A different view of the “dark” sky

The solstice is almost here. Nature only causes our part of the planet to grow darker for a season. Then, the light returns. In that spirit a more positive take on my previous essay.

“Gentle rain falls on me.

All life folds back into the sea.

We contemplate eternity

Beneath the vast indifference of heaven.”

Warren Zevon

However, Warren Zevon’s beautiful lyrics do not start with indifference and we are not required to begin or end there either. In fact, all four of these poetic lines come from the end of the refrain. So much depends upon where we choose to begin. Here, we begin with the life-giving gift of gentle rain and the cycle which returns that life to the sea. As I see the world, it changes everything.

When we look to the skies and desire to see a magic and all-powerful version of ourselves, we are disappointed. We see vast expanses filled with wonders beyond our comprehension which leave us feeling insignificant. But, that is impression not fact. What we see out there is exactly what we are made of down here. Everything we are in substance and energy is provided from out there. Everything we see out there is made of the same packets of energy become matter that comprise our own physical reality. Each and every day the sun continues to shine new energy which is absorbed by the systems of our planet which warm, feed and sustain us. We can just as easily say that it requires hubris to label “indifferent” that which like a doting mother continues every day to pour out for us everything we need to grow and become who we are.

The sense of meaninglessness, our orphaned feelings of futile abandonment in the immensity of it all, come when we insist in finding out there a reflection of ourselves. If we allow the universe to be what we know it to be, it fulfills many of the characteristics we have called God from the time of the ancients. The universe provides the source of life, the sustaining power of life, and the potential to being the end of life. We come out of it, and in the end we return our energy and our substance to it. It is both the source and destination of all that we are and own. It inspires our contemplation of beauty and surprises us by being always more than what we have imagined. And all good gifts come from it to us. We experience life as good and discovery as exciting within the wonders it reveals.

What it refuses to do is be human. Good theology has always tried to proclaim that God is not the same as us, is spirit, is beyond our limits of body and mind. And yet, our religious efforts have always insisted on turning the ultimate into something cartoonists easily draw as one of us grown old and wise. The heavens provide no such image. They do give life, wonder, beauty, awe and everything that is. They are the source and ultimate destiny of everything we know.

Indifferent?

Only when we ignore the gentle rain, the welcoming sea, and the glorious light filling the vastness and demand to see ourselves.

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The Vast Indifference

“We contemplate eternity beneath the vast indifference of heaven.” Warren Zevon

Warren had a gift for capturing essential human feelings within a few lyrics. This seems to me to be one of the primary problems with starting a quest for meaning from the scientifically revealed universe. Current estimates say the universe contains at least two trillion galaxies, 2,000,000,000 galaxies each containing numbers of stars beyond our normal ability to comprehend. Our knowledge has grown to expression in numbers beyond our ability to fully comprehend. The central place of earth beneath a canopy of visible stars, which was already a number so large “as numerous as the stars” was used by the ancients to describe things which could not be counted. We learned long ago that the sun and heavenly bodies do not revolve around us. Now we know that they exist in such quantities and at such distances that it is hard to imagine our planet or anything on it is significant when measured against the whole. Unfortunately for us in our desire for meaning, that includes us.

Having become self-aware, we want to believe that our thoughts, beliefs, actions and lives matter. We would like to believe that they continue to exist past a number of decades we can usually count on our fingers. And then we look out at the vastness. With all of its grandeur and beauty, it still refuses to affirm that we matter on our little rock on the sidearm of a rather ordinary galaxy. Who are we in comparison to the size and complexity within our own galaxy, let alone two trillion or more? Looking up can lead to quiet despair at the same moment of appreciation of the beauty. We are really very small after all.

We adopt forms of government and declare them superior to all others. We inherit and pass along religions which allow us to claim to know the power behind it all and to know the one truth revealed for all mankind. We divide ourselves by race, location, nation and belief proclaiming various forms of superiority. We go to war over our lists and kill vast numbers of our own species. We take every resource of the planet and use it no matter how much damage we realize we are causing to the Earth, ourselves, and all the other life forms here. And we want to believe that all of our building, investigation, theorizing, sense making and violence in the name of truth are both justified and have ultimate meaning.

The heavens remain what they are and refuse to speak back the assurance we desire. Only the size and quantity answer and they say, “You are very small and we can continue without pause without you.”

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Advent Hope and Apocalyptic Denial

Last night I was reading 2 very different books. One a slim theological booklet and the other a truly trashy novel… actually novel grants it a dignity it doesn’t deserve.

But in one of those strange coincidences both referred to our tendency when faced with the unpalatable to engage in denial.

The first was referring to the church’s decline in the west in terms of numbers and social/political relevance; the second reflecting on the effect of human population on the planetary ecosystem.

