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by Thomas A. Boogaart
I have always loved running. As a boy I ran up and down Lyon Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on my way to grade school. As a teenager I ran cross-country and track. As a middle-ager, I ran to stay fit.
I still run when I find the time, and I try to run in the quiet of night under the stars. Part of the reason I love running is the speed. Before your lungs and muscles give out, there is a moment when you feel as if you could take off from the ground and fly. Part of the reason I love running is the competition. Measuring yourself against others and experiencing both victory and defeat before a roaring crowd are exhilarating. I still run, although I am no longer fast and often sore. I have shortened my stride to lessen the stress on my knees, and I take more time warming up and cooling down.
In my declining years, I have discovered the real reason why I have always loved running. It was never the speed, the competition, or even the so-called runner’s high. Running moves me to a deeper level of awareness. When I gasp for breath and feel fatigue, I experience the utter dependency of my being. I am not the autonomous, self-sufficient being my culture tells me I am. My body cries out for air, and my awakened soul cries out for meaning: Who am I? What am I doing here? And when my body and soul cry out, I have the sense that someone is listening to me. Running for me is prayer, a silent conversation I am having with God.
My running days are numbered, and that makes me sad but also thankful. At the end of a workout on the track near my house, I have fallen into the habit of lifting my hands to the starry heavens in a gesture of thanksgiving to God. I realize that my moments on the track come straight from the hand of God, a present wrapped in darkness and spangled with stars.
One night a few years ago, I finished running and lifted my hands up to a particularly brilliant night sky. My thoughts shifted from God to the myriad stars. I tried to think of everything I knew about stars—about their formation, their number, and their distance from me. At that moment, the immensity of the universe became real to me and then a theological question. Could a God who created a universe this immense be paying attention to me, an old man running on a track in a small city on one of the planets of a sun in the Milky Way Galaxy, itself one of the billion galaxies? It seemed inconceivable. I dropped my hands to my sides.
I am not the first believer to gaze into the vastness of the starry heavens and feel the insignificance of my life in the grand scheme of things. But the order of immensity of the heavens that I am beholding is far greater than that of believers in the past.
In ancient times, the palmist looked at the stars above and wondered how God who created such an expanse could be mindful of tiny human beings (Psalm 8: 3-4). He felt this tension after looking at only 4,548 stars, the number that is visible to the naked eye on a clear night.
Thousands of years later, Blaise Pascal gazed at the night sky and said: “When I consider …the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright…Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?” (Pensees 68) He took fright after looking through a telescope at the newly discovered Milky Way Galaxy, estimated at the time to contain 1,500,000 stars.
I am raising my hands to a starry expanse that astronomers today estimate holds perhaps a billion galaxies each with more than a billion stars, more stars than there are grains of sand on all the shores of the earth. I drop my hands when I realize that I do not have a concept of God that will hold a universe this immense. The ever-expanding universe expands my concept of a personal God to the breaking point. How could the God of a universe that is this immense come in the form of a human being to one small planet to show God’s heart of love?
I have some sympathy for the growing number of Christians who refuse to look through the telescope and see a billion galaxies expanding from a singularity for 13.7 billion years and who refuse to look through the microscope and see the traces of the 4 billion year history of life on this planet, Christians who drop their hands in the face of the starry heavens and settle for a smaller God.
Our current ambivalence is not new. “Woe is me for I am lost,” said Isaiah when God in all God’s immensity tried to squeeze into the temple in Jerusalem and shook it to its foundation (Isaiah 6). The temple, Israel’s theology written in stone and mortar, could not hold God. Isaiah felt like he was losing his God, but in reality he was finding the King of the universe: “For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
To look through the telescope and microscope is to choose to see the King in all his glory and, inspired by this vision, to commit ourselves to the hard work of expanding our theological categories and the hard work of expanding our hearts to make room for our great and loving God.
Tom Boogaart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.