Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pale Blue Dot

Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe had given us the first close up pictures of the outer planets. By 1990, it had reached the edge of the solar system. On February 14, 1990 Voyager 1 was commanded to turn around and take one last picture, a picture of the Earth. At a distance of 3.7 billion miles, the Earth was only 1 pixel in size, a "Pale Blue Dot". Carl Sagan, the astrophyscist who lobbied NASA to take the picture, penned these words to describe the image:
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. —Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi

When the Earth is seen from this vantage point, we may recall the words of the Psalmist: When I consider the heavens...what is man that thou art mindful of him? This image, perhaps more than any other, is a picture of the place where our finite little world and the infinite meet. Even the most experienced world traveler, who has been to every corner of the globe, can only boast that they have gone from one side of the dot to the other. Of what account are our discoveries and advancements in science? Our loves, our hates, our worries, our squabbles, and even our wars seem petty when measured against the infinite cosmos. In the end, we are just travellers together on an 8000 mile wide ball of rock with only two miles of breathable atmosphere between us and oblivion.

Carl Sagan had hoped that this photograph would change our perspective and our behavior:

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
The certainty that we have a right to the life we are living, that the universe "owes us", ought to be tempered. Rather we should be aware of the obligation we owe our fellow travellers. Hopefully this image and the perspective it conveys would form our resolutions as we begin a new year to "deal more kindly with one another".

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fear Not

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.' " Luke 2:10-14

The first greeting of Heaven to men announcing Christ's entry into the world was an entreaty to lay aside fear. Fear is often our first response to the unknown. Fear closes our minds to new possibilities, therefore fear had to be put aside.

Fear can certainly cause us to miss out on life. How many people and places do we avoid because of fear? How many experiences do we miss out on? How many opportunities to do good are passed up? Fear is a thief. It can rob us of a full life.

Fear can lead us to lead us to healthy responses. We get our annual physical. We change our smoke alarm batteries. We buckle our seatbelts. Wear a helmet. Prudently, we take every reasonable precaution and then carry on with life.

Fear can also lead us to do harm, great harm, to ourselves and others. Fear-induced anxiety and stress insiduously rob us of our health. How much harm, moreover how much evil has been done in response to fear? How often have people been burned to death trapped by bars on their windows? How often has a personal cache of arms been used against the owner, their families, or others? How many wars have been started because of real or perceived threats?

If anyone should lay aside fear, it should be those of us who claim the message as our own. If we believers cannot lay aside our fears, then who can? It is not only a matter of obedience but of trust. Jesus told of a man who was fully armed to protect himself and his home. Then one day, thieves broke in and overpowered him, leading Jesus to ask, "what became of the arms in which the man trusted?". The answer is obvious; at the critical moment, they were ineffective.

So how should we respond to the angels' message? If we believe, let us take the angel's message to heart. Let us set aside our fear and explore new possibilities of grace that we can extend to others. If we spread "peace, goodwill towards men" that is so desparately needed by the world, then we can expect to "overcome evil with good".

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Zealots will make the most inflamatory films and cartoons and give the most incendiary speeches knowing full well that this will spark people and even whole nations to violence. For those of us who think of ourselves as "Christ's Followers", we might recall that Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God". Peacemaking is a dangerous business, more dangerous than war perhaps, because in war only one side will try to kill you. Eight hundred years ago, in the midst of another war between Christians and Muslims, someone was brave enough to take Christ at his word and make the attempt.
In 1219 St. Francis and Brother Illuminato accompanied the armies of western Europe to Damietta, Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade. His desire was to speak peacefully with Muslim people about Christianity, even if it mean dying as a martyr. He tried to stop the Crusaders from attacking the Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but failed. After the defeat of the western armies, he crossed the battle line with Brother Illuminato, was arrested and beaten by Arab soldiers, and eventually was taken to the sultan, Malek al-Kamil. Al-Kamil was known as a kind, generous, fair ruler. He was nephew to the great Salah al-Din. At Damietta alone he offered peace to the Crusaders five times, and, according to western accounts, treated defeated Crusaders humanely. His goal was to establish a peaceful coexistence with Christians. After an initial attempt by Francis and the sultan to convert the other, both quickly realized that the other already knew and loved God. Francis and Illuminato remained with al-Kamil and his Sufi teacher Fakhr ad-din al-Farisi for as many as twenty days, discussing prayer and the mystical life. When Francis left, al-Kamil gave him an ivory trumpet, which is still preserved in the crypt of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. This encounter, which occurred between September 1 and 26, is a paradigm for interfaith dialog in our time. Despite differences in religion, people of prayer can find common ground in their experiences of God. Dialog demands that we truly listen to the other; but, before we can listen, we must see the other as a precious human being, loved by God. There is no other path to peace in this bloody 21st century. Francis and his brothers did not make this trip as part of the battle to regain the Holy Land. Rather, they went in opposition to the mainstream theological and political orthodoxies of the time, to meet the Muslim people, and to live among them as “lesser brothers.” Francis and his brothers went to be present among this people who were being portrayed as evil enemies of Christ, and, in his evangelism of presence, Francis found the spirit of God to be alive and at work within the Muslim people, then called “the Saracens”. Francis admired their public, repeated acknowledgment of God and call to prayer, and he appreciated the deep reverence they showed to their holy book, the Qur’an. While the main trend of the time was for Christian preachers to deliver strident, inflammatory sermons against Islam, Francis forbade his brothers to take part in these exercises. He demanded that his brothers be present first and foremost, living with and among the Saracens. They were to preach only if they felt that it would “please the Lord.” Francis worked to prevent the brotherhood from becoming embroiled in the grasp for civil and ecclesiastical offices and power, and kept the community’s focus on serving their neighbors for the glory of God only.
-Jesus-Like Living in the Midst of Other Religions by Ron Cole.
The result of this encounter was that Francis was allowed safe conduct. Christian control of Holy sites was granted and has remained until this day. Otherwise, Francis' brave act of peace-making has been largely forgotten. For that matter, so have the words of Christ which Francis acted upon. The challenge of our day is reclaim these words of Christ and act on them.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


