On Crashing Planes and Faithful Preaching
From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office
by Michael L. Cooper-White
In this venue and elsewhere, I’ve confessed to a fairly typical troubled relationship with “history” during my grammar, high school and college student days. Memorizing dates, learning about past events that didn’t hold much interest, and looking backward in general just didn’t much “grab me” as a schoolboy. Also shared before has been my growing interest in history as I’ve come to appreciate not only bygone events, but their interpretation and how the past holds meaning for the present and offers guidance for the future.
Rarely do I use this P.O. musing space for book reviews per se, but a historical autobiography of sorts that I’ve been reading of late seems to merit the occasional exception. In “Down Around Midnight,” (Viking Press, 2009) author Robert Sabbag reveals his personal journey into a painful past moment 30 years ago when he was among the survivors of a commuter plane crash short of the runway at Barnstable Municipal Airport on Cape Cod. Sabbag explains how he recovered quickly from the traumatic event and went on his merry way for over a quarter century, having no contact with others aboard that ill-fated aircraft flown into the trees on a foggy night by an overstressed pilot who had already made 14 previous landings during a long summer day in 1979. As Sabbag systematically contacted and interviewed other survivors, his understandings of the horrific landing and its aftermath changed dramatically. Things he had never understood—including his own actions and shock-shrouded conversations—began to fall into place.
Toward the end of the book, survivor Sabbag reflects on returning to the Cape Cod crash site, where new meanings were derived from his courageous delving deeply into long-past events most of us would fear to dredge up again. And he observes our ambivalence about the past, especially sad and tragic occurrences: “Here we lay twenty-eight years ago . . . I remember little of how the time passed. And the things I remember are among those things I continually have to remind myself to forget. Quite a thing, as someone said, for a summer evening on the Cape.” (p. 211)
Beyond my interest in all things aviation-related, including sad tales of planes, pilots and their passengers who never make it to the gate at an intended destination, I think the reason “Down Around Midnight” so captured my attention lies in what it may have to teach about the nature of “history,” including the “history of salvation” recorded in Holy Scripture. As I read Robert Sabbag’s autobiographical account of his quest to grasp new meanings from a long-ago traumatic scene, I couldn’t help thinking of the New Testament authors who sought to “write an account” decades after the death and resurrection of our Lord. Unlike Sabbag, the gospel-writers apparently had little if any opportunity to engage in dialogue with eye-witnesses or those who experienced Jesus’ life and ministry face-to-face. And even if some such eye-witnesses were in fact still around, like Sabbag’s fellow travelers, they were groping to recall details of both joyful events and traumatic incidents that occurred decades before.
Pondering the nature of the biblical historians’ work gives me all the more admiration for the Scripture authors’ courageous efforts to preserve for all time the events and words by which the Word—Jesus—is preserved and propelled forward. My anxiety about the task of faithful proclamation (including preaching) was also ratcheted up considerably in pondering just how awesome a thing it is to engage ancient texts, seeking to discern not only what they meant “there back then” but what they mean “here and now.” My comfort comes in being surrounded by a host of others—including colleagues here on the Seminary campus—committed to the historical search for “what really happened” and the hermeneutical task of “making meaning” for our hearers and for ourselves.