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;
"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.