Airline Near-Disasters and Further Reflections on Lent

Airline Near-Disasters and Further Reflections on Lent March 5, 2015

Delta Flight at La Guardia, photo courtesy of NYPD
Delta Flight at La Guardia, photo courtesy of NYPD

By now, anyone who has the news on will have heard about the Delta airplane coming into La Guardia Airport that skidded off the runway. It came within feet of plunging into the icy waters of the bay. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries. Unfortunately, even more schedules are going to be disrupted. Heads are probably going to roll at the decision to land the plane the way they did.

And, as I wrote in an earlier post, “Nature trumps all plans.”

Last fall, I was going to NYC to see my children, landing at La Guardia. The young woman sitting next to me confessed to being an inexperienced traveler, and never to NYC. I briefed her on the procedure: brace yourself against the seat back just before the plane lands. Those runways are short. The pilots have to slam on the brakes in order to bring the planes safely in. I’ve landed there dozens of times and still find it a bit disconcerting. After that particular landing, my seat mate was a bit wide-eyed with fear and grateful for the instructions.

I can’t even imagine what the passengers on this particular flight were feeling when the plane finally stopped.

It’s not just nature that trumps all plans. Everything can. Our illusions of control set us up for despair and failure. Or at least they set me up for despair and failure.

So what to do? How shall I then live? To not make plans at all also appears to be a recipe for failure. That decision condemns me to a life of one tossed to and fro on the waves, passively receiving whatever happens.

In this Lenten period, I seek to follow Jesus who “set his face toward Jerusalem.” Clearly, he planned and made a conscious decision as to where to go and when to do so. As I engage in body and soul discipline, I ask those very questions, “How shall I then live? Where shall I go? When shall I do these things?”

So far in these last two weeks, my weaknesses have become more exposed. Greater light shines upon my tendency to make myself the center of the universe. Personally, I think that is the ultimate sin of humanity, but I shall not extrapolate that widely from my own experience. I can only speak accurately of my own.

But being able to say even that also gives me hope that God is working in me. As a much younger Christian, one who was deep in study of the Bible, I felt sure that my knowledge was so great that I could prescribe for others what they should be feeling, thinking and experiencing. I saw my abilities to read the Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew, my speed-reading capacities, my unusual capacity to synthesize highly discrete pieces of information into a coherent whole as proof that I could pronounce the truth of others.

Thanks be to God I have left that much hubris behind. One of the things that helped me get here is that I was on a plane that very nearly crashed.

Years ago, I was flying to Oklahoma City from Chicago. As we neared the Oklahoma City airport, we encountered major lightning and thunder. We were not far from the ground, landing gear already out and on the final approach, when we were hit by a wind shear. A sharp plunge down. Then life-savingly quick action by the trained pilot pulled the airplane back up and kept us from disaster.

Yet, I’ll never forget what happened to time in that split second. For it simply stood still. In that micro-moment, I discovered I had all the time I needed to prepare myself to meet God and to pray for all the people I loved. Peace descended upon me. The fear of the experience didn’t hit until later.

I received a glimpse into eternity, a place where time as we know it has no meaning and fear disappears. All is fully present there in the Presence of the Holy One.

I also saw more clearly how very little I, with all my education, actually know. I saw more clearly that the best laid plans do not always pan out. I saw more clearly that ultimately all that matters is the love of the Creator–and the possibilities we have as humans to pass on a tiny bit of that love.

The second week of Lent, 2015, has now passed. I suspect my chosen fast (see “An Unsweetened Lent” for more information) will become harder, not easier. Even so, I don’t pretend to prepare for the kind of suffering Jesus faced. But I hope I can move one step further into understanding the capacity of such self-giving love.

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