armful of stuffed animals, and we all piled up – even Knox, the dog – on top of the trampoline, snuggled together and stargazing for what we quickly dubbed, “The Wrap-Up.” 

Over the pandemic months, we wrapped up in blankets and wrapped up many a day on that trampoline. We played “would you rather?” and “I spy.” We studied constellations and watched the jetstreams of airplanes passing by. We spotted birds and bats, listened to the neighbor dogs and the cicadas’ chorus that grew as spring gave way to summer. We discussed our days and our worries and wondered endlessly when things would get back to normal. When I felt the scaredest and the smallest, lying on that trampoline with my beloveds around me and gazing up to the heavens comforted me somehow with wonder and humility. Those stars had seen pandemics before. That sun warmed generations who suffered long before this. The Wrap-Up wrapped me into the wonder of God who, despite it all, held up the sky – and even for little old me. 


We’re spending these Eastertide weeks within the hands of God’s creation, looking to the Psalms as our guide to the sky, the waters, the land, humanity, and all within planet Earth. Like the great hymn says, “all nature sings and around me rings the music of the spheres.” I doubt I need to explain to you why it is essential as an act of Christian worship and discipleship to look not only to God but to the world that God created and so loved, but on the off chance you need convincing, let me offer just a few words. 

St. Thomas Aquinas once said: “any error about creation also leads to an error about God.”1 Meaning: our Christian faith compels us to learn and wonder about and seek understanding of our earthly home. We can’t understand God without understanding God’s creation. For God’s creation is purposeful, threaded with the uncoerced freedom given to all creation. Let’s remember, friends – God didn’t have to create! So what could have compelled God to do such remarkable work?In his poem, “God’s Trombones,” the great Black poet James Weldon Johnson wonders aloud: “And God stepped out on space, and he looked around and said: I’m lonely – I’ll make me a world.”2 From nothing, everything. From one, all. From isolation, connection. And today, we begin in this creation with the skies. 

Think with me about the sky. Skies reveal abundance in every season: thick winter clouds just pregnant with snow, cold icy blue suggesting a warmth that never comes, softening skies of spring and days of rain to make the world come back to life, the hot baked skies of summer, the first sky of fall when the deep blue hints of what’s to come. The sky unites us, doesn’t it? While the landscape of North Carolina is different from the landscape of Norway or Nepal or Namibia, the sky stretches from one place to the next on this here planet earth. Proverbially, the same sky overhead here is the same sky overhead there, with variety that colors our locations. There are waxing and waning moons in the mountains as in the valleys. There are stars above the cities as well as the country. The rain falls on the Pacific Northwest, and the rain falls in southern Florida. The sun rises and sets over us all, from sea to shining sea. The sky reveals God, and reveals a particular facet of our relationship with God, one the Psalmist knows intimately. 


Over these five weeks together, I’ll be preaching from the Psalms, so let’s take a moment today to talk about this collection in their entirety. One of my elementary school Sunday School teachers advised her 3rd graders that if you just open your Bible to the middle, you’re either right in the Psalms or pretty darn close. These 150 psalms are songs and poetry and prayers, many attributed to King David. For centuries, they have patterned our conversations with God – in praise and lament, in anger and gratitude, in wisdom and truth, in fear and hope – because this is the only part of the Bible that is clearly human speech. Everywhere else in our scriptures, we hear God’s words to us through prophets and historians and storytellers and leaders, but here in the Psalms are our words to God, or rather, God’s word in us.3 Studying the Psalms keeps us from our human tendencies toward self-focus – we link with the generations who have prayed these prayers – and self-satisfaction. The Psalms resist the pull toward abstracting our thoughts about God away from an ongoing relationship with God.4 These are words of direct encounters, you might say! Psalm 19 does just that. C. S. Lewis once said of this Psalm, “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”5 Some scholars see the psalm as an artistic whole, yet others divide the psalm in half: verses 1-6 forming a creation psalm, and verses 7-14 a torah psalm. It begins with the expanse of the heavens that tell the glory of God. The Psalmist speaks of heavens, the firmament, day and night and all the world, the sun’s rising and setting and heat. Throughout the Psalm, we move from expanse to intimacy – from the skies of creation to God’s instruction to the prayers of an individual worshiper. From the heavens comes knowledge, and God’s knowledge is sweet and true. From the sun comes light, and God’s word lights the path. From the expanse flows joy, and the joy of God’s commandments cannot be contained. 

This morning, I want to suggest that Psalm 19 gives us a glimpse into the skies, and reveals to us the dual gifts of wonder and humility.


