It Seems Like Yesterday

January 28, 1986, was a stunningly cold, crystal clear, sun-bright day in Florida.  I was at my desk in the church office in Orlando, working on my Lenten sermon series.  I knew there was a lift-off that day, but I confess that I had become so accustomed to them that I no longer rushed out to the parking lot to watch every time there was a launch from the Cape.

Suddenly a woman dashed into my office, shaking from head to foot, tears running down her cheeks as she said, “The Shuttle just exploded!”

Challenger Explosionss-160127-challenger-lookback-14_e06d43354b26514cd84f44fe80f81894.nbcnews-ux-1024-900

We went outside and stood for a long time staring speechless at the streak of white of cloud that began on the horizon, arose in a perfect arc into the sky, and then stopped abruptly.  It lingered in the still blue sky much longer than those trails usually did, a mute witness to an immense tragedy.

If my generation lost its innocence the day JFK was shot, this was the day our children lost theirs.

Meeting the Teachers 

Two hours later an official called from NASA.  They were bringing the finalists in the “Teacher in Space” program back to the Hilton Hotel on International Drive and wanted a pastor to meet them.  They had trained with Crista McAuliffe and had come to celebrate the launch.

They were exceptionally ordinary people:  a social studies teacher from Houston, an astronomy teacher from New England, an elementary school teacher from Bowling Green, Kentucky.  I listened to their stories.  I felt their grief, pain and loss.  But the thing I remember most clearly is their sense of determination.  They were determined that this tragedy would not be the end of travel into space.  They were determined that the program should go on and in spite of the risk and danger, if given they opportunity, they would be ready to go themselves.

I came away knowing that I had met people who had discovered what it means to be willing to give their lives to something larger than their own self-interest; people who had found a life worth living.

The Urgency of the Gospel 

I was a different person when I returned to my desk the next morning.  Ash Wednesday was just around the corner the way it is this year. We were focusing our attention that year on the gospel of Mark.

As I reread the gospel, I realized that the sense of determination and urgency that I experienced with those teachers is at work in the way Mark tells the story.  Mark’s gospel moves with a relentless urgency.  He writes with short, brisk, energetic sentences that move us irrevocably toward the cross.

I felt the same sense of inner determination when Mark records that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  (Mark 8:31)

I heard with different ears Jesus’ words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  (Mark 8:34-35)

Love That Won’t Let Go 

At a bare minimum, the gospel says that being a Christian is not about self-aggrandizement but about self-surrender to something bigger than ourselves; it is not about protecting ourselves, but about giving ourselves away; it is not about holding our lives tightly, but about being held by a love that is stronger, deeper and more powerful than our own.

While I enjoy and appreciate much of “contemporary” Christian music, most of what I hear can’t get close to the depth, wisdom and sheer power of George Matheson’s great hymn, “O, Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” He said he wrote it out of his own suffering.  I’ll include the words below, but I encourage you to watch and listen to the most amazing arrangement of the hymn that I have ever heard.


O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

May the Love that never lets us go lead us to a life that follows the way of the cross to new life in the resurrection.

Grace and peace,




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7 thoughts on “It Seems Like Yesterday

  1. Jim,
    I literally sang this hymn this morning as part of my devotion to he that wilt not let me go.

  2. Great word, Jim. I was serving at the Lake City UMC 30 years ago. We were all so excited and so incredibly proud of our native son, Ron McNair. And, then, the utter shock, and grief. Ron was a Methodist, by the way. Thanks for this poignant reminder of that day we will never forget.

    Sent from my iPhone

    On Jan 28, 2016, at 5:38 PM, Jim Harnish wrote: jimharnish posted: “January 28, 1986, was a stunningly cold, crystal clear, sun-bright day in Florida. I was at my desk in the church office in Orlando, working on my Lenten sermon series. I knew there was a lift-off that day, but I confess that I had become so accustomed “

  3. Powerful reminder of a great loss and the great love that will not let us go.
    Cousin Nancy

  4. Hi… I didn’t remember that you met with the finalists that day. What a story. Thanks for sharing this…. Talk to you soon. Love you.

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. CARMEN CUNNINGHAM January 29, 2016 — 1:50 am

    Hi Jim, Very moving piece you wrote about the Challenger and your part in the aftermath.

    I too have a less dramatic story. I was sitting in my office at the Achievement Center, an alternative program at the Colegio Internacional de Caracas. In burst the math teacher, pale a a ghost and she sat opposite my desk and said, “The Challenger exploded!”

    This touched her closely as she was one of the last group selected from which McAuliffe was chosen. Her name was Lynn Swanson and she had travelled to DC, visited the White House and was in consideration close to the end.

    Lynn had a tiny baby and had been willing to leave him to make this historic journey. She expressed lots of emotion that day, but relief that she would be around to raise her baby was certainly in the forefront.

    I have kept track of Lynn in succeeding years and about 7 or 8 years ago she wrote from her new home in Atlanta that her husband, Scott, was in prison as he had been caught on line in sexual conversation leading to a meeting with an under age girl.

    She has stuck by him (more courage) but it occurred to me that the pain that awaited her, back on that day in my office ,was so intense it might have been easier to be McAuliffe.

    Interesting that we both spoke with those who might have been chosen on that cold January day.

    All well here. Hope the same with you.

    Peace, Carmen

    Loed our meeting with you recently.

  6. Beautifully written Jim…I was doing my student teaching at Edgewater HS when this happened…having been brought up in the “shuttle watch” generation, this certainly was a life changing event for us….thanks for your words.

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