Alan Kirker

Cosmic Orphans?

August 21st, 2021 by

The following is a transcription of one of my father – Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker’s – sermons, originally delivered in August 1979.

One verse in the 147th Psalm which we read earlier, contains two basic affirmations about God: “He heals the broken-hearted; he tells the number of the stars”. The first is about God’s relationship with people, the second with His creation. Let’s reverse the order and begin with the second affirmation: “He tells the number of the stars” or, as the Hebrew may be rendered “He determines the number of stars. He gives to all of them their names”.

Have you tried naming the stars? A young girl crippled by an accident asked that her bed be moved near a window so that she might study the sky at night. Sometime later she told a visitor that she had a name for every star. What, he asked, do you call them? “Well, this bright one is Mom and that one is Dad, and those are my brothers and sisters, and my relations and friends, and the rest are the doctors and nurses who are good to me. Do you know, she added, there are not enough stars to go around?” The minister who told this story concluded with these words to his congregation: “Go home, you thankless people, and count the stars.”

Perhaps you have sat out some evening this summer and studied the sky, watching for a meteor shower or a satellite or SkyLab, or simply to restore your perspective. Around you stretched the universe in all directions: the rest of our solar system, its galaxy and the countless galaxies beyond. Here is no jewelled canopy but endless space with millions of heavenly bodies, each moving in a predetermined path with such dependability that eclipses and other phenomena can be predicted precisely.

For centuries the faith of many people has been found in its strongest basis in God’s revelation through nature. Pointing not only to the heavens above, but to the world of nature around us, in all its wonder and beauty, such folk concluded that because of this evidence of a plan, there must be a Planner. If a design, then a Designer.

This ‘argument from design’ as it has been called, has a long and honourable history. And it has the support of many, if not most, scientists. Writes one, the British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle:

“It is my view that man’s misguided imagination could never have chanced upon such structure as one finds in the universe. No literary genius could possibly have invented a story one-hundredth part as fantastic as the sober facts which have been unearthed by astronomical science.”

But then he adds: “Here we are with scarcely a clue as to whether our existence has any real significance”. When anyone contemplates the immensity of space and realizes that we are dwellers on a tiny planet among incredible billions of stars, one can’t help wondering if we are any more than infinitesimal pieces of futile insignificance. Could we be, as the anthropologist Loren Eiseley suggested in a recent essay, simply “cosmic orphans”?

Now both he and Fred Hoyle are brilliant and highly respected scientists, at the top of their respective fields. But one would have to say to them “You are wrong, expecting that mathematics, physics, or astronomy should explain the universe or our existence. That would be like trying to understand a Mozart quintet by analyzing the vibrations of which the universe is made up”.

The scientist is entitled to reply “Perhaps”, he might say, “but your beloved ‘argument from design’ has its limitations too. For one thing, there is too much of the universe to be packaged in a single design, and it goes on far too long to be explained by a single argument.” Moreover, adds Professor Hoyle,

“You Christians speak as if this was a cabbage-patch world and you had God in your pocket and know all about Him. The universe is not only vaster than you can imagine; it is expanding further all the time.”

So the conversation between science and religion continues. At one time it was bitter and acrimonious, but now a new phase has begun, as witness the recent conference of scientists and theologians at M.I.T. The old categories of mind versus matter have broken apart completely. Hit hard by recent breakthroughs in physics and biology, scientists, says botanist Edmund Sinnott, “are not as cocksure as we used to be”. The old laws, far from absolute, are now known to apply more and more to special cases. In this 100th anniversary year of Einstein’s birth, aspects of his theory of relativity are questioned. There is even uncertainty about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Science has also come under heavy attack because of the damage resulting from uncontrolled application of its technology. There is a new concern for the future of this planet, about the values by which we live, and about the destiny of the human species. In a word, the shift has been from an emphasis on the “How?” to the “Why?” of creation. It has become apparent that belief in God requires more than simply looking at the design of the universe. What is needed is evidence that we are made for a purpose greater than ourselves.

And this is precisely what religion seeks to do. Its scriptures are the stories of people with no knowledge of science worth speaking of. What little understanding of the physical universe they possessed was often gained from more scientifically advanced neighbours such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians. But our spiritual forebears, through their views of the universe, however limited this now appears to be, came to the unshakeable conviction that behind everything was the Mind of God, that in the beginning He created the universe, that He watches over it, that He alone Knows the number and the name of the stars.

But they possessed something more; an unsurpassed experience of life. Their history was one of homelessness and wandering, a constant struggle for survival, a little nation among giant neighbours, beset by enemies they could not stop with the affirmation of a Creative Intelligence behind all things. They came to believe as well that at the heart of the universe is that which is more like a father’s heart than anything else we know. Gazing at the immensities of space they were convinced that behind these tiny pin points of light is a Love which embraces all things. This God, they said, not only tells the number of the stars; He also heals the broken-hearted.

As if to confirm forever this great revelation of the nature of God, out of his very heart came One who confirmed that the supreme reality of the universe is not gigantic suns whirling through space but human personality, and a Person who is like a shepherd searching the hillsides for one lost sheep, like a woman turning her house upside down to find one lost coin, like a Father longing for the return of the Prodigal, a Father who marks even the flight of the sparrow, numbers of hairs on our head, gives us our daily bread, and loves each of his children as though he had but one child to love. This God who heals the broken in heart has been given face and form in Jesus the Christ.

One of the best-loved padres of the first World War was Col. Frederick George Scott of the Canadian Chaplain Corps. Always, he was to be found wherever his men needed him. He was also a poet who some years before the war penned these lines:

I arose at midnight and beheld the sky
Sown thick with stars like grains of golden sand,
Which God had scattered from his hand
Upon the floorways of his home on high.

And straight I pictured in my spirit's eye
The giant worlds, their course by Wisdom planned:
The weary wastes, the gulf no sight hath spanned,
And endless time forever passing by.

Then filled with wonder and a secret dread
I crept to where my child lay fast asleep
With chubby arms beneath his golden head.
What cared I then for all the stars above?

One little face shut out the boundless deep,
One little heart revealed the heart of love.

Tell me, where did love like that originate? From an accidental collocation of atoms in a cold, blind, mechanical universe? Or is love like that born in human hearts because it first existed at the heart of the universe?

Oh, the cynic may say, that’s nice poetry, but there may come a day when that little curly head is snatched from its pillow and nothing is left but precious memories and a broken heart. Yes, that may happen: in fact it happened to the man who wrote that poem. That little son, grown to manhood, became a soldier and also went to France and fought and fell.

Padre Scott tells in his autobiography about the night he journeyed across a battlefield freshly ploughed with shrapnel, and by the light of stars found the body of his son. Tenderly they bore him to a military cemetery where Padre Scott himself conducted the burial ceremonies. As he read the glorious words “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever believeth in me shall never die” there came over him the sense of a divine companionship, of a Father who had also given a Son. And in the hour of this Cavalry, Padre Scott learned anew the meaning of the Psalmist’s words “He heals the broken in heart”.

Life is not easy for many of you. The road is rough and steep, steeper and higher than our own friends realize. Bitter disappointments, secret sorrows, complex family problems, job frustration, loneliness: these dog the footsteps of many people.

To you I bring, not the philosophy of an accidental, purposeless universe in which we live out our little day as cosmic orphans before vanishing into nothingness, but the Good News of a living God who is not lost even among the stars, and who comes to His children in the midst of life and its challenges and says “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age”.

What more can we ask than that?

Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker
August 26, 1979

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