But later I reflected on the difference between denial and hope.

With the former issue there are those who hope and pray for revival, or even, more radically, the second coming of Christ.

With the latter many simply assume that “science”, the deus ex-machina of the modern age will save the day (as opposed to simply being a cataloguer of, or even a contributor to the problem that it currently is).

But are these “hopes” not simply signs of denial?

Elizabeth Kubler Ross famously identified denial as one of the “stages” of grief in the face of loss, and more recently her thinking has been applied more widely to our attitude to change of any sort. And actually I believe that Christian hope, is not “cross my heart and hope not to die” but that “sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life” that we often speak of in the funeral service.

It holds within it a recognition of the reality of change, mortality and death… And it is into the recognition of that, rather than its denial, that hope springs, eternal.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,   and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,    for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.

Psalm 130 (NIVUK)

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O Night Divine

There is a time in late December
The sun stands still in winter
For three days and three long nights
Throughout time we’ve watched the sky
And waited for the sun to come and save us
Save us from the longest night

For years I have been doing things
And singing songs that don’t make any sense
But if I scratch the surface just a little bit
The holiday paint is pretty thin

Look to the sky with hope and wonder
There’s a star in the east to guide us home
We are closer now than we’ve ever been
To peace on earth and good will to men
As we celebrate the longest night
O night divine
O night divine

Songwriter
MELISSA ETHERIDGE

(Heard this live tonight and it blew me away!)

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silence wrestling with complicity

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I am struck most by the silence as a response to deep anxiety, my own in particular. Sure, I’m linking, posting, maybe a pointed remark in my classroom. But outside, I’m slipping between public spaces. I want to disrupt hate and fear but the ground for resistance is unstable and I want to be ‘effective’.
My neighbors are deciding what they might do from within their own sense of vulnerability. C, down the block, no longer celebrating his victory, no longer looks me in the eyes as we pass on the road. It’s not what he wanted, he desired disruption, not devastation.
Next door, A & J are making space for a friend’s children, friends who expect to be deported and are seeking space for their children, adolescent’s who have Ohio as their only home.

Biblical prophets speak disorientation to disrupt our certainty, our reliance on fear and nostalgia as false compass points. I want to remain a neighbor, slipping through without offense. I am without any compass, no map, without orientation. Disorientation may last longer than a season, renewal and reorientation are beyond my imagination.
On Wednesday, I’ll be in New York city offering a few words as part of a day thinking about theological education and ecology, attempting to imagine a way toward the next 500 years. I’m waiting for those words.
Below I link to a poem that will offend some deeply, it came across email today, read it or don’t, but sometimes the prophet is an angry poet raging to find something true.

A Poem for the Cruel Majority
BY JEROME ROTHENBERG

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There is One in the Darkness

“The Psalms are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture, which wants to deny and cover over the darkness we are called to enter. Personally we shun negativity. Publicly we deny the the failure of our attempts to exercise control. The last desperate effort at control through nuclear weapons is a stark admission of our failure to control. But through its propaganda and the ideology of consumerism, our society goes its way in pretense. Against all of this the Psalms issue a mighty protest and invite us into a more honest facing of the darkness. The reason the darkness may be faced and lived in is that even in the darkness there is One to address.

The One to address is in the darkness but is not simply a part of the darkness (John 1:1-5). Because this One has promised to be in the darkness with us, we find the darkness strangely transformed, not by the power of easy light, but by the power of relentless solidarity….

The Psalms are a boundary thrown up against self-deception. They do not permit us to ignore or deny the darkness, personally or publicly, for that is where new life is given, whether on the third day, or by some other uncontrolled schedule at work within us.”

The above is Walter Brueggemann from his book Spirituality of the Psalms, pages xii-xiii.

It’s worth hearing in this, the darkest part of the year, that light will come. The One is being born among us even as we wait though even he, for now, is wreathed in the darkness of the womb.

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Darkness Can Be a Teacher

Soon, in my patch on this planet, we mark the winter solstice. As we move through the shortest day and longest night of the year, we also start moving toward the rising of the light. For several millennia, it’s been hard for our species to resist the metaphor in that fact!

But I wonder… Are we so eager to get to the light that we fail to dwell in the darkness long enough to learn what it has to teach us?

As we all know, there are a lot of “longest nights” in life, and some of them seem impossibly long. As one who has spent months in the dark night of depression, I know how important it has been to let darkness become my teacher. The poets know this, too.

Theodore Roethke says:

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

Wendell Berry says:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

And Rilke says, very simply,

“I have faith in the night.”

So perhaps on this winter solstice, before we start turning toward the light, we need to spend some time embracing the darkness — or letting it embrace us. There are life-giving lessons to be learned there, even in our darkest times.

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