A journey through fear of flying
Sermon slot 29th May
At the end of October last year I sat with Mark Pierson on the roof top above their 9th story apartment in Melbourne. It was my first overseas trip and I told him the story of how I came to be visiting Melbourne and the significance of this trip for me. I acknowledge that these days a trip like this is pretty much a common occurrence but it was something I had never thought possible for me to do. Mark's response was, "You should tell your story at Cityside." So having considered his suggestion, that's what I'm doing this morning.
One of the things I have struggled with the most in my life is fear. As a follower of Christ I have wanted to know God's help in overcoming these fears especially those that impacted my ability to live a normal life. I had prayed and been prayed for, but nothing seemed to change. Years ago we used to sing some words from the Psalms " I sought the Lord and he heard my cry and delivered me from all my fears." I was disappointed and frustrated that my experience didn't match those words.
Probably my greatest fear has been the fear of flying. I flew about three times in my late teens and early twenties with some mild level of anxiety. Then I had no occasion to fly for the next twenty five or so years. But somehow in that time the fear of flying became so huge that I couldn't even consider getting on a plane. So I told myself that it didn't matter, I would just stick to going to places where you didn't need to fly and I didn't really care about going further afield anyway!
In around 1998 I was doing a meditation on the story of Peter's attempt to walk on water. This was an Ignation style meditation where you put yourself into the story. I could see myself standing on the edge of the boat, and Jesus calling to me to come to him, just as he had done with Peter. But there was no way I was willing to step off that boat because I saw the boat as the safe place to be. As I stayed with the story, an important insight came to me - it just wasn't true that the boat was always a safe place. This helped me face up to the fact that I cannot by being in control always keep my world safe physically and emotionally and there would always be things beyond my control. I know what I've just said is like stating the obvious but I think because of some life experiences I had a strong need to keep my world safe and it was a truth I hadn't been able to face head on. I began to recognise my need to find a way to accept the reality of life without it causing me to limit the way I participated in it. I recognised it would not be a simple process, because my need for safety was very deep seated. I realised too that I had prayed and asked God to take away my fear and I'd felt that nothing had happened. But something was happening because what I was working with as a result of the meditation was at the root of my struggle with fear.
By the year 2000 we had two of our three daughters living in Wellington. They were both doing performance music degrees and their end of year exams were recitals which we were invited to attend. This time, I believe as a result of the movement I had made since doing the meditation, I opened myself to the possibility flying to Wellington. In spite of the fear I still felt, something in me was tentatively saying "I want to do this" So in a moment when I felt more positive than negative I booked the tickets.
I began to do some preparation for the flight - reading, praying and journalling , and talking with my Spiritual director. I was feeling quite optimistic about how I would handle the flight but the reality turned out to be somewhat different. I was very nervous by the time we got to the airport. Going through the door and into the plane - the point of no return - took all the determination I could muster. During the flight my stomach was churning so much that couldn't eat anything, my hands were sweaty, my legs started to shake and I felt like I was barely holding myself together. In Wellington I left the plane with very mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt disappointed with myself that I wasn't able to be more in control of my emotions but I was also quite elated that I had actually managed to get on a plane after all these years. The return flight was a little better and even though I hadn't coped anywhere near as well as I would have liked I did have a real sense of satisfaction and gratitude to God as I recognised that this trip had been a significant milestone.
I made several flights to Wellington over the next few years and I experienced the same mixture that I had after the first flight. One problem I had was that even though I had it all sorted out in my mind , strong a emotions just kicked in anyway and there seemed nothing I could do to prevent that. As I reflected on my experiences I had some serious questions about where God was . Why had God not delivered me from my fear? Was I doing something wrong? Not trusting God enough? The central question for me became did being a follower of Jesus make any difference in a situation like this? In time I actually expressed some anger to God - I felt God had let me down, hadn't come through for me when I had needed it. I questioned whether God really had any power to help me through this, whether God actually cared anyway. And I was certainly frustrated at God and at myself that every time I needed to do this ordinary activity it was a stressful ordeal. Over time though I realised that as I looked back over my life there were times where I could say with certainty that God had been there with me so I came to a decision that on the basis of this past history I would trust that God was with me even if it didn't seem like it and that maybe the issue was my lack of understanding of how God works rather than God being distant, powerless or uncaring.
