I was talking the other day with someone about the quirky ironies of the names of things. It’s weird, for example, that Iceland is actually pretty green. At least in summertime. And Greenland actually seems to be mostly ice. Why wouldn’t they call “Greenland” “Iceland” and vice versa. A strange thing, that.
I flew home from a holiday in Europe today and wasn’t really in the mood for ironies, quirky or otherwise. The irony that, for example, I seemed to be sitting in the most “active” part of the cabin on Air Canada flight 845 with service from Frankfurt to Calgary. There was a little kid a few rows ahead of me that basically started screaming from the moment the plane took off and relented only intermittently in the four and a half hours between departure and when I began to write this post. There was also a woman directly in front of me who insisted on standing in the aisle and walking on the spot for long periods on end. She had big blonde hair, big earrings, and a big watch on her wrist that she consulted periodically. Maybe she was timing herself. She mostly just seemed to annoy everyone around her and the airline attendants who could never get by her. There were three older folks behind me who seemed to have unending need of getting out of their seat and banging into the back of my seat on the way by. There was a guy across the aisle that was on his fourth beer last I looked and felt quite free to loudly consult with his travelling companions about anything and everything that occurred to him. As I surveyed this chaotic scene around me, it occurred to me that—ironically—my new Bose noise-cancelling headphones don’t cancel nearly enough.
Speaking of irony… I thought about the flight to Europe a few weeks ago, when my daughter and I had an empty seat between us for the entire gloriously silent flight. No stationary walkers, no screaming kid, no seniors banging the back of my seat every ten minutes. Also, the food was good. Or tolerable, at least. Which, for Air Canada, is good.
A few minutes ago, as I was pondering all this decidedly un-quirky irony, my daughter tugged on my sleeve and pointed out the window. I looked out and saw a truly breathtaking scene below. There was frozen ice and jagged rock and beautiful clouds dotting the sky. It was a magnificent polar landscape bathed in glorious shades of blue and stabbed through with brilliant shafts of sunlight. I glanced at the satellite map and smiled to discover that we were flying over Greenland. How ironic.
Gradually people from around the cabin began to make their way to the left side. There were fingers pointing and necks craning, and hands over mouths and awestruck smiles and phones and cameras dutifully snapping, trying—unsuccessfully, no doubt—to capture this beautiful moment in the midst of the chaos and noise of an ordinary flight across the Atlantic.
Like everyone else, I took the (inadequate) picture and returned to my book. People returned to their seats, smiling, looking at their phones. Headphones were placed back over ears, pillows were readjusted, bookmarks were located and things returned to normal. The kid started screaming within a few minutes—louder, this time. Within a half hour or so the stationary walker was up again, bumping into my seat, dragging her hand across my TV screen. A moment of transcendence had come and gone. It was back to business as usual.
A few days ago, we were sitting with the friends we were visiting in Europe discussing a question that one of our kids had. “What do we need God for?” We had been talking about miracles and unanswered prayers and what to make of a God who seems to “intervene”rather unpredictably, even inadequately in the normal course of things. I tried to make the case that if our view of God is someone who is normally “out there” and only periodically makes an appearance “in here”—in the realm of everyday experience—then faith will be difficult when God doesn’t seem to “show up” enough. If our view of God is something like that of a cosmic magician who shows up to fix things according to our need, and if things aren’t fixed as often as we would like, then… well, then what? What do we need God for?
But what if, I suggested, God is underneath and within and around and above all of the things that we hold most dear in life? What if God has made us to long for and to resonate with things like justice and love and truth and beauty? What if the very existence of these things and our inability to live without them speaks to our need for God and the reality of his image being imprinted upon us? What if our need for these things that make life bearable, that make us human is really just another way or a preliminary way of speaking about our need for God?
I thought about this conversation as we flew over Greenland today. I suppose I could have prayed that God would intervene in the chaos of AC 845 with service from Frankfurt to Calgary. That he would close this kid’s mouth like he closed those lions’ mouths for Daniel and his mates. That he would blind the stationary walker with a moment of clarity where she would realize the error of her (irritating) ways. That he would make the people behind me fall asleep and have to go to the bathroom less frequently. Or at least that he would persuade the airline attendants to come by with the beer cart more frequently. I could have prayed all kinds of paltry prayers, demanding that God make an appearance to alter the contours of the substandard reality that I was currently experiencing.
Or, I could shut up and look out the window and give thanks to God for surrounding us with this substrate of such extravagant beauty that has no need of us, but which speaks to those who will listen of our unending need for the God who called it forth and whose praises it daily sings.