In life it’s not about what you know but who you know.
Travelling by airplane is always an interesting experience for me, mostly because I’m sort of a people-watcher. What’s most interesting to me is how we air travelers respond so differently to the same experience.
For example, the plane can be mid-flight and, out of nowhere, hit turbulence, and people’s responses can vary from a virtual non-response (“This is irrelevant”) to silently grabbing hold of their armrest (“This isn’t pleasant”) to an audible (if somewhat restrained) noise of alarm (“This can’t be good”). Recently while flying and just after entering into turbulence, the older woman seated next to me grabbed my thigh, digging her nails in, and whispered (a prayer?), “Oh, no, please, please, please….” (When the turbulence ceased about a minute later, she bashfully apologized.)
But even when the plane is about to touch down (or even take off), people’s responses differ. Generally speaking, in the final–I don’t know–30 to 60 seconds before touching down, the collective anxiety of the cabin escalates.
Think about that. Unlike turbulence, the landing is planned for. It’s a good thing–sort of the whole point, really, of flying (you know, to get there). Yet while for some, it is a non-event (they continue reading from their “airplane-mode” iPad), for many it produces anxiety: out the window the ground rises up and rushes by and within the cabin conversations pause, backs straighten, and most (metaphorically) hold their breath.
What’s going on here?
Well, it’s rather simple. When it comes to either turbulence or touching down, we travelers come to a sudden awareness of how little control we have.
Importantly, it’s not that we experience a loss of control. It’s that we experience, suddenly, our lack of control.
Is it a universal (or modern Western / American?) characteristic of humans that we over-estimate how much control we have–not just on airplanes but in life in general, so that, when unexpected mid-life “turbulence” hits or even when we enter a pre-planned life-transition (like when “touching down”), we respond with fear (in all its various forms)?
These times of turbulence and transition reveal how little control that we have had all along. And that raises a really important question:
Just who (if anybody) is in control?
At least when it comes to flying, that question can be answered rather straightforwardly, if not completely:
The pilot (or crew).
One could immediately object, saying that the flight crew only has so much control over the airplane. Indeed, while working in R&D for the Air Force, a colleague of mine who was an expert in both aeronautical and thermodynamic engineering (so he kind of knew how to build a airplane), hated flying. Why? When traveling together (which we often did), in good fun I would give him a bad time about his fear of flying, and he would growl back, “It’s not the plane I’m worried about. It’s the pilot.” (This makes some sense: pilot error accounts for over half of plane crashes.)
So in those moments of turbulence and transition when we learn how little control we’ve had all along, how we respond turns on the question: if the flight deck is in control, can I trust them?
In short, my response to turbulence and transition revolves around–in fact, it’s pretty much ruled by–how I rate the reputation of the Pilot.
Could my relationship with the Pilot be any more relevant?
Think about it: in the turbulence of life (and when isn’t life turbulent?), there is a direct and intimate connection between how I act and who (I think) God is.
If my reactions to life and God’s reputation are so closely related, then what could be more relevant than my relationship with God?
This is hardly a question just for “religious people”, much less for Christians. It is a human question. In other words, how I respond in the rough times is, unavoidably, a theological question: it has everything to do with Who’s in the Cockpit. Even the most “secular”, religiously disinterested person necessarily has an answer to this question (or consider the ardent atheist: s/he has concluded that there is no one in the cockpit.)
This is why in the Christian Scriptures the truly knowledgeable, or wise, person–i.e., the person with the ability to respond rightly to the turbulence, transition, and even tailspins of life–is one who has a profound regard, even reverence, for God’s reputation.
This profound regard is called “the fear of the Lord”:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1.9)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9.10)
It’s worth noting here that “the LORD” refers not to a generic, vague definition of God or to “the god of the philosophers” but to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel’s “Holy One,” who reveals himself in creation and in the history of Israel and climactically in the Messiah Jesus.
But more to the point, here the word “beginning” doesn’t mean merely “step 1”–as if further, more advanced knowledge is found elsewhere. Here “beginning” means something like “origin”–like the origin on a coordinate system (where the vertical axis intersects with the horizontal): every other data point on the coordinate system is defined in relation to it.
