Put your heads down!

An airplane malfunction offers a college student a new perspective on change and the power of prayer.

Rachel Holtz

“Put your heads down! Put your heads down!”

This is what the crew shouted at the passengers aboard the South African Airways aircraft, flight 204, going from New York to Johannesburg, South Africa. Sophia Weisensel, my roommate and good friend, and I were among those passengers.

A scary situation

We were on our way to my home in Lilongwe, Malawi. I was so excited—indescribably excited. I hadn’t seen my family for my entire first school year at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

But just as the plane was about to take off, we were told to put our heads down and assume the brace position.

At first we didn’t know what was going on. There were lots of questions running through my mind. What happened? Why are we stopping? Will we make our connection? How will I let my parents know what’s going on?

It turned out there was a malfunction in one of the engines, and we had to abort the takeoff. We sat on the plane for an extra two hours waiting for the problem to be solved. Eventually it was, but the delay caused us to miss our connecting flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe. Sophia and I spent two nights at the airport hotel in Johannesburg, waiting for the next SAA flight to Lilongwe.

I was so close, yet so far away.

Fast forward the two days of wandering around the airport, watching movies in the hotel room, and eating at the same restaurant with food coupons.

My indescribable excitement had been put on pause because of the two-day delay, but we finally boarded the flight to Lilongwe. Then my excitement grew as we flew that last leg of the journey.

Finally, FINALLY, we landed and got through customs and sorted out the luggage.

A somber realization

What was it like to be home?

When I saw my dad; mom; and sister, Heather, the anticipation and happiness that built up inside of me let itself out through a burst of tears. I hugged them all as I cried.

My initial excitement lessened to a more normal level during my first few days at home. I was happy to be back. It felt so good. Yet . . . something also felt weird.

Something was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I felt a slight sadness after coming home that I didn’t expect. Talking to another good friend about it helped me understand what was troubling me. It was a certain undefinable change.

I had been apart from my family for about nine months. I changed during that time. They changed during that time. But we didn’t change together as a family unit. We had grown apart a little.

There was no specific big change that I could point out, but it was there. And it made me sad. I longed for how it used to be.

More questions were running through my mind. God, what do I do? How do I make it feel like it used to? Can it be like before I left?

A necessary reminder

Thankfully, it only troubled me for a little while. All I had to do was remember to be grateful and remind myself of God’s promises.

I need to be grateful for God’s presence in my past and be assured of his presence in my future. There’s no point in wishing for what once was. God gives us what we need at the proper time, and everything that happens to us is for our eternal good. God also promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Though I’m still comparably young, I can see how God has always been with me.

And looking back on my freshman year at Bethany, I don’t understand how I managed it. How did I make it through all those changes—being away from my family, and adjusting to an American culture, a different school system, and a Minnesota winter, just to name a few?

Well, obviously, it was my plenteous determination, cultural adaptability skills, and superior intellect, right?

Not so much.

God was with me, and he gave me strength when I needed it. Sometimes I didn’t even ask for it. Sometimes I didn’t even realize he was giving it to me.

An important message

This fall, my family and I again will be experiencing more big changes: I’m going to leave Malawi again to start my sophomore year of college, my sister will be going to Wisconsin Lutheran College for her freshman year, and my parents will be alone at home for the first time. Now our family will be separated and stuck in three different directions of change. When we reunite, it might feel more different than ever.

I know I don’t have to worry about tomorrow, next week, or next year, but I’m sinful, and I worry anyway. I know that God will carry me through anything, but I’m sinful, and I rely on my own abilities. I know that God has plans and purposes for me, but I’m sinful, and I think I know what’s best for me. The only thing I can do is continually run to God and his promises.

Going back to one of my dad’s favorite hymns always gives me comfort.

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; your best, your heav’nly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end. (Christian Worship 415:1)

When the crew aboard flight SAA 204 told us to put our heads down, at the time I only grasped the physical meaning. I only thought to put my head down to assume the brace position, but I should have also put my head down in prayer.

Of course, we shouldn’t only pray in the case of airplane emergencies. We should pray always. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, “Pray continually” (5: 17).

And we can pray with the assurance that God will answer us with what we need, with what he knows is best.

Change can be especially hard, but God has a plan. Pray for strength, patience, courage, and guidance. God will give you what you need, even if you forget to ask for it.

So, tiyeni. Let’s go.

Let’s follow the SAA 204 crew’s advice. Let’s put our heads down . . . in prayer.

Rachel Holtz, the daughter of Missionary John and Mindy Holtz in Malawi, Africa, is a sophomore at Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, Minnesota.


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Author: Rachel Holtz
Volume 103, Number 9
Issue: September 2016

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