In July, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings with a service which reflected on God’s creation through sound and silence, art and poetry. Below is Phil’s sermon based on Psalm 8 – a psalm which Buzz Aldrin read after he ate bread and drank wine in communion with his Presbyterian church back home in Houston during humanity’s first stay on the moon.
Following this are some of Stephen’s answers to Phil’s questions about his love of astronomy and how that impacts upon his faith.
Three thousand years ago, a man called David looked up into the night sky and – like his ancestors before him and his descendants ever since – he was overcome with awe and admiration. ‘You have set your glory above the heavens’ he declared in praise to the God who filled the cosmos with such beauty.
It’s fair to say that much has changed in the millennia since King David composed that psalm – empires have risen and fallen; our understanding of the creation has expanded and deepened; human civilization and creativity have given us Shakespeare, Shostakovitch and Love Island…much has changed but one thing that remains true is humanity’s fascination with the wonders of the universe. Simply contemplating the sheer immensity of our cosmos can take our breath away. For example, when David wrote those words that Cerys just read, his eyes saw only 0.0005% of the 200 billion or so stars in our Milky Way – itself one of around 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe! No wonder, then that fascination with the dark beyond is a common feature of all cultures, civilizations and religions. No wonder that David’s space-psalm begins and ends in awe-filled praise.
And perhaps some of us could learn a lot from the ability to be lost in amazement. In our world of speed and worry, many of us might well benefit by taking a deep breath, looking up into the night’s sky and simply allowing ourselves to be soaked in wonder. Perhaps it might put some of our anxieties into perspective. Perhaps it might open us up to the transcendent divine. Perhaps it might simply remind us that the moon and the stars that look down on us, looked down on King David 3000 years ago, and will continue to illuminate the dark night long after our Presidents and Prime Ministers come and go!
Of course, for others of us, awe is just the beginning of our space adventure for some of us are blessed with the gift of curiosity. Why do stars twinkle? How big is the universe?
If weak thermal energy radiates around black holes, is this energy born when particle-antiparticle pairs materialize from the vacuum or does quantum mechanics teach us otherwise? You know, the usual!
These questions that woman and man have asked for millennia sparked the quest for discovery which led to Apollo 8 and that trans-formative photograph of the Earth-rise; that paved the way for Apollo 11 and the first moon landing. And whilst some of us might well question the financial and sometime human cost of space exploration, there is much evidence to say that discovery leads to cultural transformation. Just as Columbus’ rediscovery of the so-called ‘New World’ is credited as opening hearts and minds in his time, acting as a catalyst for the creative outpouring of the Renaissance, so space exploration has been credited as playing a crucial role in our evolving view of the interconnected nature of humanity and the importance of caring for our shared home.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise for us – the wandering and wondering people of God for our story is one of constant exploration and discovery with God. Without that openness to the unknown, Abraham would never have left Ur, Moses would have passed by that burning bush and the disciples would have declined the stranger’s invitation to ‘Come and see’. When Jesus – the original Riddler who almost always answered simple questions with surprising stories or more questions of his own– when he knew his Earthly time with his disciples was coming to an end, he told them ‘I’ve still got a lot to say to you, but you can’t take it at the moment. But when the Spirit comes, she’ll make you aware of many different types of truth. She won’t push her ideas. She’ll open your minds and teach you how to listen’ [John 16:12-14, Good As New].
Well, the Spirit is still moving; God is still speaking today. God has yet more to teach us if we open ourselves to the Spirit who moves in the most surprising of people and places; if we listen, dare to dream and prepare for adventure!
And when we do pack our bags, pull up the tent pegs and venture into a land of discovery, we might well be surprised by what it is that we encounter and learn…
“We came all this way to explore the moon,” said Earth-rise photographer Bill Anders, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Could it be that within the discovery of white dwarfs and red giants, quarks and leptons, super-moons and super-human feats of strength, courage and intelligence, the greatest lesson to learn from our space exploration is that of relationship? Our relationship with the Earth – that blue and green marble that hangs in space; the world God made and instructed us to look after. Perhaps that’s what the Spirit is reminding or revealing to us through the space program.
Or perhaps, the Spirit might be reminding us once again of our relationship with all humanity with whom we share this planet-home. On Anders’ earth-rise image the NASA astronaut Nicole Scott commented;
“Seeing Earth hanging in space like that, I think of the three lessons that I learnt and want to try to convey from my own space flight which is…we live on a planet; we’re all earthlings and the only border that matters is that thin, blue line of atmosphere that blankets us all.”
Perhaps then the recent moon landing commemorations might fly in the face of the bluster and bile from political leaders who laud human-made borders, who divide and demean, who manipulate our basest qualities for their own political gain. Let us not aspire to make America or Britain great again but seek to make the world a just, peaceful, prosperous place where love of neighbour, whatever language they speak, god they pray to or person they love, is professed and practiced.
All of which takes us back to Psalm 8 and David’s question about humanity’s place in God’s plan –
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
It’s a good question, eh? Within the vast, epic beauty and complexity of the cosmos, who are we that God cares for us, loves us, calls us into a relationship? The answer? Well, I just don’t know! And that’s okay…for questions without answers might lead to further discoveries and fresh revelations! But if you pushed me, I rather suspect that it’s got something to do with love! Like the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, who quotes Psalm 8 and weaves it into the life, death and rising of Jesus, I think that our declaration that God put aside power and might to take on flesh and shed blood so to challenge and forgive us, to laugh and cry with us, to teach us how to live and show us that there is life beyond death demonstrates a love for us which is out of this world and yet very much in this world. It is a great thing for a man to walk on the moon but it’s far, far greater thing for God to walk on the Earth!
