I was just a kid in elementary school, when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
My parents had taken me down to Virginia Beach, for our annual, family summer beach trip. The old Halifax Hotel had but one “common room,” where the only television set was to be found, which sat off and idle most evenings.
But on that sweltering, Sunday summer evening, July 20, 1969, the room was packed. Everyone was huddled around the TV, watching this grainy, black-and-white image of an astronaut, over the crackly radio channel, transmitting nearly a quarter of a million miles away.
I wriggled up and found a spot on the floor, just feet away from the TV. I was riveted.
To this very day, I get emotional just thinking about that night, as Walter Cronkite narrated those historical events, particularly the suspenseful moon landing, with its infamously mysterious “1202” alarm. Grateful for a safe landing, co-pilot Buzz Aldrin celebrated communion inside the lunar module, doing so privately.
My parents allowed me to stay up late to watch Armstrong step off the lunar lander ladder, amid the voices of adults all around me, chatting about how remarkable this event really was.
I drifted off to sleep that night, dreaming about what it would be like to work for NASA.
Thousands of people, including scientists, engineers, you name it, all had bonded together, with a common mission, to get a man to the moon, and back to earth, safely. Personal interests were set aside, and even a few lives were lost in the process, in an effort to reach that lofty goal.
By the end of that vacation week, I took walks out on the beach at night, looking up at a nearly full moon, simply amazed that two human beings had walked on the surface of that glowing object, so far away. This was no sketchy propaganda project, filmed on some Arizona back lot. It was a thrilling moment in human history. I was hooked on science and technology from that moment on.
Little did I know, that after college, I would end up working as a government contractor at NASA, for about 15 years. Now, among a new generation of explorers, there is talk about going to Mars!…. Even an Arab Islamic nation wants to get to Mars, very soon!
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All of us have moments like these, iconic moments that just stick in our memory, and inspire us.
What makes these moments even more profound, is when these moments get shared with others, even with others whom we barely know, or do not know at all. Some are electrifying and uplifting, like the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some are downright shocking and shattering, and lower our spirits.
For my parents’ generation, it was events like when it was announced that the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, had made it into space, in 1957, sparking the race to the moon (the Soviets almost scooped the American Apollo 11 mission, with their unmanned Luna 15).
My mother distinctively remembered where she was, the afternoon she heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, in 1963. It was the grief of a nation.
I remember clearly where I was when the Challenger space shuttle blew up, in 1986. Then there was the moment when the First Gulf War started in 1991, when Revered Billy Graham prayed with President George H. W. Bush for wisdom, in the White House.
For younger generations, the most profound memory has been watching the second plane crash into the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001.
Or a few years later, in 2008, it was the election of the first African American to the Presidency of the United States, breaking a color barrier. A year ago, it was when divers rescued a group of young soccer players, who got trapped in a cave in Thailand. The list could go on.
But perhaps, the Apollo 11 moon landing will stand out as the definitive moment of my lifetime. As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said, “Apollo 11 is the only event of the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century.”
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Just a quick lesson here: Iconic moments, like the 1969 moon landing, are opportunities for people to create a sense of common bond and unity, with a large number of other humans.
Moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt talks about the idea of the “hive hypothesis,” suggesting that normally, we as humans are primarily self-absorbed, like chimpanzees are, about 90% of the time. Scientific studies show that we are pretty much concerned with ourselves as individuals, doing our own thing, even if others are around us. However, about 10% of the time, humans seek to cohere with others, and cooperate in groups, creating a sense of unity, just as you find in a bee hive. It is those “10% moments” that make community life and family possible. The very individualization that drives us, like chimpanzees, is ironically transcended by these bee hive-type experiences.
We live in an era, in the era of social media, when such large scale, cooperative iconic moments, are becoming more elusive. The customized individualization of media sources, the 24-hour news cycle, and the explosion of information on the Internet, has made it more and more difficult to experience such collective experiences, of sharing iconic moments together, with masses of people.
Cultural commentators lament that we live in an age where people are greatly divided from one another. As Jake Meador, MereOrthodoxy blogger and author of the recent In Search of the Common Good (with a forward by Tim Keller) put it:
- Our communities are disintegrating, as …the breakdown of the family leave(s) us anxious and alone—indeed, half of all Americans report daily feelings of loneliness. Our public discourse is polarized and hateful.
But this is where the Christian church can play a role, in healing the breaches that exist between people so divided… by conveying the Good News. The Apollo 11 moon landing may have been the most iconic moment in my life, that I shared with a great many of other people. But for Christians, the greatest iconic moment of all human history is found in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As believers gather together, once a week (if not more), the most important thing we can do, is to continue to rehearse and tell the story of Calvary, and the Empty Tomb. The news of the Risen Christ, and the continual retelling of that story, over and over again, transformed the Roman Empire, within a mere three or four hundred years. We still recall this event of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, to conquer death and sin, every time we gather together to break bread, for the Lord’s Supper, 2,000 years later.
Then there is the entire task of following the Great Commission, that of following Jesus’ last instructions, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:16-20). It is a common mission, shared by Christians, across many different denominations, that binds believers together, where personal interests are set aside, and even lives are lost in the process, martyrs for the faith.
In a recent blog, by Baylor scholar Alan Jacobs, Jacobs recalls from Larry Hurtado’s book, Destroyer of the Gods, that:
- In 40 A.D. there were about a thousand Christians
- In 100 A.D. no more than ten thousand
- In 200 A.D. around two hundred thousand
- In 300 A.D. around six million
That tremendous growth in the early church happened before the Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Milan , despite a few periods of state-sanctioned persecution of believers. That news about Jesus continues to transform our world today, day in and day out, as millions of Christians seek to continue fulfilling that Great Commission.
In an age where it feels like the world is becoming unglued at the seams, and the Christian church appears not to be doing that much better, we would do well to continually go back and recall that iconic moment of the Risen Christ, greeting those women, outside of the tomb, where the stone was rolled way.
The moon landing of Apollo 11 was an event of worldwide importance, as television viewers all over the globe were glued to watching the drama of a few men, and a small spacecraft, unfold. But it was a secular event, nonetheless.
The story of the Risen Christ tells a different type of story, transcending the boundary between natural and supernatural, that seems almost impenetrable in our secular world today. There is a lesson to be learned here, from Apollo 11, that invites Christians to ponder our faith more deeply.