21 August 2007

picture this

Anthony Doerr in the current issue of Orion magazine calls the Hubble Ultra Deep Field the "most incredible photograph ever taken." He may not be exaggerating! Actually, I was introduced to the photo via the comic strip "Opus."

Astronomers aimed the Hubble telescope at an incredibly tiny speck of the night sky. During 400 orbits of the earth, over the course of several months, they took a photograph with a million-second long exposure. They said it would be like looking through an eight-foot soda straw. The whole sky is 12.7 million times larger than the area covered in the Ultra Deep Field.

This grain-of-sand sized patch of sky isn't big, but it's "ultra deep" after about 11 days of exposure. Within it are thousands upon thousands of galaxies, billions of stars, possibly trillions of planets. And being many billions of light-years away, we see them as they were in an incredibly distant past.

Doerr says, "The night sky is the coolest Advent calendar imaginable: it is composed of an infinite number of doors. Open one and find ten thousand galaxies hiding behind it, streaming away at hundreds of miles per second. Open another, and another. You gaze up into history; you stare into the limits of your own understanding. The past flies toward you at the speed of light. Why are you here? Why are the stars there? Is it even remotely possible that our one, tiny, eggshell world is the only one encrusted with life?"

Such immensity makes me dizzy when I try to envision it. Well, forget it--I can't even come close to picturing it. He adds, "The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image should be in every classroom in the world. It should be on the president’s desk. It should probably be in every church, too." That might not be a bad idea. Our God is much too small. Our God is so puny. Our tiny minds contain an idol.

It isn't the one "who fills all in all."

12 August 2007

averting our eyes

For the last few years, each day I've read a psalm and a chapter from the Bible. For a long time, I would read more of the Bible each day, until I had read through it many times. Then one day, I decided that I don't need to speed read the scriptures. Today my text was chapter 4 in the book of Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus). I was especially struck by verse 5: "Do not avert your eyes from the needy; give no one occasion to curse you."

That's significant, because today I preached a sermon on how we tend to avert our eyes from those in distress. My sermon text was Isaiah 1:1, 10-20. (And no, I hadn't looked ahead at what my own personal scripture reading for today would be!) Here's a part of the sermon in which I confess my fault. I had just said that, on my first trip to Manhattan, while walking through Central Park, a friend told me that if some guys were starting a fight, I should look away.

"As it turned out, I really didn’t see anyone starting any trouble, so I wasn’t put to the test.

"I couldn’t help thinking, though, what if I were the poor guy getting attacked? What if I were relying on us to intervene? What if we had played the role of those who pretend that nothing is going on—people who avert their eyes, people who look the other way?

"To be honest, it’s a role we play all the time. I know I play it far too often. There’s a lady I’ve noticed walking on Third Street and on Hallock Street. Even in warm weather, even hot weather, she’s dressed in a winter coat. She looks different; she’s the kind of person we’re 'supposed' to avoid.

"A few weeks ago, as I was walking Duncan [our Shetland Sheepdog], he noticed her and went right up to her. She was very kind to him (and to me), and I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to speak to her before. I’m ashamed to say that I had probably made some pre-judgments concerning her. Maybe I thought she would respond in some crazy fashion, or that she would ask me for money—as if that is such a horrible thing!

"No, what our society tells us to do is to avert our eyes."

I won't repeat the entire sermon. (You can click on "Zebraview" in the right column!) In a nutshell, when we avert our eyes--when we pretend not to notice--we deny God the ability to work through us. That's true in the quest for both personal holiness and political holiness.

04 August 2007

of baptism and anniversaries

In his book, A Glorious Accident, Wim Kayzer quotes the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: "Through no fault of our own, and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life's continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited for such responsibility, but here we are." Kayzer asks Gould, "What was that glorious accident?" Gould responds, "The accident is the 60 trillion contingent events that eventually led to the emergence of Homo sapiens." (p. 92)

Certainly, Gould doesn't operate from the perspective of Christian faith, but when we tally up the number of events necessary to produce the emergence of humanity, on our planet, circling our star, spinning in our galaxy, among the billions of galaxies in our universe, obeying countless laws of physics--I guess 60 trillion is as good a number as any!

Yesterday, the 3rd of August, was the 21st anniversary of my baptism. I guess that means that I've come of age as a baptized Christian! (Unless it was three years ago at my 18th anniversary.)

I would guess that 60 trillion different things had to happen to get me into the waters of baptism. With every microsecond that passes, who can say what's going on? Who knows what will impinge upon us? Our friend Dr. Gould says, "We may not be suited for such responsibility, but here we are." Maybe we aren't suited for our responsibility, but we have been chosen. For me, baptism means at least that.

We have been chosen. In allowing ourselves to be chosen, we receive what we need. Please don't hear that as arrogance; it's a humble statement of faith.