On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner took a step out of his one man craft and plummeted to the earth, and changed the way we see the world. He fell for twenty-four miles. He flew faster than the speed of sound – sixty-five years to the day after Chuck Yaeger was the first to do so in a piloted craft on October 14, 1947. As an aside; I learned on Monday that Yaeger, now 89, flew inside a F-15 on Sunday to break the sound barrier yet again to commemorate this feat. Too cool.
I grew up after the space race had been won. Human beings had been to the moon before I was born. My worldview starts there. As a child I wanted to be an astronaut. Neil Armstrong was one of my heroes of a bygone age. His recent death is the end of an era to be sure. I grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek movies and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. I’ve always dreamed of the stars and one day humankind being able to reach them. Like many, I was horrified when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in January of 1986. I was at home sick that day, watching it on TV live. Many other kids gave up on their space dreams after that. Mine never have. Even when Columbia joined Challenger in tragedy in 2003 effectively ending the Space Shuttle program, I still looked to the stars, wondering what was possible.
I remember hearing as a kid that we would reach Mars by 1996. The Mars Global Surveyor was sent up that year instead. The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers soon followed. I find that the current rover on Mars called Curiosity continues to spark my imagination. Curiosity is a good word. Baumgartner’s step out of his balloon module from twenty-four miles in the sky and successful landing on the ground in Roswell, New Mexico has reignited my curiosity in human centered space exploration. Maybe one day we will travel back to the moon, to Mars, and beyond.
I went to a regional ELCA Camp Conference in 1996 when I was a senior in college. My wife (well, fiance at the time) and I both were invited by our mentor Penny Christensen so we could find job leads in camping after college. At lunch I sat next to Jerry Manlove, who at the time was regarded as one of the great pioneers of Lutheran outdoor ministry. Somehow the conversation turned to space exploration – probably because of the Mars Global Surveyor, but I don’t really remember. What I do remember is what Manlove said to me, with tears coming to his eyes and conviction as he spoke. He said, “I cannot understand how we can reach the stars, and yet we still cannot care for our neighbor.”
Needless to say, the conversation about space travel stopped.
I have come to understand two truths about human beings that I believe are both absolutely true. The first is that we are capable of incredibly amazing things. We are smart, creative, industrious, forward thinking, and seek to make our lives better and better though innovation and experimentation. Back in 1996 I couldn’t even dream of an iPhone. Now I complain because this small computer in my pocket (which BTW is much more powerful than the machines we used to get to the moon) doesn’t hold enough music or pictures in its eight gigabyte memory. What people cannot dream of now but will become everyday useful tools in the future is one of the reasons I have tremendous faith in humankind. We seek to improve our lives, our productivity, our connectedness, and our dreams until they become something good. That a man can suit-up and jump twenty-four miles from the fringe of outer space, and then land safely on his own two feet on the ground and high-five his buddies is deeply inspiring. Who knows what impossibilities we will be able to overcome next: Cancer? Degenerative diseases? The DMV?
I don’t think Manlove was against science or the development of technology, but he was deeply intuitive about the other absolute truth about humanity. We are deeply broken, selfish, sinful people capable of horrible evils, and the pursuit of technology and self-improvement has also furthered the cause of how brutal we can be and how efficient we are at killing one another. We have the ability to jump twenty-four miles to safety, and yet millions starve, millions live under oppressive regimes or in the chaos of political collapse, there is still such a thing as genocide and its after-affects, young girls get shot because they are seen as a threat for wanting to read, bullying pervades the culture of young people, and there is still the DMV.
These two things go together: our amazing potential and our absolute corruption. Call it a fall of a different kind, but sin permeates our lives to such a degree that we cannot escape it. No technology, no matter how ingenious, can overcome it. No advance or big step forward can pretend that it is not there. Manlove was right, “We can reach the stars and yet we still cannot care for our neighbor.” It is hard to understand that.
To me this is why the gospel continues to make sense in an amazing age of technology. It is true that Jesus died almost two thousand years ago in a backwater of the Roman Empire in a culture that is foreign to most of us. It is also true that we have come a long way from even the “advanced” cultures of antiquity. We have fought for, won and protected equality and opportunity among people fighting for justice, just as justice continues to elude so many. We have achieved a personal empowerment in our culture that can do away with thousands of years of traditions and expectations to the chagrin of some and celebration of others. We have become so self-reliant that many no longer see the need for God, and if they do (and I think most of them do still believe in God) they are no longer looking for the church to encounter the divine in real, every day, practical ways.. Our faith communities can at times seem foreign to, at odds with, or too antiquated for a digital age that is ways on the go and looking for the next great step forward. We have the privilege to continue to dream extraordinary dreams that might someday become a reality. But what we cannot do is change human nature. We cannot overcome our human greed and violence. Jesus said it best, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). In short, no matter what we do or achieve we still have the need of a savior. We will always have need of a savior. Gaining new perspectives will not change that reality. Any great leap forward will not take us away from it. The darkness will always intrude upon us. As we become more enlightened the darkness encroaches with more ferocity. Yet the light, the true light, will always burn brighter and banish that darkness away (John 1:5). Banishing the darkness is never our own doing; it can never be our own doing; our only hope is to trust the same light that calls us to step toward it, as the darkness fades, and our vision becomes clear.
Stepping toward the light is the great leap forward. It might feel like it is twenty-four miles away, or that free fall would incinerate any trace of us if we leapt, or that the sound barrier would simply crush us if we moved too fast. But this is the fall Jesus, the Light of the world, calls us to take it. Falling and plummeting into the great unknown, trusting that he alone will catch us. That is what faith is: taking the leap into the impossible, and high-fiving your friends after a safe landing.
Take the leap. Together we’ll deal with the DMV (or whatever it is you dread) once you are on the ground. High-fives are waiting.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)