[Transcript of a sermon delivered July 31, 2016, at Plantation United Methodist Church]
(New Living Translation)
The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.
We live in a magnificent universe, larger than anything we can conceive. Billions upon billions of stars, galaxies, supernovas, black holes, planets, asteroids, comets. Our own Milky Way Galaxy contains at least a few hundred billion stars and planets. Our solar system is an amazingly balanced, choreographed dance of planets around a single star, our sun. And on the third planet out from the Sun, our planet, our home, the Earth, has a miraculously rich and diverse population of living things. Oceans and lakes, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys and fields and forests and deserts. Trees and birds and fish and horses and rabbits and ants… and us. And each of those amazing things contains worlds in and of themselves: systems and cells and molecules and atoms and protons and quarks and gluons… down and down and down.
It is no wonder that the psalmist wrote these words: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God!” We’ve only really started to understand the mysteries and majesty of creation: from the largest aspect of it to the smallest. And as much as we have learned, there is so much more to explore.
As we get to know each other, you’ll soon learn that I am a science nerd. I love science, am fascinated by it. Now, it’s also important to note that I’m not trained as a scientist, so if I get something wrong, I would love for anyone here who actually is to let me know! But I love reading about scientific discoveries, both the history of how we got to where we are now, the current breakthroughs, and theories about the future. Our universe, it amazes me.
Psalm 8, verses 3 and 4 say this: “When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars that you set in place, what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care about them?”
The very first time I remember thinking about God was lying out on the lawn in my parents’ backyard at night. I was about 12 years old. I watched the stars move slowly above me, and tried to imagine that I could feel the planet rotating, spinning around its axis at about 1000 miles per hour. I remember digging my fingers into the grass and dirt, feeling like I might spin right off the planet.
Looking up into that glorious night sky, I thought, “God made all of this! Everything I can see, and more! And I get to enjoy it!” That was my first conscious experience of wonder and awe, gazing out at an indescribably large universe.
But it’s not just on a large scale that we can experience wonder and awe! Another of my favorite scriptures is Psalm 139, which contains these words in verses 13 and 14: “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous — how well I know it.”
Just as I am in awe of God’s majesty in our universe, I am equally in awe of God’s majesty in the tiny, the small.
And, obviously, I’m not the first.
My Dad is a doctor, and in his medical office in Central New York there hung on the wall three prints from Leonardo da Vinci, diagramming what da Vinci had learned in the 15th century about the structure of the human body. Beautiful, detailed drawings.
I’m amazed at the complexity of the human body. A few years ago while Chuck and I were visiting New York City, I went to “Bodies: The Exhibition.” It’s an exhibition of dissected, preserved, human bodies that had been donated to the project, showing the underlying structures: skeletal, circulatory, respiratory, nervous.
I know, it probably sounds really gross to some of you, but I found it utterly fascinating. And the exhibit hall was packed with people. I spent hours wandering around the rooms. At one point I was standing in front of an exhibit of the circulatory system — the whole system just standing there all by itself, heart, veins, arteries, capillaries — and being completely and utterly amazed at the intricate, lacy, delicate patterns of our blood vessels. It was like a marvelous piece of art.
Nearby me was a group of young medical students, being lectured to by their professor, speaking in a droning monotone. He seemed completely oblivious to the fact that most of the students were ignoring him. They were on their phones, having conversations with each other. I wanted to jump into the group, snap my fingers at them, and say,
“Hey! Pay attention!
Don’t you see how amazing this all is?
Can’t you see how miraculous it is that all these systems work together?
Can’t you see the care and love that went into this design?
Aren’t you just floored by the fact that you’ve got all this
inside you right now working together?”
(Don’t worry, I didn’t make a scene, and the med students went on blissfully unaware of how close they were to having a raving lunatic yelling at them that day.)
But… think about it. You — you, sitting there right now reading this — you are a miracle!
Right now, without having to think about it, your lungs are filling and emptying, carrying oxygen into your body, which is then pulled through membranes into your blood, pumped into your heart, and out into your body.
As you listened to the music in the video above, sound waves moved from your speakers, crossed the space to your body, and vibrated your eardrums. Those vibrations were picked up by the malleus, incus and stapes (three tiny little bones in your inner ear), amplifying the vibrations and passing them through to the fluid-filled cochlea, creating electrical impulses that shot up your auditory nerve to your brain for interpretation.
The neural network in your brain right now is firing, bearing chemical and electrical messages that keep your body’s systems going, processing all the input from your eyes and ears and skin and nose, … and perhaps even helping you to formulate your grocery list as you’re reading.