I have observed that there is something in the air these days. Not quite sure what it is. A zeitgeist perhaps. Anger in the streets. Anger in politics.  Failing schools. Failing churches. Failing cities. Failures to launch. Perhaps these are disparate trends...but I don't think so.

I would suggest that a possible cause is disempowerment. Webster's defines disempowerment as the state of  being "deprived of power or influence." Here, I apply it specifically to mean the loss of power to make or own our own decisions or to influence outcomes.

How have we become disempowered as individuals and as a society? How do we disempower others? We disempower as we attempt to ensure good outcomes. We teach people that life must be fair for them.  When we shelter people from responsibility, they learn to assume "someone else will take care of it". When we excuse every negative character trait instead of confronting it, people learn they can behave without regard for others. When we fulfil obligations for others, they learn not to care. When we decide for others, they learn to be apathetic.

We disempower our institutions when we disempower their constituents. We may appear to be doing a good thing, to ensure institutional loyalty and faithfulness to mission, but in the end we have a lifeless, lethargic organization, too apathetic to own any aspect of its success or failure.

We participate in our own disempowerment when we let others do our thinking for us. When we jump on a religious or political bandwagon and accept group-think uncritically, we have disempowered ourselves.

The greatest thing we can do for ourselves is to ask questions, to learn, to make a decision, to take responsibility, and act to change things for the better.

The greatest thing we can do for our fellow human being is to empower them. To give them useful knowledge, to help them develop self-discipline, confidence, and resilience so they can make decisions. To release them with our blessing to live their life and use the gifts God has given them.

Empowerment is not a new concept. It's been done before. Jesus did it for his disciples. Jesus taught his followers. He showed them and gave them the power to act. Jesus made his followers into disciples. He empowered them.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Marriage Thoughts

While some people defer or avoid marriage and others demanding recognition for their unions, the occasion of our thirty-third wedding anniversary seemed like a good time to weigh in on the topic. So what have we learned these last 33 years?

Marriage is about a lot things: love, unconditional acceptance, being welcomed home, and building a family. Marriage means sharing milestones: births, graduations, marriages, and ultimately an empty nest. Marriage means supporting each other through difficult times. It means journeying through the illness and loss of family members. Marriage is sharing life with all its joys and sorrows.

So what have we learned about having the best possible marriage?

The first thing, the most important thing is to see the image of God in your spouse. Once you see your spouse  as a unique creation of God, with unique passions and abilities, you learn to appreciate them and the gift of God that they are to you. From that appreciation derives love and respect. It all has to start there.

The second thing is to give one hundred percent.....not fifty percent. There can  be no yellow lines or tape dividing off portions of ones' life from their spouse. Our finances are jointly held as is our home. We accept the fact that we will each be in different states of employment at different times. We split the mundane tasks of housekeeping. If you know your spouse likes a clean house, then take the initiative to keep it that way. Love your spouse's family as if they were your own.....they are now

The third thing is to give your spouse is trust. We both have access to each others' bank accounts. While we don't routinely snoop on each others' computers and phones, I have no problem asking my spouse to look something up on my phone or e-mail.

