The story of the universe’s origins fill me with awe and wonder. How about you? In particular today, the scientific story of the universe leads me to reflect on time and change, awe and wonder.
In this morning’s story, we talked about what happened between the first few seconds of the universe to eight and a half billion years later with the formation of a young planet earth. Within a fraction of a second after the big bang, sub-atomic particles formed. Within a few minutes, the universe had Hydrogen and Helium. Yet it took a couple of hundred million years for the universe to generate light in what we think of as visible wavelengths. Some changes seem to happen instantly. Some take a long time to manifest.
Science gives us evidence for a lineage that traces back to the beginning of time. All of the elements in our bodies came from that first generation of stars, cooking Hydrogen and Helium into things like Carbon, Oxygen, Iron, Calcium. To quote Carl Sagan, we are made of star-stuff. Everything that makes up the molecules of us, the ground we walk upon, the water we drink, the food we eat, the clouds in the sky–every atom of everything we can see, touch, or know was once part of the burning heart of a star. You are part of the universe. You are part of the story of time and space, change and revolution, cooling down and burning bright again.
I believe you have many reasons to be optimistic and excited about the future. I also recognize that you are in the midst of a lot of change. This ministerial transition has been even more fluid than you may have expected, with two different Interim Ministers. We are in a liminal place with the ministerial search. The Strategic Planning Team is gathering information so that the congregation can, together, forge a new path. Not to mention that there is a lot of uncertainty in the world, and how we choose respond may transform us. A lot of change is happening. It’s not easy to be in-between, to be unsettled, to be in motion, and yet these places of uncertainty may bring us gifts of discernment and spiritual growth.
You may be feeling like a Hydrogen atom in the burning heart of a primordial star. Going from gas to liquid to solid doesn’t sound comfortable or easy. Yet I know that you are resilient and strong, and that becoming the community you are called to be means facing the future with courage.
Knowing that change is happening can be balanced with the feeling of stillness that comes from observing the sky. We know our sun has a lifespan as all stars do, but for the entirety of human history we have relied on the turning earth that brings the sun into view at predictable times. The constellations change, but over millennia, so we feel like we have a connection with ancient stargazers. The moon phases come and go in ways that seem reliable, and when we can observe the moon it calls to mind and heart the poetry of generations. We can feel connected in the midst of change.
Change and connectedness are both true. Noticing the movement of matter and energy helps us to harness that change, to cooperate with the forces that create and uphold life. Sometimes change comes in the form of learning. We’ve learned a lot about the origins of the universe in the last forty or fifty years. New telescopes let scientists see farther into the cosmos, which also means farther back in time as the light from long-ago stars finally reaches us. Recently refined computer models lead astronomers to suggest a complex early universe, with stars forming in companionship. Previously, they thought the primordial stars, the mother stars as they were called, were formed in isolation. So perhaps if we have some metaphors rolling around in our head about how lonely it is to be a star, it’s time to revise those. The universe has always been interdependent. We are made of star stuff. Our paths of transformation are bound up together. We are part of the same forces as the eternal lights in the heavens, and we are the way the universe has developed to know itself.
It seems to me that this lunar perspective, with which we notice both the feeling of stillness and the signs of change, could inspire those of us involved in congregational life. Even when a congregation is undergoing tremendous change, there is something comforting about the reliability of a church. Spiritual communities meet every week. Sacred buildings like this one are strong and solid. There is a spirit of history and heritage that moves through these halls. It might seem like life here is as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be; or maybe part of us wishes that it were so.
Yet I also see a people on the move. I see children and youth who are growing and asking different questions every year. I see adults whose concerns shift with the condition of the country and the cycle of life. Newcomers become friends and members. Congregations change. We cannot assume that having always done something a certain way is going to continue to be the best method for channeling our energy.
What is this community called to do together? How are you inspired to cooperate with the forces that create and uphold life? How are we as a Unitarian Universalist movement called to move in the world? As surely as the moon circles the earth, as surely as the tides pull in and out, the world around us is changing. We are going to need to be open to surprise and adaptation when things don’t happen the way we expect. In our quest to be a hospitable, compassionate, spiritual people, we are going to need to change to stay true to our values and our expectations of ourselves. What that means at the local level is up to you.
Change can be scary. We might be nervous about asking more of ourselves at a time when current events is leave some of us feeling drained. We might worry about losing the sense of security–of stillness–that comes from keeping things the same, even when those things aren’t working as well as they used to. Perhaps there have been times in your individual life when you felt the same way. Each one of us is a body in motion.
With a lunar perspective, we see that stillness and change are simultaneous. They are both true, depending on your vantage point. We can move with the tides and still take comfort in the assurance that this community provides a gentle, welcoming light.
In addition to this perspective on time and connectedness, science can lead us to a sense of wonder. Learning more about rational, scientific explanations for how the universe is unfolding only add to my feelings of awe and my gratitude for life. There is a sense of joy and connection in discovering that the same elements and laws of nature are at work in our bodies and among the galaxies.
Knowing that the story of the cosmos has followed reliable laws of nature does not take away the amazement. Among all of the planets in all of the galaxies, the elements have combined to create a home for life here. Among all of the beings that have existed on this planet, we are among the lucky ones who can remember and imagine. In all of the history of humanity, short as it is, the people of our generations have the ability to learn directly about the surface of other planets, to send messages back out to the cosmos, to see images of our own planet swimming through space.
We are blessed indeed. The universe has unfolded such that we have the precious and rare opportunity to seek and to understand. What meaning shall we draw from this? What do we want to do with this gift?
It seems to me that letting ourselves revel in awe of the interdependent web would be a start. Sing praises, write poems, read scientific papers, do what you can to spread enthusiasm for the world we are lucky enough to inherit. Keep doing those things. For Unitarian Universalists, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a religious experience.
If we’re ready to go further, we can advocate for the process of discovery. We can’t take for granted the freedoms of accurate science in the classroom, scientific research unfettered by corporate interests or anti-science extremism, or the will to use our collective knowledge to preserve our planet. We must resist efforts to hold hostage our sense of hospitality and mutual responsibility, we must not give into fear and racism.
A sense of wonder is a powerful thing. Let us honor the stars that we are made of with appreciation for the universe as it is and burning curiosity for what we have yet to learn.
The stars twinkling in the night sky are fiery suns, turning matter into energy every second of their existence. Change is the heritage of the universe. Embrace the changes ahead of you with the same sense of awe and wonder that you bring to the constellations, to the sunrise and sunset, to the visitations of comets. As Ms. Frizzle from the children’s show, The Magic School Bus says, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” You are made of star stuff. Now is the time for this nebula of stars to burn brightly and give birth to something new.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.