Descent and Altitude: Eyeing Hope in the Gaze of God
Editor’s Note: Pam Shellberg first offered a version of this reflection during an Advent service at Redeemer Lutheran Church. We are privileged to share it with you.
I have done a fair bit of air travel in the last month or so. A work-related trip, a professional conference, and spending the Thanksgiving holiday with my family had me winging across the country from Bangor, Maine to San Diego, California – with landings and layovers in Boston, Omaha, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
Air travel in particular presents opportunities to see the same things from both a bird’s-eye view and an on-the-ground perspective. At altitudes measured in tens of thousands of feet, the farmland of Illinois looks like a patchwork quilt, the terraced hills along the Missouri River in Iowa are raised designs like the contoured lines of an elevation map, the city lights of Boston sparkle like chains of silver and gold laid out on black velvet by a jeweler’s hand, and the snow-covered hills in New York look like the iced oatmeal cookies I ate as a kid.
The variegation of topography held in the sweep of the earth’s curve is breathtakingly beautiful.
From the planes I had shimmering views of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but down in the terminals I saw big screens broadcasting the current events taking place between the two coastlines. During those weeks, it seemed as though the entire nation was fixated upon the Ferguson grand jury deliberations and President Obama’s executive order on immigration, and the images on the TV screens were identical in every airport. No matter where I was on the continent, they formed a line of continuity that tethered me to the human activity taking place on our country’s landscape.
The variegation of human experience held in the sweep of the earth’s curve is breathtakingly agonizing.
From 20,000 feet I could see Mexico and Canada, even though the political borders that separate our countries are not visible. On the screens I could see how the borders have become contested sites in the battle around immigration reform. In a taxi cab, I could see profound grief and frustration as my immigrant driver told me how his friend had been deported, just that very day – now separated from his wife and children for who knows how long.
My conception of God has changed over the years, and I don’t much think about God in that bearded-old-king-on-a-throne kind of way. Still, from a window seat in an airplane that was making its ascent, with visions of iced oatmeal cookies beginning to dance in my head, I found myself wondering why God would do it. Why leave the realm of the beautiful for the realm of the agonizing? What was it like in the minute just before God made the leap, took the plunge? Did God take a deep breath? Have a fleeting second thought? A flicker of hesitation?
I know I would – if I were God. In these days I do not know how to hold together the beauty of this life with the terror and agony of it. I feel like I am losing my capacity for believing that both can be true – or that love is actually going to win the day. I find that I, a nervous travel-er, would most days rather fly at 35,000 feet and see gold chains instead of lives split open. I’d rather fly at 35,000 feet with mindless TV sitcoms than watch the news. I’d rather fly in the soaring expanse of St. John’s Cathedral listening to sublime sacred Advent music sung in Latin than engage the day’s arguments and all-too-often vitriolic debates – especially when it seems no one is really listening anyway. I’d rather fly at an altitude where creation is seen and borders are not than confront unforgettable images of a tearful taxi cab driver or a terrified deportee and his traumatized children. I’d rather fly at 35,000 feet where the angels sing “Gloria in excelsis deo” than bear witness to our brutalized and crucified Messiah.
If my hope is to be found anywhere these days, it resides in the hope that God sees differently than I do, limited as I am to the choices of a bird’s-eye view or a from-the-trenches perspective. That God sees in a way that is more like the stunning bit of cinematography with which the movie “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster, begins. After a close-up shot of the eye of a young girl, the camera pulls back to reveal an increasingly widening view: the girl’s pupil, then her face, her body in a room, her house…then the neighborhood, the city, the topography of the region, the continent, the planet Earth…then the solar system, clouds of star gases, the galaxy, myriad galaxies…and then, finally, complete blackness – which the shocked viewer suddenly realizes is the very same blackness that is bounded by the iris of the young girl’s eye.
If my hope is anywhere these days, it is hoping that God sees differently than I do, more in line with how Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and writer, exhorts us to see when he says, “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”
Recently, I’ve been reflecting upon a poem by Ellen Bass entitled “When You Return.” I don’t know for whom she wrote it, but I love the poem’s images of restoration. I love its promise that ultimately, the power of return is so great that it causes everything to
suck back and back
into one timeless point, the way it was
before the world was born,
that fresh, that whole, nothing
broken, nothing torn apart.
Sometimes, as I crisscross the country at 35,000 feet, I imagine reading “When You Return” to God. I imagine reading it straight from my deepest ache and longing – hoping that when I get to the end, I will see how the blackness of all that is infinite is bounded by the iris of Jesus’ eye, Emmanuel, God with us.