Just before dawn, I sat wrapped in a blanket on the porch of Rivendell Writer’s Colony on a late October morning warming my hands on the coffee cup I held. Such an early rising is unusual for me. I am not a morning person by nature, unlike my dear friend, Ellen, who sat beside me. For some reason, I seem to rise early at Rivendell. Perhaps it’s because I never quite adjust to the hour time difference between Georgia and Tennessee. But I think the real reason is that I don’t want to miss the show. In the fall, the sun rises right over the middle of the ridge of the Cumberland Plateau and the view is perfect from the porch. As the sun rises, I almost feel as if I am watching the face of God appear.
The sky was still mostly indigo blue when I sat down in the rocking chair, but a strip of pale yellow gauze ran across the top of the ridge, while above, a long strip of cloud in the bluing sky was a bright coral. I was reminded of Emily Dickenson’s words: “I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–/ A ribbon at a time.”
Just before the dome of the sun could be seen above the ridge, the clouds changed color, as if changing clothes for the appearance of royalty. One the sun began to ascend, I had to turn away, the brightness was too intense. Looking directly at the sun’s face would damage my eyes.
As I later reflected on that morning’s dawn, I thought of how Moses had to hide behind the cleft of a rock as God passed by, God’s countenance being too much for a mortal to bear. I decided to read that portion of scripture in Exodus 33:18-22 to refresh my memory of the story. God refuses to show Moses his face directly, even though that is what Moses asks of God. Rather, God places Moses on a rock and shields him as he passes by, allowing him to see his back but not his face. (Exodus 33:21-22). I had remembered that much of the story correctly.
What I had forgotten was God’s answer to Moses’ very direct request to God to “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). God responds: “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:19-20).
I had remembered this passage as being about the beautiful and awe-full power of God, which no human can withstand up close. I imagined, that like the bright morning sun, I could not encounter the holy without damage.
Why had I remembered this as the message of the text? Where had I gotten such an idea of God? The text does say “no one may see me and live,” but Moses does not die, nor is he damaged in any way. Moses doesn’t realize the consequences of what he is asking for, but God does and protects him. More than that, God declares that God’s goodness will pass in front of Moses, and divine mercy and compassion will be extended as God chooses.
I realized that this text reveals not only a God whose power is beyond human imagining, but also a compassionate God who responds to Moses direct request and protects him from it at the same time. I wondered how often God had responded to my requests and protected me from my desires at the same time? I wondered how many times God’s goodness had passed in front of me and I had only seen terrible power?
In the blazing glory of the sun, I had apprehended God’s awe-full power that brings each day into existence. As I reflected on the scripture text the dawn brought to mind, I was also reminded of God’s compassion and mercy, extended to me in the gifts of a new day, friendship, companionable silence, and the beauty of sunrise.
For your reflection: Read the passage in Exodus 33:18—22, mentioned above. What image of God or what attributes of God stand out to you in this passage? How do you hold together the notions of God’s power and God’s compassion?
- Use these words of Emily Dickenson as a prompt to write about a sunrise you witnessed or imagine. “I’ll tell you how the sun rose…”
- A time I remember experiencing both God’s power and compassion was ….