Holy Ground

– contributed by the Rev. Susan Warrener Smith, Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio

Psalm 104

It’s hard not to resonate with this hymn of glory to God – God who set the earth on its foundations, in whose Wisdom all was made, and whose spirit is the breath of life. We all, I am sure, have had moments when we have been transfixed by God’s creation – stars in the night sky . . . spewing geysers and bubbling mudpots in Yellowstone National Park . . . the rock cliffs and woods of the Hocking Hills . . . the green cornfields of our farmland . . . the transformation of the world by newly fallen snow . . . the dogwoods and cherry blossoms that are bursting forth now in this springtime.

We must be cautious, however, about becoming too romantic about this matter. You may recall my telling the story of the time my husband and my daughter, Emily, and I were driving back to Columbus from Cincinnati on a summer evening. As we traveled north on 71, we could discern in the far distance dark, threatening thunder clouds, and the horizon was ablaze with lightning. We drove for quite a long time with no rain but constant lightning in the distance. Then about fifteen minutes south of London the rain began. It rapidly was pouring to the point where it was almost impossible to see. My husband calls it monsooning. We stopped awhile under an overpass, but the vigor of the storm made that feel like little protection. We ventured forth again and after debating about getting off the road completely, we took the exit at London. We turned into the first gas station we could find and sat. It poured! I cannot over-exaggerate the amount of water that fell from the skies that night. But more awesome and frightening was the unabated lightning. And I remember Emily exclaiming with youthful passion how people always think they can control nature, and we need nights like this one to remind us of our hubris and who really is in charge.
I suspect this is small comfort to anyone who has lost everything they own to a tornado, whose loved one has been buried in the rubble of an earthquake, or whose home has been washed out to sea by a tsunami. No, I would not want to become too romantic about nature. Understanding God as the One who creates, God as the One who redeems, and God as the One who imbues all creation with the Spirit of life is complicated business and does not settle for easy answers.

In her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, biologist Ursula Goodenough says that after taking physics in college, she experienced acute panic on a camping trip. Lying underneath the night sky, she realized that even though there are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, each containing about 100 billion stars, the only stars she could see were part of just one single galaxy . . . and furthermore, as she says, “each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again, splitting atoms and fusing nuclei under enormous temperatures and pressures” . . . and perhaps most frightening of all was to think that “our Sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death, spewing its bits and pieces out into the frigid nothingness of curved spacetime.” And she wept into her pillow.

In time, however, Goodenough has come to understand that we “can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that [we] don’t have to seek a point.” She says, “Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery. The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing. The Mystery of where the laws of physics came from. The Mystery of why the universe seems so strange.” Now she says, “I can lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies, and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all . . . Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe.” Indeed understanding God as the One who creates, God as the One who redeems, and God as the One who imbues all creation with the Spirit of life is complicated and mysterious business.

The Mystery of it all may momentarily leave us awestruck, but it is surprisingly easy to forget. Emily’s exclamation that we all need reminding about who is the one in control is not to be completely discarded. Significant strides have been taken since I read – horror-stricken some 35 years ago – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and learned about the consequences of indiscriminate dumping of DDT into our air and soil. But it is with ongoing frustration that the world continues to bicker over things like the Kyoto Protocol where the objective is to reduce greenhouse gases worldwide. 175 countries have ratified the protocol, but the United States is not one of those apparently because some other major producers of greenhouse gases like China have been exempted. Our government also says it will not ratify the treaty because of the strain it would put on our economy. In my household we always say the second reason is the real reason.

You probably have seen Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” Maybe you were fortunate enough to hear him speak on the subject here at OSU just last week. There have been other movies like “Erin Brockovitch” and “A Civil Action,” both exposing W.R. Grace Co. which wantonly has poured toxic waste and other pollutants into the ground with concern only for the economic return and no concern for the short and long-term consequences of such selfishness. As philosopher Norman Wirzba says, “We’d rather have a world of our own making and within our own control than acknowledge God’s ownership and control of creation. What we have not made we simply take and claim . . . We ignore the divine injunction . . . to take care of the earth and its creatures.” The Mystery of it all is surprisingly, let me say distressingly, easy to ignore or forget.

Long ago a psalmist stood in awe of the creation God made where waters stand above mountains and run down to the valleys . . . springs gush forth and flow between the hills, giving drink to living creatures . . . . birds sing and make their habitation in the branches by the streams . . . grass grows for the cattle . . . plants for the people . . . mountains for the wild goats . . . And the psalmist gives glory to God in whose wisdom all was made and in whose Spirit is found the breath of life.

At times we stand in awe of the extraordinary beauty of the universe. During an Apollo mission, astronaut Rusty Schweikert had a truly out of the ordinary glimpse of the beauty of all creation when he emerged from the space capsule on an umbilical cord. Apparently something went wrong with Mission Control in Houston, and so for a time Schweikert just floated silently around the Earth which he described as “a shining gem” which he wanted “to hug and kiss like a mother does her firstborn child.”

But as Vigen Guroian says in his charming book Inheriting Paradise, “The Christian knows . . . there are no easy strolls [through nature] with God.” Just tending a simple garden reminds us of this. The enjoyment of getting our hands into the soil and watching little seeds sprout “comes not without the toilsome struggle of raking and sowing and pulling up the weeds.” God as our creator, redeemer, and sustainer in the Holy Spirit and God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer in the Holy Spirit of all is an awesome, mysterious, and complicated business.

May the beauty of the universe stir us to praise God. May we surrender in amazement to the enormity of the Mystery we cannot explain and let it was over us. And may we strive with every fiber of our beings, until there is sweat on our brows, to honor God’s life-giving Spirit which moves with great power and mystery through all the avenues of our lives. And may we be ready to engage the joureny on which we have been sent, remembering that the road down which we are sent may not be an easy one – in fact, probably will not be an easy one – but also remembering that we are not sent alone. Rather we are sent by the One who not only creates and redeems but who fills us and sustains with the blessing of the Spirit.

Comments are closed.