Saturday, September 21, 2013

Learn the Meaning

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day pours out the word to day, and night to night imparts knowledge.  Psalm 19:2-3

The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.  Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”  Matthew 9:11-13

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for? Robert Browning, Andrea Del Sarto, line 98


“The heavens declare the glory of God.” 

But humanity yield to the basic instincts and evil nature.  Today, we see examples of both.  Paul, in his letter to the people of Ephesus, encourages them to use their gifts to help to bring people closer to Jesus: “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith.” 

Yet, while Paul is trying to build up his audience, Matthew shares with us the petty jealousies expressed by the Pharisees when Jesus calls on the tax collector to become a follower and then dines with “sinners.”  Perhaps we should remember that playground taunt when the Pharisees make their derogatory remark?  “It takes one (sinner) to know (another) one (sinner).” 


Instead of giving in to the deadly sins in our nature, we do strive for something better and higher and greater.  We reach for the heavens with our every fiber and a lot of our nation’s money.  Sometimes we do it literally.  As you read this, there are three residents aboard the International Space Station conducting various experiments that will yield knowledge about making life better today and tomorrow.  From their perch 250 miles above us, they are almost like a stop along a train line to the future. 

There are certainly some lame arguments about why we should explore space and reach for the heavens – most notably the point made by Stephen Hawking and others who claim that because we've done such a crappy job of caring for our planet that we really do need to look for another place to live.

The U.S. is spending $17.7 billion on the space program this year.  For comparison, Americans spend $246 billion on beer.  And we spend about the same amount going out to eat.  Some argue that $17 billion would be better put to use right here alleviating poverty and making this world a better place to live.
But the question wrestled with by public policy makers, scientists, and society is whether it is ethical to explore when there is so much that needs to be done on Earth?  Should we not sacrifice the long-term dreams for the short-term gains?

Browning also wrote in the same poem quoted above, about how tied down we are to the demands of everyday life instead of to pursuit of our dreams.   

Love, we are in God’s hand.                            
How strange now looks the life he makes us lead;   
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are! 

We are fettered fast to the cost of tacking human problems here on earth and in our back yard – actions we can take in our jobs and in our volunteer activity.  So why spend this $17 billion with all these other issues to tackle.  Because there is a big part of me which would love for the family service centers and youth programs and soup kitchens to have that extra money. 

There is certainly one school of thought which focuses on exploration for the return on investment.  Another argument looks at the comparative expenditures for other (more frivolous?) products.

After witnessing my first actual rocket launch this week, I have been trying to put such an activity into context.  Next to the sheer awesome light and sound watching the Antares/Cygnus craft blast off from Wallops Island, Va, one of the more compelling images of the week was this one of the flag being flown at half-mast in honor of the 12 victims of the latest act of mass murder at the Washington Navy Yard.

According to one of its own historical papers, NASA’s chief historian acknowledges that “Today there are ample reasons one might give not to continue space exploration. 2001 -- Supposed to be the year of Arthur C. Clarke's "Space Odyssey," will forever be remembered instead for the events of 9/11. We do have to deal with the reality of world events, but surely we should not let terrorism set the agenda. H. G. Wells said many years ago that "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." 

Rather than a race, perhaps it is the tug of war between gravity and weightlessness, between our angelic nature and the leviathan – literally and figuratively.
Let us not surrender to the leviathan but seek to attain the heavenly by the ample reasons to continue to explore.  Certainly we can reap the benefits of new technologies here on earth.  Look around.  That cell phone in your pocket.  The digital camera.  The computer you are reading this on.  All that and more help us as a society and economy and advances in the space program have returned many times the value to the U.S. treasury with patents and royalties.

But, I tend to think of more altruistic reasons why we should continue.  Because this gives us a chance to work together and get over the kinds of petty jealousies that we hear from the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. 

Peaceful cooperation between nations on projects like the International Space Station not only spread the costs out among nations, it also gives us more opportunity to work together on joint ventures – and maybe learn lessons that help all nations play better in the sand box together.  Maybe God gave us the heavens as another place where we can learn to exceed our grasp whether we are spending dollars or euros or rubles or yuans.  That may be why this continue to be a great way that we can continue to take small steps for mankind and giant leaps for cooperation.  

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