My scary airplane story

'Sky symphony' photo (c) 2007, Kevin Dooley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Fine. I’m ready to tell it. But only because it’s Halloween and you people keep pestering me to spill it…and because maybe this will count as therapy. 

***

“They have a flight manifest that includes everyone’s seat number,” said the middle-aged lady next to me. “That’s how they identify the bodies.” 

In her lap was a red, heart-shaped pillow that had postoperative instructions for heart patients printed on its side. She squeezed it each time the airplane lurched or shook, which was about every 5 seconds. 

This body here is in 18C; must be Mrs. So-and-So,” she went on, imitating the voice of an imaginary, far-too-cavalier search and rescue officer. “That’s how they do it, if there’s anything left, of course.” 

Lightening flickered outside the window and the sensation of falling returned yet again.  Someone behind me whimpered in fear and I could feel my blood pressure rising. 

“That most recent crash in San Fran wasn’t so bad, though,” my seatmate went on. (Think Melissa McCarthy’s character in “Bridesmaids.”) “Just a few fatalities if I’m not mistaken.” 

I wanted to rip that pillow out of her hands. 

It’s all about your seatmate, isn’t it? 

When you fly nearly every week you know exactly what to wish for: A compact, recently-bathed person who smiles as you take your seat, listens to music or sleeps as you fly, and makes pleasant small talk as you land. 

You also know exactly what you don’t want: the evangelist, the dude who won’t stop barking instructions over his cellphone even after the cabin door has been closed, the lady who for some reason processes fear by chatting casually about death. 

But I had no one to blame. This was Southwest, School Bus of the Sky. I’d picked my own seatmate. 

Pretty much everyone on the plane had been gripping their armrests for last 45 minutes.  We were in the final hour of a 3 ½ hour, late-night flight from Phoenix to Louisville, Kentucky and had begun our descent….or so we guessed. The flight attendants and pilot had been silent for at least an hour. 

“You know, statistically, you’re more likely to die in a  hippopotamus-related incident than a plane crash,” I told the lady, citing some internet resource to which my mind was clinging at this desperate hour.  

“Seems like the odds would change depending on your proximity to the plane or the hippo,” she replied. 

Which is exactly what Dan had said. Damn it. 

I never used to be afraid of flying.  I never used to be afraid of anything, come to think of it. But something happened about the time I turned 30 and now thoughts of tragedy, death, and destruction occupy my thoughts. I’m afraid of cancer, of airplane crashes, of terrorism, of tornadoes, of tsunamis, of choking, of that weird mole, of losing Dan, of losing my parents, of losing my sister, of war, of flesh-eating bacteria, of living smack dab in the middle of THREE nuclear power plants (thanks a lot, TVA), of there not being a God, of ceasing to exist, of having kids which will mean having even MORE people to worry about, about everything. I didn’t used to be this way. And I wonder what changed. 

My faith? 

My physiology?

My experience? 

My TV viewing? 

Outside a storm raged. Louisville received nearly 6 inches of rain that Saturday and multiple thunderstorms.  (Later, a lady who flew in hours earlier with Delta told me her pilot said theirs were the last flight allowed in.) I’d just finished speaking at a the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention in San Diego and was on my way to speak at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville the next morning. 

I decided to try talking to the guy across the aisle who had been using the plane’s spotty Wifi to watch a football game on his iPad, which meant we were kindred spirits.  He was a graying businessman with a calming presence who for some reason made me feel more secure, perhaps because I’m a horrible feminist who needs men to feel safe, or perhaps because anyone’s better than a recovering heart patient who has made peace with her own death. 

“Do you fly often?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from shaking. 

“Every week,” he said. “Louisville is home.” 

“Is it always this….bumpy?” 

He laughed. “Definitely not. But about every six to eight weeks I have a flight like this that makes me reconsider my line of work. Too much flying.” 

In my head, I started composing an email to my agent explaining why I had to cancel every appearance on my calendar. 

“The good news is, we always make it home,” Mr. Businessman added, sensing my anxiety. “You have to remember this is just another day at the office for this pilot.” 

We chatted for a while and I found myself relaxing. When we hit another patch of heavy turbulence I focused on taking deep breaths. Mr. Businessman rested his elbows on his knees and concentrated on the floor.  I can say with some confidence that everyone on the plane was either scared or medicated. 

