1) Are you experiencing God’s face hidden from you? If so, describe how this feels, using heart language.
2) When have you experienced God’s “shining, shimmering face?” Describe the experience. Now describe how this feels, using heart language.
3) Or, would you rather remain hidden from God? If so, describe this desire and how does it impact your life?
4) Spend time reflecting on your answers. What is being revealed?
5) Offer this prayer: Hidden God, I bring to you my concerns (offer prayers of concern): For the darkness of waiting, Of not knowing what is to come, Of staying ready and quiet and attentive, I praise you, O God.
Hidden God, I bring to you my joys (offer prayers of praise): For the darkness of hoping In a world which longs for you, For the wrestling and laboring of all creation For wholeness and justice and freedom, I praise you, O God. AMEN (adapted from Janet Morley, All Desires Known, pp. 58-59)
6) Conclude with this blessing: As you go, know that God is faithful in your darkness. God is as near to you as a loving parent And molds you according to the divine purpose. God will restore you. God’s face will shine on you, and you will be saved. (from Leader Magazine, Fall 2008, MennoMedia)
I was in the kitchen the other morning preparing lunch for a guest and myself and in that space I encountered a moment of recognition and connection. At a pause in the work I found myself moving to stand on the mat by the sink and with my back to the sink I look out the window and pray. This has become a regular practice for me. While I am waiting for water to boil or onions to saute my feet often end up on the cushioned mat and I pray.
My prayers are the prayers that come to me throughout my day. They are simple two-line breath prayers that I slowly repeat.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
O God, come to my assistance, make haste to help me.
Give me ears to hear the heavenly voice and courage to answer the call.
Open the door of my heart, that I might receive you this day.
That specific morning the recognition dawned on me – “Oh, this is my prayer mat.”
I know that the use of a prayer mat is common in many traditions but I had given little thought to their use, or that I might be using one. With this recognition I now have an inkling of the experience of the prayer mat as a site of devotion and meeting with God. It demarcates a space that is a private temple where we go to talk with God. As a place where we put our feet it speaks to me being grounded and still. As someone who is nurtured by Benedictine spirituality my prayer mat in the kitchen speaks to me of the connection of work and prayer.
After our meal was complete, I stood on the same mat, this time turned around to face the dirty dishes and like Brother Lawrence I continued my ongoing little conversations with God.
In the poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” farmer, poet, Jesus-follower Wendell Berry writes: “…every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world …Love someone who does not deserve it …Practice resurrection,” he concludes.
Berry challenges us to respond anew to the challenges of our lives—to the challenges of the pandemic—to recognize that our faith makes claims on us and invites us to understand the world and our lives in ways very different than the culture around us.
We know all too well the practice of crucifixion. We are living in a kind of crucifixion. We see it daily in the news, social media, and in a culture that advocates, “Me first.” So, how can we practice resurrection? We can think of new ways to bring the power of Easter to this world—to embody this power daily. We must become conduits of God’s love and energy. We are to be everyday reminders to people that sickness and death—in all its forms—is not the final word. Rather, to remember each day that we are called to life, to love, and to each day “begin again.” We are called to love God and to love others. Isn’t this what we have experienced: the love of God who doesn’t insist that we deserve this love, doesn’t demand that we get everything right, doesn’t demand us to overcome our fears and anxieties, and doesn’t require us to be cleaned up and shiny for Easter morning?
We return each day to the practice of hope, the practice of resurrection. To remember “that is in God in whom we live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:20). Continue returning to hope, returning to resurrection until our very beings are united with God.
We have had a whirlwind of weeks working on the new House Built of Sky at The Hermitage. From soggy spring footings in March to hot dry stuffing days in June and hotter days for framing in July, the building is now being readied for roof construction.
Over the two weeks of wall stuffing (June 9-20) we hosted two groups of volunteers, nine Guiding Light men, working two days, and 11 *cino Staff, along with 28 individuals. Some came for multiple days, and some for a single day, so we numbered 44 people stuffing the walls, giving 70 days of work. We were aiming to have 50 folks here for this project and we are so grateful for the people who worked so hard on each of the days. We were led by Thomas Hirsch of Bungalow Builders in Benzonia, Michigan. Thomas’ gentle spirit, never-quit energy, encouraging talks and jokes just at the right time in the work day, kept the teams moving every day toward completion. What initially looked like a daunting task, became lighter work when shared by the assembled teams.
We began each day with a “Builders Circle” sharing our favorite stretches to get our bodies ready for the work day. Each group was invited to write blessings for the house and its future occupants on the framing. Several blessings are now hidden in the walls. The blessing for this house, introduced at the groundbreaking last August, was read to the assembled workers. Our prayer is that this be a formational blessing for all who work on this project and who one day come to live in this House Built of Sky. The blessing is by John O’Donohue from his book, Eternal Echoes.
