Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Without a Net: Gliding Through the Garden of Gethsemane

Luke 22:39-46
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

When I was fourteen, after weeks of training on the ground and in the air, I took my first solo flight in a sailplane. I was so scared, my heart was beating in my ears and my throat was closing.  I could barely squeak out to my instructor as he walked away and left me with the plane.  “Wait!” I said. “WAIT!”

He turned and looked at me and said, “I’m getting it.”

When he came back he had with him these two big metal pins that weighted the front of the aircraft so that a slight 14 year old girl wouldn’t be flying with her nose tipping up the whole time.

The tow-plane hooked on, I was swept up into the air and I watched in terror, my hands shaking violently, for the indication to release and to glide, free of any propulsion, by myself, alone in the cockpit.  And then I pulled the release. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. I was alone, in charge of my fate for the first time in my life. 

As a child with undiagnosed ADD, I had struggled in school profoundly and even more so in life.  I never knew where I was supposed to be or got there with everything I needed. I understood every word that was spoken to me, but I never ever knew what people meant.  And my poor impulse control imperiled more than my own life on more than one occasion.  I was the bane of my hard-working mother’s existence and a complete contradiction to my brilliant father’s theory of genetics.  I was a danger to myself and others and the family whispered the words “group-home” on more than one occasion. I was – and am – a person whose brain, un-medicated and unmitigated – is not her friend.

But here I was, after weeks of confusion and fear, intimidated by my instructors and sure of their derision, never the less, alone in the cockpit of an aircraft, entrusted with my own life, this valuable plane and the safety of people on the ground. And I thought, “What the hell are my parents thinking letting me do this?”

Fast forward thirty four years. I’m now a single mother, working full time for the first time in seventeen years. I have a house to maintain and utilities to pay.  I have two dogs who need almost constant supervision to keep from peeing on or chewing everything in said house.  And three children – all of whom were more poised and mature in the cradle than I was at 14- whose psyches are impacted (according to the teenager) by every single microscopic action I take (hence the scrutiny).  I have to get people to things, and I have to coach, train, discipline, encourage, console and, with frightening frequency, cuss out, people whom I love. I have to remember, I have to complete, I have to get up off my ass and weed when I want to read, and I have to sit down all alone on the couch in the evening and sort it all out by myself.  I am, once again, alone in the cockpit, entrusted with the stewardship and safety of more than I could have imagined possible. 

In a sailplane you have a limited number of stimuli to process.  You have an airspeed indicator and an altimeter and a false horizon and a lift/drag ratio meter. There is also something called a “yaw string.” This was my best friend when I was flying.  It was a tiny little piece of yellow yarn stuck to the outside of the cockpit right in front of you that was buffeted and tossed against the windscreen as you flew.  It told you whether you were flying efficiently: if the wind was passing over your wings in the most efficient way, whether your attitude to the ground and the wind around you (your pitch and your yaw) was correct for the kind of flying you were doing.  Whether you were in a turn or pulling up into a deliberate stall, whether you were thermal-ling, diving, towing or landing, that yaw string told you that you were in balance as you did it. A yaw string is also not an instrument in the formal sense, it’s not a gauge drawing on information it is picking up from a meter on your rudder or your wing.  It’s a little piece of fiber pushed by the wind. That’s all.
I have a yaw string on my minivan.

There is no sound when you are flying (without a radio, I used to fly without a radio whenever possible) but the wind over your cockpit, though that can be quite loud.  Your hands and feet are in place, you are strapped in somewhat ruthlessly and there is no looking around more than 180 degrees – plus not down, unless you’re turning, you can’t look down very well.  So there is only up.  There are clouds, which are my favorite things in the entire universe because they tell you everything you need to know.  They tell you where the wind is coming from.  They tell you where there will be an updraft, a “thermal” which you can use to keep yourself in the air without power. They tell you if it is going to rain or that there will be a change in the weather.  They tell you where something starts and something else end. Clouds tell you everything you need to know and they are almost always gorgeous.

So you stay in the sky in a sailplane by finding places, invisible columns of air, that rise up from the ground, usually because of heat on the ground.  These are called “thermals” and the process of sweeping around in a turn within these columns of air – as you have seen condors and birds of prey sometimes do – is called “thermalling.” When you wish to rise, you locate a thermal and you sweep around in a large, graceful turn inside of it. Your long, wide wings are caught by the air and you are swept up. You can’t see a thermal, they are entirely invisible.  You can guess where one is: if you see a bird thermalling, if the ground is dark on a sunny day (soybean field often make thermals), and under a cumulo stratus cloud. These clouds with tall white puffy tops and flat bottoms indicate the presence of a thermal.  When they line up along a weather front you can glide for hundreds of miles without losing altitude.  This is called, a “cloud street.” Great, right?

What the heck does this have to do with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?

I think that being alone, or feeling alone, in this mortal life, is a visit to the garden of Gethsemane. Even if you have companions along the way, close, bosom friends, they will sometimes sleep. They are mortal, they must sometimes sleep.  And, we all now it’s true, sometimes when we need them the most they are afraid of what will be asked of them and they are asleep when we need them to be wakeful. And in those moments, we are profoundly, cosmically, and terrifyingly alone. You are strapped in place by the forces of your life and livelihood.  Your hands and feet must be where they are to keep things going. You have limited visibility. And you can’t see what the hell is keeping you afloat. You’re doing it all by the seat of your pants.

When I was 14 and flying for the first time, I released the tow-plane, I heard the thump of the hook and saw the rope fall away and for a few seconds - seconds I sometimes relive in my dreams, I sat in that cockpit and screamed like a babysitter in a horror movie.  I took at least two full breaths and kept screaming. 

And then my brain clicked off. And my gut clicked on.

That’s how we get through the garden of Gethsemane.  When we can’t see what is holding us up, we look for signs of it, for thermalling birds, friendly smiles and “pokes” on Facebook.  When we can’t see anywhere but up, we can learn to read the sky, we can see places where we will be held up or lifted up.  When the lift/drag meter is pulling way south, we can see our way clear to a cloud street and that is all we need.  Dawn comes, it always comes. There is always the moment when you land safely.  But getting through the night in Gethsemane is about going from one thermal to the next.

It is, in fact, all about the yaw string. If you are flying efficiently, you’ll get the most distance on your lift, you won’t slip or slide out of latitude, you won’t accidently roll or pull up too tight and stall.  You know what to do. You’ve got the Scripture to guide you, Scripture, which is a little piece of the world moved by the breath of the Creator: Scripture is a yaw string. Scripture which will guide you to maneuver through the garden efficiently, effectively, smooth in flight. It is about flying by the seat of your pants and not thinking.  Thinking leads to screaming.

But what of the Angel?  When Jesus was in the garden an angel was sent to him and the angel gave him strength. Frequently these days, I pray for an angel who will come and give me strength.  (And frequently, in the midst of a record breaking heat wave, I sweat until I think I must be sweating blood and I think, “I was supposed to have the angel by now. The angel is late.”) Remember, I said at the beginning that my instructor put two heavy weights in the nose of the sailplane so that I would be able to fly in the first place? That is because I, by myself, couldn’t do it. I by myself, can never do it. But I was never alone in the cockpit, and I am never alone in the garden.  There is a weight that is with me, before I ever begin the journey, keeping my nose from popping up, keeping me from stalling out and plummeting to the ground. Easy to forget. Required to fly. God is the Angel in the garden, locking me to the safe, firm ground, and enabling me to soar over the Garden with strength and courage.

“Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullest of redemption.”
 (BCP 288)

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