Rain streamed across our windows as the plane descended. Finally, a few orange lights blinked from beneath the clouds and within seconds, we could see the runway. 

“Thank you Jesus,” I breathed. 

But Mr. Businessman looked concerned. 

Sure enough, seconds before we should have landed, the plane suddenly pulled back up into the sky. 

“I think we were coming in a little high,” Mr. Businessman said. “The UPS building wasn’t in the right place.” 

“You mean we’re going back up?!” I demanded. 

“Looks like it.” 

This is when I began quoting from the book of Job and cursing my speaking agent for getting me into this mess. It’s also when I realized that the lady next to me had fallen asleep, the heart shaped pillow lying loosely in her lap. 

Maybe once you've faced death, you learn to accept it. 

After about 5 minutes of flying to God-knows-where, the pilot finally started talking to us in that weird, overly-casual tone pilots always take when announcing a flight ETA or informing passengers of their impending death.  

“Uh…. ladies and gentlemen….from the flight deck….uh…. your captain here.” 

Long pause. 

“As you can see…uh….we haven’t landed. We’ve got some heavy rain here in Louisville and…ugh…. wouldn’t you know it? My windshield wipers broke.” 

I’d only known Mr. Businessman for 30 minutes but I could tell he wasn’t buying it.  

So we circled around and tried it again, and sure enough I lived to tell the tale. When the wheels hit the runway, everyone applauded and it occurred to me in that moment that maybe human beings just weren’t meant to fly; maybe we’re pushing the limits of what God designed us to do; maybe it’s not a good idea to live in such a way that not falling from the sky to your death is an occasion for celebration. 

When I got to the hotel I couldn’t sleep. It’s amazing, really, how your body continues to pump adrenaline even when you’re safe. 

I read an article once that said when a human gets stressed, her hypothalamus sends a message to her adrenal glands and triggers the same response her very distant ancestors would have experienced upon getting chased by a tiger.  The article said that even if we’re just running behind on a deadline or confronting someone at work, our bodies still think we’re getting chased by a tiger.  

It may have been a bunch of bunk, but it sounded true to me. Some days, for no good reason, my body thinks it's getting chased by a tiger.  

I suppose I should end this story with a reference to 1 John 4 about how perfect love casts out fear. But I think maybe that’s a reference to how love keeps us from fearing one another or fearing God’s judgment,  not about how love keeps us from fearing death by fiery plane crash. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more l love, the more awful and dreadful it is to face the inevitability that everyone I care for will experience pain and suffering in their lives. Everyone I love will die. And I will die too. No exceptions. 

And, frankly, God has yet to prove definitively, and to my complete satisfaction, that the afterlife thing is taken care of. 

I wonder why this didn’t bother me before, why the message is just now getting sent to my adrenal glands. 

It’s nice to know that Anne Lamott hates flying too. She likes to tell the story of how once, before an international flight, she asked her church for prayers to keep her safe from hijacking, and engine malfunction, and snakes, and her pastor Veronica said, "Once you get on the plane, it's a little late for beggy prayers. That's when it's time for trust, and surrender."

Perhaps the lady next to me had been reading Anne Lamott. Perhaps surviving heart surgery had taught her to let go. Perhaps that’s why she released her grip on that pillow and just surrendered to the flight and nodded off to sleep. Perhaps she knew that ultimately, love demands surrender. 

…Or perhaps she was just really heavily medicated. 

I should have asked her for some drugs.  

***

(See also: “Why I Don’t Witness to People on Airplanes”

***

Okay, I know everyone’s got one. What’s your crazy flying story? Ever sat next to someone strange? (I’m going to share Dan’s crazy seatmate story in the comments…because it’s WEIRD!)

Also, what do you find yourself fearing these days? Do you find you grow more fearful as you get older? Why is that? 

And finally, what are your thoughts on Xanax? 

 

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Slow

'tree' photo (c) 2006, Akash Kataruka - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I think I need to take up gardening. 

Because, to be honest, sometimes I get impatient with the Kingdom. I expect it to keep pace with my world, growing through power and money, Facebook shares and book sales, violent acts, violent words, and violent thoughts—seeds tossed on shallow, neglected soil just to get eaten up by birds. 

I’m really good at throwing seeds at birds. 

But I suspect the stories of Jesus make more sense to folks with a little dirt and flour beneath their fingernails, folks who are patient. 

The Kingdom is like yeast. 

The Kingdom is like a pearl. 

