“This is your Captain speaking – we have now reached an altitude of 10,000 feet, so you may turn on any electronic devices other than cell phones or other radio-equipped devices. We are expecting a pleasant flight today on our way out west, as we chase the sun. Please remain in your seat unless the seatbelt sign is off, and we would like to remind you this is a non-smoking flight.”
The rolling green hills of the Middle Tennessee valley were quickly changing colors and shapes, and on this cloudless day, it seemed odd that we were created to live on the ground. There’s something about the sky that’s always made me feel as though I belonged there. Of course, there is one tiny catch – I hate flying. I hate the way I have trouble popping my ears if I have bad sinuses; I hate the constant buzz the plane makes, its occasional bumps and thuds, or the always scary, “Flight attendants, please call the cockpit,” which in my mind always plays out in some sort of fantasy about the pilot’s preparation for our upcoming crash landing. 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 feet we climb, and just out the window there’s this beautiful world of freedom, but I always feel as though I’m stuck inside some giant flying bus with crying babies, sick, smelly passengers, and the occasional talkative passenger who just won’t shut up.
On this particular occasion, I had been feeling incredibly tense from the moment I had stepped into the airport – “Ding dong. This is a public safety announcement. For your safety and the safety of all passengers, please do not leave your luggage unattended,” or if you’ve been to the Nashville International Airport lately, you may have become accustomed to the more oddly friendly, “This is Garth Brooks. Welcome to Nashville, Music City!” Sorry Garth, but all these public safety announcements haven’t made me less tense about flying. I don’t really know why I get like that. I just do.
So, after standing in line, removing my hoodie, my belt, my shoes, sending my bags through the little x-ray machine and pretending to smile while getting patted down for the guns and bombs I might be carrying in this terror level orange society, I made my way to Gate A-17, which despite the fact that it wasn’t the last number of the A-gates, somehow still managed to be one mile from the security check and at the very end of the terminal. If you’ve never flown before, don’t let me scare you away. There are perks. Peanuts and pretzels actually somehow taste a thousand times better from 30,000 feet up. I actually don’t eat those things on earth unless I’m just stuffing my face for no reason, but up there, it’s delicacy.
I had plans to fly to Seattle, and the ticket I had purchased said “Nashville to Seattle (direct flight),” which was why I found myself rather confused staring at the board at Gate A-17 which said, “Nashville to San Diego to Oakland to Seattle.” Hmm. An indirect flight. The good news about this was that I love San Diego, and a chance to fly into my favorite city, even if I wasn’t going to get out of the plane, was incredibly exciting, and who wouldn’t want to say they flew up the coast of California? Still, this was going to be a long flight.
My seat number put me in the very last group to load, and standing there in silence, I looked around nervously, ready to get this next seven hours over with. Turning around, I noticed two things. The first was that I was at the very end of the line, meaning I was going to be stuck with a bad seat (Southwest Airlines has “pick your own seat” flying). The second was named Ravyn Miller.
Actually, I saw a Vanderbilt shirt first and just though, “Oh look, someone that goes to my school,” but when I looked up, I saw a warm face, the face of one of the most delightful people I know. I make more friends with my books than I do with people around Vanderbilt, but Ravyn had been in several classes with me, a few of which had a profound impact on both of us, and seeing her there in the airport was a calming experience for someone who had images of plane crashes in his head. “What are you doing here?!”
“I’m going to San Diego to see some of my friends.”
“I love San Diego! You gotta go to Balboa Park, maybe Seaworld, and the Gaslamp District.”
“What about you?”
“I’m on the plane a little longer. Going all the way to Seattle to see my lady.”
The conversation ensued until we entered the packed plane, and it became clear that we wouldn’t get to sit together. Ravyn, from behind, called out to me, “Looks like this is where we part, babe,” and I chattered back a quick, “Have a good trip, Ravyn,” even though in reality, we were only three or four seats apart.
