I understand astronauts’ first flights in space change them forever. After years of scientific education, technical preparation, and rigorous physical training, their moment finally arrives. They lie back in their seats with seatbelts across their chests and hear the countdown from control. Long before “zero” is announced, the cockpit begins to tremble. When liftoff finally arrives, it hits as violently as any earthquake and more loudly than a hundred fighter jets roaring overhead. For the onlooker, liftoff alone is worth the price of admission.
But that’s not what the astronauts say. What moves them more than anything is not the flames and the fury, not the marvel of modern science to overcome the forces of the gravity, not even the weightlessness that echoes their childhood dreams of flying. What changes them forever is their first view of earth from orbit.
When they look upon our planet, its sheer beauty overwhelms them. Any word spoken, any breath taken, diminishes the moment. If they could hold back their tears, they would do so only to see the earth more clearly. Awe in its purest form fills their beings. Most astronauts shake, some become strangely still, but eventually all of them raise outstretched fingers to the windows as if to touch the vision before them. The experience has a profound effect upon them, deepening them, and causing them to see things differently than they ever had before. Astronauts call this the “overview effect.”
“Something happens to you out there,” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell has said. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”
As we enter into the Advent season, I wonder if Christmas replicates an “overview effect.” From the star that guides the Magi to the angels singing from on high, we observe the nativity scene from above and we are in awe. Like Mary who pens a song that gives voice to her dissatisfaction with the world, so do we in our many carols, along with a compulsion to do something about it.
I observe it in our own presbytery. There is a young 14-year old Elsa Schweizer who in the face of increasing terrorism organizes the assembly of Welcome Kits to help relocate Syrian refugees. There’s New Hope who in the presence of racial violence teaches students to sing a different tune, one that’s in perfect harmony. And there’s Tom Dykhuizen, one of our own, recently stricken with cancer, who at a hospital in the middle of the night encounters an angel among us.
In Tom’s own words.
“One night I was feeling very lonely and afraid. Would the pain subside? Would I live? What is going to happen to my son, to my church? Could I pay for all this? In desperation—it was late so everyone had left—I buzzed the nurses’ desk and asked for my nurse who happened to be a middle-aged black woman. When you buzz your nurse, the person at the desk asks the question, ‘What do you need her for?’ My response was transparent and vulnerable and honest. I said, ‘Encouragement.’
“My nurse took the call seriously, though I learned later she was not a churchgoer. She came in long after midnight and sat down in the chair in my room, which a nurse never does, and she said, ‘Tom, tell me what you are worried about.’ For the next half hour I poured out my heart and all she did was listen. She was present with me when no one else could be. At the end, she walked over, squeezed my hand, smiled and said, ‘It’s going to be OK, Tom. Everything is going to be OK.’ I squeezed back.”
As he shared the story I couldn’t help but think that in Tom’s moment with the nurse Jesus leaned forward and touched the window—a vision of sheer beauty. And so may we, in all the places we serve and in the lives of all the people we meet. Peace on earth.