by Br Julian McDonald cfs
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12, 1.4
Once we move into what we guess is the third or last quarter of our lives, many of us seem to want to reduce our commitments and slow down a bit. We long for the quiet life. The risk, of course, is that we can opt for the “sin of settlement”, and end up being dead but not yet buried.
Having taken a little time to mull over this Sunday’s first reading from Genesis, my response was to say: “Hats off to Abraham!” In that story, I encountered a character who certainly had no thoughts of early, undisturbed retirement. At the age of seventy-five, he sensed God’s invitation to take on a new challenge. So he gathered his family, his goods and chattels and livestock, and, armed with faith and trust in God, he embarked on a journey which took him to places of which he had never even dreamed and among strangers of whom most others would have been afraid. And it was another twenty-five years before he was able to see coming to reality the promise God had made to him. Just for a moment, look at some of the surprising turns that he had yet to encounter as he and his family took the first steps into the adventure that would open up for them: Neither Isaac nor Ishmael had been born; there was not even a hint that he would be bartering with God over how many honourable men would be needed to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from total annihilation; tragedy had not yet struck Lot’s family; he and his own wandering family had not even sighted Egypt, Canaan or the “promised land”. He still found the faith and energy to keep on keeping on for many more years to come. Somehow, Abraham grew into the personal conviction that God meant him to be a blessing for others. And isn’t that what our lives are meant to be, too – a blessing for everyone we encounter? The flip-side of that, of course, is that we have grown into the people we are because of the blessings we have received from all those who have helped to shape us. Today’s first reading serves as a reminder to us to pray in gratitude for them, to thank them for all they have been and done for us.
We’ve probably all had the experience of thinking about someone who has been significant in our lives and then, shortly after, meeting them unexpectedly or receiving from them an email, a letter or a phone call. We call it coincidence or serendipity. Might it not be God’s providence at work?
Every now and then I have to remind myself that all stories are true, and that some of them actually happened. So it does not matter if the Genesis account of Abraham’s adventures is actual fact or a story to convey a message. It carries a truth worthy of our attention. It is a reminder that we are all meant to be a blessing for others.
This week I read a brief biography and watched a video of the life of a former US Navy pilot, Charlie Plumb. During the Vietnam War, his base was an aircraft carrier. He had flown seventy-five combat missions, and was anticipating home-leave when his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb and his co-pilot, a radar intercept officer, successfully ejected, had a soft landing in a rice-paddy, were captured, and then confined to various prisoner-of-war camps for the next six years. After release and repatriation, Plumb settled back into family life and became a motivational speaker. One day when he and his wife were having a meal in a restaurant, they were interrupted by a man who was sitting at another table. “You’re Plumb! You flew fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk! You were shot down!”, said the stranger. Taken aback, Plumb replied: “How in the world did you know that?” The man answered: “I packed your parachute.” And quickly followed up with: “Well, I guess it worked!” “It sure did”, said Plumb, “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.” They slapped hands together, and the stranger departed.
But that’s not the end of the story of a coincidental meeting. Plumb was unable to sleep that night and could not get the extraordinary meeting out of his mind. In his published autobiography he writes: “I kept wondering what that man might have looked like back then in a Navy uniform…I still wonder how many times I might have seen him and not even said, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ or anything, because I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.”
Plumb then began to reflect on how many hours that ordinary sailor had spent at a long wooden table in the bowels of the carrier, carefully folding the silks and packing the chutes for every pilot on board, holding in his hands the fate of men he didn’t know. During the time of his imprisonment, Plumb came to realise the importance of the religious faith which he had grown into as a young man. Others saw it alive within him and asked him to be their camp chaplain. In his book he comments on the place his faith played in his day-to-day coping: “It takes a lot of faith. I don’t know if I would have survived without a strong belief system. You pray a lot. You believe a lot.” Elsewhere he recorded that he had long ago forgiven the people who had kept him in prison, adding that his forgiving was “not for them but for me”.
This former pilot, with a lot of memories and at peace with what had happened to him, is acutely conscious of his need for many different kinds of parachutes after his plane was shot down. He speaks of his need for a physical parachute, a mental parachute, a spiritual parachute and an emotional one. He now speaks with deep gratitude for all of those people who provided him with those parachutes. In his motivational talks, he now asks his audiences: “Who’s packing your parachute?” That’s surely a question we might well ask ourselves, for we all have a retinue of people who have been instruments of blessing in our lives, who have prepared and packed “parachutes” on which we have relied in times of stress, confusion doubt and other need.
On the mount of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John were given an extraordinary and unforgettable experience on which they were meant to rely when it later seemed that all that Jesus had been for them was being demolished and obliterated before their very eyes. They were given a parachute of living hope, an assurance that God’s beloved Son, the one to whom they were urged to listen, and his followers would never be abandoned. This living hope was not meant to be a “parachute” to be locked in a monument or commemorated with a plaque, but a gift to support them in times of fear, abandonment and betrayal when all seems lost. A spark of the divinity that the three disciples saw in its fullness in Jesus is alive in each of us. Today’s readings is a reminder to get busy packing parachutes and blessing those who have packed ours.