Sunday in the Park Meditation
Text: Psalm 19
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
I think it was Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” One has to wonder if he was thinking about the words of the Psalmist when he made that statement. For it seems that, indeed, words are not necessary to describe God when looking into the Carolina blue sky or standing at the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains or walking across the Grand Canyon or watching the waves roll in on a sandy beach or contemplating the pedals of a peony or the bark and branches and leaves of an old oak tree. Just look around. Look up and out and across. The greens, the blues, the breeze, the lush grass, the sounds—indeed the heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Recently, I came across a concept that was new to me. It is called the overview effect. The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit.
It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. The overview effect shifts one’s perspective from largeness to smallness.
Last week, Karla and I went to see the Robert Redford, Nick Nolte movie A Walk in the Woods. (I doubt it wins any awards but I would definitely recommend it.) The film, based on a 1998 book by travel writer Bill Bryson, describes his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz. Alongside the many educational and humorous moments in the movie, there are also a few serious, thought-provoking scenes. One that has stayed with me was a scene in which Redford’s character contemplates his unimaginable smallness in a galaxy of a hundred billion stars amid a universe of billions of galaxies. It was this scene that left me thinking about those moments/experiences in my own life when I encountered the overview effect.
One such moment came several years ago as I stood on a mountaintop in the Republic of Georgia and could see, literally see, seven different countries from that one spot. Malkhaz pointed them out one by one—Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking across that vast expanse I felt so small—so small as I stood there and thought about my own small world back in Raleigh, NC. And yet, I also had a feeling of connection—a connection to fellow travelers, seekers and sojourners. As odd as it may sound, I felt small and big all at the same time.
Have you ever felt that way: important and not important all at the same time? Some days when I think about the vastness of the universe, when I think about all that is going on in the world, when I think about my life in the tiny corner of the earth that I occupy, I feel small. Such feeling reminds me of David’s words in another psalm, Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? David names for us that feeling of unimaginable smallness.
But before I can close the Good Book, I turn the pages one more time and contemplate yet another of David’s songs, Psalm 139: “O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away…even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely.” As surely as David names the smallness of our lives, he also names the bigness of our lives.
Alan W. Watts, British-born philosopher and writer captures best what I think David is wrestling with in his songs. Watts puts it this way: “You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.” Each of us has our place in the expanse of this vast universe. Each of our lives is a small piece of thread that is used to weave together the whole of the tapestry that is this universe. We are small and big.
So I leave you with two thoughts this morning. First, the universe is big and we are small. If you need reminding of this, walk outside tonight and look up into the heavens and contemplate one single galaxy of a hundred billion stars amid a universe of billions of galaxies. You are unimaginably small. Second, the universe is big and your wave is an important function in the universe. If you need reminding of this truth, contemplate the ocean. You may be just one wave, but you are in and of the entire ocean, and your movement is connected to that limitless body of water. You are unimaginably important and who you are and what you do makes a difference in this vast universe. Yes, the heavens tell the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. And so do you! So do we!