The Pilot and the Preacher.
Call me weird but the smoothest airplane touchdown of my life, today, is my most precious birthday gift. This was Melbourne to Sydney on Jetstar JQ502. I couldn’t help but literally clap my hands in my wing seat (I have said my autobiography just might be titled “Wingman;” I’m almost always flying on the wing!). A few others applauded too. Then as we deplaned and I approached the cockpit I noticed the captain who had performed the magic had his door open and was standing right in front of it, interacting with some passengers. Again, I couldn’t pass by without verbalizing my appreciation of his masterly act. “That was a great landing, sir,” I blurted out. The captain half-smiled, almost embarrassingly, and managed to mutter under his breath his appreciation of my applause.
On the jet bridge a sense of regret began to creep over me. Ah! I should’ve asked to take a photo with him! A little weighed down by that remorseful thought I still, slowly but surely, made my way into the terminal and headed for the place people empty their bladder. Guess who I spotted when I returned to a cafe in the terminal to grab some breakfast: the first officer of the flight, looking to make a purchase. And the captain! Yipeee!
I was happy to repeat my admiration and appreciation and ask for his name and a selfie this time. He graciously obliged. So I gave him some context: over the last eight days I had taken 10 flights–Accra to Amsterdam, to Detroit, to Montreal, to Toronto, to Houston, to Auckland, to Gold Coast, to Adelaide, to Melbourne and now to Sydney–and no landing could compare. I could’ve had a hot cup of tea sitting on my lap during that landing and it wouldn’t have spilled!
WHAT DO YOU DO?
By the time I had shared my itinerary above with Captain Phil Peatfield, he had to ask: “What do you do?” To which I immediately responded, “I am a preacher.” Usually in the marketplace context I would mention something more relatable like leadership consultant or executive coach but it felt so good to say “I am a preacher,” even if it meant I would be canceled (as in today’s ‘cancel culture’). “I used to fly preachers around,” Captain Peatfield responded, to my surprise. Apparently he served with Flying Doctors Australia, a non-profit organisation that “provides emergency and primary health care services for those living in rural, remote and regional areas of Australia who cannot access a hospital or general practice due to the vast distances of the Outback.” I didn’t tell him I’m a doctor too. And well, that I was once a captain as well, a military one.
The irony is that as a little boy I had really wanted to be a pilot. I was fascinated by planes and impressed with pilots’ uniforms. I was starry-eyed when I saw my professor-grandfather’s itinerary as he jet set around the globe lecturing on African ethnomusicology. In a moment of annoyance at a friend in junior high who wanted to be a pilot too (he was too enthusiastic about it for my liking) I snapped out of it and decided becoming a medical doctor would be the way to go.
“PEARL OF GREAT PRICE”
As I celebrate my forty-fifth birthday today, as a preacher I am thankful for this unexpected pilot gift from God. Educationists like Parker Palmer encourage parents to take seriously what early manifestations and proclamations their children make about what they want to do when they grow up. Palmer says in, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live–but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”*
As I think of that thing that was triggered in me whenever I heard about or saw my grandpa flying the world, I think of Parker Palmer as a grandfather today.
Watching my granddaughter from her earliest days on earth, I was able, in my early fifties. to see something that had eluded me as a twenty-something parent: my granddaughter arrived in the world as this kind of person rather than that, or that, or that. She did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with her shape of her own sacred soul. Biblical faith calls it the image of God in which we are all created. Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price.*
Now that I know what I know, I’m eagerly looking out for what my children, nephews and nieces and young mentees were born to be. God creates no one for nothing. We need to find the clues and lead people in the way they should go–they way they are bent.
BORN FOR THIS
I now know that traveling the world was my calling, even from childhood, although I didn’t get my first plane ride till my late teens. But when it rained it began to pour so much that by age 18/19 I had been to every continent in the world except Australasia/Oceania. What a birthday present to have finally made it ‘down under’ to New Zealand and Australia, a quarter of a century later. And it wasn’t being a pilot or physician that brought me here. It’s the preacher I was born to be. Even the pilot was impressed by the preacher’s itinerary. “Wow, what do you do?” The clue all along was that I was born to travel the world preaching the gospel and raising leader-labourers for the Kingdom of God. I know now that I wasn’t meant to be in the cockpit per se but to enjoy the ride and views–the planes’ and the Lord’s.
Whether a pilot like Peatfield or Perbi the preacher or physician, Palmer’s point is one worth profoundly pondering: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent… Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me?”* Good food for thought on my birthday.
*Palmer, Parker J. 2015. Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.