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The first time I experienced the Grand Canyon, I stood back from its precipice in child-like awe stunned by its vast beauty. Reds, golds, grays, blacks, chalk whites mingled in impossible hues. Vertigo swirled. My toes clung to the rock path through my boot bottoms. I was fearful the Canyon’s profoundness might reach up and snatch me away.
Mystery hung over the miles-long canyon in a haze. I breathed it in. I had reached the edge of the earth, where knowledge and imagination falter. Crows glided over its jagged gash and disappeared. Clouds were swallowed. The air was different. Sound changed.
The Grand Canyon is a gaping metaphor for the nature of life. Paradox lives on its lip. I felt minuscule and mighty at the same time. Here life is more than it seems. More than I can grasp. Wonder enveloped me.
Receiving the Mystery
In Leo Tolstoy’s Grand Canyon-like novel War and Peace an unnamed priest tends to the dying Count Bezukhof. Eventually the priest congratulates the Count on having received the mystery. Bezukhof dies.
Not being Russian Orthodox, I was unclear what this meant. But the phrase struck me. I read the sentence several times. I eventually understood the Mystery is how the Orthodox name the Eucharist or Communion. The Count had received Last Rites.
Of course death is a mystery. And to die is receiving the mystery. Yet the phrase hinted at more.
In 2015 when the EKG was spraying wild lines across the screen and my heart was seizing and my wife Dee Dee was praying in the corner of the clinic and the doctor was medicating me and the nurse was calling 911, I lay on the verge of the void. I clung to life, vertigo, pain, and colors washed over me. I thought, I believe I know what will happen if I die. I know Christ holds me. Beyond that I’m not absolutely sure.
To Live is to Receive the Mystery
Today death is still a mystery. Thank God. Yet as I read Tolstoy, receiving the mystery seemed a phrase not only for Last Rites but for distilling life. To live—not just to die—is to receive the mystery. To receive the mystery is to say in the midst of life, “I believe I know what will happen. Christ holds me, beyond that I’m not absolutely sure.”
It is to stand awestruck on the edge of the void and not have all or many or any of the answers. It is to let life’s profoundness reach out and snatch you away into a place only God can fill.
This is the void we enter when we ask if we will graduate school, or if we are accepting the right job, or believing the truth, or if our marriage will survive or our parents or children or grandchildren. Then there are the soul deep questions: what will happen when people discover the pretender I know I am? Does God in truth love me?
These doubts, this void, is me at age eleven day after day waking up after my dad died of a heart attack, hoping it was a nightmare but knowing it was not and wondering how I would survive. People made promises. But even I knew they could not keep them.
Jesus too entered this void when he kneeled alone in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked the Father to take this cup—death on the cross—from him. Silence. Not even his friends stayed by him. He had knelt and prayed alone before. For forty days in the desert. On mountain tops. On the edge of the sea. And the Father had often spoken to him. “This is my son with whom I’m well pleased.” But not that night. Jesus received the mystery. Into the void he uttered: “Not my will, Father. But yours.”
Again Tolstoy from War and Peace: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”
God Lives in the Mystery
Why, Leo? Because that is where God lives. In the crack between finite and infinite. Our greatest questions about life stand on the finite side shouting across the infinite. But we cannot hear the return echo.
Why should I pray if God already knows? Are we free or predestined? What happens after death? Why does God allow life to be so cruel? Is there a God at all? What is the meaning of life? Why is flatulence funny? (Sorry, I had to lighten this up a little.)
Finite cannot reach infinite. Mystery is the gap between us and God. So Infinite reached across it to us. And in response we often remark: “Did you hear something? Did you see something?” Then we describe what we saw or heard knowing full well the story has gaps, canyons maybe.
Instead of receiving the mystery we grasp for control. We turn human knowledge into a hammer and pummel our doubts. We simplify things that cannot be simplified. We turn Christmas into Santa, religion into rules, and Easter into bunnies. We cannot fathom God Incarnate living as a servant among us, dying as a sacrifice for us, and rising as a promise of us.
And in our desire to control and know absolutely we scrabble and grapple and wrestle never gaining what we need. Peace.
But peace comes in growing a faith that receives the mystery. That lets loose of control and rather than explaining the beauty of the canyon, wonders at it. Peace stands on the edge, toes gripping boot bottoms, and smiles at the incomplete questions and answers the canyon calls up. And we lean into that canyon and see the outline of God’s hand, the shape of God’s heart, and hear God’s whisper congratulating us on receiving the mystery.
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Leaves rustle behind me. I listen. The minute intermittent scratch—barely audible, but amplified by the silence around me—is the only sound for miles. Besides my own breathing.
