Sam Wise: The Eagle has landed
Have you ever cried watching a film? How about reading a book? Or listening to a podcast? How about listening to a podcast while out running on a main road...in daylight? The answers for me to these oddly specific questions is of course yes (if you don’t cry at E.T. I worry about you), no, yes, yes and yes. Yep, that was me, running along the side of Hawk Hill listening to a podcast and having a little cry about it. Let me give you some details.
I’ve been listening to a brilliant series called 13 Minutes to the Moon, which takes you stage by stage through the 13 minutes of powered descent that took Apollo 11 from orbiting the moon to landing. Each episode focuses on the stories behind the key moments. When the computer displays error messages we get to meet the people who built that computer, including the extraordinary black women who played a key role at a time in American history when that seemed impossible. Later we meet the man who controlled the simple stopwatch used to measure how much fuel was being used to ensure there was enough to fly home.
Earlier in the series we heard about Apollo 8, which was not supposed to land on the moon, but was the first to leave Earth’s orbit and orbit the moon. We listen to the sound from the communications as they orbit and focus on the task of photographing the lunar surface when they move the position of the space craft and suddenly reveal an incredible view. “Oh wow, would you look at that?” says a voice as the new angle means that when they look out over the moon they can see the Earth rising in the background. They all speak afterwards about what an extraordinary moment it was and how it changed their whole worldview.
Later that day they are live on TV, broadcasting to a billion people as they film the moon. They weren’t given any guidance from NASA as to what they should say to explain the extraordinary things they could see. As I ran along listening, the audio from that film crackled and a voice from space said: “In the beginning there was God...” They began to read out the opening verses from the Bible, and somehow they hit me with a resonance they never had before and I began to have a little cry at the side of the road.
Stories are like gifts we can give to children
I found it so moving that these astronauts who were seeing things no one had ever seen before and were gaining a new perspective on the Earth had, when they tried to process it, found meaning in a sacred story. As my mind drifted, I began to wonder afresh about the power of these stories to bring meaning to moments in our lives, often at times when our logical thinking has run out. I reflected on how, when we need them, these stories can just drift into our minds, and as we think about them we can find ourselves in them, and them in us.
Jerome Berryman (founder of Godly Play) says that stories are like gifts we can give to children. To make this point, he puts the props he uses for each parable in gold boxes, and when he tells the stories he does it slowly and carefully, in a style that has more in common with a priest preparing the table for Communion than with the usual world of children’s work. He wants the children to see how sacred the stories are, and for the children to be drawn into their depth. He realises that sacred stories are the most wonderful resource for children to be able to understand their lives; to see how they are part of the God story, and how the God story is part of them.
Too often when we work with children the Bible is described as an instruction manual for life. Indeed, I have given this talk myself. It’s a neat soundbite – obviously a bit out of date as no one reads instructions any more – but the Bible offers what you might call a much deeper magic than that. These stories are able to hold, sustain, guide and challenge us; to say different things to us at different times and help us find meaning when our ability to make sense of it all has run out. These are the gifts that will last a lifetime if we help children use them well.
Somehow, 50 years on, the moon landings and the Apollo programme seems incredibly futuristic. I find it incredible that in that moment, at the very cutting edge of human exploration, an incredibly old story helped make sense of what they were experiencing. It’s highly unlikely that the kids in my group will grow up to be part of a moment that compares with being the first humans to look back on the Earth from the moon. But I’m pretty sure that if I can keep giving them stories they will have one that will allow them to find meaning and help them in whatever situations they face.
Oh, and before you ask, six episodes later I heard the crackling audio of Neil Armstrong saying: “Houston, Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed.” And there I was, crying on another run!