A Meditation on Psalm 19
Seeing things in perspective can be tricky. Back before we had kids, I was volunteered by my wife to look after a three-year-old. She sent us out for a walk, which was an education in perspective. That little kid was close to the ground and she saw the things up close that I missed along the way. Every leaf had to be picked up and collected, every rock turned over, every bug examined and poked. A walk around the block took three hours. My wife was right, how hard can it be to entertain a three –year-old?
Sometimes perspective can work the other way. Experiences in life are sometimes too big to be seen all at once. You pack them away and here and there you think about them. I had an experience like this. Twenty-seven years ago, I got lost for four days in the desert above the dead sea plains near Ein Gedi, Israel. You might wonder how someone could get lost in a seemingly small country. It was a mistake of scale.
The map showed an arrow pointing up. Up that big hill? Roman ruins? I scaled the cliff which was on about a 45-degree angle and when I reached the top, it was flat like a table, punctuated by rolling hills. Not the rolling hills we are used to, but rough hills like you might find on the moon, made up of the red sharp volcanic rubble that might have been flung from the middle of the earth on a day when God was angry. No sand in sight - just powdery red dust, stones and nothing in between.
I looked out and saw car tracks fading off into the distance. The arrow pointed in that direction. I couldn’t see the Roman ruins, but after all, how far could I go before I would hit a kiosk?
What I didn’t know was that I had missed the ruins. They were far below me at the beginning of my trip and I had passed them on the way. I didn’t see them because they just looked like more of the same rocks that were all around.
I set out optimistically into the desert, and walked, and walked, and walked. After running out of water, it occurred to me that I had better find some. The Dead Sea Plains are hot because they are the lowest elevation of the earth’s crust and they are in the middle of the desert. I was walking with no shelter in heat levels that were from 50 to 60 degrees celsius, kind of like getting baked in the middle of a big clay oven.
I walked into the desert for two days. That hill country is a huge expanse of nothingness which covers up a lot of the middle of Israel – a small country only when you are looking at it on a map and not on foot.
After the first day, it occurred to me that I might be in trouble. Every time I came to the edge of a cliff, it was a sheer plummet of about a mile onto sharp stones below. Whether it would be a shorter trip to go on, I didn’t know, so I devised to retrace my steps in what I knew would be another two-day trip without water. I figured that I would travel by night due to the heat, and sleep in one of those caves that punctuated the landscape by day.
First thing I noticed was animal spoor. Geographically, Israel is just off the horn of Africa. Ein Gedi is full of wild antelopes, wild pigs, and wild cougars and lions - one of which had made it into the paper that weekend for carrying off chickens on a nearby kibbutz. Gazelles don’t sleep in caves, so I wondered if I was sleeping, in a lion’s den.
The second night, I slept out in the open. The desert is cold at night because there is no cloud cover whatsoever. The night sky that is black like you have never seen, stars that seem to go on forever. I slept that second night in a ravine that looked like a set out of Land of the Lost. Not a tree to be found, not even a bush. Just rocks, and bats. The night sky moving with a black swarm I could see silhouetted against the stars like a flock of sparrows looking for a cow field.
Walking in the desert is a lesson in wildness. People rarely come here so the animals don’t know enough to be scared away by a human being. They walk right past you, staring. You are out of context and they don’t know what to make of you – antelope. deer, goats. It’s a zoo up there, a snapshot of the earth on the day the world began.
What did I drink?
The desert is dry, but it does get periodic rainfalls. The mesas and wadis and hills are marked with the paths of the water like the days of Noah’s flood, that have etched a pathway through those layers of bright rock. There are expanses of water, mostly hidden underground. Apart from that you find kettles, the small and deep holes in the rock like we find on the Canadian Shield. These carry scummy water, but it’s water just the same. I stuck my lips into those holes and sucked out that scummy water as I found them, ounce by ounce.
Finally I stumbled across some Bedouin. More like, I was in their living room. Bedouins never have a fixed home, they wander around in search of provender for their sheep and goats. They do know about the deep and silent secrets that this expanse of land holds, and they are the only ones willing to live there. They have made peace with the desert in a day when progress has left their timeless ways behind and society has no place in which to slot them. They come and go like the hot wind, at no one’s bidding and with no one’s permission.
These ones looked at me like they figured out that I could use a drink. What they had from modern society, was scavenge. Everything is useful to a society that is just a stone’s throw from stone age. The Bedouins carry water on the sides of the donkeys, in five-gallon gasoline cans such as you might find strapped to a jeep which is far from a gas station. What’s the biggest glass of water you ever drank? My wife who is a nurse says it is medically impossible, but she’s never been in the desert. I turned one of those five gallon canisters upside down and I drank it in one go, just like a raison soaked in a glass of water. Even the Bedouin’s eyes where bugging out to witness the sight.
On the fourth day, I stumbled back down the 45-degree cliff, past the park entry gates. The guide looked at me in disbelief and said they had missed me but thought no one would be crazy enough to take off through the desert. Didn’t I know about its wildness and its endless expanse? I do now.
I didn’t talk about that experience for more than twenty-five years but could not explain why. That thing that I couldn’t process, was awe – the experience of just looking at something you have never seen before, of a scale and immediacy you were unlikely to see again. Admiring something that will never be tamed. All alone in the world is something that just does not happen to us.
The closest I have ever seen to expressing this sense of wonder, is something written by David when he was running from King Saul, hiding out in the desert of Ein Gedi. He articulated this with poetry we know as the19th Psalm, and he ends with an observation about scale.
“Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then… I shall be innocent from the great transgression.”
The great transgression is presumption. It’s the sin of not recognizing your place in the big picture – a picture much larger than we ever imagine. We can only wonder at it’s majesty. Not seeing that can get you lost in the desert. It’s all about scale and a sense of perspective. We need to go through life like that little kid out on a walk, with an unadulterated sense of wonder.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”