Last Friday was a good day. Our family flew up north with some close friends on an empty leg of an AIM AIR flight to Kurungu. Captain Andy piloted the Caravan that day. And both Amelia and Zach took a turn standing up between the pilot and copilot seats with headsets on. Andy gave them each a sweeping tour of the cockpit while the rest of us stared out the windows in silence, taken by the beauty of the Aberdare mountain range passing below our wings.
I was sitting behind the pilot’s seat. Gloriously off duty. With my beloved Nikon in the grip of my right hand, a favorite pair of boots on my feet, faded blue jeans, sunshine popping through the windows and laying down across my lap. I was surrounded by family and friends, on our way to visit with some more. I can’t remember the last time I felt so free of responsibility – we haven’t had what could be properly called a “vacation” in a long time. Too long to remember. But that day I felt rested, smiling both inside and out, and thinking what a good place this world could be.
Andy dropped the ten of us at Rick and Carrie’s sandy airstrip in the parched northern frontier, and then took off again southbound to Nairobi. As the airplane rocketed past and climbed off into the distance I found myself standing on an empty runway – it’s a perspective I don’t often get to appreciate. But being voluntarily stranded so far from our busy life was just the thing we were aiming for. The promise of adventure filled days, and evenings of laughter, lay ahead.
On Saturday Zach and I ventured out after lunch. He grabbed his new Samburu spear and we hiked off, father and son… and a couple of Samburu kids at our heels. I found a dry riverbed at the end of the airstrip and we climbed down into it and began to follow the twists and turns. The delight of exploration was all over Zach’s face. “Dad! Look at this cool rock!” When a troop of baboons crossed our path with a furious rustle of shrubbery and some menacing glares, I could tell that he delighted in the danger too. And on his face I could see that he felt himself safe because he was with me. With his dad.
I was snapping pictures all along. Shots of the natural beauty. And shots of Zach as we hopped from rock to rock. I stopped at times and tried to get a frame with him mid-step. A frozen moment precariously balanced on one foot.
Back in Nairobi, at about the same time, one of our airplanes, and two of my buddies, were caught in a moment more precarious than any of us could have imagined. The little Cessna they were flying had lost power over the city and was gliding down toward a massive slum community. Nothing but buildings, power lines, and throngs of people below.
Like a bullet that has already left the barrel of a gun, there are few things in our human experience which so emphasize the forward arrow of time as an airplane without power. There is only one eventual outcome. Down. And if you could snap a picture and hold it in your hand – freeze a moment of time when things still hung in the balance – you could not escape the fact that what you held was a picture of what was before. Before the world changed. Before, perhaps, it all caved in.
Frank and Ryan, along with two passengers sitting behind them, hit the power lines, and the little Cessna came crashing down. Frank died that day, and Ryan, he died six days later in the burn unit at a premier hospital in South Africa. The passengers were miraculously spared. And our world changed. In the time it took me to snap off a frame of Zach mid-step.
Rick came looking for us. Nairobi had called. And our vacation was over.
When I called back, Ted broke the news to me. “We lost a plane, Mike.” Then shortly after, “Frank didn’t make it.”
I crashed onto the bathroom floor and sobbed.
The week that followed has been without time. It has felt like months. And it has felt as though time was standing still. But the knowledge that this thing can not be undone has been overwhelming. I saw Ryan at the hospital mid-week. Standing beside my friend and not recognizing him. Broken and helpless – both of us.
I’ve raced around this week. From meetings with the Crisis Management Team, to the hospital, to mundane errands that seemed woefully unimportant. 16-hour days and then restless nights. So many prayers with our devastated teammates. So many lingering hugs with Renee. So many tears alone in my car as I drove back and forth from the hangar. And while driving or sitting in a jam, I’ve been looping through one song on the CD player. I’ve heard it play a hundred times and I still don’t know what it’s about. But the song seemed to fit my mood. Sung by Switchfoot. It’s called “The Blues.” One chorus reads like this:
You push until your shoving,
You bend until you break,
Do you stand on the broken fields where your fathers lay?
It will be a day like this one when the world caves in. When the world caves in.
Over and over that line, “a day like this one” has resonated in my head. Because it was day like that one, last Saturday, when our world caved in. What seemed to be just another day in the unbroken chain of days, unremarkable, ordinary, and un-expectant.
Yet in a way it was expectant. Even though I didn’t think about it, I fully expected to survive the day. As did Frank as he carefully backed his Land Cruiser into the choice parking spot in front of the hangar. Or Ryan when he left that half-eaten chapati in his desk drawer and hopped into the copilot’s seat next to his buddy.
And here is a truth about the world we inhabit. Time’s arrow points firmly forward, whether we recognize it or not. Our lives are fragile. Our days are numbered. And there is never enough time to do enough good with the days we have. Chances are, our last day will be a day very much like this one, and it will catch us by surprise.
Chances are we won’t be finished yet. Finished being a husband or a father or a friend. Finished with all those things we think are important in life. Even finished with the work God has put before us. And I wonder if that has something to do with this world being, at its core, an unfinished place.
Like a movie stuck on some inexplicable scene in the middle of the story. All of time and history is but a single frame in a long and intricate reel, where we all stand frozen and mid-step, precariously balanced between the Fall and the Day of redemption. Where God pauses outside of it all, and sees it all, and has purpose in it all. And if it were to advance but one frame, everything would look different. Everything would change.
I think here is another truth about the world we inhabit. This is God’s world, whether we recognize it or not. This world that has been dashed against the rocks of sin and broken into a million pieces and a million heartbreaks. We slip into thinking that it is ours, and that we can shape it to meet our expectations. But it is not, and God will take it back. He will take it back… on a day like this one.
Is nothing here worth saving?
Is no one here at all?
Is there any net left that can break our fall?
It’ll be a day like this one, when the sky falls down,
And the hungry and poor and deserted are found.
On a day like this one – an unremarkable, ordinary, and un-expectant day – the world as we know it will come crashing down. The mountains will split in two, the trumpet will sound, and the King will return. One frame forward.
Does justice ever find you?
Do the wicked never lose?
Is there any other song to sing besides these blues?
Nothing is okay until the world caves in. Until the world caves in.
Until that day, this world will at one moment seem good, and at the next, betray us. Until that day, we will have more questions than there are answers. The tears will remain wet on our faces until He wipes them clear. And it won’t ever, wholly be okay until this world gives way to the next one. Until the world caves in.
But today, I miss hearing Frank laugh. I miss watching Ryan give motorcycle rides to his kids up and down the compound driveway. Today, I look at their children and search for their father in each of them – in their eyes or smile or mannerisms. I wonder how the events of this week will affect the rest of their lives. And I wonder how sorrow can seem to last forever when in reality it’s for a moment.