“ cantus firmus : A Fixed Prayer for All Occasions, Part 5”
Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden
>>Open us, O God, to learn, to wonder, and then to be transformed so the cosmos looks different. Amen.<<
Stephen Hawking began his book A Brief History of Time with a story about Bertrand Russell, who once gave “a public lecture on astronomy. [Russell] described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, [someone] in the back of the room got up and said: ‘What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’” Russell responded with a smirk, “‘[And] what is the tortoise standing on?’” To which the person in the back of the room replied, “‘You’re a very clever, young man, very clever … . But it’s tortoises all the way down!’” “Most people,” wrote Hawking, “would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better? What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?”
Stephen Hawking was born 300 years to the day after the death of astronomer Galileo – a fact he liked to point out. And he died this week on March 14th, the birthday of Einstein, and also “pie day,” named for the circumference of a circle: 3.14 or 3/14, March 14th. It all seemed like more than coincidence for one person on Twitter, who wrote, “Gravity is indeed deterministic.” I first read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell while working on my ordination paper almost twelve years ago. I bought them together as a single, illustrated volume filled with glossy pages, because I needed some resources that boiled theoretical physics down, and made it less physics-like to help me think through the relationship between God and the universe before defending my views in front of an ordination committee. Hawking didn’t disappoint; though using his writing to help build my theology is a bit ironic, since he was an atheist, once making the offhand comment that “It is not necessary to invoke God [to light the fuse] and set the universe going.”
Hawking had a knack for communicating clearly to non-specialists. A Brief History of Time remains a worldwide bestseller . Some have said that Hawking’s battle with ALS – a diagnosis he received as a 21-year-old student at Oxford that left him later in life virtually paralyzed – may have aided his clear thinking and writing. Joe Palca of NPR wrote this week that “it took an enormous effort for Hawking to communicate, using the tiny movements he could make to control a computer interface.” Friends of Hawking recount that one email could take him over an hour to compose. Others who worked with him on book projects expressed frustration that they would wait 10 minutes for Hawking to type another sentence, and out would pop a joke on his screen instead. But “Kip Thorne, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology … [said,] ‘It was because of this handicap that [Hawking] developed new ways of thinking, … new ways of wrapping his brain around things that enabled him to out-think anybody else in [his] field.’” “Hawking [himself] found he could speak through the computer better than he had before losing his voice [to ALS]. His only complaint, he confided, was that the speech synthesizer, manufactured in California, gave him a new vocal inflection. ‘Please pardon my American accent,’ he used to say.”
His sense of humor and clear thinking can be seen in ch. 7 of A Brief History of Time , which he titled, “Black Holes Ain’t So Black,” and which described his landmark contribution to theoretical physics that merged “gravity and quantum mechanics” – two theories once thought to be like oil and water, sketching a “single theory of nature,” and proving that particles could leave a black hole. The academic paper that chapter is based on appeared in the 1974 edition of the journal Nature – an article that one cosmologist at Cambridge said is “‘the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.’” The New York Times wrote this week that Hawking “roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair.” And from that wheelchair, speaking through a computer with an American accent, Hawking said things like: “When we see the earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole, we see the unity and not the divisions. One planet, one human race. We are here together and we need to live together with tolerance and respect. We must become global citizens. Be brave. Be determined. Overcome the odds. It can be done.” And from that wheelchair, Hawking said: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” And then, finally, he once joked about his fame: “I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized,” he said. “It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.”
Even though he was an atheist, Hawking’s wonder at the universe – it’s unending mysteries and possibilities, like the awe Carl Sagan described when looking up on a clear night – inspired me as I wrote my ordination paper. This awe, this wonder: it’s a sense of things – a mystical, spiritual sense – that we are tiny, and there’s Something so much bigger that lies beyond us, just beyond our grasp, Something we grope for. To me, it’s God, what poet Christian Wiman calls belief in “the beyond,” or what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “Over-Soul” – a force that knits us all together and connects us to the stars. And I think Jesus captures this sense of there being Something-More-just-beyond-us with one word in the final phrase of The Lord’s Prayer: thine . It’s an old Shakespearean word meaning “Yours.” Thine is the kingdom, not “mine” is the kingdom. Thine is the glory, not “mine” is the glory. And thine is the power, not “mine” is the power. It’s the prayer of the humble; the part of the prayer that bows before Something bigger, reminding us to, in Hawking’s words “look up at the stars and not down at our feet,” to open ourselves to awe – to being awestruck – at the smallness of “mine” and the vastness of thine .
