Do Not Be Afraid

You were built to overcome fear.

A few days ago, I jumped out of a high performance aircraft for the first time in almost five years.  The "Basic Airborne Refresher" was a Godsend.  While I miserably failed the virtual jump (hey, the VR goggles kept slipping down my face), I needed the reminders of when to pull the "Canopy Release Assembly" and the proper placement of the "Main Lift Web Tuck Tab Assembly" for a guy my size.  My practice landings were poor the first day, and good enough the morning of the jump.  It was going to happen.

I stood and sat around all day.  I don't even know what the holdup was, but I didn't get into the aircraft until 1pm, and I started the day thinking I would be back in the office by 2 (I got back at 5).  I chatted it up with old friends and new as we waited our turn.  Finally, it came time to climb into the aircraft.  The jumpmaster ruined my crafty plan - he made me take off my truck-stop sunglasses.  I had planned to jump with them on, hoping they would get ripped off by the wind upon exit, and I could buy some sweet Oakleys in their place.  Drat.

Anyway, we crammed into the aircraft and took off.  I wasn't nervous at that point.  That's just my personality - I don't worry well before an event, whether it is my wedding, a convoy in known enemy territory, or a jump.  I was in the third group of jumpers, and actually fell asleep in the plane, crammed next to my mates.  Then, it was time to do it for real. "3rd pass personnel, stand up!"  Game time.

As the jumpmaster went through his callouts, I went through my conditioned responses.

"Hook up!"  We rapidly attached our static lines to to the outboard cable live over our heads, to the left.

"Check static lines!"  We inspect our own "static line" (which is what pull the chute out of your pack when you jump out) as much as we can, then inspect the line of the jumper in front of us where he cannot see his.

"Check equipment!"  Helmet, chinstrap, chest strap, and left and right leg straps - we touched each  as we make sure they are connected properly one last time.  For those who were jumping with "combat equipment", they check off their gear and lowering lines.  However, I was jumping "Hollywood", so no extra equipment for me.

"Sound off for equipment check!"  In a move that defies the homophobic culture of the military, each jumper slaps the butt of the jumper in front of them and says, "ok!", until the first jumper in line points his hand at the jumpmaster and says "All ok, jumpmaster".

Then, we wait.

It was a ramp jump, so the back of the aircraft was opened by now - it was closed before to retrieve parachute parts that remain on the plane. As I stood with my static line in my hand, to my rear at a 45 degree angle, we swayed back and forth with the aircraft movement.  My heart was now racing, and when the jumpmaster said, "one minute!", it didn't get any better.  My mouth was dry, my eyes blinking, my breath rapid and shallow.  I was scared.  I whispered a quick prayer - Lord, please make this a good jump.  Unfortunately, my solid theology made this unhelpful.  I am well aware that God does what he wants, not what I want.

People ask me sometimes at a jump if I'm scared.  I say, "yes."  They always are surprised, and respond with, "why would you be scared of dying, chaplain?  Don't you go to heaven?"  I smile and say, "Oh, I'm not scared of dying.  That's taken care of.  I worry about spending the rest of my short life in agonizing pain!"  Because, seriously, no one is looking for that.

"30 seconds!"  We shuffle toward the center line and wait.  "Standby!"  We have seconds left before we go.  

Then, "the engine" takes over.  I stole the name from John Steakley's book, Armor, that I read 25 years ago.  My heartbeat slowed.  My breath deepened.  My eyes stopped blinking and narrowed,  and I looked past the jumpers to the open ramp, watching the trees slide by at 150 mph.  There was no fear.

"Green light, go!"  The jump master led the way, and we followed him off the ramp, one second apart, stepping off the ramp 1200 feet above the ground and snapping into a tight body position.  I count out loud, whispering, "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand" and my chute has opened.  I expect to have to twist the risers, but they are in the right position already.  The jumper behind me is pulling his risers and bicycle kicking - he had extra work to do.

The rest is pretty easy.  Constantly check your surrounding for hazards, particularly other jumpers.  Maneuver away from jumpers headed your way.  Wonder why you are falling faster than everyone else, even though you are one of the smallest jumpers. 

Make sure your anticipated landing spot doesn't have obstacles.  150 feet from the ground, assume a landing attitude, feet and knees together, knees slightly bent, eyes on the horizon.  Adjust the chute as best you can so you don't hammer into the ground at full speed (good luck with that).   Hit feet first, and roll sideways, to your calves, thigh, buttocks, and "pull up muscle".  Laugh at death being cheated again.  Thank God for the safe landing.  Spaz as a huge brown and green spider skitters across your pelvis. 

Pack your chute into your bag.  Curse as you wade through head-high grass and stumble in about 37 tire-wide ditches in the unobservable ground beneath the grass, uphill, for like a half-mile.  Ask the medic where the reserve goes with this new bag.  Arrive at the collection point all sweaty, and find they are out of water, mostly because you landed so far from the collection point that your entire chalk and the chalk after you got there first.  Wait and talk more, mostly about injuries other people have gotten on jumps.

The engine left with my laughter.  It wasn't needed anymore, although I kind of wish he'd stayed for the spider.  As I relaxed under the tree before we went to "chute shake," I thought about how my fear automatically left at the right time.  I thought about how the two most common phrases in the Bible are "Do not be afraid" and "I am the Lord".  We are so often afraid - of being humiliated, of being defeated, or being hurt, of being exposed for the frauds we are.  Our fear is both a lack of faith and a recognition that we are not who we act like we are - tough, strong, brave, faithful, independent, smart, and darn good looking.  Well, I'm probably the last.  But, for the most part, we are not those things.  And, i suppose, we fear that we are going to be held to account for those failings.  That, in itself, is reasonable.  But, it's not the last word.

For God has made us to overcome fear.  He has made us to seize dominion of the word around us and shape it for good purposes.  He has given us bodies that heal, minds that learn, muscles that grow, hearts that love, and community to support us when we fail.  More than even these things, he has given us his promise that He is with his people, no matter their success, failure, or fears.  He has made a way to reconcile all things to himself.  When we fail - and we will - we can trust that it is what is best for us as we fit into his plan.  Then we get up, dust ourselves off, thank him for our survival, beg his mercy for our unbeleif,  flick off the spider, and walk to the collection point.  After all, we have to do it again next month, right?