With great sadness, the world said goodbye this week to Northeast Ohio native Neil Armstrong. When, on July 20, 1969, he stepped from the Lunar Lander onto the surface of the moon, he stated, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Clearly, he had not put as much thought into that statement before he made it as the world has since then. As ministers consider thoughts for sermons on this coming Sunday, the Lectionary Epistle reading offers some tie-ins with reflections on Armstrong’s passing as well as his life.
Although not depicted in the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff,” Armstrong certainly exhibited it in his career. Being a leader, he was a doer and not merely a hearer (compare to James 1:22). Armstrong was “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19) as we read in this Epistle. By being a measured leader with focused intent, Neil Armstrong offered the world a primary example of what we should strive to be as human being.
Armstrong made his first flight in an airplane in Trumbull County, Ohio. He was not the pilot, however. Those days would come much later. According to an article by Raymond Smith and Joe Gorman in TribToday, Armstrong’s family lived briefly in Champion, OH, and as a six-year-old, he took his first flight in a Ford tri-motor airplane. He paid 25 cents for the ride that would inspire a lifetime of inspiration for others. The site is commemorated at 2487 Parkman Road in Warren, OH.
James 1:25 speaks to perseverance. What is it to have the “right stuff” if not to persevere even in cases of adversity? Lectionary preachers may wish to note that the early days of the space program in the U.S. presented obstacle after obstacle to its first astronauts. Initially expected to be “capsule occupants,” early astronauts fought to be considered pilots. They pushed for changes and considerations on earth while fighting G-forces on their way into space. Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin were tenacious enough to be the first to make it to the moon’s surface and walk on it with Michael Collins orbiting the moon awaiting their return to Earth. Having perseverance, however, is not about always being the first to achieve something. Often, as exemplified in the astronauts who continued following the Apollo 1 disaster in which Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee were killed, perseverance means courageously going forward in the face of adversity.
Perseverance tempered by the other qualities of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, makes up the basic formula for having the “right stuff.” Dale Carnegie states it a different way by teaching in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” “you don’t gather honey if you kick over the bee hive.” Steven Covey, another great leader we have lost this summer, stated it by saying we should “seek first to understand and then be understood.”
All of these give us a real-world example of how a human being can live a great life and live up to what James reminds us to be. Preachers following the Lectionary for this week may wish to lift up the life of Neil Armstrong as one person who has lived this out. Living according to a biblical example is not about being pious; it is about being the “right stuff” in a world that has progressively gravitated toward the opposite. Thank you, Neil Armstrong.