Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your justice like the great deep.
O LORD, you preserve both man and beast.
How priceless is your unfailing love!
Both high and low among men
find refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.
–Psalm 36: 5-9
Yesterday, I was driving home from teaching. I was alone in the car and listening to the radio, and all of a sudden, I heard the most heavenly strumming on a guitar. I know nothing about music and notes and such, so I can’t tell you how complicated or intricate the notes were. They sounded pretty simple to me. And yet, they were just so beautiful. They spoke straight to my soul. You know how when things feel so good, they make you want to close your eyes? Whether it is a soft breeze while you are totally relaxed, a bite of a surprisingly exquisite morsel of food, the feel of a back rub, or a really good kiss, there is something in your instincts that tells you to close your eyes so that you can enjoy the feeling more. That’s what I wanted to do when I heard those guitar chords; I just wanted to close my eyes, sigh deeply, and say, “Thank you, God.” Unfortunately, I was driving, so closing my eyes would be unwise, but I still felt the deep, abiding peace wash over my soul. And in that second, I was transported from the surface of my day’s tasks to the depths of enjoyment and fulfillment.
I think that the music was a gift from God.
And I think that sometimes we are scared of those gifts.
I know that I am tempted to live in fear: fear of enjoying this life too much, of being too worldly, of living as a glutton and and a sinner in a lost and dying land. I desire to be holy; after all, that’s what God calls me to be. I long to live for God completely, and not to be distracted by the things that would take my eyes off Him. And of course, those desires are right and good. Of course, those desires are God’s will for us.
Here is what I have found, however. I have found that when I pursue God with all my heart, when I immerse myself in His word, and put my eyes and my heart on things above, I find that despite all of its darkness, the world is absolutely saturated with God. It is, after all, His creation. Thus, we can see Him all throughout it. Because we are each unique in composition and background, different parts of God’s creation speak to us in different ways, but the common ground is that we can experience His presence in basic things, like nature, music, exercise, food, sex, dancing, playing, and being with people. At their root, all of these things are God’s invention. They are gifts He chose to give us. Yes, they can all be distorted; our fallen nature and the “powers of this dark world” are masters at distorting God’s good and perfect gifts. But I think it is an absolute shame when we allow our fear of distortion to cripple our sense of enjoyment. When we do that, we allow sin and darkness to take away the good things that God tries to give us in this life.
Truth be told, I believe that a lot of our fear comes from our view of the Bible. I think we sometimes try to make the Bible into something that it is not. We make God’s Word to us into a book of rules instead of door that leads us into a life-giving relationship with our Creator. We act like we still live in the time of Uzzah, and we use his story as a warning against deviating from the narrow way. I have two thoughts about that. The first is, we don’t live in the time of Uzzah. We are not under the Law (and thank God for that, because I am in Leviticus right now in my daily Bible reading, and I cannot imagine having to slaughter that many animals on a regular basis). And when we put ourselves under that “law of Uzzah,” we become fearful even of our own capacities for enjoyment. We don’t trust our thoughts and feelings; after all, Uzzah was just trying to help, and look what happened to him! And so even though we are told that we have God’s Spirit within us, and even though everything in us tells that there’s nothing wrong with fervently enjoying a succulent bite of salmon or a riff on a guitar or a piece of beautiful art, we still worry that somehow that enjoyment makes us worldly. And to make matters worse, the law of Uzzah tells us that we can’t view those things as worship or a connection to God, because the only way we can worship God are in the ways that He explicitly prescribes. I have actually heard more than one sermon making that very point! It’s like we completely skipped the central message of the New Testament and are back under the Law again, like the book of Acts is the sixth book of the Law! (And again, apart from the theological absurdity of that position, let me tell you as one wading through Leviticus that, on a literary level, there is no way those two books are parallel. If I learned anything from the Torah, it’s that when God wants to spell out a bunch of rules, He does it very clearly.) The irony is that in our fear of being worldly, we separate God from the things He uses to reveal Himself to us. In doing so, we tell ourselves that we can’t experience God in those things. And because we cut out God from them, we make them worldly. The result is that we live compartmentalized lives where we “worship” and “commune with God,” in certain contexts, which leaves the rest of our lives–the stuff like eating and running and being outside and kissing and listening to music and playing games– to be experienced apart from Him. How sad is that? I don’t want to live one second apart from God! I want every moment of my life to be lived in worship to Him!
Secondly, though, I don’t even believe that the “time of Uzzah” is what we think it was. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of God’s many laws in the Old Testament, and to be terrified by God’s treatment of those who step out of line. I am still working through my understanding of all that, but from my understanding of the New Testament, it seems to me that the point of all those rules was to show us that they didn’t work. And even with all those laws in place, people still communed with God through the normal elements of their lives. For me, perhaps the best thing to come out of the Old Testament is the example of David. David messed up all the time (and not just the Bathsheba thing: when you read his story, there are all sorts of lies and acts of deception mixed in with the good stuff). And yet, David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” It’s hard to pin down exactly why he received such a wonderful title, but my running theory is that David was a man after God’s own heart because he saw God in everything. He saw God in nature, in music, in sorrow, in dancing like a crazy person.
Perhaps that’s why David described God as a fountain of life. “In your light we see light.” Even as a sinful man, David was able to see the light in nature and dancing and music and such because he was already immersed in God’s light. And so perhaps those today who “walk in the light,” as John puts it, are able to see all the sources of light that are already around them. Perhaps God’s light helps them to test everything, hold onto the good, and avoid every kind of evil. Maybe the fountain of life that comes from God allows us to connect with Him in everything He gives us.
Thinking about David’s words about the fountain of life reminds me of James’ description of God’s gifts: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Today, I’m so thankful for the good and perfect gifts of sunrises and good music and homemade tomato soup and my son’s drawings. I’m thankful that I don’t have to wait for heaven to get a drink from the fountain of life.
How do you experience God in this life?
(In case you were curious, the guitar riff in question was the first thirty seconds here.)