When astronauts are in outer space, they spend their free time looking at Earth.
They call it “Earth gazing.”
In the vast expanse of black, they see a little blue planet, and they can’t keep their eyes off it. It is precious. It is home. Here on Earth, we think we know what our planet looks like, because we know what a globe looks like; but the map is not the territory. When we look at a globe, we have some embedded assumptions—like which way is up, and which is down. We see North America as “above” South America. In space the astronauts are weightless, moving around in a spacecraft that is rotating. They see the Earth without the national boundaries which are etched on a globe. Everything is in motion and there is no sense of “up”. In space orbit, astronauts see the whole world every ninety minutes. Astronaut Ron Garan said, “You see that line that separates day into night slowly moving down the planet, thunderstorms in the horizon casting these long shadows as the sun sets, and then watching the Earth come alive when you see the lights from the cities and the towns … shooting stars going below us, dancing curtains of auroras; [it is] very hard to describe the colors, the beauty, the motion.”
Earth gazing gives astronauts a sense of transcendence, and a larger picture of the connectedness of life.
It is as if a fish could comprehend the ocean, and fully understand its origins and the range of its existence. Earth gazing prompts a kind of reverence for the Earth, our precious oasis, our island home in the vastness of space. Many astronauts have said that the experience of seeing Earth from space has changed their perspective. American space shuttle astronaut Leroy Chiao said, “It really made me have a bigger picture of life. I don’t worry about little things any more.” In Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s new book, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, he says: “I feel I have a personal obligation to be a good steward of our planet, and to educate others about what is happening to it.”
It is as if the astronauts became able to see the Earth as God does. I don’t mean to say that God is on a throne somewhere up in the clouds looking at us from a far distance—that is an image we find in many works of art, and it is one image. The LORD is transcendent, and immanent, and we have many images to describe the divine, not limited to a robed and bearded royal figure who is hard to connect to our 21st century understanding of the Universe. A God’s-eye view, a view from space, comprehends the entire world and all of humanity. It is possible to move out of our individual perspective—the “I” that we identify with—and see the unity of life. Astronauts can’t see national boundaries, but there is plenty they can see; they can see clear-cut forests. They can see fires destroying the rain forests. They can see strip mines. And even without seeing it, they know the terrible, brutal things we do to each other here. That is what I mean by God’s perspective.
Prophets also share God’s perspective.
Biblical prophets were predictors, but more than that they were watchers. They are described in the psalms as watchers on the battlements of the city, scanning the horizon for messengers, or for military danger. They were there to warn the people of danger from the outside, but they also warned of danger—corruption, injustice—from within. Nobody wanted to hear from the prophets—they were disturbers of the status quo. They were the most disturbing people who ever lived! But people needed to hear their warnings. They spoke with force, to get people to pay attention. In a dark world, it was not enough that their words shine—their words needed to burn.
John the Baptizer was a prophet in the long tradition of Old Testament prophets. In John we have an Old Testament prophet who makes an appearance in the New Testament. When people came out to the Jordan, his message to them of repentance was not a demand that they feel sorry for diverging from God’s ways—it was an exhortation that they turn their feet to the right path. I wonder what the difference was between the people who stayed in the cities, and those who went to the Jordan to be baptized. Perhaps the people at the Jordan were the ones who knew they were in the wilderness. John sounded the alarm, warning Israel that they were far from God’s teaching and law, and he told them that the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit was coming soon.
I can’t leave the topic of the prophets without mentioning the life and death of a man who carried the mantle of a prophet in our time: Nelson Mandela. He shared God’s perspective, and worked to free the oppressed in South Africa. The world will not forget that a new country was formed, moving from the brutality of Apartheid to the peace of shared governance, without the bloodbath that seemed inevitable. Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Peace and Reconciliation commission created a new South Africa and showed us a reality we hardly dared to hope for. We are the poorer for his passing from among us.
It is a gift to see the world through God’s perspective, and it changes us.
Many astronauts came back to Earth different people than they were when they were launched into space. It is a change that has been called the Overview Effect. It is a spiritual impact that changes people. Even though the astronauts are scientists, many of them have a religious response to the experience. And some may have a religious awakening without realizing it; Edgar Mitchell, the lunar module pilot of Apollo 14, said he is not a religious man, but nonetheless he spoke of the impact of the Overview Effect on him saying “We need to find a new story to tell us how to live, how to care for each other, and the earth.” If he was a religious man he would know that we don’t need a new story, we have the story. And we have prophets to call us back to that story, and to a God-inspired way of caring for each other, and the Earth.
It is overwhelming, isn’t it? Having a glimpse of this great vision, this huge perspective, this cognitive shift; how do we respond in our daily lives? What can one person do? If you think about it, you already know what to do. We talk about it every week when we gather for worship: love one another. Respect the dignity of every human being. Do justice. Seek peace and reconciliation. Put your money where it will do some good. Roll up your sleeves, and remember, you aren’t just one person—you are part of a community. We are all in this together. We are one people, on a precious blue planet, protected by a thin membrane of atmosphere that nurtures all life as we know it. What you do with your life is of ultimate importance. And if you don’t always manage to make the perfect choice, remember that in Jesus Christ we experience the presence of God, full of mercy and forgiveness. Remember that into the dark world, and the darkness of interstellar space, God came to be part of Creation, to teach us a holy and cosmic perspective. Let us ponder that blessing with wonder, love and praise.