Knowing what they mean by EXPANSE
My Dear One,
Growing up, my soul had a name. It was called the Missouri River.
This great being was ever-present, ominous yet comforting. Never changing in its course yet always new, inexorably flowing one way … onward! It was the crossing of this divide that issued the rhythm of my life. One of my parents lived on the north side, the other on the south. And it was the going back and forth between the two that molded me into who I became - teaching me to exist on both sides, appreciate both sides, become on both sides. I could not be only north or south. I could not be only left or right. I learned to incorporate and contain both, to know intuitively what later Richard Rohr would give me a phrase to express … “everything belongs.” For this, I am forever grateful.
The Jordan River likewise marked a significant boundary in Jesus’ day. It was the river the Israelites had long ago crossed to enter into the promised land. And it is to this river that Jesus returns to be baptized by John. Following his baptism, he did not return to the comfortable, familiar side of the river, the side where his life had, up to that point, been lived. He crossed over, into the wilderness, driven out by the Spirit of God, to go without food for forty days. These forty days echoed the forty years the Israelites spent wandering on this wilderness side of the river after their initial refusal to cross it, waiting for the time God would again lead them to its banks and invite them to enter the water.
Before he could begin his ministry, Jesus first had to wander the wilderness, to immerse himself into that vast EXPANSE where life is very fragile and he, even he, was very, very small.
In his rendering of the Taoist text The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton retells an old Chinese proverb about an autumn flood that caused all things to become small compared to the great Yellow River. At this, “the River God laughed, delighted to think that all the beauty in the world had fallen into its keeping.” That was until it all reached the Ocean where looking out upon the unending waters, in great humility, the River God confessed to the Ocean God, “Well, the proverb is right. He who has got himself a hundred ideas thinks he knows more than anyone else. Such a one am I. Only now do I know what they mean by EXPANSE.” (p. 84.)
A life faithfully lived requires this sense of perspective. It comes in many forms: ecstasy and tragedy, nearness and distance, pinnacle and chasm. Whatever would subsume us, pull us in, carry us along, bring us to the point of change, the Delta where river merges with ocean and at last we too know what they mean by EXPANSE.
In that other great Taoist text, the Tao te Ching by Lao-tzu, we find it put this way:
Great Tao (The Way) overflows.
To the left. To the right.
All beings owe their life to it.
And do not depart from it.
It acts without a name.
It clothes and nourishes all beings
But does not become their master.
Enduring without desire,
It may be called slight.
All beings return to it,
But it does not become their master.
It may be called immense.
By not making itself great,
It can do great things.
Jesus, humbled by his wilderness experience, went on later to say “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus had proper perspective, knowing what they mean by EXPANSE.
It is good to be reminded from time to time that even Jesus counted himself among the small, the somehow “less than good,” eschewing the title Son of God in favor of the title Son of Man, the Human One.
I remember one year the Missouri River flooded, pushing its banks back out to the mile-wide reach between two bluffs it had so long occupied before the Army Corp of Engineers attempted to tame it into a narrow, easily navigable thread. The river threatened to consume and indeed it did, but not all, only some, and eventually rested again.
Life can overflow. It can also flood. The Way in which “we live and move and have our being,” from which we came, by which we are sustained, to which we all return, is immense but refuses to be our master. We may either submit to the surety of its waters or resist in exhaustive struggle the rest of our days.
The flow, however, remains unfazed. Even a dam can only temporarily slow the progress of our life's course. Nothing will keep it from reaching and re-merging with the Ocean one day. The God who is Alpha is just as surely Omega, both our beginning and our end.
Thanks be to God.
following The Way,
Love the Lord your God with all your ...
Our Practice this Week
Place yourself humbly before what they mean by EXPANSE.
Might I suggest:
a newborn baby,
the night sky,
or a half hour of silent prayer.
Appreciate how small you are compared to such greatness. Relax into the flow of The Way and trust God knows where God is carrying you, even when we do not know where it all leads.