2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
John 14:2-12 – NIV
These words are very familiar to me… and probably to you too. They are favourite choices for funeral services and so I have heard them quite a few times recently, including for my own mother’s Thanksgiving on 17th March 2021. It is felt, and with much justification, that they offer comfort when we lose a loved one. Knowing that God has prepared a space for them, in a place where there is no more crying or weeping, where pain and trouble are over, helps us to come to terms with our loss. It is a reassurance also that a place awaits us too, when our time comes and whenever that may be. There is the feeling that we are in fact being called home once again, wherever we have travelled during our lifetime. Home is a haven, a place of safety, where we will be protected from the ravages of the world. It is, after all, where the heart is! How many times in history have we heard of the body of a Prince or King, or a soldier, or even a person of any stature or standing, or none for that matter, being returned home for burial near to her/his loved ones? Sometimes there is a dispute as to where home is. Many are the people of Yorkshire who could not stomach the final resting place of Richard III not being in Yorkshire!
A small matter of 60 years ago, on 12th April 1961 a young Russian pilot embarked upon an extraordinary journey. Just 108 minutes after blasting off, Yuri Alexeivitch Gagarin, returned to earth, the first man ever to be launched into space and to a hero’s welcome. This was something of a miracle, as the Vostok had overshot its intended altitude to a height where the air was much thinner and so his expected return was not due until 20 days later. The hapless pilot knew nothing of his predicament. However, to the relief and amazement of all, the engines fired. This was, mind you, not quite the end of the story! For 42 seconds, Gagarin felt the spacecraft slowing, only for the deceleration to end with a sudden jolt. His descent module had separated from the instrument module as expected, but the tether connecting them had failed to release. The capsule was spinning out of control. Gagarin was dazzled by the sun, while the g-forces caused his vision to go grey as blood was forced from his brain. For 10 minutes the temperature climbed rapidly, threatening to incinerate the pod until there was a final bang – the tether had burned through.
As a result, the instrument module shot off, as the descent module righted itself into its correct orientation. The hatch opened, Yuri Gagarin ejected about 7km above the earth’s surface and parachuted to safety. Beneath him, he could see the silver line of the Volga river winding through the Saratov region of Russia – the very place he had learned to fly years before. The story goes that as he took his first breath of terrestrial air, he was greeted by a bemused lady and her granddaughter who asked if he had come from space. “As a matter of fact, I have,” he replied, as a group of nearby farm workers ran towards him, crying out his name. It is said he then asked if someone could take him to the nearest ‘phone, as he needed to pass on a message. Ironic then, that this first spaceman should have died in a ‘plane crash on a routine training flight only 7 years later.
Last month also marked the final days in his earthly home of another famous spaceman: Michael Collins. One of the three crew members of the first manned mission to land on the Moon, Apollo 11 in 1969, he died aged 90. Collins remained in lunar orbit as his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Aldrin, 91, is now the only surviving member of the mission and wrote in a tweet: “Dear Mike, wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the fire to carry us deftly to new heights and to the future. We will miss you. May you rest In peace.”
If you desire examples of epic journeys home and away, look no further than the natural world and those of birds. On their travels from their breeding areas in Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau and northern China to their wintering sites in India, Bar-headed Geese cross over the Himalayas using less than ten per cent of the oxygen available at sea level, reaching altitudes of up to 7,000 m with no help from any tailwinds. They save energy by hugging the mountain ground and flying at night time, but scientists are still unsure of the genetics behind their extraordinary resistance.
The Peregrine Falcon might win the sprint race, reaching up to 390 km/h (242 mph) when diving to catch prey, but it doesn’t win the marathon. The unlikely winner of the fastest long-haul flight would be the Great Snipe — a rather plump form before its winter migration, yet what it lacks in aerodynamism, it makes up for in energy. Without relying on tailwinds that would help it go faster, this stocky bird has been recorded to reach speeds of up to 97 km/h (60 mph) over a distance of 6,800 km (4,225 mi). When it flies over land from Scandinavia to sub-Saharan Africa, it doesn’t even take any breaks and loses half its weight as a result.
Now imagine going on a nine-day flight with no time to sleep and nothing to eat or drink. This is the way of the Bar-tailed Godwit; from Alaska to New Zealand, it holds the record for the largest non-stop flight of any bird, flying for over 11,000 km (6,835 mi) without rest. Godwits taking the East Asian-Australasian route are undergoing rapid declines due to severe habitat loss in the Yellow Sea and as a result the species is classified as Near Threatened.
Even though the Red Knot only has a wingspan of 20 inches, some of them fly nearly 15,000 kilometres every year, from the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina all the way to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Sadly, human interference is making this journey much tougher for the bird.
Flightless birds such as penguins also migrate. This is the case of the Adélie Penguin, known to trek an average 13,000 km (8,077 mi) every year, following the sun from its breeding colony to their winter grounds in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica and back. During the winter, the sun doesn’t rise south of the Antarctic Circle — a challenge to these penguins, who need to have access to the sea to feed on krill. Their solution is to keep walking to the edge of the ice, which is continually expanding during the freezing months. In the spring, they stay at the edge while the ice recedes. Despite projections based on climate suggesting a future decline, their populations are increasing, particularly in East Antarctica, where most of them breed.
Also known as the Tasmanian Muttonbird, this globetrotter migrates every year from its breeding grounds in Tasmania and southern Australia to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, to then continue on to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, then circle around the Pacific Ocean and travel back along the western coast of North America. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for gliding above the water, allowing them to fly for extended periods of time while saving energy. Amazingly, even after travelling such huge distances, they return to the same burrow every year!
But the winner is ….
No bird migration list is ever complete without mentioning the record-breaking feats of the Arctic Tern. By far the longest migration known in the animal kingdom, this medium-sized bird travels 90,000 km (55,923 mi) from pole to pole every year — from Greenland in the North to the Weddell Sea in the South. Remarkably, Arctic Terns can live up to 30 years, which means if one adds up the distance they traverse in a lifetime, their total journey is equivalent to going to the moon and back more than three times. At the side of the this the achievement of man seems paltry, doesn’t it?
Another epic journey ended on 16th April 2021. There was no question here of physical effort in flight or any other means of personal propulsion, though it was one of immense endurance, patience and fortitude. My nephew Tom, arrived back home after a four-week one-way cruise, stopping off only to re-fuel in the Falkland Islands and off the coast of Africa on his way to Oldham from the British Antarctic Survey base at Rothera following his third stint, including an over-winter with only 25 other souls in what had been his home for the past 18 months, the most inhospitable place imaginable. Ironically, whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the rest of the world, he and his colleagues have remained cocooned and completely isolated, even protected from its effects. Antarctica is not normally regarded as the safest place on the planet! In a ‘phone-call in the last few days, Tom spoke of the debilitating effects of long-term isolation and institutionalisation and the bouleversement of the return home. In the past, staff have sometimes undertaken periods of up to 33 months on these bases, but research has shown that this can be very damaging to mental health. Tom said that he was focused and able to perform the necessary tasks, but found it difficult to do anything else!
Spare a thought too for those who may wish to return home, but do not have one to return to. A thought also for those who have been effectively locked up in their own home, having hardly been able to leave it for well over a year.
Wherever the call of the wild takes us, we have a natural instinct to return home and it is a reassurance to know that wherever in the world we have been, God has prepared a place for us when the time comes for us to leave this earthly coil !
2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
John 14: 2-3
PR Lambert – May 2021