A Thought in the Mind of God

NASA image - emerging universe

Second Sunday in Christmas | John 1:1-18

A Thought in the Mind of God

In the very beginning there was a word, an idea, a thought, the first thing that ever was, and the thought was hanging out with God. In fact, the thought, this thinking idea word-thing, was God.

P52_recto
Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, recto

That is how the Gospel of John starts. In the beginning was the logos…the thought, the idea, the word.

We say that words are not powerful. Words can’t hurt you, we hear from our elders when other children taunt us, but it is a lie—words can hurt us, more deeply and longer than any wound to the body.

They are powerful, words are. Just like God. Nothing more than an idea, really, a concept, a thought, but like God words are something that cannot be touched and cannot be destroyed, something capable of immense and unmeasurable power.

We struggle with knowing which is more important, words or actions. Most of the time, what we do is truer than what we say. What we do ultimately informs us as to who we are, as though each act is a personal sacrament — an outward sign of our own inward truth. If we say we are clean and sober while we pour another drink, our words are just the deception of an addict, the long slow con, a lie we tell ourselves in order better to deceive others.

Don’t tell me, we say. Show me. As revealing as our actions are, they are only true on the outside. It is the idea that drives the action, the thought that is the truth within us, the word that is us.

P52_verso
Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, verso

There is power in our thoughts, power in our words. There is a value to the articulation of our thoughts, and there is a truth in stories that cannot be told any other way. Give me a rule, and I’ll forget it or I’ll break it. Give me a story and I cannot forget it. We are wired to story, our brains evolving over millennia to learn from stories we heard around cooking fires, stories painted on the walls of our caves. All those clay paintings of bison and antelope are more than art: the sharing of these images was an act of communion.

The thought-that-was-God came into this world, to live in this world. That is the gospel message. The idea-that-was-God burned, shining, brilliant in the midst of dark ignorance all around, and the ignorance could not to quench it.

We read the story in the first verses of John’s Gospel, and we are no longer amazed by it. Perhaps it was a page turner two thousand years ago, an opening that caught the imagination of the ancient world: In the beginning was the Word… Imagine, the Word, the idea of God, walking as a human, standing in the wild places, listening to John the Baptist cry out his sermons to crowds by a riverside. It is an astonishing thought, but not to us. We are immured, buried and insulated by the profusion of words that surround us.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet  III, iii

That is how Shakespeare put it, and maybe he was onto something. Empty words. We have found ways to separate thought and word, to speak without thinking. Our words are everywhere, on signs, menus, T-shirts, screens, phones, emails, broadcasts. The value of our words is diminished by their pervasiveness, diluted by the ease with which we record them.

We no longer know the holy when we see it. We may no longer believe that anything is holy, let alone that words might be.

…I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
― William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Nevertheless, ancient cities fall into the dust, and the pyramids crumble, but their stories remain. In the end, the most ancient relic and the most enduring aspect of humanity is found in our intangible untouchable diaphanous words.

In the stories of scripture, God calls all that there is, all of the cosmos, into being with a word. When speech was added to thought, when the idea was expressed, the universe exploded into being.

What we think may be more real than anything we see. What we say may be more lasting than anything we build. In the end, the words that tell our story are all that we leave behind us. The atoms that make us may spin and fly, returning to the stars that made them, nothing but stardust, but our lives remain, a thought in the mind of God.

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Here’s a bonus—a short (45 second) video from NASA as part of WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe project. In NASA’s summary: The structure of the universe evolved from the Big Bang, as represented by WMAP’s “baby picture”, through the clumping and ignition of matter (which caused reionization) up to the present.

Commonplace

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost | John 6:35-51

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Commonplace

Bread. Water. These are the two central images in the Gospel of John. Did you ever wonder why?

GrassesCommonplace things are easy to overlook. They are also the things that give us life.

Look at the components of our world. The most striking thing about the elements composing our bodies is how common they are. We are life forms based on carbon, scientists tell us. Here on earth, carbon is everywhere. It is the dust of the universe. Nature builds with what is on hand, what is abundant.

We should not be surprised that our lives are housed in the commonplace.

Some carbon is special, like the compressed chunks we call diamonds. We treasure these bits of hard shiny crystal, but this form of carbon has no real value to organic life. The carbon trapped in a diamond no longer combines in any of the myriad ways that support life on our planet.

