Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Blowin' in the Wind: The Dimensions of the Milky Way



("Blowin’ in the Wind" is a periodic feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, excerpts, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I have not written but that inspire me or give me joy. I trust they’ll do the same for you.)


Gail and I will be heading soon to the hinterland of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where a highlight we always enjoy while there are its night skies. Occasionally we are treated to some fantastic views of the aurora borealis, the northern lights. But each and every single night that is clear we’re given fantastic views of the cosmos, and I often find myself sitting long with a star map and a pair of binoculars on the end of the dock. Star clusters, nebulae and distant galaxies are not difficult to spot with binocs if one knows where to look, but they’re not my favorite sight. Besides, these are usually ‘pinpointed’ objects, where one does not get a sense of the sky’s awesome vastness, or its almost dizzying three-dimensionality. My favorite sky view? Taking a long look at the Milky Way. It almost always takes my breath away, giving me a feeling of space-flight while I’m at it.

The Milky Way is best seen without binoculars to get this sensation, though a look through field glasses or a telescope always presents an absolutely stunning array of stars not visible even to the best naked eye. After evening twilight in the U.P. in mid-August, the Milky Way runs diagonally in a fairly straight line from the northeast down to the southwest, picking up great constellations along the way like Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Lyra, Aquila, Sagittarius and Scorpio, all rotating clockwise as the night progresses. And the ‘line?’ That is because we are actually looking out ‘sideways’ through our spiral galaxy’s flattened disk, and the concentration of stars presents itself to us as a wispy, cloudy line. One is usually unable to see it from even small cities, with its artificial light typically fading away both the sky’s blackness and the Milky Way’s lightness at the same time.

One can easily get caught up in the complexity and enormity of this galaxy we call home. Over 100 billion beautiful suns and at least as many planets. 100,000 light years across. And up until a mere century ago last year it was thought to be much smaller and, at that, alone in the universe. But then a man named Harlow Shapley worked out its rough vast dimensions, including the placement of our solar system within it, and informed a near disbelieving world. On and on it has gone since, as we have found our galaxy one among many, its address among what is called a ‘local group’ of galaxies within a larger supercluster, which is then itself within an even larger galactic supercluster. And some are even postulating our universe itself may belong to a ‘multiverse’ consisting of numerous universes.

A person need not be overwhelmed by this, though, since, once we are up to considering a galaxy 100,000 light years across, bigness just gets bigger. And God just gets to still be God.

I recently ran across a poem written about Shapley’s discovery and wanted to share it with you. I know nothing about its author, but would be glad to meet her some day and talk about it. Here it is.

The Dimensions of the Milky Way
by Marilyn Nelson

Discovered by Harlow Shapley, 1918

Behind the men’s dorm
at dusk on a late May evening,
Carver lowers the paper
and watches the light change.

He tries to see earth
across a distance
of twenty-five thousand light-years,
from the center of the Milky Way:
a grain of pollen, a spore
of galactic dust.

He looks around:
that shagbark, those swallows,
the fireflies, that blasted mosquito:
this beautiful world.
A hundred billion stars
in a roughly spherical flattened disc
with a radius of one hundred thousand light-years.

Imagine that.

He catches a falling star.

Well, Lord, this infinitesimal speck
could fill the universe with praise.

Indeed. I could not agree more.

The sky is fascinating. It captivated the ancients as they tried to figure out how this whole thing works, and it even mesmerized the Bible writers with awe and appreciation for its (and their) Creator. And it captivates and mesmerizes me, and I hope you.

When I consider your heavens and the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place… O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8: 3, 9)
~~ RGM, July 30, 2019

Friday, May 31, 2019

From My Nature Journal: “Behold the Earth” -- A Review


Time for a blog shout-out to a new resource brought to my attention by a new friend here in our new digs. Sorry, that’s a lot of new, but the issue the resource presents goes back to the beginning. The very beginning. As in, the Garden of Eden beginning.

Namely, it's a simple video resource/documentary released recently called Behold the Earth. BtE is a music-rich film that explores the subject of earth stewardship/creation care as a critically important spiritual practice for all people of faith, and asks tough questions about church engagement with environmental issues.

