A clergy friend of mine posted on Facebook that she wished she was like the Space Shuttle, gently reentering the atmosphere and landing on a runway rather than old Apollo Capsule that plunged through the atmosphere and splashed into the ocean. Being a space nerd I responded that the Apollo capsules were safer and actually under the control of the laws of physics, the same laws that applied to the Shuttle in the initial reentry process.
The Theology nerd then took over and added a theological spin. The capsule was the more “faith oriented” of the space crafts as it, after positioning itself in the narrow reentry corridor, followed the physics of gravity and the calculus of reentry trajectory. The space shuttle on the other hand after positioning itself for the same reentry corridor then teased the physics more after it reentered the atmosphere by needing to glide and land on a runway rather than a general area of an ocean. It was in this teasing of physics and the resulting need for vulnerable wings that made the shuttles, as Columbia tragically proved, more susceptible to damage and, in the iconic understatement speak of NASA, “major malfunctions” and “bad days.”
This was not the first time I have viewed space missions, especially Apollo missions in faith terms. I once preached a faith and film series using “Apollo 13” and how much of that mission rested on faith. The crew had to use their faith in relying on the Mission Control teams to work out all of the hurdles that they had to clear in getting home after an explosion severely damaged the Odyssey Command Module.
There was a line in the film when, after burning their engines and using the gravity of the moon to sling them to earth, Tom Hank’s character, Commander Jim Lovell commented that they “had just put Sir Issac Newton in the driver’s seat” as they had to power down the guidance computer for most of the trip back to earth. In essence they were using a Newtonian theory of physics that using the proper thrust at the proper time, in coordination with the gravity of the moon, they would be sent on a course that would allow them to intersect with the earth again in 2 or so days. Prior to this mission this was mathematical theory. Afterward, it became proven fact.
What once was an excuse to show off my Space Nerd colors, responding to my friend’s post had become a reflection on the Odyssey that is the Christian faith. For both the shuttle or capsule, or any vehicle that needs to survive the reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, positioning is the key as the safe reentry corridor is extremely narrow. If the reentry is too steep, the craft burns up. If it is too shallow it skips off the atmosphere back into space.
As with vehicles attempting a safe reentry, in our relationship with God, positioning is key, and God leaves it up to us to position ourselves so as to accept and live in God’s grace. This positioning is called faith. Like the gravity of the earth, or any planet or moon acting on a spacecraft, God’s grace is always around and acting on us, trying to pull us towards God and into a relationship with God. In order to receive that grace we position ourselves by faith to enter fully this relationship with God. Faith puts us in the entry corridor with God and once we are positioned by faith to receive this grace and be received by God, God takes over our lives.
As with a capsule that is positioned correctly, we need not worry about trying to control direction or even speed. God will guide us, and God will be our parachute that lowers us to a gentle splashdown in a relationship and life with God. As with the Shuttle, the more we attempt to control this descent, the more we try to take control and go where we want, or think we need to go, the more fragile we and our faith are, and the more we endanger our relationship with God, and our living the faithful lives God intends.
Obviously metaphors have their limitations and fall apart at some point. But, the essence of faith and relationship with God is akin to the Apollo capsule. The more hands off and spirit in we are, the more we trust God to love, guide, and be faithful in God’s promises, the more faithful we live and the closer to God we become.