Widening our horizons

Once upon a time, I daydreamed of visiting all the National Parks in the United States. But with 28 National Parks in my home state of California alone, the feat would probably take more years (and energy!) to accomplish than I’ve got left. I’m just hoping that all of these places will still exist when God finishes restoring his shalom to the created world. Then I can camp out in as many places as I want, for as long as I want, in a body that hike all the livelong day.

I’ve strolled with family and friends through the cool shade of the Giant Sequoias, stood at Glacier Point gazing across Yosemite Valley at Half Dome, and marveled at the brilliant carpet of desert primroses at Joshua Tree. I’ve walked through the snow at the base of Mount Rainier and had lunch across from Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics.

The Grand Canyon, however, pictured above, is still on my bucket list. We’ll see.

What all of these places convey is a sense of vastness and majesty that’s hard to find in the city or suburbs. The trees in my neighborhood would be dwarfed by the sequoias and coastal redwoods; the grandest of cityscapes are but toys compared to snow-capped mountain ranges and glacier-carved canyons.

You can take snapshots with your phone, but no number of pixels can convey the grandeur of the original. To compensate, most smartphone camera apps include a panorama mode that will stitch together a single, mural-like view. It’s still not the same as being there. But the wider horizon does indeed give you a better perspective on majesty.

In a recent post, I suggested that when we’re in the midst of difficulties, we need to get some perspective by looking at things from a higher altitude. Troubles that loom large from up close look a bit different from 30,000 feet. Shifting the metaphor to a horizontal plane, we might also gain perspective by looking around and taking a panoramic view.

And this, I think, is where a community’s sacrifice of praise can come in.

. . .

Truth be told, I’m not much for large meetings. I prefer smaller gatherings where people can work more closely, all engaged in a common task. So when my seminary called all the staff and faculty to convene virtually to start the new academic year, I wasn’t enthusiastic. I figured we’d be welcomed, briefed on new policy developments, then given some general words of encouragement. Okay, fine, I get it. But I didn’t expect to be moved.

I was wrong.

It was a simple thing, really. Somebody put together a short video, set to music, of the myriad ways members of the seminary community have shown their resilience during these months of pandemic. There were, of course, Zoom meetings galore, but also virtual worship, families celebrating their graduates, and even staff members sharing recipes and cooking tips. Whatever could be done virtually to foster a sense of “We’re still here, and we’re in it together,” someone did. By the end of the video, I had a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. These people, I thought. This God. What a privilege.

Personally, of course, I too have worked hard over the months to adapt and keep the educational mission going without compromising quality: rewriting and recording all of my lectures, helping organize online events for our students, and so on. But it’s been far too easy to be so focused on my work and my to-do list and my efforts to notice or appreciate what anyone else in the community was doing. Let me rephrase that: to notice what God was doing in and through others.

The video blessed me with a panoramic view, a grand shot of the bigger picture that got me out of myself and my narrow concerns and into a place of gratitude.

. . .

What the Bible calls a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15) is an act of obedient gratitude. In the book of Hebrews, it’s mentioned as part of the author’s closing comments about the Christian life, a life of love and hospitality, purity and contentment, goodness and generosity (13:1-5, 15-16). Jesus, our great High Priest and the perfect and final sacrifice for sin, has fulfilled the righteous intent of the sacrificial system, in a way that the old system, with its inherent limitations, could not.

In its place, we bring other forms of obedience. Praise is more than personal emotional expression: it is bringing faithful witness to the goodness of God. Telling our stories, and stitching them together with the grateful stories of others, widens our horizons and helps us emerge from the confines of our narrow self-concern.

That’s a view worth seeing. Put down the selfie stick and take it in.