“Space Exploration” 8/5/2018 Guest Preacher Marshall Welch

Space Exploration
Sermon Moreland Presbyterian Church – August 5, 2018
Marshall Welch

Back in the sixties, when I was a kid….we would stay home from school to watch the launch of the Mercury astronauts. Some of you here today might be able to recall and relate to that experience. It was a big deal. We all hit the proverbial pause button of life to watch in wonder and awe as these explorers were blasted into space. These space explorers were the heroes of the time and we knew their names the same way we knew the names of famous athletes…Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. The new, young, handsome President Kennedy would call this the New Frontier of Space Exploration.

So this morning….I want to talk about space exploration….but…in a different way.

Ever walked through an art museum? You’ve probably noticed there’s adequate… space between the exhibits on display. Why? To create borders and boundaries….to keep other visual stuff from encroaching…..This allows ample room or….space to take in what we’re seeing and looking at. Otherwise…all the visual information would just bombard us into mental oblivion.

And just think about the space in between letters when writing and reading words….without that… space….it would all be a visual mumbo jumbo….a pile of letters and squiggly lines that we can’t make sense of.

Finally….think about the musical notes that make up a song. Without….space….in between the notes….it would just be a mash or splosh of sound…..noise.

When…. and if…. we take time to explore space….this everyday kind of space that’s all around us….we gradually discover that space helps us make sense of the world. But if you’re like me…..life doesn’t seem anything like an art museum…all the exhibits of everyday life on display are jammed together. There are no borders or boundaries to create any space…and that makes it difficult to make sense of the world around us.

Today….the space around us is cluttered with visual and auditory noise….Traffic….ear buds….commercials….muzak…the clatter of conversation and dishes in a restaurant…pod casts…..radio talk shows….commuting….running errands….making ends meet….checking email and texts…..The din and overall busy-ness of the world is deafening….we literally can’t hear our selves…. think…

OK…let’s think about and explore space in another…. slightly different way….

Consider the waves in the ocean. Waves are produced by energy….by a combination of factors that literally stir up the water. These factors or elements can be wind….currents….gravitational pull of the moon….basically stuff that agitate the surface of the ocean. Every wave, has a peak…and then a valley….and guess what…yup….you’ve got it…there is a space or gap between that peak and valley. That space is devoid of any action. Nothingness. A flatness of calm. And when all the factors and elements that agitate the surface are reduced or eliminated….the waves go away…you have stillness…calm…peace. Now there’s a concept….reducing or eliminating all the agitations churning around us. But space is not just…. “out there”

Our bodies are actually wired for space. It is programmed into our bodies…….space to rest….relax….to not do. There are itty-bitty spaces….tucked away into the nooks and crannies of our hearts and brains.

Like the waves on the ocean….there are waves that can be found in our own heart beat…there’s a pause in between each beat…albeit short and sweet…never-the-less….there’s a space… in between the peak…. and the valley of each beat. It’s called the T wave – that’s T as in Tango — The T-wave is essentially a recovery period or….space….that allows our ventricles to….relax…before opening and closing once again to allow blood to flow. Admittedly….that space is just a second in duration….but without it….well, the ol’ ticker would wear out….and then where would we be?

Even our brain has waves of peaks and valleys with a space between them….that space is a moment of rest…even for a fraction of a second. Certain types of brain waves have a greater space in between the peak and valley of actively processing information. The waves get “flatter” which allows time or…space…for the brain to take a break from working. Alpha waves kick in when the brain is not busy sorting through stuff…reflecting a relaxed state of mind. THETA waves are even flatter and more mellow…it’s that state of mind we enter when we drift off to sleep. Finally we have DELTA waves that produce a deep, dreamless sleep…the condition is much like that of the ocean when it’s calm…. OK – enough of the science lesson….

So….What is space?

Space is an area that is free, available, or unoccupied — another word for it might be gap….and that space or gap is defined by height, depth, width and even…time.

