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God's Grace At 23,000 Feet

by Julian Shipp

LOUISVILLE, Ky.--The following account is true. It happened Sunday, April 23, 1995, during a flight from Chicago to Louisville.

Those who flew on that Boeing 737 Freedom Class jetliner may joke about it now, but the ashen complexions, stunned silence and solemn gait of the passengers as they exited the plane said it all. I, for one, am convinced that we came close to buying it that day. But there was this music that I kept hearing in the distance and this incredible feeling of calm. ... But I digress. Let me explain.

Departing O'Hare International shortly after 2 p.m. local time, the flight started out like dozens I've taken before. Visibility was excellent and the passengers quickly settled into the airliner thing of reading, sleeping, scarfing down peanuts and drinks, listening to music and conversing with one another.

Then, around 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, the turbulence began. At first, no one paid it any mind. Hey, "turbulence," or up-and-down currents of air, is a common phenomenon in air travel. Even white-knuckle flyers know that. Besides, the first officer said the ride into Louisville would be marked with the bumpy little critters, so no big thing.

By 3:45, however, conditions changed dramatically. In addition to an uncomfortable silence from the cockpit, the sky turned from a pleasant, personal-computer-screen blue to an angry, boiling gray -- a straight-up tempest of the highest order.

The Boeing lived up to its name as the jet began to convulse like a bronco with a burr under its saddle. At first, it was kind of funny to watch everyone's head do the human wave as the aerodynamic forces of pitch and yaw attacked the big bird.

But when the ship began to roll and I noticed that the captain was literally standing on the speed brakes in an attempt to slow the plane down, I knew this was not going to be a normal flight. By this time you've probably guessed I have more than a passing interest in aviation. I'm not a licensed pilot or anything, but like most adolescent males, I've built and flown my fair share of model planes and have taken the yoke of a Cessna 151 or two in my day.

But that didn't add up to a hill of beans now. This roller coaster ride wasn't fun anymore. Babies began to cry. A young woman in the aisle adjacent to mine broke into hysterics, unable to contain her personal fear of flying, only this time she had good reason to be afraid. Cold rain drops began to pelt the fuselage, wings and windows. It was dark, and all I could hear was the roar of a wind so strong it drowned the noise of the engines. This is how the victims of the Rosemont commuter plane crash felt, I thought.

But wait. There was something else. I don't know where this music was coming from but I know I heard a chorus of children's voices on that plane. It couldn't have been the ship's loudspeakers and no one was wearing personal headphones close to me. But over the din of the gale, there it was -- the soothing, ethereal sound of children singing.

At that moment I felt a feeling of calm and tranquillity that belies words. It was like a force field around me that I could feel tempering the gnawing fear that threatened to overtake me. I welcomed this presence and immediately accepted it as the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I felt empowered. It became crystal clear that my duty was to use my knowledge of aviation to comfort my fellow passengers.

I broke into a play-by-play narrative of what we were experiencing that would have made Howard Cosell proud. I told everyone within listening distance what the ailerons were, what the speed brakes were, how the flaps were deployed and how things would begin to stabilize once we dropped altitude. I added to my spiel the fact that I'm a frequent flyer and -- voila! -- instant credibility.

It worked. Maybe too well. You see, another young woman seated in the aisle next to mine somehow mistook the words "frequent flyer" for "weekend pilot," so they thought I was a real, licensed throttle jockey who eats chop for breakfast.

But these folks desperately needed some source of comfort and reassurance, and I realized I was providing it for them. In fact, the person who in my opinion needed reassurance most, the woman who just moments before had confessed to the world that she and flying don't get along, was calm now.

A hearty round of applause filled the cabin when the plane landed safely shortly after 4 p.m. The winds dispersed as quickly as they had come, leaving hundreds of people to contemplate what could have happened. Several people thanked me as we de-planed including the woman who had panicked. And lest you think this tale is just the product of the fertile imagination of a writer, one of the flight attendants said she had never experienced anything like that in her 12 years of flying.

No, I'm not the hero of this story. No one but God could have delivered Flight 1634 safely and on time. But I reaffirmed a belief that day that I've held for a long time. God can make a way out of no way, but anyone can realize a miracle if they use their gifts and abilities for God's glory.

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.