When I was six, my family was invited by my father’s younger brother to visit his home in California. My uncle had been making it a regular practice of visiting his old stomping grounds every couple of years, spending a week or so at our house. This time, it was our turn to visit him and his wife. To be honest, I cannot remember much of the trip. Yet, somehow, I still have a memory—or was is a dream? —from when we were waiting to board our flight to Los Angeles.
A plane touched down on the tarmac somewhere in the distance. I pressed my nose against the cool glass, following the metal bird. It slowed and turned, disappearing behind another part of the airport.
My father looked up from his newspaper. He had bought it from a nearby kiosk along with a small packet of peanuts to pass the time while waiting to board the plane. Next to him sat my brother, playing on his GameBoy. My sister lay on the ground, coloring with her crayons. About fifteen feet away, I stood at the window.
My nose was still pressed against the glass as I watched planes take people to and from strange, unknowable places. To my right, a line of nose scuff marks had begun to form as I gradually moved further down the terminal.
Something tapped my shoulder. I turned. A neatly folded paper plane labeled The Classifieds lay on the ground next to my right shoe. My father smiled as I picked up the plane and waved.
“Hey, get over here. I have to keep an eye on all of you, you know. Your mother would kill me if I didn’t. Don’t wander off too far.”
I groaned and puffed out my chest. “But I’m bored.”
“Well,” My father whispered, “How about I tell you a story about when I flew a plane?”
My eyes grew large. “You flew a plane?”
“Yep. A small one, though. But, do you know what?”
“I learned something that I’ve lived by for most of my life then. And I’ll tell you what I learned, too. But you’ve got to promise me something.”
My father grew serious for a moment. “You’ve got to remember it for as long as you live. Okay?”
Swearing was my pledge, a six year old’s word to do something. This was a solemn act, which here means deeply sincere. I was equally solemn when I promised to clean my room all those years ago as well. However, I still have to fulfill my duty in this respect. This, of course, has no impact on my earnestness. I’ll get to it. Someday. Maybe.
I swallowed and squeezed my eyes shut. “Cross my heart.”
My father sat back, as he began to tell his story. And, to be honest, I cannot for the life of me remember the story that he told me back when I was six in that airport, despite my earnestness to do so. But, I still can recall what life advice he gave me at the end.
“So,” my father concluded, “what I learned is that no matter what happens, you’ve always got to remember to fly the plane. Don’t worry about the smaller details. Don’t worry about what else is trying to grab your attention. Focus on your goal and don’t stop until you do what you meant to do. Fly the plane.”
“Fly the plane,” I repeated to myself.
Taking the newspaper airplane from my hands, he nodded. “Fly the plane,” he said, before tossing it into the air once more.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at a resort in Southern California for a department-wide retreat for my college’s practical theology majors. After a day’s worth of activities, I found myself flipping through some old journal entries when I came across the words Fly the Plane inscribed upon the top of a page. Come to think of it, I think I have spent much of my life trying to simply fly the plane. But, whatever my father intended to communicate to me in his story, I am becoming increasingly convinced that I have misapplied his words.
The morning of the second day, some alumni of the Department of Practical Theology stopped by to give advice and insight of their own to the newest classes of ministry majors. One of them, a man in his mid-twenties, said something which gave me pause.
“My advice to you all,” he stated after pausing to reflect, his words rolling off his tongue slowly as if he were measuring the weight of each and every syllable, “is to learn to be insignificant. That, and also learn to notice the insignificant all around you.”
For much of my life, I could argue that I tried to do my best to do the first half of this man’s advice. But when one doesn’t take the time to notice the insignificant people and things and thoughts and words and deeds which are going on all around, one tends to elevate oneself over their surroundings. We’ve got people to see, tasks to accomplish, meetings and presentations to do. God knows what else.
One of my mentors always encouraged me to Be Here Now. And I do. I try, but only if I made sure that I could still Fly the Plane. But this call the alumnus gave to simply notice the insignificant is a call to deny a drive to be efficient, to base one’s worth off performance and deeds. It was a call to respond to Christ’s question of what good is it if a person gain the world yet forfeit their soul.
And I didn’t like his call of denial of self and of ego one bit. But I knew that I needed it driven deep into my heart like an arrow.
There’s a professor of mine whom I stop by his office from time to time to seek advice. We used to meet regularly, but due to us both being busy, we only see one another in passing nowadays. Yet, in those moments, I sense that he knows where I am as soon as we begin talking.
A couple days after returning from the department-wide retreat, the two of us crossed paths in the hallway. He was carrying some books, dog-eared and stuffed full of Post-It Notes, from his office when he saw me step inside out of the rain.
After exchanging some small talk, he paused and said, “You know, oftentimes I think the reason why we need our neighbors is because it is through our neighbors that we can properly learn to love God and, ultimately, ourselves.”
He smiled as he glanced at his watch. Tapping his forehead, he disappeared into a nearby room full of students. “Think about that.”
As I turned to walk away to my next appointment, a leaf floated by outside, carried by small streams of water to God-knows-where.
Suddenly, something clicked.
In that moment, I realized, in actively learning how to be insignificant, we embrace the normative human condition. We become content and satisfied with who we are. We aren’t anyone’s messiahs and certainly not responsible for anything too terribly important. We become more likely to accept grace because we can see ourselves more aligned to divine grace. We accept that we are small as opposed to God’s vastness, that no matter what we do, our words and deeds are still smaller than the grand metanarrative and person of God.
And, in noticing the insignificant, we become aware that even in what we deem as insignificant there is great mystery and wonder. That even the smallest of things is valuable and has a place somewhere.
But, in neglecting the insignificant, something inside us begins to fear whether God would even think about us if we do not do something of worth. We, who are here today and gone tomorrow. Why would the transcendent divine being care about us small creatures on a tiny, blue marble, anyways?
I think we aren’t so much pilots who have one objective to accomplish at all costs. Instead, we might better see ourselves as paper airplanes–complete with our own folds and crumples and creases from one too many hard landings–who just so happen to be traveling on the same gusts of wind which God sends our way for a time. And if all we care about is the end, we might miss the thrill of the journey itself.
A voice came on over the intercom announcing that the flight to Los Angeles was about to begin boarding. My father stood to stretch his legs. Yawning, he pointed toward the door. “Ready to go?”
I looked up from examining the folds of the plane. “I suppose. Is the trip going to be long?”
“Depends on what you think long is.”
We began carrying our bags over to the line. I frowned. “How long are we staying in California?”
My father crouched to look me in the eye. “A week or so. But, I’ll let you know. Some places and people stay with us long after we leave them. Depends if you’re willing to see them.”
“Oh,” I said, my brow furrowed as I tried to understand what he meant. “What if we never leave a place?”
He smiled, “You never really know where you’ll end up, so you might as well do your best to fly the plane wherever you find yourself.” He laughed, “Maybe one day you’ll be living in California!”
“I don’t think so.” I objected. “I don’t even know what it looks like! Or who even lives there!” He waved off my comment as we handed the attendant our tickets.
After making our way to our seats, my brother sat and continued to mash the buttons on his Gameboy Color. My sister, on the other hand, had fallen asleep next to my mother. I hopped onto my seat, looking back out onto the tarmac. My father opened the overhead storage compartment, placing our bags one-by-one inside. After taking the blue backpack I brought, he paused. “Just do me a favor,” he said.
“Wherever you end up, let me know how you’re doing. I’ve got to keep an eye on you somehow. Can’t let you get yourself into too much trouble, now can I? Your mother will kill me if I don’t. You promise me that?”
“Cross my heart.”
He laughed. “Well then, that’s good enough for me. Just be sure to fly the plane.”