Text: Psalm 46
It’s hard to be still.
If you make the space, the time, the effort, to still your body and to simply be, without distractions, chances are one of two things will happen. One possibility is that you’ll fall asleep, which is a pretty good indicator that you’re not getting enough of that. The other possibility is that even though you have stilled your body you will quickly discover that it’s even harder to still your mind. Thoughts, images, anxieties, old conversations, plans for next week, what you wish you would have said on the phone call, the cleverly crafted phrasing of your next Facebook status update, what you’re having for supper, what you wish you were having for supper – the mind is not easily stilled. Our feet may be resting in one place, but the squirrel in our head keep bouncing around, these thoughts keep clamoring through our brains as if they run the place.
It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we have a Bountiful Table spread before us, and the lectionary Psalm, Psalm 46, contains this phrase that feels like something of a prelude for entering into a spirit of gratitude. “Be still and know that I am God.”
It’s a dense enough phrase that it could be the subject of a whole book. Or at least a sermon. “Be still and know that I am God.”
“Sink down, Of hay in flame.” If you were to get your hands on a copy of the authoritative book on biblical Hebrew translation – which, by the way, would make an excellent stocking stuffer for that special someone in your life – The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew-English lexicon – and if you were to look up the Hebrew word in Psalm 46 translated “Be still,” RaFaH, you would note that this one word is translated with all sorts of different English words and phrases throughout the Bible. The first definition given for this word is not “to be still,” but is (quote) “sink down, (example) of hay in flame.” A verse in which RaFaH is translated in this way is Isaiah 5:24, “Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust.” The prophet is here speaking against those who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” Those who twist the moral order to make what is harmful appear as if it were beneficial, they will sink down in the same way that dry grass, or hay, sinks down in the flame.
That was Isaiah.
Now the Psalmist: “Sink down, RaFaH, like hay in flame, and know that I am God.”
Now I’m from the farm, and I’ve seen hay in flame, and it’s rarely a good thing when that happens. Most recently, Labor Day weekend, a couple months ago, we were back at the farm having a family bonfire cookout. As I was starting the bonfire, Dad was zooming around on the grasshopper mowing the yard, which included an area down by the barn where some big round bales of hay were lined up. But he apparently got the hot engine, located on the back of the mower, too close to one of the bales, although none of us knew that right away. He finished mowing and parked the mower back in the garage. I had finished starting the fire a bit before, but was walking back to check on it, and as I looked up noticed that there were flames much higher than would be possible for the amount of wood I had used on the bonfire, and coming, surprisingly, from a different location than where I had started it.
Fortunately this unanticipated fire ended up being the perfect combination of being big enough and with potential to spread to other bales that something really had to be done about it quickly – so there was the element of urgency. Along with being in a contained enough space that there was never any real danger of the whole farm going up in flames – so there was never panic or the fear of absolute catastrophe. For our girls and their boy cousins, it was completely awesome, and an opportunity to get some experience as volunteer firefighters. One cousin quickly dragged the garden hose all the way from the house, already gushing water, another ran and brought buckets to fill up and throw at the flaming bale, which was done with great gusto. The crew, with some careful adult supervision, eventually put out the bale. The outer layer was thoroughly blackened, but the insides hadn’t been too affected. And since we were about to make s’mores by the bonfire, with marshmallows many of which ended up having very similar characteristics to that bale, Dad went ahead and loaded the bale onto the lot for the cows to enjoy their own toasted treat. Which they did.
Had that bale kept burning, it no doubt would have sunken down in flame, perhaps taking a few others with it.
This is probably not the first image that we think about in regards to our relationship with God, but it is at least one of the dimensions of this initial word of Psalm 46:10:
Sink down, like hay in flame, be willing to be diminished, let your ego be reduced to ash, and know that I am God.
There are other dimensions of this word not quite as entertaining to imagine, but equally important. “sink, drop, of hands.” “sink, relax, abate, of temper”
Relax, and know that I am God. Chill out, and know that I am God.