It’s a field mouse burrowing under the long, golden grass that is my seat. Now a crow croaks above. His wings send a windy squeak into the stillness. If clouds made noise as they scraped over the snow-dusted mountain peaks, today I would hear it.
It’s that quiet.
This day my world consists of the shifting sounds and changing colors of wilderness. The aspens stand on their milky trunks with their gray branches reaching for eternity. A doe and fawn skitter through the meadow, never realizing my hunting partner and I are there. I can travel only where I can walk, see only to the next ridge, talk only to my friend under the next tree. For this moment life has narrowed, simple.
All this as somewhere war ravages, terrorists plan more cowardice, politicians puff up like self-important peacocks, philosophical debates rage, earthquakes rumble, economies tumble, hunger ravages, homelessness decimates, and world events vast as the sky mount. I know these things because the information age is upon me. Information technology speaks loudly and carries a big stick. But not here. Here I’m journaling about field mice, aspen trees, and crows. Would that our worlds could become this small and contained again.
Sitting in this meadow I slowly realize, once again, I lack what it takes to fight AIDS in Africa, prevent earthquakes in Pakistan, support the correct U.S. Supreme Court nominee in DC, house the homeless in Denver, adopt baby girls from China, save the environment, stop war, care for my family, stay fit, love my wife, read a good book, be a friend, love God, and figure out global warming all at the same time.
I need life narrowed down. I can’t be global. I don’t have enough mind, heart, and soul to wrap around it all. Technology may have shrunk the globe to a village. But it’s still too big for me.
Focus on today and the here and now
Leonard Sweet writes in, “SoulTsunami” “Technology is outrunning our theology and ethics, leaving us panting, helpless anachronisms.”
Anachronism I am.
Despite their enormity, at one time most human beings would never have heard about tsunamis, hurricanes, and tragedies untold much less be given an opportunity to help. The sun would have risen and set on a day containing, as Jesus said, worries enough of its own. Each day we are bombarded by more information than we can assimilate or even care about. One of my professors put the dilemma this way: we are camel-age creatures living jet-age lives.
We need a theology of human limitation
Call God shortsighted if you like. We seem to have been designed to function best with narrower boundaries. In his outstanding book, “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives” Richard Swenson asserts we need a theology of human limitation.
We cannot do and care about as much as we believe we can. We need time and ways to shut out the voices telling us to change the world! By gaining distance from the global noise, I can actually hear the people and concerns near me.
Otherwise, it feels as if a terrible wind has torn down the walls and ripped off the roof of life and we stand naked and exposed to every storm the world dreams up.
Obviously technology is not all bad. My son was born two weeks premature in 1984. A new technology saved his life. And, selfishly, hot showers are remarkable. But there is the law of unintended consequences to deal with.
Find an isolated time and place to listen for God
The question is, how?
For me these retreats into the wilderness—back in time—help. Through isolation and stillness, through shrinking my world God enlarges my mind, heart, and soul. When I am out in the wild, I sleep in a tent, have no cell phone access, no cable TV, no high speed Internet, and no idea what is going on in the world. But I am not out of touch.
When the enormous worries of the world invade, I lift my eyes to the hills and ask, where does my help come from? In response I hear God whisper and even roar in the treetops: I Am here.
In the wild—in isolation—for one day—or even a few—time slowed down as golden sunlight chased shadows across the green sage valley for the umpteenth time: I Am timeless, God said. In the glistening eyes of my hunting partner: I see and love, God winked. Snow covered Mount Sopris towered, gleaming in the morning sun: I Am almighty, God assured.
The weight of the world is on God’s shoulders. Not mine! Maybe if I let God carry the weight, I can focus on and care about those things I can affect. Thanks God, for whispering louder than a myriad of modern, screaming voices. Thanks for holding the world in your hands. Thanks for narrowing the world down, if for just a moment.
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A version of this was first published on September 20, 2010 at www.bibleconversation.com.
Above me aspens climb the sky
Knobbly fingers intertwine
Creating a lattice of quivering lace
Painting yellow hue on cobalt face
Heart-shaped leaves collect the sun
Phosphorescence of the One
Throwing sparks of gentle light
Scattering dreams, kites in flight
Golden coins dance the swirling wind
Carefree, despite facing certain end
Laughing, landing done with toil
Surrendering to fertile soil
Leafless trunks now sway together
Dark eyes watchful of foul weather
Raising branches in hope bare
Regenerating for another year
Round me boles slant pale and stark
Picturesque, powdered bark
Touching their smooth, tender skin
Gaining God’s grace once again