“Blessed be the longing that brought you here and that quickens your soul with wonder. May you have the courage to befriend your eternal longing. May you succumb to the danger of growth. May you live in the neighborhood of wonder. May you belong to love with the wildness of dance. May you know that you are ever-embraced in the kind circle of God.”
Our hearty thanks goes to: Dan Truesdale, Margaret Wenger, Greg Lehman, Jay Budde, Joe Kreider, Maristela Zell, the Guiding Light group, Mary Catherine McDonald, Chuck Pieri, Linda Pieri, Karry Hostetler, Lisa Hostetler, the*cino group, Jeff Miller, Tim Lind, Janna Hunter-Bowman, Addie Hunter-Bowman, Nicole Bauman, Kristi Holmstrom, Dennis Gable, Ken Srdjak, Deanna Risser, Mary Asmonga-Knapp, Willard Fenton-Miller, Biff Weidman, Margie Pfeil, Jane Stoltzfus-Buller. David & Naomi Wenger worked alongside Thomas each day and we were served hearty meals by Ursula Hess, Kevin Driedger, Joel Hogan, Patty Hogan, and Verna Troyer.
(Originally published in the newsletter of the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker House.)
Years ago, I spent eighteen months living and working at The Hermitage. I experienced a way of life that was “sane and simple”. I was nourished in solitude. I glimpsed a simplicity I’d never known before. Seemingly everything about the setting and our rhythm of life encouraged mindfulness, alertness to God’s presence. Again and again I was called back to Jesus’ words: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Each morning we gathered for prayer, reciting “The Hermitage Affirmation.” And these lines in the Affirmation have been written on my heart ever since:
“The call to us here today are these words of Jesus: ‘Come, all who are weary and whose load is heavy; I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to wear, my load is light.”’ [Matthew 11:28-30]
These few verses, it seems to me, distill the way of Jesus— discipleship in shorthand:
Come to me Remain with me Learn from me Rest in me
Come to me
On the eve of his death, Jesus assures his friends: “I will not leave you orphans. You will not be left alone. I will come to you.” [John 14:18] Daily we’re invited to rest in this promise: “You are not alone”. We’re called out of isolation and into communion. Jesus calls us to come to him, to live in him, and to set aside any thought that we can “live the Christian life” apart from him. As disciples, we’re to live our lives in the very same way that Jesus lived his. He lived by the indwelling life of the Father, doing nothing in his own strength, but “only what he saw the Father doing” (John 5:19). We’re not meant to weary ourselves trying to live by Jesus’ example. We’re meant to enjoy his presence, to be yoked to him, to participate in his life.
The call comes anew to us each morning: “Come to me. Journey with me. Listen to my voice. Let me show you the heart of the Father. Let me show you what I see.”
Remain with me/Take my yoke
We are bound to Christ, united with him. Yet how easily we turn our attention elsewhere. We can lose sight of the treasure of his presence. We can “wander into a far country”.
Jesus invites the “weary and heavy laden” to come to him. What leaves me “heavy laden”? So often I grow weary when I forget that “the Lord is near”, when I lean on myself rather than on Jesus, when I live “as if orphaned”. Theologian Geordie Ziegler suggests that “to be a Christian is to be—here and now—in the company of the risen Lord.”[i]
And when I forget, I falter. And I begin to think that what’s needed is more earnest effort to “be Christlike,” to conform my life to Jesus’ example. Instead of staying close to Jesus, who is the way, I live as if Jesus was the way, but is no longer. The Christian life becomes a disheartening attempt to imitate Jesus’ exemplary life. And that’s a sure path to weariness and discouragement.
Learn from me
In Isaiah 50, the servant cries out: “Morning by morning the Lord God wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” The disciple is one who listens, who knows the Shepherd’s voice. As we daily turn to Christ, and are taught by him, we learn the mind of Christ. We come to have the “same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). “Learn from me,” he says. “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). What are we learning from him? How to rest in the Father’s love. How to act, to serve and to “be” in a God-centered way. This is Jesus’ word to us, theologian Chris Hall suggests:
“By the power of my Spirit enter into relationship with me and I will teach you how to live … I will teach you how to pray …. I’ll teach you how to study … I’ll teach you how to speak. I’ll teach you how to act. … I’ll teach you all these things … Come and watch, come and listen, come and rest. I will teach you.”[ii]
We are apprentices of Jesus. The hymn writer declares: “I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord.” This is surely true. We can turn to Jesus in every hour, and away from our anxious attempts to “live faithfully” out of our own resources. We can let go of the question “What would Jesus do?” and ask instead: “What do you want to show me?” “What do you want me to see?” “How are you present, Jesus … in this moment, in this conversation, in whatever this circumstance holds?”