If we get the origin wrong, we will incorrectly define, or interpret, every other point.
Similarly, if we get God’s reputation wrong, if we don’t really know Him for who He is, if there is either distance or distortion in our relationship with Him, we will incorrectly interpret everything: “knowledge of–that is, really knowing, or having a relationship with–the Holy One is understanding.”
In short, what could be more shrewd, more strategic, more self-interested, more significant to daily life–especially in times of turbulence or transition–than to pursue a relationship with Israel’s God, supremely revealed in Jesus Christ?
What if in the midst of turbulence and transition–and especially the tailspins, we have a Pilot who can be fully trusted? A Pilot for whom nothing is impossible? What if He brings turbulence and transition only to teach us (again and again and again) that He is trustworthy–why?–so that we can have peace?
Yes. Peace. Peace in times of turbulence and transition.
A peace that necessarily praises Him. When all the other passengers are freaking out over the turbulence or the transition, we would be at peace. And many will observe. And most will envy. And some will ignore, but others will inquire.
Scripture, especially the Psalms, fleshes out this peace in many ways. Here are just two (overlapping) aspects of this peace: fearlessness and freedom.
Psalm 112 says:
“Praise the LORD. Blessed are those who fear the LORD….
They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD.
Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear….
The wicked will see and be vexed;
they will gnash their teeth and waste away.
The longings of the wicked will come to nothing.”
This is amazing. Could it really be true that the fear of the Lord could mean the downfall of our fears?
Nowhere does Psalm 112 hint that those who fear the LORD will be free of turbulence and transition: indeed, they will experience “darkness” and receive “bad news.” But they will have peace, living in faith. Fearing the LORD, they are fearless.
But not only does a fear of the LORD lead to fearlessness, it leads to freedom.
In Psalm 73, the author complains of the prosperity of the wicked: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” he sulks. But, as the Proverbs say, “knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” So what happens when he encounters God, as he grapples with the prosperity and popularity of the wicked?
“When I tried to comprehend all this,
it was oppressive to me,
until I entered the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their final destiny.”
His encounter with God–which, it seems, takes place in formal corporate worship (gasp!)–engenders true understanding of those whom he has deeply envied, those who had made his obedience seem like a complete waste of time:
“Surely you place them on slippery ground,
you cast them down to ruin….
They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.”
But this encounter with God gives him understanding not only of the wicked but of himself:
“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.”
All this leads him to a place of astonishing freedom. He is freed of his envy of the wicked. Rather than wanting all the things the wicked presently have, He rejoices in the abiding presence of the One who made all things:
“Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by your right hand.”
We are free from the controlling desire for all things when we truly know the One who made and sustains all things:
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and m portion forever.”
Here, then, is true fearlessness and true freedom, just two aspects of the Peace that comes from truly knowing God. (And it’s definitely worth saying: it is fearlessness and freedom that together enable us to love others, even our enemies, in the midst of life’s turbulence and transitions. This is huge.)
So in life it’s not what you know but who you know.
And knowing God changes everything.
Moses said to God, “Show me your glory.”
David said to God, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, O LORD, I will seek.”
Paul said, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ.”
What are we saying?
The 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are called Eastertide. They celebrate the triumph of Christ’s resurrection–that is, his conquest over the dominion of sin, evil, and the Evil One. As the second and last Adam, Christ is the epicenter of the reversal of the old order and the birth of the new. All who are united to him will share in his destiny.
The resurrection epitomizes God’s ability to reverse the irreversible–to bring life out of death, blessing out of curse, good out of evil, intimacy out of conflict, purity out of defilement, freedom out of slavery, hope out of despair. The resurrection declares that there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that succeed against the Lord.
For Christ has triumphed. He has conquered.
(The opening picture displays a cross with the Greek capital letters IC XC NIKA. The opening two pair of letters (IC XC) are an abbreviated form of Jesus Christ, while NIKA is the verb “to conquer / triumph.”)
For those who would truly know God and his Christ, this changes everything. It means that, as passengers, whether we are in turbulence or about to touch down or even in a tailspin, our Pilot is in control and can be trusted.
This is our faith. This is our peace.