I also noticed that in the middle of a flight one voice within me was saying why am I putting myself through this - just take the train next time. Yet another voice within was saying I really want to get through this. That voice is accurately summed up in these words from a poem by David Whyte called The True Love which is also based on the story in the bible when Peter walked on water … if you wanted to drown you could but you don't, because finally after all this struggle and all these years you don't want to any more. You've simply had enough of drowning and you want to live and you want to love and you will walk across any territory and any darkness, however fluid and however dangerous, to take the one hand and the one life you know belongs in yours.
In April of 2003 we booked to go to Wellington for our youngest daughter's graduation. I went for my regular session with my spiritual director and had put this flight and the questions I had re where was God in this on the list of things to talk about. We'd only just opened up the topic when I felt very clearly that God was saying something to me that I didn't really want to hear. The words didn't come from my spiritual director, they came from what I think of as the spirit of God within me and what I heard was along the lines that I needed to let go of focussing on a fear free flight and open myself to knowing God in the fear. I felt really trapped - there was no way I wanted to agree to that yet it I also recognised that I couldn't make God take away my fear either. It was just a couple of weeks before Easter so the words of Jesus prayer "Not my will but yours be done" came to my mind. After my session I went down to the beach nearby. I felt very vulnerable and not yet able to pray that prayer. After some time of wrestling with this I also began to focus on how much I was loved by God and from that place gradually came the willingness to let go of insisting God do things my way. I found a small piece of driftwood and wrote on it " My way, the way of no fear." and walked with it to the far end of the beach and out onto the rocks. I threw the stick with those words out into the sea as a symbol of letting go of my way and embracing God's way. Something shifted within me as I did this. Now I faced the next plane trip in a couple of weeks time from a new perspective - the aim was no longer a fear free flight but more of an interaction with the fear and with how God might want to be with me. Over the next few times I flew, quite a bit of pressure was taken off by not having the expectation of not feeling any fear. I can't say that I ever felt God's presence with me in any tangible way but I knew in my spirit that just because I felt afraid it didn't mean God was not with me and that gave me strength. A plane trip still felt more stressful than I would have liked but I knew now that flying was something I did and I was going to continue to fly whether I felt afraid or not.
Around a year later - in May of last year - we were due to fly to Wellington again. I watched the weather on T.V the night before as I always did before we flew. In the past the weather for our flight time had always looked good but I became quite anxious when I saw that this time gale force winds were forecast. I took myself off to do some journalling which brought some temporary relief but then I had an overwhelming sense that I could not do this - I could not fly into Wellington in the kind of turbulence that I had heard quite a few stories about!! My level of fear seemed too overwhelming to have any space for knowing God in the midst of it. I realised that this was one of those times that I needed more support than I could give myself and it was time to ask for help so I rang my spiritual director for some emergency input! We looked at the situation from a few different angles, including opting out of flying altogether and taking the train. That seemed a great idea for a while but then it occurred to me that if I was to continue flying this was a situation I was going to have to face sooner or later and if I opted out now I would just have to go through all this again down the track. By the end of the conversation I had regained some perspective, my panic was beginning to subside and I was willing to move towards trusting God in however the next day's flight would unfold. As I thought of flying in turbulence I began hear a voice within me saying "you can do this, you are strong enough to go through this if you need to." We arrived at the airport for our late afternoon flight, to find it had been delayed by a couple of hours because many of the day's flights had had to be cancelled due to bad weather. As I waited, wondering what kind of flight we would have I found that the inner affirming voice was starting to speak more loudly than the fear. I walked onto the plane trusting that if we did have a rough flight somehow I would have the strength and courage to handle it even though it would be an unpleasant experience. As it turned out the wind had blown itself out by the time we arrived in Wellington. The whole process had been very significant for me however, as I had faced for the first time the very real possibility of having to fly in bad weather and had chosen to do it anyway. I found myself very grateful to God from a deep place within me, not because the flight was smooth but because this strong and courageous inner self which I believe is the life of Christ within me, had been present to an extent I hadn't experienced before.
