Friday afternoon, a few weeks ago, I was sitting in a remote desert valley. Twelve miles to the west, the Inyo Mountains soared upward, a stark, sheer ten thousand foot wall cutting the sky. A geologist from the next camp site had joined me and we sat staring at the rocky face across the valley. We talked about the movement of mountains and the depth of geologic time. At one point he waxed philosophical. He wondered about extra terrestrial life and our tiny place in the universe. He told me how unsettling it was for him to confront the span of “deep time.” Billions of years—where did that leave us? How could we matter? Our lives are the tiniest specks against the sweep of the eons. How did a person hang onto his humanity when confronting this immensity?
In response I told a story.
I remembered body surfing in my teens. Riding a wave, especially a big one, was pure exhilaration. Even now, when I close my eyes and look back I can recall—and almost feel in my bones–the magic of flying down the surface of a wave as it pushed toward the beach.
Sometimes a wave would grab me, snatch me off its surface and into its mountainous bulk, and then tumble me. I think surfers describe it as being “washing machined.” Those moments were terrifying, naturally. I didn’t know what the wave was going to do with me. I didn’t know how long it would hold me, when and where it would let me go. In those moments I knew my smallness. Still, I returned to it over and over, because in addition to knowing my smallness, I felt something else as well. As the wave was having its way with me, I knew myself as part of the life of the wave. I had become a piece of this thundering mountain of water. I had been transformed into an essential ingredient of the awesome power that held me.
For millennia, devout thinkers have lived with a deep knowledge of both our smallness and our bigness.
“To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. . . .
Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Isaiah 40:25-29
Our awareness of God has confronted us with the fact of deep time–billions and billions of years–eternity. We have practiced knowing that our present life is a speck, a miniscule bit, against the largeness of creation, never mind the eternity of God. We have also rehearsed, week after week in the words and music of our worship and in our prayers and meditations, the glory of our place in the eternity of God.
We are part of the life of God. The Bible pictures God turning his attention our direction with an intensity out of all proportion to the space we occupy on a galactic map or cosmic calendar. God loves us so much he would rather die than live without us. God is like parents who find meaning through the life and well-being of their children, the artist who lives in her art, the shepherd who can rest only when the sheep are safely home, the lover whose affection is so insistent, jealousy is the most apt description of its fire. Just as the wave, having engulfed me was then dependent on my presence for the fullness of its new identity, so God is no longer independent. Our tiny lives and the immense life of God are intertwined. Tumbled, sometimes terrified, still we are swept up in the grandeur of God. We ourselves—not just the rocks and galaxies—are part of “deep time,” part of the sweep of eternity. This is the truth we sing and speak every week in worship. This is the truth that comes alive in our service to one another and the world.
I went to bed early that Friday night after visiting with my geologist neighbor. It had been a good conversation, a pleasant exploration of the deep questions that naturally arise in easy conversation in wide spaces. Sometime after midnight I woke. I was sleeping on the ground under the sky, so when I pulled my head out of my sleeping bag hood, the night beckoned. A gibbous moon washed the sandy landscape with ethereal light. Stars poked pinpricks of light through the gauzy glow of the moon. The air was warm. I crawled out, pulled on my shoes, and went for a walk.
Every step was more enchanting than the last. Warmth from the day’s heat radiated up from the ground. The sandy track seemed to glow with an internal light it was so luminous. Walking and savoring the exquisite beauty of the night, I wished all my friends could be there with me. I wished all the angry people and anxious people and those hounded by poverty and disability could be there at least for a little while to taste the glory of the night. For an hour and a half that Friday night, I was engulfed in the glory of the cosmos. I kept company with the stars and with the ten-thousand foot bulk of the Inyo Mountains that loomed in the moonlight. I was engulfed in the sweeping surf of the universe. I was a tiny speck in communion with the immensity. And it was good.
May God grant that our worship, our prayer and meditation, remind us of both our smallness and our bigness, our smallness alone and our glorious immensity as part of the life of God and his people.