I first found Chet Raymo in the Science section of the Boston Globe where he wrote a weekly column. I was neither an ornithologist nor an astronomer, but he talked of birds and stars in a way that fed both my curiosity and my faith: he made me think I could understand what he was talking about and share his sense of wonder. The first time I read The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, I discovered we shared a faith background, though his was more history and mine present tense. He described his journey using a bird as his metaphor:
The upland plover is a shy bird. It is the color of dry grass. In the rare event that one I flushed, it takes to air with a soft, bubbling whistle . . . If the poet wanted an image for the absconded God, he could have found none better than the upland plover.
I can’t say exactly when it was that the God of my youth took to the upland plains. He was not driven from my soul. His flight was no fault of my teachers’. My lapse from faith occurred not long after graduation from college, at the end of a period of intense belief during which His face seemed palpably near . . . And sacred plovers leapt from every page, took to wings in coveys, and made a tumult with their wings that drowned the thin voice of doubt. Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers.” The plover was our hope. The plover was Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Then one day I woke up and the plover was gone . . . I turned to my science books and got on with the business of life. (55-56)
One of the songs that makes the rounds this time of year begins with the little lamb aasking the shepherd, “Do you hear what I hear?” I learned how to look at the night sky with a greater sense of wonder because of Raymo’s Science Musings and yet, he doesn’t see what I see anymore. The bird has flown, he says, and so he moved on. It doesn’t surprise me that he has found his new church, if you will, among scientists because scientists are the explorers of our age. We have circumnavigated the world time and again, but we are learning about particles smaller than we ever imagined, finding stars and quasars and black holes farther away than we ever dreamed we would be able to see, and dimensions to our existence far beyond the three we were taught in school. The legacy of the psalmist (“When I gaze into the night sky and see the wonders of your hands . . .”) has been passed beyond the church walls, and we are the lesser for it.
Shane Claiborne wrote an article for Esquire magazine (HT to Jan for pointing it out, since Esquire is not one of my regular reads) and said something that connects here, I think:
The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.
In 1972, Madeleine L’Engle was struggling with being told that identifying as a Christian would turn some people off. She responded:
I wouldn’t mind if to be a Christian were accepted as being the dangerous thing which it is. I wouldn’t mind if, when a group of Christians meet for bread and wine, we might well be interrupted and jailed for subversive activities. I wouldn’t mind if, once again, we were being thrown to the lions. I do mind, desperately, that the word “Christian” means for so many people smugness, and piosity, and holier-than-thouness. Who, today, can recognize a Christian because of “how those Christians love one another”? (98)
How did we become the keeps of the status quo, the defenders of truth, the rational ones determined to be relevant? Why are we not primarily consumed by and with the mystery and fascination of the Gospel story? What happened to lost in wonder, love, and praise?
We were breathed (laughed) into being, along with quarks and quasars, by our over-the-top-everything-matters-hey-look-what-I-can-do-I-love-you-with-all-my-heart-and-everyone-else-too-let’s-go-make-more-stars-and-stuff-all-ye-all-ye-oxen-free-crazy-go-nuts kind of God. Yet we talk about God as though it’s all business, and serious business at that. We live and worship as though our primary task is to explain God to the world, rather than introduce the One Who is Love to everyone we can and see what happens. Our God may be an awesome God, but our God is not rational. Our God is Love.
The Incarnation doesn’t make sense. Why God would choose to become human, and partake in the entire human experience from birth on, is in itself an outrageous act of redemption. Being fully human is a good thing. It matters; we matter because God loves us from the word go and never, never stops. That Unbridled Love let loose in the world means a peasant girl gives birth to the Messiah in a barn, poor shepherds hear angel choirs, rich foreigners chase stars across the sands, and there are mores stories than we can tell about those who healed and helped, even saved. We, as Christians, are not called to explain any of it, but to become carriers. of redemption, infected with the same irrational exuberance that lives in the heart of God.
A healthy church has less to do with making sure the theology is right than it does with being right with each other. If we chose to redeem our time together rather than make demands, we might see God differently and the story as well. Though I love Raymo’s imagery, I don’t see God as a shy bird hiding in the high places. The story we are telling in these days says just the opposite:
Why, then, are we not out under the stars with the shepherds and the scientists asking, “Do you see what I see?” Oh, that we might live out a fascinated faith together.