The Uncertainty of Life
by Rev. Mark Carlson
In Isaiah it is written: "All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower. fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it: surely the people are grass." (Isaiah40: 6,7)
Death - the withering away of the natural body until it can no longer receive the warmth of the Lord's life and grows cold. Death is the one absolutely inevitable event in our future. It was the one absolutely inevitable event in the lives of the seven astronauts who were so tragically killed last Tuesday. But as is often the case, neither they nor we had any expectation that it would happen on the 25th mission of the space shuttle. So often death takes us by surprise, yet we know it is inevitable.
You know inside that preparing for this one inevitable event is important, and perhaps you wish to think and pray about the meaning of the events of the week which so clearly relate to the meaning of life and death. This was to be a space mission to instruct the children of the world about space travel and its advantages to the earth-bound. It was this aspect of the mission which focused the attention of so many children and adults on this otherwise routine launch. It was indeed a mission of instruction, but the lessons the Lord had in mind turned out to be more of eternal value than NASA had in mind.
Before we look at what is to be learned from the tragedy itself, several things need to be laid to rest. First, the Lord never wills that such accidents happen; He did not make it happen so that He could teach us, or NASA, a lesson. Rather, what happened was a result of the working out of His Divine laws by which the universe operates. The spacecraft was in fact using one of His laws to propel itself into space, a law which is the very basis for earthly existence. This law dictates that when oxygen and hydrogen come together, they release a tremendous amount of energy and combine to form water. When controlled, such burning fires a rocket engine, but when uncontrolled, it produces a violent explosion. Whatever caused the burning of hydrogen with oxygen on the space shuttle to proceed out of control was man's doing, not God's. Perhaps it was faulty design, or faulty workmanship, or a misjudgment of the weather, but it was not the Lord's doing.
However, the fact that it was likely to happen was known to the Lord, and from His foresight of all the possible outcomes of the accident, He secretly prepared the seven people who died for their transition from this world to the next; and furthermore, He prepared those who would receive these fine men and women in the other world. Because the Lord is omniscient, He is always in control, and constantly sees to it that the eternal welfare of those who are caught up in natural disasters is preserved and even enhanced.
Now, when such tragic events occur the Lord always is able to bring something good from it, both for the individuals directly involved, and for those indirectly involved. The specific good that has come to those who died we cannot know, but we do know they are in good hands. As for the rest of us who were indirectly involved, and in this case we number in the millions, the good the Lord can bring out seems more clear.
There are lessons here that we as a nation needed to learn or to relearn. The first and most obvious one seems to me to be the Lord's desire that millions of us be reminded of the frailty of natural life and the reality of death. When in the history of the world have so many men, women, and children watched as the lives of not one but seven of our brothers and sisters were snuffed out in a millisecond? Right in the midst of our technological triumph, not hidden in space, but close enough for all to see, a tiny spark ended seven lives and destroyed a billion dollar machine. How timeless are the words of Isaiah, and how well they fit this reality: "All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass." Were not millions reminded of this eternal truth in the very context of our worldly success?
We who live in the western world are so insulated from the reality of death that perhaps from time to time we need to be vividly reminded of the facts. Usually death takes place in a hospital or nursing home where the event is hidden so as not to frighten other patients. The body is neatly disposed of by professionals. And the world goes on. How many of us have actually witnessed another human being die? How many have had brothers or sisters die in a bed next to them, or a child in their arms? Less than a hundred years ago this was a common experience. But today it is almost unheard of, and many can delude themselves into believing that it doesn't happen, or at least that it won't happen to them.
Yet the only reason we are born is so that we may die, having made a free choice about the kind of person we wish to be to eternity. In the words of the Heavenly Doctrines, "Human life is nothing but a progression from the world to heaven, and the last, which is death, is the passage itself' (AC 3016). To ignore this fact of existence is to walk in folly, placing the importance and purpose of life in the here-and-now, which must soon be gone. But of such insanity does much of the world about us consist. Thus it is written in the Psalms: "Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; ha heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them" (Psalm 39:6). No doubt the Lord has taken this opportunity to in some measure correct the teachings given through the school of experience.
It is so easy for us to acquire a measure of complacency in regard to natural existence. It is so easy for us to put the truth out of mind and think, deal, and act as though our natural life will go on forever. We might stop to reflect for a moment as to the origin of this persuasive idea. Which of our spiritual associates would insinuate a false sense of natural permanence? Though we may feel quite secure at the moment, within bodies full of strength and vigor, apparently with a long life ahead of us, do we realize that our natural position is truly quite precarious? Our continued natural existence depends upon the intricate balancing of thousands of mechanical, electrical, and chemical functions; the failure of any one function could bring down the whole-not to mention disease or accident. We literally live in a house of cards. Only the gentle, wise, caring, healing influx of life from the Lord keeps the temple of our bodies from collapsing.
Do we ever stop to think that even the seasons of the year are trying to tell us something? The grass sprouts, grows to fullness, then withers and dies. What gives us the arrogance to think that we are more permanent than the grass of the field? "As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more" (Psalm 103:15).
Another lesson the Lord may have had in mind was to demonstrate to us just who is in charge here. When we look at the times in which we live we see how strong the persuasion has become that we mortal beings can become total masters of our destiny, that we are in charge of, our universe. Given enough research, given enough applied technology, we may one day live forever with plastic hearts and throw-away kidneys. For many, the wonderful success of the space program has been seen as a huge step in the direction of achieving complete control of our human future. This notion was dealt a mortal blow on Tuesday. Not only was the tragedy unexpected, we do not even know what caused itů. As a nation we have had a spectacular reminder of the timeless truth expressed in Proverbs: "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth" (Proverbs 27:1).
We are not in control of our destiny. The little events of our daily lives and the grand events of exploration and discovery are all part of an even greater scale of events then any one of us can imagine. The universe, both natural end spiritual, is in the Creator's hands, not ours. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).
And what may we say about the condition of those seven brave men and women now? Their transition from this world to the next was not just for the benefit of our learning. We know that they are healthy and well in the spiritual bodies that were always the source of their sense of identity end well-being. They are being well taken care of in the world of spirits. In this regard it is fascinating to note that their deaths must have marked a new stage in the development of that world. We know that many good spirits find their eternal use in helping us make a smooth, untraumatic transition from this world to the next. Often, they construct an environment and condition exactly like the one those who die have left in the world. Just imagine, they must have created a space shuttle! And perhaps the angels are playing the part of mission controllers on the ground. Would it not make sense for them to allow the mission to go on so as not to upset their great expectations of the mission? Imagine those space travelers looking down on the spiritual earth. What a beautiful and marvelous sight that must be. Perhaps they are not yet even aware of their own deaths. Perhaps the mission controllers are gradually, gently, breaking the news to them, and reassuring them that their families are being well taken care of. And imagine the place where they will come back to earth; what a welcome they will receive. Truly, they have set off on a mission of exploration which will reveal to them new worlds they never dreamed of seeing.
We may know with certainty that those who gave their lives for the advancement of our frontiers and for the improvement of our knowledge did not die in vein. Their lives were rich with the Lord's goodness; their deaths were within the Lord's providential care; and the legacy of their departure will live on for generations, reminding us all of the reality of life and of death.
"When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have ordained, What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you visit him? For you have made him e little lower then the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, end the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:3-9)
-New Church Life 1986;106:163-166