And then drill down even further, to your genes. Over 99 percent of our genetic material is the same. Take a second and look at the people around you. If you’re alone while reading, think of the people you’ll see today. We all look different from each other. Even people related to you, still look different from you in some way. But we share over 99 percent of our genes.
Within that less than 1 percent difference — a tiny amount of a tiny structure — is yet another miracle.
Dr. Francis Collins, who is now the Director of the National Institutes of Health, was in 2000 the lead researcher for the Human Genome Project, an incredible undertaking involving thousands of scientists.
In his book The Language of God, Dr. Collins writes: “For me, there is not a shred of disappointment or disillusionment in these discoveries about the nature of life — quite the contrary! How marvelous and intricate life turns out to be! How deeply satisfying is the digital elegance of DNA! How aesthetically appealing and artistically sublime are the components of living things…” (107).
There is no shortage of things in our every day, walking-around lives which could — and should — cause us to reel back in awe and wonder.
So why — why? — is it so easy for us to go through our days without noticing?
Because we are so stinking busy. We live in the most over-scheduled, over-committed, over-connected time in history.
So taking time just to be in awe, it seems unproductive. It seems like time wasted playing. When we invest our time in something, when we use our precious hours, our resources, we want assurances ahead of time that it will work, that it will be worth the effort.
We adults, we’re not very good at playing. Our “play” as we get older tends to be competitive or to have a defined goal. When we think of playing, we think of doing something silly, something that is pleasant, but not actually necessary to life.
If you google the word play, you’ll find a definition similar to this one: “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”
By this definition, play doesn’t have a “serious or practical purpose.”
But… does it?
Have you ever watched a child play? They do it with their whole hearts, entirely diving with great wonder into whatever it is that they’re doing in the moment.
In a 2013 New York Times article, author David Dobbs wrote this about play: “Human children are unique in using play to explore hypothetical situations rather than to rehearse actual challenges they’ll face later. Kittens may pretend to be cats fighting, but they will not pretend to be children; children, by contrast, will readily pretend to be cats or kittens — and then to be Hannah Montana, followed by Spider-Man saving the day. And in doing so, they develop some of humanity’s most consequential faculties. They learn the art, pleasure and power of hypothesis — imagining new possibilities. And serious students of play believe that this helps make the species great.”
Have you ever been working on a problem, and become stuck? You just can’t find a way forward, can’t see what the solution is, no matter how hard you try. Finally, in frustration, you walk away and take up another task. Only to, after a while, while you’re doing something totally unrelated, think of a new possible solution for the problem.
When we find a way to play, by doing something we find fun, by engaging in an activity whose purpose is simply to bring us joy, we give our minds and spirits the chance to break out of old patterns and to experience something new.
In the 1995 movie The American President, actor Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd. At the end of the film, he stands in the White House Press Room and gives a powerful speech, which includes this phrase:
“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.”
I’m guessing that we all believe that we have some serious problems to solve in our world, our country, our community. And we need to be thinking seriously about how to solve them. No doubt about it!
We have serious problems, and we need serious people to solve them.
We seem to have, though, an overabundance of serious people in our world. You can see the seriousness in the furrow of their brows, in the stern tone of their voices, in their unsmiling, grave delivery of their message.
So why aren’t our problems already solved?
The problem is not that we are not taking the issues of our world seriously enough. The problem is not that we aren’t taking our faith seriously enough. The problem arises when we take ourselves too seriously.
We have plenty of negativity and fearmongering. What our world desperately needs is hopeful people, creative people, innovative people.
In all that thinking seriously, there is an important place for wonder and for the childlike traits of wonder and play.
For these simple reasons:
Opening ourselves to wonder allows us to see the positive possibilities in our world. When we stop to be in awe, we are focusing on what is good and powerful and Spirit-filled. And that gives us strength to face our lives with new, revived courage.
And finding ways to play with joy breaks us out of the places we’re stuck in our life and in our faith.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
Receiving the Kingdom of God like a little child, that’s what we’ve been looking at over these past four weeks.
Being like a child, carrying hope with us as we walk through the world, because we trust in the love of God, and we are open what God is doing in our lives.
Acknowledging our frustration and anger, and then using that energy to make active, constructive change in the world around us.
Making the conscious choice each day to look at the people — all the people — around us with love, asking God to show us the image of God at the core of each.
And being progressively more aware of the majesty and beauty and miracles all around us each day, and to greet that wonder with a playful spirit, with joy and creativity.
“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” No doubt about it. Our world has never before been in such dire need of people willing to take our problems seriously.
But part of taking our problems seriously,
and being serious about solving them
is being bold enough,
to move with wonder and joy and hope,
like little children,
through our world.
May God bless you… you fabulous Child of God!!