Three days before the Apollo 13 made its tortuous trip into space, NASA astronaut Ken Mattingly learned he’d been scrapped from the team.
“I’m driving up the road, turning the radio on and heard . . . NASA announce that they have substituted Jack Swigert for me,” Mattingly said in a 2001 interview. “I just kind of pulled over to the side of the road and sat there for a while. If this is a practical joke, it’s well done. But I don’t think this is a joke.”
Mattingly had been exposed to a viral infection—German measles—which changed his world in a moment. He watched his crew take off without him that April afternoon. When he never contracted German measles, the abundance of precaution must have felt abundantly cruel. Months of training and planning seemed to be for naught.
It seemed his dreams weren’t merely postponed; they were canceled. After all, how many people get the chance to fly into space, let alone walk on the moon? And how many moon trips would NASA plan in his lifetime?
I couldn’t help but think of Mattingly when, in the span of a few weeks, another viral infection threw us into a global pandemic.
Don’t Be Surprised
I don’t know anyone who claims to have seen this coming. Indeed, one of the reasons Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at this fiery trial” (1 Pet. 4:12) is that so often they catch us by surprise.
My life took an unexpected turn right along with the rest of the world. As a nurse, I can’t offer my patients the healing balm of human touch; one-third of my retirement is gone; and that friend I intended to invite to church, well, when will we go? And my circumstances are quite mild compared to many who are suffering greater losses.
My daughter’s college roommate was planning a large April wedding, with relatives coming in from overseas. With many tears and much sorrow, the guest list has been whittled down to 10 and the reception scrapped. Consolation that “God is sovereign,” though true enough, can feel like a smack in the face.
We can make plans, but the Lord directs our steps. James writes, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (4:14).
Time Grants Perspective
Joseph had dreams, too, and made the mistake of sharing them with his brothers. They weren’t amused. His dreams did eventually come true, but not according to his plans or timetable. At 17 years old, with “his entire life ahead of him,” his brothers sold him into slavery.
Even in this, Joseph made the best of it and found favor with Potiphar—only to lose it over a false accusation. He used his gifts in prison to interpret the cupbearer’s dream with only a simple request as payment: “Remember me, when it is well with you,” (Gen. 40:14). But Genesis 40 ends in heartbreak: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph but forgot him” (Gen. 40:23). I can’t imagine the discouragement and true social isolation he endured.
Perspective isn’t always gained amid suffering. Sometimes it comes much later.
Perspective isn’t always gained amid suffering. Sometimes it comes much later. It would be another two years before Potiphar’s own dreams jogged the cupbearer’s memory. Joseph’s brothers did bow before him, but perhaps not quite as he had dreamed. It took many years before Joseph could say in tears to his brothers, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
It’s easy to gain a happy perspective after reading five chapters that come to a satisfying conclusion—far more difficult when you sit in prison with no end in sight, or you watch your 401(k) dwindle to nothing, or you must remove people you love from a guest list.
Maybe right now you can’t see what God is doing. Perhaps you feel abandoned and forgotten. Nothing makes sense. When all you see is disappointment, ruined plans, and heartache, ask God to focus your mind on what you cannot see. Remember, the cross on Friday must have seemed like the end of the world; the disciples couldn’t see its horrific necessity until Sunday.
Focus on the Unseen
Interruption and a changed plan weren’t the end to Mattingly’s story. An explosion in space transformed his disappointment into a new mission. Tasked with fitting a circle into a square, Mattingly became part of the team that helped Apollo 13 make it home safely.
‘Through many peaceful, carefully planned, and stable joys we have already come’? No one sings that.
Later he would acknowledge he was right where he needed to be, planning a rescue of his stranded friends. He wasn’t in the papers smiling along with the brave crew, but he was no less a hero.
And Mattingly eventually did make it to the moon. He flew as command module pilot for Apollo 16 and made 64 lunar orbits before his retirement as a rear admiral in the Navy.
Might we see a global pandemic’s effect much differently months or even years from now? How many stories might we tell of how God, unknown to us at this time, placed us right where we needed to be to serve him? Will we say with Joseph, “God meant this for our good”?
“Through many peaceful, carefully planned, and stable joys we have already come.” No one sings that. Rather, we sing:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come.
T’was grace that brought us safe thus far
And grace will lead us home.
Ask the Lord to give you the right vision through the dangers, toils, and snares. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if he transforms your disappointment into mission.