Rest in Me
As we keep company with Jesus, and learn from him, we are promised rest. We will not be spared suffering or disappointment or loss. We will share in Christ’s sufferings. Yet the apostle Paul assures us that even in the midst of distress we will know “the comfort and encouragement of God” (2 Cor 1:3-7). He surely knew affliction. “We ourselves are like fragile clay jars,” Paul wrote. “We are pressed on every side by troubles … We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are… never abandoned by God” (2 Cor 4: 7-9).
Writing to the Philippians, Paul shares another glimpse of what it means to know Christ as our rest. “Do not worry over anything,” he says. “Let your requests be made known to God. Entrust every detail of your need in earnest and thankful prayer. And the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). In every circumstance, we can turn to Jesus, and enter into conversation with him.
Jesus was attuned to God, moment by moment. And in the same way, we are to be in communion with Jesus, allowing him to live his life in us. We can abandon every burdensome attempt to justify ourselves. We can come to him … remain with him… learn from him … and know him as our rest. We can entrust every detail of our lives to the Lord. We can turn our attention away from ourselves, and our designs, and listen to the voice of the One who shepherds us. “There is nothing we shall want.”
“Teach us, Jesus, to hear you, to come with the heavy loads we feel, to be yoked with you, to be taught by you, to learn what things really matter, and to receive in faith the gift of rest.”[iii]
We are planning to start an online Contemplative Photography/Visio Divina gathering lead by me (Kevin). I envision each gathering as a time of sharing, sitting, gazing, and reflecting. Participants will take turns sharing a photograph and we all will spend time in silence sitting, gazing, receiving the photograph and looking for what the image might be telling us. There will be time for the photographer and all participants to openly reflect on their experience of the picture. We can also spend some time at the end talking technique and tools but that is not our focus. (The shared photographs must be original to the person sharing them.)
These gatherings are open to everyone who can point a camera/phone and take a thoughtful picture. Don’t think you do not have enough skill. This is not an art critique. This is not a place to “show off” our amazing pictures. This is about contemplation, not competition. This is a time to share and encounter photographs that speak to us at a deeper level; pictures that may reveal deeper truths; pictures that may reveal something of the divine.
The gatherings will happen via Zoom the second Thursday of every month at 7 pm (EST) and will go no later than 8:30 pm. You must register to participate (see below). There is a $5-10/session recommended donation to The Hermitage to participate, but all will be welcome regardless. The gatherings will be limited to 8 participants.
If there is an abundance of interest, or the scheduled time doesn’t work for several people, I’ll consider additional/alternative gathering times. Contact Kevin Driedger with any questions.
(This essay is the second of two that together present some of the information that was to have been part of a day-long retreat on Holy Saturday, 2020, entitled “God in Deep Time: Showing Mercy to the Thousandth Generation.” This retreat was cancelled due to the Corona virus pandemic and related shelter-in-place order. It has since been recast as an online retreat experience.Both of these essays are available on the Hermitage Community Blog. This essay essay includes a confession and lament for Earth and the first,“Have you not heard? God in Deep Time,” provides some background on “deep time.”)
This year, when we have suspended our normal daily operations for a pandemic that is affecting millions world-wide and ending in death for thousands, we gather in absentia to mourn for Earth. While it seems like we have more immediate concerns, the viral pandemic we are facing is part of a continual roll-out of disasters due to human mishandling of our planetary island. While the arguments are too complex to spell out here (see here for more information), ecologically, the planet is poised on a knife-edge.
It does not take much imagination to take us into a downward
spiral of disasters that end with much life on our planet wiped out. We are
already aware of the massive extinctions of animal and plant species on Earth.
We know about the immense challenges to the world-wide freshwater supply. We
grieve with the continued burning of forests, both from natural and human-greed
causes. We are concerned about the bleaching of coral reefs, the diminishing
catch in the world’s fisheries, salinization of soils, and the effect of
removal mining, fracking and oil extraction on the quality of all life on
Earth. And yet, we still live our lives in comfortable bubbles. Perhaps the
biggest symbol of “bubble living” is the buying of drinking water in plastic
bottles that end up in our bloodstreams as microplastic residue and play havoc
with our health. And that plastic which is so convenient for everything from
shopping bags to house siding, is toxic waste of a greater magnitude than all
the nuclear waste from our power plants. And where is God in all of this?
