Sunday, March 23, 2014

Where Are We Going? (3/23/14)

Where Are We Going?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 23, 2014
Third Sunday of Lent

It Is Enough    
Anne Alexander Bingham

To know that the atoms
of my body
will remain

to think of them rising
through the roots of a great oak
to live in
leaves, branches, twigs

perhaps to feed the
crimson peony
the blue iris
the broccoli

or rest on water
freeze and thaw
with the seasons

some atoms might become a
bit of fluff on the wing
of a chickadee
to feel the breeze
know the support of air

and some might drift
up and up into space
star dust returning from

whence it came
it is enough to know that
as long as there is a universe
I am a part of it.

During the season of winter we have been reflecting on The Great Story.  New Zealand minister and professor of religion, Lloyd Geering calls this story “Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution.”  

It began 13.75 billion years ago with the Big Bang.   The Big Bang was in the news this week.  MIT physicist, Alan Guth around 1980 created the theory of inflation.  He calls it the bang in the Big Bang.    It begins with a patch 100 billion times smaller than a proton.   This patch made of repulsive gravity material expands exponentially, doubling every 10-37th of a second.    The news this week is that astronomers have been able to measure these early gravity waves and provide evidence for inflation.   I have no idea what this is, but it is cool.  Awe-inspiring. 
Everything that exists started with that patch.   The reason we can talk about this is because of the consistency of natural laws.    That is counter-intuitive because it seems natural to us to think that there is meaning, purpose, design, and will guiding it all or at least behind it all.    But it appears that natural law and randomness are sufficient.   

We tend to think if there is not an agent giving it all meaning then there is no meaning.   But we don’t have to think that way.  We could affirm that there is meaning without an agent.  Or more accurately, we could own up to the joy and responsibility that we are the agents making meaning out of it all.    One could say that we have an important role.  We are the universe reflecting on itself.  

This has been a constant theme of mine throughout this series of sermons.   The joyful responsibility of making life meaningful belongs to us.    At the same time life unfolds in unexpected and surprising ways.    We make meaning on the fly.

So if we came from a patch 100 billion times smaller than a proton, nearly 13.8 billion years ago, where are we going?   Physicist Lawrence Krauss says there are three possibilities for the expanding universe:  open, closed, or flat.  

In a closed universe gravity will halt the expansion and reverse the expansion, bringing the universe back to the patch. This is called the Big Crunch.  

If we live instead in an open universe, we will keep on expanding forever.  

Krauss thinks we live in a flat universe.  In this universe the expansion slows but never comes to a halt.

In the super big picture, one of those places is where we are going in however many tens or hundreds of billions of years that might take.  

That answer might not be particularly satisfying, although I do like the idea expressed in the poem I just read by Ann Alexander Bingham:

it is enough to know that
as long as there is a universe
I am a part of it.

Closer to home, where is Earth going?   

Earth and our solar system were formed around 4.5 billion years ago and scientists think that our sun has reached middle age.  In another 4.5 to 5 billion years, the sun will burn its hydrogen.   Then it will burn its helium.   Then Earth will swell expanding its volume past the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth.   Earth literally will be swallowed by the sun.    But that is a long way off.  We have plenty of time to manage our affairs.

Before the sun burns up its hydrogen, it will continue to get hotter.   Two and half billion years ago, the sun was 85% as hot as it is today.   A billion years from now as the sun heats the oceans will evaporate and the atmosphere will be like a sauna.   The north and south poles will be tropical areas.   That could go on for hundreds of millions of years.  By about two billion years from now, all the moisture will evaporate and Earth will be barren and baked.    But that still leaves plenty of time to accomplish all those things on our bucket lists. 

In about 250 million years the continents drifting at the pace of the growth of your fingernail will eventually run into each other again.  This supercontinent already has a name, Novopangea, and it will extend along the equator.   Getting more acquainted with the neighbors is something to which we can look forward.  Even though neither you are I will be here.

Within fifty million years it is likely that we will have been hit by an asteroid of the size that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  That would do us in for sure.   Almost every year we get hit by a rock about 25 feet in diameter.    The atmosphere breaks it up.    But about every 1,000 years a 100 footer hits us.  In 1908 one hit in Russia and leveled a swath of forest.    Stones a half-mile in diameter hit about once every half-million years and three-mile diameter stones hit once every ten million years.   The stone that knocked out the dinosaurs was about six miles across.

Carl Sagan of Cosmos fame, was concerned with asteroids.  He said that is enough reason for international action.    This might include dedicating telescopes to plotting the paths of these asteroids.   If we were to spot a big one targeting Earth, we could, if ready, alter its path with a rocket or well-placed nuclear explosion.   

Sagan also argued that for our long-term survival, we will have to explore space.  The choice as he put it is spaceflight or extinction.   It might seem crazy or unattainable, but as Robert Hazen wrote in his book The Story of Earth, a one-way trip to Mars is something to consider.   He wrote:

Were we to send an expedition with years of supplies instead of fuel, with sturdy shelter and a greenhouse, with seeds, with a lot of oxygen and water, and with tools to extract more life-giving resources from the red planet, then an expedition just might make it. …If NASA posted a sign-up sheet for the chance at a one-way trip to Mars, thousands of scientists would volunteer in a heartbeat.  Pp. 266-7.

In the next hundred thousand years we could expect an eruption from a megavolcano.  Throughout the history of Earth, as Hazen points out, megavolcanos

“have darkened the world’s skies for years and altered the landscape over millions of square miles, not thousands.  The most recent megavolcano explosion, Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand 26,500 years ago, may have produced more than 200 cubic miles of lava and ash.” 

Within the next 50,000 years we can expect sea levels to rise and fall.  The polar ice caps could grow and the sea level could drop 200 feet or more.    In the next 1000 years, due to the current warming of the planet, the sea level could increase by a hundred feet or more.           