In many ways, architects are the real space explorers. According to Kirsti Menna at the Helsinki University of Technology….space is a basic tool of architecture…it is the air between objects and…. nothingness. Jason Furnell is an architect who specializes in….well….space. He said… Architects ponder how space will be used….what will be the experience in that space? Architect Luis Barragan said, the ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, and mystery. Hmmm… I like that. Have any of you been to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland? It is the interplay of architecture, plants, poetry, rocks, and water that create tranquil space in the middle of urban setting. The sounds of the city were still there…but in the background. The setting allowed you to focus on what was happening inside….inside the garden…and inside yourself. I encourage you to go there sometime. By the way….they request you turn off your cell phone when you enter.

Now…for some of us….folks who are retired…we may actually have a whole lot of space in our lives. But again…going back to principles of architecture…the question is…how do we use that space…what will be the experience in our space?

So…this concept of space actually begins to make sense spiritually and theologically. The spiritual question is….how are we architects for our own lives???? How do we ponder how our space will be used and experienced? How do we create space for magic…serenity…and mystery in our lives? But here’s the rub….

Like I said….the world is a crazy place. It can seem like every waking moment of the day is a series of multi-tasking. We find our selves trying to catch our breath…we are suffocating in a world crammed with stuff and stuff to do. There is no space or gap in our personal life….it is filled with newsfeeds…emails…. tweets…. advertising….to-do lists….news headlines…over-working…driving…shopping. Is it possible that this thing [hold up the phone]…. has taken control over us and not the other way around….for many of us…we’ve become prisoners of this piece of technology….after all why do you think it’s called a cell phone? But it doesn’t have to be technology…it can be any of the things I rattled off earlier and then some. The problem today is we have little to no mental space. We are too busy filling up each and every moment multi-tasking…in an effort to be efficient…getting more done…and faster. Advertising is bombarding us with messages about what we need to make us feel better…more alive….more fulfilled when what we REALLY need is just some……space. Or is that just me?

After all, as we learned from this morning’s reading from the New Testament….even Christ and the disciples had to ”pull the plug” and get away from time-to- time. If they can do it…surely we can give our selves permission to do the same. And yet….it seems we are unable to hear that tiny inner voice that is locked inside us….our….inner space. Guess what….that tiny inner voice is God. Today’s scripture reminded us to….Be still….and know that I am God.

OK – you’re probably thinking….sure I could use some personal space….but how…when….where? I know….it almost seems un-natural doesn’t it….we’re just not used to this idea of creating our own little temple of space.

Hmmm…now there’s an interesting word…temple. It has all kinds of religious connotations to it. But the root of the word itself means…. “empty space” and it’s the basis of the word “template” which means a kind of an empty framework to be filled in. Well….that’s what a temple is…an empty space….it becomes sacred space when we carve out space for God.

Sacred space can be a church….but it doesn’t have to be….it doesn’t have to be elaborate… or located in far-flung places or settings – Indeed, sacred space can be carved out in the most mundane places and manner. Personally speaking…I will share….dare I say….confess with all of you here today that a favorite sacred space of mine is… smoking a cigar. Now…given its odiferous nature, this activity tends to occur in isolation away from others. However, I have come to discover and understand that smoking a cigar is by no means a solitary spiritual exercise. I am convinced that God pulls up a chair and joins me as I reflect on who I am, who I want to be. It is… as Joseph Campbell said, Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again. Smoking a cigar is a commitment to at least one hour of contemplation…where I can ponder the past, present and future…I can wrestle with regret as well as savor my blessings with God who doesn’t seem to mind the smoke. It gives whole new meaning to the expression….“holy smoke.”

The point here is…like the art museum….we need to set up boundaries and borders that in turn…create some much needed inner space that can’t and won’t be invaded. That’s why it’s called sacred….we’ve carved out space for God. This way we can see and process everything…which helps make sense of the world. There’s another word for this….it’s called prayer.

Let’s re-think and re-act to a broader understanding and practice of prayer. Let’s not make this harder than it has to be. Henri Nouwen characterized prayer as just spending time with God. There it is.