Do you think of earth care as one of the core issues of Christian discipleship? Many church-goers do not, and, I'm very sorry to say, perhaps particularly us evangelicals. I cannot begin to count the number of times people have expressed their surprise to me in meeting an evangelical concerned with creation care. What a sad reality. And I'm not sure what the deal is here. Is it some evangelicals' sole preoccupation with personal salvation, or at least that perception from others? Is it poor exegesis on our part with Jesus' admonition to 'love not the world' (1 John 2:15), which isn't referencing creation care at all? Is it the evangelical error of equating the issue with 'liberalism' (whatever that is)? Or do we limit the stewardship idea to the traditional mantra of time, talent and treasure? If so, then I'm flummoxed: if God's creation is not also treasure to us, I'm not certain what is. Of all people, evangelicals, as 'people of the whole book,' should be at the forefront of the issue.

How is it that we forget that the charge to steward creation is the very first commandment in the Bible? Yup, Genesis 1:25 and 2:15. And don't get hung up here on the words dominion and subdue; the words are far richer and more complex than appear on the surface, surprisingly so if we truly get into them. But I'll write on that another time.

OK, end of sermon. Sorry. I am likely preaching to the choir. Let me highlight the resource.

Set with lovely videography and provocative music, Behold the Earth features conversations with legendary biologists Edward O. Wilson, Theo Colburn and Calvin DeWitt, interspersed with the perspectives of emerging leaders Katherine Hayhoe and Corina Newsome, and founder of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action Ben Lowe. Yet this is no talking head documentary. In addition to the stunning video, it is full of fabulous Appalachian-style folk music, a pleasure to listen to in its own right, featuring Grammy winners and musicologists Rhiannon Giddens, Dirk Powell, and Tim Eriksen. Extensive music is interwoven in such a way as to give the viewer a contemplative opportunity to reflect on the verbal material just presented, and, if you're like me, in addition to the subject matter, the music is the thing you will remember long after the documentary has finished, and may be the thing you want to come back to again and again. It has certainly spurred my interest in these artists.

One final thing. I've gotten involved here in our new Washington community with a cooperative of churches called Greening Congregations Collaborative. It consists of members from numerous area churches who want to bring a greater awareness of earth stewardship to their congregations by creating and sponsoring cooperative events, initiatives and presentations that highlight creation care as a critical part of Christian discipleship. Does your church have such a committee or team, even a small group of people interested in championing this concern in your church fellowship? This simple, one-hour movie can provide you a quality way to introduce this subject to your church leadership and your friends. It's not intended to resource those of you who are already advocating for this issue in your sphere, though it can inspire you, as it has me; it's intended to touch those who may not yet be there, and is a great discussion starter. Here's the trailer.
~~ RGM, May 31 2019

Sunday, April 28, 2019

From My Nature Journal: A Bloom for the Season



It’s called a Pasqueflower, a lovely of the high plains, mountain states and north.

Among the very first wildflowers of spring here in the foothills of Colorado, pasqueflowers sometimes even push up through light snowcover. And though I haven’t seen one yet this year, I took this photo in very early spring some time back. As a cold weather flower, they tend to stay close to the ground, about six inches tall, and often can be found as in this photo in drier, rocky areas that hold the warmth of the late winter sun.

Sometimes confused with tulips, it’s also called the Prairie Crocus, May Day Flower, and appropriately, Easter Flower: those of you who perceive the etymology of words might have guessed the latter. Pasque comes from paschal: ‘of, or relating to, Easter or Passover.’ Picking up on the symbolism within the Jewish celebration of Passover, where a lamb’s blood protected the Hebrew people from the ravages of death (see Exodus 12), Jesus, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, is referred to as our Passover, or paschal, lamb. Though there are other flowers also associated with the blood of Christ (the Rose and Bleeding Heart among them), the Pasqueflower is associated with Easter by the timing of the season.

And so, with those redeemed of Christ throughout nearly one and a half millennia, we pray:
O Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, grant us Your peace.

Interestingly, though the plant is full of toxins, its derivatives can be used medicinally for birthing/labor issues and certain vision impairments. These uses offer all kinds of possibilities for further spiritual symbolisms, connecting Easter life to our circumstances, if we wanted to go that route.

Finally, kudos to the State of South Dakota and the Canadian Province of Manitoba, both of which had the creative presence of mind to name the Pasqueflower their state/provincial bloom, though known there by different names.
~~RGM, From a Past Entry in my
Journal and on my Blog

Saturday, March 30, 2019

From My Nature Journal: A Via Dolorosa for All Creation, OR, A Creation Care Lenten Lament


As our Lenten journey continues this year, I’ve come across a resource that has captured my spirit a good bit. It’s called Stations of the Cross with All of Creation, an expansive prayer experience of the long traditional Stations of the Cross. And though I do not know that this resource is completely original to this particular group, the 2010 copy I have in my possession is attributed to an organization called the Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center (www.ipjc.org), an extensive coalition of Catholic organizations in the Pacific Northwest, largely female.

