getting a grip when everything’s up in the air

Joel, Cindy and their 3 fab kids dropped in yesterday morning. What a treat! Years ago they left the U.S. and a steady job to live a less steady – but way cooler - life in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They’ve been a head-shaking-how-do-they-do-that example to me of living by faith.

I saw them in Brazil last year. That was a memorable trip. The people and places were amazing. But the plane ride... I wish the plane ride wasn’t so memorable.

I have a long history with plane rides. 1 was 2 when I first flew. The longest flight was to Capetown, S. Africa a few years ago. The worst flight happened when I was 16. My mom, my brother and I were travelling from Paris to London in a prop plane with a lot of other military families. In a storm. Lightening flashing over the wings. The plane – and all of us in it - tossing around like so much popcorn. The pilot informing us that we could not land in London and were being re-routed elsewhere. Adults panicking - crying, swearing, drinking (probably trying to pass out before the plane blew up!). The pilot informing us again that we were not allowed to land elsewhere, either. Adults shouting, “Stewardess! Where’s my drink?!” And me, terrified, watching my mother pray, wondering if this was my last plane ride. It wasn’t.

Last year, en route to visit my friends in Brazil, our plane ran into turbulence. A LOT of it. For a LONG time. The kind of turbulence that scares even the pilot. (He tried to keep his voice steady and his tone calm when he called the flight attendants to “TAKE YOUR SEAT!”)

In my years of learning to deal with flying, I’ve learned some things about aerodynamics and engineering to assure myself that these things can remain in the air. I’ve listened to statistics about the safety of air travel. I’ve analyzed the sounds that happen on every flight so that I don’t panic when I hear something mechanical. I’ve practiced breathing techniques so that I don’t hyperventilate. I’ve even had what I classify as Divine experiences and supernatural protection on flights.

But there I was flying over Brazil at 30,000 ft in a rocking plane, gripping the armrests for dear life, trying to control hyperventilation and uncontrollable screaming. Nothing provided for us on the plane – not the distraction of movies, not the comfort of food or the pleasure of wine, not the reassuring faces of the flight attendants – made any difference to me in my distress. Somehow white knuckling the armrests and bracing my feet on the seat ahead of me made me feel better. In my head... somewhere…I knew it was no good. I could see what I was doing but felt powerless to do anything differently. And in a sick and twisted kind of way I felt safer. Somehow “in control”.

It was in those hours of seat clutching, body bracing panic that I had a flash of insight: this is exactly what we do in a new environment or unexpected circumstances. We grab on to whatever makes us feel in control. We cling to a spouse, a child, a piece of property, our rights, my way of doing things, a routine, a drink. We may be able to see what we’re doing in our panic. We may know it’s a lie. But our reason is awry. Our brains don’t work like they did before the crisis or when we were back home. Emotions overtake us. Bodies manifest stress levels. And we grab for something – anything – to feel some measure of security or power. Or just to numb the pain before it all blows up.

It’s easy to think in those situations that I’m bad or maybe even crazy. But that’s not true. I’m just temporarily unsettled in the turbulence of a new reality. A good pilot is essential. Education and experience help. But mostly it’s learning to let go.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said,

"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the LORD

while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

may my right hand forget its skill .
May my tongue cling to the roof

of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

Turbulence is produced when your previous way of life or your expectations collide with your present reality. In the chaos created by new circumstances, we long for the old ways. In a new country we miss home. Who we knew. What we knew. How we lived. Maybe not at first. But one day we wake up and realize there’s no joy. We’ve stopped singing. Others who’ve never experienced the turbulence of transition – or of your transition - will tell you to snap out of it, shape up, suck it up, or pray harder. They will demand joy from you while you’re grieving.

Psalm 137 is an invitation to remember not "the good old days" back home where everything was great, but an invitation not to forget where God is. In the turbulence of transition, when you’ve lost your joy, don’t forget to ask “Where is God in this?” Don't be surprised if, in those shaky, stormy times, letting go is the only way to see God.


pillars of fire

I typically don’t feel the need to be shown the way. I enjoy cutting my own path. “Going where no man has gone before.” But recently I felt how very good it is to have someone light the way for me.

It happened on the same day. I witnessed 3 pillars of light just ahead of me. In the shape of Kris, Heidi and J.D. Though none of them can see the next step, they keep moving forward, led by God’s voice calling to them in the darkness. They’re all a bit worn by their drawn-out transitions. But they are so sure of God’s presence. They could speak so confidently of God’s love. They’re a bit ahead of me on this journey into the unknown. Through the light of their stories I knew we were on the right path. Seeing their footsteps in front of me gave me courage to take the next step.

Heidi left everything she’d known, a job she loved (and was brilliant at!) to marry a man she barely knew and move to a strange place to do impossible things. She found herself in a country where women have no public role and where she had no private relationships. No job, no language, no friends, no competence at anything in this new world, no husband during the days in her sparsely furnished apartment. She paced her small space wondering what she was doing in this predicament and desperately searching for something to do.

So she began to pray. Every day. “Today, God, let me see 1 thing that makes this worth it.” And, surprisingly, every day God answered. It was in those moments of answered prayers that she knew – again – that God was present with her. And that He was enough.

Kris is another brilliant woman. Intelligent. Competent. And jobless. She’s also very confident that God is present with her. As she moves forward in the darkness of her own journey, she hears God’s invitation to ask specifically for what she wants in a job. So she’s asking. Praying for a job that allows her do what she loves to do. Asking for a job that lets her shine. Praying not just for “sufficient” but for “abundant”: for money to live here and to travel the world and to offer her gifts and skills to those who can’t afford to pay for them. It seems crazy to hope for meaningful satisfying work in a world where it feels we should be grateful for any job. But Kris’s hope is not in what she can see, but in the loving voice of the One who’s proven in her past to be more than enough.

Heidi and J.D. prayed for us that evening as we sat sipping our chai at the end of our meal together. Heidi said we’re being led by God like the children of Israel – by a pillar of fire and cloud. We are unable to pierce through the flame and the cloud. Unable to see what’s ahead. Or make sense of what’s behind. And though we don’t know where we’re going, God is taking us from “some comfort and a bit of slavery” to lead us to a promise. All our needs will be provided on the journey. All that’s been promised lies ahead. Just keep moving. Follow the fire.

That’s comforting! You can’t miss a pillar of fire in the dark. It’s a sure sign of God’s presence and a clear indication of the right direction. Just like these 3 friends.

Over the past 12 years I’ve watched 100’s of remarkable people step into the unknown. Each one confident of the voice of God. Each one courageously moving ahead in the dark in spite of heart-pounding fear and the many visible and invisible obstacles in their way. Each one a tangible demonstration of what can happen when we follow after God even when we don’t really know where He’s taking us.I’m grateful to all those of you who I have known as “Link staff” for lighting the way for me.

In the dark it's easy to think you're alone. You're not.