I spend a good deal of my life at twelve thousand feet, suspended between heaven and earth. Two miles up – high enough to remain safely beyond the reach of a bullet or the snare of most mountain peaks in this parcel of earth. High enough to escape the heartache below me too, and to gain a little perspective before heading back down again.
Flying has been described as “hours and hours of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” There’s some truth in the words, certainly for bush pilots whose “moments” can be rather spectacular if the airstrips are particularly bad or if the goats are too stubborn to move. But in this juxtaposition of adrenaline and boredom, little is said about the “hours and hours.” Probably because they make for less interesting stories. Most pilots probably thrive on the adrenaline.
My love for flying – from a child day-dreaming through the chain-link fence at the local airport, to a young man commanding a sophisticated machine with skill and a clenched jaw over Africa – has slowly progressed. I have come to appreciate the hours in between. I’ve thought that maybe this is because my days are so busy, and the time flying from one place to another is some of the only rest I get. It may also have something to do with where I fly – hard places that bear so much witness to man’s fallen nature and so little to the manufactured paradise of the world I come from. Part of me needs the rest. Part of me wants to escape.
But this is a good kind of escape. Fleeing the ruin of our rebellion is sure to land us in the Father’s arms. And this is where I land, when I fly. My slice of sky at pressure-level “one-two-zero” is like a church, even as it is unlike one. The front pew has space for two but I usually sit alone. My seat is comfortable and comes with three-way adjustments and a five-point restraining harness. The preaching is quite good, and varied, as I load up sermons in an iPod and cram the earbuds under my headset. And the music is even better. Third Day often leads worship and, much to my delight, singing along is encouraged (so long as the microphone is flipped out of the way and I’m careful not to inadvertently make a transmission.)
This church is a sanctuary without a building. No stained glass or carpets. No vaulted ceiling. Just a face full of sky and cloud as I lift up my head and sing, pray, think, ask, wrestle, rest, and sometimes cry. Could God be any closer at altitude than He is on the ground? Such thoughts remind me of the story of the first man in space, a Russian cosmonaut, who upon reaching orbit dutifully reported that God was nowhere to be seen and therefore must not exist.
That reminded me of what Zachary, our five-year-old son, said when I took him flying just last month. As we climbed above a layer of friendly-looking clouds, he perked up over the intercom. “Mom is this where God lives?” She tried to explain, but to no avail. “Mom, if we go higher can we go all the way to heaven?” We smiled as parents do, but Zachary was utterly mesmerized, little gears chugging away in his head… “how can I get closer to God?”
I imagine the dour-faced cosmonaut was thinking the same thing, regardless of his state-sanctioned media byte. It is a question in the heart of every man. The answer, of course, cannot be found with an airplane. We live our entire lives in the “in between.” Between the city of God and the stuff of earth. Between time and eternity. Between divine providence and human willfulness. Between heaven and earth. And from this standpoint, a sanctuary is any place that turns our gaze toward Heaven.
My airborne reprieve is a dwelling place for the moments however, not a place to settle down. Part of me wants to keep on going up, like little Zachary, beyond the clouds and my ability to comprehend, all the way to heaven. And part of me knows there’s something still to do down below in the dust. I have come to appreciate the moments suspended in Africa’s wild blue. It’s here that God draws me to the sidelines of the battle, whispers encouragement, and nudges me back into the fray.