MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (BP)–Seven bright lights from candles gracing an American flag draped over a grand piano at First Baptist Church in Merritt Island, Fla., pierced a fog of sadness as churchgoers grappled with the reality of the Columbia space shuttle tragedy only the day before.
Seven astronauts were killed Feb. 1 as Columbia broke apart above Texas reentering the atmosphere at approximately 9 a.m. Eastern time, just 16 minutes from its scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Just miles from the landing strip, the Merritt Island congregation is one of several Southern Baptist churches with many members either directly or indirectly employed by NASA, said Harold Brantley, director of missions for the Brevard Baptist Association.
Brantley, who has lived in the area 18 years and is the former pastor of First Baptist Church Clearlake in Cocoa, Fla., told the Florida Baptist Witness that NASA is important to the county. Describing the community as “very close,” he said NASA is a major part of the county’s economy and that many of the churches grew with the development of the Kennedy Space Center.
That connection is what prompted Curt Dodd, FBC’s pastor, to cancel a preaching engagement at his former church in Colorado to be with the congregation Sunday morning. In this church, where approximately 70 percent of the 5,000 members are connected in some way to NASA, the space industry has a tremendous influence, Dodd told the Florida Baptist Witness in an interview.
During the service, Dodd read aloud the names of each of the seven who perished, leading those gathered in worship to pray “specifically for the families” of those who “sacrificed their lives.”
The pastor also prayed for NASA employees and contractors involved in the space program.
“Many in this congregation have touched with their hands Columbia. They have caressed the tiles and they have labored long,” Dodd prayed. “They have been involved for over two decades. Protect them mentally and emotionally and use this time in their lives to draw them closer.
“Show them you are a loving God,” Dodd continued. “Let us minister as we have never ministered before. Thank you. In the midst of life’s greatest darkness, you shine.”
Acknowledging many “hurt deeply” as a result of the shuttle tragedy, Dodd told the congregation “it’s times like this that often the big questions come up.”
Using the example of John the Baptist’s life from Matthew 11:1-6, Dodd asked: “What do you do when things don’t go as planned?”
John the Baptist “called sin, sin” and “minced no words,” said Dodd, who said the disciple called on leaders of the day to repent. He shook things up. He didn’t care about being “politically correct.”
“Things disintegrate. Things not only in the sky but in our lives as well,” Dodd said. “God’s love is a good thing, but many people think believers are insulated from problems, but that’s not true.”
Dodd said when disruptions happen or when doubt enters in, “It’s okay to question or wonder whether you are in the middle of God’s will or not.
“He has the answer,” Dodd said.
In order to handle the disruptions and the doubt, people need the discernment to grasp and focus “not on what others are asking,” but instead to “look at what God is doing.”
Detours happen and those who panic on the inside need to “stop and remember what your Father says,” Dodd advised. “Look to Jesus; you’re gonna make it home.”
While the “whole world” watches and wonders in light of the shuttle accident, believers have the opportunity to let God use them to reach out, he said.
“We need to return our focus to God and what he is doing. Not all questions will be answered, but God is still sovereign. He is still in control,” Dodd said. “We don’t know what the future holds, but on the authority of God’s Word, I know who holds the future.”
Dodd told the Witness the accident will leave an impact on the community long beyond “a day of mourning. This will leave an impact upon the community for months and months. There is a lot of uncertainty, not knowing.”
Dodd pledged that the church will look for ways to help.
“This church has the responsibility to discover what are the areas that will be impacted and to come up with a strategy to address those areas,” he said. “I’ll lean upon our deacons and staff and anybody else to help us analyze how we can best encourage, help and love on this community.”
On a more personal note, Dodd, who previously was a pastor in Houston for more than 12 years, said he has always been a huge fan of the space program and has spent several hours in the simulator at the Johnson Space Center.
“I love space,” said Dodd, who first learned of the disaster when a church member called from Florida and told him to turn on the television. “My heart just dropped.”
Dodd said the Merritt Island congregation “grew up” with the Space Center under the leadership of former pastor Adrian Rogers, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “NASA was just exploding and people were living in their cars,” Dodd recalled.
“They have a lot of heritage,” Dodd said of the church. “I just know that this is going to be a tough time.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SEEKING TO REMEMBER.