Monday, August 28, 2006

Know Your Chord

I recently went skydiving with a group of friends. For as long as I can remember, I've loved the sky, and I've wanted to fly like Peter Pan through the clouds. When I was growing up, I'd watch the birds fly south for the winter and wish that I could be up there with them. In the summer I'd lie on my back and look at the clouds, and wonder what they would feel like if I could stand on them. The first time I heard a friend mention skydiving I dismissed the thought as absolutely crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually wanted do it, not because my friend wanted to, but because I wanted to. Besides, it was the closest thing to flying Peter Pan-style that I'd ever experience in this life.

There's a lot about skydiving that is unique and interesting. First of all, the instructors and owners are a bit different. It takes a special person to make a living by jumping out of planes. We met such characters as "Enzo," a short, energetic guy who drank a Red Bull while getting harnessed up (as if he needed any extra adrenaline!); "Billy Bob," a tall, intense dude who tried to scare all of the girls by making comments like, "Umm, I've never done this before. Where does this strap go?" and "Uh, oh. I forgot the parachute." (the latter as we prepared to exit the plane); "Jenny," our photographer who had done more than 7,000 jumps and works in New Zealand during our the winter season (NZ's summer); a young guy from Europe who could hardly speak English and communicated mostly with grunts, hand motions, and an occasional word thrown in for good measure.

Skydiving is not a huge adrenaline-rush thing, although most people want to go for that reason. The actual jump out of the plane isn't really a jump at all. It's more like somersaulting into a pool without getting wet or feeling the weight of water around you. The freefall is just that- falling straight down at about 130 mph. It doesn't really feel like falling, though. There's no "stomach up in my throat" feeling like that of a rollercoaster, nor is there a "hold on for dear life" feeling like when you're out of control and about to crash. It was more like flying than anything else, a sense of weightlessness, like I was caught in limbo, suspended between earth and sky for the sixty short seconds before I pulled the chord to release the parachute.

Pulling the chord is the most important part of skydiving. If you don't pull the chord, the parachute won't release. If the parachute doesn't release, the skydiver's life is in jeopardy. The chord is important because the parachute is important. Before getting harnessed up and loading into the airplane, each skydiver goes through a period of classroom instruction, detailing the risks involved in skydiving, explaining how the parachute works, talking through the actual jump and the freefall, and answering any questions that we had. First-time skydivers jump "tandem"- harnessed to a dive "buddy"/instructor, and after the class we met to practice body positioning and discuss the jump.

My tandem "buddy" talked me through the exit process and we "practiced" a couple of times. Then he walked me through what to do once we exit the plane. All skydivers wear an altimeter on their wrist to see how high they are. We jumped at 12,500ish feet and the chord is pulled at 5,500. He told me that once we exited the plane to go through a series of checks and then practice pulling the chord. We even did a couple of practice pulls while on the ground, taking my hand and moving it to where to chord would be so I could get the feeling of it. "You need to know where your chord is," he said. "That's the most important thing to remember, which is why we're practicing now, and why you'll practice several times during the freefall. You can't go searching for it once it's time to pull. When you get to 5,500 feet and you're ready to release the parachute, you have to know where your chord is. You don't have time to look for it."

Once we were on the plane, he talked me through the process again, making sure that I remembered how to arch my back for the exit, when to check my altimeter, and where to find my chord. He said, "I'll signal you, then give you about a three second cushion. If you don't pull the chord, I'll do it for you." We exited the plane by kneeling at the doorway, arching as far back as we could, and then sort of tumbling out. We did a couple of head-over-heals turn, then we righted belly down and enjoyed the freefall. Falling as fast as we were, it was too loud to hear anything except the noise of the wind rushing past my ears. I thought that it was probably natural to scream in a situation like that, so I opened my mouth and let it rip for all I was worth. I couldn't hear a thing. I decided that it was stupid to scream if I couldn't hear myself, so I shut my mouth again and looked at the horizon.

Sixty seconds is a very short time to process all of what was going, but I can remember the curve of the earth, the pale blue of the July sky, and the hazy, bluish hue of the ground below me. I remember hearing the rush of the wind, making sure I remembered to breath, stretching out my arms and feeling the might of the force of gravity pulling me downward. Whenever I moved my arms, it was in short, jerky motions because of the strength of the air rushing past me. I remember feeling the change in the air as I entered the ozone layer- the change from a cool, fresh, light and dry air up high to a warm, heavy, humid air closer to the ground.

