Each year we make a long, luscious drive through the high plains of West Texas and into the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, where I hole up for a week of study and preparation. I accomplish more in a week there than I could in months at home. There are no interruptions, just seven days of pure air and pure study, resulting in a plan for my preaching for the coming year. We prefer February, when hardly anyone is around, and there is no noise other than the whisper of wind in the pines.
This year I finished a day early, so I decided to do something I have wanted to do for a long time: I took a long, lonesome drive out to a broad plateau 7,000 feet above sea level where the Very Large Array (VLA) is located.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Very Large Array is an enormous radio telescope, scanning the universe with 27 huge dish antennae, scattered over several miles. Each dish is 82 feet in diameter. Together they form a telescope that gathers radio waves instead of visible light, and they are capable of peering into the farthest reaches of the universe.
Arriving at the VLA, I discovered that I was one of only four tourists there. Apparently not very many travelers are willing to drive three hours from civilization to see a giant, silent telescope. But I’m an aging geek who has always been fascinated with such things, and I was instantly enamored. I walked out under the giant antennae that pointed up at the clear blue mountain sky, fascinated by these giant ears and the purpose for which they were made.
If you’ve seen the movie “Contact” starring Jody Foster, you’ve seen the VLA. In the movie, which was filmed there, they were listening for the telltale sounds of intelligent life. It was a good story, but not a very accurate one. The VLA watches rather than listens. And the pictures it produces are breathtaking.
I have to admit that, standing out under those huge dishes, I began to wax theological, almost poetical. In the majestic silence of that high plateau, those 27 antennae seemed — how shall I put it — intent. They were paying attention to something beyond my small imagination. They were asking questions beyond my limited understanding — questions about the creation, the why and the how of it, in all its immensity and mystery. Perhaps most of all, I imagined them asking the question the Psalmist asked, “What are mortals, that you should care for them?”
I know they were just very sophisticated scientific instruments, but for a little while they seemed to take on almost human characteristics, capable of wonder and awe. In the end, we explore those things that are farthest away in order to see what is most deeply within us.
I pray most nights. Most of us do, in whatever form or manner. The older I get, the more I become like the Very Large Array. I talk less, and listen more. Like those big antennae, I’m learning, little by little, to pay attention to the great Mystery that is beyond.
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