[There is so much that I’m planning to write on—urgent things about God and justice and prayer, about racism and hurricanes and taking sides, and what this all means on a college campus. Those will come. However, this happened to me recently and I needed to get it out of my system first.]
I didn’t take this picture. I found it online. But my rainbows were just this bright.
I believe that God created the universe. I believe in Providence, the idea that God didn’t just set the world in motion, watchmaker-style, but is deeply involved—or at least present—in the workings of the cosmos, caring about the sparrow that falls from the sky, but available to me in my every thought and breath.
Those two things are important to know before I tell you this story.
I was driving from Chicago down to eastern Tennessee, a 9+ hour drive that took me through the mountains of Kentucky. Stretches of the road had been no fun for driving: periods of driving rain, construction, accidents (I passed two serious-looking ones within ½ mile of each other going in the opposite direction). As I went further into the mountains, through towns that could spread only so far to the right and the left, constrained by steep slopes on either side, I was frustrated and wearied by the rain, unable to enjoy the drive as I gripped the steering wheel and looked through the windshield wipers whipping at their fastest speed.
Just before I drove through the tunnel at the Cumberland Gap, I posted as much in a Facebook status. I love road trips. But not in that kind of weather.
After the tunnel, the clouds lightened a bit, with rain spitting occasionally, so I could relax little, but not too much, since the road continued to curve perilously through the hills. As I came around one bend, the entire windshield was filled with the vision of two full double rainbows. They were were not far away on the horizon, beckoning me somewhere beyond, but RIGHT THERE in front of me, one end of each rainbow just a few dozen yards ahead of me on the road.
I yelled. I literally yelled at least three times, alone in my car, as it moved at 60 miles an hour, trying to see the rainbows and stay on the road. It was two full rainbows, not one full and one ghostly one behind. They were brazen. Confident. In my face.
My mind raced: what I should do? A fellow traveller pulled over just ahead of me, clearly planning to step out and take a picture, or at least take it all in. I pondered doing the same, but I knew that, as good as smart phone cameras might be, I’d never capture the magnificence, the scale, the in-your-faceness of this moment. So I kept driving, at each bend ready to let go of the brilliance as the hill obscured it, only to be delighted when it appeared once again. This went on for several miles.
There were no muppets at the end of my rainbows.
I wept—carefully, since I was still driving, downhill now. It felt like a mirror image of the awe I felt at watching the eclipse last month (fully on television, and partially in my yard): then it was awe at the darkness, this was awe at the light. As the vision settled into my consciousness and I tried to fix it into my memory—since there would be no photo—I began to wonder what marvelous experience meant.
This was a question my husband and I had pondered during the eclipse last month. For most of human history eclipses were rare enough and few people traveled far enough to know that they were natural and not portents of disaster. Eclipses were given meaning—cosmic, formidable, dire meaning. We now know that, at some point, the moon will inevitably pass in front of the sun—there is no prophetic message in it. The sun will cede its place to the moon and the world below, for a few minutes, will become something wholly other. It is eerie. It feels mysterious. And it is simply how the world works.
Now as I drove, stunned into silence and delight, I wondered if I should be feeling something somehow “spiritual.” Should I wonder if this is a message from God? Should I feel some kind of explicitly theistic gratitude or awe? Strangely, I didn’t. This didn’t feel personal. I have gotten messages from God before, and this wasn’t it. I could have manufactured gratitude, but, strangely, it didn’t feel necessary. God’s feelings were not going to be hurt if I didn’t stop to compose a psalm at the side of the road. My delight was enough.
It felt like the world doing what it was made to do, in surprising and predictable ways. The sun was shining at just the right angle behind me through the leftovers of the rain, and my car and I, as I drove, continued to return to that just-right angle. Physics and weather and geography all did what they had been made to do. And they did it well.
God didn’t need in that moment for me to stop seeing the water vapor transformed into prisms of light and, or even to use it as some kind of lens toward God. God was in the car with me, driving down the road at 60 miles an hour, sitting the in passenger seat beside me, yelling, just as delighted as I was, at the glory of the rainbows, doing just what they were made to do.