Even in the next 100 years, and this is where humans have influence, sea levels could rise two to three feet.   The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM is the most rapid well-documented temperature shift in Earth’s history.   It is the cause of mass extinctions 56 million years ago.   This is what Robert Hazen says about it:

“Global changes in atmospheric composition and average temperature that took more than a thousand years during the PETM extinction scenario have been surpassed in just the last hundred years, as humans have burned immense quantities of carbon-rich fuels.”  P. 280

Between asteroids, megavolcanos and global warming, it is amazing that we are here at all.   I haven’t even mentioned the other threats we bring upon ourselves.  What of human beings?    Where are we going?  None of those cataclysmic events will extinguish life.   Life will go on and evolve whether human beings are around or not.   If we are concerned with saving anything, we could hold up a sign that says, “Save the Humans.”    How do we even do that? 

I don’t pretend to know, but I will share with you one of my favorite scriptures that helps me get perspective.    Most of the time we mull over the events of the day.  On our minds may be a recent diagnosis, the prospect of a new romance, a conversation with a relative, grief over a loss, where to go for lunch, a troublesome financial obligation, an unresolved conflict, you know, the daily stuff of life.   There is nothing wrong with that.  It is where we live.  To paraphrase poet, Mary Oliver,

“Hey I spent the day watching a grasshopper.  What else should I have done?”

Here is that scripture.  It is not in the Bible.  It is a Zen story.   I have told this story so many times, you will probably roll your eyes.  “Oh, that one again.”  It is a tale that I find both unsettling and encouraging.    I first heard it  when I was a Freshman in college.   I took a Bible as Literature course at Montana State University.   The professor’s name was Michael Sexson.  And he told this story in class.    I have kept it and told it throughout my ministry and I tell it to you now again.

A man is running.   He is running as fast as he can.  He is running for his life because he is being chased by a tiger.   The tiger is getting closer and closer.   Suddenly, the man comes to the edge of the cliff.    He has no time to think as the tiger is on him.  He jumps.  Amazingly, a branch is growing outside of bush on the side of the cliff and he grabs it on his way down.   He hangs on.    Above him is the tiger just a few feet away.  Below is a drop of a hundred feet or more to jagged rocks and certain death.   He looks back to the branch that is coming out from the cliff and notices two mice, one white and one black, chewing on the branch.  Tiger, mice, rocks.   He looks to the end of the branch.  There hanging from it, is a huge, red, luscious strawberry.    While hanging on to the branch with one hand he reaches out with the other and takes the strawberry.  He feels it and smells it and tastes it.   And he says, “How delicious!”

The great ones such as Jesus and Buddha remind us that life is impermanent.   If we learn anything from The Great Story, it should be that everything changes. Nothing stays the same.  Even the sun will die one day.  Even the solid ground beneath our feet is in motion.    All the species of life we see and don’t see, plant, animal, and insect represent only 1% of all the species that have ever existed.   99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.   You will be too.  This too shall pass.   The disciples are oohing and ahhing at the great temple that Herod built.   Jesus tells them that one day all will be rubble, not one stone upon another.  This too shall pass.

The great masters tell us that only when we get that, when we truly understand that, not only with our heads but with our hearts will we attain any sense of peace with our existence.    Only when we stop clinging to that which is impermanent and cease our desire for that which is not real will we be able to be present to what is real. 

Because all is impermanent, that is, no thing, that does not mean that all is not meaningful.   The meaning is in the strawberry.  More precisely, the meaning is in the tasting of the strawberry.    That is real.

This Zen story tells me to taste the strawberry.    I can’t do anything about the mice, the tiger, or the jagged rocks.  I can do something about the strawberry.  How do we do that?   How do we say in the midst of it all, “How delicious!?”

You have to decide that yourself of course.  There are, however, others who have tasted the strawberry and have told us what it tasted like to them. 

Since it is the season of Lent, think of Jesus.   He tasted the strawberry by giving himself rather than preserving himself.   He lived with radical integrity.   Those who have followed in his example have done courageous things and have lived courageous lives.    They have been able to move beyond the boundaries and the restrictions of their tribes and have named and followed their truth.    Because they have done that, they have opened up possibilities for humanity. 

The great ones have never followed the herd.   They found that life was delicious when they found their voice and the courage to stand for truth and love as best as they saw it.  They found it worth it, even if it meant that at times they had to walk that lonesome valley.  

Others have tasted the strawberry by showing us the wonder of life.   Our scientists, poets, and artists tingle our senses with vibrancy.   Theologian Matthew Fox reminds us that each of us is an artist.    Each of us is a bard. Each of us has a loveliness to express.    How delicious!

In all of these cases we can be thwarted and stymied by the illusion of permanence.   We can worry over what we have or don’t have and we can miss life in the process.   That is the point of ritual and religion, to bring us back to the present, to what is real.   Taste it.

We really don’t know what is ahead for us even for the rest of the day, let alone the rest of our lives, or the collective lives of human beings.  

The Julia Roberts character in the film, August:  Osage County, says at one point:
"Thank God we can't read the future — we'd never get out of bed.”

The Great Mystery is that we don’t know where we are going.   And we won’t know.   If evolution teaches us anything, it is that possibility happens.   I know a little bit about the lives of my ancestors.  None of them know about me.  I never knew either of my grandfathers yet they live in me.  Their lives influenced and shaped mine as mine will shape those who come after me, yet I will never know.   I can only trust that my small actions can effect huge changes.   I must therefore live as honestly as I can today, not to try to control the future, but to be true to my present.

There is always possibility for beauty.  

We will be surprised.

I found this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr to be true:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

With that, I will end this series of sermons.


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