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.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Answering the Call: Daring to Dream

For quite a few years now I have sensed that there is a call on my life. I’ve wrestled with questions like:

· What do I feel God calling me to do and be specifically?

· What’s is my unique role to play in advancing the Kingdom of God?

· What is it that would bring my heart alive and provide a compelling dream or vision that would help guide my life?

· What would it mean for me to: “become what I was born to be”?

I feel as I made some progress answering these questions over the past few years. I’ve studied the topic of calling extensively, attended retreats, and even participated in an on-line “Make a Living, Have a Life” group through Lumunos with others seeking to discover their own calling.

But there is still hesitancy within me, an anchor that drags behind me and slows me down and holds me back from moving full speed ahead toward answering the call.

Sometimes I think the difficulties and distractions in my life are the anchor. My family has certainly had more than its fair share in recent days[1]. And there is certainly no denying that the external circumstances that impact our lives can create barriers that make pursuing one’s call more challenging. But recently a trusted friend said that he felt you could take all the “external stuff” away and I might still struggle to discover my purpose, pursue my dreams, and live life with passion. It was a little jarring for me to hear, but I know he’s right.

It would be convenient to blame external circumstances for stopping me from living out my call, but I believe the single biggest anchor lies within me—in the depths of my own heart and soul.

From the time I was very young, my mother struggled with mental illness. It’s difficult to understate how much impact this had on my childhood. My mom was extremely overprotective and sheltering of me as a child. I wasn’t really encouraged to try new things growing up. My mom’s fears and anxieties about life were projected onto me. At every turn the message I received growing up was rather ambiguous: I’m not sure if you have what it takes to succeed or not. I have carried that lack of confidence in my competence into adulthood.

Not only was I sheltered, but I think that so much of my dad’s energy went into compensating for mom’s limitation that there was precious little left for my brother and me. The family environment always had to be carefully controlled to keep my mom (and my dad) happy. You can imagine in that kind of environment, that more often that not, I was not asked what I wanted but rather told what others expected me to do and expected to conform. That’ kind of environment doesn’t encourage you to dream. In fact the message my brother and I had reinforced over and over again (whether spoken or implied) was that expectations should be severely curtailed—i.e., don’t waste your time with dreams, because they can’t come true; you might as well deal with reality. We learned not to ask for much growing up so we wouldn’t be disappointed. Sometimes we were even shamed when we wanted something—i.e., the message in short was: it’s wrong to have desires.

I used to think my wounds didn’t matter that much, but now I see that this is a fallacy the Enemy used to hold me in place for years. The fact is, my wounds were very real, they mattered a great deal, and had a huge impact on the person I have become.

Open your heart

I am calling you

Right from the very start

Your wounded heart was calling, too

Open your arms

You will find the answer

When you answer to the Call

—“The Call”, Celtic Women

I believe that reckoning with my past has been a first and important step to unlocking my future and living out my call. I now realize that the impact of my wounds extends well beyond me and impacts the people that I love most. Sometimes my wife becomes so frustrated with some of the things I do over and over again—and my actions (those things I do almost without thinking about it) arise out of my warped and wounded heart and soul. Sometimes my relationship with my children is not what I wish it was—and when I think about why, it often comes back to my wounds. In fact, I would venture to say that my wounds have had some adverse impact on my entire circle of relationships.

As I have come to understand the wounds of my past and the impact they had on me it’s not surprising that I find it hard to dream, give expression to my desires, and even decisively answer a simple question like, “What do you want for dinner tonight?” much less a more profound one like, “What do you want out of life?”

On the other hand, while unearthing my wounds are has helped me make progress in clarifying my calling, simply knowing what they are has not allowed me to discover and embrace my call. Something more is needed…

God is showing me is that it’s not really my wounds that hold me back from living out my calling—it’s the power that I choose to give them. That is to say, I have allowed my wounds to anchor me to my past and prevent me from living fully in the present and pursuing my dreams and desires for the future.

Throughout my life I have felt a bit like a dog on a choke chain. It always seemed like whenever I tried to “stretch” too far in pursuit of my dreams and desires, sooner or later I was always harshly jerked back to reality. Stretching myself and failing proved painful and so, over time, I learned to carve out a life that worked within the “limits” I imposed on myself. Now, don’t misunderstand me; I certainly I enjoy many blessings in my life. I have a wife and family that I consider wonderful gifts from God. I love them deeply and they teach me much about how I want to live. I have a good job that at least partially connects with what I love to do (writing) and I make a decent salary doing it. I love God and I passionately want to see the Church be all God intends it to be; I love study of God’s word and teaching others.

All these things bring me happiness, prosperity, security, etc.—and all of them make me feel good. But still, something seems to be missing in my life… and I think that elusive thing is joy.

If I am honest, I would say that most days my life feels more like a series of chores that need to get done than it does a great adventure to live. I try not to let the world know just how much my wounds hurt me and “limit” me. I plod along from day-to-day sometimes laughing, sometimes shedding a tear—but I am always guarded. I don’t want to let on just how bad I feel sometimes—after all, faith in Christ is supposed to help us feel good isn’t it—but the truth is my wounded heart languishes, and I feel like I may never live out my God-given calling. From my current vantage point I see parts of what God wants me to be, but I can’t “complete” the picture—and God often seems frustratingly vague (even silent) about the rest of the details. I wonder what it would it take for me to “see” more clearly and fulfill my calling? I’m honestly not sure…

God whispers to me and says that the secret to living life to the full lies in rediscovering my dreams and desires. To discover joy and bring my heart fully alive, I must be able to name and claim what I truly want out of this life.

I confess that my initial reaction is one of fear—I can’t do this God… I didn’t get much practice dreaming growing up, and sometimes I felt shamed when I expressed desires, so the prospect of doing so now is intimidating. I don’t think it’s so much that I don’t have desires and dreams, it’s more that I have never given myself permission to express them, so it’s hard to do something you’ve never really done in 40 years. It also feels like once I “go public” with my aspirations, I risk having my dreams and desires thwarted once again and opening up my old wounds—and I suppose I do…

Nevertheless, I sense that if I ever hope to discover a guiding God-given purpose for my life that will allow me to transcend the “light and momentary” difficulties of this life, I must be willing to risk naming and claiming my deepest dreams and desires. It’s only by doing this that my heart can come alive, and I can finally experience the deep and abiding joy that Christ promised everyone who follows him.


[1] Since the beginning of October, my wife and I have been displaced from our home by flood, lived in a hotel for two months, moved to a new, home, had a trusted employee betray us, had one of my wife’s churches burglarized on multiple occasions, and lived through the loss of my wife’s father after a long battle with dementia.