Photosynthesis and Sunburn - thrive UMC Official Blog

Photosynthesis and Sunburn

In his book Quantum Theology, Diarmuid O’Murchu writes:

Four billion years ago the first cellular creatures appeared on earth.  Today we refer to them as blue-green algae.  These first simple cells did not breathe oxygen.  On the contrary, they produced it through a process we now take so much for granted: photosynthesis.

For some four billion years, sunlight has been nurturing and ingratiating Planet Earth.  This is the energy source that drives life’s processes and empowers its cycle of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, water, and climatic movements around our planet.  Without sunlight, life on earth would have ended in suicidal self-absorption millions of years ago. (Quantum Theology, p. 153)

Light, in other words, is the strange energy that powers our very living. At the cellular level, there could be no growth, division, or movement without this fuel from the sun.  And yet we human beings have no means to harvest this rich and abundant resource on our own –because our cells simply aren’t capable of the vital process we call ‘photosynthesis.’ We can’t synthesize or absorb the energy of light.  Instead, the most direct way for us to fuel ourselves with the energy of the sun is to eat a fresh salad, or an apple, because on a bio-chemical level, we don’t know what to do with the energy of light.

This is a part of the strange paradox of our human experience: we live in a world flooded with sunlight, especially in a season like this one; and we absolutely need that light-power more fundamentally and profoundly than we could ever imagine, and yet –bask as we may in the bounties of its rays –the only thing we’re gonna get is sun-burned. Here we have the necessary, the essential, the vital thing: light, all around us, fully immersing us, and yet we lack the basic tools to receive it. So instead of being energized by it, we just get fried.

And get this: do you know why we get sunburned?  This is also literally and scientifically true: we get sunburned because certain wavelengths of light, called ultraviolet rays, pack twice the amount of energy as the light we can see (the light that’s absorbable in photosynthesis), and that extra energy actually destroys the biochemical operations that are fed by the visible light spectrum. It’s just too much –it’s like being hit by a bus when you only needed a high-five.

Now, I wanted to start out with this little intro about light and how we relate to it, according to our more contemporary scientific understanding, because I think it has a weird kind of parallel with our scripture verse today. In the passage we’re about to read, Paul calls the people to ‘be light.’ And he uses this as a kind of metaphor for the kind of relationship we are supposed to have with both Christ and the other people we encounter.  Please turn with me to the fifth chapter of Ephesians.  It says this:

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.

Sexual immorality, and any kind of impurity or greed, shouldn’t even be mentioned among you, which is right for holy persons. Obscene language, silly talk, or vulgar jokes aren’t acceptable for believers. Instead, there should be thanksgiving. Because you know for sure that persons who are sexually immoral, impure, or greedy—which happens when things become gods—those persons won’t inherit the kingdom of Christ and God.

Nobody should deceive you with stupid ideas. God’s anger comes down on those who are disobedient because of this kind of thing. So you shouldn’t have anything to do with them. You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light. Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth.10 Therefore, test everything to see what’s pleasing to the Lord, 11 and don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them. 12 It’s embarrassing to even talk about what certain persons do in secret. 13 But everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light. 14 Everything that is revealed by the light is light. Therefore, it says, Wake up, sleeper![a] Get up from the dead,[b] and Christ will shine on you.[c]

“You were once darkness,” says Paul, “but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light.  Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth.”

Here Paul is making a remarkable observation –one that we, in spite of all of our scientific knowledge, often take for granted: that light produces fruit.  Through the process called photosynthesis, plants take the energy from sunlight and store it in fruit –or grain, or whatever.  And this fruit is made perfect for us to eat.  So while we ourselves can’t absorb the energy we need directly from the sunlight we bask in, plants can.  And many different kinds of these capable plants then go on to repackage that sunlight energy in a way that we –and so many other species of life- can accept it.  Fruit is solar power, made edible for us.  Light made delicious.  So what’s happening when we eat fruit is that energy that had come from the sun, and was gift-wrapped so that we can receive it –this energy then fuels our being. It becomes us, so that we are, in a significant way, light.

