Yesterday we lost one of my greatest heroes. Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82 in Cincinnati. There are many things I could say about Armstrong (he owned a farm in my hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, so I have heard many stories from those who knew him there), but I think this essay I wrote in 2010 says it best.
I am a geek when it comes to the Wright Brothers and manned space flight, as much of this history goes through Dayton, Ohio (near where I was born and raised) and vicinity. I have several dozen books on Wilbur and Orville as well as the space program. I consider going to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patt Air Force Base to be a highlight of any trip back home.
I can remember exactly where I was in July of 1969 when I watched on television as men actually walk on the moon. I ran outside and looked up at the moon, then back in to see Armstrong and Aldrin walking on that same moon on our TV. Back and forth I went, amazed to think that those two men were actually up there right now, walking on the moon’s surface.
Twelve men walked on the surface of the moon during the Apollo missions. (The Apollo program lasted just a little over three years. Three years, twelve men. Yes, I get it.) Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, Jim Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt. Conrad, Shepard and Irwin are all dead. The youngest of the remaining nine, Duke and Schmitt, are 75 years old. Other than Neil Armstrong–and maybe Buzz Aldrin–most school kids today could not name any of these pioneers.
Each of these men walked where no other created creature has been. Their footprints remain on the moon’s surface today. But it was on their return to earth that the enormity of their adventure set in. All twelve found life on earth to be, well, difficult to adjust to after their time on the moon. Many ended up alcoholics, divorced, uneasy with life as they had known it. They were celebrities, but shunned the spotlight. Or grabbed it and ended up saying and doing things that, well, were difficult for us earth-bound creatures to understand.
Take Armstrong. He was offered a high-ranking position with NASA, but turned it down to become an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. He bought a farm in my hometown of Lebanon, Ohio and kept to himself. Those who had occasion to speak to him said if you kept to a topic like farming or the weather he was pleasant enough. But even try to bring up his moon experience and he turned vicious. He and his wife of 36 years divorced when his mood swings became too much to handle. He now lives in a suburb of Cincinnati—Indian Hill—but rarely makes public appearances or talks about his walk on the moon.
Buzz Aldrin, the second man ever to walk on the moon, was reduced for a time to selling used Cadillacs in Texas.
What impacted these twelve so strongly that their lives were forever changed after walking on the moon? What made it so difficult to fit into this life after a very short life on another rock? Could it have been that, after walking where no one in recorded history had ever before walked, life on earth just didn’t matter as much?
As I studied the lives of these heroes, I began thinking about the twelve men who walked with God for a few years while He was on the Earth. The men who watched Jesus teach and heal and create. Who ate and drank with Jesus every day. When we see them throughout the rest of the New Testament–after Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father–we find them having a difficult time fitting in with life on earth. Look at the early church. There was a discrepancy in which widows were being fed first in the food lines. The twelve apostles scratched their heads and said, “We can’t handle this. Find some men who are good at administration to handle these kinds of things. We are pursuing God.” The church grew, not because the apostles were brilliant marketers and businessmen, but because they had walked with Jesus, because the Holy Spirit filled them with God through and through.
There are other connections with the moon that followers of Jesus may recognize. The moon, of course, does not generate light, it simply reflects light generated by the Sun. Jesus said that he only did what he saw his Father do. He said if we see him, we see the Father. Jesus is the moon, reflecting to us the Father whom we cannot look on or we would die.
Sometimes I stand outside at night and stare at the moon. (The neighbors pull back their curtains and say, “What is the matter with that boy?” But they are getting used to me…) I wonder if any of the surviving nine moonwalkers are looking at the moon at the same time. I see it as a mystery; they see it as, however temporary, their once home. And since leaving the moon, they have never been the same.
(If you don’t like the astronaut illustration, think of Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. After being buzzed by flying saucers, he just didn’t fit in with his family, his job, his neighborhood. He was haunted by a shape he just could not put his finger on. Once he did, he dangerously fought to climb Devil’s Tower because, well, he didn’t know why, did he? But his heart kept pulling him there, and he could not resist. That is what I am feeling. Does that work better than the astronauts?)
I purport to walk with Jesus. I have the Holy Spirit residing in me. Why, then, do I find it so easy to fit into this world? Why do I not stand out, not find daily life here perfectly awkward? I have walked on the moon—life on the Earth should not be the same. But too often it is.
Here is where I separate myself from the moonwalkers. I do not have to travel away from this planet in order to have my otherworldly experience. I am not waiting until I die to be able to have that close walk with Jesus. Jesus walks with us now, here. Yet I do not see him clearly. After 36 years as his follower, I still struggle to hear his voice clearly. I can look into the night sky and have no problem picking out the moon from all of the other celestial bodies. So why do I have so much trouble picking Jesus out from a crowd? When will my eyes adjust to see him as clearly as I long to see him? When will I find life on this earth strange and feel more at home on the moon?
I have the desire. Now I want the ability to walk on the moon every moment of every day.