The Heroine of Flight 847
By the time Uli Derickson died of cancer at the age of 60, she had acquired the title (Chlai), meaning “life” in Hebrew. An unexpected name for a woman who’d grown up in West Germany. She said it was most precious honor she’d earned after a few days of terror and brutality in June of 1985.
Ms. Derrickson was the lead flight attendant on a plane hijacked between Athens and Rome. They kicked her, unpinned a handgrenade, and pistol whipped the pilots. The lebanese hijackers spoke German and made Uli Derrickson their interpreter. She used her position to cajole, mollify, and trick them.
The gunmen ordered the plane to fly between Beirut and Algiers. Uli convinced them to let off 17 elderly women and two children, saying, “it would look bad for them to get hurt.”
When the hijacker told her to collect all of the passengers’ passports and identify all the jews, she blandly told them that she didn’t know how to recognize a jew. When she saw what looked like a jewish name, Uli Derrickson surreptitiously slid the passport to the bottom of the pile. When the ground crew in Algiers demanded to be paid for 6000 gallons of jet fuel, the hijackers said they would start shooting passengers. Uli Derrickson took out her shell credit card and bought 5000 dollars worth of fuel.
The hijackers shot Robbie Steadham, a US navy diver on vacation and flung out his body. When they began to beat his friend Quentin Suggs, Uli Derrickson stepped in front of the sailor and scolded the hijackers like a stern mother. “Enough!” She said, “Enough!”
“He saved my life,” said Suggs. “She risked her own.”
When the hijackers began to beat other passengers she would chide them like children. “Don’t you hit them!”
Amazingly, they stopped.
As the hijacking stretched over two days the gunmen swallowed pills to stay awake, growing more jittery and dangerous. Uli Derrickson tried to soothe them by singing soft german songs. The surviving passengers who were all eventually released called Uli Derrickson a hero. And not just for one brave, selfless moment but through fifty-five hours of terror.
She said, “I just didn’t want to be helpless.”
Later, when people saw the name Uli on her vest, you could sometimes hear a low buzz among passengers that usually aren’t impressed by anyone else on board. Every now and then someone would smile at Uli Derrickson and say, “I feel safer already.”
(text from my sermon at Spokane Unitarian Universalist Church on Jan 12, 2014)
The question I keep wondering about is: where do prophets come from? I’ve been mulling over it for the last decade, and last year I took a sabbatical from working for a nonprofit to explore the question in a novel. I’m honored to be able to share a few ideas with you today.
Where do prophets come from?
I believe that our belief matters. Prophets are known by their wisdom, their sacrifices, and through miracles. And if we hold no beliefs close to our hearts, then no prophets can reach us.
We don’t talk about modern day, living prophets because the spiritual mood of our times doesn’t give us permission to believe that our world can be saved, or that it even needs saving. And certainly, no ordinary joe can be a savior.
But our world today is in need of prophets just as much as the ancient one.
Take Moses, for example – a man of privilege who finds himself descended from slaves and benefiting from a system of oppression too big to fight. One day he finds a burning bush and hears a voice that tells him to march into the office of the leader of the most powerful empire in the world, and blandly ask this living god to end slavery and destroy the foundation of their entire economic system.
No big deal, right?
Yet Moses is open to it, even though he stands to gain nothing. He is driven by something greater; conscience. But here, he asks God to throw him a bone. “At least tell me in whose name I make this demand!” He says.
The name God gives is often translated as “I am whom I am” but the Hebrew here is ambiguous. Another Rev. Rob Hardies from All-Souls UU church offers a different, equally valid, and I think better translation:
“I will be who I will be”
For He is an imperfect, incomplete God. He is asking Moses to be his messenger because He cannot carry out His will alone.
Time and time again God’s miracles come only through a person who answers His call. This is not the all-powerful say-the-word-and-it-shall-be-done-instantly God. This incomplete God is found throughout our biblical scriptures, especially in the book of Thomas, which was removed from the modern Bible. He is also the God found in Rabbi Kushner’s book, “Why bad things happen to good people.”
You’ve heard Uli Derrickson’s story. The part of the story that sticks with me is the reason she gave for risking her life.
“I just didn’t want to be powerless,” she said.
I just didn’t want to be powerless.
Uli understood that if she saved herself and stood by while others died, she would have been making a choice to BE powerless. In that moment, we all would have wanted God to watch over us, and protect us and our families from harm, but God cannot act in a vacuum. He needs us. He gives us strength when we choose to sacrifice for others; when we suffer for the sake of rightousness; when we listen to our conscience; when we refuse to be powerless.
The Fasting Tent
This Fall I got stuck 700 pages into writing that novel. I had finally reached the part of the story when the main character was supposed to transform into a great prophet. So how exactly does that happen? I didn’t know.
Luckily I heard about a group called fast 4 families that was camping out in front of the capitol, holding vigil until congress voted on immigration reform. I attended their nightly tent revival meetings and took notes.
The MC explained, “each night we gather to remind ourselves of why this is important. We pray, we share stories, and we pass the Fast. Some of us have gone without food for as long as we could and are leaving the tent. Others are taking their place, and we honor them.”
The tent was filled with an odd coalition of labor and religious groups. Even the presidents of some national labor unions were fasting alongside believers. And while my UU church was fervently supporting them on Sunday, I was the only one in that tent the following Monday, when the real work was being done.
I didn’t care about immigration reform when I arrived. I came because I needed to watch a group of people transform into prophets, so I could finish my novel. I didn’t realize that I would be the one that needed to transform.
