Message for July 12, 2020
Text: Song of Songs 4:1-7
When he read through the passage for today’s worship video, Albert looked up from the paper and asked, “Where in the Bible does this come from?”
“The Song of Songs,” I replied. “It’s the erotic love poetry of the Bible.” I explained that the book is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, allegedly written in praise of one of his concubines — or, as popular legend tells it, for the Queen of Sheba — and that it is allegorically interpreted, by some Christians, as an expression of the love of God for the Church.
Albert wanted me to show him exactly where this book was — after Ecclesiastes, another book that’s new to him — and I tossed in the term “The Writings,” that section of books in the Hebrew scriptures which includes the Psalms and Proverbs, as well.
When he finished the recording, Albert said he didn’t feel his voice did justice to the poetry of the language. I smiled, reassured and thanked him, and he headed out of my office to go on with his tasks for the day. As I turned back to my desk, the smile remained on my lips.
I love the choice of translation that Dr. Marcia McFee made as she collected the materials for this worship series. Where the New Revised Standard Version translates the first verse, “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!” — which is very lovely — the Common English Bible exclaims, “Look at you — so beautiful, my dearest! Look at you — so beautiful!”
And didn’t you love the video, with its diversity of faces — young, old, male, female, with so many variations of skin tone and different kinds of adornment? I must give credit where credit is due, and thank Dr. McFee for her curation of the video resources (as well as the written liturgy) for this series. Her gifts are a blessing, and they help me look at worship with fresh eyes.
“Look at you — so beautiful!”
It is actually not only Christians who have interpreted the Song of Songs (which might have been dedicated to Solomon and not written by him) as an expression of God’s love for God’s people; many Jews hold to this interpretation, as well. So it is not out of line to read this passage and to imagine God saying this to you.
Dr. Wendy Farley, in an interview with Marcia McFee, unpacks a word she finds frequently in Julian of Norwich’s writings — a word she translates “dearworthy.” It appears, in Julian’s writings, in the context of addresses from God to humanity. The words translated in the Song of Songs — “my love” in the woman’s poems and “my dear one” in the man’s poems — can be read also with this message: “Your fundamental nature is to be worth being loved… It’s not something you earn.”
I think of the number of contemporary praise songs which are addressed to God, saying “Thou Art Worthy.” Imagine that expression turned around, with God saying that to you. You are worthy. You are beloved. You are mine and I am yours.
As passionate and intimate as the language is in the Song of Songs, it is all couched in metaphor. There is something that remains “hidden” in the descriptions, which makes the poetry delightful rather than pornographic. There is also a pronounced mutuality in the book, with the verses in the female lover’s voice outnumbering those of the man; her poems begin and end the book — she gets the first and the last word.
Some believe these poems were composed and compiled for use in weddings. Why this book was included in the Hebrew scriptures is a matter of some conjecture, but it does lift up the value of passion and fidelity in love. There is a value in the beauty of poetry that does not exclude the totality of human experience. Relationships, romance, intimacy are good gifts from God. There is beauty in everything.
Since Albert’s been away these past couple of weeks, I have found myself working after the dinner hour lately. My office space is on the second floor of our home, overlooking a small strip of open land between our complex and a senior housing complex comprised of all single-story buildings. That means I have a view of the tops of many trees in the vicinity. Looking out my window, there’s a eucalyptus off to the right, a block or two away. Straight ahead and to the left, there are two evergreens. These tower over the many shorter trees that are planted nearer the houses. I enjoy watching them sway in the breeze — and just around sundown, I’ve been witnessing the daily rituals of hundreds of crows which come in to roost at the tops of these trees. I see very few crows during the day, but these three trees are thick with them at dusk. It’s a striking sight, watching them fly in — like a scene from Afred Hitchcock’s The Birds. On some nights, every few minutes, something will set them off, and all go flying back and forth amongst the trees. Then they settle, only to repeat the “fruit basket upset” again. My observation of this behavior led me to do a little Internet research; I learned that crows gather together in the evening seeking safety from predatory owls, and they prefer towns and cities at night because the lights of human civilization also keep them safer. Scientists think they may be sharing important information with one another when they gather — about food sources and danger — and the noisy gatherings may be an avian version of a singles bar scene, as well.
Did you know that a group of crows is called a murder? And in spite of their reputation — some cultures revere them, while others claim they are bad luck, or destructive — those who study crows contend that they are intelligent and adaptive creatures. You might even say they are beautiful.
In the interview I mentioned earlier, Dr. Farley talks about people she has observed, who — perhaps because they were unloved as children — live out their faith in a kind of “distorted” way, laboring under the belief that they need to be good and do good in order to prove themselves worthy of God’s love. She says she has seen a “brittleness” to this kind of service — and she says, she has seen sometimes when these people, by grace, get to the point where they can let go of that belief about themselves — even a little bit — and she’s observed how the quality of their serving becomes more “lovely.” Sounds like transformation, doesn’t it?
Which part of the commandment is more difficult for you: to love your neighbor, or to love yourself? My informal polling over the years has resulted in a fairly even split. Most people find one or the other to be difficult, though. Two spiritual practices that Dr. Farley recommends might be of help.
The first is to “release the outcome” — to recognize, and accept, that we have no control over the way our efforts will be received.
The second, as Dr. Farley puts it, is to “watch your mind without judgment” — to notice your mental patterns, the self-talk that becomes angry, gets irritated, is unloving, toward others or toward yourself. And rather than “add fuel” to your reactions by judging that — or imagining that God is judging you — instead, trust that God wants to help us with our internal struggles. This builds our capacity to be at peace, to love our neighbors, and to love God.
“Beauty decenters our ego,” Farley writes, “by helping us realize that life is its own justification.”
Life, just as it is — “everything that exists …. matters, not because it matters to me, but because it shimmers with sacred worth.” It matters to God. You matter to God. Look at you — so beautiful. Amen.