Isn’t that remarkable?  Even without the science to back it up, Paul made this observation nearly two thousand years ago. He saw the connection between light and us.

But he doesn’t stop there! Paul then goes on to suggest that we, and his audience in Ephesus, become like plants: re-gifters of light. “Don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness,” he says. “Instead, you should reveal the truth about them.” Because that’s what light does, right?  Not only does light energize to give life, but it also reveals.  And this is a gift of light that we can already receive: while our cells can’t directly accept light’s energy, our eyes can drink in the truth of light’s constant revelations.  Light incessantly tells us what the world is and what’s going on, and so much of our knowledge comes from what we see.  Sight is, for most of us, our primary source of sensory data. So when Paul is saying to test everything, the invitation is to look and see.  Observe. Watch the world and other people in order to bear witness to the produce of their actions.  See if their regifting of energy is good and life-giving, or if it’s toxic.

Because, as sunburn teaches us, some particular packagings of light energy are completely unhelpful. They don’t energize us and they don’t reveal anything.  And as I said before: it’s UV light –ultraviolet light- that burns us. If we’re overexposed to UV light, we will get sunburned. And if we get burned too often, or too intensely, over too long of a period of time, UV light can even cause cancer in our skin cells.  So that kind of light can actually kill us.  But not only that: it’s also completely invisible to our eyes.  It shows us nothing; it doesn’t help us see, at all.  In fact, UV light hurts our eyes too.  To the extent of blindness. So when someone makes the suggestion to go out and get some more sunshine, they are not referring to UV light, unless, of course, they hate you.

To help us have a visual of the kinds of light, here is a diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum.

This shows us all the kinds of electromagnetic radiation that saturates the universe that we know about.  And that little sliver in the middle is what we call visible light.  That’s the radiation that both helps us see, in color, and also energizes our vital processes.  That’s the kind of light we need. And its neighbor just to the left is the reason we need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen. It’s light that has its purpose, surely (especially if you work for Oakley or Coppertone), but it’s power for us is destructive, not constructive.

And Paul says the same is true about our own radiation –the energy we give off through our actions and our example- can be like the kind of life-giving light, or they can be destructive, like UV light.  Paul cites “sexual immorality, any kind of impurity, greed, obscene language, silly talk, and vulgar jokes” as specific examples of behavior that aren’t acceptable for people who follow the Way of Christ. And at first this might seem like kind of a random list of activities to throw together –especially for those of us who are fans of vulgar jokes- until you notice the flow of energy involved.

In none of those cases are any of the expenditures of energy and activity helpful.  They’re not life-giving.  They’re activities that don’t lead to peace and unity.  They don’t build up the community.  From the standpoint of energy-flow they are a waste.  Or, what’s worse, they’re destructive and divisive.  Sex, for instance, is an act intended to build up. Its nature is generative.  Not only is it the process by which new people are created, but it also strengthens the relationship of those involved when it’s healthy and good.  It might be weird to think of it this way, but marriage is, or at least was, a kind of sex-contract that defines a family, the basic building-block of a nation.  But sometimes sex does not build up its participants –sometimes people get used or exploited as a means to a sexual end instead. Sometimes sex is used as a bargaining chip to coerce people. Sometimes sex happens in a way that the basic humanity those involved is degraded and desecrated. And that’s what makes it immoral: when a precious thing meant to give life goes nowhere or it profanes its own sanctity, it is then good no longer.  And the same can be said for our resources, and our words.  Food and property and stories and jokes are all good things. Except when they’re not! When something good is used to squander a precious moment or the sanctity of someone else’s spirit, then it’s moral value is also lost. There’s an economy of energy going on here, and we have to attend to it, and make sure that our energy is flowing to build people up, instead of tearing them down or letting them starve. After all, this world we inhabit already has enough energy-vampires as it is.

“Instead” of those things, says Paul, “there should be thanksgiving.”  Ah!  How many of us need to hear this life-saving news!  Here’s an alternative to all of the degrading and diminishing energies circulating out there: instead of all that, be grateful!