Space exploration, then, might well engender awe, discovery, fresh revelations and, ultimately, praise. Perhaps then, three thousand years before space walks and moon landings, that poet-king in Jerusalem had the right idea all along –
You have set your glory above the heavens!
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Questions From Phil
- What does the 1st moon landing mean to me?
I was too young at the time of the moon landings to have direct memories of them but I know it sparked an interest in me for space which remains to this day. It all seemed to be a great adventure undertaken by heroes. They were role models and didn’t we all want to be an astronaut. I don’t remember building a model rocket but perhaps some in the congregation ill remember doing something similar.
As I have grown older and learnt more about its history, I have appreciated some of its great achievements, achievements that took the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people. To me the achievements could be summarised into 3 categories
- The technological achievement – inventing the technology to achieve a vision –computers, machines, engines, materials, food etc all had to be imagined and made.
- The Human Achievement – it took people with the courage, skills and brainpower to work out how to do it.
- Human Discovery – that we could travel, move and live in an alien environment, we discovered what the moon was made of and we discovered a new vision of our own beautiful planet.
Whilst we think of it as an achievement of epic proportions – travelling at over 2000 mph and taking 4 days to get there, the distance is but a microscopic speck in the cosmic ocean. We have to keep it in proportion or else fall into the same mindset that the builders of the tower of babel had. They thought they were so superior they could build a tower so tall it could reach the sky. Thinking we are better than we are can lead to the inevitable fall from grace.
I also think about the criticisms that the whole thing was a waste of money and we should spend money to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. That is true but it is in our God given nature to explore, to discover, to find out new things and see how they can eventually benefit it. Going to the moon was just next. Humans going to the planet Mars will be next.
We don’t always know what will benefit us from our endeavours. I saw a program on TV this past week called the £250 million cancer cure. It was about machines that were installed into 2 UK hospitals. The machines would deliver proton beam therapy to adults and children with brain cancers. Protons are not easy things to get hold of. They are the positively charged particles in the nucleus of an atom so how do you get at them. They were liberated from hydrogen atoms by ripping off the electron in a cyclotron. A cyclotron is basically an atom smasher and comes from the field of atomic physics research. Who knew at the time that a machine to discover something about the essential building blocks of life could be used as a cancer treatment.
- Comparisons between the mission and the church mission
The moon mission was a simple mission statement expressed in the words of 1 man, to land a man on the moon in 10 years. It was a vision that many bought into because of its audacity and ambition (and the competition to beat the Russians)
As Christians what would we describe as our mission statement? Something simple that we can grab hold of and mean something for us.
- Is it the audacity of Jesus words when he says love your enemies,
- Is it his commission to go into all the world and make all nations my disciples
- or a simple idea to use all the love that you have to make the kingdom of heaven real for others?
In either mission, everyone has a role play, from the perceived very grand to small things. No matter how big or small your part, it’s a part you are glad to have.
Both missions will depend on everyone’s skills and knowledge.
Both missions will have their share of ups and downs, its triumphs and tragedies
In both missions, not everyone who was there at the start will be there at the end. Perhaps we will not see the fruition for ourselves.
In our mission we will face opposition and criticism
Both missions attempt to make a dream a reality. To ask the question ‘what if’, to be curious, to ask questions. You may remember that Phil’s 1st sermon to us after his ordination was about the story of Moses and the burning bush. He said that we should not be scared but to be curious.
- What does its impact and interest have on my Christian faith.
When I do Astronomy it’s my form of environmental therapy (a term used by the park ramblers to describe their weekly walk around the park). Even now, when I go out into the Brecon Beacons on a moonless night, I look up and see the milky way overhead and the stars twinkling in the darkness I am reminded just how small and insignificant my place in it seems to be.
The words of the psalmist of Psalm 8 become very real for me.
‘When I look at the moon and stars that you have set in their place, what is man that you are mindful of him, mere man that you care for him.’
Considering that our knowledge of the universe is greater than that of the psalmist (and would blow their mind to learn of the discoveries that have made) how can we not feel the same way.
If you believe God is Omniscient (everywhere) and you begin to get an inkling of how big space really is then how big must God be to be everywhere. Is God bigger than you can even imagine.
Science for me is the manifestation of God giving humans a brain and saying- Go on, work it out for yourself. It tries to understand the creation around us and help us use that knowledge to accomplish things. Science doesn’t have all the answers, and some of its answers are incomplete but the journey of discovery goes on, not wedded to old ideas but open to new ones
In some ways isn’t that true of Christianity – ideas that may have been the best for their time get replaced because of new thinking and better ideas, greater understanding. If we stay wedded to the old ideas then they will only ever get us so far and then stop.
A lot of scientists and astronomers that I meet are aethiests because they say there is no proof of a deity. For me, there is no evidence that there is no God. Humans sometimes think we know it all, we have cured diseases, have understanding of creation, explored the final frontier, but in reality, we know less than 1% of anything. Creation is too big, too complex and way beyond our understanding.
When I look up at night , with the little bit that I have learnt, I get a glimpse of something greater.
That greatness demands a response from me. I can either respond with the attitude of I am so small and insignificant that it doesn’t matter what I do or I can respond by saying that in the vastness and emptiness of the cosmos the thing that makes it bearable is loving each other.
My choice is to learn from the words of Jesus and try and enact the latter.
One of the pictures that had an impact on me and I still regard as one of the greatest pictures ever taken was Earthrise. It was taken by astronaut Bill Anders Apollo 8 , Christmas eve 1969
It shows our planet as a beautiful world , the only one we had ever known .
When you look at this image, hanging in the blackness of space then perhaps you can being to appreciate the awesomeness of God!