Equipment for Dying

For the man who taught me to fly through danger.

Were the safety belts green? It’s how they appear in my memory: thick, smudged green canvas laying tight across my lap, the two ends brought together by a simple metal attachment. I remember it now and the whole thing seems primitive, hinged metal locking into its looped opposite, the whole thing clamped together by pressing down hard against the wooden knob connected to the hinged latch. Was the knob painted red? Was it really made from wood?

You, of course, sat in the pilot’s seat. Through my child’s eyes I see you squirming into place behind the instrument panel and steering yoke of the six-seat Cessna; the two retrofitted metal rods slicing my view through the windshield were reminders about how little room for error there was during those jungle flights. They were made to keep the small cabin from collapsing in a worst case scenario. Your helmet was another obvious hint as was your version of the safety belt. Yours was no more sophisticated – the same green belts and the simplest of closures – but it had the added seriousness of a shoulder harness that hung down from the fuselage above your head, draped over your sweaty t-shirt, before latching together with that same wood and metal closure.

Am I getting the details wrong? Maybe the safety belt was more impressive than I remember. I’m sure it was important; you’d never turn over the engine until everyone was buckled in, the loud metal thunk was audible proof that we were as secure as it is possible to be while bumping around a few thousand feet up in the tropical air inside 3,500 pounds of aluminum dodging thunderstorms while aiming for what can only generously be called a runway- a just-long-enough patch of dirt and grass scraped into a hill, or snaking alongside a river. On every final approach that I can remember, whether craning my neck from the back or next to you peering over the panel full of knobs and gauges, you’d reach up and grab that crash bar, leaning against your shoulder harness as though to feel for its integrity, all while staring at the quickly approaching horizon. The droning engine dropped an octave, you did a sort of subtle shimmy as if to awaken all the senses and then leaned firmly back into your seat, ready to guide your passengers and cargo down for another landing.

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fullsizeoutput_1e44It’s been a long time since you squeezed into that stuffy cockpit. I was just beginning high school when we left South America and since then you’ve done a lot of different things but you left flying behind when we returned to the states. I’ve been thinking about those days over the past few months as you approach your ordination. Maybe the thought began because the two seem so distant, unrelated. You’ve been a pastor, officially, for about a decade and now, after the long process determined for both you and me by our denomination, you’re going to make your promises to the church. The nondescript hotel conference hall in Detroit where you’ll be ordained is miles away from those small airplanes loaded with food or patients or mail, lifetimes away from Mom standing in the kitchen describing the rapidly changing weather slowly and clearly in Spanish into the staticky radio as you decided whether to try to make it home to put Anne Marie and me to bed or spend the night in a hammock, beneath mosquito netting and a thatched roof.

It’s different, isn’t it, pastoring? Different from being a pilot I mean, but different from most jobs. Over these years you’ve pastored a young church in Sacramento that met in a gym, in a very small town in the Californian mountains, on a beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest, and now across the river from Manhattan. You’ve pastored across ages, regions, ethnicities, and experiences. I’d say you’ve stuffed a lifetime of ministry into these short years except that you’d already had a lifetime of ministry when you moved into the pastorate. It’s been unpredictable for you as it is for most of us in this strange vocation. Your experience seems to be a reflection of what it means to be a pastor. We deal with the unpredictable, though it’s usually of a variety more mundane than the sudden thunderstorms which scrap flight plans or an emergency call to pick up the critical patient in a remote village.

I could be wrong, but I think you love the quiet, surprising nature of pastoring. You’ve never needed the spotlight and this, I assume, helps you notice the important glimpses of revealed truth that others miss: the passing comment, the lingering after worship, or simply following up on the intuition that something specific has changed in the life of that person. It shouldn’t be so, but I still get surprised by the eclectic crowd that makes its way to your office, to your favorite coffeeshop, to the dinner table to sit and eat with Mom and you where you listen more than you talk so that when your guests return to whatever passes for normal they know they were heard, they know that God hears. This, for sure, is a life saver when the world seems against you.

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fullsizeoutput_1e40You obsessed about securing everything in those small single-engine airplanes. You weighed fuel, cargo, and passengers to ensure that you could clear the trees and make it to the next destination, knowing that during the rainy season a towering thunderhead might add precious minutes to the flight. Cargo netting and those safety belts were checked and double-checked; you were, I know, always imagining the what-if. What if a dog ran into the airstrip? What if the wind shifted quickly? What if, despite your meticulous inspections, the engine stopped somewhere over that tangled canopy of trees and vines and rivers? What if you had to come down hard? Would straps and belts hold or would everything and everyone come apart? Unlike the lap belt I now unthinkingly buckle at a flight attendant’s prompting, each of your movements were planned and necessary. When finally you taxied for take-off, dust kicking up behind the taildragger, the cabin had been secured and we felt it. We were safe and the risky contingencies were yours alone to consider from behind your Ray-bans.

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fullsizeoutput_1e3aSomeone will place a stole around your neck when you are ordained, after you make your promises and the church prays for you. The soft white fabric, embroidered with the sacramental symbols of our vocation, will hang down over your shoulders as a visible affirmation of God’s call to faithful ministry. The stole reminds me of the shoulder straps that used to signify the work you did. I know they’re different – that harness was meant to save your body – but maybe you’ll understand why they seem alike to me. The stole demonstrates to the church that what you do is always for the good of the women and men who entrust themselves to your craft. It is a kind of safety belt, designed not so much for peace of mind – I’m always uncomfortable wearing mine, nervous that the two ends draped over my torso are going to get tangled or confuse my hands in the middle of service – as it is to point to the source of our security.