It is ironic that we have come to value things so rare that they cannot help to sustain our lives.

We are not consistent in our treatment of common things. If we find something that we agree is valuable, like a diamond, we are glad. If we see something common, though we are made of it and sustained by it, we are not impressed. If only we measured ideas the same way, but we treasure commonplace thoughts and reject rarities of insight. We would rather be right in our closed minds than have the clamshell of our thoughts pried open by the rare and unexpected.

Dogwood FlowerThe audience in this Gospel’s story were angry with Jesus. They were in the synagogue of Capernaum, the place where Jesus made his home, and he was commonplace to them. They saw him on the street, knew his family. So long as he walked their streets and did not disturb their commonplace thoughts, they accepted him. When he made the claim that he brought them something of God, they scoffed. They grumbled.

We would do the same.

In fact, we are doing the same. We walk past the commonplace landscape, breathe the commonplace air, taste the commonplace bread of our meals, drink the commonplace water, and we do not appreciate the value in them. We do not appreciate that these are the things that sustain us. We would trade away the common things in our lives, only to be left with the cold sparkle of crystallized carbon.

If we would see something of great value, we need only look around us. Life is in the taste of bread, the sparkle of water.

In this Gospel, we hear that Jesus raised the commonplace to the divine, and that he brought the divine into the commonplace.

God may be found in the stardust at our feet.

Maple Seeds

Dust Beneath Our Feet

Mark 6:1-13  |  Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Dust Beneath Our Feet. This Gospel says that Jesus returned to his hometown, which in the Gospel of Mark is Capernaum. That is where his house was. (Mark 2:1 — If you ever want to play at Indiana Jones relic hunting, forget about the Holy Grail. Go to Capernaum and dig up Jesus’ house. Imagine the ticket sales.)

On the sabbath, he went over to his synagogue and sat to teach, and the people who gathered there were astounded. We don’t know why. Perhaps it was because of the things he was saying, or it may be just that he took it upon himself to teach. Either way, he offended them.

Their complaint, oddly, was that they knew him, or thought they did. They knew his parents, his family, their occupation, and so they did not think to hear anything marvelous from him. As he sat and taught in the synagogue, he missed their expectations. He overshot. He was more than they thought he should be, more than any of them wanted him to be, and they took offense.

We don’t expect much out of the people we know; for the most part, we don’t want much out of them. Try it sometime. Achieve any sort of excellence, and you will be surprised by the people who want to push you down to the level of their comfort. The achievements of others remind us of our own mediocrity.

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. It is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), close to the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is, like its neighbour the Quintuplet Cluster, a fairly young astronomical object at between two and four million years old. The Arches cluster is so dense that in a region with a radius equal to the distance between the Sun and its nearest star there would be over 100 000 stars! At least 150 stars within the cluster are among the brightest ever discovered in the the Milky Way. These stars are so bright and massive, that they will burn their fuel within a short time, on a cosmological scale, just a few million years, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. Due to the short lifetime of the stars in the cluster, the gas between the stars contains an unusually high amount of heavier elements, which were produced by earlier generations of stars. Despite its brightness the Arches Cluster cannot be seen with the naked eye. The visible light from the cluster is completely obscured by gigantic clouds of dust in this region. To make the cluster visible astronomers have to use detectors which can collect light from the X-ray, infrared, and radio bands, as these wavelengths can pass through the dust clouds. This observation shows the Arches Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance since its 1999 image of same object.
This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. It is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), close to the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is, like its neighbour the Quintuplet Cluster, a fairly young astronomical object at between two and four million years old. The Arches cluster is so dense that in a region with a radius equal to the distance between the Sun and its nearest star there would be over 100 000 stars! At least 150 stars within the cluster are among the brightest ever discovered in the the Milky Way. These stars are so bright and massive, that they will burn their fuel within a short time, on a cosmological scale, just a few million years, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. Due to the short lifetime of the stars in the cluster, the gas between the stars contains an unusually high amount of heavier elements, which were produced by earlier generations of stars. Despite its brightness the Arches Cluster cannot be seen with the naked eye. The visible light from the cluster is completely obscured by gigantic clouds of dust in this region. To make the cluster visible astronomers have to use detectors which can collect light from the X-ray, infrared, and radio bands, as these wavelengths can pass through the dust clouds. This observation shows the Arches Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance since its 1999 image of same object.*

It is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt, though that happens when we live down to one another’s expectations. It is more that we have contempt for the familiar. We don’t pay attention to the things we think we know, and we do not like for them to surprise us.

