February 14, 2021

Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, VII: Wow & Awe

Passage: Psalm 29; Mark 9:2–9

A Psalm of David
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
   worship the Lord in holy splendor.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

The Transfiguration
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

The Coming of Elijah
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, so we’ve come to the end of the season of Epiphany, and we’ve also come to the end our series on The Lord’s Prayer. Today, that concluding doxology, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, Amen.”

During this series on The Lord’s Prayer, I’ve been trying to look with you at the scriptural background to the most famous prayer in history. I’ve been trying to guess with you where the prayer’s images and metaphors and vocabulary came from, and I’ve been suggesting that the most important book in Jesus’ spiritual formation was of course the Hebrew Psalter.

When he was growing up in rural Palestine, Jesus’ momma would have taught him to sing songs like Psalm 29: “The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in God’s Temple all say, ‘Glory!’”

In a short canticle of nine verses, words like “power” and “glory” and “strength” and “majesty” appear over and over again, eight times, so we get the point. The Psalmist piles up the images to describe the terrifying, muscular, even destructive, immensity of the Creator. God is a cyclone that levels the canopy. God is a hurricane making the ocean seethe. God is a forest fire laying waste to the landscape. God is a volcano hurling molten rock a thousand feet to the sky.

The power and the glory: maybe it was this Hebrew Psalm that gave Jesus the vocabulary for his prayer. It is the most perfect doxology: “In God’s Temple, all say ‘Glory!’” Yes?

Anne Lamott says there are only three really good prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!”  “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” and “Wow!” which of course is her clipped rendition of the concluding doxology of the Lord’s Prayer.

No one seems to know precisely where the English word ‘Wow!’ comes from originally, but it appears to be of Scottish origin; Bobby Burns was one of its early users, so, for all practical purposes, ‘Wow!’ is a Presbyterian word.  Not that solid, stolid Presbyterians are the kind of folk who use it much, but still, they invented it.

Ms. Lamott says, “‘Wow!’ means that we are not dulled to wonder....  ‘Wow!’ means that we are almost speechless, but not quite.  We can manage, barely, this one syllable...  There are lower case ‘wow’s’,” she says, “like seeing a kid execute a perfect dive at the town swimming pool, or coming upon a blanket of poppies in a field that was destroyed by a grass fire last summer.

“And then there are Upper-Case ‘Wow’s’: Yosemite, fireworks, watching puppies being born at the neighbor’s house when you were six.”

She says that ‘Wow!’ comes from awe. ‘Wow’ and ‘awe’, she says, are phonetic sisters: “they are the same length and width, all ‘w’s’ and short vowels. They could dance together.”[1] And they do.

You say “Wow!” now and then, don’t you? You’re not “dulled to wonder.” So when your friend invites you on a little hike up the side of nearby mountain, you’ll go, yes?  It’s only 2,000 feet to the summit; it’ll take you a couple of hours. And when you get there, your friend’s face will shine like the stars; his clothing will be as if rinsed in an extraterrestrial bleach; you’ll see him for the first time as he truly is in his essence, a precious treasure; the whole mountain will be bathed in brilliance; and you just might meet the towering heroes of legend and lore—Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets, come down from on high to stamp their imprimatur on his inimitable life.

Guard the wonder in your heart of hearts. Always take that unnecessary walk to the high place, the topographically high place or the spiritually high place. People who live 30 minutes from the Grand Canyon never make it to the rim. Because they always can, they never do.

When I was a kid, my family would drive 3½ hours to experience the wonders of this fair city. We’d come to visit the high places, topographically high places like the John Hancock and the Wrigley Building and the Water Tower. Spiritually high places like the Art Institute and the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry. We came to be enlightened. We came to be changed. Dare I say it: we came to be transfigured. Now that I live here, I walk right past without seeing.

Guard the wonder in your heart of hearts. John Claypool was an Episcopalian who served churches across the American South, one of the greatest American preachers of the late twentieth century.

Dr. Claypool says it over and over and over again: Life is gift and birth windfall, and just to be here at all is sheer unmerited privilege. He tells a story about a family in Texas who had four children, and every one dearly loved and beautifully cherished, and so everybody in the family was excited when word came that a fifth child was going to be born. It was a girl, and she was absolutely beautiful, except for one thing: she had no arms or legs. The family, of course, was shocked and disappointed. But this was the kind of family that says not “Why us?” but “Why NOT us? What can we do to make something of this situation?”

One year her older brother came home from university for Easter break, and he brought his roommate home with him. By the way, says Dr. Claypool, he was a sophomore, which means that he knew more that year than he would ever know before or since. He was also a philosophy major, and sometimes looked at life with jaded, analytical eyes.

The whole weekend the young philosopher watched this legless, armless teenager make her way through her challenged existence, and before he left to return to university, he asked her: “What keeps you from exploding in rage at whatever kind of God would let you be born so handicapped?”

And the young woman looked him straight in the eye and said, “I realize that compared to most people, what I have doesn’t seem like much, but listen, I have been able to see. Because of my wonderful family I have looked on some of the great beauties of nature and the great beauties of the world. I have been able to hear, and because of my family I have experienced magnificent music. I have wonderful conversation. I’ve had all kinds of things come to me through my ears. I have been able to smell. I have been able to taste. I have been able to feel. I realize that compared to most people, what I have must not seem like much, but compared to never getting to live at all...? I wouldn’t have missed being born for anything.”[2]

Life is gift, and birth windfall. And that is why we pray the way we do. We begin with “Holy!” and end with “Glory!” First we pray “Holy be thy name!” and last we pray “Thine be the glory!” Our prayer is bookended with doxology; our lives are bookended with doxology, circumscribed with praise; edged, bounded, enveloped with worship.

“In God’s Temple, all say ‘Glory!’ In God’s Forest, all say ‘Glory!’ Always and everywhere, God’s people say, “Glory, glory, hallelujah!”

[1]Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead, 2012), 71–84.

[2]John Claypool, in a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA.