Sermons

I've Been Hubbled

Ancient Testimony Psalm 8

July 17, 2011

by Abigail Hastings

When I was a little girl in Dallas TX, most nights after supper I’d go outside and lie down on my front sidewalk, find the first star, then wait for the Big Dipper to come out. So many times since then I’ve wanted to go back there—just so I could flag down cars and yell, “hey, there’s a little girl lying on the sidewalk here – doesn’t anybody care?!”

At Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, every night we would sit in lawn chairs and watch the sky like it was TV. Without city lights, there were millions of stars against the dark sky. It was overwhelming. It was impossible to think there were not other beings up there, sitting in their lawn chairs looking back at us. But my super’s minister told him we’re the only ones in the universe, it’s right there in the Bible. I’ve never seen a copy of the IRV Bible – Idiot’s Revised Version – but a lot of people quote from it.

And yet, why haven’t we heard from our alien neighbors? Even though we have tried since 1822 to contact them, no one is picking up the phone. As one scientist put it, “At some point, you have to accept the fact that they’re just not that into us.” Really? Even though three years ago we sent out a recording of the Beatles’ Across the Universe to The Little Dipper?

Texas nights give you a beautiful view of the full moon. Irritated the hell out of me. I could never see the man in the moon, only grey splotches. It made what Galileo did in 1610 all the more remarkable to me. With a telescope he built, he was the first to describe sunspots and see the moons of Jupiter. But Galileo was also the first to name the moon’s craters – others thought it was luminously clear and smooth. He could to do that, I believe, because before he was an astronomer, mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, he taught at the Accademia dell Arti del Disgno (Academy of Arts & Drawing) in Florence – he taught perspective drawing and chiaroscuro. Galileo saw that the pockmarked moon was really mountains and craters because he understood perspective, light and shadow.

Galileo was a product of the Renaissance – that time when art went from flat to dimensional and artists explored beauty and the perfection of the human form. Stephen Hawking says that Galileo is responsible for the birth of modern science. Would Galileo have been able to discover so much, invented so many things, had he not had the mind of an artist, curious and supple, and the mind of a scientist, exacting and searching?

Some 20 years before Galileo, it was this same Renaissance spirit that led Copernicus to be suspect that everything revolved around us. For one thing, calculations weren’t fitting – more and more compensations, called eccentrics, were employed. They had come a long way from the time Thales thought the earth was a log floating in water, but it took Copernicus to imagine that maybe we weren’t the center of the universe – maybe the sun was, and thus heliocentrism was born. No longer static, the earth was mobile and animated – and we started to change our perspective. Models of the solar system were built and it could be seen, as some put it, how we must appear in God’s eye.

I thought about Copernicus this week while watching the shenanigans of Congress. Had someone said, “Well at least we can all agree that we are heliocentrists,” surely someone would have said, “To hell we are!” So stupidly oppositional, these people. And just like in the heresy trials of Galileo, likely someone would have quoted Psalm 104: “The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”

But why do I say I’ve been hubbled? Lover of the Texas night sky, I always wanted to see more and more of what was up there. Ironically and unbelievably, in 1964 I happened to be in the very room when President Lyndon Johnson was being briefed on the first photographs from the moon.* Disappointing again. Grey photo after grey photo. Exciting to be sure, and inspiring that the Ranger VII spacecraft (unmanned) gave its life for the cause, but visually a lot like a Texas drought. In grey.

Twenty-six years later, things changed dramatically with the launch of the Hubble telescope. It’s not very impressive looking – looks like a large beer can wrapped in aluminum foil. But it solved the problem of earth-based telescopes – our atmosphere. This wonderfully protective shield, the thing that keeps us from walking around wearing those leaden aprons you wear at the dentist, distorts the view. So the Hubble got above all that and is so powerful, it can see a firefly 10,000 miles away. It’s not a magnifying telescope, but a mirror system that works by letting much more light in than our eyes can see. It is a “more light” telescope.

The pictures are breathtaking – unimaginably beautiful. You can get lost in them. Part of being hubbled, for me, is to experience awe. To experience wonder. There’s no way to fully take in these distances or vistas or the vastness of it all. And it’s all expanding, the edge of the universe is expanding, and the farther the galaxy, the faster it is moving away from us. They’re not just not that into us – they can’t move away from us fast enough.

For me, the more the universe expands, the more things fall away in my mind. Theological things. Definitions of God. Restrictions about God. Trying to fit an Adam and Eve and Steve into this larger picture. It’s like holding a postage stamp next to an Imax movie screen and saying, “Look, here’s the show.”

Even with these remarkable advances, most of what exists remains unseen. We are now seeing the light of things long since gone; even so, we still are getting a glimpse of galaxies and nebulas and possibly black holes. It’s all so audacious, so wonderfully human, that we assert that we can somehow get a grasp on it all. I love that about us. But our place in the universe, this exquisite blue and green marble we spin around on, is so small, such a grain of sand in this vast celestial ocean, it leads me to believe at my very core this most very fundamental theological conclusion: we don’t know squat.

And that’s ok with me. Better than ok. I love all that we are collecting from Hubble, I love the commitment of astronomers and physicists and even the alien bounty hunters who are trying to sort it all out. But theologically, I don’t mind that the more we are confronted with the “reality” of space, the more Mystery becomes that much more evident. The universe fulfills creation’s desire to be awe-inspiring – it enriches Mystery by going deeper, broader, more wondrous, and spares us the delusion of certainty.

I like to think we’re the DOGS of the universe. It’s important to know I love dogs. We may be limited, but we’re trainable; mischief makers, but teachable. We’re capable of changing our behavior. More importantly, we’re capable of unconditional love. It makes us dyslexically created in the image of God. We likely are God’s best friend – O Thou Source who feeds and sustains us, yet refuses to pick up our poop.

When Jill Bolte Taylor popped a blood vessel in her left brain, she lost language. More than that – she lost reflection, that little voice inside your head, the running commentary. As a brain scientist, she knew that she’d just had a stroke, but as her brain switched from side to side, she floated in and out of thought – and she describes the “non-thought” time as “la la land.” Curiously though, rather than a frustration, she said “I had found a peace inside of myself that I had not known before. I had pure silence inside of my head… I had joy, I just had joy. I had this magnificent experience of I’m this collection of these beautiful cells. I’m organic. I’m this organic entity.” Everything became pure sensual encounter – not thinking the sun is shining but experiencing the sun and the shining.

That, to me, is likely a little of what “the peace that passes all understanding” is probably about. It’s likely what Jesus was talking about when he kept hammering away at the idea that the power is in you. Or that you might have to lose your life to find it. It is the quiet center, the surrender, the place of feeling humbled, but not small. And that’s the essence of being hubbled… to see your place in the world, in awe, but humbled, and not at all insignificant.

To get to that place – to be the people God created us to be – will take something borrowed from Galileo: the use of perspective. (I was once married to a master of the universe, and then we luckily had our son, the center of the universe, so I know a little about perspective.)

That first manned lunar landing in 1969 was momentous in every way – but something happened on the way to “one small step:” a picture of the earth was taken. There we were in all our glorious self, gorgeous and swirling and fragile and fierce. It is the picture that jet-launched an environmental movement. The next year, April 1970, was the first Earth Day.

Why? Same old earth as it had always been. But our perspective changed. We could see ourselves differently.

I’m interested in that – I’m interested in how we see ourselves. Can I tell you something? I’ve heard some of the “brain chatter” that goes on in some of your heads. I’ll be honest – I don’t like it. For a lot of you, your “Superego” isn’t really so super. It’s demeaning and belittling. There’s no place for it.

Then there are other people in the world – Donald Trump – who have no sense of themselves. Overinflated. People who not dwell in truth about themselves or others. The neuroscientist Paul Broks suggests that “all a person is in the end is a story – a story you tell yourself.” And I’m hear to tell you, some of those stories need revising.

Let me quickly help us find our place in the world. Here’s something useful to know: everyone is crazy. Isn’t that helpful? Everyone. In some way, clinically with a name on it, or under the radar in some personalized way. Crazy. Lunar crazy. I’m telling you this because you suspect you are, work very hard to pretend you’re not, and I’m just telling you, we are all related in this matter.

But you are also a work of art. You are the science of biology in body, blood and bones and even if you have an identical twin, you are the only you. When biophysicist Rosalind Franklin saw the first DNA double helix model made into a model so that it could be comprehensible – she claimed that “the structure was too pretty not to be true.” And so are you. It is a kind of blasphemy to think less of what God has created in you.

And it is a kind of blasphemy to think you are more than that. This is why it’s important to get this hubbling right. And not just for ourselves, but for our country.

It’s like this – a guy goes for a consultation. “I want to bring down a superpower,” he says. “I’ll make the first move. Then I want the superpower to respond way disproportionately. I’d like to bring down their economy – hit the stock market hard, like over a trillion dollars hard, billions in lost wages, that sort of thing. Then I’d like to draw them into an intractable war, preferably two wars, spread out over a decade or more. I’d like that to cost them another trillion dollars that they can’t pay for. Oh, and I’ve only got about $400,000 to pull this off.”

 

Source: "Perspective On 9/11 And The Invasions Of Iraq & Afghanistan," The PBH Network Magazine

This, my friends, is what happens when people lack perspective and have no sense of themselves. Something happens that triggers insecurity, and people quickly lose their way. (There is a visual of how great is this blunder that is on the altar table.**)

Here we are at the midpoint of summer, that time bracketed by Memorial Day and Labor Day – the pillars of sacrifice by our armed forces and our labor force – and we are in a week where once again, our government has lost its way. They lack perspective – short term gains against long term values. They have faltered in the art of governing.

Here’s one of the most important things to know about the Hubble Telescope. It was, in the beginning, an utter failure. A miscalculation that was 1/50th the width of a human hair. The Hubble was nearsighted, crippled, a national embarrassment. But NASA turned to the task – and 3 years later the most ambitious house call ever made was launched. The astronauts of Endeavor repaired the telescope in five intense and technically unforgiving spacewalks. The Hubble mirror could not be repaired – but it got retrofitted with new optics, which is to say, we can see these magnificent images because the Hubble got glasses.

If “plastics” was the one word in 1967, “plasticity” must be the word for today. More specifically, “neuroplasticity.” Our minds can change – literally – new pathways can be made. It need not be “our country right or wrong,” but rather “our country, right and wrong,” allowing us to seek corrective lenses, solve old problems, put on new glasses.

We can be changed, and that prospect of transformation is at the heart of the gospel. It is the perfect combination of the science that creates us and the imagination that makes us a work of art. Go into the deep space within yourself, be transformed by the heavens above us. Let us work together for the beauty of this earth, and for the glory of these skies.

 

*In 1964, my family took a trip to the New York World’s Fair, stopping in D.C. along the way. My dad had performed the wedding of Bill and Judith Moyers in Marshall TX, so when we went to the White House, Moyers (then press secretary), arranged for us to have a private tour, including the press briefing. I was ten years old.

A Little Reading Pleasure

Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope by Martin Kemp.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time—A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics by Walter H. G. Lewin with Warren Goldstein. New York: Free Press, 2011.
[Yes – Judson's Warren Goldstein!]

Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time by Edward J. Weiler; foreword by Charles F. Bolden, Jr.;
edited by Robert Jacobs ... [et al.]. New York, NY: Abrams, 2010.
 

Ancient Testimony Psalm 8

O Lord, our Creator, how excellent is your name in all the earth, how radiant in the sky!

From out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens. Our praise gives you a stronghold against the adversary. You have caused the enemy to be still.

But when I consider the heavens, the work of your hand, no, the work of your fingers in placing delicate stars and setting the moon in its course – what is man, that you are mindful of him? Or of woman that you seek her out? Or of the sons and daughters that you should visit them?

You have made us almost like angels, and adorn us with glory and honor – you give us understanding. You give us responsibility over the works of your hands, you put all things under our feet.

All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea. O God, how fearsome is the power entrusted to us!

O Lord, our God, how excellent is your name in all the earth!

 

Modern Testimony from “Ways of Seeing” in
For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time—A Journey Through the Wonder of Physics by Walter Lewin with Warren Goldstein

"When I began lecturing at MIT in the 1970s, it was part of my personality to put more emphasis on the beauty and the excitement rather than the details that would be lost on the students anyway. … Whenever students ask a question, I always say, “that’s an excellent question.” The absolute last thing you want to do is make them feel they’re stupid and you’re smart.

There’s a moment in my course on electricity and magnetism that’s very precious to me. For most of the term we’ve been sneaking up, one by one, on Maxwell’s equations, the stunningly elegant descriptions of how electricity and magnetism are related—different aspects of the same phenomenon, electromagnetism. There’s an intrinsic beauty in the way these equations talk to one another that is unbelievable. You can’t separate them; together they’re one unified field theory.

So I project these four beautiful equations on different screens on all the walls of the lecture hall. “Look at them,” I say. “Inhale them. Let them penetrate your brains. Only once in your life will you see all four of Maxwell’s equations for the first time in a way that you can appreciate them, complete and beautiful and talking to each other. This will never happen again. You will never be the same. You have lost your virginity.” In honor of this momentous day in the lives of the students, as a way of celebrating the intellectual summit they’ve reached, I bring in six hundred daffodils, one for each student.

Students write me many years afterward, long after they’ve forgotten the details of Maxwell’s equations, that they remember the day of the daffodils, the day I marked their new way of seeing with flowers. To me this is teaching at the highest level. It’s so much more important to me for students to remember the beauty of what they have seen than whether they can reproduce what you’ve written on the blackboard. What counts is not what you cover, but what you uncover!"


 

 
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