The Dread of Radio Silence
Flash back with me. I’ve been contemplating the dark side of the moon, the part you never see. In 1995, Tom Hanks starred in Apollo 13, the gripping account of the failed 13th mission in NASA’s famed Apollo series. The movie is a dramatic retelling of actual events that epitomized Murphy’s Law, insofar as everything that can go wrong does. With Apollo 11, the miracle of space flight was Neil Armstrong setting foot on the lunar surface, uttering his immortal line, “One small step for mankind…” Victory! America wins. Humanity wins. The world stares in wonder. With Apollo 13, the miracle was very different. It was the crisis of a small crew hurtling through space in a flimsy tin can, unable to complete their mission to the moon, dependent quite literally on duct tape and wits to overcome countless, harrowing obstacles on their beggars’ journey home. (If you haven’t seen it in a while, Netflix it.)
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the movie is when Hank’s character, astronaut Jim Lovell, realizes he and his crew will never set foot on the moon. The mission is a bust. Their craft is damaged. Chances are slim they will make it home alive. Their only chance is to pass around the far side of the moon, using the gravitational pull when they come around again to “slingshot” themselves back toward earth. We see Lovell, staring out the window almost tenderly, with the image of the moon trapped in the glass, in his eyes, but not under his feet. The crew watches as the cratered, brightly illuminated world of their dreams passes just a few miles below. They can almost touch it. So close yet not nearly close enough. Thus the moon will ever remain to them, out of reach. Fittingly, as their cherished dreams and personal ambitions die right before their eyes—as years of training and preparation become null and void, in seconds, for reasons beyond their control—the next phase of their journey takes them into a zone of total darkness and silence. On the far side of the moon, not even NASA can communicate with them. Radio signals can’t reach them. It is a crisis of silence, darkness and despair, caught in between the version of their lives that might have been and what now, regrettably, unavoidably, will be. Stranded in between a failed past and uncertain future, more specifically they are stuck in Unknowing. For about two hours (if I remember correctly), nobody on earth knew the status of the astronauts. The astronauts knew nothing themselves. Their trajectory was at the mercy of gravity, floating through the silence of space, a tiny speck of dust in a cold universe. Locked in orbit around the moon, their thoughts must have likewise orbited around one lonely question: What just happened to our lives?
How Long, Oh Lord?
It’s not so different in a life of faith. On our best days, we live with a sense of mission and purpose. But sometimes everything just falls apart. Our dreams collapse right in front of our eyes. A crisis comes along that torpedoes our best laid plans. Enter stage left, the twins: Self-doubt and God-doubt. Usually when this happens, we enter into a period of such wretched, personal darkness, we might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Maybe friends stick with you, maybe they don’t. Maybe you blew it so bad you can’t make it right. You lose vision and perspective. You feel trapped, guided by (or left to the whims of) forces beyond your control. In short, life doesn’t always happen like we expect. We are taught to believe, strive, aim for victory. We are told to speak to the mountains and tell them to move. We are told to not forsake our confidence, to contend in faith, to pray for healing, pray for the lost, pray for God to do the things He has promised in His Word to do. We are told that the enemy, like the moon, should be under our feet. Instead, we feel over our heads. Sure, we have wonderful periods where everything seems to be clicking, where divine promises taste sweeter than candy. Egypt and Pharaoh are getting smeared all around us, ruined, while we come out looking favored, blessed and free. God is smiling. We’ve passed Go, collected our $200 and already bought Boardwalk and Park Place. Conquest and victorious faith seem easy, even natural. Our personal rocket has launched. Houston, we have ignition.
Then, boom. The moon passes far below where our feet cannot touch. Houston, we have a problem. Our tether to the known world is severed and we drift among the stars. All we can think is, what just happened?
Israel went through phases where it collectively felt abandoned by God. Rather than defeating its enemies, Israel chronically came up short. Rather than occupying their homes, they were forced to live as exiles in a foreign land. Rather than enjoying rich communion with their God, they were repeatedly left in various states of spiritual bankruptcy. Perhaps those situations are too easy to dismiss with the theologically and historically accurate observation that they deserved it. After all, they were in rebellion, had followed other gods, etc. They got what they had coming.
Not so fast.
Those aren’t the only tales from the far side of the moon the Bible has to offer. What about the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11? After rattling off some big names, the writer of Hebrews informs us of a rather disappointing conclusion. “All these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39). Ouch. They gained approval, not victory. To be approved by God, that’s a big deal—no arguments here. In eternity, it’s surely priceless. But in this life, regardless of its merit, I guarantee you it feels an awful lot like a consolation prize. In any event, it is clearly not the expected result, where mountains move and everybody cheers and God is praised. Nope, in these situations, like Jim Lovell, it is clear the moon passed them right by. They knew the cold darkness of loss and sorrow, the static silence of a God who said “Follow me”…and then just up and left. These weren’t isolated incidents. Sometimes, the cycle of loss drags on for decades, even centuries. Is it any wonder the question gets raised:
“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never be favorable again?” (Psa. 77:7)
This is the question all believers ask when they pass through the dark side, the valley of death. Over and over again, psalms and prophets ask this question. How long, oh Lord? How long before it gets good again? The plenteous season has come and gone. Spring and summer, passed. Winter looms. Hope fades. There are no answers. Most painful of all, most mysterious of all, for reasons of His own choosing, God leaves you hanging in the void, alone. And let me tell you, anyone who tries to give you a pat answer in the midst of the darkness is either sincere, but naive, or a charlatan and a fake. They have never known darkness, or they would not be trying to appease you with meaningless cliches. Listen friend, Houston can’t reach you in that place. The physics of faith don’t work that way. All you have is an orbital path, the last few words you heard before the empty crackle on the radio, and a gut check. This is part and parcel of the journey. Darkness and dread are the necessary companions of confidence and hope, if you are actually serious about walking the road of faith. Because that question—how long?—isn’t so much about conditions improving, as we think. No, really it’s about eternity… (To be continued)