Are We Alone?

Genius by Stephen Hawking was on the tube last night. It's a PBS broadcast, a television show which poses a scientific problem and teaches average people to "think like geniuses" in order to solve it. Last night's episode explored the universe, asked the question that niggles at the back of all our minds--are we alone.

Hawking and the participants began with an examination of the immensity of our galaxy, the 100 billion stars that comprise it. Comparing our sun to a grain of sand (can you imagine it on your fingertip?), the participants created a stunning visual representation of the number of starts in the Milky Way, dumping ton after ton of sand on the ground. The pile spread out, rose to a height of over eight feet, maybe ten. Grain after grain represented a star; star after star represented the possibility of life; possibility after possibility expanded my imagination (in common parlance, I might say "blew my mind"). And in that moment, I felt a wash of emotion. I felt grateful.

There are, perhaps, infinite worlds in the universe, each world comprised of infinite number of atomic particles. Time--isn't it infinite, too? Isn't it true that my own atomic particles could have been spread across the galaxy, could have existed as a moon orbiting Uranus? Couldn't my particles have existed millions of years ago, millions of years in the future? The building blocks of my life--what if they had been space dust? Couldn't yours have been? Sure, this is all speculation and conjecture, but I suppose that in the universe of possibilities, these possibilities are among them. And despite all of these possibilities--the infinite, boundless, inanimate possibilities--I am here, typing on this keyboard. You are here, reading the words. We are here together, two collections of innumerable possibilities sharing this space and time.

Welcome Time Travelers.

When I consider the immensity of the galaxy, the billions of stars comprising the Milky Way (not to mention the 100 billion trillion stars in the universe), when I consider the boundlessness of time (prehistoric and historic) it's unfathomable that I was given this passage on Earth. It's astounding that I have a lover, four children, a job, and two dogs. Is it possible that I'm working on a meager retirement? How is it that I'm paying down a kind, if not modest, house? How do my lungs work, work, work without thinking. How does my heart pump, it's rhythm in my ears when my head hits the pillow? How do I sleep, dream, wake?  How am I now, both volitional and autonomic?

Surely there is a God.

I have a life of tiny blessings. I live among billions of others with their own tiny blessings. (Aren't these blessings nothing more than possibilities existing by divine providence. Is there any other explanation?) We are small specks, traveling on a small speck, around a speck of a star, in a speck of a solar system, during a speck of time. Everything here--life, time, humanity, the ability to possess and dispose of possessions--is a speck-worthy miracle.

Be grateful for this miracle. Make love. (Do not be afraid of this pleasure.) Hug your children. Pet your dog. Buy ice cream. Star gaze. People watch. Self examine. Love the tiny explosions that animate you--explosions of love, happiness, anger, and sorrow. Look at your watch. Count ten seconds. Know that each second is another tiny miracle. Bless the divine. Search for it, even among the possibilities.

Live to the end.

Sing your doxologies.

***TINY LETTER***

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Marriage Letter: What You Call Holy

On the first Monday of each month, Amber and I are writing marriage letters to each other. Sure, there are qualified experts who've written well about marriage, but we're writing into our marriage. After you read my letter follow me to Amber's blog, where she's sharing her Marriage Letter and inviting you to participate in writing your own.

*****

Amber,

You leaned across the console from the passenger side, craning your neck across my lap and looking out the driver's side window. "Pull over!" you said, ribbing me with your left elbow, and I slid the car to the chat shoulder there by Clifty Creek. You jumped out and looked to the sky. There, two bald eagles gyred over the fresh rain-fed waters looking to harvest perch or bream. It was the bleak mid-winter, and the Clifty valley was thick with the smell of sawdust and the smoke of home fires. The backroad was empty, and we stood, watching the eagles in their element. After a few minutes I turned to ask whether you were ready to go, and I noticed how your eyes were filled with the glory of God. In the car you hummed "This is My Father's World," and I knew you'd had a holy moment.

When we were first married, I accepted a job as a youth minister, and we moved to a patch of concrete on the outskirts of Tulsa. Wildlife sightings were rare in those days with the exception of the occasional sparrows roosting in the Applebee Apartment tree that shaded my car. (Thank goodness for the automatic carwash across the street.) You were not made for this sort of city living, you said, and reminded me that you were only ever used to seeing the deer and coyotes running through the Alabama fields.

On a rare weekend getaway, we kicked up a dust cloud down an old dirt road near Grand Lake. It was dusk, and without warning a herd of mule deer sprung from the thicket on the passenger's side of the car. I slammed on my brakes as buck and doe hurdled the hood. We skidded to a stop and after the last of the herd passed, I checked my pants to make sure I hadn't wet myself. I turned to you, making sure you'd not suffered whiplash, but you sat broad-smiled and clapping. "Deer! Deer!" you said like a little girl riding shotgun with your daddy. Then you whispered, "thank you, Jesus."

By Clifty Creek and Grand Lake, you saw through the natural order and into the supernatural. As long as I've known you, you've been this way. Yours is not the seeing of a time-wisened woman or some mystic desert mother. Yours is a simpler seeing, the seeing of the world with little girl eyes. It's in this seeing you remind me that we are sharing sacred, gifted space.

You've cradled four newborn children now, each wearing drying afterbirth and crying. You smiled the smile known only to mothers and hospice workers, the smile of ushering a life into a new world. You've said, "hey there; hey there; it's okay," to each of bawling babies. Staring into their blurry brown eyes (except Isaac's, which were always blue), you welcomed them into this sacred world where the natural order points always to the supernatural. First priestess, you cradled and fed them gifts of God for the people of God. Your body has been a miracle, and this is not lost on you. The way you've seen it, you've been given a quadruple foretaste of the Holy of Holies.

What do you call holy? The eagle on the whirling currents; the deer flushed from the thicket; the baby taking nourishment at the breast--these inform your understanding of holy. You do not call them holy because they are God. Instead you know them as best chalices, the vessels that carry forth the Word of creation to the people of God. "This was the intent of all creation," you might say, "to point to the ultimate Creator."

So, stop me again by Clifty Creek. Clap with doe-eyed wonder at the springing deer. And though I'll not see the smile of newborn wonder curl your lips again, smile radiant if I beat you to the hospice bed. There, remind me that the wonders of our world were only the foreshadowing of the best present, the eternal chorus of "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Love,

Seth

*****

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My Completely Irrational, Unscientific, Orthodox, Fringe System of Belief (Advent, Part 2)

Last week, a  co-worker asked whether we’ve reached the place in American culture where Christianity is seen as a fringe system of belief. I rattled off nine reasons why, if we’re honest, Christianity should be considered a fringe system of belief to those in the world at large. This Advent season, I’m exploring these beliefs and offering a somewhat surprising conclusion. Today, I'll explore reason number 2.

*****

MY COMPLETELY IRRATIONAL, UNSCIENTIFIC, ORTHODOX, FRINGE SYSTEM OF BELIEF

POINT 1: We believe in an invisible, eternal, Supreme Power who created the world with a few words. 

POINT 2:  We believe that the Supreme Power became small and stepped into his own creation.

To quote the Good Book, Jesus "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities... and in him all things hold together." (Col. 1:15-17) To put it another way, through the creative power Jesus, atoms hold one to another and form molecules. Molecules hold one to another and form building blocks of matter. These building blocks of matter attach to each other and form larger substances. And it is these collections of atoms, molecules, and substances--all held together by the sustaining power of Jesus--that form the very chair in which you are sitting or the Breakfast of Champions you might have eaten this morning.

This is what the Good Book says.

