20 September 2008

Sacred Moments, or Nothing Will be the Same

I'm about halfway through the downwind leg for runway 14, pegged right on the pattern altitude at 1600 feet MSL when it hit me: I'm completely alone in this airplane. My instructor, an experienced pilot and teacher, was not there to backstop me. He was not there to talk me through a landing. He was not there to make sure I didn't forget anything in my mental checklist.

There comes a time in any student pilot's training that the instructor must stay on the ground, and allow the student to fly the aircraft without him. It is a momentous occasion in any student's training, and will be remembered for the rest of his or her life. The first solo flight is something that is remembered, celebrated, and looked forward to by all students. The hard work, the study, the endless hours aloft with the instructor, everything comes to a head on this one occasion.

For me, that moment had come less than five minutes before, when my instructor climbed out of his seat. I taxied the airplane back onto the ramp after a particularly grueling hour of practice with him. He had not said much all the way back from the practice area, merely saying, "Take me home. I'm done." He was polite like that.

So we flew in silence, him thinking God knows what, me questioning myself and my less than stellar performance. When we neared the field, I steeled myself for the onslaught that my tired, sloppy landing was sure to bring. Instead, he made me land twice before actually taxiing to the ramp. After the last landing, as we left the runway, he said, "Yep. I'm done. But you're not."

I knew instantly what was going to happen, even as I fished around in the backseat for my logbook. A few signatures and he was gone, walking back into the building as I gathered my thoughts for a minute. The engine was still running, and I gave it just a bit of throttle to begin moving.

The takeoff is burned into my mind. The runway stretching before me, the roar of the engine, the blur of the instrument panel as the airframe vibrates with the added power. I hear my own voice on the radio, but it seems detached from me, as if it's some other pilot on the frequency. The airplane leaps into the sky with my instructor's 150 pounds gone, and in no time I am at pattern altitude, on the downwind leg, watching the runway pass to my left, and looking at the empty seat next to me.

It is a significant moment for me. Looking back on it now, I can see that it was, in a way, the beginning of a new life: I have left the earth, in a machine controlled only by me. No one else, no computer, no cruise control, no radio control: just me and the machine, manipulating the laws of physics. I will never again be a slave to the ground. The weight of the moment was tremendous!

We all have moments like that in our lives. We all have moments that we know will change us forever. My pastor talked about his in his book. He volunteered to lead a worship service at a summer camp he was working, and was struck with the holiness of the moment. He recognized that this moment was special, that God was somehow very near to him then. He knew he wouldn't be the same afterwards.

I like to call these Sacred Moments. Moments where the veil that divides Heaven and Earth is pulled back, and we catch just a glimpse of God's amazingly huge Story, and our unique role within that story. Sometimes, during these moments, we can't help but feel His weight, His significance during the moment. Other times, the glance is more fleeting, and we don't realize until later what was really going on. These Sacred Moments can be good, but they can also be painfully terrible.

I remember having to speak at a youth retreat on the topic of being single. It was extremely awkward to give that speech, because I was going to be open and honest about how my heart was recently broken by a girl, and because my current girlfriend was attending the retreat as well. How do you give a talk on being single when you're not? It was just an awkward situation all around. But I gave the talk, and while I was talking, there was a guy sitting in the back just staring at me. I mean staring. His eyes were wide open, and his jaw hung slack as he watched my every move. I felt like I was from Mars the way he was watching me.

After my talk was done, and we had been dismissed, he came up to talk to me. He asked me if I had felt anything while I was talking. I said I felt kind of warm, but I'm shy and I was probably blushing. I asked him why that weird question. He said that while I was speaking, he saw an aura around me, bright white light all around. At one point, it looked like an angel had his hands on my shoulders. That's why he couldn't stop staring at me. There was a massive blue and white angel standing behind me. Even as I talked to him afterwards, he said he could still see it, blue and white and dancing above my head.

I'm smart enough not to think he was crazy. I had known him for quite a while, we had worked together on these retreats before. I knew he wasn't lying or making anything up. He really did see it, and it blew him away, because he had never seen one before. It was a beautiful Sacred Moment for both of us.

Sacred Moments can also be painful, like a certain Sunday morning when Shan and I were late for church. I hate being late, but something compelled us to get up and go. Something pushed us to go to church. That Sunday was the first day we actually faced the pain and brokenness of our miscarriages, and it was a horrendous, gut-wrenching, painful thing to do, to step into our wound like that. But I knew, and Shan knew, that God led us there, and was with us the entire time. It was a Sacred Moment.

When we hear stories of our Biblical heroes, we seldom make the connection to our own Sacred Moments. We tell ourselves that that was different. It's the Bible, obviously God is moving. But we're not living in a Bible story, we tell ourselves. Things like that don't happen today. We convince ourselves that God doesn't do that anymore. But we're reading these Bible stories with the benefit of hindsight. Like I said earlier, sometimes only when we look back can we see what God was doing in that moment. So for the writers, writing down the story after the event, some time has passed where the moment can be looked upon and considered, and God can be found.

But what did the people in those stories feel during the story? What did Moses feel on the way home after hearing God speak from a burning bush? When Jacob woke up the next morning after wrestling with the angel, what was going through his mind? When the disciples saw their first miracle, what were they thinking?

Were they overwhelmed with the weight of the moment? Were they in awe at the significance of what had just happened?

Did they feel the same way I felt when I was flying alone for the first time?


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