Lent, of course, can appropriately be a season of lament, as one considers the sacrifices and sufferings of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The traditional Stations of the Cross themselves are a spiritual practice of prayer that follow the actual experiences of Jesus in the Gospels from the moment he is condemned by Pontius Pilate to his burial in the tomb. These Stations can differ slightly from tradition to tradition, and can be from twelve to fifteen in number; some even end with Jesus’ resurrection rather than his burial. In any way that it is prayed, however, it is meant to be something of a vicarious pilgrimage of the actual holy sites in Jerusalem along what is called Jesus’ Via Dolorosa, his Journey of Sorrows. Perhaps some of you have been there, as have I, beginning at what is called the Ecce Homo Arch, the traditional site of Pilate’s spoken words, “Behold, the man…” (John 19:5).

Over the last thirty years or so, I have found the Stations a very meaningful spiritual practice. So imagine my delight this Lent, as one who finds nature an important spiritual pathway, to come across Stations of the Cross with All of Creation. Basically, it’s a resource that parallels the lament of the Stations of the Cross with a lament for the environmental devastation being experienced in our modern day.  Some may say, “Well, THAT sure sounds political.” But for all of us who are deeply concerned about Creation Care, and about our responsibilities as Christ followers to steward the good gift that God has given us, it is not political at all. There is indeed much to lament when it comes to earth’s degradation, yet, indeed, much also that God’s people can do to steward the earth more carefully than they historically have. Filled with Scripture, quotes and questions for reflection, this resource attends to both aspects of this issue, lament and hope.

The parallels are very interesting to me. Let me see if I can summarize them as briefly as I can:
·      Station 1 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate -- to the simple issue of environmental condemnation.
·      Station 2 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus taking up the cross -- with our being willing to ‘take up the cross’ of a role in better creation care, while understanding our complicity in the problem.
·      Station 3 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus’ first fall -- with the need for our concern for those most vulnerable and likely to be most quickly impacted by earth’s degradation. 
·      Station 4 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus meeting his mother along the way – to our need for a better understanding of the Earth as mother of all God’s creation.
·      Station 5 couples the traditional station depicting Simon of Cyrene’s forced recruitment to help Jesus carry his cross – with the admonition, again, that we might bear this cross, that we might live more simply so that others may simply live.
·      Station 6 couples the traditional station depicting St. Veronica’s wiping the face of Jesus – to ways in which we can work toward a cleaner environment.
·      Station 7 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus’ second fall – with concerns regarding the recent dramatic increase in the extinction of our home’s species.
·      Station 8 couples the traditional station depicting the women of Jerusalem weeping – with the degradation of the earth’s waters.
·      Station 9 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus’ third fall – to the degradation of the earth’s air.
·      Station 10 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus being stripped of his garments – with issues of global deforestation.
·      Station 11 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus being nailed to the cross – to our overdependence on fossil fuels and the environmental devastation and political turmoil that ensues.
·      Station 12 couples the traditional station depicting Jesus’ death on the cross – to the invitation to greater activism by all God’s people in creation care.

Once again, I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes in repugnance at some of these parallels, or others wondering if they may be irreverent or sacrilegious. But as I’ve reflected on them, I see all kinds of appropriate correlations, connections and admonitions. God’s redemptive plan is for God’s entire creation, and I am always eager to see more and more people drawn into environmental stewardship. If simple things like this can move some people forward, I’m all for it.

But here is another reason why I am enthusiastic about this resource. Since moving here to Western Washington, I’ve become involved with a church-based group called Greening Congregations Collaborative; it’s a team consisting of reps from seven or eight nearby churches who want to share ideas and create shared events and experiences that can draw more and more of their congregants to better creation care. Our GCC has adapted Stations of the Cross with All of Creation into a Lenten worship experience we call Way of Sorrows for All Creation, which we will present during Holy Week. I’ve taken a lead role in the revision and look forward to facilitating it on April 17, 4pm at Langley United Methodist Church. Let me know if you might be interested in receiving a copy of the liturgy we are preparing.

Meanwhile, look the list of stations over one more time, and prayerfully consider the sacrifice and generosity of Christ for you, as well as our call to be more sacrificial and generous stewards of God’s good earth.
~~ RGM, March 25 2019

P.S. Some of you will recall that I published here on my blog some time ago a resource I’ve written called Stations of Creation.  It is something that I’ve also presented extensively while leading retreats or events that highlight nature as a spiritual pathway. It can be an interesting companion experience to Stations of the Cross with All Creation. You may find Stations of Creation here.