I did several "practice pulls" on my chord, and knew exactly where to find it when we hit 5,500 feet. I pulled it myself, without even a cue from my instructor, and released the parachute, halting us to what seemed almost like a complete stop compared to the rate of speed we had been falling at. From there, it was a gentle, relaxing ride down to earth. The parachute had two harness handles that allowed us to steer. By pulling on the right handle, we made a neat little turn to the left, and by pulling on the left handle, we turned to the right. Pulling down hard on either side sent us into a corkscrew spin that closely resembled a rollercoaster experience. By pulling down on both handles, we slowed down and eased into a gentle landing. After it was over my instructor teased me a bit because I practiced pulling my chord so many times during the freefall. I didn't care. I told him, "I wanted to be sure that I knew where it. I wanted to pull the chord and release the parachute on my own, and you said that if I didn't do it, you would. I wanted to do it myself. And I did."

I've thought about that experience a lot in the last month, and I think that there is a lot that can be learned from skydiving. The most important thing for a skydiver to have is a reliable parachute that opens on time. Therefore the most important thing for a skydiver to know is where his chord is so that when the time comes to release his parachute, he doesn't have to go looking for it. As my instructor told me, when you hit 5,500 feet and you need to release the parachute, you don't have the time to go searching for your chord's location. You have to already know.

So it is with God and me. The most important thing in the life of a believer is his relationship with God. Therefore the most important thing for a believer to know is Who God is, and who they are in God (their position as a Christian). All other relationships are affected by these, and much of a Christian's success in life is hinged upon his success in these two areas. I must be so secure in my position as a child of God that when temptation comes, or lies fill my mind and doubts heart, there is no doubt in my mind as to Who God is and what my position is as His child. I have to already know. Though everything else in my life appears blurry and uncertain, though I doubt my friends, my family, my motives, and my self, yet I should never doubt my Lord and His identity. Just as a skydiver can't try to locate his chord as he is on his way out the plane door, so a Christian cannot wait until he is in the midst of "adversity" to establish in his mind the truth about His God. You shouldn't have to try to find a firm rock when the tempest is blowing. You should know the position of that firm rock before the storm begins so that you have something to stand on during the storm.

Oswald Chambers on the subject:

"When we are in fear we can do nothing less than pray to God, but Our Lord has a right to expect that those who name His Name should have an understanding confidence in Him. God expects His children to be so confident in Him that in any crisis they are the reliable ones. Our trust is in God up to a certain point, then we go back to the elementary panic prayers of those who do not know God. We get to our wit's end, showing that we have not the slightest confidence in Him and His government of the world; He seems to be asleep, and we see nothing but breakers ahead.
"'O ye of little faith!' What a pang must have shot through the disciples—'Missed it again!' And what a pang will go through us when we suddenly realize that we might have produced downright joy in the heart of Jesus by remaining absolutely confident in Him, no matter what was ahead.
"There are stages in life when there is no storm, no crisis, when we do our human best; it is when a crisis arises that we instantly reveal upon whom we rely. If we have been learning to worship God and to trust Him, the crisis will reveal that we will go to the breaking point and not break in our confidence in Him."

"We imagine we would be all right if a big crisis arose; but the big crisis will only reveal the stuff we are made of, it will not put anything into us. 'If God gives the call, of course I will rise to the occasion.' You will not unless you have risen to the occasion in the workshop, unless you have been the real thing before God there. If you are not doing the thing that lies nearest, because God has engineered it; when the crisis comes instead of being revealed as fit, you will be revealed as unfit. Crises always reveal character.
"The private relationship of worshipping God is the great essential of fitness. The time comes when there is no more "fig-tree" life possible, when it is out into the open, out into the glare and into the work, and you will find yourself of no value there if you have not been worshipping as occasion serves you in your home. Worship aright in your private relationships, then when God sets you free you will be ready, because in the unseen life which no one saw but God you have become perfectly fit, and when the strain comes you can be relied upon by God."

Know where your chord is now, before the crisis comes, so that when it comes time to lean upon your Lord, you know exactly where to find Him. Enjoy your ride.


Lydia said...

As always, I value your perspective, my dreamer friend. Don't shy away from living the life God's calling you to live, Sarah. He's the center, the point of our existence. He's our breath, our life, our hope. Don't fear leaving the choice up to Him--He always chooses the best, and doesn't have to practice pulling the ropes in your life because He planned it out before He spoke the sun into existence.

mandy said...

Amazing, writing, dear Sarah! Your recollection of our dive made all the memories come rushing back again!

Better yet, you took a grand adventure and applied it to the greatest adventure of all: your relationship with Christ and what that looks like in everyday life. Keep writing--and checking that chord!