January 05, 2005

God of Earth and Outer Space: Another Perspective

Catching up on my blog reading this morning I came across a great post by fellow Waconian (or is that Wacoite?) Myles Werntz in his blog Taking Off and Landing. It's called "God of Earth and Outer Space" and in it Myles expresses his frustration with the U.S. space program. Here's a quote of note:
It all goes back to this gnawing suspicion that the stars are there not to be conquered, but gawked at, awed--that some things in creation are there simply to be looked at, and not mined. I've never understood the ramptant fascination with travelling as far as we can into the known solar system, only to confirm what we always knew, that life doesn't exist anywhere near here, and if life should exist in another galaxy, they'll let us know if we need to hear from them. When there are so many unexplored caverns of the human heart and psyche, the expense of hurtling a radar into the deepest ink black makes no sense to me.
In the interest of providing another perspective, and in the hope of spawning some dialogue on the issue, I decided to do something I've never done before. I'm blogging the text of a sermon I preached in our church almost exactly a year ago, the Sunday after what were arguably the two most important space events of 2004: the landing of the robotic rover Spirit on the Martian surface and President Bush's announcement of an ambitious new space exploration initiative. I hope a few of you at least will read Myles' post, and then read my sermon. I'm eager to read your thoughts in the comments.

The sermon began with a video clip: the title sequence from Star Trek: The Next Generation. As the camera pans across beautiful starscapes to focus in on the planets of our solar system, the voice of Patrick Stewart (otherwise known as Captain Jean Luc Picard) speaks:
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds...to seek out new life and new civilizations...to boldly go where no man has gone before.
There was a time in my life when those words had the power to set me quivering with excitement and anticipation. I used to race home from school each day to catch reruns of Star Trek on television, and I stayed up until 1 AM every Saturday night to watch them on our local public television affiliate...not because it was great TV--it wasn't--but because I shared The Dream. Star Trek was created in an era when The Dream was a national one--the late 1960's. Inspired by President Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and emboldened by Soviet competition, The Dream propagated across our culture like a virus--to explore, to seek out, to boldly go where no man had gone before. But the Dream had it's beginning long before that...before Goddard, before Von Braun, before H.G. Wells, before da Vinci. The Dream is an ancient one...

This morning, inspired by recent events and emboldened by what I believe is perhaps the crucial hour for our generation's fulfillment of the Dream, I'd like to open God's word with you and show you something that perhaps you never imagined was there. For it is in God's word that we find the source of the Dream, and God's plan for it's fulfillment. Turn in your Bibles to the eighth Psalm, and let's read verses three through eight.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

O LORD , our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

As we study this passage this morning, we need to remember that a psalm is a song, and that it's primarily not about information but about emotion, not about knowing something but about feeling something. David is sharing his feelings...and we need to feel what he feels.

David is in awe of God's handiwork and of God himself. "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place..." (3). I imagine David in the palace courtyard on a cold, clear night lifting his eyes from the path in front of him up, up to the sky, and being overcome by the sight. It would be something few of us have ever seen, living in a world where artificial light is cheap and plentiful, although you can see it here where we live perhaps more clearly than anywhere you'll ever live or visit again.

Seeing that sight did something to David. It's not that it taught him something; it made him understand something that he already knew. God is powerful...creative...BIG! David is astonished that such a powerful and creative and BIG God would not only notice human beings, but care for them. "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him" (4). Astronomers tell us that there are 100 billion galaxies visible from earth. That's more galaxies than all the human beings who have ever walked the planet! And each galaxy has somewhere around 200 billion stars! And God alone is responsible for all of that...amazing!

But David is also asking a question...and we need to appreciate the question in order to comprehend the answer. You've got to try to grasp your own infinitesimal smallness to really get the point of the rest of the song. Because that point is beyond imagining--it's so far out that we'd consider it absolutely insane were it not absolutely biblical. David is asking, "In light of the vastness and grandeur of the universe, of what possible importance or value can man be to God?" And the incredible answer is this: God doesn't simply notice human beings, and he doesn't simply care for them. God has made us his partners in governing the works of his hands.

That's not really very meaningful when, in your mind, you're the only show in town. But when you understand where you stand alongside the rest of the universe, it's incredible! We must understand our smallness to appreciate our bigness. Despite the fact that you couldn't create a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, much less a star or a world, God made you just "a little lower than the heavenly beings" (5), than God himself! Despite the fact that you are a speck so small as to be unworthy of the adjective "microscopic," God has "crowned [you] with glory and honor" (5)! That crown is important, because who wears crowns? That's right, rulers do...and with such great honor comes great responsibility.

That's what's at the heart of this song. David is communicating an expectation...and we need to live up to it. "You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet" (6). There are echoes of God's first words to human beings here, words etched upon our consciousness from time immortal: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen 1:28). That's the divine mandate, the purpose for which human beings were created: increase, fill, subdue, rule. There's a pattern for human growth outlined here. You cannot rule until you've subdued (and isn't it interesting that even before the universe was corrupted by man's sin it still needed to be subdued); you cannot subdue until you fill, you cannot fill until you increase in number. And that pattern must be followed in any given niche of the universe into which humanity expands. This is what God expects of us as a race; it is our most basic, most fundamental purpose, our essential reason for being. It is the responsibility we bear along with the crown of divine glory and honor. It is our manifest destiny. And it is the source and fount of The Dream.

