A common orbit

By Sam Candler

I happened to be at an island wilderness area during the summer solstice this year. I could not discern, from my tiny vantage point, that the earth’s orbit had angled it so far toward the sun again (though I could feel the heat!). I had no television or internet access to feature the several scientists who surely explained patiently again just how the earth orbits our large star.

I did notice that much of the natural world knows this season rather intuitively. At the beach, I saw the tide extraordinarily high. Somehow the eggs of the shorebirds laid up in the white dunes hatched just days before those summer solstice high tides reached their nests. At the marsh, the opposite low tides exposed black mud to a rare treat of the sun’s fertile energy.

We hear much about polarities these days. We say that two persons are “poles apart,” in their relationship, or in their opinions. We say the same thing about political parties and church factions; we mean that they could not be more at odds with one another. I heard one good writer several weeks ago talk about “antithetical polarities.” We use the phrase “polar tension” to describe tendencies in ourselves. Palmer Parker claimed in his book, The Active Life, that the active and the contemplative parts of ourselves sometimes represent a “polar tension” that is difficult to reconcile.

But the phrase “polar opposite” began to mean something different to me when I pondered the poles of the earth’s orbit. The earth does not orbit around the sun in a perfect circle, but, rather, in an ellipse. Our elliptical orbit around the sun might teach us something about polarities. Our orbit, being elliptical, has two poles: the two outer reaches of the ellipse. In an ellipse, the two poles represent the more extreme points of our journey.

Consider that the two poles of the earth’s orbit represent extreme points along the ellipse, but they do not represent points outside the orbit itself. In fact, those points are just as much a part of the orbit as any other points are. In the best of our political differences, and church differences, and relationship differences, the same can be true. We may be at extremes, but we are in the same orbit. Furthermore, the orbit would not be the same without those points; it would not be complete.

Orbits, of course, depend upon the mass of the object around which the planets hurdle. Our relationships, too, depend upon a power greater than ourselves. Our church depends upon the mass of a God whose power is great enough to keep us in the orbit. It is God who keeps us in the orbit, not we ourselves.

I know there are times when my wife and I are poles apart; friends have observed that we are polar opposites. Nevertheless, we stay married. We stay married, by the grace of God (and it takes more grace for her to stay married to me!). For me, however, “polar opposites” does not mean that two folks never can relate to one another. The phrase just means that we are not in the same place right now. In a couple of seasons, one of us might just be in the exact place where the other is now.

The church, at our best, orbits gracefully and beautifully around the might star of life, Jesus Christ our Lord. We seek his light daily, so that we might reflect that glory. But every day of the earth’s revolution provides us a slightly different angle from which to reflect that glory. Some of us reflect the light at a different angle. Some of us are at extremes in the orbit, and some of us are right in the middle. No matter where our place in the ellipse, God keeps us in the grip of a power much greater than our own devices. We are part of a vast solar system of grace.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral Web site.

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