(view of Earth from the surface of the Moon)
In the ancient world, to get any sense of perspective – to be able to see any distance — one could only climb a tree, or walk up a hill, or perhaps look at a bird flying and try to imagine what it was like from up there.
As late as the 19th Century, people’s sense of what was around and beyond them was explored almost entirely from ground level. Amazing as it was to gaze toward the horizons, or the heavens, it was nothing compared to what was coming.
As late as the 19th Century, most people believed that people could not cope with flying – many believed people couldn’t withstand riding on a train! Many argued against flight on religious grounds, suggesting that if God wanted to make people fly, God would have given us wings. In 1897, Popular Science magazine in 1897 said “as a means of rapid transit, flying could not begin to compete with the railroad.”
I think you get the point. People were pretty much grounded and most were content to stay there. Despite that, in the early 20th Century, thanks to the Wright brothers and many others, there came flying machines of various sorts, and with them the ability to see the world in much more comprehensive terms.
After 40 or so years of development in the field of aviation, and having just begun to move into the jet age, in the late 1940’s, Sir Fred Hoyle, a British scientist, predicted that “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” And of course, toward the end of the 20th Century, space travel gave us an even more amazing perspective – of earth from the perspective of space.
That vision was a life-changer for many astronauts, who have reported that their experience of space, and the sight of the Earth in the distance, suspended in the darkness, produced unexpected emotional reactions and intellectual, perspective, and paradigm shifts.
American astronaut Alan Shepard: If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have said, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.”
Canada’s first woman astronaut, Roberta Bondar said: “To fly in space is to see the reality of Earth, alone. The experience changed my life and my attitude toward life itself. ”
These are not just comments about amazing physical phenomena – they are spiritual comments about the deeper meaning of human life and existence itself. As Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut said: “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.”
Just over 100 years ago, people thought that flying in an airplane was impossible and never meant to be. And now we’re talking about establishing colonies on Mars! In 100 years, I expect there will be no need for an exclamation mark at the end of such a sentence.
“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land . . .” In the first reading (from Deuteronomy), Moses was led to a place where he could see the possibilities before him, and before the people of Israel – the vast potential. You get the sense that this is not merely an occasion of gaining visual perspective but, like the Transfiguration, a moment of gaining spiritual perspective. It must have seemed somewhat unbelievable after wandering in the bleakness of the desert for years.
(actual view from Mt Pisgah)
Moses is seeing into the future. His perspective on life shifts and a new agenda emerges before his eyes. Most of us do not get that kind of vista where the future is laid out before us (unless we pay close attention to our own dreams and visions).
How do we get to a point where we develop a different perspective – a more wholistic and comprehensive vision of things – one that will allow us to see beyond our own personal and mundane perspectives?
One obvious answer is that the experiences of others provides a perspective we could never acquire alone. Just to read the account of Moses gazing into the distance and into the future creates a mental image that is every bit as vivid as the images the astronauts as the report back from outer space.
In neither case do we have to be physically present to get it, but in both cases we are enabled to see something that had not previously been visible to us. It speaks of the way the imagination and the spirit can creatively soar to new possibilities.
As another astronaut, Lt Commander Roger B Chaffee, put it this way: “The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way—the way God intended it to be—by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space.” Although he had over 2000 hours’ experience flying jets, Chaffee never made it to outer space – he and his crew died when their Apollo 1 rocket blew up with them in it as they were doing final preparations for their first space mission in 1967. But his comment speaks to that capacity to embrace the vision and give it a spiritual meaning and purpose.
God revealed a whole new territory for Israel, a place that had been unimaginable to them not many years prior. Moses didn’t get there personally – the vision and future that he saw was to be fulfilled by his successors, not him. He did not get to the Promised Land, but would die in that place of not-yet – in a realm of unrealized hope. But like Martin Luther King, who didn’t get there either, he had a vision; he had a dream.
And his primary purpose from then on was to convey that vision and perspective to the people. Proverbs 29 (KJV): “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Moses is not only seeing into the future — he sees the future and realizes that it doesn’t include him. It must have represented a very poignant moment, like the mother with cancer who realizes that despite the care and love she has invested and sacrificed for the good of her children, she will not be there to celebrate their graduations, their weddings, or to see her grandchildren. She will not see the results, except in her own dreams and imagination – in her heart.
Moses kept this vision before the people of Israel, because they and future generations were meant to live into that vision. How do you commit to the future when you’re not in it? Why bother when it doesn’t affect you directly? How can we proclaim a vision that will encourage people to carry on what we are doing into the future?
For Moses, a new world opened up before his eyes. In our time, the universe has opened up before our eyes. I wonder where we will be in another hundred or thousand years! This has a direct bearing on our efforts in the present moment – our stewardship – our legacy to future generations:
Are we building toward something that will be of benefit to others?
What will people say of us as they look back?
What kind of ancestors are we choosing to be?
Without an ability and a challenge to look beyond ourselves – to see possibilities beyond merely surviving – we may not be dead, but we may not have much of a life either. Truly relating to God gives us a future and a hope, a reason not just to look back at what we have accomplished (our trail through the wilderness, as it were), but to look forward to trails yet untrod, unexplored and unimagined. Relating to God means beginning to see as God sees – this is what visions are about.
Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut: “The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”
It is good to be able to pull back and see the bigger picture. This is the kind of universal and cosmic vision churches are meant to convey – so that whenever there is a tendency or temptation to descend into pettiness there is always an ability to refer to that vision and re-orient ourselves.
In astronaut’s terms, this is what has been called “the overview effect.” And this is a key point: it’s great that astronauts and individuals like Moses have these great moments of transformation, but until they saturate the general imagination and become the paradigm, they don’t have much impact.
Rakesh Sharma (the Indian airforce pilot who flew on a Soyuz mission): “My mental boundaries expanded when I viewed the Earth against a black and uninviting vacuum, yet my country’s rich traditions had conditioned me to look beyond man-made boundaries and prejudices. One does not have to undertake a space flight to come by this feeling.”
Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, had a powerful inner experience during his Apollo 14 mission, and 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.” This is a scientist simply describing what happened to him – it was not intended as a spiritual manifesto. This is the kind of thing that is meant to be happening in our churches.
What does church life look like now – what is it meant to look like in the future? Anglicans have typically been preoccupied with the past, but where is our commitment to the future? We can tend to be so parochial, so absorbed by the immediate demands of parish , that we fail to celebrate the fact that we are a diocesan and even global church. We can tend to be so of the moment in attempting to cater to people as though they were “customers,” that we fail to instill in them a larger sense of cause and purpose. As we speak, you are creating a legacy to the future – to the shape and character of this community.
We can probably predict the kind of future being promulgated by groups like the Islamic State (ISIL) and we can see how quickly the “Gospel” of hatred spreads like a disease. There are many versions of the future today, most of them dark, bleak, violent and depressing.
Why does this parish matter? Why is it important to be here? Beyond our own personal needs, can we see a larger purpose, in conveying a vision of the world as a unified and integrated whole – as something that transcends and yet includes our individual needs and selfish tendencies? Can we allow the Gospel to expand our hearts and minds to embrace God’s vision for the future, and not settle on merely meeting our present needs?
Churches are meant to be places in which people are encouraged to develop this kind of universal and cosmic perspective on life – a place to dream dreams and speculate from a place of faith about potentials and possibilities as yet invisible to the naked eye, but perhaps written somewhere in every human soul.
I believe that this vision is not only accessible, but essential, and to have it, as people like Moses and St Paul did, makes all the difference in the world. What do you believe?
(The Venerable) Grant Rodgers+
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
Matthew 22:34-46 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.