Moving Sunlight

Sometimes I am reminded of the smallness of humanity compared to the vastness of the universe and, in particular, the immensity of our solar system. I always catch my breath and pause in wonder when I remember that all of us humans exist on this tiny blue ball, tilted at around 23 degrees, orbiting around a relatively average star some 93 million miles away from us – a distance which in galactic terms is not very big, but is way bigger than any of us will ever travel in our lifetimes.

I saw two signs of this physical reality today.

First, on my morning run, I was running due west on Dopp Road, a two-lane road with white lines painted on either side. When there’s no traffic around, I will run pretty much on top of the white line on the left side of the road. On Monday morning, when I last ran, the sun was rising directly behind me. I noticed that my shadow fell exactly along the white line. This was unusual because all summer long, the sun has been further north in the sky, meaning my shadow has fallen off the road to the left.

But today, for the first time this season, I saw that my shadow just barely fell inside the white line, on the road itself. The season is changing, and the sun is on its southward quest for the next four months until it turns back north at the winter solstice.

Second, this afternoon, the sunlight came in my office window and shined directly on a little solar-powered mechanism that sits on my desk.

a marble in motion

The solar panel converts the sunlight into electric energy, which makes the motor turn the small gear, which turns the large gear, which slowly brings marbles up to the top, where they drop into the spiral slide which brings them back to the bottom once again.

This toy was a birthday gift and has been sitting on my desk for about a decade, I think. And in this time of year (also the late springtime), when the afternoon sun shines directly onto this corner of my desk, this little mechanism goes crazy. It gets so much direct sunlight for a few minutes that a marble drops about every thirty seconds. Normally, with ambient sunlight, one marble might drop every five minutes or so.

We live on a tiny blue ball orbiting a larger yellow ball, and we can only sit back and enjoy the cosmic show as little reminders of our physical universe make their way into our awareness.

The sunlight is moving. The seasons are changing. Of course, the sunlight is always moving at the same speed in all directions, outward from our sun. It’s just that our perception, our reception, of that sunlight is changing because our orientation toward the sun is changing. The sunlight isn’t really moving; we are.

Our scriptures contain lots of celebrations of the created order and the God who created it. Take, for instance, Psalm 104. It includes such lines as “[God] made the moon the mark the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. … The sun rises, and [the lions] steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labor until evening.”

I encourage you to read the whole psalm today, maybe while the sun is setting. Or tomorrow morning as the sun rises. God has created this universe with rhythms and patterns and routines, and we can rejoice in the beauty of this world in which we play an extremely tiny but extremely important role as its caretakers.

What I Experienced at West Middlesex

the welcome sign at the entrance to the West Middlesex campground

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of days of the camp meeting at West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. This was the 107th annual gathering of the National Association of the Church of God, and it was my first time to visit this area and attend services on “Zion’s Hill.”

Zion’s Hill is the name given to the hill on which the campground sits. Zion is a biblical reference to Jerusalem, the holy city of God. You can get a sense, just from the name, how people view this place and value the experiences that generations of Christians have shared there. I heard people use the phrase “sacred ground” multiple times during my visit.

Getting to the campground is a pilgrimage, in more ways than one. West Middlesex is in extreme western Pennsylvania, and the campground is a few miles outside of that town. From our hotel room, I drove through the forested Appalachian foothills along winding roads, which were barely wide enough for two vehicles and were not painted with lane markings. Finally, a clearing appeared along Campground Road, and I pulled into a spacious and beautiful area. Past a large and neatly mowed field of grass stands the sanctuary, a large white brick building. Beyond the sanctuary, further up the hill, I saw a number of houses and cabins where people live during the week of the camp meeting.

the sanctuary on Zion’s Hill

One important thing to understand about West Middlesex and the National Association is that this camp meeting is predominantly attended by African-American Christians in the Church of God. It’s been that way since their first gathering on Zion’s Hill in the early 1900s. We have a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity in the Church of God, more than in many other denominations, but we don’t always visit each other’s spaces. One of the preachers last week said, “We have too many separate spaces in the Church of God.”

We don’t always make the effort to see things from others’ perspectives, to worship in other styles, to experience being in the minority. (I say this from the point of view of a white man who lives in a 98%+ white county in central Michigan).

