A Reminder of God’s Existence from Long Ago
I just returned from an 18 day trip to South Africa. I was on Lutheran church business, which also involved procuring some counsel on the best academic and linguistic resources available to sustain a theological German exam to complete my last degree, held in abeyance for a number of years because of my wife’s health. During my sojourn, I did some sight seeing, which included the Sky Lift at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
It would seem impossible for me to avoid a radio or TV engagement somewhere these days. I was a featured guest of the gracious people at Al Ansaar Radio in Durban on Niteline, and Channel Islam International in Johannesburg, which included Inayet Wadee’s Global Dynamics show on the latter network. The Al Ansaar engagements facilitated a live appearance and conversation about American foreign policy and Christian-Islamic dialogue at the Al Ansaar Center. The people who attended were insightful and kind beyond measure. I owe a number of folks there a real debt of gratitude for a number of reasons, including Dr. Anwar Jeewa of the Minds Alive drug rehabiliation center in Durban; Dr. Faisal Suliman, the Chairman of the South African Muslim Network, who moderated my public speaking engagement; Dr. and Mrs. Ebrahim Khan of Durban’s medical community and their son, Hoosein; Mohammed Sayedali Shah, Democratic Alliance MP in the Republic of South Africa Parliament; and Shaista Salam of Durban, who originally introduced me to the studio denizens of both Al Ansaar and Channel Islam International.
The biggest surprise of the trip—was the return flight to Texas from Dubai on Emirates Airlines, after arriving in Dubai from Durban and waiting 4 hours in Dubai for the connection to Houston.
I always prefer aisle seats on aircraft, for easy access to the restroom and to walk around when permitted, especially on flights of 25 hour duration. I had forgotten to request them of Emirates Airlines while in Durban for the return to the United States and managed to be wedged into a window seat in the very back of the Boeing 777, in Seat 50 K.
There were 3 advantages to this assignment I had not planned on. The first is that Seat 50 K on a Boeing 777 on Emirates Airlines has one literally right across from the restroom facility, and with easy access to the back of the aircraft to procure additional snacks and drinks from the flight attendants in between peak service times. The second proved to be a delightful encounter with an African American woman from Texas seated next to me, who was a schoolteacher in Dubai. She had a great personality and plenty of inside information on living and working in that locale in the United Arab Emirates.
The third was a ringside seat to scenery in my sojourn of many years ago: Iran.
Unlike the flight from Houston to Dubai on my way to South Africa, where the plane straddled the Iran-Iraq border as it split the very middle of the Persian Gulf at night on the approach to Dubai (I did see the coastal lights of Bandar Abbas from the left side of the aircraft and my aisle seat of that evening), the return journey took the interested passenger through the heart of modern Iran and ancient Persia.
There they were again as I proceeded in a South to North fashion through the central corridor: the combination of clay-colored desert and jagged mountains with occasional snow caps beneath me as I traveled an aerial salient with the Shiraz-Isfahan-Tehran axis to my left (west), and the Kerman-Mashhad axis to my right (east); I followed the plane’s crossing of the Kerman to Yazd railroad tracks below, and then the stark, haunting beauty of the Kavir-e-Lut to the east, followed by the eventual appearance of the Dasht-e-Kavir desert (The Salt Desert) in the country’s north-central interior.
Only one question remained. Would I see Tehran once more after an absence of many years, or would this be the exclusive privilege of the denizens of the left side of the aircraft looking westward as we continued our northern route toward the Caspian Sea?
The answer arrived soon enough. I would not witness Iran’s capital from Emirates Airlines Flight EK 211 traveling ponderously at an altitude of just under 30,000 feet in a strange arc from Dubai to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Texas.
What I did see in a marvelous panorama as the plane banked slightly was a view of snow enshrouded Mount Damavand (elevation 18,406 feet/Kuh-e-Damavand, elevation 5671 metres) as the aircraft approached it, and finally did a direct flyover. There was another gift of the Divine to me while seated in seat 50 K: when approaching Damavand, I had a brief, but clear glimpse of Lar Valley (Daryacheh-ye-Sadd-e-Lar).
The first American pastor to serve in Persia described Lar Valley and summer camping in a book entitled, Persia and the Persians. My late Father and I would camp and fish there a lifetime ago, in the summertimes during my visits to my parents in between undergraduate college years in the United States. The nighttime sky there is permanently etched in my mind. One does not see stars there, but entire galaxies and planets seemingly close enough to reach out and touch. Sleeping in pup tents and sleeping bags is facilitated by the stillness of the Valley in the nocturnal hours, permeated only by the incessant but soothing presence of the voice of God in the form of “the rush of many waters” (Revelation 1:15).
The words of Hafez in the 14th century came to consciousness:
Lie down beside the flowing stream
and see life passing by and know
that of the world’s transient nature
this one sign is enough for us.
After passing over Damavand, I looked at my watch and the GPS system screen in front of me in seat 50 K. It was 0210 Central time in Texas in the United States on Friday, December 14th. Tehran time was exactly 1140 on the same day in history.
All of a sudden, I was no longer a middle aged man of 57 in transit from South Africa to America. I was a young 19 year old college kid again, fishing with my Father and swapping stories with him at night in the Sadd-e-Lar. I was hiking in the hills at the foot of Mount Damavand in early summer. I was playing center field again on the Air Force Detachment 333 fast pitch softball team playing against the U. S. Army team in the stadium at Gulf District, the American military outpost off Saltanatabad Avenue in north Tehran in the Pahlavi years. I saw myself wandering around in great wonderment in the ruins of Persepolis, searching for the treasures contained in the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz, running the Vacation Bible School for kids in the summertime atmosphere of Community Church of Tehran, embarking on a 7 mile run at 0500 beginning each day from my parents’ apartment in the city, or approaching the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with the respect accorded to one mentioned by the Old Testament repeatedly as a prototype and forerunner of Jesus Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (2 Chronicles 22-23; Ezra, chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6; Isaiah, chapters 44 and 45; and Daniel, chapters 1, 6, 10).
It was so long ago. Yet it was only yesterday. And it all came flooding back in a handful of minutes on Emirates Flight EK 211 between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Texas.
There was one especially strange manifestation during this brief gift of God 30,000 feet above earth. Immediately upon crossing a brief segment of the Caspian Sea in leaving Iranian airspace, the perfect visibility I had possessed from Bandar Abbas to Lar Valley and Damavand had absolutely vanished. While the GPS screen informed me of the Boeing 777’s impending overflight of Baku, Azerbaijan, a solid sheet of impenetrable white clouds completely obscured any view from above. This sudden departure of visibility continued through the Balkans and most of Europe. Had the Hidden Hand of Creation, Redemption, and the New Heaven and the New Earth kept this cloud cover north of the Iranian border for an appointed purpose?
I was neither irritated nor disappointed in what I did not view from Baku northward. I saw what God wanted me to see, from the humble vantage point of Seat 50 K in Economy Class on Emirates Airlines Flight EK 211. The perpetual movement of Time and the relentless advance of Biological Age in decades speeding by with the speed of light, had momentarily halted. Eternity was in full view, an Eternity firmly in the center of the Kingdom of God, occupied by His Saints past, present, and future. What I witnessed in Iranian airspace on December 14th is a promissory note promising all good things to come for the true Israel of God bathed in the blood of the Lamb.
Spring is indeed near.