Sunday, October 26, 2014

Through a glass darkly...

Personal spiritual leanings aside, you can't help but be taken by the beauty of Saint Paul's writings.  Like a two-year-old to a cat's tail, I've always been drawn to one line in particular:  "For now we see through a glass, darkly:  now I know in part: but then I shall know even as also I am known."

Words have always held me captive, much like the early bubble lights on my first Christmas trees or, as in this very moment, the constant ebb and flow of waves against the unyielding beach.  I like the way you can weave words together like a hippie bracelet, picking and choosing from a pile of mismatched baubles, eventually tying the lovely chaos into a splendid whole.  An absolute potpourri of stones, gems, and what-nots that becomes an instant treasure.  When I come across a group of words woven into a delightful sentence or group of sentences, especially with an odd button or stone as the centerpiece, I get a little giddy.

I have to face it.  I'm irretrievably obsessed with with the "glass, darkly" part.  I'm even intrigued by the comma.  I'm not certain it appears in all translations, but it does in mine.  And I like it there and don't anyone dare take it away.  Because that just adds to the sweet mystery that lingers just on the palatable edge of discovery.  Those seven words create a universe for me - something that can't be sufficiently explored in a lifetime.  In a human lifetime, anyway.

And I wonder, as enlightened as Paul was (that fall on the road to Damascus was much longer than the distance from his horse's back to the ground), I wonder if he divinely knew that he was just scarcely nicking the surface of what I consider a bonafide example of God's sense of irony and maybe the keystone of His sense of humor:  science.

Stay with me here.

Let's consider the most obvious opposite of dark.   Light.  And let's agree that everything in the great beyond that can be seen today (and that's a bunch, thank you Edwin Hubble) still comprises only 4% of the universe.  Only 4%!  And let's concede that the scientists among us likely know about as much about space, outward and inward, as Paul did about Christianity as he stumbled toward Damascus.  So 96% of what we consider "the universe" is dark.  Dark.  Dark energy, dark matter...unseen, and to be frank, doggedly incomprehensible.

Which kicks us back to Paul for just a second when he says in his second letter to the Corinthians (good thing those folks in Corinth were so recalcitrant or we'd have had only one letter): "We live by faith, not by sight."

Whew...Paul!  If you only knew what you didn't know!

Now, to better appreciate God's sense of irony,  let's consider that He created electromagnetic radiation, aka light, but then He equipped us with eyes that can "see" less than a millionth of one percent of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Visible light.  Now, that needs to soak in a minute.  Less than a millionth of one percent.  What goes unseen, quite frankly, is incomprehensible but is known to exist.

And I should leave this alone, but I can't:  Paul was blinded by what?  The light!  Now am I crazy (don't answer that) or is all of this starting to feel related?  Here's the man who thought he knew it all, he gets knocked flat to the ground, blind as a bat, by a light, and then goes on some time later to write the pure poetry of I Corinthians.  Which includes the revelation that, compared to faith, sight isn't all that relevant anyway.

You know...we do.  See though a glass.  Darkly.

And that gives me immense comfort.

I have people close to me and people who have been passing acquaintances and people I've only heard about or read about who have either shared the commonality of death or who are sharing the commonality of serious physical, mental and/or emotional struggle.  They have been no strangers to dark places.  We will all walk that valley one day.  And I'd like to think that what we have waiting for us on the other side is at least 96% of the wonder and beauty of this strange and mysterious existence as well as that 99.99999999+% of light that we cannot see.  I simply don't believe God made it not to have us experience it.

Is the glass we see darkly through simply our eyes...those poor limited orbs that seem to fail a little more each year?   Are our eyes such primitive tools - and even after all these centuries of devising ways to "see" more, after all the inventions to see billions of miles into space or billions of atoms inwardly - will we always be able to see only darkly?

Or is the dark glass an expression of our earthly existence - the side of the glass we live on?  The side that can be maddeningly opaque.

There are estimated to be 17 billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy.  And though we will never get scientists to absolutely agree on everything, it's thought that there are between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in our known universe.  Look, God doesn't mess around...when He creates, He creates.

And, maybe, just maybe, that's where the answers are to all the frustrating questions we ask over and over.  Like: why do bad things happen to good people?  Or why does pain and suffering exist?  Or what's the purpose of all of this?  You know...I'm sure those answers are tucked away somewhere in that 99.99999999+%.  Somewhere between here and Damascus.  Somewhere in this vast universe that likely, from what we can comprehend, sits on the head of a pin.  In the meantime, I'll let my faith begin where my sight ends.  Yeah, that sounds like a plan.  Because, when it comes down to it, that's all I know to do.

