“The Overview Effect” 02/03/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Will you pray with me?  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

            They train hard. Prepare both mentally and physically for years.  Then it’s time.  They go up the elevator, cross the gangway and one by one are assisted into the capsule.  They’re strapped in.  The capsule door is locked.  Main engines ignite. At T-zero, the solid rocket boosters ignite and they rise.  They rise faster and faster.  Once they have broken free of the gravitational pull and have taken up their orbit, the work begins.  There are experiments to run, things to monitor, equipment to repair and data to report back.  Apparently, it is quite abuzz up there.    

            But then there comes a time – each astronaut speaks of it.  There comes a time, when one finds oneself staring out the window, unable to break away.  There comes a time when one finds oneself completely overcome and transported by what is coming into view.  A glowing, beautiful, pale blue pearl of a planet –  earth – out there – floating amidst the deep darkness of unending vastness. 

            Seeing the earth from space for the first time is reportedly a profoundly moving experience. One that has brought even the toughest of astronauts to tears.  The astronauts say that when they see the earth in this way, set against the darkness and vastness of space, one beautiful alive being set in a sea of night, something within them shifts.   

            General William Anders, lunar module pilot on Apollo 8, the first mission to circumnavigate the moon put it this way.  “We came all this way to explore the Moon and the most important thing is — that we discovered the Earth.”

            There is a name for this deeply moving experience.   It is called the “Overview Effect.” Harvard Professor, Robert White coined the term and wrote about it in his book of the same name.

            The overview effect – seeing what is in such profoundly new way that one experiences a shift in consciousness.  


            They too had been training hard. They too had been preparing themselves. We call them the disciples, but I like to think of them as astronauts of sorts. The word astronaut after all has at it’s the root “naut”, from “nautes”, which is the Greek word for “sailor.”[1]  And the disciples of course were sailors. They had been trimming the sails on the Sea of Galilee for years.  They knew what it was to set off into the unknown in search of something that they did not know if they would ever find.  They knew what it felt like to risk waves and weather to do so.   I think that is why Jesus called his first disciples there at the edge of the sea.  Jesus needed people around him who were explorers.      

            And so he asked them to come up. Come up the steep hillside, come up onto the mount.  When I was in Israel a few years ago, I went up the same hillside.  I sat on the same mount.  The view from on top is stunning.  The basin of the Sea of Galilee lies stretches to the south below.  The Golan Heights are to the east,   Tiberius the great seat of Roman power in Jesus day is to the west.  Places of present and ancient conflicts, but on that hillside, from that perspective looking out at the vastness of the sea, one can start to believe that perhaps peace is possible.  

            And it was there that he sat down and he spoke to them. He said to them “blessed are you” and spoke to them in our scripture this week of who they are and how they were to live as beloved children of God.  As he spoke he looked upon them and in those moments, I believe the Overview Effect must have happened for them as well.   To sit in Jesus presence must be to experience a radical shift in consciousness.  To be held in the divine gaze of Pure Love must have shifted something in them.  Did they look out that day and see the beauty and fragility of it all as he spoke love to them of the good news of the kingdom of God that was coming into view, was at hand, was in their midst. 


            I wonder how our world would be different if everyone could experience such a moment, could experience the overview effect?  I wonder how our world would be different, if everyone had the chance to look out and gaze upon this precious blue pearl of a planet floating in the vastness of space or if everyone had a chance to sit at Jesus feet that day on the mountain and be bathed in the gaze of divine love?  Would we change the way we lived so as to not wound the earth that is our home.  Would the violence between us cease as we came home to our own belovedness and the belovedness of others? Can you imagine how the world could be different if people experienced such a shift in consciousness that seeing in this way brings? 

            But those mountain top moments are rare and getting to space even rarer.  Instead most of the time we are down in the valley, in the weeds, in the thick of it all trying to get by and trying our best not fall into all the cracks and fissures of our own lives and of our world.  The average person I think does not think about him or herself as being a part of something much larger, the average person I think is just trying hard to keep their life from falling apart or working hard to put it back together when it does. 