So I went, and I experienced lots of warmth, welcoming smiles, pleasant conversations, and joyful connections. I arrived alone but was glad to run into many people I’ve met in various places in the past.

I attended three worship services on Zion’s Hill before traveling onward. Much of what I experienced was familiar to me from other African-American worship services I’ve attended. Also, many of the songs we sang were quite familiar – old Church of God standards like “I’m Going On” and “In the Light of God.” But some things were new to me: The role of the chairperson, who actively directs or emcees the service from one element to the next. The offering time, when everyone who gives an offering marches up to the front to drop their gifts in the offering buckets. The ministers’ procession on Thursday night, when all ordained ministers are honored as they process into the sanctuary and sit in the very front pews.

a worship service inside the sanctuary

But one thing in particular stood out to me. It’s something I’ve read in books and heard in talks about African-American worship and probably seen before, but it’s beautiful to observe afresh:

People often sway from side to side in absolute unison with each other while they are singing. Not always, but often, and usually in response to the choir’s movements on the platform. It’s a way for these fellow Christians to embody their unity in worship. With every step they take, they are supporting others and are supported by others who are taking the exact same steps. They carry the messages of hope, sorrow, joy, peace, comfort within their bodies. That embodied sense of connection with each other shines through powerfully in how the people sway – even people who come from different parts of the country and may not know each other very well. The sense of embodiment reaches back through generations of believers who have swayed to the same music in that exact same space. This is a crucial component of African-American Christian worship which developed and grew through the horrors of slavery and the injustices of racial discrimination. This type of embodied corporate worship is something that I, as a white person with a white church background, simply do not have in my cultural vocabulary. It is something I deeply appreciate about the brief time I spent on Zion’s Hill last week.

gathering for the annual Ministers’ Photograph

On Thursday evening, before processing into the worship service, all the ordained ministers gathered near a large church bell for the annual ministers’ photograph. I stood at the back of the group because of my height, and as I stood there, I thought about the generations of pastors, chaplains, ministers, preachers, and servants who have stood there in the past. I am grateful for this first visit to West Middlesex and for the connections I made there. I have every intention of visiting again in the future – hopefully with more first-time visitors, too.

Lent 2023: Wednesday, April 5

Lent 2023: Wednesday, April 5

How can we better seek the presence of God? That’s the question for the theme of worship in this season of Lent. It’s a question that sits at the foundation of the Parable of the Sower found in Mark 4:1-20. The presence of God is close to each of us; how can we receive that presence with joy and depth?

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Lent 2023: Tuesday, April 4

Lent 2023: Tuesday, April 4

For the final time in this season of Lent, let’s focus on the theme of fasting: letting go of something which is not in God’s will. Pastor David reads Mark 3:20-35, where Jesus does this very thing in relation to his closest relationships and connections. What do we need to put down for this season?

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Lent 2023: Monday, April 3

Lent 2023: Monday, April 3

Repentance is about changing direction in our lives. Jesus offers this possibility to his opponents in Mark 2:23-3:6, but they remain fixated on their devotion to their interpretation of the law. Where do we need to change direction in our lives? Pastor David explores this theme in today’s video.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Monday, April 3, 2023

Lent 2023: Friday, March 31

Lent 2023: Friday, March 31

Jesus’s ministry began with a whole bunch of healings – and a handful of disciples that Jesus called to follow him so they could learn how to fish for people. In this season of Lent, we have many opportunities to care for others through how we give of ourselves. Listen in as Pastor David reads and reflects on Mark 1:14-39.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Friday, March 31, 2023

Lent 2023: Wednesday, March 29

Lent 2023: Wednesday, March 29

After Jesus died, Matthew 27:57-61 records three people near Jesus at his burial: Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and another Mary. They each had to give something up in order to honor God and to be near Jesus in that moment. Listen in to Pastor David’s reflection on this story as it relates to the theme of fasting.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Lent 2023: Tuesday, March 28

Lent 2023: Tuesday, March 28

The story of Jesus’s crucifixion gives us lots of opportunities to identify with people who follow his path or who oppose him. Repentance, changing direction in our lives, is necessary if we have been going in a direction contrary to the way of Jesus. Join Pastor David for today’s reflection on Matthew 27:32-44.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Tuesday, March 28, 2023