Great and Small
Do you recall the moments when you unexpectedly encountered greatness? Such times often arrive without forewarning; thereafter they are permanently imprinted in our memories. On May 12, 2005 I had one such experience. I was baccalaureate speaker at the University of Southern California. This, in itself, was quite an honor for this Southern Indiana preacher! Overly nervous, I arrived almost an hour early and thought I would find a place to sit quietly and review my talk. I was ushered into the green room and took a seat.
After a few minutes the university president Steven Sample entered with another person on the platform that day. I recognized him even before the words were spoken: “Phil, I would like for you to meet Neil Armstrong.” President Sample then excused himself and left us alone in the green room. Suddenly I was confronted with rare greatness.
Sitting across from him on the sofa, I recalled that Mr. Armstrong had a reputation for modesty and didn’t seek celebrity. Moments passed… it seemed like an hour. Mr. Armstrong was comfortably quiet and me — well, I was tongue-tied, amazed, aware that this was a rare privilege. I decided it best if I visited with him like he was just another fella from small town in the Midwest.
We had a marvelous conversation — about normal, everyday things — how the world had changed… his love of flying as a youth, attending Purdue… his having to break off from his masters degree course work at USC because he was called up to serve as an astronaut. (USC awarded him his master’s degree on this day. I remember thinking they should have made it a doctorate!)
I was amazed that he seemed just as interested in my experiences. We probably had twenty-five minutes together. I spoke of being a pastor, teacher and time working in urban settings. Near the end of the conversation he told me about one of his experiences on the moon. He said it had been misunderstood. As best I can remember he said, “Some people have misinterpreted an action while on the moon. At one point I focused on that tiny, pretty blue pea that was the earth. I stuck up my thumb and shut one eye. Some thought this was an expression of our great achievement — making the earth so small — but I didn’t feel like a giant at all. I felt very small and I realized there are dimensions of our universe that are beyond imagination. There is beauty all around.”
On July 20, 1969, Elaine and I watched the moon landing, first steps and the planting of the flag from a living room in Tenafly, New Jersey. We were in the home of Rev. Robert and Mrs. Katherine Kelly, a Presbyterian minister and spouse serving in Harlem. I didn’t realize it at the time but as we watched Neil Armstrong on a fuzzy black and white television screen, we were seated with greatness. The Kellys had given up opportunities to serve in more distinguished pulpits in order to serve folks in a rough NYC neighborhood.
Sadly, I don’t have a photo of the Kellys to share — but they left an imprint on our hearts and lives that lasts to this day. They would never be celebrities. In the eyes of many their lives were not all that significant. But I know better — I know that they contributed to healing and transformation in a tough neighborhood. They too saw the beauty all around them and understood that the universe contains dimensions beyond our imagination.
Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great. It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Neil Armstrong, the modest fella from a small town in Ohio understood. Greatness is more… sometimes it is recognized, sometimes folks miss the point. That point? There is beauty all around.