Femto Photography and Seeing Around Corners: Why Following Jesus Is about Risk

Transient

By Derek Penwell

In July a scientist from MIT, Ramesh Raskar, gave a Ted Talk on an amazing new innovation in photography. Femto photography films at one trillion frames per second. What this allows scientists to do, for example, is make a time lapse video of the movement of light (which is pretty dang cool on its own merits!). You can watch a burst of light projected from a laser as it shoots through a Coke bottle!

[Note: I realize that’s two exclamation points in two consecutive sentences—a grammatical practice upon which I generally frown, except to say things like “Happy birthday!” or “Congratulations on your Bassett Hound’s successful completion of agility training!”—but this stuff is pretty phenomenal! Oops. Sorry.]

The practical applications of this new technology are even more astounding. For one thing, when a burst of light is shot from a laser, it diffuses when the photons strike an object. Various photons are then reflected back to the source. Using heavy computational power, the scientists are able to stitch together the individual photon speeds to produce a 3-D model of the thing that the light hits.

The ability to produce 3-D models of things struck by a burst of light gets really interesting, however, when you realize that the reflection of light doesn’t have to come from an object in a straight line with the laser. Meaning … you can project the light around obstacles, and the computer will take into account the extra angles of reflection, and still construct an accurate 3-D image.

In other words, it allows you literally to see around the corner—to construct a 3-D image of something you can’t even see! [Again, sorry.] It’s almost like seeing into the future—getting an accurate vision of something before you ever get there.

I like the sound of that idea. It’s not flying or retractable adamantium claws, but it’s still kind of like a super power.

I understand the attraction of seeing around the corner; it’s a great metaphor for predicting the future, of telling you whether a thing will be worth doing.

But here’s the thing: In real life the only way you’ll know if a thing is worth doing is after you’ve already done it, when you look back on it—which is to say, after the toothpaste is already out of the tube.

“Should we let our daughter go on that trip to Europe?”

“Should I pay the electric bill so we don’t freeze, or should I fill my blood pressure medication so I don’t have a stroke?”

“Should I take the new job with exciting potential, or stay in the job where I’m most comfortable?”

“Should I tell my parents and friends I’m gay—risking their love and support, or should I keep it to my myself—risking my sanity?”

How do you know until after you do it?

That’s life. We have to make all sorts of calculations about what to do without enough information about what it will look like when it’s finished, or whether having done it will prove advantageous or harmful.

How do you know until after you do it.

That’s also what life following Jesus looks like. Seeing around the corner would certainly make church planning more effective, for instance. It’d be nice to know whether something is going to work before you had to take a chance on it. Face-saving is what it is.

If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you plan something, you risk failing. And failing is unacceptable to many churches.

Congregations in decline almost always understand church planning to be a matter not of achieving success, but of avoiding failure. Consequently, they tend to stand before decisions trying to do the advanced calculations necessary to see what lies around the corner, refusing to act boldly for fear that something might not work.

“Should we do this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because if we do, it might not work. We’d be out all that money, plus things like this tend to make Janice mad.”

Flourishing congregations, on the other hand, weigh a decision against past experience, then make a decision. They’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that they will never have everything nailed down before taking the leap. They’ve made peace with the knowledge that everything they try has a pretty good chance of washing out. But they’ve learned to accept the prospect of failure as the cost of doing business.

Flourishing congregations realize that there’s no way to ensure something will work on the front end. They understand that they’ll never know if an idea was a good one until they look back on it, assessing it in the rearview mirror. But the inability to look around the corner to see what’s coming doesn’t prevent them from turning corners they think faithfulness calls them to take. They understand that a life spent following Jesus is an adventure, not a tour.

Before we get there, we’d like to know that where we’re going is where we want to be.

Maybe one day there will be an ecclesiastical version of Femto photography that will make discipleship a surer thing. On the other hand, if discipleship is an adventure, whatever such an innovation might produce, it won’t have much to do with following Jesus.