“Withdraw, that is, to let alone”; loosen and let drop; refrain.
“Let go.” An older Jewish Publication Society translation of this verse reads “Let be, and know that I am God.” It sounds like a translation Paul McCartney and the Beatles would approve. Whispering words of wisdom.
The final phrase listed which translates this word is “one shewing himself slack,” which gives another whole take. “Show yourself some slack, and know…”
After looking through all the nuances of this word, it makes me wonder whether this particular verse is addressed to just us, as I think we are used to reading it.
It appears after several verses which speak of God destroying the instruments of war. “Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. Be still, and know that I am God.” I wonder if verse 10 could also be read as God directly addressing all these weapons – the bow, the spear, and shield – the missiles, the tanks, the drones – these human inventions of destruction. The mention of burning the shields with fire in verse nine would fit very nicely with God speaking directly to all these powerful god-like instruments of war in verse 10 by saying “Sink down, like hay in flame, and know that I am God.” As if God were creating a huge bonfire and throwing on it all the instruments of torture and killing we have fashioned. “Sink down, drop out, refrain, let go of your grip you have had on history and on the human imagination, and know that I am one who rules by a completely different kind of power.” A newer Jewish Publication Society translation says: “Desist! Realize I am God.”
It makes it not only into a Psalm of contemplation, but one of peacemaking. The Creator takes off her shoes and dances around a bonfire celebrating the defeat of violence.
Be still, and picture that.
Be still, let go, because only then do we realize how much our thoughts have been colonized by violence, unforgiveness, busyness, ingratitude.
And what about the rest of the verse? “Know that I am God.”
It’s hard to be still.
It’s also unsettling to be still. Because when we are still, when we let be, we cannot help but confront ourselves and all those scattered thoughts which we seem to be made of. We confront our I.
The rest of the verse says to know that “I am God” and one of the first confessions we have, like those weapons that parade around as if they are in charge, is that this means we are not god. We are not in control, we are not our own savior or anyone else’s. What we have, who we are, is not of our own making but is a gift which comes to us and lives through us. “Know that I am God” is a voice that comes from beyond ourselves, drawing us away from our small gaze and into a much great reality.
The Bible shares with other wisdom traditions an awareness of the smaller I, what we might call the personal ego, and the larger I, the Divine I, which is beyond us but not ultimately separate from us.
The pattern that the Apostle Paul picks up on and speaks about so frequently in his letters, is the pattern of death and resurrection which Jesus modeled and is available to us. It involves the dying of an old self, the sense of self we have which is confined and restrained to our own ego, – letting that self die. And receiving a new gift of self, a new I, which is that Big I, the cosmic I, which Christians call Christ. Paul writes to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live I live by the faith of the Son of God.” Paul is not particularly user friendly to read and his language often gets bogged down in what to us sounds like theological jargon, but what he’s pointing to is this greater sense of self that he has been converted to. One I has died, and another I now lives, has been born. Not an isolated I, but an I whose well being is bound up with all the other I’s that one encounters, ultimately unified in Christ. This is gospel. This is good news. This is our baptismal identity which beckons us to live beyond ourselves and to participate in the Divine life which is our true I.
So there is both a diminishment of the self and a magnification of the self that is happening when one is still, or lets go, or sinks down, and knows that I am God. Some of us need to have our egos burned up to know that we are not god, and some of us need to claim our I, our selfhood, our brilliant and unlikely existence, as being an extension of the Divine life. I am.
It’s not really possible, technically, to be still. Stop walking and talking, and our muscles are still twitching with energy, our lungs still filling with air, our blood still flowing. The tectonic plate on which we float is still slowly, imperceptibly, drifting west. Our planet is still spinning, still hurling through space, with us along for the ride.
We cannot stop the movement, but when we are still, in body and mind, we become aware of what is moving us. And we are able to better consciously choose what and who it is we wish to be moved by. And it is in this letting go of grasping onto our own image we have created for ourselves, in which we receive our true self, a gift of the bountiful Spirit from whom there is enough for everyone. And we live in gratitude for all this.