Wednesday, November 16, 2005

God is My Co-Pilot … Pilot, Flight Attendant, and Baggage Handler!

During my trip to the States, I experienced ten airplane takeoffs, and ten landings. Which amounts to 20 queasy stomachs, 4,357 butterflies in said stomachs, and thousands of pints of adrenaline.

This isn’t the kind of thing a missionary ought to admit, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a fear of flying. You read that right – there’s something about strapping myself into an airplane that now evokes a string of fears about tragedies, terrorists, engine malfunctions, emergency landings, and other modern horrors.

Fortunately it’s not so bad that I have to be pushed onto planes, nor loaded up with tranquilizers or other legal drugs. But it sure is hard for me to relax on a plane. And when the flight is seven or eight hours long, that’s a lot of un-relaxed time!

To make matters worse, everytime I face these fears, I am reminded of the story of John Wesley in his pre-Aldersgate days, when he was on his way home from a failed missionary appointment among native Americans. On the way across the Atlantic, the boat encountered several violent storms. John was scared to death – like me! – but he noticed a group of Moravian Christians who calmly prayed and sang psalms throughout the storm.

John, so the story goes, was determined to find the source of these Moravians’ peace in the face of impending death. He fell in with some of their preachers, and even made a tour of Moravia himself. It is this encounter which many believe led John finally to his spiritual awakening at Aldersgate.

I can identify with John, and maybe you can, too. It has nothing to do with “assurance of salvation,” though. I’m not afraid that, if the plane goes down, I’m going to hell. I am confident of my after-death future, because I trust in an ever-faithful God. That’s not the problem.

Something else eats away at the lining of my stomach while flying. Maybe it’s the reminder that I am mortal, that I will die someday, like it or not. And I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I would love to see my children grow up.

I came to another realization last week, however. The real problem I have on those planes is that I have to admit to myself that I am not in control! Nope, my safety is completely out of my hands. I have to put my trust in men and women I don’t even know. I must have blind faith that the oxygen mask will drop out of the ceiling in time, and that the wheels will drop before we touch ground. I would prefer to sit in the cockpit, helping the pilots do something – even though I don’t know the first thing about flying planes. I just want to get my hands on my own future!

I desperately want to be in charge of my destiny. I want to call the shots. If I go down in flames, I want to go down because of my own mistakes, and despite my own best efforts.

There’s an apt metaphor for our lives here – we so desperately want to think we’re in charge of our lives. But sadly, and surprisingly, it’s largely out of our hands. The truth is that something bad could always happen -- bad people, unfortunate circumstances, mechanical malfunctions. It happens all the time, all over the world.

We’re all poised somewhere between the stars and the cold, hard earth in a permanent state of faith. We have to put that faith somewhere.

In fact, the only thing we can control is where we place our trust. We can choose where to locate our faith. Eventually, we must let go of our striving, grasping attempts at being in control and put ourselves completely into the hands of something, or Someone, else.

And somewhere 34,000 feet over the Sahara Desert, last week, I decided to let go of the steering wheel and get back into the passenger seat, push my seat back, slip on some headphones and close my eyes.

I finally did find some peace. Not the kind of peace that said to me, “You will return home safely”; no brilliant peek into my future twenty years from now. It wasn’t even a confidence that I would land safely.

Instead, it was the strong, silent peace of God that says, “No matter what happens, I am God.” No guarantees of anything in this earthly life except that, in the end, there is God. A loving, gracious and faithful God.

One of my favorite ways of affirming this truth comes from a statement of faith of the United Church of Canada, which is found in the back of the United Methodist Hymnal:

“In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.”