Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Glory in You: Lighting the Way and Flavoring the World

As many of you know my paid gig is working for NASA[1] as a writer–editor. Our group does outreach for NASA’s Earth Science activities. Did you know NASA studied our own planet? Did you care? If not, maybe I’m not doing my job well!

When you think of NASA the first thing you probably think of is astronauts in space and maybe if you spend more than a minute thinking about it, you might remember some probes to study the other planets and the Universe beyond. But while it isn’t as well known to the average person on the street, we also do some pretty important investigations of Earth. We have a fleet of Earth observing spacecraft studying our home planet, assessing how the climate might be changing, and what impacts that might have on you and me. That’s a bit more personal than studying the moons of Jupiter. Some of the things we’re looking at could have a pretty major impact on our lives. You can learn more about our Earth observing missions at:

eospso.gsfc.nasa.gov/eos_homepage/mission_profiles/index.php

We have a new mission that is scheduled to launch on February 23; it has an interesting name—Glory. The new mission will study two things that have a big influence on our climate. (I’ve put an extremely simplified discussion below but you could learn much more at: glory.gsfc.nasa.gov/.)

The first thing Glory will observe is an object that’s pretty hard to miss—the Sun. You could call the Sun the “Star” of our Solar System; it literally is the star around which the planets rotate. The Sun is the source of light in our lives. Can you imagine life without the Sun? It’s pretty hard to contemplate because without the Sun life as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. If the Earth existed at all, it would be a lifeless block of ice. Glory will study the amount of energy coming from the Sun—the scientists call it total solar irradiance. That energy drives our climate and it changes ever so slightly over time for various reasons. Even a small change in the amount of energy reaching the Earth can have a big impact on our climate.

The second thing Glory will study is a whole lot more subtle—aerosols. I’m not talking about something you spray out of a can; I am talking about tiny particles in Earth’s atmosphere. Some come from the activities of humans and others originate from natural sources. All but the largest aerosols are virtually invisible to the naked eye. You have probably lived your whole life and never though about aerosols—and you may not feel particularly deprived. But remember, just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not important.

In fact, just like the light from the Sun, aerosols have a significant impact on climate. They impact climate directly—as the particles interact with sunlight—and indirectly—through the influence they have on the formation of clouds. Scientists already know that aerosols are very important, but there are still significant disagreements about the exact impact they have on climate. These uncertainties make it hard to more accurately predict how the climate is going to change. They hope that Glory’s observations will help them gain a better understanding of these tiny particles that potentially have such a big impact on Earth’s climate.

Well my job is to write for NASA but my calling is to write for the glory of God—oh, now that’s an interesting word choice. Coincidence? I think not… Sometimes I confess I struggle to connect what I get paid to do with my greater sense of call. But then there are moments when God clobbers me over the head with an opportunity to connect the two. The launch of Glory struck me as just such an opportunity.

It is interesting to me (a follower of Christ trained as a scientist) that a mission organized by NASA—a secular government agency—chose Glory for its name. Glory will measure both a very obvious phenomena (the light from the Sun) and a much more subtle—but no less important—one (aerosols). I don’t know if the scientists planned it this way but I can’t help but see a parallel to two ways the phrase glory of God is used in the Bible and other religious contexts.

When the phrase glory of God is used the Bible, it tends to have two different uses. The Hebrew word used is shekinah, which means radiance of God. Sometimes when the writers of Scripture speak about the glory of God they are talking about something obvious and spectacular. Often, there is a brilliant light associated with the encounter—like the blinding light when we gaze directly into the Sun. Notice that anytime the angels show up, it’s a pretty spectacular occurrence. Notice the first reaction of those visited is usually terror; also notice the word glory is usually close at hand in those encounters.

Maybe the best known examples of the glory of God in this context are when the angels appear during the “Christmas story” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke—especially when they visit the shepherds. Another occurs in the book of Exodus when Moses asks to see God—the light is so bright he can’t look directly at God and survive. Another is when Jesus is with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. Some of the Gospel accounts of this event suggest that the revelation of who Jesus really was associated with some very obvious and spectacular visible phenomena. The experience clearly has an impact on the disciples so it seems clear that something happened that got their attention! Then at the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation talks about a city that no longer needs the light of the Sun, because the glory of God is the source of light. Whether you take those words literally or not, it’s certainly an image that evokes a powerful image of a light so bright that it outshines the Sun.

The other use of glory of God is a much more subtle, less obvious—but no less real or important. It’s the idea that glory is the essence of who someone or what something is. After his great victory of the Prophets of the heathen god Baal, Elijah has an encounter with God. But unlike Moses, the encounter is much more subdued.

Elijah finally realizes that God is not in a fire, or windstorm, but in a gentle whisper. In that instance the glory of God is a very subtle thing that we could easily miss if we are don’t focus on it and intentionally search for it.

It was St. Iraeneus that said: “The glory of God is a [person] fully alive.”

I think what Iraeneus is saying is that we most exhibit the essence of who God is when we discover who God has created us to be and work with God to make God’s vision for who we can be a reality in our life.

In this context, glory of God is sometimes invisible at first—kind of like tiny particles in our atmosphere that are best seen when viewed with a special kind of light. Our glory is something that is within us but God desires for us to believe it exists, and work with God so that it can become visible in this world. Even if we never make the choice to search for the glory of God within us, that doesn’t mean it’s not there, and having an impact on our lives. Our glory calls to us; God beckons us to answer.

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his followers, and those gathered to listen to him speak that day: salt of the Earth and light of the world [Matthew 5:13-16]. Those are interesting metaphors in light of the pending launch of a NASA mission to study both the brilliant light from the Sun and the tiny particles in Earth’s atmosphere (salt particles being prevalent among them).

Salt and light are also fitting images as we think of living out God’s call in our lives. Light is brilliant and obvious and sometimes it’s what God needs us to be. There are times when we are called to decisively stand out from the crowd and shine like stars in a dark place. Certainly, this was true of the life of Jesus. In the end, letting his light shine would cost Jesus his life!

But I suppose that far more often in this life, you and I will be more like salt, which has a much more subtle but no less important impact. We tend to notice salt more when it is absent than when it is present. Salt makes food taste better. If our food tastes good already, we don’t reach for the saltshaker. Many times you and I may not be in the spotlight, but like the saltshaker, we will be available at the table, waiting faithfully, until God reaches for us to flavor the world.

As we become aware of who we have been created to be, we begin to realize that God provides us opportunities each day to add our unique flavoring to the world we live in. And when you think about it, if we can make the repetitive nature of daily life just a little less bland, then we have probably done a good and Godly thing—maybe even a redemptive thing.


[1] Technically I am a contractor and our company supports NASA, but that’s more complicated to say and doesn’t sound nearly as cool at cocktail parties. And the fact is many who work for NASA are contractors; civil servants are outnumbered.

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