1 At this the whole Israelite community cried out in dismay and the people wept all night long. 2 Everyone complained against Moses and Aaron: ‘If only we had died in Egypt or in the wilderness!’ they said. 3 Why should the Lord bring us to this land, to die in battle and leave our wives and our dependents to become the spoils of war? It would be better for us to go back to Egypt.’
Numbers 14: 1-3 – REB
33 ‘We are now going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes; they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. 34He will be mocked and spat upon, and flogged and killed…..’
Mark 10: 33-34 – REB
Fifty-two years ago, in 1968, the world was going through a very troubled period. It was the height of the ‘Cold War’; on April 4th, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis; there were riots in America; thirty people were shot by panicking Police officers in South Carolina. Robert Kennedy, whose brother John had died of an assassin’s bullet less than five years before, was himself assassinated in Los Angeles on June 6th, where he’d been campaigning on a ticket of national healing and peace. More than 16,000 Americans had died in Vietnam by the end of the year, making it by a long way the worst year of that miserable war ever, for US casualties; the American people were losing confidence in the outcome of the war. The ‘Hong Kong’ flu had spread rapidly through the world and had killed an estimated 80,000 people in the UK alone (I was very ill and nearly became a casualty, but remained blissfully unaware of any national crisis)
And then, at Christmas in 1968, something amazing happened, which sucked in the whole world and gave it new hope, a new sense of wonder and a new confidence.
I’ve been reading the 2018 account of the Apollo 8 space mission called ‘Rocket Men’, written by Robert Kurson and published by Random House. It’s a gripping blow-by-blow account of the first fascinating journey to the Moon.
What gripped me about the account was the huge technical achievement that the voyage represented and the massive challenges that had to be overcome. As small examples, calculations had to be made that would take three men, (Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders) 240,000 miles to the Moon. Having arrived there, they had to fire the ‘Service Propulsion System’ rocket motor, to slow them from 5,100 mph to 3,700 mph and thereby be able to enter the Moon’s orbit, at which point they would go into the Moon’s shadow and lost all contact with Earth for over 20 minutes. Relative to the huge distance from Earth, the margin for error was miniscule, and potential errors, inevitably fatal. If they arrived at the pre-ordained spot early, they ran the risk of being propelled into Deep Space, with no way back. If they arrived at the spot late, they would crash onto the Moon’s surface. Astonishingly, the calculations were correct to within a second or so and less than one mile.
And their re-entry, days later, into the earth’s atmosphere, at the highest speed ever experienced by humans up to that point, over 24,500 miles per hour, was likened to throwing a paper aeroplane through a wall of fire into a letterbox, at a distance of four miles.
The events of the last few weeks have left me wondering whether Apollo 8 could possibly have gone ahead in 2020. Some of the senior people within NASA only put the chances of success of the mission at 50/50.
Would we send three human beings into space now, on a 50/50 chance of them dying? Would we be able to find three human beings prepared to volunteer, on that basis? Would they have families who supported them 100%, like Borman, Lovell and Anders had? Would the US President be uniformly praised by the press for taking such a risk with these lives and the country’s reputation?
And, to take an analogy from the quotation from the book of Numbers that I’ve quoted above, would the Israelites have ever dared to leave bondage in Egypt, if they’d looked at the risks then as we do now, in 2020?
We’ve learned a great deal about ourselves in the last few weeks. The questions I have going through my mind are these:
- Have we lost our ability to assess and take risks?
- Why do we now think that we have to have a government blow-by-blow instruction to do absolutely everything? Does this imply that the problem is litigation and an inability to obtain insurance, or is there some other reason?
- Have we lost complete confidence in ourselves in the last 52 years? Why, and how did that happen?
- And if we have lost confidence in ourselves, in Science and in God, what will become of us in the future?
Jesus knew, as he journeyed towards Jerusalem, that he was heading for almost certain death. Over mankind’s very long history, progress has often relied on people facing life-threatening situations, being prepared to risk their own safety for the sake of others, and understanding that it’s only too easy to find a good reason for not taking even the smallest risk with anything. I can’t get it out of my head that previous generations would be astonished by what is unfolding before our eyes.
Heavenly Father, the brave men of Apollo 8 quoted from the Bible after they arrived at the moon, on Christmas Eve in 1968. Grant us the courage to assess and take risks and put others before ourselves, that we may move towards a better world, abandon our irrational fear and have trust in you. Amen
Note: We are back online and have a working telephone again, thanks to Openreach’s engineers!