The Kingdom is like wheat growing among tares. 

The Kingdom is like a farmer. 

The Kingdom is slow. 

Kingdom seeds are mustard seeds, planted and tended in good soil. Some of them are just now swelling and splitting underground; others are breaking through the surface with a garish flash of green; others are meandering toward the sun, desperate for light or rain or some sort of trellis; others are growing slow and steady into tall shade tress with limbs like arms wide open to the world, welcoming the birds of the air to nest in their branches.

Truth be told, my little Kingdom plant looks a lot like a weed right now, more fit for bugs than for birds. 

But perhaps, if I am patient - if I don't lose hope, if I trust the soil and water it well - the tree will keep growing, and those birds I’ve been throwing seeds at will find a place to rest instead. 

The Kingdom is slow. 

Perhaps I should stop rushing it. 

Perhaps I’m not waiting on it as much as it is waiting on me. 

 

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An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church

While I am not generally a fan of open letters, I realize there are circumstances in which the format can be useful and necessary, and this is certainly the case with this open letter from Asian Americans to the Evangelical Church. I wanted to share it here because I know and respect many of the people who signed the letter and trust they did so with conviction, wisdom, and prayer, and also because many of us in this online community are evangelicals and can learn from what our brothers and sisters have to say here. 

An excerpt:  

We highly value the concept of family, and it deeply distresses us when our non-Asian brothers and sisters do not seem to recognize or embrace that we are called to be one united body. We are in your churches, your communities, your workplaces. Whenever you marginalize, ostracize, or demean us through carelessness and ignorance in print, video, or any other medium, you are doing more than just ruffling the feathers of a small group of online activists. You are damaging the very cause of Christ, by maintaining and increasing fissures within the church. You are fur- thering the exact opposite of what it means to be the church, which is to reflect Christ and his love through the power of a reconciled body. And you are creating an environment that will not only disillusion current Asian American Christians within the church body, but also repel Asian Americans who do not know Christ and who do not see him represented in the actions of those who call themselves Christian.  [Read More]

And here's a little context for the letter via Sarah at RNS. 

I would love to hear from Asian American readers, or other people of color, on this. Have you ever experienced racial stereotyping in a church setting? What happened? How did you respond? Where might white evangelicals have blind spots? 

Thanks for weighing in! 

[Oh, and now would probably be a good time to recommend two great books: But I Don't See You as Asian by Bruce Reyes-Chow and More Than Serving Tea by by Asifa Dean, Christie Heller de Leon, Kathy Khang , Nikki A. Toyama, Tracey Gee, and Jeanette Yep.]

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Vulnerability and Christianese

'together' photo (c) 2013, streetwrk.com - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
– Brene Brown 

 

I think we should cut Christianese some slack.  

Like any culture, the evangelical culture in the U.S. has its own linguistic affectations and quirks, blending together lines from Scripture, hymns, and tradition with everyday colloquialisms and figures of speech. 

And it’s not all bad. 

I remember with fondness the way my great-grandmothers would shake her head at some baffling news or unsettling headline and in her thick Appalachian accent whisper, “Lordamercy”—the ancient Kyrie elesion rendered into a single, appropriate word. And I find it helpful to heed James’ advice now and then by punctuating a lengthy discussion over calendar dates and future plans with a reverent, “Lord willing.” It is beautiful and good to work the poetry of our faith into everyday conversation and meditation, to speak of “traveling mercies” and “fellowship” and of how “God is good all the time.” Each time I’m on a plane that rises above the clouds at sunrise, I think of Psalm 139—“If I rise on the wings of the dawn, or settle on the far side of the sea…even there your hand will guide me”—and I am grateful for the gift of these lovely words. 

We have this deep well of beautiful, helpful language from which to draw, and we should not be ashamed of using the words and imagery handed down to us from the great cloud of witnesses that came before us to illuminate the present. Jesus himself did so often. 

 

But in thinking about our use of “Christianese”—both as a writer and as a member of the Church—I think Christianese becomes unhelpful the moment we use it to protect ourselves from being honest with one another, the moment we use it to escape vulnerability. 

We do this in several ways: 

 

1) We employ Christianese when we have an idea. 

I see this a lot in the religious publishing/blogging/conference “industry.” Folks protect their ideas by bubble wrapping them in an impenetrable layer of Christianese, so that suddenly, it’s not a just a book proposal but a “God thing,” not just a marketing strategy but a “Spirit-movement,” not just an idea for a blog post but “something God has laid on my heart,” not just a conference but a “Jesus revolution.” 

