Tuesday morning, I sat down with our lectionary study group, eight local pastors I gather with each week to reflect on the next Sunday’s readings. None of us were excited about Trinity Sunday, or the theological Rubic’s Cube of explaining the three-in-one God. News was pouring in from Oklahoma City about the terrible tornadoes, and we were all feeling a sense of tragedy overload, Newtown shootings, Boston Bombings, and weekly pastoral tragedies in our congregations. In the midst of this, we had Paul’s text from Romans 5,
“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
I’m not above glorying in my sufferings, but its not the goal. I come by stoicism naturally growing up in farm country, and I like this passage, because I struggle to with perseverance. I need help to hope. A common emotional progression is not always as Paul says, but rather that suffering produces frustration; frustration brings self-pity, and self-pity produces apathy and hopelessness. I marvel when someone triumphs over suffering; a Gabby Giffords coming back from being shot in the head, an alcoholic who maintains sobriety for 20 years and sponsors others along the path, I even marvel at Anthony Weiner running for Mayor of New York City. I always wonder why one person crumbles in tragedy and another finds their life purpose. What is the foundation of hope and resiliency in the midst of tragedy and suffering? (And a side note, does it have anything to do with the Trinity?)
Tuesday morning, as we were hearing the terrible news of tornadoes in Oklahoma City, NPR’s Morning Edition aired an interview with author Carol Shaben, who wrote a memoir “Into the Abyss” about a plane crash in artic Canada, which her father was one of the few survivors.
On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Erik Vogel was uneasy about flying. It was snowing; his plane's de-icer and autopilot weren't working; and his co-pilot had been bumped to fit one more passenger on his 10-seater. But the young pilot was behind schedule and he felt like his job was on the line, so he took off, as he did most days, shuttling between the remote communities that dot the Canadian wilderness.
Author Carol Shaben tells NPR's Steve Inskeep what happened next: "He's hearing these chunks of ice coming off the props and banging like rocks against the fuselage. And he made a calculation error. He thought he was past the high point, but there was another rise of land, 2,500 feet, and he hit that top of that rise."
The plane crashed through a bank of trees, and as the fuselage plowed into the ground, broken bits of plane sheared off the roof like a sardine can. Six people died in the crash, and four men emerged from the wreckage: the pilot; a politician; a prisoner being transferred; and the police officer who was escorting him. https://www.npr.org/2013/05/21/184177321/after-crashing-in-canadian-abyss-four-men-fight-to-survive
The police officer recalled that night becoming conscious and not realizing the plane had crashed. He was buried up to his chest in dirt, has no idea what is going on, and suddenly his prisoner, Paul, emerges and starts digging him out, and rescues him. It is Paul who drags everyone to safety and then searches for anything to burn and start a fire with, no easy job in three feet of snow and subzero weather. Without this prisoner, feeding the fire the all would have died. The police officer had been a Canadian Mountie and recovered numerous bodies of people who froze to death in the wild and assumed they would die.
Shaben, the author weaves together how each of the survivors was transfigured by the crash and rescue. Her father had a remarkable political career, and was especially moved by another plane crash, this one on 9/11, which moved him to work for greater understanding between cultures. The pilot, struggled with guilt through the years, and after having his flying career stalled, since no one would hire him, he became a firefighter, and had the opportunity to save many more lives than those lost that day. But the most dramatic change was for Paul Archanbault:
Shaben:. He had a long prison record — who, you know, was an accused criminal, a drifter who had been drifting across the country since he was 15 or 16….. He got on a plane two days later and faced charges, faced a judge in court. And the judge said, 'You are to be commended for your actions and I exonerate you of all charges.' So this ne'er-do-well vagabond who'd had nothing but hard luck was all of a sudden hailed as a hero. So [his life] took a dramatic turn that way.
In the books prologue Shaben tries to explain what happened to them, turning to popular mythology writer Joseph Campbell, who wrote a book about heroic journeys, and the transformative power of a crisis that shakes our complacency through crisis. We confront the precious and limited nature of existence and come out with a deeper understanding on the other side of suffering. I think that is partly correct, however, not everyone is transformed by crisis. If so, Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma tornadoes would be creating great religious revivals and an outpouring of meaning and purpose. Crisis does bring people together for a time, there is an outpouring of compassion for the survivors, gratitude to still be alive, but the norm is most people gradually return to everyday life, and few even curse God or reject any goodness to life.
I think the real story of the plane crash is not just how each individual took their own hero’s journey to transformation, it is how their bond and their ongoing friendship gave them the strength and courage to go on and find new meaning. It is a story of community, and of the transforming power of love and friendship. Perhaps they would have still lived changed lives as sole survivors, by that would be rare indeed. Most people have the strength to hope and change because of love. This is why twelve step recovery programs work so well, not because of the magic or brilliance of the steps alone, but because of the accompanying community. Many people find hope in their terrible pain and suffering through Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, or working to transform gun violence.
This is why we gather in church each week, and why we sing and pray and reflect on scriptures together. We are not transformed by wisdom alone, or knowledge alone or the calming power of meditation and music. It is love that is at the heart of things, and you can’t love by yourself.
When people say they don’t believe in organized religion, or that they are spiritual by not religious, I ask them if they believe in community. It is certainly hard to have community without organization, and hard to make community without passing through some disagreements and annoyances. What I really want to say is “Where will you go when walking alone in your spiritual journey is not enough?”
Now I know you are wondering when I will get back to the Holy Trinity. Thanks for asking. The doctrine we call Trinity matters because it tells us that even God does not dwell alone. The mystery at the heart of our one God, is that there is a communal in-dwelling together of three personas; Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Love cannot live alone and it is always seeking more life to love. This must be why God seeks us. This is why we can hope. As Paul says in the conclusion of our Romans reading:
5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.