We pray The Lord’s Prayer every Sunday together, and sometimes daily alone. First century Christians prayed it three times a day. Today we conclude our series in The Lord’s Prayer with this final phrase: thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen. It’s not a phrase we find in our pew Bibles. To locate the closing phrase, we need to open the old seventeenth century King James Bible where we find the language we’re familiar with. The discrepancy between our New Revised Standard pew Bible and the old King James Bible goes back centuries in Christian history – back to the first century itself when Christian churches were still in their infancy. There’s wide variation in how Christians prayed this prayer, even variation within the New Testament gospels. The Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel is not the same as The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel. There’s no “ Our Father” in Luke’s gospel, just “Father.” Nor is there a “thy will be done on earth as in heaven,” as in Matthew’s version. Nor is there a “deliver us from evil.” The version of the prayer that’s closest to the one we pray on Sundays comes from a late first century Christian text called “The Didache” – The Teaching – which reads at the end, “for thine is the power and the glory forever.” Strewn throughout the thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, copied and edited over the centuries, and providing the baseline for our English translations, one can find many versions of The Lord’s Prayer. Our best manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel cut the prayer off with “deliver us from evil.” These are the manuscripts our pew Bibles are based on. Other manuscripts insert an “amen” after deliver us from evil. Still others insert “for thine is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit forever, Amen.” Many medieval manuscripts have the prayer as we pray it “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen.” These are the manuscripts the King James Bible is based on. I think it’s a testament to the popularity of The Lord’s Prayer in Christian piety that there are so many versions of it: Christians across the Roman Empire, and then across the medieval world, prayed the prayer and made it their own, sometimes modifying words and phrases in the process.
It’s our prayer – our cantus firmus as preacher William Sloane Coffin calls it, our “fixed chat,” our “fixed song,” the chant of faith – the basic form of which goes back to Jesus himself, who told his followers to begin prayer with a direct address to God as a parent, as a Father or a Mother: Our Father. Next, said Jesus, pray for the world: Let thy kingdom come and will be done on earth. Then, he said, pray for “daily bread” – for sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Then, he said, pray for forgiveness and for the power to forgive: forgive us our sins as we forgive others. Then pray for help, said Jesus: Lead us not into…, deliver us from… . And finally, he said, pray for humility: thine not mine. Pray for, what Stephen Hawking called, the openness to wonder: thine is the kingdom and power and glory. It’s the part of The Lord’s Prayer, writes Bishop John Shelby Spong, that “involves shedding the delusion that we are the center of the universe,” reminding us of the smallness of “mine” and the vastness of thine .
Moses caught a glimpse of this vast thine -glory in today’s scripture reading from Exodus. Moses prayed to “know” God – an intimate knowledge in the Hebrew language, like the knowledge two life-partners have of each other. But God granted Moses only a glimpse, placing this great prophet in a cave, cupping the cave with the divine hand, and letting a tiny stream of divine light pierce the darkness. Later in Exodus, when Moses came down the mountain after communing with God, legend has it that his face glowed after basking in that tiny crack of light. The Psalmists also basked in this thine -glory. “Before the mountains were brought forth,” wrote one Psalmist, “before you had formed the earth and world, from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.” And another Psalmist wrote that God is “robed in majesty.” And another wrote, “ Thou art exalted.” And still another, “Who is like God, filling the heavens?” Or, consider St. Paul, who once exclaimed, “how unsearchable and inscrutable is God!” This sense of wonder, as Hawking described it – the sense of beyond-ness or thine -ness – led the writer of Lamentations, in today’s second reading, to just sit in silence; for what can be said in the face of such vastness?
…In 1977, IBM made a film titled “Powers of Ten” that illustrated this smallness-vastness point. The film begins with an overhead view, just one square meter wide, of two picnickers in a Chicago park. The camera angle then expands by a factor of ten every ten seconds. Ten to the first power shows the picnickers and the whole park. Ten to the second power, ten seconds later, shows a portion of Lake Michigan and the parking lot of the stadium where the Bears play football. Ten to the third power shows a portion of the city, the picnickers are no longer visible. Ten seconds later, and a larger chunk of the city and lake come into view at ten to the fourth power. Ten to the fifth power, the city disappears in middle America. Ten to the sixth power, we see all the Great Lakes. Ten to the seventh power, we see the whole earth. Ten to the eighth, and the earth becomes, as Carl Sagan once put it, a “pale blue dot.” Moving on, ten to the eleventh power, and the orbits of the planets in our galaxy can be seen. At ten to the thirteenth power, the sun disappears in a cloud of stars. Ten to the fourteenth power – 100 million, million meters – and the solar system disappears into a cloud of solar systems. Ten to the sixteenth power – one light year away, not yet to the nearest star – and all we see is the vastness of space. The closest star comes into view at ten to the eighteenth power – 100 light years away. Ten to the 21st power – 100,000 light years – and the Milky Way comes into view. At ten to the 24th power – 100 million light years – we see clusters of galaxies against, as Sagan put it, the “velvety blackness of space.”
…I’ve always been struck by the way scripture uses this sense of smallness in the face of vastness – this thine -like humility – to make the point that Hawking once made when he said in a quote I mentioned earlier: “When we see the earth from space we see ourselves as a whole, we see the unity and not the divisions. One planet, one human race.” It’s a statement that blends the best of science with the best of religion, and makes us all better in the way Jesus once envisioned when he taught us to pray: Our Father … thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, not mine . Amen.
1 Stephen Hawking, The Illustrated A Brief History of Time , and The Universe in a Nutshell (New York: Bantam, 2001), 2.
6 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 3.
8 John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 142.