Monday, October 20, 2014


I look out this morning to find a horizon drawn by God's straight-edge.  Put a level on it and the bubble would be right square in the middle...I'd bet on it.  Ocean horizons are defined and dependable.  They are predictable.  They are set and unchangeable.

No they're not.

It's estimated that a six foot tall person with his feet firmly planted in the sand will be able to see out to sea for three miles, and then the earth will rudely curve itself out of the picture.  Should he climb the lifeguard tower, the horizon moves out to around five miles.  From the patio of a Gulf front condo-say on the 10th floor-the ocean's horizon gets really gnarly, somewhere close to twelve miles out.

Where, pray tell, is this all going?  Well, we'll just keep poking at it and see what pops out.

Let's start with Robert Browning, a 19th century English poet, married to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a bit of a fox if I may say so.  And it was from inspiration of that foxy lady, I suppose, that spawned the lines:  "Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be."  From another work, he gives us: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

As I sit here immersed in the white noise of the waves, fifty yards from the slow boil of the tide in the Gulf of Mexico, perched some forty feet above the beach, my horizon teases me from a distance of eight miles.  When, last evening, I stood at ocean's edge, I was limited to a panorama of three miles.  (And, by the way, if you wondered why you had to suffer through the scribblings of Pythagoras in high school geometry, you can't get to these numbers without his theorem.)

But let's keep going.  In order to gain that extra five miles to the brink of the horizon, I had to do work.  I had to experience some level of accomplishment.  And that accomplishment came a some sacrifice.  In the most basic sense, I had to drag luggage and food and every Apple device ever created up a couple of flights of stairs and stow all of it in the condo.  I distinctly remember sweating.  Profusely.  Shouldn't be a big deal but when Bobby Browning invited us to grow old with him, I'm not sure that he was doing a ton of step climbing.  At a secondary level, I had to work for many years and do the correct things around planning for the future so that one day I would be able to meet the financial obligations of a week on the Gulf coast.  Not exactly up to the standard of challenges faced by Warren Buffet, but something beyond a Christmas savings account at the local bank.  Regardless, let's be honest...we're still at the most basic level of meeting obligations and being even remotely diligent.

I could stair-step us right along at this point, but I think I'll just get to it.  Our horizon is nothing more than our reach.  And no matter who we are, we do have the ability to reach as far as we possibly can.  Sometimes we choose to reach...I mean really stretch it out there...and sometimes we simply decide to go for only that which is within arm's length.  It's our choice.  That simple.

So the question is:  is there really a discernible difference between seeing three miles of emerald green and agate blue versus eight miles?  I mean, the sea is the sea, isn't it?

Well, my answer is yes.  The sea is the sea.  And, yes.  There is a difference.  You can continue to climb after your legs buckle, you can choose to reach higher and longer, you can fight harder, and you can maintain a death grip on every foot...every inch...that you attain.  Because that extended horizon means a few more precious seconds of that delicious sunset - that melting ice cream sundae overflowing with cherry and strawberry sky and whipped cream clouds.  It's being able to see that magnificent ship steaming eastwardly six miles from shore, the ship that's not even a figment of your imagination when you limit yourself to three miles of horizon.  You have another zillion gallons of emerald sea for your eyes to relish before it meets that bank of clouds along God's razor-fine straight-edge.  It's the opportunity for another drop of satisfaction, another small bite of more verse of your favorite song.

In the end, when you find yourself blessed to have lived a life that has recognized the value of conscious, dedicated effort, that is a gift in itself.  The bonus is having that prolonged reach being rewarded by an extraordinary grasp that we pray we will find a way to be worthy of.

I watch two seagulls breakfasting in the foam of the ebbing tide.  The breeze has picked up, ruffling the feathers of a persnickety blue heron.  The casual dining partners skitter back and forth devouring random treats.   Their horizon, according to Pythagoras, is less than a mile.  Poor birds.  Much less then a mile.  But, after a while, when they take wing with full stomachs and wet, sticky feet, they climb the currents of the sea breeze with amazing ease.  Higher and higher they go, until they are two indistinct dots against the blazing blue sky.  And I think, my God...they have the power to create an endless horizon - no limits, no ending!  And I believe it is just that, my friends, that Robert Browning was referring to when he said that the best is yet to be.  And, yes, yes, yes.  That is what a heaven's for.