Consider this irony, then: though God himself, Jesus stepped into the nature of his own creation, becoming a collection of cells. An embryo held together by his own eternal word, Jesus swam inside the womb of a woman (a womb which was likewise held together by the same eternal word). God-with-us confined himself to a collection of atoms and molecules, and placed himself inside another collection of atoms and molecules, so that he could enter into this world of atoms and molecules and rescue it from its groaning. In so doing, he willingly accepted the limitations of humanity, became our brother in breathing the air he created, drinking the water he poured out, and eating the fish he spoke into being. He entered this world as a willing, embryonic participant, and he held together by way of his own words.

And why would God take such seemingly rash action? This is the grand mystery of Advent.

*****

Thank you for reading. Follow along this Advent season as I explore my Completely Irrational, Unscientific, Orthodox, Fringe System of Belief.

And sign up to receive my monthly Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. In November's issue, I'm examining the question, "what is beauty?" and exploring the beauty found in nature, art, and people. Sign up today, and I'll send you a copy of the November Tiny Letter, and you'll receive my monthly Tiny Letter updates!

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*Photo by Bruno C. Vellutini, Creative Commons via Flickr.

 

My Completely Irrational, Unscientific, Orthodox, Fringe System of Belief (Advent, Part 1)

Over a buffalo chicken wrap and some soggy fries, a co-worker asked, "do you think we've reached the place in American culture where Christianity is seen as a fringe system of belief?" I considered his question, and a rattled off nine reasons why, if we're honest, Christianity should be considered a fringe system of belief to those in the world at large. This Advent season, I'm exploring these beliefs and offering a somewhat surprising conclusion. I hope you'll follow allow.

*****

MY COMPLETELY IRRATIONAL, UNSCIENTIFIC, ORTHODOX, FRINGE SYSTEM OF BELIEF

POINT 1: We believe in an invisible, eternal, supreme power who created the world with a few words.

In the beginning--or at least in the beginning of man's history--God stepped into nothing. In that vacuous, soundless expanse, he spoke, and his speaking was the nuclear fusion that formed the sun and all the stars in the universe. He spoke and watched as land rumbled up from deep, as it pushed past the surface of the water and formed basins for oceans. His words were the seedbed for the mighty oaks in Arkansas, the upside-down baobab groves in Mozambique, and the Tree of Life in Bahrain. He spoke, and the birds flew, first the Northern Cardinal with it's beautiful song--chip chip chippaw--then the blushing flamingo with its obnoxious honk. Insects flew, too--the rugged moth and royal monarch butterfly alike. 

He spoke, and he spoke, and he spoke, and from all that speaking came this gift we call earth. He decorated this first sacrament with ornaments--the dangling Florida oranges, the delicate Chinese orchid, the unsung pine cone. Wishing to share all of this with someone, he spoke the word "friend," and here we stand.

Yes, as the timeless creed says, "we believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth." This is the genesis of our faith, the bedrock of our confession. Does it sound like the stuff of a science fiction movie? Does it sound like an absurdist, fringe belief? These are rhetorical questions. I know the answer.

Thank you for reading. Follow along this Advent season as I explore my Completely Irrational, Unscientific, Orthodox, Fringe System of Belief.

*****

 

Sign up to receive my monthly Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. In November's issue, I'm examining the question, "what is beauty?" and exploring the beauty found in nature, art, and people. Sign up today, and I'll send you a copy of the November Tiny Letter, and you'll receive my monthly Tiny Letter updates!

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Home Behind the Sun and an Analog Resistance (Part II)

There is an American Sycamore in my backyard. Its canopy was raised in the early years of its growth so that all its energy was directed upward. It is an adult now, a hulking beast of a tree whose lowest arms shoot from its body thick as tree stumps. Its broad leaves are like small veined fans, and they catch the wind and swoosh what might be praise if you listen closely. This is my Father’s house. I am a child in something brilliant.

In the early evening I sat under the arms of that tree with a newish piece of spiritual literature. It was a preacher’s book, straightforward and without nuance. The metaphors were stripped to the bare minimum and otherwise, only instruction remained. “This is how we must now live!” it exclaimed. It lumbered along, offering wisdom—no doubt—without art and beauty. The work sought less to persuade and more to instruct me in the ways of quitting stupidity.

