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!”
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,