Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Out There That's In Here...

 This is from one of my favorite writers, a Liberal Baptist preacher in Texas (wow...).  His name is Gordon Atkinson, but he's more commonly known as "Real Live Preacher" (his site is  

I just read this essay in his latest collection of writings and it really struck me.  It sort of explains why, with all of my admitted uncertainties and issues with religion, I work hard to let faith carry the day over doubt.  On good days, it does.  On others, it doesn't, but I think that's ok too.  

Here's Gordon to explain why:

ON A WING AND A PRAYER by Gordon Atkinson

This is the “Sombrero Galaxy.” It lies 50 million light years away from us in the Virgo cluster and contains an estimated 800 billion suns.

Someone named it after a Mexican hat, an act so incongruous as to border on blasphemy, to my way of thinking. Why not follow that by drawing Kilroy on a Torah scroll? Let him hang over the very name of God with his nose dangling between the He and the Wa.

I prefer the simple dignity of the Messier designation – M104. Whisper it if you must say it out loud, then let an astronomer/priest write it on vellum and slip it reverently into a wooden map drawer in some secret location.

I showed my oldest daughter this picture recently, and we talked about 50 million light years. I say we talked about it, but that's not exactly true. You can't talk about something that is beyond the human capacity of understanding. I can't grasp the size of Texas. What am I going to say about a light year?

“There are something like 800 billion suns in this galaxy,” I said. “And there are billions of galaxies like this in our universe.”

We sat in stupefied silence, shaking our heads.
“Do you think there's intelligent life out there?” she asked.
“I do. Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I DON'T know. But I THINK so. When I consider what I can grasp about the size of the Universe, which isn't much, it just makes sense to me that there is intelligent life out there. Of course, we're pretty cut off by the limitations imposed by the speed of light.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, by the time we see or hear anything from distant star systems, the light or the radio waves are already millions of years old in some cases. There's a lot going on out there, but we can't see it or hear it.”

She seemed very disappointed, so I told her about Voyager.

In 1977 NASA launched two identical Voyager spacecraft. Their mission was to travel straight through our solar system, radioing information back along the way, and then move beyond Pluto and out into deep space. Radio signals and information will continue to be received from Voyager until its systems fail sometime around 2020.

After that it will continue to travel in silence for what we might as well call forever.

But Voyager carries something more than scientific instruments. It also contains a golden disc that was the brainchild of Dr. Carl Sagan, then professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University.
This golden disc contains a delightful collection of sounds and images from our planet, as well as some mathematical symbols and keys to help an intelligent species understand it.

The odds against any intelligent being ever viewing this disc are, literally, astronomical. You'd have a better chance of finding a contact lens in the Pacific Ocean. The institute for the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence estimates that it will take Voyager 750 million years just to reach the nearest star system.
And yet, Dr. Sagan and others spent the time, effort, and money needed to create their golden disc. Why would they do that? Dr. Sagan said, “The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Indeed. I say it took great faith, hope, and love to launch this golden disc into the Cosmos on a wing and a prayer. The possibility of finding intelligent life was worth the effort whatever the odds.

I call it an act of pure worship.

When the end you seek is so wonderful, so unthinkably good, and so compelling that you would throw yourself against time, space, and even reality for a the slightest chance of finding it, you are worshipping indeed.

And that is why I bow my head in prayer every day of my life.


Norah's Arc

Wendy found Norah Jones in her stocking this Christmas.  Not literally, that would've been a gift for me, but her new CD, "The Fall".  We've been enjoying it quite a bit.  However, if I had paid heed to one disparaged purchaser on I-Tunes, I'd have missed out on this treat.  An armchair critic reviewed the CD, giving it low marks and pining, "What happened to my Norah?"

Apparently, these guitar-driven tunes, not unlike something you might hear from Rickie Lee Jones, aren't what this listener expected.  She wanted "Come Away With Me 2" or "Norah Sings the Standards", I'm guessing.  Perhaps Norah's slice of Americana pie wasn't to her liking, but the question she poses - What happened to my Norah? - touches an artistic nerve with me.

While there are certainly some entertainers who are willing to sell their soul to sell a few CDs, books, or movie tickets, it is admirable, I think, for an artist to follow their muse, even if it takes them out of public favor.  The artistic spirit is a restless one, and stagnation is nothing short of calamitous.   Wrongheaded inspiration, such as a vanity project, can lead to such missteps as Waterworld , the extra 300 pages in a Tom Wolfe novel, or any number of art-rock concept albums.  But, to not risk, to not dare, leaves the rest of us mere mortals here on the ground with nothing to show us what's possible.  Evolution  and creation may be diametrically opposed in Southern Baptist pews, but in art, both are required.  One must create, and then one must evolve before they create again.  

I'm sure a number of onlookers gawked when Salvador Dali went from bowls of fruit to melting clocks.  A lot of fans tuned out when the Beatles stopped rhyming 'June' with 'moon', missing out on "Revolver" and every masterpiece thereafter.  And why couldn't Woody Allen keep making those Marx Brothers-inspired slapstick flicks like "Bananas"?  

The word 'artist' gets thrown around too often, to be sure, but a word that doesn't get used enough is 'audience'.  We are called 'the consumer' more often these days.  As a consumer, we feel entitled to get exactly what we want from our favorite actor, filmmaker, author, or musician.  However, as an audience member, we are a more active participant, a part of the creation process.  We watch the arc of our favorite artists' journeys, and we accept that some steps may take them out of our comfort zone.  They may make a Holocaust film after we fell in love with their comedies, an acoustic folk album when we know them for their edgy guitar rock, a Broadway musical about rollerskating toys when we want more songs about cats.  No, wait, scratch that last one.  

But, even though I find little that's redeeming in the work of Sir Lloyd Weber, I will say, he's followed his muse, even when it's led to wretched excess.  Good for him.

And good for Norah, who is following her muse and inviting those open-minded enough to join her on the journey.