Oct 2 2013

Tillich’s Tears

CA-5546When I was in graduate school I took a seminar on Paul Tillich.  Tillich, who died in 1965, was a German-American Christian theologian and existential philosopher.  Most consider him one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.  I remember that when I studied Tillich I found reading his books difficult but also intellectually stimulating.  He talked about God in a way far different than most people do but what he said made sense to me.

Earlier this week I was reading a selection of writings by Frederick Buechner in a book called Beyond Words.  In this collection Buechner offers brief thoughts or meditations on a wide variety of subjects.  I came to the place where the subject was “ocean.”  I was anxious to see what Buechner would do with this subject.  When I began reading, however, I was amused to see that he focused on Paul Tillich in this entry.  I thought, “How strange.”  When I finished I found myself saying, “How wonderful!”  What Buechner writes is too beautiful not to share with you.

_CES7283“They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks.  One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.   The beauty and power of it?  The inexpressible mystery of it?  The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again?  The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain?  Who knows?  In his theology Tillich avoided using the word God because it seemed to him too small, denoting only another being among beings.  He preferred to speak instead of the Ground of Being, of God as that which makes being itself possible, as that because of which existence itself exists.  His critics complain that he is too metaphysical.  They say they can’t imagine praying to anything so abstract and remote.  Maybe Tillich himself shared their difficulty.  Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.  Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”

_CES7289My new place of residence is not very far from the location where Paul Tillich’s body rests, New Harmony, Indiana.  A couple of months ago two friends and I took a trip to New Harmony and visited Tillich’s gravesite.  I remember that it was in a small wooded area and that scattered on a trail nearby were sayings of Tillich etched in stone.  I went back and looked at the pictures I took that day and discovered that on one of the stones the following words were inscribed: “Man and nature belong together in their created glory—in their tragedy and in their salvation.”  It is clear that Tillich did, in fact, feel a close connection to nature and to God’s presence in Creation.  He felt it at the ocean’s edge, the gentle hills of New Harmony, and likely everywhere he went.  I like to think that Buechner got it right—that Tillich’s experience of God in nature led him to see “how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”  I want to think this because that has been my experience too.


(I took the top image of the Pacific Ocean in California.   I took the bottom two images at Tillich’s gravesite in New Harmony, Indiana.)

Apr 21 2013


Akaka Falls  208The word “glory” shows up many times in the Bible–somewhere around four hundred times. You will also find it  in countless hymns and praise songs used in worship.  It is a word which is closely tied to God but many people would probably have a difficult time defining what glory means.  Even if they went to a standard dictionary they probably would not find much help. There they would see “glory” defined as “honor,” “distinction,” or “reputation.”  These synonymns offer a clue to what glory is but not much more.  When wanting to get a better handle on words associated with the Bible or faith I often turn to a series of books written by Frederick Buechner. (Today you can find these books compiled in a single volume called Beyond Words.) Buechner has a unique, and often humorous, way of bringing life and meaning to words we all know but may not fully understand. For me, he certainly proves helpful when it comes to comprehending what “glory” means. Here is what Buechner says:

_CES0720“Glory is to God what style is to an artist. A painting by Vermeer, a sonnet by Donne, a Mozart aria–each is so rich with the style of the one who made it that to the connoisseur it couldn’t have been made by anybody else, and the effect is staggering. The style of artists brings you as close to the sound of their voices and the light in their eyes as it is possible to get this side of actually shaking hands with them. In the words of Psalm 19:1, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God.’ It is the same thing. To the connoisseur, not just sunsets and starry nights, but dust storms, rain forests, garter snakes, and the human face are all unmistakably the work of a single hand. Glory is the outward manifestation of that hand in its handiwork just as holiness is the inward. To behold God’s glory, to sense God’s style, is the closest you can get to God this side of paradise, just as to read King Lear is the closest you can get to Shakespeare. Glory is what God looks like when for the time being all you have to look at him with is a pair of eyes.”

HNP summit sunset 615Buechner’s insight into the word glory not only helps us better understand its meaning; it shows us how we might experience the glory of God here and now.  For those with eyes to see and ears to hear the glory of God may be found in God’s handiwork, through Creation. As I observed the beauty of Spring in the Appalachian mountains yesterday it was clear to me that I was beholding the glory of God.  Sometimes, in fact, when I encounter the beauty of God’s Creation I actually find myself uttering the word quietly to myself, “glory, glory.”

PC623Most of us will never experience God’s glory as Isaiah did in the Temple (Isaiah 6) or Saul (later Paul) did on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), but if we will discipline ourselves to look at nature or Creation as the Supreme Artist’s work, we will see more than enough of God to “sing glory to His name.”  We may even join in with the heavenly chorus described in Revelation 4:11 saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” As you look out your window today, take a drive in your car, or saunter along a trail, keep your eyes open for the glory of God.  It is there; He is there!


(I photographed the first and third image in Hawaii.  The little girl is our great niece who lives in Florida.  I took the bottom image yesterday near my current home in Pikeville, Ky.)

Mar 6 2013

Not the Same Show

FL9721“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Hebrews 11:3

Each evening before going to bed I read from the Book of Psalms and some other spiritual writing.  The “other” book I’m reading now is Frederick Buechner’s Beyond Words.  A couple of nights ago I came across Beuchner’s reflections on Creation.  Here he writes: “When God created the creation, God made something where there had been nothing… Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them.  If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy.  Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again.  And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again either.”

FL0384Buechner’s words give us a lot to think about.  He correctly notes that the One who created the world long ago continues that work to this very day.  In fact, each day is a new creation provided by the Creator.  This being so, each new day calls for an expression of gratitude.  God is not required to keep the world turning.  The fact that the sun rose today is cause for giving thanks for yet another day.

FL9319Buechner also reminds us here that every day is different and that we should not get so caught up in the routine of life that we fail to take notice of the differences at hand.  This surely requires some discipline on our part.  In order to notice the differences and that which is new we must truly pay attention.  Sometimes the differences are obvious or dramatic—it snowed during the night or the wind knocked down a tree–but most of the time they are subtle and less obvious.  For that reason we must intentionally look for the changes.  We might also want to  ask God to help us notice them.  Why bother?  Each change, each difference, is a reminder of the Creator’s ongoing work in our midst.  Each change, each difference is also an invitation to enjoy and celebrate the wonder of life itself.

I really like Buechner’s comment that it is not just Creation that is made new each day, so are we.  He’s right; you and I are not the same person we were yesterday, nor will we be the same person tomorrow because the God who “creates something new” each day in Creation also makes something new each and every day in us as well.  I find that incredibly encouraging.  How about you?


(I took the three images shown here in southern Florida this past December.)