Up until that flight I felt I only had enough emotional energy to cope with flights within NZ and I decided I would be content with that. But somehow the process I went through for that last flight had shifted things to a new level. Now I began to think that maybe some time in the future I could make it a little further -and Australia seemed a good next step. But I wasn't quite ready to make this a reality just yet. Then one night I had a dream which was of significance to another area of my life but ended up also having input into the ongoing journey of flying. In the dream I was in a mental hospital. I was trying to find a way out but there was no-one around who could tell me what I had to do to be able to leave there. I knew this was an important dream so I began to work with it. Almost immediately my mind was taken back to a time in real life when I was 19 years old. I had left school and been accepted into the first ever intake of students in the Auckland Medical School. Soon after starting there I began to feel very depressed. Part way through the second year the level of depression meant I wasn't able to cope with life and I ended up leaving medical school and shortly after was admitted into what was called in those days a mental hospital. I can't remember how long I stayed there but I know I had quite a number of electric shock treatments to try and lift the depression. This was in the days before the kind of psychotherapy we have today and I know now that I was never mentally ill, just emotionally very fragile and some good counselling and loving support was what I really needed. As I worked with the dream I asked the Spirit for insight. I don't have time to talk about that more fully - just to say I became aware that some doors of possibility which had closed for me as a 19 year old remained closed in my mind and emotions and that I needed to make a choice to open them again. It is my belief that God's spirit brought to my attention some personal inner beliefs I had no conscious knowledge of but which were negatively impacting my life. I love the verse in John 10 v10 where Jesus said he had come so that we might have life and have it to the full and I knew it was time for me to move forward out of the symbolic mental hospital and into more of that fullness of life. This felt such an important step that I wanted to symbolise it in some way so I decided to have a 'moving forward' ritual with some friends and I asked Brenda to facilitate this. As the day for the ritual approached I felt quite strongly that it was time to take that next step and be on a plane for a longer period of time. My friend Joy and I had talked from time to time about going to Melbourne but it was one of those "one day in the future" ideas with no specifics ever being mentioned. On the morning of my ritual I talked with her about my feeling that I really needed to take this trip and for the first time we talked about some specific dates. My moving forward ceremony later that day was a very special and meaningful occasion for my life as a whole. As part of the ceremony I had a table where I placed some symbols of my future hopes. One item I put there was my brand new passport -which I had decided to get a couple of months earlier just in case I ever needed it. It seemed a fitting symbol of the way opening up to go places both symbolically and literally, that I hadn't been able to go before. The following day, Monday, I went to the travel agents to make some preliminary enquires about going to Melbourne over Labour weekend and found out there was a special airfare which ended on Wednesday, two days away. So the tentative plan quickly became a definite plan and by the next day our tickets were all booked and included Robeanne who was able to join us for the trip. When the time came I managed the 3 hours and 55 minute trip to Melbourne relatively comfortably. We had a great holiday and I felt really thankful to God for the journey from not even being able to consider getting on a plane, through the different stages I've talked about today to the place where I now was. The important thing for me was not so much that I had travelled overseas for the first time but the freedom I had to live life more fully without having to say I can't do that or go there because I can't be on a plane.
So I return to the question I asked earlier on - does being a follower of Christ actually make any difference in my struggles with fear? My answer now is yes , but not in the way I thought it would. My initial hope had been that a prayer today would result in freedom from fear tomorrow - an instant and painless path to growth. But the reality has been a much more difficult process than I had imagined and one in which I have needed to let go of my ideas of how it should unfold and trust God's ways and God's wisdom. But I am really grateful now, even of I wasn't at the time, to have had to go the long way round - I know I have grown as a person in ways that wouldn't have happened otherwise and my relationship with God has deepened in the process.
To finish I would like to play part of a track I've played here before - 'You Raise Me Up' from Secret Garden. I particularly like the line 'You raise Me up to more than I can be' and I'm playing this as an expression of gratitude to God for how I've experienced that in my journey.