Infinity and beyond

Amidst all that was happening last week as General Synod met in York and the Conservative Party began the process to find a new leader for them and a new Prime Minister for us, there was something that took us above and beyond all of that. The pictures that were released from NASA’s relatively new James Webb Space Telescope were beautiful and amazing and mind-boggling. The stars have always captured human imagination but these pictures took us to places that we never imagined we could see.

I was pretty poor at physics but one of the things that I do remember is that light travels at 186,000 miles per second. So when we were being told that what we were seeing in the images that the telescope sent back to earth was from the first beginnings of the universe I can’t begin to imagine how far that is away from this planet that we call home, how big the universe is, or anything about it. There seemed to be what looked like cliffs made of gases, pinpricks of light, stars being born, other stars dying, signs of countless planets. Buzz Lightyear made his first appearance on our screens in 1995 in the first of the ‘Toy Story’ films with his now very familiar catchphrase, ‘To infinity and beyond’. I thought about it as I looked in awe and wonder.

The nursery rhyme I was taught as a child seems to capture so much of what these new revelations invoke in me

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

The youngest children who come along to Southwark Cathedral’s Learning Centre tend to begin with ‘awe and wonder’, the jaw dropping experience of entering a large space, the beauty of somewhere fresh and different. Even though as adults we may feel that we have seen it all before, we can also find ourselves in the same place as our five year old self, wondering what we are looking at, trying to make sense of the awesome reality of whatever it is that is confronting us. It is an amazing feeling, overwhelming and humbling.

I am nothing of a ‘Creationist’ but I have been thinking, since those photos emerged, about how I understand Genesis 1 and I have to admit that the more I know, the more we discover, the more that I am shown, the more I go back to those verses and find deep truth there. The writer seems to describe the process of creation in a way that science seems to confirm more and more. The amazing literary device of setting the whole story in the context of a working week helps me hold what is hard to grasp, consider what is beyond my imagining. The mistake comes in accepting those elements of the account which help to hold the story, as literal truth. But the myth is deep truth and for me, personally, I can understand what I am being shown in no other way. We look into infinity but the beyond is the divine, the ultimate movement of love which set the whole dynamic process into being.

That is why I am so looking forward to the installation of Gaia in the Cathedral in October. Although it has already been displayed in many churches and large spaces I haven’t yet seen it. I’m sure that the pictures I have seen do not do it justice, and standing beneath it, viewing it from all angles will help me in this evolutionary process of my understanding of things I simply cannot comprehend. The psalmist was similarly in awe of what they saw and in Psalm 8 writes this

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have ordained,
What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them;
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?
(Psalm 8.4-5)

The God who creates in the infinite and loves the finite in humanity, who at once inhabits all that is and is incarnate in human flesh, ‘whose hands flung stars into space’, as Graham Kendrick wrote and values each sparrow that falls to the ground, who counts the hairs on our head and the grains of sand on the seashore and ‘rides on the ancient heaven of heavens’ (Psalm 68.33), is the God we know and who we worship and adore. This truly is our awesome God.

Awesome God, for all you reveal of your self, of your love, of your life in the intricate beauty of creation, we give you thanks and praise. Amen.

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What a wonderful world!

Louis Armstrong had a wonderful hit with his song, released in 1968, that had the refrain

And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

His voice was amazing and the lyrics were inspiring. I’m going to let it be my ear-worm during the period that COP26 is meeting in Glasgow from next Sunday. This much anticipated, much talked about conference is about to happen and big people with big ideas will be travelling in from everywhere to try to decide how we move forward, together, to save the planet.

And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

Most of us faced with the reality of climate change and the degradation of so much in creation, the destruction, the consequences of global warming, feel like little people with little ideas. But maybe when faced with something of this magnitude you do feel little, helpless.

There is no doubt that we are seeing the effects of climate change all around us. Just one example from Southwark Cathedral. At the moment – it feels like every other week – the rain falls and it falls in a torrential manner. We have always had heavy rain, but nothing like this. The building cannot cope. The mediaeval and the Victorian parts of the structure were not designed for this quantity of rain in this length of time. Too much too quickly. So it overflows the gutters, it overflows the hoppers and it enters into the building. Visitors in the last few weeks may have noticed water stains on the wall above the archeological chamber in Lancelot’s Link or on the other side of that wall in the Harvard Chapel. Don’t worry we are on to it. We have already had many of the gutters re-profiled to take the greater quantity of water – but we will need to do more work, if the building is to survive.

Just one example close to home of what is happening around the world. The effects on the poorest communities, people who have historically lived on low lying land out of choice or necessity, are devastating to see. The effects on the creatures with whom we share this planet are devastating to see.

It is easy to be overwhelmed but none of us can afford to be. Little things that we can do should not be pushed aside because they aren’t great things. At the Deanery we are assiduous about recycling and not wasting food wherever possible. We have changed all our light bulbs to low-energy long lasting alternatives. We have recently reduced the temperature of each load of washing by 10 degrees. We walk as much as we can and use the car as little as we can. It sounds ridiculous even listing them; can they possibly help make the change that we need to make?

And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

The Bible opens with such a wonderful account of creation. There is a different refrain in those verses to that sung by Louis Armstrong but the sentiment is the same

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
(Genesis 1.31)

That goodness is under severe threat and we have to act. Those who gather in Glasgow must make all the air-miles clocked up by them worthwhile with courageous decisions and big actions. And the rest of us need to be given the encouragement to make the little changes that together will have the big effect.

Creator God,
whose goodness shines through creation,
whose wonders are known in the deeps,
whose beauty is seen in the skies,
whose image is found in each one of us;
forgive our failure
to steward all you have made
and set us on a better path
where we will find that all is good.
Amen.

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