Today, on this day when nothing happens in the Christian church
year – the day between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – we wait to see if
Christ’s death counts for anything. We wait with hope but without knowledge. We
wait in darkness, hopefully the kind of darkness that makes us long for more of
God. We wait. And we grieve. We wait. And we beat our fists against our chests
– ah me! – how can we change our lives to endure this catastrophe? And, we must
change our lives. There is no endurance without change. Just as the early
disciples found that the Resurrection made all the difference in the world and
they left their nets and places of business to spread the Good News, so we must
leave our safety nets and find the good news that is ours to spread. And that
may just cost us our lives.
Here, at The Hermitage, we have focused our attention on the
issues of sustainable energy because of the gas and oil pipelines that cross
this land. We are directly implicated in that industry, both unwillingly and
willingly. But a healthy future of Earth depends on the sustainable production
and consumption of energy, food, water, and air—all necessary supports to life.
If we continue to pursue the same kind of life we are all used to
living, then the trajectory of what happens to Earth and all life is quite
predictable. At some point in the future, great poverty will overcome a huge
swath of human population. Then, the already-compromised food production and
distribution channels will be beyond repair and the poor will be hungry.
Already, the quality of water available to rich and poor alike is contaminated.
And our air quality is now part of our “weather” forecasts as we daily
determine if it is safe to be outside our homes or safer to stay inside. At
some point in the future, but visible now, the biodiversity of the planet will
be diminished to the point of impoverishing every ecosystem creating ever
greater swings in the cycles of disease and death.
Environmental educator, Mitchell Thomashow, in an article entitled, “Environmental Learning and Covid-19” writes, “We don’t need lifeboats. We need resilient communities that can work together to provide essential needs as environmental contingencies impact our communities,” [Accessed 4/8/2020]. Here is a call to be part of just such a resilient community. Will you join in confessing your complicity, lamenting with Earth and pledging to make a change in your life for the next year? Will you come again on Holy Saturday in 2021 to see if the the death that you are asked to die—the small death to will and comfort—has borne fruit in you and for Earth? Please come, even if you fail, we need each other more than ever to learn from one another, to strengthen our resolves, to become the kind of people who show by how they live, how they love one another and the whole Earth.
Picture, if you can imagine it, a
dump truck that is two stories high. Imagine an earth moving machine made to
fill that truck. Multiply that vision by hundreds and watch as the boreal
forest in an area the size of the state
of Florida is first clear-cut and then the land is scraped with the earth
moving machine and dumped into the house-sized trucks for tranport to a
processing area. Can you see the processing area with huge vats where the
scraped earth is mixed with toxic chemicals and spun like a giant washing
machine to release oil residue from the earth. Imagine the waste from these
spinning vats being dumped into vast lakes, covering more than 85 square miles,
about 1/10 the size of Lake Erie, containing more than 317 million gallons of
contaminated water. Imagine the effects of this network of foul water on the
fresh water of Alberta. Now, imagine that the bitumen, produced in this fashion
is further diluted by naphtha, a flammable derivative of Natural Gas drilling
that is a known carcinogen and, if released, a dangerous airway irritant.
This diluted bitumen, or diluted
crude oil, is what flows in the pipeline under our feet at The Hermitage. In
its natural state, it is harmful to the environment in which it is mined. The
mining process further contaminates large areas of Alberta. And, when the
pipelines rupture, as in the spill into the Kalamazoo River watershed in 2010,
the oil contaminates other ecosystems as well. Imagine, too, that we have not
yet discovered a clean way to burn fossil fuels. Every bit of the oil and gas
used as fuel ends up contaminating our air, our waterways, and the ocean and
weakening the life of every plant and animal alive on the planet.
If all of life is harmed by the
mining and use of this fuel, why do we mine it? It is worth trillions of
dollars for the oil companies which produce the fuel. While relatively cheap
for the consumer to use, it creates enormous wealth for a very few and
consequent power for those same few. And we consumers of this resource are left
wanting more. Because we can have it. Because our way of life depends on it.
Can you imagine life without fossil
fuels? You would have to go back to the days before kerosene lamps, before
coal-burning furnaces, before gas stoves. And we don’t want to go back. Life
was harder, then. People then could not travel the great distances we can each
day, now. So much of life depends on fuel. And that’s just the way the oil
companies like it. Pollute all they will, we will still clamber for more and
more because that’s the way life is. Technology even runs on fossil fuels.
Electricity is overwhelmingly produced by the burning of coal, natural gas and
oil. Can we live without technology? Can we live without oil? Will we?
You are invited to use the following
“Confession and Lament” as a guide for your confession this Holy Saturday.