Receiving those gifts is hardly ever that simple, though. The sky can be a source of great pain and suffering, of fear and anger, often seeming to tell a story of a God whose created world betrays God’s love for it all. 

After the tornado outbreak of April 2011 that spun and spit out miles of Alabama in a flash of once-in-a-generation storms, Southern storyteller and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg said this: “We are accustomed to storms, here where the cool air drifts south to collide with the warm, rising damp from the Gulf, where black clouds roil and spin and unleash hell on Earth. But this was different, a gothic monster off the scale of our experience and even our imagination, a thing of freakish size and power that tore through state after state and heart after Southern heart, killing hundreds, hurting thousands, even affecting, perhaps forever, how we look at the sky.”6 

Surely that was the same for citizens of the heartland as tornadoes tore through their towns over the past few days. Surely that is the same for the war-weary citizens of Gaza, unsure if the thing falling from the sky is food to meet their hunger or bombs to meet their death. Surely that is the same for those who bear the flooding rains or the bitter ice, the scorching sun or the fires that spark. Surely that is the case for us all, as we watch our earth groaning with sorrow in a warming climate and a pillaged land. Writing nearly 70 years ago, Ludwig Feuerbach offered a searing critique of Christians: “nature,” he says, “nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul.”7 No matter the anger or the fear wrought by the heavens, surely God does not want us to bury our heads into the ground! 


Last Friday, the great American writer Anne Lamott charmed the pants off all who gathered in this room to hear her speak. As she invited us into the deep space for curiosity, she passed along a story told to her by her pastor, who said, “You can trap bees in the bottom of a mason jar, and they just walk around bitterly because they don’t know to look up!”8 Any cursory glance around a group of humans these days reveals what looks a lot like bees trapped in a mason jar: we’re not just afraid of what we’ll see, rather our heads buried in phones, or eyes scanning the crowds for threats, or walking hurriedly from one stressor to the next, forgetting that the expanse of the heavens unfolds just above. 

Another story: sociologists tell us that we’re living in an age beyond monoculture, a time when “the range of artifacts, characters, voices, and stories that a specific demographic — Americans, for example — find recognizable and relatable” has passed.9 We’re in our “Netflix-Hulu-Prime Video-Peacock-Apple TV-Disney Plus”-era, not our “millions watching the finale of M.A.S.H. or tuning into Johnny Carson at night”-era. To oversimplify monoculture to simply that which we watch together, we’re as fractured and divided as we are in our politics. So when an event breaks through the quirky spaces of the digital world that keep us watching separately and instead draws us together, it’s exceedingly rare. And when that event captivates so many millions such that internet traffic dropped by up to 60% while it happened, it’s unparalleled.10 

I’m talking of course about the solar eclipse that brushed past our country a few weeks ago that Rick shared about a few moments ago. It’s one thing to see the incredible images coming from the Webb Telescope that draw us toward the farthest reaches of the universe. It’s quite another when the event spills down from the skies to envelop the darkened world around us, startling the birds and the bees and entrancing all of humanity that gazed upwards in utter awe. Talk about monoculture at its very best! Friends, the invitation of Psalm 19 is an invitation to consider the skies as a gift from God of both wonder and humility: the wonder that an eclipse offers us, and the humility to remember to stop amidst the hurry of our days. What amazement to feel astonishingly small in the landscape of things! What joy to be encased in rapt attention of God’s wildly diverse created universe! What hope to be surprised by what we see! What exhilaration upon what we’ll discover! What virtue we find in this frantically-paced, disposably-wired, perpetually-stressed, ‘Google it’-based living to practice the capacity to be astonished! What faithfulness we learn when we refuse to bury our heads and instead raise our eyes to the heavens! What extraordinary being in our ordinary living! And all we have to do? Look up every once in awhile. 


It’s such an invitation that was on artist Scott Polach’s mind when he imagined his 2015 project called “Applause Encouraged.” Visitors arrived to see his latest art installation just before dusk at the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, only to find a cliff in the middle of nowhere and a velvet rope sectioning off a handful of chairs. Because you see, forty five minutes before sunset, a greeter welcomed the guests into this cordoned-off area by ushering them to their seats with the instruction not to take photos. There for the duration of the sunset, these guests experienced a more dazzling artistic show than any Scott could have created. And their only job was to sit at its feet and receive. At the end of the sunset, they applauded and departed for refreshments.11 

Annie Dillard speaks clearly: “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”12 Or this from Gilles Deleuze, which speaks perfectly to the gift of sky-gazing: “what a relief to have nothing to say,” he writes, “the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.”13“There is no speech,” the Psalmist declares, “nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” 

So may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, o God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen!