Royal Vocation

You may want to read Psalm 8 before you read this.

Audio of this post is also available.

When I’m at the grocery store I usually try to keep my thoughts to myself. Nobody wants to see a middle-aged white guy pushing a grocery cart down the aisle and mumbling to himself.

But when I walk through the valley of canned and bottled beverages, and my path leads me beside still waters, the beginnings of a psalm rise to my lips:

Lord God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I look at these bottles and jugs, the work of our fingers –
what are human beings that you are mindful of them?

One that gets me every time is Smartwater. How much smarter do you think it is than dumb tap water?

According to estimates by the Beverage Marketing Corporation from 2006, Americans consume 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water – that’s about 26 gallons per person a year.

The Pacific Institute estimates that producing the bottles for American consumption in 2006 required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil – that’s enough to fuel more than 1 million cars for a year.

Overall, the average energy cost to make the plastic, fill the bottles, transport them to market and then deal with the waste would be like filling up a quarter of every bottle with oil. Consuming four bottles of water is like burning a bottle of oil. Smartwater?

Well, fortunately all that plastic can be recycled. Except that, unfortunately that’s not happening: In 2004, the last year for which data is available, 85 percent of all non-carbonated PET bottles ended up in landfills, or as litter in parks, along roadways, in rivers and oceans – that’s 24 billion empty water bottles – 66 million every day! Can you imagine the size of that pile?

When I look at that mountain –
Lord God, what are human beings that you put up with us?

I remember nights many years ago when I lay on my back in the field and gazed at the sky – I felt small and at the same time lifted up by the awesome beauty of the stars. The view of the universe was so vast, so deep and silent, all I could hear was my own heart beat. We feel small under the dark tent of the night sky. We are specks of stardust in a vast universe, specks of stardust that ask questions:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

I know in my bones what the psalmist is talking about, and most of you know it too; we have looked at the heavens with awe and wonder. Most of our children, though, have never seen the Milky Way, and seeing it at the planetarium doesn’t even come close.

Friday night was clear and cold, the humidity was down in the teens, but the sky still didn’t have anywhere near the depth that I remember from nights in the 70’s. Astronomers tell us that two-thirds of Americans today cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards. The last time I saw it was several years ago, on a night hike in western Montana, far away from any city. Dark night skies, for the first time in history, are becoming an extinct phenomenon. Why? Because we leave the lights on, and many lights installed in homes, businesses, street lights and billboards are too bright and aimed upwards or sideways. All that light scatters through the atmosphere and brightens the night sky with an orange glow, reducing the universe, across most of the eastern United States, to a mere handful of stars. Researchers predict that at the current rate of increasing light pollution, by 2025 no dark skies will remain in the continental United States. We are robbing ourselves of one of the most ancient sources of awe.

If we want to show our children what the psalmist saw, we may have to take them all the way to Nevada, to the Great Basin National Park. The park service advertises,

On a clear, moonless night (…) thousands of stars, five of our solar system’s eight planets, star clusters, meteors, man-made satellites, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. The area boasts some of the darkest night skies left in the United States. Low humidity and light pollution combine with high elevation to create a unique window to the universe.

Sitting between piles of empty water bottles and under dimming stars, what we need is a window to ourselves: Who are we and what is our role in this marvelous world?

Our psalm can be that window. It is a prayer of praise, erupting with a shout and ending with the same exuberant phrase: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

With its very form the psalm tells us that who we are cannot be addressed outside of a framework of praise: we begin with the joyous acclamation of God; we praise God who has prevailed against the powers of chaos, the Creator who established a world in which life can thrive; and what lingers at the end is nothing but that same exuberant joy – the earth itself a witness not to the power of chaos but to the majesty of God’s name.

In the beginning and in the end, God’s will and faithfulness prevail, and between these reliable pillars, the meditation on what it means to be human takes place.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established –

Perhaps you think that it was so much easier in ancient times to view the heavens with such confidence. Perhaps you say to yourself, “Easy for them to speak of God’s fingers, they did not know what we know about galaxies and giant black holes and the age of the universe.” You are right, they didn’t.

But this statement nevertheless represents a remarkable testimony. For thousands of years, humankind had regarded sun, moon and stars as distant deities and their courses as the source of arbitrary powers that destined human existence. In that world, the people who wrote and prayed this psalm boldly looked at sun and moon and stars not as gods, but as creation of the one God; as objects of awesome wonder, not of fear; and they viewed themselves not as helpless chess pieces pushed around by cosmic forces, but as partners of the one God, maker of heaven and earth.

The psalm is their invitation to us to pray with them, to trust this God, and to find in our relationship with this God our purpose and meaning.

You have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

The sons and daughters of Adam and Eve look at the world, the work of God’s hands, and they marvel at their royal vocation: crowned with glory and honor, they have been given dominion over all living things. I often wonder if the planet wouldn’t be better off without us, kings and queens who trample all over the things put under our feet. But then I ask myself, if God has such great faith in humankind, shouldn’t I have at least a little?

Of all living things that inhabit the earth, we alone have the capacity to make this planet our planet, to create a world of culture with the things offered by nature. The trouble with our species is that we have a hard time remembering that dominion is a stewardship term, and not a license to do as we please with this piece of unclaimed property called earth. We have a hard time remembering that dominion has been given to all generations of humanity, and not just to us: our grandchildren and their grandchildren share our royal vocation, they are not our maids and valets who come to clean up after us.

Dominion is an awesome responsibility that easily deteriorates into destructive domination and abusive tyranny. The inconvenient truth about us is that we are royal stewards who fancy ourselves to be owners of the planet. Our psalm suggests a simple but powerful countermeasure: rather than tooting your own horn, sing to the Lord. Through the worship of God, we remain mindful of the relationship that saves us and all of creation from ourselves.

This psalm is unique in addressing God throughout in the second person; the focus remains on God:

How majestic is your name!
You have set, you have founded, you have established, you are mindful, you care, you have made, you have crowned, you have given dominion, you have put all things under their feet.
How majestic is your name!

The only time a human is the subject of a verb is in verse 3, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers..." Humans do not rule autonomously like spoiled, absolute monarchs. The calling of the human being is to behold what God has made, to pray and sing in wonder to the Maker, and to remember that our dominion derives its authority entirely from God’s sovereignty. Humanity’s royal status and dominion are part of God’s reign, not its replacement, and once we take God out of the picture, we invite disaster. Our psalm locates us between God and animals: responsible to God and responsible for the creatures placed under our care. We are to be partners in caring for a creation that is always threatened by chaos.

Where can we turn to see our royal vocation embodied in a way we can observe and imitate? As always, we look to Jesus. Jesus who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient (Philippians 2:5-11). In Jesus Christ, dominion takes the form of self-emptying service.

Sitting between piles of empty water bottles and under dimming stars, we need a window to our true selves. We look to Jesus. In him we see the fulfillment of what it means to be human, as well as the reign of God in person. Following him we live our royal vocation in joyful obedience to God and with caring attention to God’s creation.