Where can I escape from thy spirit?
Where can I flee from thy presence?
–Psalm 139:7 (NEB)
If I lie in the grave, you are there.
— Psalm 139:8
(An Inclusive Language Version Based on the Grail Translation from the Hebrew)
If I had kept a diary of those few days in November 2019, the entries might have read something like this:
• Today is Saturday, November 16, 2019. It is evening, about 11 pm. Tomorrow will mark the eve of the 41st anniversary of those who lost their lives in a mass murder/suicide ritual, on order of their pastor. I will go to the Oakland Evergreen cemetery tomorrow, Sunday, November 17.
Can we still learn something new or be reminded of ancient truths from something that happened 41 years ago? What messages, meanings and value can we derive?
So far I have heard nothing – not in newspapers, TV, radio nor on the Internet – about a Jonestown Memorial Service. I suppose I should call the Oakland Evergreen Cemetery to find out.
• I went today, Sunday, November 17, because it is the last day of the passing week. It seemed doubtful that people would gather on a Monday, first day of a work week, just before Thanksgiving and the ensuing holiday season.
I was 39 years old on that day in 1978. I am now 80 and looking back.
It was a mildly cloudy day. I could see the city of San Francisco from my home in El Cerrito before I left. The traffic getting out of Berkeley was horrific for a Sunday morning. Some main streets were closed altogether. Diverted traffic was narrowed down to one lane. Drivers were trying to squeeze out other drivers, blocked traffic, etc. But eventually I got to Evergreen Cemetery.
No one came. I was all alone. I waited and took pictures, sat on one of the green benches. It was very quiet and dry, with a gentle breeze, and no sign that anyone would show. My attention turned to the surrounding natural environment. I believe Nature tries to tell us something about life and its creator in general. But are we listening?
Sitting alone in silence and noticing the surrounding quietness and relative stillness of certain things, faithfulness, non-rushing, thankfulness for life itself. The perspective that distance and time can give. Those values appear to be very important, right now and today. The experience later at Best Buy was very, very different. It was noisy and crowded, a marketing environment. Issues of judgement and self-worth, trust and identity were constantly and indirectly raised.
In the world of technology we inhabit, we increasingly rush about – sometimes madly, often pre-focused – fixed on the gadget in our hand. It takes time to slow down and find value in solitude, and to appreciate the ecosystem’s surrounding quietness and stillness.
• Monday, November 18: I discovered that I was wrong. There was a service scheduled for late Monday morning. I missed it!
• Friday, September 18, 2020: I think of Lucy (Australopithecus) whose collective remains are located somewhere in Africa. She is considered our earliest human ancestor, and lived about 3.2 million years ago, and must have had certain numinous experiences, too. She may have asked the ancient question, in her own way: ”Where can I escape from thy Spirit; Where shall I flee from thy presence”? (Psalm 137:7, NEB). Lucy may have come to a similar conclusion, ‘If I lie in the grave, Thou are there.’ (Psalm 139:8). There is nowhere that God is not!”
* * * * *
Looking back, I offer this prayer.
Teach us, Holy One, to slow and quiet down amidst the turmoil in which we are frequently engulf. Teach us, Holy One,
To feel the warmth of the sun,
To experience the wetness of the rain.
To feel, experience and notice the strength of the strong blowing wind,
and the gentle breeze. Amen.
God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.
Knock, Knock. Is anyone there? The inescapable and nameless presence is there!
(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His complete collection of writings is here.)