The fourth thing is to give your spouse is space. Encourage and empower your spouse to pursue their goals and dreams. Encourage and support their individual relationships. You cannot be a support for everything they are going through and will go through. Be wise enough to know your limits.

The fifth thing is to be united against divisive forces. Argue in private, but be united in public. Never let anyone, friend or family, sow a seed of discord between you.  The bottom line has to be, "Don't make me choose between my spouse and you because if you force the issue, you will lose."

The sixth thing is to is challenge each other. Through each other we become acquainted with ourselves. We need encouragement to become our better selves. Instead of playing off each others' weaknesses and mutually enabling stagnation, we need to build each others' strengths and encourage growth in every area of life.

The seventh thing is to see marriage as a journey through life that you take together with another person. We have to see our life and our lives together as a journey with a purpose. The problem is most of the time we don't know what that purpose is. It does not even occur to us that as individuals or as a married couple that we even have a purpose. Perhaps it is better to redefine "purpose" as "meaning." Viktor Frankl said, "our meaning in life is found as we help others find their meaning in life.

Finally, love each other. It may seem obvious, but what does does it mean...."love each other?" St. Paul tells us: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Quiet Influence

Earl J Holdren (1928 - 2012)

I met Earl in 1978 as a newly hired engineering undergrad. Over time we began to work together on projects, and I came to realize how fortunate I was to have him not only as a career mentor, but as a I life mentor, and ultimately as a friend.

As an engineering mentor, he taught me everything he knew. Analog circuits, signal conditioning, bridge amplifiers, A/D converters, fiber-optics, microprocessors, programming, interfacing, digital logic. Looking back, I am amazed at his breadth of knowledge over so many engineering disciplines. I had the privilege of working with him to develop Chrysler's third-generation optical digital crash recording system which was used in dynamic crash testing for over 10 years and is still used in static safety testing to this day!

As a life mentor, Earl taught me integrity and faith. He taught me to be tolerant of different beliefs and respectful of the sensitivities of others. As for integrity, he demonstrated it. You could rely on Earl and could trust him without question. He was a man of strong faith and integrity; this was  reflected by his peaceful demeanor.

As a friend, our relationship was improbable. We were a generation apart. I was about the same age as his children. Nevertheless, Earl and I developed a close friendship. We shared many walks and talks in and around the old Highland Park complex. We talked about life, career, family, and faith. The certainty of his faith rubbed off on me. After Earl retired, I was able to periodically visit him in Windsor where he lived. He and his wife Betty graciously welcomed me (and sometimes my entire family) into their home for visits and afternoon teas.

It is said that a person is known by the company they keep. It was an honor to have been in Earl's company.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Where is Jesus?

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Greece. I visited Greek Orthodox churches and a number of Greek homes. I observed that there were icons (religious paintings or reliefs of saints and Christ) everywhere: in churches, in taxi's, and in homes. In one home in particular there was a large icon of Christ in the hallway. Wanting to take a group portrait, the patriarch of the family half-jokingly said we should gather under the portrait of Jesus, to include Him.

The idea that we should include Jesus in our photo, persisted in my thoughts. It seemed absurd to me that Jesus was a portrait on the wall and that we should go gather by His picture to include Him in a snapshot of our lives. Then came my "ah-hah" moment. The location of Jesus has been the source of much, if not all the controversy within Christianity!

Having attended churches of at least five denominations, I have observed Christians have many differing beliefs as to where Jesus is located. Some believe that Jesus' entire substance is in the bread and the wine. Others say that Jesus' entirety is encompassed by word and sacrament. Still others say He is contained by the word alone ("sola scriptura"). So where exactly is Jesus? Where should I expect to find him?

I remembered reading that Jesus could often be found in the presence of outcasts: tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, and those rejected by the religious establishment. Among the "least of these", Jesus often said "the Kingdom of God is near". He equated His presence among misfits with the nearness of God's Kingdom. I also recalled that when Jesus was asked when and where the Kingdom would come, he replied "The Kingdom of God is within you!"

Tolstoy defined the "Kingdom of God is within you" not as a mystical religion but as a "new conception of life." So what does this have to do with the picture, the icon on the wall? Well, the picture is one way of locating Jesus, albeit in a mystical religious way. On the other hand, if I take Jesus at his word, that the Kingdom of God is within me, then Jesus is not just a picture on the wall! A "new conception of life" is that His Kingdom is within me and that His life must be expressed through me. I must conceive of my life differently!