The book in itself had been well received, and don't get me wrong, it contains more than few good words. I remember, though, its release day, the way the machine spun up. (You know the machine; the one that demands content, content, content from them and dollars, dollars, dollars from us.) There was an effective marketing campaign, and the author made all the conference rounds. I’m sure it sold one-bazillion copies.

The veil was thin—the author was the guru and I was the student. There was no “us-ness,” in the pages. Instead, the author was reaching down to me, instructing me on the ways in which I could act better, or be better, or live more up to the Christian standard.

This brings me to the meat of the matter—I’m reading a great deal of dichotomized, us-and-them literature these days. We are the preachers and you are the congregants. We have the message, and you need to hear it. We start the movement, and you need to join it. The ease of social networking and mass marketing amplifies these messages.

Here is the irony, which is not lost on me: from time to time, I’m a part of this same dichotomizing machine. From time to time, I use the same dividing tactics in my writing. From time to time, I might claim that the yous need my language. I am, after all, only human. I have not learned the simple praise of the sycamores just yet.

*****

Author, preacher, mega-conference speaker: engage me with the us-ness of your humanity. I am weary of being force-fed answers. Engage me with art and metaphor. Engage me with good metaphor, mediocre metaphor, or bad metaphor; I’ll take whatever you have to give. Lead me to the water and let me drink; stop strapping me to the waterboard and suffocating me with Truth.

*****

I’ve been reading Home Behind the Sun: Connect With God in the Brilliance of the Everyday, by Timothy Willard and Jason Locy. I would be remiss if I did not tell you that Tim and I are friends, that we shared a memorable moment trout fishing on a firefly flecked evening that framed the spring-fed waters of the Spavinaw. Even still, and with as much unbiased fervor as I can muster, let me tell you something: this book is different. There is an us-ness in the pages.

When Tim and Jason released Home, the marketing machine spun up to a dull whisper. One evening the book wasn’t there. The next it was. It was that simple. There was very little fanfare, and aside from the glowing reviews from astute preview readers; Willard’s and Locy’s sermons were not trumpeted in the temples to whet our appetites. This, I think, was the most appropriate way to release Home.

Home reminds us that the beauty of God can be found in the everyday life of the working class, the proletariat. God is for us the people. He is found by the mechanic in the garage, the father who dallied about with women for years before finding grace, the NFL player who found comfort in his child’s death. God is found in a winter’s sunrise, in the cup of coffee at the local truck stop diner, in the meadows of Yosemite. God is manifest in the extension of forgiveness to our neighbor, in the dancing of our children. God is here, in this one world, amidst us. He is delivering messages of his Brilliance.

The Brilliance exists for us, for we-the-people. It is outside of marketing machines, and us-versus-them ministry. It is outside the mega-movements, the corporate structures, the Jesus machine. It is outside of the academy and the pseudo-academy. It is a message that exists outside of digital platforms and marketing machines. It is in the coffee shops, the garage, the bedroom. The Brilliance transmits a populist message—Christ is for the normal, everday, working-class Christian.

Engaging the Brilliance is a form of analog resistance.

*****

Now, do not get me wrong. I hope Willard and Locy ride the speaker circuit. I hope they make use of the machine, the digital frameworks, the mega-church podiums. I hope that their words gather the momentum worthy of them. After all, the machine itself is not bad. It is a good and worthy tool, especially if the author or preacher has a God-word to delivery. (Simply put, the machine simply is.)

I hope, though, that as they make the rounds, the blog tours, as their book is reviewed, that Home continues to point to an eternal truth.

God created this world in its Brilliance. He created the sycamore, the Spavinaw, the family for us. God created this world for the people. And we-the-people are capable of deciphering this brilliance if we’ll open our eyes and take a gander. We the people are capable because God made himself “with us,” Emmanuel.

Pick up a copy of Home Behind the Sun. Remember the God that is for us, the people.