Have you ever heard the saying that you can see God both through a telescope and through a microscope? We Friends would add that when we do our best to look through eyes of spirit, we get glimpses of God everywhere, in everyone.
Earlier this week exciting news rippled through the scientific community when it was announced that two neutron stars had collided and caused what astrophysicists are calling the biggest scientific event ever seen by human beings. Each of the stars was said to be the size of a large city, like Portland—Oregon, not Indiana. And their collision produced the first ever recordable, gravitational wave attributed to a neutron star. In fact, it was only the fifth gravitational wave ever recorded.
Gravitational waves were first theorized by Albert Einstein way back in 1916. Based on his theory of relativity, Einstein had proposed that gravitational waves would occur as kinks or distortions in the fabric of space time whenever there are violent cosmic events, like two stars colliding. He believed time would warp—time would bend, as a result of the impact, and the force would ripple outward, like waves on a pond. But instead of water, the energy ripples through time and space itself. Einstein thought such things would exist, but he didn’t believe we’d ever be able to see or record them. It’s only been recently—since 2015, that scientists have surpassed what Einstein was able to picture way back then.
On August 17 of this year, scientists in 70 observatories around the globe were able to find, view, and share data about the historic gravitational wave produced by these two stars colliding. The impact caused such a massive explosion that the cloud of dust it left was quickly larger than our Milky Way. And scientists discovered there is gold in that cloud—not just a little gold dust, but a lot of gold, enough to produce 10 solid gold planet Earths.
And if all this isn’t fascinating enough for you—you can hear my science nerd coming out–here’s the part that captures my imagination the most and activates that feeling of awe. The collision of the neutron stars that was announced this week was picked up by those 70 observatories on August 17. But the event itself, the moment of the stars’ collision happened 130 million years ago.
130 million years ago!
How do we get our minds around that? How great is this God? How mysterious is creation? When I think of it, my brain goes a little numb around the edges, the way I feel when I am overwhelmed by beauty or I notice the silent hush I recognize as the gathering of God. Scientists now have telescopes so powerful that they literally enable us to look back across time —back across the speed of light—more than one hundred million years. That means that all the excitement that occurred this week happened over something that was not just yesterday’s news, but news that the dinosaurs read in their evening sky.
There’s a Serbian proverb that says, “Be humble, for you are made of earth; be noble, for you are made of stars,” and I love the way that liftsup both our temporal and eternal natures. This life is a both/and. We exist in a great sea of mystery while living practical, normal everyday lives. Somehow—God knows how, because God set it up this way—we embody both presence and transcendence.
Theologians have long debated whether God acts in time, across time, or outside of time. We Friends might answer that with “all of the above.”
Our Old Testament reading for today tells us that God has an appreciation for and an understanding of time—and he also wants us to know we are not prisoners of our age. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Right there we hear the practical aspect of our being: We connect with the beauty of our world and the turn of the seasons. We understand that things grow into their own fullness in their own time. But we also hear the mystery and transcendence that God has placed at the center of existence: God himself set eternity in our hearts, and yet none of us can fully grasp what God has done, is doing, and will do, from beginning to end, throughout all of creation. What was God was doing 130 million years ago, and how is it possible that it shows up in our lives today? What other amazing, awe-inspiring things does God have in store for us tomorrow? At this moment, it’s a mystery.
Our New Testament scripture reminds us that God relates to time differently than we do, but that God also understands that we operate within the limits of the world God created. And God’s patience is infinite because the point isn’t to hurry up and be perfect already: It is salvation for all, peace for all, harmony for all. Waiting for his last wandering child to come home, in the fullness of time, God has all the patience in the world.
In our tradition and practice, we Friends expect to see God acting within time, intervening, opening the way, and directing our steps. We are open to the leading of the spirit that accompanies us and helps to point out the way we should go. Ours is a day by day, a step by step, practical, embodied life of faith. But we also know the places in our hearts that God has programmed for eternity. We get in touch with that when we think of loved ones we have lost. Our love for them continues undimmed; our relationship with them still feels mysteriously intact. Their memories continue to live on in us, inspiring and comforting us, providing us with inspiration and encouragement or reassurance when we need it most. That love we feel shines out from the place of eternity God created in our hearts. That’s how we know—experientially–that love is truly stronger than death. Time is not a limit in the realm of spirit.
In the 1980s there was a popular movie called “Somewhere in Time,” starring a young Christopher Reeve—who had just become a superstar, thanks to the success of his first Superman movie—and the actress Jane Seymour. The movie tells the story of a young aspiring playwright who meets a great elderly actress at the premier of his first play. When they are introduced, the actress places an antique pocket watch into his hand and whispers in his ear, “Come back to me.” Several years later, the young man’s fame has passed and he’s struggling with writers’ block. He happens to visit the hotel where he’d originally met the actress and when he discovers a portrait of her as a young woman, he is enthralled. He becomes unexplainably obsessed with the painting and begins to come up with experiments that he hopes will in fact take him back in time to visit her. The movie begins as a mystery, and quickly becomes a love story. Her whisper, “Come back to me,” becomes the defining purpose of his life as he searches for a way to cross time and space to be with her.
The Persian poet, Rumi, said in the 14th century, “Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” It makes me wonder how our lives and perspectives might change if we had a greater sense of the mysterious within us and around us. Would it be easier to recognize the greatness of God shining out through the eyes of those we meet? Would we feel more at peace with the passage of time in our lives if we were on better terms with the sense of eternity God has placed in our hearts?
Maybe God intends for those two sides of our nature—the side that deals with the practical details of our lives and the side that is wired for eternity—to collide like a couple of neutron stars, producing an ever-expanding cloud of gold, crystallized wisdom, realized love.
Whether we tend to live out our days focusing on the details or scanning the stars, we can make more room in our lives for God’s mystery. We can create space for awe. And we can celebrate and feel confident that whether we look back across time, peer into the microbes of the present, or scan the far horizon of the future, we will see the majesty and forethought of God and feel the baffling greatness of the limitless love that always has been—and will forever be—traveling with us through time.
- OT: Ecclesiastes 3: 9-15
- NT: 2 Peter 3: 8-9