You haven’t needed this stole to be an effective pastor, I think you and I agree about this. We know plenty of men and women who preach and care without the recognition of denominational hierarchy. That you are now being ordained says almost nothing about what you did before; it certainly says nothing about the Spirit’s careful and wise direction of your actions and words, nothing about the lasting fruit that has been produced over a lifetime of service. But neither is this moment without meaning. Having the advantage of knowing you my entire life, I’ve come to anticipate this moment as the inevitable affirmation of what has long been true. I imagine you might squirm under the stole, a version of the shimmy you’d do against the shoulder strap as you engaged flaps, ailerons, and rudders to glide safely into another approach. Your seasoned passengers would watch your body language and, regardless of foreboding weather and absurdist landing strips, know that within minutes we’d spill safely out of opened doors and onto dirt and grass. I think this is what the stole represents: the church’s confidence that you will steer us safely toward hope and Jesus no matter the condition of our lives and world.

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fullsizeoutput_1e3eI remember hearing a voice on the other end of the radio and knowing, despite the crackle and static and despite my standing a room away, that something was very wrong. This was a decade or so after my first memories of you piloting across the undulating rain forests; this time you were not on the other end of the radio, you stood silently in the room with me listening intently and calmly, planning your response. We were visitors this time, down from the states  to visit the missionary pilots you now led from the mission’s headquarters in California. We’d just arrived in that pilot’s house, warmly greeted minutes earlier by the same wife and children who were now frantically leaning into the radio, willing a miracle from the crash on the other end.

In the years since I’ve often thought about the next few days: you made your way to the airport and joined other pilots on a flight into the jungle, unsure of what you’d find. I remained behind, my 17-year-old self best suited for distracting the pilot’s children with trips to the playground and bodega. You returned a couple of days later and by then we knew what had happened: the same Cessna you’d flown years earlier didn’t make it over the trees this time; neither did its pilot or passenger. There are many tender and sad details that hold together my memories of these days and I remember wondering about what had happened. What had gone wrong?

Maybe you know the answer but I don’t and, since I’m not a pilot, I might not understand – not really – even if you explained it. But I think about the airplane that was pushed to its limits to catastrophic effect and I think about the crash bars and helmets; I think about that strong, visible safety belt, and I wonder.

Years ago I read a beautiful essay that Annie Dillard wrote about pilots and the risks they take.

A crop-duster pilot in Wyoming told me the life expectancy of a crop-duster pilot is five years. They fly too low. They hit buildings and power lines. They have not space to fly out of trouble, and no space to recover from a stall… Over breakfast I asked him how long he had been dusting crops. “Four years,” he said, and the figure stalled in the air between us from a moment. “You know you’re going to die at it someday,” he added. “We all know it. We accept that; it’s a part of it.” I think now that, since the crop duster was in his twenties, he accepted only that he had to say such stuff; privately he counted on skewing the curve.

I wonder if the same protective stuff that is meant to keep pilots like you safe are also signs directing them toward danger. Not in pursuit of it, not for those pilots committed to their first charge to bring their passengers safely home. But still, the very presence of that strong belt securing your body to the fuselage was a tacit acknowledgment of mortal danger and, not totally unlikely, death. I don’t mean that his safety gear was responsible for the pilot’s death but I wonder if it was, somehow, the equipment for it. With every take-off and approach, every rapidly approaching storm, every uneven section of a new landing strip his safety equipment – and yours – pointed hopefully through the peril.

Hopefully, through the peril. “We all know it. We accept that; it’s a part of it.”

I hope it’s not indecent to suggest that the stole you’ll wear does the same kind of work for you and for those you pastor. These strips of cloth recall Jesus’ promise to place upon his followers an easy yoke. The gospel mystery is that Jesus’ guiding yoke, as good as it is, will inevitably lead to our deaths. Resurrection too, but along the way there are thousands of enfleshed moments where it seems we are dying, as though all that matters most to us is slipping over an approaching horizon beyond our control. In these moments we pastor into the danger, the safety belt of the yoke securing our bodies against the instinct to turn away, to resort to truisms and cliches that provide distracting comfort but do nothing to prepare our charges for death.

How many times must it have happened every time you flew? Your passengers were just barely aware of the currents buffeting the plane, reports of bad weather at the destination, the precise calculation of fuel and weight and distance. How many times would we, your passengers, have demanded you turn around if we had known what you had to know? You flew us through the danger, not in a desire for it but as the necessary means to our destination. This is what good pilots do. It’s what you still do.

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fullsizeoutput_1e41Once, when I sat in the co-pilot’s seat, we skimmed the summit of a forested mountain and you turned to me and asked, through our headsets, what we should do. Typically, you explained, with passengers on board you would slowly circle into the valley toward the strip we could see below. But, you added, when flying solo you’d take the direct route, dropping quickly and efficiently to earth. Since it was just the two of us you wanted to know what we should do. Let’s do it, I said, or something similarly brave-sounding in my young ears. You smiled and nodded before turning back to the controls. The nose quickly dropped, my stomach rose into my chest, and the ground seemed to leap toward us far too quickly. And then you grabbed for the crash bar and leaned into your shoulder straps and I knew that it’d be just a few minutes before we were stepping onto solid ground.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

2 thoughts on “Equipment for Dying”

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