Confession of complicity
Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry
difficulty with mechanically extractable energy is that so far we have been
unable to make it available without serious geological and ecological damage,
or to effectively restrain its use, or to use or even neutralize its wastes.
From birth, right now, we are carrying the physical and the moral poisons
produced by our crude and ignorant use of this sort of energy. And the more
abundant the energy of this sort that we use, the more abounding must be the
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”
For each item in the Litany, pause to identify and name your
personal complicit involvement.
•We have tended to
use the earth rather than live with it. Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have often
abused the land and its resources rather than treasure them Forgive us, O
God, our complicity.
and abuse” attitude has consequences; infertility, disease, weakness and now, a
massive and measurable change in our atmosphere causing dangerous and drastic
weather around the globe Forgive us,
O God, our complicity.
•We have sacrificed
creativity for production and linked excess to prosperity Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have shared in pushing companies
to provide cheap goods to assuage our voracious hunger for more; this has taken
jobs away from workers here and created unjust work elsewhere in the world Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have acted to remake a landscape
to serve our needs rather than recognize the work of the Creator in placing us
in the just landscape for which we long Forgive
us, O God, our complicity.
•We have arrogantly argued that since
we are better off, the earth must be as well
Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have used our feeling of
prosperity as the measure of our right to exploit the land, and contaminate air
and water around the globe Forgive
us, O God, our complicity.
•We have lied to ourselves that if we
preserve small areas of wilderness, the rest of the biosphere can be developed,
stripped of resources and left to rejuvenate without recognizing that the
natural process that gave us these resources takes thousands of years to
repeat Forgive us, O God, our
•We have willingly deprived ourselves
of the spiritual richness of place by being so readily uprooted by the
possibility of personal gain Forgive
us, O God, our complicity.
•We believe the lie that more and
bigger is always better, though we experience the degraded quality of life that
comes as a result Forgive us, O God,
•We have tended toward conservatism—doing
what we have always done—rather than conservation—working to reverse the
negative flow of misuse and waste of earth resources Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have left lights on, heat high,
cars running, air conditioning low, water dripping Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have thrown away when there is no
“away” Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
•We have hoarded what could be useful
to others Forgive us, O God, our
•We have simply lived for ourselves
while others go wanting Forgive us, O God, our complicity.
Give us courage to use less, demand creative change and care
deeply for what is already here. AMEN.
LAMENT for the EARTH
We lament that our abuse of creation Has brought lasting damage To the world we have been given: To the world we have been given: Polluting streams and soil, Poisoning the air, Altering the climate, and damaging the earth. We commit ourselves To honor all living things And to protect them from abuse and extinction, For our world belongs to God.
Act out your lament. Choose one of these actions or one
of your own devising.
Write your heartache for the planet on a
paper and bury or burn it.
Go outside, lift up your hands, and keen.
Keening is an ancient form of expressing grief by wailing high and loud.
Wrap your arms around a tree and hold its
Lie face down on the earth with outstretched
arms, listening for its heartbeat. Make it your intention to care for what you
Declaration of Hope
We believe that the act of constructing a pipeline is not the last word for this land. We believe in restoration. We believe that the use of limited fuel from the earth will end. We believe the wisdom of the earth will prevail. We believe there is good work for Enbridge to do. We believe in transformation. We will work together to protect the earth. We will be mindful of the generations to come. We will change our lives so that what we do supports sustainable life on earth.
In a podcast on the Emergence magazine website, science writer David Quamman speaks of the current viral crisis as an opportunity. He says: “I am not an optimist by disposition, but I’m stubborn when it comes to hope. I think that hope is not a psychological condition. Hope is an act of will. And therefore I think we have a responsibility to be hopeful that we can do things that will make the final result at least not quite as bad as it might have been otherwise.
Quamman continues: “And with this … hideous pandemic that we’re in right now, this scary thing that may take many, many lives, but in the meantime is also destroying people’s jobs, disrupting cultures and economies around the world, it’s a bad thing. The former mayor of Chicago, …Rahm Emanuel, … famously said, “We should let no crisis go to waste.” There’s wisdom in that, and I think that’s the case here. We should not let this crisis go to waste. We should use it as an opportunity to demand from ourselves and demand from our leaders substantive change, real, drastic change in the way we live on this planet, while we still have time.” [accessed 4/8/2020]
The insertion of this pipeline into the earth, the viral
pandemic, and all catastrophes we may yet face in the coming year are possible
catalysts for real change – change in our behaviors and change in the public
sphere. May we all share this hope. For this is God’s world. It always has
been. It will continue to be. It is not ours to use as we like. It is our place
to tend this earth, to care for its creatures, to enjoy its wonders. Let us
stop poisoning the land and our future by finding ways to let go of our way of
life and embrace the way of life we find in the risen Christ—a life lived
Godward and not toward self-fulfillment.
