Because I travel, and generally someone picks me up at my destination airport, I have heard the question “How was your flight?” hundreds of times—literally. The answer after flying into Washington, D.C. last weekend was different than my usual response of, “Oh, fine. The flight was fine.” On this flight, the pilot and air stewardesses coached us through an emergency landing.
Fifteen minutes out from Reagan International Airport, flying from Chicago, the pilot’s voice, calm and reassuring, announced, “Ah, folks. We’re having some trouble with the flaps; they seem stuck in the down position. This is nothing to worry about. We’re going to try some flight maneuvers and will be circling the airport for a little while. We’re in contact with the ground mechanics who are seeing if there is anything else we can do. We’ll let you know more in a few minutes. But I repeat, this is nothing to worry about.”
The stewardesses went about their landing procedures, collecting garbage, checking seatbelts and whether luggage was properly stowed and if trays and seats were back in their upright positions.
During the 20 minutes until the second announcement, I had time to observe my own reactions. Certainly, my role was to pray for security and safety for everyone on the plane. I particularly asked my loving Heavenly Father to send His guardian angels to surround our airborne 747. The Scripture came to mind, He will give his angels charge over you lest you strike your foot against a stone. I thought of my husband, David, with love and with no regret for the 49 years we have shared life together. And I heard an inner voice (my own) repeating, My life is in Your hands … my life is in Your hands.
The pilot’s voice came on again: “OK, folks. We’re going to make an emergency landing without the flaps functioning properly. Again, I repeat: This is nothing to panic about.” Indeed, his voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “We’ll be approaching the airport from a different angle, going at a faster speed than you may be used to. Some of you may notice emergency equipment on the runway—fire engines and ambulances. This is merely a precautionary measure. Again, this is nothing to cause panic. Cabin crew, prepare for landing.”
And we landed—actually one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced. The breaks did not overheat, although they were checked by the fire department before we were given the go-ahead to proceed to our gate. However, it was interesting to compare
my peace-given reaction with a colleague who was flying with me (also with my sister who was also in the back of the plane).
“The lady beside me was just tight with panic, her knuckles were white from clutching the armrests. So I told her that she shouldn’t worry, that two of the most powerful pray-ers I knew were on the plane. [I think she meant ‘my sister and me’—no pressure there!) The lady said, ‘Oh, really?’ and seemed to relax.”
I thought the pilot and crew had handled the situation admirably, that it was one of the smoothest landings I’d ever experienced—no bumps, no jarring crosswinds. My friend thought we had blown a tire—she had felt a definite whomp on landing. She also stated that the pilot’s announcements had been worded poorly (her ex-husband was a Navy pilot who eventually flew commercial airlines. That insider-wife’s vicarious expertise is not always calming in crisis experiences).
So, later, when I had time, I considered the slight difference in our reactions. Power pray-er or not, I had been surrounded within a bubble of peace, doing whatever work prayer does when we link our finite beings with the infinite divine. And that work had left me with the impression that it was one of the smoothest landings I’d ever known.
Which was the reality—hers or mine? I really don’t know.
“Well, it couldn’t have been too bad,” I said to my friend. “We weren’t instructed to go into the emergency-landing tuck position”—heads down over our knees with our arms locked around them. I thought about this, of course, after we landed, not as we were rushing, without functioning air flaps, toward the hard concrete of the landing strip.
But human as we are, we made something out of this with family and friends. I called David, just to let him know we were in the hotel but that the landing had not been an ordinary one. “Oh, something kept nudging me,” he replied. “So, I checked the radio to see if there were reports of an airplane crash. When I didn’t hear anything, I concluded you were all right.”
“No. No. If you feel nudges like that, you’re supposed to pray—not check the radio!”
The rest of the family (my sister’s husband and sons) were rather nonchalant about what we were now billing as a near-death experience. “Is that so? Glad you’re all right.” No one seemed to make a connection that both their mother and a well-loved aunt might have perished in a fiery landing.
So, I called my son-in-law who graduated as a theatre major from Miami of Ohio University. “I need someone to get a little dramatic about this,” I laughed, telling him the story of our emergency landing.
“Just a minute; let me get my actor’s hat on.” His voice came back over my cell: “WOW! Are you OK? Do you need to take the afternoon and rest? I can’t believe you had that close of a call! We’re so glad you’re still around!”
Silly as it is—this made me feel some slight comfort, even though we were laughing at my wanting a little drama in my phone call responses.
“Not only did we almost crash, but Valerie Jarrett was also on the plane.”
“Who’s Valerie Jarrett?”
“Oh, she’s one of the Chicago Circle, who functions as an advisor to President Obama. She was sitting a row behind me and I kept thinking, Who is that woman? Where have I seen her before? Then I realized that I’d seen her on the news. I appreciated the fact that she was flying in the economy section, not in First Class.”
“Well,” said my son-in-law. “If your plane had burst into flames, no one would have known that you and Valerie Bell were on it. But everyone would have known about Valerie Jarrett!”
An incident like this is sort of an unfolding revelation. I registered at the hotel desk, signed in at the conference table, collected my packet, found my room, unpacked clothes, called another colleague who had arrived a little earlier than ourselves. We made one of those complicated group decisions about where to have dinner, found a taxi, and then called an end to a long day by returning to the Sheraton where we were lodged.
I’d pooh-poohed my friend’s designation that my sister and I were “power pray-ers,” but the thought suddenly occurred to me in the middle of the night that maybe we (and other unnamed pray-ers) were on that very flight to pray it down safely, to give the pilots calm and proficiency, to not allow panic to spread through the cabin.
None of us know about the web of prayer that surrounds our lives. We have no way of measuring how many times prayer has protected us, preserved us or assuaged our distresses. We just complain about what goes wrong, howl over the suffering that, unwanted, comes our way; shake our fist in the face of God and cry, “Unfair! Unfair!” But we do not count the ways we have been kept safe, nor measure the days that have been shot through with happiness.
We have no idea how many times He has given his angels charge over us, lest we strike our foot against a stone.
“How was your flight?”
How is your flight through life, through the moments of the days? Begin to look for the gifts of prayer, see if you can detect that figurative flash of wings, the hidden sound of something beating beneath the surface of things. Concentrate, instead of what has gone wrong, on what has gone right.
I promise that this is one of the better ways of gettin’ thru’ the days.
Other projects involving Karen Mains right now:
Karen Burton Mains’ other involvements these days, apart from praying in airplanes when flaps don’t work, is writer mentoring. She and 11 other people are teleconferencing for one hour, twice a month, in order to become better memoir writers. A waiting list is now forming for the new Cycle. If you are interested, please contact Karen at the Hungry Souls office, firstname.lastname@example.org. Karen is also involved with an international team of concerned friends who are launching the Global Bag Project, encouraging seamstresses to sew reusable shopping bags to provide themselves with sustainable incomes. Visit the new Web site, www.globalbagproject.org.
Among other things, Karen Mains is an award-winning author, a spiritual coach, Christian blogger, and Director of the Hungry Souls ministry.