On the one hand, I suspect this language gets used to convey true conviction and feeling, but on the other, it can also serve to protect a person’s ideas from criticism, input, and disagreement. It can be scary to put a bold idea out there to be digested and dissected by co-workers or the public, so sometimes we try to protect our ideas by claiming they are not merely our own, but God’s. The problem is this keeps us from being honest with one another and it drags God’s name into ideas and plans that may not be perfect and that may in fact benefit from the input of other wise people who are happy to respectfully engage a person’s ideas but are wary of “crossing” God by offering a new perspective. (It also tends to gloss over the hard work of real people, like agents, editors, sales reps, marketing people, designers, and assistants whose gifts and creative energy make a lot of what we create possible.  An author once told me she didn’t need a literary agent because her only agent was God. I told her that, unfortunately, most publishing houses weren’t accepting submission from God right now, so maybe she ought to rethink that strategy.) 

It may not seem so, but it requires a lot more honesty and vulnerability to tell someone you have an idea that you would like him or her to consider than to tell that person God has an idea you would like him or her to consider. In the latter, God serves as something of a buffer between you and the other person, protecting you from potential rejection. But this tends to break down actual conversation as both parties have to navigate carefully around the Christianese to try and guess at what one another actually thinks and wants. Suddenly, we’re not talking like normal people anymore. We’re talking like a bunch of repressed weirdos and no one knows what we’re actually saying to one another! 

It’s really hard to put oneself in the vulnerable position of sharing an idea. But without that vulnerability, real friendships cannot grow and real ideas cannot flourish in the good soil of a diverse, engaged community. 

 

2) We employ Christianese when we make a decision. 

I think most Christians are eager to make God-honoring decisions in our lives, but sometimes we inadvertently close ourselves off to the wisdom and love of other people when we use Christianese to justify and explain our decisions.  It’s hard not to cringe when someone confidently announces that God “led” her to do something careless or hurtful, and it’s hard not to get frustrated when certain specific lifestyle decisions are spoken of as “God’s way” when they just might not work for everyone. 

It is much easier to say, “God told me to go to Uganda for a short-term missions trip,” than it is to say, “I’d like to go to Uganda for a short-term missions trip.”  One protects us from input, disagreement, disappointment, and the risk we might be wrong by placing all responsibility for the decision onto God. The other requires vulnerability and opens us up to input, disagreement, disappointment, and the risk we might be wrong….which is harder, but ultimately, healthier. Owning our decisions helps us live among one another with more authenticity, openness, respect, and love…because it puts us on a level playing field as we each seek to do what is right while remaining mindful of our own imperfections. 

 

3) We employ Christianese in the context of suffering. 

My mother-in-law was recently in the hospital suffering from a “perfect storm” of health problems that suddenly afflicted an otherwise incredibly healthy woman.  Now, my mother-in-law is one of the most kindhearted, giving, open, and grateful people you will ever meet, but even she expressed some dismay at Christians who approached her bedside, patted her on the hand and told her God would not give her more than she could handle. 

I think what she wanted in that moment was not religious platitudes or shallow words of comfort, but for someone to sit next to her, hold her hand, and say, “This sucks. I’m here.” 

Perhaps we resort to Christianese in the context of suffering because it is so freaking terrifying…for both the person suffering and those who feel helpless in the face of their loved one’s pain. To sit in that pain together is to put ourselves in an extremely vulnerable position…and I know what it’s like to want desperately to try and ease the tension and make it easier by quoting Philippians 4:13 or urging everyone to look on “the bright side.” 

But we are not called to paper over one another’s suffering with platitudes. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Jesus himself displayed this in his own life, and in his own suffering, time and again. 

But when we resort to Christianese, when we start talking carelessly about God working all things together for good or having higher ways than our own, we risk losing our ability to truly empathize, to truly relate. Once again, we stop talking like normal people, and we start talking like robots! And often, we fail to communicate the gospel to those who aren't in on our religious "lingo" as a result!

 

As Brene Brown has so thoughtfully brought to our attention over the last few years, vulnerability is at the heart of healthy, authentic relationships.  We cannot really love one another unless we are willing to be honest with one another, unless we are willing to risk being real. 

