What faith in flight teaches about faith in God

September 17, 2012



Danielle Tumminio

Danielle Tumminio

[Episcopal News Service] “Are we safe?” I asked.  My husband and I were sitting in our cramped coach seats at 30,000 feet, the airplane fluttering.  He gazed out the window, undisturbed by the turbulence, while I grabbed his arm and hoped that his physics background could reason away my anxiety.

“This is totally safe,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I said

“Yes,” he said.  “This is so normal that the cabin crew is distributing coffee.”

I saw a flight attendant pouring java for an aisle passenger, unfazed by the bumps, adding a little cream.  My husband is right, I thought.

Yet I still couldn’t get used to the jolting sensation, and I wished I could make it stop.

“Are you sure that you’re sure that it’s safe?” I said as a follow-up

“I am sure that I’m sure,” he said.  And then my husband launched into an eminently reasonable explanation about what causes turbulence: molecules in hotter, denser air moving to cooler, less dense space, kind of like air osmosis.

It was nature.

It was normal.

We would not crash because of this.

I knew his reasoning made intellectual sense and yet, I still found myself gripping his arm in panic because, as for many others, flying makes me nervous.

I don’t like not having my feet on solid ground.  There’s something unnerving to me about that.

I think it’s more likely than not that the dislike of flying that I and many other Americans share is rooted in needing control like Linus needs his blanket.  But control disappears on plane rides: We don’t know how to fly a plane.  We don’t know what those dings! are that go off sporadically during a flight; we don’t know why flight attendants say, “Prepare for cross-check,” and we have absolutely no idea what cross-checking is.

And if we’re not in control, that means we have to have faith in the people who are: In the pilot, the co-pilot, the flight attendants, the mechanics who check the plane’s gadgets and the workers who load the luggage and the mysterious people in the flight control tower.

We have to have faith in all of them.

But faith isn’t easy, especially when it’s faith in things unseen, like airplane pilots and flight control workers.

And God.

As I sat on that plane, I realized that in many ways, our lives in faith are a bit like one long plane ride—sometimes the seatbelt sign goes off and we can roam about the cabin, unthreatened, feeling entirely secure.

And sometimes the seatbelt sign is on, the turbulence are jarring and maybe the oxygen mask doesn’t drop, and we have to wonder: Is God not piloting this flight through life?  Or worse yet, is God piloting and doesn’t care about our comfort?

There are no easy answers to such difficult questions—as Job discovered, asking God for answers doesn’t always lead to great clarity or consolation.  Indeed, a life of faith is a life of conviction in things unseen: It means believing that what is worse will get better, that suffering will not have the last word, that God is a fearless, wise pilot for our journey.

Ours is not an easy faith, especially when life’s turbulence set in.

But while we don’t know when and where bumps will strike our flight through life, we can be certain of two things.  The first is this: that we are never alone.  Like passengers on an airplane, we don’t travel in isolation—in fact, sometimes we’re so cramped in that we pray for more space!  Their bumps are our bumps, and our bumps are theirs.  This is not a journey we go through alone, and there is always a hand we can give in support or an arm we can clutch if we need it.

As for the second, it is this: As with an air traveler, our lives are a journey, always moving from one point to the next.  Any clouds, any turbulence we strike—they’re only for a time.  Because like any plane, we are in motion, heading towards a destination.  Our plane will ultimately land.  We will one day arrive at the kingdom beyond, that destination where we can finally snap open our metaphorical seatbelts and greet God—our pilot—as we disembark.

There we will finally be on solid ground.

And knowing that may make the journey just a little less intimidating.  It may even make life’s turbulence a little easier to bear.

– The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of “God and Harry Potter at Yale.” She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.


Statements and opinions expressed in the articles and communications herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.

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