How many of us know people who don’t feel very good about themselves, most of the time?  Maybe they feel stupid or ugly or worthless, or unlovable. Or all of the above. We know these people, and we can see this dark cloud hanging over their heads, as they go about their lives.  They walk around with downcast eyes and slumped shoulders and every breath is a sigh- but no matter how much we tell these people how great they are, and how much they mean to us, they always just shrug it off.  We can tell them how we truly see them –as brilliant and beautiful and precious and so deeply loved, but that doesn’t affect them –because one time, back in kindergarten, they blurted out the wrong answer to a teacher’s question and some kids turned and laughed at them.  Or maybe they were walking around the mall and some random guy told her she had ‘huge birthing hips.’ Or maybe they saw disappointment and disgust reflected back at them from the eyes of the people they looked up to a few too many times. Or maybe they just never learned what real love is like.

To some extent, all of us struggle here, don’t we?

In all of us, there’s a constant cycle of information about ourselves, tumbling around inside our memory like a washing machine in spin cycle.  All of us, every day, have to weigh the good things that were said about us against the bad.  It’s practically a human universal: we’ve all got to discern the truth about ourselves. Do we believe, in the end, that we’re loved and precious? Or do we believe we’re trash?  Because, like sunlight, it’s a mixed bag of both the good and beautiful light and the invisible burn, for us.  We go out there, and in every moment, we’re fed and drained, simultaneously. And the call here is to be conscious of our input, and conscientious of what we do with it.

Because it’s so easy now to get caught in a trap of bad accounting. It’s so easy for us to get hung up on to the stark sting of insults, and to dwell in the dark, abandoned rooms of relationships ended.  It’s so easy to weigh the damage done to us, and the things we never had –because they’re right there in the scar tissue and the emptiness. But where are the scales for love and for life? You can  go to the hospital and tell the nurse your pain number, on a scale of 1 to 10; but how do you account for the gratuitous beauty of every sunset, and the gristly miracle of your birth?

What kind of tape do you use to measure the life you receive in a meal, or the joy of a conversation you share with a good friend?

What meter is there for the warm smiles exchanged between parent and child, between husband and wife, between you and a passing stranger?

Who can meter the blessing of every new breath and heartbeat?  Who can calculate the grandeur of the cosmos –the wonder of being?

How do you number the photons that feed you, when we can’t even count the stars?  (By the way, according to Google, there are about 1 billion trillion stars in the visible universe that’s a 1 with 21 zeros behind it!)

Perhaps some of you might not know this, but there is an answer to all of those questions.  There scale by which we measure and weigh every good we receive is ‘gratitude.’  Pull the microscope back from the scar a bit, and you’ll see the skin where the scar lives.  That’s you.  A unified conspiracy of about 37.2 trillion cells, funded by light.  Each of those tiny, almost-invisible bodies are each connected and sharing, mostly as they all should. It’s a conspiracy of life where the sun and stars and the minerals of the ground you walk upon, and the atmosphere that shelters us, and the plants and other people and basically everything work together to pass energy around so life can win.

And if still not sure how far this grand conspiracy reaches, just look at your own substance.  One of the components of all known life on earth is the element called carbon.  And now scientists tell us that the carbon in our molecular structure came from some dead distant star.  So now we can say that we are, in one real way at least, stardust.  And the universe has shown us that stars have two dramatic states of being: they can be huge and brightly-burning, casting their life-giving rays all across the cosmos.  Or, once they burn out, they can collapse in upon themselves to become a black hole. In other words, they can implode under the pressure of their own self-absorption, and pull all the bodies in their orbit along with them, crushing everything down to an almost infinite density.

I think we, as human beings can be like that too.  And all of us had moments, especially in our youths, where we were the centers of our own universe, and if we’d try and prove it by sucking the light out of everything.

“You were once darkness…” says Paul. “But now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light.”  Therefore, live as light.  For you are. Attend to the source of life, and be grateful.  Celebrate light, and emulate it’s giving with your actions and relations: use all your energy for sharing and building up. Then repeat.

Let our words and our actions, our investments and our relationships: be encouraging and life giving.  May we live as participants in unity and peace Christ gives to the world.  May it begin with us anew.

Let’s pray.