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Don’t you just love seeing rainbows? There’s something both ethereal and inspiring about them. People get so excited when they see one in the sky, telling whomever’s around, “Look! There’s a rainbow! Over there, over there! See it?” And everyone strains their necks to get a glimpse of those spectacular colors in the sky. It’s almost as though seeing a rainbow brings some kind of unique gift to the observer (kind of like the proverbial treasure at the end of the rainbow). And if you’re really lucky, you might see a double rainbow sometime – double the luck or blessing.
Rainbows have been centrally portrayed in art, literature, music, and sacred scriptures for millenniums. For example, in John Everett Millais’ 1856 oil painting he titled, “The Blind Girl,” he used the rainbow – one of the beauties of nature that the blind girl cannot experience – to underline the pathos of her condition. Notice how she sits there, totally incapable of seeing this double wonder of nature that the little girl in her lap is craning her neck to see and enjoy. A rainbow is so powerfully evocative of life and hope, if you can’t see one, you’ve missed a profound human experience.
In most religious cultures, the rainbow is a symbol of the divine presence, the bow of God, the brilliant light display of glory around God’s throne. So the rainbow evoked a kind of deep spiritual fervor and hope for a divinely blessed life.
And here’s where this beautiful symbol and metaphor takes on expanded meaning. Experts tell us that there are 7 basic colors to the light spectrum we see in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. But in reality, as they point out, there are infinitely many wavelengths between 380 and 740 nanometers – the visible spectrum of light. That doesn’t even count the different tints and shades obtained by mixing in white, black, etc. So, in truth, there is an infinite number of colors, if you look at it that way.
“The actual estimate for how many different colors the human eye can distinguish varies between one and ten million, depending on the reference which you consult. However, the perception of color varies from one person to another, so there can be no single number that is true for everyone. The number of different colors that you, as an individual, can distinguish also varies dramatically according to the conditions; it drops to zero in low light conditions, in which only the rod cells of the retina can function, as the cone cells of the retina are required for color vision.” (Paula E. Burch, Ph.D.)
In other words, the whole color experience and reality of the light spectrum is about diversity, differences, innumerable options and shades and perceptions. No one person sees it the same way. And there’s infinite variety in what can be seen.
So here’s what we have with the rainbow: a powerful universal symbol of Hope, of the divine presence and blessing, and of the amazingly rich diversity in the human experience. Amazing, isn’t it? That which has always been a symbol for God is also a picture of infinite diversity.
Like sometimes happens when we end up missing the opportunity to see a rainbow because we’re perhaps looking somewhere else or distracted by something else or simply not looking for one, could it be that we too often miss experiencing a profound divine blessing because we don’t appreciate the rich diversity of life? We don’t see God in the midst of life’s variety and infinite spectrum of life because we’ve boxed God inside boundaries that are in fact too limiting to the infinite God of life – boundaries of belief, boundaries of faith, boundaries of the way we think people should be like. We allow ourselves to have such narrow expectations of ourselves, others, life, and even God and end up shrinking our souls a bit more and more as time goes by. If spirituality involves the experience of the Sacred and Divine in all of life, then our spirituality is diminished by refusing to let God encounter us in the midst of the rich diversity and variety and differences inherent in the fabric of life all around us. To experience diversity is to experience God.
So why would any one of us think we had the conclusive picture of reality and life? Why would any one of us think that there’s only one way to look at God, or there’s any one religion or organization that speaks exclusively for God, or there’s only a few ways to be human, or there’s only one perspective on an issue, or that some people are better than others? It’s too much of a tendency for me to put people in boxes or to place my expectations on others, thinking they need to be more like me. It’s too easy for me to sometimes feel threatened by someone else’s views or contributions or life, thinking that if they get away with their perspective, I’m diminished in some way – rather than embracing the truth that all of us are strengthened and deepened if we each are given the freedom and encouragement to be ourselves. The very nature of life, as the rainbow so beautifully portrays, is the beauty and divinity of diversity.
No wonder William Wordsmith’s 1802 poem “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold the Rainbow” begins:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!…
I love the passion for life he portrays. He feels his heart “leaping up” when he sees the rainbow – he willingly enters into the joy of life, allowing himself to be ushered into the chambers of awe, wonder, mystery, and Spirit. It’s so valuable for him to experience this divine reality of life through the rainbow that if he can’t have it, he would just as soon die. Why go through life just trying to make it to death safely? That’s not living. That’s being dead already, even though the heart might be pumping and beating. Wordsworth’s reality is that life leaps for joy when it sees the rainbow – the depth and richness of life happen in the midst of variety and diversity and difference.
I want a deep and more joyful life, don’t you? So maybe we should open up the box more to include more, to appreciate and value more, to be aware of more, to experience more. Maybe we should let God be more. And then watch ourselves be surprised by the God of the rainbow!