This guest post is by Jill Crainshaw.Where were you five years ago on July 4th? Nothing is recorded on my Google calendar for that date, and I don’t remember what I was doing.
A Google search uncovered some of the news that headlined on July 4th five years ago. The cover of Time posed the question, “Does the U.S. Constitution Still Matter?” Debates were raging on Capitol Hill over tax revenue and the debt ceiling. Environmental scientists warned of a creepy-crawly insect interloper from China, the ash borer, that had killed 60 million trees in 15 states. And NASA was one month away from launching a spacecraft named Juno into the cosmos on a journey to Jupiter.
Juno has been speeding through space for five years now on its way to Jupiter, more than 360 million miles away from the ground under my earthbound feet. I only know this because I happened to listen to NPR in my car today as I drove to my neighborhood coffee shop for an iced coffee and a few hours of writing.
Until I heard the NPR story, the only night sky spectacle I anticipated for this July 4th was the annual fireworks extravaganza scheduled for after the Winston-Salem Dash baseball game. Now I know that while fireworks engineers stitch kaleidoscopic colors into the night sky, scientists will be holding their breath and watching to see if their timing is perfect enough to sync Juno with Jupiter’s gravity on the first and only try.
As I type these words, NASA scientists are preparing to press the ignite switch at 11 p.m. or so Eastern Time on what is called the “Jupiter Orbit Insertion Maneuver.” They get one shot at slowing Juno down enough to fall into Jupiter’s orbit. If their timing is off, Juno will scamper away into space and the mission will be lost. This all has to happen while taking into account a 49-minute communications delay between here and Jupiter.
Since hearing about the Juno orbit insertion maneuver, a question has been hovering around my July 4th holiday activities: how can it be that we live in a world where we have the capacity to send a spaceship to Jupiter, communicate with that ship within a millisecond’s accuracy across a 49-minute delay, put the brakes on and parallel park the ship into a new orbit, and capture photographs and other data about the mysteries of a planet hundreds of millions of miles away, but we lack the perspective on human life to do what it takes to stop gun violence or end racism or intervene where horrors of hunger or hate or hypocrisy prevail?
Many will “ooh” and “ahh” as fire-ignited colors explode into the air tonight. When will we again be as wonderstruck by the vastness of the cosmos as we are by the advances of fireworks technology? And what will it take for us again to hold a stance of wonder about the vast diversity of God’s creation that propels us to demand and work for justice for all of that creation?
I had an old dog once. He was not always old. He became old as he and I journeyed life together over a decade or so. His name was Deacon. My friends said Deacon was an apt companion for a liturgical theologian because he was devoted to rituals. Deacon was committed to “the way we do things every day,” from getting up at the precise “getting up” hour to walking each morning without fail to eating at the same time every day to sitting together in our favorite chair at the appropriate time every evening.
As Deacon grew older, he needed more assistance with his last trip outdoors before going to bed. This required a change in ritual from just sending him out the backdoor into our fenced yard and welcoming him back after he had taken care of business to suiting him up with harness and leash and walking with him up and down the sidewalk out front. Deacon embraced with his usual ritual fervor this new version of his nighttime sacramental act; I was less enthusiastic.
“You’re a liturgist,” Sheila said when I complained about the new nighttime outings. “Can’t you turn this into a meaningful ritual? Maybe you can think of it as saying goodbye to the night. Don’t you liturgical theologians love that sort of thing?”
As soon as I took Sheila’s advice and became intentional about saying goodbye to the night, I began to notice anew the moon and stars. And that stirred in me new reflections about life here on Earth. So much happens here beneath the expanse of the night sky, and God calls us to join God in the everyday work of caring for each other and for the good ground beneath our feet. We can only do that if our eyes and hearts are opened wide in wonder at the expansive and generous mysteries of God’s presence within us, alongside us, and in every millimeter and millisecond of the cosmos beyond us.
Tonight, while I watch fireworks with friends, the Juno spaceship will draw near to Jupiter. I am going to squint my eyes to see if I can catch a glimpse of that spectacle, though I know I will only be able to imagine that night sky mystery. And later, when I walk our young terrier, Penny, and the beagle, Tucker, outside for their final evening orbit, I will say goodbye to the night with bittersweet astonishment in my heart and a prayer on my lips for all those whose goodbye’s to the night are filled with lament or suffering or uncertainty:
May we as a human community be awestruck anew by the gift of life. Let wonder interrupt our limited perspectives that lead to shortsighted and justice-depleted visions of freedom. God, open our hearts and eyes to your infinite grace and give us courage to live out in justice-making actions the promises of that grace.
I wrote the following lament several weeks ago in response to the news of Muhammad Ali’s funeral, the persistence of the European refugee crisis, and Brock Turner’s sentencing. I continue to pray that we can find in our prayer practices and everyday actions justice-filled responses to the groans and cries of God’s hurting people and God’s hurting earth.
while saying goodbye to the night
a beagle a terrier and their human wander
out under the stars
a circadian backyard
this day God
grant us restful
in peace brother boxer butterfly bee
legendary seeker after human goodness
as thousands hold farewell
i lift my eyes to the sparkling expanse out there
somewhere a teenager struggles to stay afloat in a
refugee sea while
falls into troubled dreams of a twilight assault
in an alleyway behind a trash bin
a heroic rescuer
to remember what now forever stalks his heart
lives changed in an instant
in the twinkling
of an eye turned heavenward
a beagle a terrier and their human
say goodbye to another
About Jill Crainshaw
Jill Crainshaw is a PCUSA minister and Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is the author of several books on worship and ministry.