The risk doesn't always pay off; it's not always safe - and that's why I think we build these defenses around it, why we resort to Christianese.   When it comes to my relationship with God and with other Christians, I’m as quick as anyone else to try and protect myself from honest dialog by hiding behind flowery, unhelpful language (or, my favorite defense mechanism: to intellectualize everything so that it can’t hurt me).

But Jesus didn't call us to be safe. And the relationships that have meant the most to me, that have brought me closer to the Table, have been those in which we talk to one another like normal people, employing the language of our shared faith tradition when it illuminates the truth, but not when it obscures it. 

 

Thoughts? Where else do you see Christianese employed as a way of protecting against vulnerability? How can Christians do a better job of talking like normal people when it comes to sharing ideas, making decisions, and experiencing suffering together in community? 

 

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Six Words You Should Hear Today

'my sweet freedom' photo (c) 2009, Victor Bezrukov - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

“I love to watch you play.'"

According to Rachel Macy Stafford, an author and special education teacher, those six words changed the way she related to her children.  Rather than praising or critiquing their performances at swim meets, recitals, and soccer games, she began pulling her children close, and simply whispering, “I love to watch you swim,” “I love to hear you sing,” “I love to hear your read,” “I love to watch you play.” 

Their reaction to these words, she said, was telling: 

My child's face broke into her most glorious smile -- the one that causes her eyes to scrunch up and become little slices of joy. And then she did something I didn't expect. She threw herself against me, wrapped her arms tightly around my neck, and whispered, ‘Thank you, Mama.’ And in doing so, I swear I could read her mind: The pressure's off. She loves to hear me play; that is all.

"The pressure’s off. She loves to hear me play; that is all." 

Even as someone who is not yet a mother, I see the wisdom of this approach. And as my eyes scanned the article, I thought of how desperately we adults need to hear these words too, perhaps most especially from the God who identifies as our Father and who is often compared to a Mother. 

What a relief it would be to know the pressure’s off. God delights in our living and breathing and working and praying and that delight is not something we have to earn by doing everything right. 

God just loves to watch us play. 

Too many corners of the Church have been infected with a legalistic, performance-based view of God in which God stands over our lives with crossed arms and a disappointed scowl, applauding only when we get everything just right and rendering judgment on everything we do wrong.  Some pastors seem to thrive in lording this disapproving God over their parishioners. As one pastor put it: “Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny.”  He then proceeds to explain how to win back God's favor. 

For too many Christians, God’s unmerited favor is a one-time gift that applies exclusively to eternal security. In the meantime, God’s favor has to be earned.  It has to be fought for with one flawless performance after another. The Family of God is a competitive, disciplined, performance-based family that runs on the economy of gold stars, rules and shame. God is rendered into the  classic nightmare sports parent  whose favor has to be earned, who is always, always, always disappointed in us.  

But this is not the God we encounter in Scripture or in Christ or in the Eucharist.  The God we encounter there is the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who rejoices over His children with signing, the God who spreads Her wings over Her children like an eagle over her chicks, the God who loved the world enough to experience all of its pain alongside of us, the God who—as Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it—“would rather die than be in the sin accounting business anymore,” the God who loves to watch us play. 

God doesn’t love us because we’ve earn it.  God loves us because we are God’s children. God created this world and everything in it—don’t you think God delights in it? Don’t you think God loves us at least as much as a good parent who delights in the activities of her children, regardless of whether they get everything right? 

This isn’t a performance-based relationship; it’s a relationship based on unconditional love and endless delight. We can breathe a deep and long sigh of relief because the pressure’s off. We’re not here to impress or perform; we’re here to revel in God’s delight. 

So hear these six words from God today: 

          I love to watch you play. 

Or perhaps: 

          I love to watch you write. 

          I love to watch you bake. 

          I love to watch you nurse. 

          I love to watch you read to your kids at night. 

          I love to watch you care for the sick. 

          I love to watch you take pictures. 

          I love to watch you study. 

          I love to watch you laugh. 

          I love to watch you seek the truth even when it’s hard. 

          I love to watch you be the church together, even when it’s imperfect. 

          I love to watch you love one another, even when it seems impossible. 

          I love to watch you eat and drink and dance and explore and worship and pray and get out of your car to move that poor little turtle out of the road…not because you do any of these things perfectly, but because you do them as my children. 

Now sink into that sigh of relief and believe this today:

      

The pressure's off. God loves to watch me play. That is all.

 

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