Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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February 10th, 2018 · No Comments · Faith and the City

On August nights, I sit on a bench by Ojibway Lake, a mile or so from the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. A soft breeze keeps mosquitoes away. I lean back and look up. The vast, winking dome of the cosmos pulls a single word from me. I cannot help it.

Every time I stare at the heavens in that quiet, dark place, I exhale a hushed “Wow.”

Something about being face to face with the stars flips a contemplative switch in me.

In late summer, in the northern hemisphere, the closest star (other than the sun) visible to the naked eye is Sirius, the Dog Star. When light leaves Sirius (traveling at 186,000 miles a second) it takes almost nine years (light years) to travel to earth. Other stars are considerably farther away. Rho Cassiopeiae is at least 8,000 light years away. I am looking into the past.

Actually I am looking at multiple pasts. Light from a myriad of stars, all at different distances from the earth, is being taken in by my retinas in an instant. For that self-absorbed moment, I am the center of the universe! After all, my mind is organizing all of these stimuli into a single snap-shot.

Then I look again. “Wow.” Still “Wow.” Always “Wow.”

I try to process: the countless stars, the vast distances, the huge spans of time. I am no center. I am an insignificant speck, desperately and futilely trying to make sense of what I am seeing. I cannot even trust my eyes.

Staring up, my eyes and my brain are working together to make sense of reality. This is a tricky business, given that my eyes (and your eyes) can only see a fraction of the total radiation/light/energy that is all around us. Our senses are limited. Our bodies are remarkable, but they are not aware of even most of what is going on around us. We are finite. We are also prone to mistakes.

Wait, aren’t we the animals who reason? Don’t our rational powers separate us from the rest of the pack? Maybe. But contemporary psychologists like Jonathan Haidt cast doubts on our ability to uncover reality with reason. Ironically, says Haidt, humans typically employ reason to confirm deep-seated intuitions and prejudices.

For centuries, philosophers have voiced doubts about the reliability of our senses and the purity of our powers of reason. In recent years, however, technology and social media have accelerated our anxiety. “It is difficult,” said a friend’s teenage son, “to know what is true and what is real anymore. I don’t know what to trust. How do we know America landed people on the moon? What if it was all a hoax?”

Starting Sunday, and throughout the holy season of Lent, we are going to join this young man in asking: “What’s real? What’s fake? What do we know — really know — to be true?” We are going to start at the molten core of our faith and ask: “What do we know about Jesus?”

Bring your friends, bring your colleagues, bring your inquiring, hopeful spirit to this journey. Let’s gaze at the stars together.

See you in worship,
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