Sunday, February 11, 2007

February 11, 2007 - Small

I’ve been thinking about the vastness of the universe. Today, I preached about it. It’s Evolution Sunday, a day when some of us preachers are trying to help our people understand that religion and modern science are not adversaries, but rather two different ways of describing truth. Here’s some of what I said:

“I remember, when our kids were in grade school, helping them with the obligatory model-of-the-solar-system science project. I can vividly remember helping our son Ben make his model of the solar system. We took a cardboard box, and cut out one of its sides. Then, we covered the inside with black construction paper. Styrofoam balls came next, in various sizes. We hung them from the top of our universe-box with black thread. In the end, what we had was the nine planets (we still had nine, back then), which Ben colored with magic markers, to approximate the colors he saw in his science book.

The only problem is, our model was not to scale. It couldn't possibly be to scale: because we'd have needed a box so big, we couldn't have gotten it into the car, let alone carried it into the school building.

Science writer Bill Bryson describes it this way. Imagine the earth as a pea. Jupiter would be a thousand feet away. Pluto (that planet that, as of last year, is no longer a planet) would be a mile and a half – but Pluto is so small, compared to the size of the pea-sized earth, you'd never even see it. At that distance, it would be like the size of a bacterium.
[Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), p. 24.]

And that's just the solar system. Venture out beyond Pluto, into the realm of the stars, and the distances become unimaginably vast. One writer has described it this way.

Imagine that each star in the known universe is represented by a grain of sand. How many stars are there in the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live? Enough to fill a large wheelbarrow. That's 100 billion grains - 100 billion stars are out there, each one potentially capable of having planets circling it.

Now, imagine that you took a thimble, and dipped into that pile of sand in the wheelbarrow. Your thimble would scoop out at least 10,000 grains of sand. That's more than enough to account for all the stars you and I can see from the earth, if we stand outside on a clear, dark summer night and gaze up at the heavens.

OK, so the wheelbarrowful is the Milky Way, and the thimbleful is the stars we can actually see with the naked eye. How many stars are there in the entire universe?

To answer that question, we have to think of a freight train, pulling great, big hopper cars full of sand. Now, if a wheelbarrow represents the Milky Way, then each hopper car holds enough sand to represent hundreds of galaxies like our own. Imagine that the train cars begin to pass us, one by one, at the usual speed of a freight train. We're sitting in a car at the railroad crossing, waiting for the train to pass before we can drive across. How long will be sit there, counting railway cars, before we finally see the caboose?

Three years. Three years of sitting and counting hopper cars – each one of those cars containing hundreds of Milky Way galaxies!”
[Based on Terence Dickenson and Jack Newton, Splendors of the Universe, Firefly books, 1997; cited by Ralph Milton in the Rumors e-newsletter, June1999.]

My journey with cancer has been a journey of faith, all along. I can’t claim to have had any blinding revelations, any burning-bush moments. Yet, from the day of my diagnosis until now, I’ve quietly sensed that God has been present, through it all.

I haven’t asked for, nor expected, any special favors from the Almighty. I’ve prayed for healing, and welcomed the healing prayers of others, but I’ve never felt entitled to it – not more than any other person, anyway (no, ordination doesn’t have its privileges, not in that way).

Yet, through it all, I’ve felt the silent nearness of God. And that’s been enough.

I suppose I should feel lucky. I haven’t had the experience of feeling abandoned, nor have I become fixated on the “why” question: on the unfairness of getting lymphoma at age 49.

Given the vastness of the universe, the psalmist’s wondering words make sense. I’ve cited them before, in an earlier journal entry:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”

- Psalm 8:3-4

What are we, indeed?

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