Hear the voice of the hymn writer, Carl P. Daw as you move
through the darkness of this day to the hope of tomorrow.
How shallow former shadows seem beside this great reverse, as darkness swallows up the light of all the universe. Creation shivers at the shock, the temple rends its veil. A pallid stillness stifles time and nature’s motions fail. This is no midday fantasy, no flight of fevered brain, With vengeance awful, grim, and real, chaos is come again. The hands that formed us from the soil are nailed upon the cross. The Word that gave us life and breath expires in utter loss. Yet deep within this darkness lives a Love so fierce and free, that arcs all voids and — risk supreme! — embraces agony. Its perfect testament is etched in iron, blood and wood, With awe we glimpse its true import and dare to call it good.
May you wake tomorrow renewed in body and spirit, when the “Alleluias!” resound.
(This essay is the first of two that together present some of the information that was to have been part of a day-long retreat on Holy Saturday, 2020, entitled “God in Deep Time: Showing Mercy to the Thousandth Generation.” This retreat was cancelled due to the Corona virus pandemic and related shelter-in-place order. It has since been recast as an online retreat experience.Both of these essays are available on the Hermitage Community Blog. This essay provides some background on “deep time” and the second essay, “Lament on Holy Saturday 2020” includes a confession and lament for Earth.)
I was working on this essay, a children’s song kept going through my head.
My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do . The mountains are God’s the valleys are God’s the stars are God’s handiwork, too. God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.
God in Deep Time We are going to focus on this “so BIG” God. If we understand the context of our lives in what scientists call “Deep Time,” we will begin to recognize that we no longer accept the Biblical writer’s, cosmology (what we sometimes refer to as “worldview,” though that term is too narrow when we talk about the universe). Rather, we all already have a cosmological consciousness that takes us outside what the Bible presents us. So, we will begin by looking at the conception of the universe that is presented in our Bibles. Then we will look at the cosmological picture of Deep Time. Finally, we will return to a text from Isaiah 40 to see if Deep Time can help us set our understanding of Isaiah’s words in our current context. The text from Isaiah is fruitful for reminding us that God is so much “bigger” than we usually picture God.
THE THREE-TIER UNIVERSE
God in Deep Time
The Bible was written during a time when the earth was perceived as flat, bounded above by the heavens—where God dwells above among the sun, moon and stars—and below by the underworld— the place of the dead. This three-tier universe, limited on each side by the distances that humans had traveled by land, form the boundaries of what was known as “the ends of the earth,” in the mind of the Ancient Near Eastern writer. But, early in the second century after the birth of Christ, Ptolemy proved that Earth and the heavens were spherical and in motion. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Copernicus took up the idea again and proved mathematically, that Earth rotated around the Sun and not the other way around, as was assumed by the daily experience of seeing the “sun rise and set.” Declared heretical by the Church, which had finally been convinced of the “round earth” only after the great sea explorers of the 15th century ran into unexpected continents while trying to sail to China from Portugal, traveling westward. In another hundred years Galileo and Tyco Brahe assisted by Johannes Kepler reasserted Copernicus’ calculations and improved on them by actually observing the movement of the “heavenly bodies” through their newly improved telescopes. Then the Church finally, but reluctantly, capitulated by making space for scientific observation and inquiry but still holding fast to the worldview of the Scripture in its doctrines. This created a rupture between religion and science that has continued hemorrhaging to this day.
for us, those old ideas of the three tier universe, the centrality of Earth in
the universe, the sun “rising and setting,” persist because of a theology that
depends on these ideas as captured in Scripture. We find it hard to rid
ourselves of the ideas that heaven is “up,” that we are at the center of the
universe, or that what we can see is all there is. We are afraid of the
mystery, of the sheer immensity, of what we cannot understand. And the ancient
scriptures, based on an outdated worldview, echo our fears.
Paul R. Smith wrote a book entitled, Is your God big enough? close enough?
you enough? Jesus and the three faces of God, a reimagining of the trinity through the lens
of Jesus’ relationship with a God Jesus called “Father.” While I do not expect
your views of God to change in an instant, I hope to open in you some different
and maybe new ways of imagining God in deep time, or more properly, in
eternity. We will be tackling only one-third of Rev. Smith’s project, “Is your
God big enough?”by going on a tour of what scientists, theologians and artists
show us about the cosmos and deep time, and then coming back to reflect on a
passage from Isaiah.
tell us that the universe, or the multi-verse, or what I am calling today the
cosmos, began 13.8 billion years ago with a “big bang.” Though they don’t
completely understand how this happened, they can see and describe the detritus
of that explosion in what we call the universe with its galaxies, novas,
super-novas, nebulae, comets, solar systems, black holes, black matter and
speckles of light. Details of the formation of the cosmos are scarce and
difficult for non-scientists to understand. So, we rely on models and metaphors
to help us understand what this theory means for “life on earth.”
