In the summer mornings of my childhood, I crossed the street with my dad to help my extended family harvest sweet corn. We are a people who tend to the land; I understand at a fundamental level what it means to reap the firstfruits of the harvest, to prune a vine to produce more fruit, to sow seed on good soil. But before the harvest, before the seeds could be sown, my aunts and uncles and cousins picked rocks.
The earth is a plentiful producer of many things, including rocks. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess sizeable rocks and chunks of boulders fall along with a particularly strong snow in early February, there for us to retrieve from the field. Each year brings more; we line our landscape beds with them.
It seemed a mystery to me as a child, how these rocks could keep appearing year after year to be picked out of the dirt. Was there an under-earth conveyor belt that moved the palm-sized rocks to the surface as the undercurrents shifted? Or maybe a reverse sifter that sent rocks heavenward from the grip of the clay and silt below?
What I know now is that the Western Reserve region of North America was a dumping ground for glaciers as they retreated across the land—nature’s excavator raking across the landscape, scooping indentations in the earth to form the Great Lakes, then dropping their minor and major sediments on the ground of my family’s farm. The Laurentide Ice Sheet covered most of northern North America between c. 95,000 and c. 20,000 years before the present day.
We keep finding rocks because the soil on the surface shifts, washes out and blows away, uncovering more and more crumbs from an ancient ice age. When I reach down to lift the most recent remnant, I find something solid, older than I can imagine, and wonder at its existence, its shape, its journey.
If I’m feeling really important, I’ll track back further, beyond the first ice age and imagine tectonic plates shifting globally, the pull and thrust and yank of whole land masses snapping apart or colliding, volcanoes and oceans and animals now extinct, back and back and back the millions of years science allots for life on Earth.
And if I don’t feel small enough, I look up, and out, at a space that’s filled with white sparks of light and a moon. When I was a child, I imagined the stars were holes punched in a black sheet so the light could leak through. I felt the entire universe turn when I learned it wasn’t the sun that rose and set but us. It was our turning, our wobbling on an axis, that caused the perception of rising and setting.
The other day my oldest child told me if we were just a little bit closer to the sun we’d be dead. And if we were just a little bit farther from the sun we’d be dead. Science’s term for this is the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ), or for us mortals, the Goldilocks zone—the range around a star that is “just right” to support liquid water and intelligent life. In our solar system, the boundaries of the Goldilocks zone are between .99 astronomical units and 1.7 AU.
An AU, for those of you who, like me, were wondering what that could be, equals 149.6 million kilometers, or the mean distance from the center of the earth to the center of the sun. If we budged just a smidgen closer, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. It’s a miracle we’re even here.
And yet, forty billion Earth-sized planets could orbit the habitable zones of sun-like stars, says Wikipedia.
Forty billion. Know how many people are on this earth? Seven and a half billion. Five planets for every person, with two and a half billion left over. A planet for you, and a planet for you, and a planet for you!
These rocks in this field we pick up each spring? They’ve traveled far. So has the dust we stir up. On Ash Wednesday each year we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But as we approach Easter, we’re reminded that God has made beautiful things rise out of dust, that God continues to make beautiful things rise out of dust.
On my writing desk, where I unearth my own rocks from the soil of life, I have this picture by Nancy Earle titled “Cosmic Christ.” The water and land stretches out behind him, a burning bush blazes before him, and the sun rises around, or through, or from his head. He casts peace on the land.
On the back of the “Cosmic Christ” card is a quote from Richard Rohr. “Evolutionary thinking is actually contemplative thinking because it leaves the full field of the future in God’s hands and agrees to humbly hold the present with what it only tentatively knows for sure. Evolutionary thinking agrees to both knowing and not knowing, at the same time.”
On days when the world seems chaotic and broken and in need of my immediate assistance, this Cosmic Christ and related quote remind me I am not the center of the universe. I am not god over creation. I can’t see beyond this moment, though I try, and I can’t step back and view the full arc of history in one glance. And that is how it ought to be.
Every time we stretch to find the end of the universe or the limit to the complexity of microbiology, the Cosmic Christ keeps increasing awe, magnifying mystery, opening new realms of knowing and exposing all we have yet to know.
When I can see above the horizons of my reality the Cosmic Christ who is above all and in all, the very real and intimate struggles of my life are placed into a context that makes them manageable. I am small, very small, and this thing that is happening right now? It will be here today and gone tomorrow. Because the full field of the future is in God’s hands, I can lift this rock, and this rock, and this rock today, in this moment.
In this brief breath of life, we are here to rake our knuckles against the earth. We are here to clear the land, plant some seeds, and watch something grow. Over it all stands Jesus, the Cosmic Christ, who was and is and is yet to come. Let’s pick the rocks and plant the seeds given to us while we are able, looking forward to the mysterious and wonderful and ever-evolving view of the world that is to come.