Thirty-seven years ago today, on January 28, 1986, seven astronauts suffered a horrendous death as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in mid-air seventy-three seconds after takeoff. Almost anyone, at least in America, who was alive at that moment has the visual image of that explosion etched in our memories.
Where were you when it happened? I was just about to begin my first solo pastorate at a small country Presbyterian church. I was in my office preparing the notes for my first sermon to my new congregation. I paused to watched the television broadcast of the live launch from Cape Canaveral and, with horror, I saw the plume of the explosion. When I returned to my desk, still trembling, I set my sermon notes aside, for I knew I had to change my intended pleasant greetings to the discussion of a far more serious matter.
There’s a fine article about the tragedy in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Man Who Tried to Stop the Space Shuttle Challenger’s Launch”. Apparently the principal engineer for the company that made the O-Rings for the shuttle’s fuel system warned that the temperature was way too cold for the O-Rings to seal properly. NASA had been duly warned not to launch, but they felt there had already been too many delays, so they ignored the warnings, and launched anyway. And we know what happened.
When I read this article, that visual image of the airborne explosion flashed across my mind. A clear warning was given; it was ignored; and seven astronauts lost their lives.
How many warnings do you and I hear every day of our lives—that you and I have been hearing all of our lives—that we just too often quickly ignore? “Heck, my life is already overflowing with warnings, with delays and distractions, preventing me from doing the things I really want or need to do!” Or maybe, “Which specific warnings are you talking about?! Our lives are inundated with far too many warnings to keep track of! And the opinions are so contradictory, it’s impossible to know which to heed!” Or, there’s that simple meme we hear on the recent diet soda commercial: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
As I considered this, my morning devotions happened to take me to the thirteenth chapter of Romans, so, in the midst of the plethora of options, I thought maybe this is a text God might want us to consider today. I’ll try to keep it brief.
Don’t let the politics of the day distract you from what is eternally important:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. …Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Rom 13:1-5)
For two thousand years, theologians have argued over how to understand and apply this warning from St. Paul, especially when a government has gone as haywire as our own. But as bad as it might seem today, it was just as bad when Paul was penning this epistle to the Christians living in Rome, many of whom—including Paul himself—would suffer martyrdom at the hands of these same “governing authorities”.
But it seems to me the key warning here is that we must not allow our lives to become distracted by the political battles of our day, most of which we have no control over—mainly because all these battles, and the people absorbed in them, remain in the mysterious hands of God. What we need to focus our attention on are the more important warnings that follow.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another:
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:6-10).
So much of what captures our attention every single day of our lives distracts us from that which is really most important. Our Lord Jesus, and His apostles who penned the New Testament, as well as His Church, have been warning us all of our lives, but how well have we listened? That which is most important in our lives is not politics or economics, or even so much the great Laws of Scripture and our Church, if they are not grounded in our love for God and for our family, friends, and neighbors.
St. John warned in his first Epistle, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 Jn 2:15). We might shoot back, “I know this! I don’t love the world,” but if we fill every waking moment of our lives with the things bombarding us through the media, if we’re constantly stressed and driven by every fleeting news voice, I would suggest we are far more in love with this world than we might realize.
I can just hear a few of you saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this all my life!”—just like the decision makers at NASA responded to the warnings of the engineers. Jesus once reminded His apostles of what God through the prophets had said many times before: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13a). Every single thing we might do for God—even the blessed rituals and rules of our particular Faith tradition—are empty, if they are not done with love, and mercy.
“Don’t Put off until tomorrow …”
Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. (Rom 13:11-12a).
Maybe this hits me more now because I am seventy pushing seventy-one. My father passed when he was seventy-five; my mother when she was eighty-three. And I wonder if the seven astronauts who entered the space shuttle Challenger were fully prepared for what was going to happen seventy-five seconds after their seemingly successful blastoff?
One of the very last warnings our Lord given in the book of Revelation is: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done” (Rev 22:12). Seriously, not a one of us can say we haven’t been warned.
So what should we do?
Paul ends this chapter with a short list:
• “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
• let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day,
• not in reveling and drunkenness,
• not in debauchery and licentiousness,
• not in quarreling and jealousy.
• But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
• and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:12b-14)
This really comes down to, with whatever times we have left (and a few of those astronauts, God rest their souls, were quite young), we must do all we can, by grace and through faith in Christ, to imitate Him.
“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ”, which means turning our lives fully in His direction—while He still, in His mercy, has given you and me time, and maybe a last opportunity we really don’t deserve, to respond: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”
(Editor’s note: This essay first appeared on the author’s “Just an old man out standing in his field” site in slightly different form and is posted here with his kind permission.)
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In addition to the danger of distractedness, perhaps the deeper lesson from the Challenger disaster is that of arrogance…and stupidity.
After all, why would any expert managers turn back to a mere technician from yesterday on the project flow chart, or even an engineer? A paradigm/mindset usually attributed to the ideologue Hegel: “if the facts contradict my theory, too bad for the facts!” It’s not about the past; it’s all about the future!
Now, mid-flight, are we not challenged (!) to ask how Hegelian is the unquestioned (!) trajectory of a Synod on Synodality? But no! Like Star Wars, “the Force” is with us–the Holy Spirit! Or at least the synodal panel of rigidly managerial “experts!” Just move things along on schedule! Continental Drift! No room on the flow chart for “fixistic and backward bigots” from yesterday!
No doubt about it! Except for the dubia…
A “clarification” for the above, if needed: the question is not whether the Holy Spirit is with the synods, but whether too little of synodality is with the Holy Spirit.
Well arrogance and stupidity will never end. The Covid epidemic is classic from the funding of Wuhan lab to the followup actions, especially the zeal to cancel anyone who dared to question any part of the whole fiasco. Getting closer to home who was in charge of trashing communion rails, not quite but essentially demanding communion in hands, changing the mass, nearly eliminating confession etc. Anyone who question these brilliant moves have been essentially cancelled or bludgeoned into submission.
And the vax mandates by the bishops (inc the Pope) over their priests, seminarians, and staff. Our priest noted that applications to study for the deaconic are open soon. I have long thought my husband should consider that. Then I remembered that vax mandates could be imposed on him in the future.
Great article, Mr. Grodi! I think that we would all be better off working on whatever the Lord has called us to do and avoiding spending so much time hypnotized by our phones. Throughout U.S. history, we have seen upheavals that seemed to indicate that “the end is near”–often during these times, God worked in miraculous ways to bring about revival and renewal of the Christian Church. It is my profound hope and PRAYER that God intends to unite Christians under One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and that this turmoil in our country is one of the tools He is using to bring about our unity.
When the so called “experts” decided to remove the Asbestos from the glue that held the O-rings in place on Challenger.The die was cast for the explosion.Because as we all know
Asbestos causes cancer.It was never “If” the O-rings don’t seal. Only “When.”Ah to be given the title of “expert”37 years ago.There is only One Expert.Jesus Christ.
Just another comment on the arrogance of experts, didn’t the Secretary of Treasury, Head of Federal Reserve, backed up by a 1000 Phd Economist say in 2020/2021 that inflation was transitory.