God in Deep Time
Ilia Delio, the Franciscan nun, scientist, and theologian upon whom I will rely for most of my scientific information here, gives an illustration of the human being in this context using a picture of a set of encyclopedias – a 30 volume set she calls The Encyclopedia of Life. Imagine, she says, that you have just such a set of books, lined up on a shelf. Each volume of the 30-volume set contains 450 pages. Each page represents 1 million years. The front cover of volume 1 is the Big Bang – the Beginning. Somewhere in the middle of volume 21, Earth has coalesced into a ball of molten minerals and is cooling into its present form of molten core, mantle, crust, and a gaseous envelope of atmosphere around the planet. In volume 22, life, in the form of micro-organisms, begins on Earth. About volume 29 (and remember, the set, so far, has 30 volumes), we enter Earth’s Cambrian Period. This is the period of Earth history when the single land mass surrounded by a single ocean begins breaking up to form our present-day continents and when the first complex animals burst onto the scene in the ocean, in the forms of sea sponges, trilobites, and tube worms. Life continues to complexify through volume 29. Finally, in volume 30 on page 385 of our 450- page book, in the end of the Jurassic period, dinosaurs go extinct. Mammals, the most complex life form so-far, first begin to appear on page 390. Finally, on the last line of page 450 of volume 30 of The Encyclopedia of Life, the final two words are “human beings.”
the cosmos has been around for a long time. Humans, the most complex and
self-reflexive of the life forms on Earth are such new-comers that our whole
history takes up only the final two words in a 30 volume set of 450-page-long
books, with each page representing 1 million years. Now, our understanding of
God as eternal, without beginning or end. This means that God was there, at or
in, the Big Bang, in Deep Time. Yes, God is that BIG!
are only beginning to understand how this universe is put together. One of the
recent (20th century) findings is that the universe does not exist in a flat
plane. That is, those planetary models of the solar system, that flat spinning
dinner plate with marbles affixed on it, is most likely an anomaly in the
cosmos. With clouds of gas and intersecting wave-like time/space formations,
the universe looks more like Gene Roddenberry’s vision in Star-Trek, with time tunnels and worm
holes connecting vast portions of the universe so that if you find the precise “doorway”
you will move light-years in a single nano-second.
what really knocks our socks off is that matter, the stuff of the universe, is
really nothing but energy. Those points of light we see in the night sky, the
emanations from other suns millions of miles from earth, are as “real” as the
chair you are sitting upon. Because the chair is just light and energy held
together in such a way that it can bear a load of other light and energy—You!
You’ve probably heard the famous quote from Carl Sagan that you are made of
star-stuff. This idea has been around for awhile. Take the Crosby, Stills, Nash
& Young’s 1970 hit, “Woodstock,” (written by Joni Mitchell) that keeps
returning to this chorus:
We are stardust, we are golden, We are billion year old carbon, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
of course, the idea is older than 1970.
What bothers us and feeds our fears, is that what we’ve counted on as real keeps eluding our grasp. And theology has not been left out of this ephemeral soup. Paul Tillich in the early 20th century, articulated the idea that God is “precisely nothing.” Now, this is a technical definition since the word “nothing” contains the word “thing.” Tillich was simply reminding us what the theologians throughout the ages had already said, that God is not material, is not “made of” stuff. While this is a true assertion about the nature of God, it has always been a dangerous assertion. Just saying, “God is nothing” set John of the Cross at odds with the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century and shut down the possibility of that truth finding its way into the hearth of our hearts.
like to think of God with hands, a lap, a heart, able to carry us and comfort
us with human-like touch. But, this, in fact, reduces God to being conceived in
our image rather than the other way around. Bearing God’s image does not
necessarily mean that God “looks like” us, but rather that we are imbued with
an ungraspable “God-ness.” In that, lies our greatness and the mystery that we
can never, ever, appropriate God, but that, at the same time, God is entangled
in our being (the technical term here is “interpenetration”). We humans are not
great on our own, but only as God-bearers, do we have a measure of
significance. (This is an essential point to grasp when we come to the next
essay dealing with how we care for our Earth home. Our significance is
derivative, not normative: that is, we only exist to mirror God not to be
god-like in our power and use and abuse of Earth.)
