I do a fair amount of air travel with my work, and at least once a year the airline industry, the weather of the world, and the laws of physics, engineering and organization all conspire against me to create a day of miserable delays, cancellations, missed flights and unending exasperation.
A few weeks ago, I received my 2009 allotment for airline frustration. I arrived at the airport to begin my two-flight return to St. Louis. When they announced a one-hour delay on the first flight I scrambled to change the second flight so I wouldn’t miss my connection in Chicago. Ninety minutes after the scheduled departure, we boarded the plane. We then proceeded to sit on the tarmac for the next three and half hours.
That’s right. Three and a half hours on a small plane, tightly nestled into the small seats like Size Large eggs in a Size Small carton. I had not eaten breakfast or lunch since I had expected a short jump to the Chicago airport with enough layover time to eat there. As we sat on the plane for all those hours waiting to take off, the flight attendant handed out water, soft drinks, and trail mix to quell the on-board rebellion. To her credit, she did an excellent job of entertaining, comforting, reassuring, and distracting us from the plight of our flight. Nevertheless, I found the time exhausting and frustrating. I didn’t have my computer with me, and had finished the book I was carrying with me. By the time we took off, I’d long since given up any hope of making my connections in Chicago. There was nothing to do but wait, and wait some more.
Eventually we took off through stormy weather, bouncing up and down for more than an hour. As we began to approach Chicago, I peered out the window at the dark gray clouds, dense and visually impenetrable. As we circled toward the airport, I could occasionally see glimpses of the lake below. A surprisingly sunny patch opened up and the lake became more visible. Then I was stunned to see a bright sharp rainbow so vivid and close I felt I could reach out the window and touch it.
The rainbow was circular rather than arch-like, but too big to see all at once. I lowered my head at the little plane window to see the top of the rainbow, and raised my head to find the bottom. The colors were intense, fresh, and bright against the grays and dark blues in the background. Then another bright circle emerged, larger than the first. I was witnessing a double circular rainbow from the sky! I smiled with sheer unrestrained delight. Maybe I even felt smiled at.
For people of faith, rainbows are symbols of promise. They remind us of God’s promise of faithfulness toward us. After the flood, according to the Old Testament, God painted the sky beautiful with rainbows in order to express God’s unending love, unrelenting grace, and eternal faithfulness to all generations.
Among all the many ways we may understand ourselves as human beings, this ancient story reminds us that we are recipients of a promise. We are people formed by a promise, by God’s promise.
Promise is a verb, expressing the resolute intention and binding will of one party toward another. Promise is also a noun, and so we speak of making promises, breaking promises, or fulfilling promises.
In a peculiar but wonderfully common usage, promise is also an aspect of character and soul, a personal attribute. We speak of someone being full of promise, or of having promise. We talk about living with promise.
As people of faith and followers of Christ, we have perceived and received a great truth. We have embraced and accepted a life-changing reality. We have said Yes to God’s Yes to us. We accept that we are accepted. We open ourselves to God’s grace, the unmerited and unconditional love of God that changes everything. We open ourselves time and time again to allow this love to form us and reform us. This was the explosively unexpected truth that Zacchaeus, the outcast, encountered when Jesus invited him down from the tree and asked to dine with him in his house. Struck by the promise of grace, he repented right on the spot and promised to give back everything he had taken from others. This was the piercing truth that penetrated the soul of Saul as he marched to Damascus breathing threats of violence against the followers of Christ. Blinded by the power of God’s calling presence, he turned his life completely around, became a new person with a new name, and offered himself to lifelong service to God. This was the surprising reality the foreign woman discovered as she was drawing water at the well while chatting with Jesus. They all discovered that the promise extended even to them. And the promise changed everything.
We are people of the promise. We have received a promise. We carry a promise.
How can we so live our lives that people see that promise in us? Does God’s promise so shine through us that the people we seek to serve through our congregations are able to perceive it? Do we make it obvious how this promise extends to them?
The rainbow changed my mood. Like all the best things in life, it came gift-like and unexpected, something to be received rather than created or possessed. It was sheer grace, and made me reflect on all that I have received, and of the awesome and joyful promise that we’ve been given so that others can glimpse the promise through us.
Yours in Christ,