Clergy from various religious traditions are planning to keep an eye on Monday’s total solar eclipse, with some viewing it as a sign of God’s majesty and creative power and others seeing it more as an extraordinary act of nature.
People from a wide range of faith groups will be among those gathering along a 60-mile-wide path stretching from Oregon to South Carolina to view the eclipse. The path will include a tiny sliver of northeast Kansas.
Among international visitors coming to the Topeka area to view the eclipse is a pastor from Germany.
Martin Burmeister, pastor of the Evangelical Church of Schoenwalde in suburban Berlin, read about the Aug. 21 solar eclipse and saw a map showing the path of total darkness.
Recognizing that it came close to Topeka, Burmeister emailed the Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1701 S.W. Collins. The two pastors had met this summer when Schlingensiepen accompanied a delegation of the United Church of Christ to Germany.
Burmeister asked Schlingensiepen if he could come for a visit and watch the eclipse when its path of total darkness passed through an area about 60 miles northeast of Topeka.
Schlingensiepen responded quickly, inviting the German pastor to come and stay with him and his wife, Abby, for a few days before and after the eclipse.
On Thursday morning, the Rev. Schlingensiepen picked up Burmeister from Kansas City International Airport, and they began finalizing plans to view the eclipse in the late morning and early afternoon on Monday.
Schlingensiepen said he, his wife and Burmeister will join others for a viewing at the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge near Forest City, Mo., a location that will be in total darkness at the height of the eclipse.
Burmeister said he was thrilled to be in the United States to witness the momentous event. He said it will be the second total solar eclipse he has witnessed. The first occurred in 1999 while he was in Hungary.
“It was one of the most impressive events of my life,” Burmeister said. “I’m not such an astronomy guy, and I’m not out observing stars and taking photos of different things that happen in the sky, but that total sun eclipse that happened in 1999 was really impressive.”
The key, he said, is finding a viewing spot in the area of total darkness.
“Getting from 99 percent to 100 percent” may seem like a small difference, Burmeister said, but it makes a world of difference when viewing the solar eclipse.
“When the sun is totally covered,” he said, “you can see a ring of fire around it.”
Additionally, he said, when the moon is totally covering the sun, “you’re seeing planets you could never see before,” because of the sun’s brilliance.
Schlingensiepen already had special viewing glasses purchased before Burmeister’s arrival, and they plan to use them as they witness the eclipse.
The Topeka area will be close to total darkness, but will be just south of the path of totality, registering 99 percent. That is the main reason many people plan to find viewing locations an hour to the north.
Burmeister said he is hoping for clear skies on Monday so he can maximize his viewing opportunity.
He said he sees God’s handiwork in the solar eclipse, noting the size of the moon perfectly blocks out the sun — revealing the “ring of fire.”
“Of course, it’s part of God’s wonderful creation,” Burmeister said, noting the Bible says that God created “the sun and the stars.”
Burmeister referred to a Bible passage that says the “sun got dark” and the “sun lost her shine” when Jesus Christ was crucified.
“I’m not so interested in putting theological meaning into ordinary things, but you could see the eclipse like a picture for the saying that even in the darkest moments of life, there’s also Jesus,” Burmeister said. “Even if something really sad is happening, you see that Jesus is also there. He is with everybody, even those who have a shadow on their life.
“Even in the darkest moments, Jesus is there.”
Schlingensiepen said religious people in the past were prone to thinking of a solar eclipse as something “ominous,” and as a precursor to God bringing down his judgment on people.
Today, science has allowed people to “calculate” when eclipses will occur, and the events are far more likely to be seen as part of nature — if not examples of God’s creative genius.
“I don’t think in my faith tradition that there’s anything ominous” about an eclipse, Schlingensiepen said, “that God is trying to tell us something. But I think when we are going through terrible times, an eclipse or something like it tends to confirm the anxieties that many people have.
“So I think to say that it can’t, for many people, have that significance would be silly, but I think this is the place where you balance out the understanding of how grand and beautiful the universe is. With any anxieties we have, we can say it’s good to look at our human problems from a cosmic perspective in order to take some heart.”
Schlingensiepen said the eclipse “becomes an opportunity to appreciate the grandeur and beauty of the wholeness of creation.”
He said it “reminds us of our infinitesimal smallness” when considered in light of “our very expanded concept of creation.”
Rabbi Debbie Stiel, of Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka’s Jewish congregation, said “the eclipse is a naturally occurring phenomenon.”
“If its occurrence contributes to our sense of awe in the universe that we inhabit, I think that is great,” she said. “However, we do not see it as a sign from God or in any way a supernatural event.”
Stiel said she didn’t have plans to travel anywhere to see the eclipse, though she added she would “probably go out with appropriate glasses on and look up at the sun” in Topeka.
She said she was sure that many of her congregants would travel to see the total eclipse on Monday.
Imam Omar Hazim, of the Islamic Center of Topeka, said he planned to view the eclipse on Monday and that he urged others to do so, as well.
Hazim sent an email to members of the Islamic Center regarding the eclipse.
In it, he said that “Muslims recognize that everything is created and sustained by Almighty God.”
He said the Quran encourages people to “observe, reflect and contemplate on the beauty and wonder of the natural world as signs of God’s majesty, power and mercy.”
Hazim said the eclipse is “a sign of the creative handiwork of God.” When Muslims see it, Hazim said, the prophet Muhammad said Muslims should “stand up and pray to God with gratitude.”
Contact Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/.