Big and Small: Sabbath and Deep Time

Big and Small: Sabbath and Deep Time

June 2016

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On a Friday afternoon, I was sitting in a remote desert valley. Twelve miles 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. He waxed philosophical. What did I think about the scientific search for extra terrestrial life? How did I process our tiny place in the universe? He talked of 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 invisible specks against the sweep of the eons. How did a person hang onto his humanity when confronting this immensity?

I responded with a couple of stories of my own encounters with ineffable power. I remembered body surfing in my teens, the sheer exhilaration of riding a wave, especially a big one. 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 the surfer term is getting “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, too. As the wave was having its way with me, I became a part of the life of the wave. I knew myself as a piece of this thundering mountain of water. I had been transformed into an essential ingredient of the awesome power that held me. The space between my smallness and the immensity of the wave was not a measure of my insignificance, but a measure of the enormity of my community.

For millennia, devout thinkers in different religious traditions have lived with a deep knowledge of both our smallness and our bigness. A classic expression of this awareness in the Bible is this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

“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 confronts us with the fact of deep time–billions and billions of years–eternity. Our faith affirms our own significance in that sweeping vastness. In meditation we practice knowing that our present life is a speck, a miniscule bit, against the largeness of creation and the eternity of God AND that each of us is an essential, treasured speck. The words and music of Christian worship and prayers rehearse both the eternity of God and the glory of our place in it.

The speck of reality comprised by an individual human is an essential element of the largeness 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.

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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 opened my eyes, the night beckoned. A gibbous moon washed the sandy landscape with ethereal light. Stars poked pinpricks of light through the gauzy glow thrown across the sky by the moon. The air was warm. I pulled on my shoes, and went for a walk.

Every step was more enchanting than the last. My bare skin luxuriated in the warmth radiating up from the ground, still alive from the day’s heat. The sandy track seemed to possess 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. I was euphoric, nearly breathless with the wonder. For an hour and a half I walked, engulfed in the glory of the cosmos. I kept company with the stars and the ten-thousand foot bulk of the Inyo Mountains looming in the moonlight. I was caught up in the sweeping surf of the universe. I was a tiny speck in communion with the immensity. And it was good.

A perfect Sabbath.