Two weeks ago, humankind took its latest step toward the fulfillment of that destiny when a six-wheeled robot landed on the surface of Mars. Now Mars is a dangerous place. Planetary scientists have taken to calling it the "Planet of Death," not because it's inhabited by multi-tenticled aliens wielding death rays as we once thought it might be, but for reasons far more pragmatic. Of the all the probes we've sent to scout out Mars, only a third have survived. Occasionally, that's been our fault; we've made lots of mistakes. It's incredibly difficult to design, build, and operate a machine that will function under the hellish conditions of launch, interplanetary transit, entry through the Martian atmosphere, and on the cold Martian surface. More often than not the failures have been due to those harsh conditions proving harsher than our best efforts to overcome them. But this little robot survived...and I'd like to say that it survived, at least in part, because as it was plunging though its "six minutes of hell," I was sitting up at my desk, watching, and praying.

Another robot rover, the twin of the one exploring Mars right now, is plummeting through space to a rendezvous with the red planet next Saturday night. Their names, Spirit and Opportunity, are symbolic to me of both the divine mandate responsible for them and the critical times in which we launch them out into the void.

As we speak, there are two human beings, Michael Foale and Alexander Kaleri, out on the edge of the final frontier, two pioneers and explorers manning our lone outpost in space, the International Space Station. They are our vanguard, putting themselves at risk, enduring great hardship, so that we might fulfill our destiny--increase, fill, subdue, rule. They, too, need our prayers. For the last two weeks an air leak has plagued their tiny outpost; life is dangerous on the frontier. We ought to care about these things enough to pray for them!

This week President Bush announced a new initiative aimed at getting America's space program moving forward again. "Inspired by all that has come before, and guided by clear objectives, today we set a new course for America's space program. We will give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration. We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own." The President's courageous plan has a perilous journey of its own to make--through the halls of our U.S. Congress. It deserves our prayers, and our more active support. Did you know you can go to www.house.gov or www.senate.gov, find the people who represent you in congress, and email them to show your support for the President's vision? I urge you today to do that, because its the right thing to do. The President has said, "We have undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character." He's right. It's a part of our character because God has placed it there.

When I was a teenager in 1987 I attended the U.S. Space Academy, a program for youth based at the Marshal Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It was the year after the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost with all hands on lift off, and towns like Huntsville, whose economy is driven by their contribution to space exploration, were rallying around a slogan that captured the passion and determination of a nation. I first read that slogan on a huge banner that hung across the main concourse of the Huntsville Airport as I arrived to begin my week at Space Academy. It brought tears to my eyes then, and it still does some 17 years later: "The Dream Is Alive!"

Is The Dream still alive today? It is, because it is a God-dream, a Divine spark placed in the soul of every human being by the God who created the cosmos and who longs to show us what he's done. If creation is a book about God, we on Earth have barely read the preface!

And who knows what we'll find when we go? Wonders beyond our imagining, to be sure. And perhaps...just perhaps we'll find others, like us and yet curiously different. It's probably not worth speculating much here on the existence of life beyond our world; God's Word is strangely silent on the subject...or is it? "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They, too, will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd" (Jn 10:16). "For God so loved the world [and the Greek word here is kosmos, the universe!] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). And at the end of Mark's gospel we have this command: "Go into all the world [kosmos again!] and preach the good news to all creation..." (16:15). Perhaps there are others out there who need to hear the universal truth that their Creator loves them, and sacrificed himself so that they could know him.

Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last human being to walk on the moon, said these words as he stepped into the lunar module that would carry him back to earth for the last time: "We leave as we came, and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind." This morning I tell you that God is willing...so let's go.

4 Comments:

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Dan Edelen said...

Wonder and hope are the hallmarks of our space exploration, not a conquering spirit or one of mere knowledge. God did, indeed, build this "calling" into us.

I worked at NASA Ames Research Center for a few years and can say without hesistation that the people who worked there were as emotional and enthralled by space as your average seven year-old. A telescope was as magical to them as a space station. Size and scope did not matter.

That's from God. When a Mars probe crashed into the planet because of a failure to convert from metric measurements into the American standard the mood around the campus was the same as if an entire city had been wiped out of existence. Grown men wept. I had left before the Columbia disaster, but I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that people were devastated beyond comprehension.

You can't get that kind of response from people who are merely in it for science or conquest.

Kudos on the message. It was excellent and right on.

 
At 1:04 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

Funny...when I read Myles' post when he first posted it, I wondered what your response would be!

 
At 4:53 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Thanks for thinking of me, Karl! You're always a blessing.

Dan, I did an internship at Los Alamos National Labs while I was in college, working with the team responsible for one of the instruments on board Mars Observer, so I can relate to your experience with the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter. People who work in the program tend to invest an incredible amount of passion in it. I know I did.

That's one of the reasons I decided to post this sermon; I recognize that my passions can occasionally get in the way of my objectivity, even when it comes to interpreting God's Word. Several people in the church where I preached this message thought I did that here, and they called me on it. As painful an experience as that was, I was thankful that they cared enough about me and about our church to say something.

 
At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JESS AND NICKHOL AND I ( @ YOUR SUGGESTION) HAVE RESERVATIONS NEXT SATURDAY NIGHT FOR AN EVENING UNDER THE STARS ON KITT PEAK.....NEXT TIME YOU VISIT WE WILL GO, SON.....MAKE IT SOON!

 

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