That may be part of the problem – we make prayer more complicated than it really is. Many theologians have struggled with and re-examined prayer. And if they struggle with prayer, then we can let our selves off the hook a bit. It’s reassuring to know we are in good company. Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and scholar who has published a whole bunch of books. He readily admits he does not have an ordered prayer life. But he goes on to say he has discovered that his scholarly writing is a form of prayer and sacred space because the process requires him to inwardly and deeply listen for meaning in his life. Another theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, confesses she is a “failure at prayer,” still struggling to understand and practice it. She readily admits that, “To say I love God but do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.” She has come to see prayer as the practice of being present with God. Have you ever stopped to notice God helping you do the dishes? Have you ever considered doing the dishes as a form of prayer? For both of these theologians, prayer is an awareness and being present to the moment in which God comes to us. And this…brings us back around to….space. Are we….like architects…contemplating how that space is used? Are we carving out space where God can find us and hang out with us?

John Neafsey is a Theologian at Santa Clara University…and he has examined prayer and presents some interesting and alternative ways of thinking about it. He notes that we tend to think of prayer as going to God, usually to seek something. He suggests we reframe our notion of prayer and sacred space as God coming to us. The problem is that we are so busy and out life is so cluttered with noise that we don’t have the….space to take the time to notice or to listen. Neafsey goes on to acknowledge the popular notion of prayer as talking to God, as if it were a conversation. He argues, however, that a conversation is a two-way street comprised of talking and listening. Perhaps we are doing all the talking and not enough listening.

John Neafsey and Henri Nouwen both look at prayer from a psychological perspective suggesting it is a process of paying attention to the unconscious – to that inner voice that is often drowned out by the clutter and din of our lives. Henri Nouwen said the real “work” of prayer is to silently listen to our inner voice.

So…why is it we don’t take or make the time to create a little space for our selves? Well….there may be two or three reasons…all related. One….is the cultural expectation that to be of any worth or value or purpose or meaning…we have to be doing something. We can probably chalk that one up to the old Protestant work ethic … that ethos has permeated our culture….and that, of course, is translated into monetary values. Our inherent “worth” is based on what we do and how much of it we do and accomplish….even if it kills us in the process. We either “spend” time or “waste” time…it has become a commodity.

Second….I think we’re just bored and have short attention spans. The idea….let alone the actual practice… of just sitting….doing nothing…watching the world…taking a walk….is beyond us. We feel compelled to fill in that space. Why do we feel a need to fill in that space? Well, I think it may be tied to a third possibility.

If we were really honest with our self…we might admit…or even confess …that we’re a little worried about what might bubble up for us if we did make some space for just sitting and thinking…… Our busy-ness may very well be a convenient distraction…..a way to ignore that inner voice in our inner space. It would mean we’d have to acknowledge and come to grips with who we are…or who we aren’t. What we can and can’t be….what we’ve become or have not become. Let’s face it….most of us… just don’t want to go there. After all, who would, really? Why would we want to come face-to-face with our vulnerabilities? Sorry…no thanks. But remember…..prayer is God wanting to be with US….God already knows about our physical and emotional warts and God is OK with that. Through grace we’re accepted and loved. But this space also provides an opportunity to savor life…nature…and others in our life. Our inner space exploration is….prayer.

So…where are these sacred spaces in our lives where God can find us? Well…that’s up to you to figure out but you have to slow down to do so. But here are some suggestions. It could be working in the garden…taking a walk…doing the dishes…sitting in your car at the red traffic light….watching a grandchild marvel at a dandelion….it could even be smoking a cigar. These seemingly mundane temples are where we can carve out space for God. But….it’s not so much where we find God…but where God finds us. And so…while I may appear to be channeling and paraphrasing the late President Kennedy, my invitation to you is to become a spiritual astronaut and do some space exploration of your own. It’s truly not that complicated. All we have to do is stop….be still. That’s where and how God will find you.

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