I am writing this blog from the Tucson airport as my wife and I are returning from a brief getaway in the Desert Southwest. We took some splendid hikes and every time we are here, we are amazed at the stark beauty of the desert. To be in the midst of a forest of Saguaro cacti is stunning as is the sheer variety of cacti and other vegetation, including a big variety of prickly pear in an array of colors beyond green and so many other plants and trees we never see in the Midwest, including those vibrant Bursage trees with their bright green bark.
To me it serves as a reminder of the rich tapestry of God’s wonderful creation. Mountains, oceans, coral reefs, giant redwoods, deserts, rocky ocean shorelines, giant sand dunes in Northern Michigan: the list goes on and on. So many different environments to experience in the world! Since I have been writing sermon commentaries on the Psalms of late for the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, I am reminded that when the psalmists looked at the creation, they regularly saw all these aspects of the world as participating in a kind of choir of praise to the Creator.
Things we regard as inanimate are imbued with an active role in praising Israel’s God. Trees clap their branches as though they are hands applauding God’s creative genius. Ocean deeps and whales, snowflakes and raindrops, howling winds and thunderstorms: they all actively sing in God’s creation chorus This is what in my book Remember Creation I termed “an ecology of praise.”
But is this merely poetic license on the part of the psalmists? Just metaphor or simile not to be taken even remotely literally? Is it silly to suggest that a Saguaro cactus is raising its arms in praise to God the way some of us do with our hands and arms when singing “Awesome God” in a worship service? Perhaps not. No, I am not suggesting we go all Pixar and suspect that when we are not looking, things like cacti become animate and have conversations with one another the way Andy’s toys do in the Toy Story films.
But in the Psalms the poets who composed these songs made no differentiation between calling on kings and princes, young men, maidens, and the elderly to praise God and then sliding right from there to commanding the same of cavorting donkeys and soaring eagles. The biblical text does not insert some parenthetical instructions to the reader to say something like, “Note: Please shift to metaphorical mode before reading on.” No, instead we all share the same vocation to praise the Creator who made all creatures great and small.
I like that. It was fun on Sunday afternoon to hike amid hundreds of Saguaro cacti, their arms raised high, and picture them as signaling their enthusiasm for the Creator. And it stands as a reminder to me—to all of us—that this is to be our daily task as well. True, some days praise flows more easily for us than other days. Not sure if a cactus ever endures a tough stretch but we humans surely do even as we are aware of the sorrows that rage around us in this war-torn time. Still, we can do our best to join the rest of creation in its incessant praise of the Creator God who fashioned us and who, in Christ, has now redeemed us as well as—in the indelible and oft-repeated phrase in Colossians 1–ta panta, “all things.”
In his masterful biography of President Harry S. Truman, Donald McCullough tells a charming anecdote. After leaving the White House and settling back in Independence, Missouri, Truman took a daily walk around town accompanied by a bodyguard. Each day as they walked through a park, Truman always walked over to a majestic maple tree and seemed to say something to it. After this had gone on for some while, the security agent finally just had to ask. “Mr. President, what is it that you say to that tree every day?” “I say,” Truman replied, ‘You’re doing a good job.’”
All of creation, the Psalms claim, do a good job just being what they were created to be. And they do something more: they engage in constant praise of the God from whom all blessings, and all of creation, flows.