Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Face That People Can Trust

Once, back in the Q course, I was standing in line at the drop zone. I had harnessed into my chute and was waiting for a jumpmaster to perform his prejump inspection. This is basically a head-to-toe examination of the harness and chute prior to getting on the aircraft, to ensure there are no deficiencies and everything is attached and kosher looking. When the jumpmaster noticed I was ready he came over and began his inspection.

If you take out the middle letters it doesn't count as a bad word.
Now, the JMPI (Jumpmaster Prejump Inspection) is a very quick and fluid process. The Jumpmaster's hands fly swiftly by rote over the same path every single time, and the only time they seem to be paying attention is when they find a deficiency. Especially on this particular jump, the jumpmaster was so unconcerned he was holding a conversation with me.

"Are you jumpmaster qualified?"

"No, Sergeant."

"Well you should be. You have one of those faces, you know? You just look like you know what you're doing. Turn around. That's the important thing. Bend, squat and hold. You don't actually have to know what you're doing, you just have to look like it. Have a good jump."

And he wandered off to the next jumper.

It is true though. By some trick of bone structure and muscle tension, my face when relaxed has always looked like I know what I am doing, which is totally ironic since in reality, at any given moment I am probably winging it. The odds of my actually knowing what I am doing are quite small.

Ryan Kraeger pre-mission photo, circa 2007
A case in point of that occurred in Afghanistan, toward the end of my rotation. I had been working at route clearance for the last six months of a fifteen month trip. (Route Clearance means we went searching for IED's and disarmed them when we found them. I was the guy with the mine detector.)

After six months I had found every one and not been blown up once, which is a good record to have, but I was getting burnt out. I was losing confidence in myself. You know the way you feel when you win five poker hands in a row, and you just don't want to bet anymore because you know the next one is going to be a flop? That's how I felt. Only by "poker hand" I meant "IED" and by "flop" I meant "red mist on the breeze."

I was also developing a deeper, stronger confidence in God. I was coming face to face with my own mortality and fallibility, and yet was still required to do my job, and so I was left with no recourse but to trust God. I did not particularly trust Him not to get me killed. His people have a way of meeting singularly inconvenient ends which sometimes involve explosions, and sometimes do not. How many practicing Catholics have been shot, bayoneted, burned, nuked or gassed in the last hundred years or so? Do you think their mothers weren't praying for them? Seriously, the founder of our Church was nailed to a stake and left to die. How should I expect special favors?

So I had no illusions that trusting God was some magic, IED-proof force field. Which didn't matter to me, because I was not afraid of dying. I knew that if I died, it would be because God thought I was done with whatever it was I was sent to do, and who am I to argue?

God must feel like this psychologist sometimes.
No, I did not fear death, I feared failure. I was afraid of making a bad call and letting the vehicles roll over a bomb and killing someone else. It was a call I made every day, and I was well aware how fallible I was. You never really know. It is one thing to trust God with your own life. It is another thing to trust him with someone else' life. It is another thing to trust Him with the things that really matter to us personally: projects we have invested in, plans we have made for the people we love, surefire ideas to save the world, etc. In a word, control.

It was this that I was called to surrender, the reputation for being right, the illusion of authority. I was learning to give up the illusion of control. There was a measure of irony in the fact that, while I barely trusted myself at all, but trusted God with everything, the other guys in the platoon barely trusted God at all, but trusted me with everything. I am sure God thought that was quite funny.

But in reality, isn't that part of the call of being Christian, to trust God on behalf of other people? It has become an increasingly important component of my prayer at any rate. I know that God is to be trusted. Other people do not, but for whatever reason they trust me. As long as there is a me in the equation this is an alarming concept, but if I can let go of the me and let God take over, then they are really trusting God. Praying for people has become something like an exercise in letting go of them. Simply trusting that God knows best, that He is in control, that even if He lets them die (which He certainly will eventually) He will not let them out of His sight. This is also how I pray for my atheist and agnostic friends. Even if they do not know or trust Him, I feel like it is helpful, perhaps even critical, for me to trust Him with them. Somehow I feel like it does them some good.

I don't know how, but if I am right thus far I don't really need to know how. It is enough to be going on with.

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