            Except perhaps, for us, on Sundays.  Except perhaps, when we take up our place as sailors, astronauts and step into this place, this vessel, this sailing ship.  It is my most profound hope and desire that when we come into this place we too are able to lift our eyes and catch a glimpse of divine mystery.  That we too can come to realize that we are a part of something bigger, not just part of this glorious creation we call earth, but part of the sweeping story of God that is before, in and beyond all that is.  Each of us as individuals and all of us together with this beautiful but wounded world are a magnificent, beautiful, part of God creating, redeeming and sustaining presence in this universe or multiverse of ours.  And being a part of such a magnificent whole, mean our lives matter.  Each of us are magnificent for we are part of the story of God.  Can we start to see ourselves, each other and all that is — in this way.  Can we start to see the vastness and grandeur of it all?  Can the overview effect starts to work on us as well? 


            I think it can.  Because I saw it happen past week, on Wednesday, at Lunch bunch.  There were over a dozen of us gathered around a table.  It was our Valentines Day celebration.  The table was covered by a red plastic table cloth that had multi colored hearts on it and our napkins had Love printed on them in big swirly letters.  And there were Valentines and chocolates at every place setting. 

            As we ate, the question that guided our discussion was “What advice would you give to your younger self if you were able to do so?”  It was moving to me to see people thinking back and summoning up their younger selves.  And it was beautiful to hear the words they would want to share.  “Follow your natural bent in life.” “Develop the art of listening.” “Stand up for yourself in circumstances when you need to. Be true to yourself and stand by it no matter what.”

            After most around table had spoken, I posed the question to one who is usually pretty quiet.  This dear one, is often caught up in her own interior conversation, but when I posed the question to her, without skipping a beat, she looked up from her plate and said “Come here.”

            What advice would she give her younger self? “Come here.”  While many of us were looking back at the ways we may have missed the mark in our lives by not being more playful, or by taking our selves too seriously, this person saw what was right and good – right now and affirmed her place in it.

            “Come here” and in the split second after she spoke, I swear everyone around the table saw it too.  In that split second, we glimpsed it coming over our horizon line.  We saw that we were all a part of it.  This thing of beauty, fragile, precious and glowing, all of us gathered around that table that was speaking love to us, right there – “come here” she said.  In that moment, we realized “here” is exactly where we all had come.  We were a part of something much larger than ourselves in that moment.  I think all of us felt in that moment, held by a love that made us whole. 


            Soon we will move into our time of communion, gathering at this table of love.  Soon Brian will invite us to “come here” to share in the body and the forgiveness of which we all are a part.  And when you do, I invite you when you hold the bread and then the cup, to pause for a moment –   Pause and gaze so that perhaps right now, right here we too may come to see the beauty and the vastness of which we, and all that is, are a part.   Pause and gaze deeply so that the love, of which the Apostle Paul speaks, may rise in us as well.      


            One final thing, as I was reading about the overview effect one more thing really struck me.  The overview effect not only brings about a profound shift of consciousness but that this shift in consciousness has real impact on the life of the astronauts.   Astronauts report that after experiencing the overview effect they suffer from less anxiety and less depression that they did before their profound experience of seeing the earth from space.   They may be returning to the same dynamics and particularities of their lives, but their relations to it all has changed.  Seeing the whole, has changed how they now experience their part in it.      

            This change of being that comes after seeing in a new way, is what Jesus speaks to the disciples as well.  He tells the up there on the mount, up there in the gaze of his love, that they are now to set aside trying to impress others or worrying what other people may think of them.  Instead they are to set their gaze on God.  When they do, they will start to experience a reorientation in their way of being.  Instead of getting caught up in the small things that keep us spinning, they will begin to see as they are seen by the One who looks upon them and all creation with love.  That is where their treasure will be.

            And we know that what he said did come to pass in their lives. We know that their experience on that hillside, seeing and being seen by love, that overview effect, well it changed them and they changed their lives.  We would not be sitting in this place this morning, if it that were not so.  Think about it.  The reason we are here today is because they were there over two thousand years ago.


            And so I wonder who are the people whose lives may be touched by our being here?  Who are our neighbors, co-workers, subway acquaintances who are hurting,  who are in the weeds, in the thick of it, trying to get by and trying their best not fall into all the cracks and fissures in their own lives and in the world.  Who are the ones who do not know that they are a part of something much larger, and instead are doubled down trying hard to keep their life from falling apart or working hard to put it back together when it has?

            What would it take to go to them?  What would it take to invite them into this holy capsule of ours and set off together into a journey of discovering the wholeness of which we are already a blessed part?  What shift could we help to set in motion not only in our lives but in the lives of those around us?  What kind of a world could begin to come into view if we do?

            May the love that holds all things together, lift us up so that we may come to see what too is possible in our living.   Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/astronaut