L.B.: God took my copilot

L.B.: God took my copilot March 24, 2004

Left Behind, pp. 34-35

Rayford Steele sat ashen faced in the cockpit. Half an hour from touchdown in Chicago, he had told the passengers everything he knew. The simultaneous disappearance of millions all over the globe had resulted in chaos far beyond imagination …

So far beyond imagination that LaHaye and Jenkins scarcely even try to imagine it for us.

… He thought, but didn’t say, how grateful he was to have been in the air when this event had taken place. What confusion must await them on the ground! Here, in a literal sense, they were above it all. They had been affected, of course. People were missing from everywhere. But except for the staff shortage caused by the disappearance of three crew members, the passengers didn’t suffer the way they might have had they been in traffic or …

And here it finally occurs to unsaved, and therefore “left behind,” pilot Rayford Steele the central message of the book’s first chapter:

… if he and Christopher had been among those who disappeared.

Above all else, L&J remind us, you should never, ever get on a plane with a born-again pilot.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this fundamental rule in early February when news broke of an American Airlines pilot who had asked all the Christians on his plane to raise their hands, said something about “crazy” people and generally scared the bejebus out of everybody on board.

If you wanted the real story of what the pilot actually said, and why, the only news outlet that had it was the only one that happened, by chance, to have a reporter there on the plane: The Advocate.

Advocate.com editor-in-chief Bruce C. Steele (no relation) was on the plane and heard the announcement by pilot Roger Findiesen. And he interviewed Findiesen after landing.

Steele’s interview is a model of allowing a subject to speak for themselves in their own voice. The story Steele and Findiesen relate is one of an evangelical expressing his passion and faith in an inappropriate way, and an inappropriate setting. Yet Steele is charitable — he respects Findiesen’s conviction, no matter how clumsily it was expressed.

The oddly hopeful thing about this entire report is how the interaction between Steele and Findiesen utterly contradicts the standard tropes about evangelical activists and homosexual advocates. Steele affords the pilot courtesy and respect. Findiesen, in turn, exhibits no suspicion or distrust of the reporter:

Findiesen’s identity has been shielded by American Airlines, but the pilot spoke candidly to The Advocate and Advocate.com editor in chief Bruce C. Steele, who identified himself to the captain at the end of the flight. Findiesen then confirmed to Steele his identity, the spelling of his name, and that his home base is Washington, D.C. At no time did Findiesen mention homosexuality or say anything antigay. During the three- to five-minute interview, he was positive and upbeat and interested only in explaining the importance of witnessing about his faith.

What Findiesen said, as best the stunned passengers could recall once they were able to move about the cabin and confer after Flight 34 took off, was this: “I just got back from a mission,” Findiesen said after making a routine announcement about the plane being second in line for takeoff. “You know, they say about half of Americans are Christians. I’d just like the Christians on board to raise their hands.”

In the suddenly hushed coach section of the airplane, a few nervous passengers raised one hand, most no higher than shoulder level, none above tops of the seats.

“I want everyone else on board to look around at how crazy these people are,” the pilot continued, with an intonation suggesting he was using the word “crazy” in a positive, even admiring manner. Evidently addressing the non-Christian passengers, he concluded that they could “make good use of [the flight], or you can read your paper and watch the movie.”

The movie on the flight was Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane and Sandra Oh as Lane’s lesbian best friend.

Findiesen did not directly ask Christians to witness, nor did he explicitly ask non-Christians to talk to the people he imagined were raising their hands, but the implication that he hoped such interactions would take place was clear, and he confirmed his desire to foster religious discussion in his interview with Advocate.com.

Capt. Findiesen believes that God wanted him to speak to the passengers on his plane. Considering the backlash of negative publicity this story generated, I wonder about that.

But I do think that maybe God wanted Bruce Steele on that plane to be the one reporter who could get this story right, providing a model — a witness, even — that we can show one another not merely tolerance, but respect.

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