On mortality, planes, railroad tracks, and bakeries

I do not like flying.  I know that flying is supposed to be safer than driving.  But when I sit on the plane and smell those stale, blue-smelling carpeted seats and feel the stagnant air and see people all around me who don’t look like they can fly a plane anymore than me, and when the people sitting in the emergency exits don’t look like they are listening to how to open the emergency exits . . and when the plan takes off and the wheels buzz and the plane lurches up in the air with far less grace than even a tiny, fragile hummingbird . . and when I’m thousands of feet in the air with a) no parachute b) no parachute available c) no way to get through the teeny windows even if there were parachutes available and d) garbled messages from the pilot and attendants that could be saying our engine is going out or that pretzels are about to be served . . . . . . I think of my mortality.

It’s true that, when standing in Build-a-Bear workshop, I don’t think of my mortality.  It’s true that, when sitting under the arbor of a patisserie in our city that serves salted caramel ice cream, I don’t think much of my mortality, either.  It’s true that, when I’m checking facebook to see how many people “liked” something I said and who they were, I am not usually thinking of my mortality at that time either.  But when I am on a plane, way up high where I don’t like to be, I think of my mortality.

I am like a cat in a swimming pool when I fly.

I don’t like it.

Other than when I get sick, it’s the one time I drink tomato juice.  It makes the flight feel kinda like . . having the flu.  I notice how stiff the airline napkins are.  I keep an eye on the seatbelt sign.  If it’s lit, there might be turbulence.  I notice the little headphone jack in the arm of the seat that I don’t suppose works anymore because no one uses the airline radios anymore.  I like to seat away from the window.  And I like the window to be closed.

I worry about bad things that could happen.

At take-off, I look around to see if people are using their cell phones when they are supposed to be off, possibly interfering with air traffic control.  I want security to take them down.  I think about a scene I saw in a movie where the oxygen masks were released, the power flicked on and off, and how scary that was.  I think about the bathroom somewhere on the plane that, to me, should have a toxic danger sign up and a high-wall fence around it.  I think about how I could possibly use my foam seat as a floatation device, and how that wouldn’t do any good at all if the plane was locked shut.

Most of all, though, I think of falling.  I am so afraid of falling.  I think of the plane going down, down, down, and how long it would take to hit the earth.  I think about that drop feeling in my stomach.

It’s true that I think about my mortality when I’m on a plane.  The funny thing is, I am really not in any greater or less danger than when I’m stuffing a bear at Build-a-Bear workshop or sampling an ice cream cone on a sunny evening or surfing facebook for approval.

See, God holds my life in His hands.  All the time.  There isn’t any force bigger than God.  God, and only God, will decide when my life is over.  No one can give me more time than God gives, and no one can give me less than God allows, either.

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:27, NIV)

One way of looking at this is that I’m totally at His mercy.  That’s true.  Another way of looking at this is that God won’t let anything happen to me until He’s finished His purpose in me, because I believe in Him.  That’s true, too.

I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return. (2 Timothy 1:12b, NLT)

I remember years ago my mom & I in the car, following my dad’s car.  I don’t remember where we were headed, but it was getting dark.  We came to this railroad track that is pretty hidden away, without the robotic arm that comes down or flashing lights.  It is one of those tracks you could miss if you weren’t paying attention.

Dad didn’t look both ways before he crossed the tracks–he just drove through.

From our view in the car behind him, he came close to being killed.  A train was soon streaming through.  He didn’t see it.  We did.

My mom could not believe it.  In a second, my dad’s life could have been taken–from our perspective.

Fast forward a dozen or so years, and, talking about a Dr. Seuss book while we were in Washington D.C. on vacation, my mom realized something I didn’t.  Dad’s slurred words were one of the first signs of ALS, the disease that would take his life.  I still remember standing on that subway in D.C., holding onto the don’t-fall pole, my dad talking about how he wanted to buy that Dr. Seuss book for me to remember the trip . . and never thinking for a second that his life was in danger.

Crossing the railroad tracks, I had thought I’d seen my dad almost taken away from me.  I hadn’t.  Standing on the train, I was seeing my dad taken away from me, and I didn’t know it.

Mortality . . isn’t something you can predict.  A “deathbed” can be gotten up from to live another fifty years.  And, in a normal moment, you can be in the last fifty seconds of your life.

–Just knowing I am totally at God’s mercy isn’t enough.  I remember watching Disney’s Hercules many years ago, and the mean women who were goddesses or something just waiting to cut people’s “life threads”–a thread that represented that person’s life–with a pair of scissors.

Hey, that isn’t God.  God wants us to have life–lots of life.

If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Jesus, quoted in John 10:9b-10, ESV)

We can’t have all the life we’d like in this world, because this world has been wrecked by our sin.  All of us are going to have to die, sooner or later, unless Jesus comes back first.

I might die on the plane tomorrow, that’s true–but I could also die in my sleep tonight of a condition I didn’t even know I had.  I could be killed in a car wreck on the way to the airport.  Or I could find myself at the end of a long flight safely on the ground.  All those things could happen.

But because I trust in God, I don’t have to worry about which one is going to happen.  I know God loves me.  I don’t have to worry about when He decides my time here is up.  Because I know He loves me.

It would be something like this.  Suppose that there is a bakery in town that I go to every day to pick up breakfast.  The bakery has more baked goods on the menu than I could ever try.  The baker always hands me a brown paper sack when I come in, but I never know what I’m getting.  It could be a chocolate croissant or a whole wheat bagel or a orange muffin.

It could also be something I’m afraid to try, something I’ve never even had before.

I could spend every morning in wild anxiety about what will be in the sack today.  I could dread opening the sack, grit my teeth, and nearly pass out from the suspense.  But if I know the baker’s heart is good, and I know the baker treasures me even more than I treasure myself . . I don’t have to worry.  I can open each sack with the joy of wondering what I get to try today.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32, NIV)

There are sometimes “railroad tracks” in our lives–close calls that seem to almost take our lives, or things we worry could take our lives.  But if we know Jesus, we don’t have to worry about those railroad tracks, because they aren’t close calls.  God knows exactly when our time is up, and He will give us exactly the time He has set.

The question is whether I will go through life shaking in my boots and screaming over bagels and muffins, or whether I’ll just trust Jesus that, when it’s my time to go see Him, it’s my time to go see Him.

I think that instead of wrapping my arms around my chest as my plane takes off tomorrow, I’ll cup my hands out on my lap to say, Whatever You have for me here, Jesus, I’ll take it.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (Jesus, quoted in John 14:1, NIV)


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  1. […] you read my blog, On mortality, planes, railroad tracks, and bakeries, you probably remember that I am afraid of flying.  Round trip to Guatemala and back, I had to […]

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