Soon after my dear friend and mentor Anne was killed in a car accident, I suddenly developed a fear of flying.
It caught me off guard when I found myself having a panic attack soon after our airplane took off on the way to the Mennonite Church USA convention in San Jose, California, while I was in charge of 30-some students. I had never been afraid of flying before, but somehow Anne’s death triggered my own sense of mortality that seems to mostly feel threatened when I know the ground is 20,000+ feet below me.
Even now, many years later, other things-things way beyond my control-can begin to take over my mind and encompass my thoughts and make me begin to feel like the world is suddenly coming to an end as it closes in around me. (That is a textbook description of a panic attack).
My spiritual director suggested to me that we face the hard things in life just like we will face our death. And then she asked, “So, how do you think you will face death?”
As a pastor, I have had the holy honor of walking alongside people and their loved ones as they face death. Some are afraid. Some face death with hostility or defiance. And yet others face it with a calm acceptance. But I suppose very few people ever really practice dying before they have their chance.
What will it mean to knowingly face death one day? To know we have absolutely no idea and no control over what happens next. What will we do? How do we get through those moments, as people of faith, trusting in the God we have been serving our whole lives?
For me, I imagine that when I come to my death I will simply rest in the trust that I know my God loves me and I love my God. And I trust that in the midst of that love, God will give me grace and peace beyond all knowing and I will be okay. And I have to trust that those I love deeply will also be provided for and be okay. And then I am allowed to let go in pure peaceful rest.
Saturday night, as severe Thunderstorms ripped through Kansas at the same time that my flight was supposed to take off to get me home to Ohio, I was praying more than anything that my flight would be on time so I could get home to my family. I didn’t really think about the storm system we would have to fly through to get there.
So later, as we entered that rough airspace that we couldn’t escape, I did what I always do on an airplane these days. I practiced dying.
To do this, I imagine that I am dying and falling back into the loving arms of my God. Trusting. Letting go. Knowing that I ultimately have no control over what happens next. God is in control of my destiny. And I am okay in that pure peaceful rest.
It struck me in that moment that the Jessica from 10 years ago would have never have survived that flight. It was beyond rough, with lightning flashing on all sides of the aircraft, but I was one of the calmest people on the flight. I wasn’t afraid. I had no anxiety, no panic. I was too busy practicing dying.
God’s church needs to practice dying. We are afraid. Suddenly we are aware of our own mortality. Things are way beyond our control and that seems to take over our minds. It encompasses our thoughts and makes us begin to feel like the world is suddenly coming to an end as it closing in around us, just like a panic attack.
But at the end of the day, the question is, do we trust God? Do we believe the things we preach? Do we believe the story of God’s people who have come before us, the testimony as it is written in the Holy Scripture? Do we remember the moments that God’s people wandered in the wilderness, longing for the yester-year we complained about just yesterday?
Time and time again, throughout Scripture, the story of the people of God should have come to an end. There seemed to be no way. Death was imminent and seemingly final. But our God is the God of resurrection. Our God can make a people from the dust in the ground and a breath from the Holy Spirit.
Do we believe it? Then why do we fear death, when we should simply practice dying.