The Paper Walls Of Time
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and
Heaven ring – James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice And Sing”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ – Luke 19:39-40
There is a creek the runs by the house in which I grew up. I can’t count the hours I played down there, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. One of the great things about this little creek was that it was filled with fossils. I don’t mean to say there were dinosaur bones in my little creek. There were, however, an abundance of sandstone and shale bits, sometimes filled to overlapping, with the tiny imprint of all sorts of little creatures. If I found one of these, I might go back up to the house and sit on the back porch, turning the stone over in my hand, looking at each and all of the little impressions, thinking about time. Even now, as a middle aged man, I don’t really have any idea of the time it took to go from various kinds of mud covering the remains of these small animals, their remains eventually drying out and crumbling even as they left their impressions in the stone. The stones were buried – who knows how long? tens of thousands of years? millions? – then, at some point, uncovered. Then, perhaps during a heavy rain, perhaps something else, they wound up sitting in the bed of the creek behind my house.
Now, I have some rules – believe it or not – about things on this blog. They’re kind of carry-overs from my years of blogging on my previous site. Among those rules is I do not “debate” creationists. That my children attend a private Christian school where creationism is taught doesn’t mean I’m silent on the issue. It just means, here in this space, I refuse to discuss creationism, or debate the matter with those who adhere to creationism. Which, obviously, doesn’t mean I don’t hold to or celebrate an understanding of Creation as an act of Divine grace and love; on the contrary, among the many testimonies to the greatness, the love, and the freedom of God is our ongoing adventure of Creation, discovering how it works, that it is massive beyond our ability to comprehend, that it is violent and beautiful beyond our imaginings, and that each second of it, each moment in which it exists is both a and the moment of Creation.
One of my professors in Seminary, the late Dr. James Logan, said that Karl Barth was the great theologian of grace of the 20th century. As much as I admired Jim Logan, I would disagree. Barth was actually the great theologian of freedom of the 20th century. I believe Barth’s understanding of grace was a subset of his understanding of Divine Freedom. Barth’s initial and final (and succinct!) definition of God’s identity is: God is the God who loves in freedom.
Part of the evidence for this, worked out in meticulous detail in the four parts of Volume III of his Church Dogmatics, is Creation. Studying Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, we were told the basic philosophical question is: Why is there something rather than nothing? Barth’s answer to this question is: freedom. Specifically, Divine Freedom. There is no necessity about any of what we see. It is, in its minutest detail and its grand magnificence, sheer, gratuitous freedom, an expression of Divine Love. Each moment of time is both the sum total of all that has gone before, and the unique opportunity for something new to be. That is part of the doctrine of Creation about which we rarely think. As beloved children of God, freedom is part and parcel of what it means to be, to live in the love that holds it all together.
I look around the rolling hills not far from Jerusalem, and amid the grass and trees I see all sorts of stones. Large ones, pebbles, some with marks that show their age, others with marks that show they’ve been overturned by farmers tilling the land in the neverending cycle of life. Each of these stones makes me think of time, of the immensity of God’s creation, of the freedom that is ours because this is God’s creation. Most of all, it reminds me that even that part of creation we call inanimate understands its place. There are so many places, particularly in the Psalms, in which we are reminded that all creation does now or soon will offer God glory. We are surrounded by mute testimony to the greatness of Divine love, a love expressed in and through and as freedom.
I pick up a pebble, and drop it in my pocket. It is there to remind me of a couple things. First, it reminds me that I am not needed. None of us are. No matter how “necessary” we believe we are, whether it’s to the continuation of the church and its mission, to the spreading of the Gospel, or making disciples, that pebble reminds me that, in the end, there isn’t a particle of my existence, or a moment of my life, that has any necessity to it. Especially before God. That pebble will cry out praise to God were none of us here to do so; indeed, it might well be possible to hear that praise, if we have the ears to hear it.
The other thing that pebble reminds me is that I don’t really understand Creation. Oh, I understand how science explains various processes and what-not. I understand that the Universe is both far larger and far older than I can comprehend. In and of itself, this brings about praise: That something as insignificant as I am loved, upheld, and continue to be in the midst of all this immensity is certainly worthy of praise. I am not needed, which is why just being at all is such a wonder. That pebble, it tries to shout through my pocket, and I shut out all the other sounds and hear the praise of all Creation in that tiny voice and know it does so because of all the times I have failed to do so. This pebble, it does what I in my sin of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness, of hubris, and ignorance, it sings out louder than I have throughout so much of my life. When I get to that place called The Skull, I’m going to have to turn out my pockets, and let that pebble drop to the ground so that, at that moment, it can weep for the one dying on that cross.
And I so look forward to hearing it on Easter morning.