November 8, 2006

Eagles Falling

 “Those who wait on the Lord will find new strength. They will fly high on wings like eagles . . .” (Isaiah 40:31, NLT).*
Castle Valley, Utah—May 2004
2006 1531 page12 caphe putt-putt-putt grew to a roar, and the breeze came faster against my face. Suddenly the dirt runway dropped away, and we were airborne. The radio crackled.
“How you doing back there?”
I squeezed my uncle’s shoulders and smiled into the microphone. “Wonderful!”
The ultralight rose quickly, racing its birdlike shadow across alfalfa fields, climbing until the landscape below looked as if it were from a LEGO set or miniature model. Up so high, with nothing between me and the ground except a small metal frame and hundreds of feet of air. And then we were floating on the air currents, an eagle with wings outstretched. Uncle Terry pulled on the steering bar and the nose tipped down. We plummeted, and my heart dropped to my stomach. It seemed the sagebrush was within reach when we leveled out. A prairie dog scurried down his hole.
“Let me take you to Fisher Towers.”
2006 1531 page12Uncle Terry’s steady hands brought the ultralight into a climb again. We approached the strange red sandstone formations and oddly shaped needles towering and fragile against blue Utah sky. And then we were careening through the maze, wingtips almost touching rock at times. In and out, dizzy with the heady rush of adrenaline. Somehow I felt completely safe, closer to God than ever before; upheld by the laws of physics and my uncle’s capable, experienced hands.
We left the Towers and turned south toward the Colorado River. We flitted above tourists in their yellow rafts, circling to see them stare and wave wildly. A heron emerged from the tamarisks and Russian olives along the riverbank, and I looked down to see our reflections mirrored side by side.
Except for the hum of the engine, all was quiet—an unusual but appropriate silence. Uncle Terry, just like Granddad, was almost always talking—bantering playfully with an endless supply of jokes, or speaking passionately about one of his loves (God, Aunt Jan, his daughters, flying). This morning he greeted me warmly, “Hello, gorgeous!” and gave me one of his trademark hugs where you meet bones, muscle, and belt buckle in a crushing squeeze. But now we were reverent, worshipful. The beauty couldn’t be expressed in words. And even if it could, the communion with the Creator was too personal and intimate to be shared aloud. We were in awe, caught up in the wonder of a grand, raw splendor that made us feel at once insignificant and important.
    “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
      and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings . . .
      put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”1

Paradox, Colorado—January 30, 2005
My aunt and cousins watched helpless and aghast as the ultralight, carrying Uncle Terry and a young man, whirled out of control and began to spiral at 900 feet. The nosepiece snapped in the wind, leaving the craft vulnerable to the force of gravity.

Down, down, down in a corkscrew freefall. Tighter, faster, ever closer. And thud. Nothingness. Dust to dust.
“And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.”2

Santiago, Chile—March 2005

Less than two months after the fatal crash, I found myself seated in a large plane on the runway of Santiago’s airport. Other members of the University Singers choral group were scattered throughout the cabin, ready to fly home after two exhausting weeks of travel and performances. We waited for an hour, trying to be patient as flight attendants explained that there were some mechanical problems. Finally the plane returned to the gate, and we disembarked to wait until further notice. I spent my last few pesos on Chinese food, chatting comfortably with friends. Sometime later we boarded the plane again, assured that everything had been taken care of. As the plane taxied out to the runway for the second time,

I closed my eyes, willing benign sleep to carry me quickly home. We picked up speed, and I mentally prepared for the weightless, welcome feeling of being in the air. Suddenly, the plane was decelerating, and the intercom abruptly informed us, “Takeoff aborted!”
2006 1531 page12It wasn’t until we were standing in line in the lobby of Santiago’s Sheraton, checking in for one more night in Chile, that I grasped the full impact of what had happened. Apparently the first “mechanical problem” had been asymmetric flaps (meaning that the flaps on one side of the plane were frozen up, and the flaps on the other wing were locked down). When we attempted takeoff, a warning light came on, indicating that something was still wrong. If we had become airborne with asymmetric flaps, the plane would have rolled and crashed within minutes. Unbeknownst to me, fire trucks and ambulances were in waiting, fearing the worst. Thanks to a pilot’s quick thinking and angels’ intervention, all we suffered were a few shredded tires and some anxiety. The next day we had a safe, uneventful trip back to Berrien Springs, Michigan.
The morning after our “almost-wreck” our group gathered in the hotel lobby and had a brief praise time, thanking God for His miraculous protection. I was moved by this obvious proof of His tangible involvement in my life. But questions—angry and helpless—arose as tears welled in my eyes. I listened to the joy around me, holding the doubt inside, unable to share their euphoria as I hurled my queries toward heaven.
Why me, Lord? Why couldn’t You have saved Uncle Terry as well—or instead? You said You would keep him safe, hold him in Your hands. Did You not mean it literally? What is Your word worth if I can’t trust it, if it applies only to the spiritual, not physical, realm? Because that’s the world I’m trapped in, Father.
People say, “It was God’s will.” That’s so hard to take. How do they know what Your will is? Is everything bad and evil that happens on earth “Your will” just because we pray, “Thy will be done,” and then see horror? Why do some ask for a miracle and receive it, while others are disappointed? People are always sharing stories of amazing answers to prayer. Why don’t we hear about the unamazing ones, the tragic and expected? Are we ashamed or afraid of our doubts? I’m sorry for this disrespect, if that’s what it is. I just have to know. . . .
There’s a purpose, a working for good, in all things for those who love You, Scripture says. But I don’t see it. It would have made more sense for me to die in a crash. Uncle Terry was so kind, and such a witness of Your truth. A man after Your own heart. The day before the accident he took a friend flying and told him about You. That man is a believer today because of it. Maybe Uncle Terry’s death will soften his agnostic brother’s heart. Maybe it will bring about healing in his family. But are all the reasons why enough?
I yearn for the childlike faith I once had: absolute, unwavering trust, taking You at Your word. What do I do when my belief is shaken? I don’t know where to turn. The pat, easy answers of others do nothing to assuage the sting. The responses from Job’s friends leave me empty and mad. Texts that point to a reunion, an eternity of perfection, seem immaterial. I feel so far away from You, as if I too fell 32 feet per second out of the sky, out of Your hand. Ellen White wrote that there is no excuse or explanation for sin. Does that mean I ask in vain? What will You say to me? How will You bring me back into Your presence?
What is faith? Hope in the unseen. Waiting without answers in the hushed darkness. And so I wait . . . to be raised up, to look once again on Your beauty and love, to feel Yourself in front, behind, under, around me. Let Your arms catch me as I fall. Hold Uncle Terry gently as he too waits, asleep. And let me find, when the dawn comes and we soar again, that You are who You say You are.
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
1John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight, 1941.
2“On Eagle’s Wings,” words and music by Michael Joncas.
Joelle Chase is a senior at Andrews University, pursuing a degree in elementary education.