lenten journal: finding finitude


    On my first day of Spring Break, I worked in the garden pruning trees and pulling up weeds and then went with Ginger to a relatively new coffee shop, Straw Valley Café, to sip and read for awhile. We walked into a little coffee shop and found it opened up on a meandering puzzle of small gardens and patios that wrapped around a renovated farm house filled with cozy little rooms – all of it available for whomever needed a place to sit and read and think. It is a beautiful place. As is our custom, Ginger and I settled down in different parts of the place with our respective reads. I continued in Adam Frank’s About Time, which is a sweeping history of how our understanding of time got to where it is today. I read today about Copernicus and Galileo, among others. Of the Copernican concept of an heliocentric cosmos, as opposed to the Ptolemy’s geocentric one, Blank writes:

    The difference in size [of the universe] between the Ptolemaic and Copernican models was startling. The heliocentric cosmos was at least four hundred thousand times bigger (in terms of volume0 than Ptolemy’s. This vast enlargement of the universe would be the first of many times that scientific astronomy would inflate the cosmos. With each step outward, humanity appeared to shrink in significance. (77)

    One of the things Frank does well is navigate the creative tension between cosmology and daily life, for time matters to both. He continues a couple of paragraphs later:

    But in a changing world new cosmologies were dangerous. There was a background of political, theological, and economic tumult that made debates over the Copernican universe flicker between metaphor and cosmic reality. Europe had been pushed off the center of the map with the discovery of the New World. The Vatican was being pushed aside as the sole arbiter of both earthly and divine power. And the Earth had been pushed aside to make room for a new cosmic architecture. (78)

    “This is the motion of history,” I wrote in the space between the end of the sentence and the edge of the page. I suppose there are actually two motions that follow Frank’s ideas of cosmological time and daily time, one arc being that of human growth and evolution as we become more educated and technologically evolved, and the other – growing out of the first – being that of coming to terms with our diminishing importance in our ever-expanding universe. The more we learn, the more we are asked to come to terms with how small we actually are.

    I thought of a poem I wrote almost a decade ago (now, old enough to be new again?) that I wrote in response to a billboard announcing the new planetarium at the Science Museum in Boston.

    daily work

    In the crush of afternoon traffic I sit
    In an unending queue of cars, staring at the stoplight.
    From my driver’s seat I can see the billboard:
    “Come visit the new planetarium,
    you tiny insignificant speck in the universe.”

    When the signal changes, I cross the bridge
    over river and railroad yard, turn left past
    the donut shop, and park in front of my house.
    Only my schnauzers notice because
    they are home alone.

    I have been hard at work in my daily orbit,
    but I stopped no wars, saved no lives,
    and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning.
    Today would be a good day to be Jimmy Stewart,
    to have some angel show me I matter.

    As I walk the puppies down to the river,
    I wonder how many times have I come to the water
    hoping to hear, “You are my beloved child.”
    Instead, I stand in life’s rising current only to admit,
    “I am not the one you were looking for.”

    I stand in the stream of my existence,
    between the banks of blessing and despair,
    convinced that only messiahs matter,
    that I have been called to change the world
    and I have not done my job.

    Yet, if I stack up the details of my life like
    stones for an altar, I see I am one In the flow
    of humanity, in the river of Love. I am a speck,
    in God’s eyes, of some significance.
    So say the schnauzers every time I come home.

    Once upon a time, maybe even in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, the point of education was to learn everything, which is not an option in the world we live in. The best we can do is to learn how to learn, how to be open, how not to cling too tightly to what we know to be safe as we flicker between metaphor and cosmic reality. To learn, to truly grow in understanding is to lose power because it means coming to terms with our finitude, which has been the reality all along. Being willing to learn means being willing to let go of what we have held to be true so we can see the world with new eyes. As the world changes the truth will still find us, as it did Galileo and Luther and Gandhi and King, to name a few, and it will continue to remind us of the limitations of our perspective, our language, and even our theology.

    As our view of time and most everything else changes as we find new material engagements, so was God changed by the material engagement of the Incarnation, which I don’t see as a unique crisis for God because I think change is fundamental to God’s nature. Or let me put it this way: in the same way that we feel the universe changes as we find the ways to see parts of it we have not seen before, so God “changes.” As we see galaxies far, far away, as we are drawn closer together in a world where white people aren’t the ones who matter most or straight people aren’t the only ones who are normal, we are called to come to terms with a God who is bigger than the Bible, bigger than our descriptions, bigger than most anything we can imagine, which is to say, a God who is the essence of creativity and change, the only kind of God who could blow the doors of the tomb and make the dry bones dance.

    And that was just for starters.



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