10/7/18: What Are Human Beings? Psalm 8
What Are Human Beings?
First Lesson: Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-24 (CEB)
Second Lesson: Psalm 8
Rev. Scott Dickison
Until three years ago, we only had one picture of the entire earth, which of course would need to be taken from space.
You’ve seen this first picture before: the iconic shot of the full sphere of the earth. It’s called “The Blue Marble,” and was shot in 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts on their way to the moon. As astronaut Eugene Cernan described upon his return, “You can see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up, and it’s moving in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.”
The first color photograph of the earth from space—or in the more existential sense, “the first photograph of our planet taken by a human not currently on our planet”—came four years earlier. It’s the image on the cover of the bulletin. It’s called “Earthrise” and was taken by astronaut William Anders while on the Apollo 8 spacecraft, the first manned orbital mission to the moon. While not as famous now as the full spherical shot of the earth, when this first picture was release it captivated the public. Some have even suggested it spurred pro-environmental legislation and led to the inception of Earth Day.
All of this, by the way, I learned while reading a fascinating article by an art writer named Haley Weiss, that I’ll link to on the website, the text of which I’m drawing heavily from here, in which she describes the program responsible for this recent flood of new pictures taken of the Earth from space. Called the DSCOVR program (Deep Space Climate Observatory). This unmanned spacecraft takes pictures of Earth multiple times a day which are then posted online by NASA within hours. While they’ve only been taking pictures for the last three years or so, the mission was first conceived in 1998 by then Vice President Al Gore. Gore said of those first iconic space images, “They drive home the essential truth that we all share the same planetary home…We have a common future, a common destiny.” And so his idea was to situate a satellite that would send an “active, uninterrupted digital view of the sunlit face of Earth back to the planet,” in the hopes that these images would “be a unifying force” in the world.
Gore’s purposes were not immediately appreciated back in ‘98. The article notes, “One house representative called the mission “a multimillion-dollar screensaver,” and another a “far-out boondoggle.”The program has been in and out of activity given the varying political climates since then, but is, at least through the end of this year, still taking pictures of earth, day after day. Dr. Adam Szabo, DSCOVR’s project scientist at NASA has said, “We don’t have any other mission providing these kind of images of Earth…Some people say, ‘Don’t you have enough? We have literally thousands of images of Earth now, how many more thousands do you need?’ I say every year is different from the last, so we always learn something new.”
Scientists learned this past week that the Allied bombings of Germany in World War II were so powerful they sent shockwaves that reached the edge of space. This from Ashley Strickland at CNN.
“While the impact of the massive bombing raids during World War II left deep and obvious scars on the land, a new study suggests that the shockwaves reached the edge of space as well. As a result, those shockwaves actually weakened Earth's upper atmosphere, called the ionosphere. The discovery was made recently after researchers analyzed daily records from the Radio Research Station” in the U.K. “What they didn't realize at the time was that the [ionsopheric records]…contain the signatures of the actual war itself," said Chris Scott, study author and University of Reading professor of space and atmospheric physics.
"The images of neighborhoods across Europe reduced to rubble due to wartime air raids are a lasting reminder of the destruction that can be caused by man-made explosions," said Scott. "But the impact of these bombs way up in the Earth's atmosphere has never been realized until now. It’s astonishing to see how the ripples caused by man-made explosions can affect the edge of space.”
Our call to worship this morning was a poem by the great British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Born and raised an Anglican, as a young man Hopkins converted to Catholicism—much to the consternation of his English family. And not only did he convert, but entered the priesthood in the Jesuit order. He was a curious person: brilliant, but quiet and somewhat awkward. He shared very little of his poetry with anyone other than a few friends and it wasn’t until after his death that a friend saw that it was published, and even then, it wasn’t for another few decades that it began to be appreciated. Now Hopkins is understood as one of the forbearers to modern poetry, remaining in someways unique because of the overt spirituality of his writings. God’s Grandeuris one of his most famous poems, describing the majesty of God, whose “glory is set above the heavens.” But another of his poems, entitled, Pied Beauty, may be his finest. In it he describes the smaller miracles of creations:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.
“All things counter, original, spare, strange”—even these things bear the beauty of God, he writes. Even a shy, awkward, converted-Catholic priest poet who would never know of his brilliance.
Scene 4: Again from WWII
Lt. Colonel Mervin Willett Goninwas among the first British soldiers to arrive at the Nazi Death Camp Bergen-Belsen. His diary from those days after the end of the war when the Brits took charge of the camp and before it was eventually closed has been preserved. The picture he paints of that scene—the horror, the death, the chaos, the inhumanity, the sheer scale of disaster, the number of people there—are almost too much to bear. He writes, “One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.
But sometime in 1945 he wrote this account:
It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance.
I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm…That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
On the day the Lord God made earth and sky—before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land— the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.
When I look at your heavens,the psalmist writes, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
This may be among the most honest questions of all of scripture: What are human beings that God would be mindful of us? That God would pay attention to us, that God would bother to care, that God would not only see, but know and even love? What are we?
The universe is so big—infinitely larger than the ancient psalmist could have known—and yet this feeling of smallness has always been a part of human life. Always.
We’re dust. On this much, science and scripture agree. And yet, the psalmist continues, You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. And this, too, is true.
We are but dust walking around on a piece of rock suspended in infinite darkness, and yet we’re capable of leaving this floating rock on a vehicle of our own making and turning around and taking a picture of it. And then another picture, and another, another.
We are but dust, and yet we’re able to fabricate weapons powerful enough not simply to wipe our cities and scar the earth, but send shockwaves out to the edge of space.
We’re just dust and yet we can find words and rhythm enough to describe the texture of God’s beauty and perhaps even the expanse of the human soul.
We’re just dust and yet with a little lipstick…
What are we? We, who both bear and defile God’s image?
We who were made by God’s hands from the dirt, the same stuff of creation, and then charged with it’s care, and yet who are solely responsible for its destruction?
What are we?
As far as scripture is concerned, to ask this question is to answer it.
To ask it in full knowledge of our complexity, our hypocrisy, our paradox: our strengths that are also our weaknesses, our weaknesses that in the end are revealed as our strengths—to ask this question of what we are, in this way, this complete way, this honest way, this faithful way, is to answer it.
We are all these things. All of us. Not just some of us, but all of us, all of it.
We are both dirt and divine.
Soil and sacrament.
Breath and spirit.
We’re all of it, all of us, all the time. And for reasons beyond our comprehension and of which even scripture is silent, God is mindful of us.
To ask this question of “what we are” is to answer it. And to live as if it were true…
This is why we’re here.
“We Only Had One Photograph of the Entire Earth—Until Three Years Ago,” by Haley Weiss. May 18, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-one-photograph-entire-earth-three-years-ago
“Shockwaves from WWII bombing reached the edge of space,” Ashley Strickland, CNN. September 25, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/25/world/wwii-bomb-raids-ionosphere-space/index.html