The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Nature’s Doxology

Hearing the praises of God at the beach.

by Lauren F. Winner

Psalm Reading:  Psalm 96

For Sunday, June 2 , 2013: Year C—Lectionary 9 (4)

Of all the many wonderful songs our synagogue’s music director led on Sunday mornings, the tune by Robert Weinberg, whose chorus, I now realize, came from Psalm 96:11, was my favorite

What leaps out to me still, when reading this Psalm, are the leaping praises of the natural world.  It is not just Israel that is praising God; it is all the nations. And it is not just the nations; it is the very fabric of Creation. The same Creation that groans (Romans 8) here sings hymns of exultation to God. 

Roar with Praise

Amid the various bits of “nature imagery” in this psalm, the water imagery is especially striking. Usually, a roaring sea is frightening:  a roaring see is a dangerous, judging, tsunami thing.  For example, Psalm 107:  the water that the Lord stirs up threatens to drown; the people cry to God; God stills the waters. As William Brown, in his wonderful study Seeing the Psalms:  A Theology of Metaphor notes, the Psalmist also invokes water as a metaphor of nourishment: God turns the desert into pools of water; water in the dry deserts testifies that God has visited there—the water is a sign of God’s “enriching” the earth (see Psalms 65, 104, 107). In Psalm 72, rain showers testify to, in Brown’s words, the “stabilizing, moral force” of God’s reign.

And then, in our psalm, the waters are themselves the bearers of doxology. The seas are told to roar with praise.  Let the sea roar, let people rejoice.

As far back, then, as Bible times people understood nature as a bearer of sacred meaning.  And if a Psalm could instruct the trees to sing and the seas to roar in praise, then surely when a woman who prayed those psalms walked through a field or stared out at a sea, she might think she could hear whispers of that eschatological praise in the sound of the waves or the whip of the wind.

I want to hear of God when I go to the ocean.

Preaching the Ocean’s Praise

So where does one go in the pulpit with nature’s praising God?

One might make the ethical turn, the green turn—something like, if the ocean can praise God, and if the ocean’s roar has an eschatological role to play, shouldn’t we take better care of the oceans now? And then we’re off:  over-fishing, rising sea levels, oil spills.

A second question that these nature texts open up is the question of where we hear from and of the Holy:  yes, Scripture, but also we hear of and from God through one another, through ourselves, and, if the suggestions of numerous psalms are correct, from nature. This, I think, is something our congregants are eager to hear about:  where where where can we hear from God?

And perhaps underneath the ethics and the theology lies a sermon of praise. Doxology.  The seas sing in doxology. What if our sermon were nothing more and nothing less than a transcription or translation of that praise? What if we preached a whole sermon that was nothing but praise? I don’t know if I have the courage to do that.

My Neighbor and her Sunday Morning Hike

And yet, when I think about actually standing up next Sunday and preaching “let the sea roar” I feel a bit of anxiety, a bit of chastening fear. The fear is articulated by a voice in my head—call her my inner professor—who gives me the following little lecture:  Yes, since the time of the psalms, the people of God have known something about hearing of God in nature, but in the late 19th century, liberal Protestants in America put new emphasis on the ways we might encounter the Transcendent in nature.

(My inner professor has been reading Restless Souls by Leigh Schmidt, and she recommends this book to anyone who wants to understand how we arrived in a culture of the “spiritual but not religious.”)

It was precisely this emphasis, increasingly unmoored from the larger witness of Scripture and the larger Christian story, that culminated in my college friend saying to me recently “I can hear God better on a hike or in my garden on a Sunday morning than I can in church.”

I don’t think the Psalmist ever meant for us to trade corporate worship for beachcombing.

The Hardest Question

Well, actually there are three.  There is the question prompted by every psalm, which is:  why don’t I preach them? We read a psalm every Sunday in my church, and I think I’ve preached one exactly once.

And then second, more specifically:  how do I faithfully preach this testimony to nature’s doxology? How do I preach nature’s doxology without going into a predictable harangue about the environment, and how do I preach nature’s doxology without unintentionally abetting the idea that really you could just as well have gone to the beach this morning instead of coming to church?

But the hardest question that this psalm prompts for me is:

How do we restore “nature” to its place as a voice of praise in the testimony of the Church?

Reverend Dr. Lauren Winner writes and lectures widely on Christian practice, the history of Christianity in America, and Jewish-Christian relations. Her books include Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, Real Sex, a study of household religious practice in 18th-century Virginia, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, published by Yale University Press in the fall of 2010, and, most recently, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Lauren is also a contributor to sparkhouse’s animate series for adult faith formation. In the midst of lecturing and writing, Lauren serves as a priest associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (Durham) and a member of the board of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation.


  1. Christine Hatchard says:

    Thank you for reminding me that I have found my self closer to God at the beach more often than in church. I go to church because I need and indeed want to worship with my Christian family, but I go to the beach and nature in general when I want to be close to God. A beautiful sunrise or sunset moves me to tears. Seeing tuis andf bellbirds with the flash of glorious colour as they fly brings me to joy and thankfulness. Yes, I do want to conserve our natural environment, but you have reminded me that I can best do that when I help others to see the creator in the creation and encourage them to start from there.

  2. Seth says:

    I really liked your work on Animate, and so I was hoping this week that given the title, “The Hardest Question,” you might take on Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Any thoughts on that one?

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