The Hermitage, every day and for each guest who comes, we affirm by name, that
each one is the “bearer of God’s infinite life.” This simple assertion serves
to remind everyone both that they are significantly known and that they are
significantly dependent. I challenge you to look in the mirror each morning and
call yourself by name followed by the assertion that you are the bearer of God’s
infinite life. It may change the way you go through your day.
HAVE YOU NOT KNOWN?
let’s read the scripture from Isaiah 40:21-31 and see if our new understanding
of deep time can help us read the text for our time. I think Isaiah had and
inkling of just how big God is.
Isaiah 40:21–31 (NRSV)
21Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
prophet begins with a series of questions designed to elicit wonder in the
hearer. “What is going on here? Of what is the prophet speaking?” It is also an
insistence that the hearers remember. This is a natural
knowledge, not a learned knowledge, one that has been passed down from the “foundations
of the earth.”The prophet is asking, “What do you know in your deep-down place
of instinct and intuition, about God?”
22It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth, that] its inhabitants [appear] like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in;
this verse, we clearly see the three story universe with God way up so high
that people look like grasshoppers. If we read the old “three-story universe
cosmology” into this, we can understand the point that the prophet is making.
This God is as big as we can possibly conceive. So, in contemporary cosmology,
perhaps God is igniting the spark of the Big Bang or God is siting at the
printing press where our 30-volume Encyclopedia of Life is printed and is cranking
out the pages of future volumes beyond our imagining.
23[this God] brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24Scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when [God] blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
can only hope…
25To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these [the stars]? [The One] who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because [that one] is great in strength, mighty in power, one [of the stars] is missing.
is the prophet entering the cosmic starry realms that can be understood by
someone holding any worldview. The prophet adds the personal dimension showing
God naming the stars and taking a star inventory. This idea is later repeated
in Jesus’ teaching when he says that God numbers the hairs of our heads and
knows when a sparrow falls to the ground (cf. Mt. 10:26-33; Lk. 12:4-7). In the
gospels, the teaching is about not fearing what others can do to you. Here, the
context is similar, for in the next section we read:
27Why do you say, O Jacob, speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
is a complaint from the people of Israel, telling the prophet that God cannot
find them nor does God listen to their complaint. The prophet is not impressed
and questions the integrity of their complaint using as proof that the God who
calls each star by name can surely not have lost any of them.
prophet then concludes this hymn with a repetition of the beginning:
28Have you not known? Have you not heard? [Our God] is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
casts God in the role of eternal presence and source of all that is – Creator.
But notice, the flat-earth worldview of “the ends of the earth” reenters here.
We know to reinterpret this phrase to include the whole cosmos. We might say, “Our
God was already present in Deep Time, 13.8 billion years ago at the Big Bang,
and God fashioned even the tiny Earth and its tinier life forms with care.” That
might have the effect on us that this phrase was to have on Isaiah’s hearers.
the prophet changes the direction of his vision. In the first part of this
oracle, the focus is on the cosmic, the powerful rulers, the stars as signs of
minute but distant and all-encompassing care. In this final section, the focus
is on the interior person, inner strength, bodily stamina.
[God] does not faint or grow weary; [God’s] understanding is unsearchable. 9[God] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 1but those who wait for [our God] shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
this section, the prophet repeats “faint” and “weary.” First about God and then
about those whom God strengthens. God, who does not faint or grow weary, gives
power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
The admonition to “wait for God” is an encouragement to resist acting on one’s own power because, after all, even the young eventually succumb. Isaiah is not denigrating natural prowess or youthful energy. Rather, he wants his hearers to notice their dependence on God, because God is who God is. And knowing this is as natural as living on earth where “from its foundations” God has been known, heard, and revered. Then we discover that, to quote Ilia Delio directly, “The background of everything that exists is another existence. God is not something that can be proved or disproved. God does not merely exist nor is God a Being among beings. Rather, God is existence itself which means God can only appear in otherness, in that which exists…. Jesus shows that the infinite, transcendent One is infinitely near, so close that the lines between human and divine are often blurred. We cannot grasp this God of mystery but God grasps us in our infinite depth; for the mystery we name “God” is the mystery of our awakened consciousness to ultimate reality.”
we “wait for the Lord” not because God is too slow or lagging behind, but so
that we can realize the strength of God within us and we are “renewed” to fly
with the eagle of power and dominion, run without weariness, and walk without
weakness because our lives are interwoven with God’s very being. Our waiting,
makes us aware of what is already there and has always been there, in Deep
hymn writer, Isaac Watts, captures a bit of what it is like to participate in
the cosmos as a Child of the God of Deep Time:
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small, Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.