The quickly changing landscape had now gone from green hills to brown plateaus to rocky inclines with occasional snow-sprinkled ice caps. Or at least, that was what I imagined, as I tried to peer over some lady’s “Sky” Magazine out the tiny window. As the little skyscrapers of San Diego began appearing in the window, I became so mesmerized by my city that I completely forgot to say goodbye to Ravyn when she got off the plane. I stayed on and waited for the next group to board. The tension of taking off and landing and preparing to take off again was unbearable for me. I had tried to nap, but the same image kept appearing in my mind: the plane splitting in half and the wind and air pressure sucking us all right out into our plummet to the ground. I actually spent a few minutes trying to decide how best to curl up so as to protect my head and break the fewest bones when I hit the ground. Or perhaps I should go head first and try to aim for water? I wasn’t sure which gave me the greatest odds of survival, but this kind of thinking couldn’t be healthy, so it made more sense to try to sleep it off.
A major theme of the Bible, true through both the Old and New Testaments is summed up in one phrase, “Do not be afraid.” Usually, something follows, like, “for I am the Lord your God,” or “for I am with you.” We forget those words constantly. Too often, fear is a part of our faith, but I suspect fear actually hurts our faith far more than doubt ever could.
“Ah, excuse me, passengers, is there a Ravyn Miller still on board?”
“Say wha?!” I thought to myself. A flight attendant began to explain that Ravyn had left a small and brown book on the plane. A passenger had found it stuck behind the seat – looked like a wallet. Before I’d considered the odds of my likeliness of survival in the event of a plane crash. Now I was considering the odds of this seemingly miraculous event. It had been surprising and delightful to see Ravyn at the airport, even more surprising that she was getting on the same plane as me. Now, she was off the plane, and I was still on it, and the coincidences seemed to pile on. To me, it was a miracle alone that I was flying into San Diego and not staying there. Pulling the stewardess to the side, I tried explaining the situation, “Uhm, I’m a friend of Ravyn’s. I realize, as I tell you this, I have no way of proving that I know even Ravyn. Perhaps I can call her when we get to Oakland?” The Flight Attendant looked incredibly pleased and we discussed numerous plans of action. In Oakland, I failed at getting a hold of Ravyn, and there was some discussion about whether or not we should leave the missing object in San Diego’s lost-and-found, which I was determined to stop.
Finally, I asked what the object was, and the flight attendant showed me. It was a Bible, and the flight attendant was insistent on showing off how “used” the Bible was, making it not just a book but a personal memoir and journal. Page after page, Ravyn had taken notes from sermons and made intentional and precise use of this sacred writ. In the back-and-forth conversing, I had forgotten my apprehension about flying. I was now on a mission, “a mission from Gad.” She handed me the sacred text, and we agreed that I would give it to Ravyn at the first opportunity I got when I returned to Nashville. I held the book in my hands, and those words – “Do not fear” pierced me. I began to calm down. This ancient, holy document, which had been cared for in a powerful way, had wound up in my protection, and yet, it seemed to be calming and protecting me as much if not more than I was it.
I glanced out the window and my mind drifted with the clouds below and the mountain tops of St. Helen’s and Rainier, as Seattle approached nearer and nearer. Most people might call what happened coincidence or luck. I’m not even sure I was ready to jump the gun on calling it a “miracle.” It just seems to me that people who look for hope, find it; people who look for God, find God. Miracles, I guess, are when we aren’t even looking, yet are still somehow found, even 30,000 feet up in the middle of nowhere.
Looking down during descent, something odd caught my eye.
I don’t get the science of it, but I’ve been told that from the air, when you see a rainbow, instead of being half a circle, it can be a whole one. So, as I peered down contemplating life and death and miracles, a multi-colored sphere seemed to linger blissfully on the top of a flock of clouds. I won’t lie, it took me several moments before I realized I was peering down on a rainbow, on some merciful promise, and suddenly it hit me. In our lives, we get half the picture and are left wondering what happens to that other half. We even concoct stories about leprechauns and gold at the end of the spectrum; we believe there’s an “end” somewhere, a place where the rainbow just cuts off and dies. That abrupt end, though, misses the completeness of the sacred entirely. For with the divine, where there is despair, there can be hope; where there is hate, there can be love; where there is death, life. Nothing simply ends. We have some purpose, some miraculous harmony to the way we touch one another and the way we interact and commune together. Whether offering a smile or a hug, whether trying to love what we don’t like, whether we’re just picking up someone’s Bible for them and being touched by it, we are connected to one another and connected what’s sacred in every nook-and-cranny of this silly little world of ours. It’s something we have the hard task of remember whether we’re here with both feet planted on the ground or a million miles up so it seems. But whatever we do, let’s have a safe flight and not be afraid to look for better things to hope for along the journey.