The moment I walked into the tent, I felt a solemn air. Something important was happening here. It shook my shoulders and rattled my soul awake, because it was such a contrast with the rest of my schedule. Work, yoga, watching football, and even writing seemed unimportant after just a few minutes in the tent.
So I returned the next day. And the next. And… the next.
I was hungry. And witnessing their fast was becoming my feast.
I didn’t care about their issue, but their stories created a bridge between the needs of others and my own convictions: Nobody should have to leave his or her family behind in order to earn a living. And while I’ve made sacrifices for work that separated me from family for months or years, immigrant workers often leave families behind for decades. Today millions of men and women toil to send home money that will bring their kids a better life, and never get to watch the kids they love grow up.
So where DO prophets come from?
First, they are all “on mute” until WE BELIEVE in something. So our beliefs matter.
And our Purpose is not a “what,” but a “how much.” As in, how much do I believe that what I do shapes the world?
How much am I willing to give of myself to shape this world?
In order for humanity to increase, we must each decrease. Less time frolicking, less worrying about small stuff, less thinking about ourselves, even less GDP.
God did not put us on this earth to grow the economy, but rather, to grow spiritually. We should follow Bhutan and measure Gross National Happiness instead of “Product” because then community prosperity would align better with our labors, and economists couldn’t use statistics to justify suffering.
We are all prophets, waiting to step into our own skin and assume the role that we were born to fulfill.
We are like Uli Derrickson, if only we could become open to such possibility when our moment comes.
Nice message, but what if you don’t believe in God?
The kicker here is that you don’t even have to believe in God in order for God to work through you. You simply have to believe that doing good is worth the risk, when doing nothing would be so much easier. If you believe in evolution, and the lessons of science that govern complex systems, then buried in the mathematics are the rules that apply to both human genetics and social movements.
Belief in God has fueled a 10,000 year old social genetic algorithm that yields more prosperity and less suffering with each generation of humankind:
Each soul who strives for justice, and stumbles and falls, wears down the path for the next to come along.
When I act on my belief in God, the effects of God become more real for others through my actions. Communities that pray together hear those in need and care for each other. Our faith gives us a common language, and has been the most powerful idea in bringing justice and prosperity throughout history. Without faith, our human nature would prevent us from sacrificing, from loving our enemies. It is our Godly nature that makes these acts possible. As we act, we inspire others, who amplify our actions, and pass the ideas onto future generations.
I know the president of SEIU was beginning to understand when she spoke in the tent and said, “our lawyers told us this fast was a lost cause, that there was no chance that congress would act, but now that I’ve fasted with you, I can see that there are reasons that go beyond political agendas.”
This is what finding the ZeitChrist is all about – becoming open to the spiritual possibility of our times, to finding the prophet in ourselves. The spiritual heaven we long for in the clouds is a reflection of the haven we create for each other on Earth. To strive for nothing is to find no heaven anywhere.
Heaven is our responsibility.
Heaven is not a promise, in the sense of an entitlement,
But a covenant, a marriage between God and us.
But not between, like a contract, because God is in us, all around us, and works through us.
Heaven is a faucet, are we are the spigot, and each time we put others ahead of ourselves we turn the crank to open it a little wider. Together, God and us let heaven flow like love into a garden.
Heaven is our responsibility.
I realized two days after my sermon that the main character in my (unfinished) novel had a dream that captures the essence of this sermon. Here is an excerpt from Hypergnostic:
That night Ibra had a vivid dream.
He was standing on top a mountain with firery birds swirling over the crags below.
He held out his palm and the heavens open up to fill it with rain water. It tasted like sun-kissed mangoes.
He drew a circle in the air. Ahead on the slope a termite mound rose out of the ground like a mini volcano erupting. He approached it and, with his palm like a blade, swung his arm through the mound to slice off the cap. Out from the termite mound shafts sprung white sugary mushroom strings. He took one and tasted the marshmallowy goodness.
“Ibra.” A voice from behind him beckoned.
He turned around and saw a skeleton in chains against the sheer wall of the mountain top.
“Look at me.”
“I see you.” Instinctively, in his mind, he knew he was talking to Allah. Allah used to approach him through dreams as a child, but not for many years had he returned.
“Look upon me,” Allah repeated. Ibra looked at the skeleton, it’s empty eye sockets down cast, its slender bones desolate. The skeleton could not free itself from the chains that held it against the mountaintop.
“This is me without you.”
“I am listening, Master. You are the Merciful.”
“And so are you.”
“I am your humble servant. But what can I do to free you, Master?” Ibra asked.
Ibra looked again at the wonders that the mountaintop had just offered him. All he had to do was ask and the heavens would open up with rain and the insects fed him their harvest. But neither the insects nor the sky could do what he could do.
He took a step towards the skeleton, to pry it loose from the chains. He stepped out from under a cloud and into a sun beam. His face burned. His arms blazed.
“You must suffer to free me. Deliverance was never part of my plan for you.”
Ibra looked at his blazing hands. They were burning to the bone under the hot sun. But still he yanked at the chains that held Allah against the mountain. The flesh fell away from his body like drops of flaming grease. He looked at his hands, his skeleton frame indistinguishable from his shackled Master now. His body shuddered as waves of searing pain punished him for his devotion, hour after hour, toiling to pry God free until he woke up.
The vessel must be emptied before it can be filled, was the mantra left in his mind and on his lips upon waking.