I was on a 6 pm flight from Memphis to Dallas several months ago. I had given several lectures at Memphis Theological Seminary. I had preached at their midweek Chapel service. I was physically and mentally fatigued. It was a small American Eagle plane, the kind that has two seats on the right and one on the left and no first class. I had somehow gotten the best seat in the house! I was sitting in the first row on the right, in an aisle seat, the one that faces into a carpeted wall. I glanced over at the man to my right in the window seat. He was a strapping guy, late thirties with a pony tail. He looked like Robert de Niro 30 or 40 years ago. He was holding a gigantic cup of coffee and had his eyes closed. I thought, "Good, no need to exert myself to make conversation for the next few hours." We took off and I got my mystery novel out to escape for a couple of hours. "Is that a good book? I've heard that's a good book. Is it a good book?" I glanced over to where my seatmate, now wide awake, was peering at the cover of my book with bright-eyed interest.
I answered him, and that led to our chatting for over an hour about mystery authors, movies, and places we had traveled. He had a rapid fire speaking style, jumping quickly from topic to topic. While I did my best to shake off my fatigue and match his energy level, at several points I considered confiscating that cup of coffee he still held in both hands. It was a smooth flight until we got near Dallas when we began to experience turbulence. I always appreciate a little turbulence on a long flight. It breaks up the monotony.
But my conversation partner fell suddenly silent. He turned pale beneath his tan, and a sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead. He suddenly stomped his cowboy booted foot against the carpeted wall in front of us. He then continued the stomping at 15 second intervals. I know because, after the second one, I started counting. Then he began talking again, in staccato bursts of speech. "I'm not afraid of snakes, heights or public speaking. I'm fine with the takeoff and the landing. But turbulence really freaks me out."
"I'm sorry." I said. "Let's hope it doesn't last long."
He went on, punctuating his commentary with the foot stomping, "We're in a cigar shaped tube, thousands of miles above the ground, completely at the mercy of wind and weather. There is always the possibility of mechanical failure and human error. We couldn't possibly be in a more vulnerable situation. Turbulence is a metaphor for the essential helplessness of the human condition."
Well, when he put it that way, I began to turn pale under my tan and I don't even have a tan. I briefly considered trying the foot stomping thing, but refrained out of consideration for the already on-edge flight attendant. She didn't need two of us.
There is certainly plenty of turbulence to be experienced in the course of daily life. If you live in my part of the world, tornados are an early summer threat. Wherever you live, school shootings and terrorist acts have eroded our sense of safety and, maybe even our trust in one another. Then there are the mysteries of our own bodies and the illnesses that can occur seemingly out of the blue. Add to that the unpredicatable actions of others that can hurt and betray us. There's plenty of reason to stomp your boot against the nearest wall. But that doesn't help much.
What does? Trusting in God who will uphold and preserve us in the worst of times. Trusting, not in protection from all harm, but in Presence in the best and worst conditions, even in the face of death.
It's called faith. It is, at the same time, both a gift of God, a lifelong pursuit. It is the conviction that, in the midst of the worst turbulence, God is all we have and God is all we need.