Jesus could show these people nothing. No great miracles, no signs of great power—he could only heal a few of the sick, this Gospel says. It was perhaps the most he could do and not push the boundaries of their expectations.

He was amazed.

It was not that God among men had no power. It was that men stood beside God and did not wish to see. If the humanity in Jesus could offend them, imagine what the God in him could accomplish.

And so Jesus called the twelve to him, the dozen closest followers, all likewise known to the people who had begun to resent him. He sent them away. He sent them out, scattering like dust, and gave them no provisions except some kind of power to face the evil that they would encounter.

Jesus told them to stay with those who would accept them, but to leave behind the ones who would not. “Shake the dust off your feet as a witness,” Jesus told them.

Leave the dust as a witness, he said, a sign. To use the exact word chosen in the Gospel, the dust beneath their feet would be a martyr.

The dust beneath our feet, like we ourselves, came from the ancient galaxies of space, the hearts of a billion suns. One man sees only dust where the next sees the stuff of stars.

Dust Plume Over Red Sea
Dust Plume. This astronaut photograph acquired on June 22, 2013 provides a panoramic view of most of the length of the Red Sea. The northernmost end, the Gulf of Suez, is just visible at the top center of the image and is fully 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) in ground distance from the International Space Station (ISS). The Nile River snakes its way northward through the Sahara Desert on the left. Much closer to the camera—but still more than 550 kilometers (340 miles) from the ISS—is a dust plume surging out over the Red Sea and reaching most of the way to Saudi Arabia. The point source of this plume is the delta of the southern Egyptian river Khor Baraka.*

We may read this Gospel and walk away thinking that Jesus meant to leave those small minded and resentful people to choke on their own dust. We may also pay attention to the word, martyr, that gives a purpose to the dust, calling on the most ordinary thing in that dry land to remain forever as a witness to the most extraordinary presence of God.

The people around us are seldom brilliant and marvelous. Most of them, most of us, are the poor, the ordinary, the small minded and the resentful. We are as unremarkable as the dust beneath our feet, as numerous and as anonymous as the sand of a desert.

If the Gospel is true, God’s love must be without end. We are nothing special. We are only bits of animated dust, specks of sand, and yet the light of the stars makes us shine.

This galaxy goes by the name of ESO 162-17 and is located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Carina. At first glance this image seems like a fairly standard picture of a galaxy with dark patches of dust and bright patches of young, blue stars. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar features. Firstly, ESO 162-17 is what is known as a peculiar galaxy — a galaxy that has gone through interactions with its cosmic neighbours, resulting in an unusual amount of dust and gas, an irregular shape, or a strange composition. Secondly, on 23 February 2010 astronomers observed the supernova known as SN 2010ae nestled within this galaxy. The supernova belongs to a recently discovered class of supernovae called Type Iax supernovae. This class of objects is related to the better known Type-Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae result when a white dwarf accumulates enough mass either from a companion or, rarely, through collision with another white dwarf, to initiate a catastrophic collapse followed by a spectacular explosion as a supernova.  Type Iax supernovae also involve a white dwarf as the central star, but in this case it may survive the event. Type Iax supernovae are much fainter and rarer than Type Ia supernovae, and their exact mechanism is still a matter of open debate. The rather beautiful four-pointed shape of foreground stars distributed around ESO 162-17 also draws the eye. This is an optical effect introduced as the incoming light is diffracted by the four struts that support the Hubble Space Telescope’s small secondary mirror.
This galaxy goes by the name of ESO 162-17 and is located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Carina. At first glance this image seems like a fairly standard picture of a galaxy with dark patches of dust and bright patches of young, blue stars. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar features. Firstly, ESO 162-17 is what is known as a peculiar galaxy — a galaxy that has gone through interactions with its cosmic neighbours, resulting in an unusual amount of dust and gas, an irregular shape, or a strange composition. Secondly, on 23 February 2010 astronomers observed the supernova known as SN 2010ae nestled within this galaxy. The supernova belongs to a recently discovered class of supernovae called Type Iax supernovae. This class of objects is related to the better known Type-Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae result when a white dwarf accumulates enough mass either from a companion or, rarely, through collision with another white dwarf, to initiate a catastrophic collapse followed by a spectacular explosion as a supernova.  Type Iax supernovae also involve a white dwarf as the central star, but in this case it may survive the event. Type Iax supernovae are much fainter and rarer than Type Ia supernovae, and their exact mechanism is still a matter of open debate. The rather beautiful four-pointed shape of foreground stars distributed around ESO 162-17 also draws the eye. This is an optical effect introduced as the incoming light is diffracted by the four struts that support the Hubble Space Telescope’s small secondary mirror.*

* Credit to NASA.gov for the marvelous images and the accompanying captions that you see in this post. If you have not visited the NASA.gov website, you should! Amazing work by entirely non-ordinary people. —C R Taylor

Breathe

Second Sunday of Easter  |  John 20:19-31

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

There are stories of fire that fell from the sky onto the heads of the faithful. It was not a fire that burned them, not as one would think of it, not as some of the onlookers might have hoped. (Religious differences bring out the worst in people.) This fire was the Spirit of God, or so it is claimed in the book of Acts—but that will be the lectionary passage for the observance of Pentecost, May 24 of this year.

Fire that only burned within and did not scorch the skin—it sounds like a metaphor.

John tells a different story. In this Gospel a small group of believers gathered in a house, behind closed doors. Jesus, the same one who was crucified, comes to them somehow and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit of God. He points out the marks of his torture to remove any doubts of his identity, such as the doubts of Thomas who had the good sense to want to see this living Jesus for himself.

Jesus breathed on them, as only the living can. Air from his lungs, the Spirit of God—it sounds like another metaphor.

There is a greeting in parts of the world where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath. It may have nothing to do with this Jesus story. It does tell us something about the centrality of breathing. The beating of our hearts, the air we breathe, nothing about us continues without these things.

Like the bumper sticker says, just keep breathing.

Whichever version we read, John’s tale of Jesus breathing on his followers or the story in Acts with tongues of fire falling from the sky, the result is the same. Afterward something was different. These earliest Christians went out and began talking about what they knew of God, of this Jesus, of everything they had seen and heard and touched, to everyone they met, everywhere they went, so long as they drew breath.

Something had changed in them. Something drove them out of their rooms, their homes, their comforts, their habits.

Something.A galaxy on the edge

The scripture writers claim that it was the Spirit of God. Radically differing in appearance and path, by breath or by fire or by touch of hand or sight, the New Testament people spoke of experiencing and witnessing what they described as the Spirit of God entering into themselves and into the people around them. What they described was not possession by a greater power. It was not acquisition of some greater power. It was transcendence.

Their existence changed.

They became different. The power that they believed resurrected Jesus had also resurrected their lives, lifting them from the mundane into the extraordinary. The resurrection stories of Jesus often mention that it was difficult to recognize him, though there is little explanation as to why. Perhaps that is because little or no explanation was needed for people living such transformed lives that they no longer even recognized themselves.

The breath of God. Many would dismiss such a concept as delusional. Perhaps Jesus was a good man, they say, but leave God out of it. There is no proof of God, they say, nothing to demonstrate that we did not create the idea of God out of our own need. There is no argument that can totally refute such thinking, no logic that can overwhelm such rational doubt.

Scientists tell us that when we breathe we take in elements that have come, as everything within us has, from the stars. The oxygen that sustains us may contain atoms that sustained Marilyn Monroe or George Washington or Jesus or the Buddha. In every breath we touch on something eternal.

We are miraculous. We are ordinary. We are living stardust. We are imbued with the breath of God.

At the end of the lectionary passage for this week’s reading, there is a confession, a reason given as to why this Gospel of John was written down at all: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

That we might believe, that we may have life, is the whole purpose of the Gospel. You might say we were already alive without hearing it.

Tennyson wrote, As though to breathe were life! There is more to living than existence. That, too, is the message of John’s Gospel. Feel the wind and know it for more than weather—for you it is the breath of God. See the stars and know them for more than engines of the expanding universe—for you they are the sparks of life.

Do more than remember to breathe. Remember to live.

ExplodingStar_GKPerseiNova_NASAimage

I See You

Second Sunday After the Epiphany  |  John 1:43-51

I See You

Lectionary Project

Nathanael was a dreamer. There is nothing wrong with that, and there is much that is very right about sitting under a fig tree and watching the world around you. It doesn’t have to be a fig tree, or even a tree at all. A park bench will do, or a curb, or a quiet corner.

In some ways dreaming must have been easier in Nathanael’s day—fewer distractions. On the other hand, where did he find the spare time? Life was more difficult then, or so we think as we busy ourselves with our gadgets and conveniences. We have traded the joy of a meal for the convenience of fast food, and we have come up the less for it.

InATreePerhaps that is what Nathanael was doing when Jesus spotted him: having a meal. There are worse places to have lunch than under a tree. Of course, he may have been taking a nap or waiting for a friend.

Jesus saw something in this young man, not that we even know how old Nathanael was. He could have been quite old. He may have sat under that same tree with a loaf of bread and a little wine every day for forty years, for all we know. Maybe he was famous for sitting and day dreaming, the sort of old man who feeds the birds with scraps from his lunch.

Jesus spotted him as an honest man. Maybe there was something open and inviting in the way Nathanael looked out at the world, expecting something to happen or someone to call him to join an adventure.

He certainly got one.

Jesus promised Nathanael that he would see “…heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man.” That would be something, heaven opened to our view, and angels coming and going. I wonder whether Nathanael ever got to see it. If so, the Gospels fail to mention it. If Nathanael wrote a Gospel himself, it has been lost. We may never know whether he saw those angels. We do know that he saw plenty after that day under the fig tree.

He was amazed that Jesus had seen him and known what sort of man he was, just from looking at him. It must have been a simple thing for Jesus, like a circus announcer knowing at a glance whether a child will prefer the tigers and elephants or the clowns. Whether the insight Jesus had was human or from God, Nathanael was amazed.

You ain’t seen nothing yet, Jesus told him.

According to the Gospel stories, Nathanael saw the sick healed, the blind given their sight, and the dead raised back to life. He heard some of the most profound teaching that has ever been spoken on the planet. He listened as one man challenged the practices of an ancient religion and belief systems stretching beyond the Roman empire. Perhaps even more amazing, more spellbinding, was watching a man walking willfully and purposefully toward his own end.

We are mesmerized by computers and video screens. We are astonished by government waste and abuse. We are fascinated by the failures of the famous, enthralled by the excesses of the rich, captivated by the atrocities of terrorists, evil regimes and unlikely lunatics. Why are we amazed at these things?

We walk past children and flowers as though they were commonplace throughout the universe. A fig tree doesn’t get a second glance, even if it got a first one, and nobody wastes time standing around under the thing. Viruses replicate, stars flame, and water dances within and around us, pouring through our veins, falling from the sky, dancing as ice crystals and clouds, and we either take no notice or complain. We move in bodies made of stardust, and we have forgotten the wonder of it.

There is so much in our lives that should astound us, so much that should settle or shake our faith. We are amazed when we stumble upon the things we did not see but that were there all along.

A kind word from someone when we did not know we were seen. Disregard from people we love. Love from someone we had not noticed. The laughter of children, the love of dogs, and the toleration of cats. The ability of human beings to get out of bed when the day before has taken everything. Sunlight. Starlight. The vivid elasticity of memory. The power of dreams. A changing heart. The brevity of our years.

We should stop to look, stop to be seen. Breathe the air, watch the light, look for what is in plain sight that we have not noticed. Hurrying is not the best use of our time. Being busy is not the same as being alive. Talking about God is not the same as being touched by God.

Nathanael professed faith in Jesus as soon as they met. It was not because of what Nathanael saw in Jesus. It was because he understood that Jesus had seen something in him.

We are surrounded by people, captured on cameras, pulled into roles that fill the minutes of every day, and still we often feel that we are unseen, unknown, strangers to one another, moving so very alone and invisible through crowds of people like ourselves. We realize that the people who do not see us are themselves also unseen, that each of them is as surrounded and as alone as we. And we do not see them, because we are lost in our own solitary way through the crowd. We tell ourselves that we value our anonymity, that it is safe.

When you were under the fig tree, I saw you, Jesus said. I noticed. I saw you standing there, unseen by everyone but me.

It is amazing what being seen, really seen, by another human being can do.

Imagine being seen, really seen, by God.

That is what faith is all about.

Hubble Images a Swarm of Ancient Stars