Steve Nootenboom comes closest to a Renaissance person of anyone I know. He is a filmmaker, painter, master carpenter, sailor, rock climber, and hang glider. I first met him when he and his family visited a church I pastored in north Los Angeles County. We soon became lifelong friends. I have always admired his dedication to a simple, nomadic way of life. With very few possessions to tie them down, he and his wife travel in a bus whose interior Steve designed to be amazingly livable. Our conversations about art, creativity, and the spiritual life can last for hours. I asked him to share his amazing perspective on how hang gliding has become a spiritual discipline for him. This is an excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, downloadable here for free.
In 1977, I had my first hang gliding flight. I will never forget the moment my feet left the ground and I felt completely free of the earth and its cares. I was hooked!
Every time I launch my glider, I get the same sensation as that first time I flew. I feel so connected to God when I am flying that I have nicknamed the sport “Sky Church.” I tell people that I have to fly up in the sky to find God.
Hang-gliding requires intense focus in the moment—shutting out cares, events, worries, and the 10,000 things mentioned in Taoism. When you are flying, you are looking for the invisible, such as hot air rising in “thermals.” Some of the indications of a thermal are the smell of sage brush rising in the desert air, or the smell of French fries when you’re over a city. When you get in a thermal, you circle around in that tube of ascending hot air and it can send you soaring at up to 5,000 feet per minute. You also keep your eyes on those local pilots, the birds. They know right where to go!
My glider is about 70 pounds, and I can easily carry it on my shoulders. My flights average about two and a half hours. Some have been at 18,000 feet with a small oxygen tank tied to my harness. I have soared for over six hours at a time, crossing more than 150 miles of bleak desert with no motor, simply searching for and trusting the lift of air currents.
The concentration required for these flights focuses and clears my mind. I can hear instructions from God about what to do in business or my marriage, and I get strong impressions of what the future holds outside my scope of knowledge.
Here is an example of Creation speaking to me during a flight.
I was traveling through Montana with my hang glider tied on my truck top. I found a high ridge facing the prevailing wind. I launched and soared for about two hours down the wooded backbone of this beautiful slope. I found myself getting very low and finally began to sink in a canyon with no way out. My first instinct was terror. Then something I believe to be God cut through my fearful thoughts and I felt hope and peace in spite of seeing myself crashing into giant pine trees. Just then, a red-tailed hawk came strafing under my wing and I knew I needed to follow him. I followed him into a deeper part of the canyon where all logic would say DON’T GO! At the end of that box canyon, the hawk started to circle, a clear indication of a thermal. He and I did a sky dance together, around and around, until I was 1,000 feet safely above the ridge again.
I continue to attend my “Sky Church,” sometimes as much as twice a week. After every flight, I feel rejuvenated with a clear perspective and a new direction. I have often said to non-pilots that a two-hour flight hanging in the Presence is equivalent to a two-week vacation. Although I find similar connections to God in prayer and meditation, there is still something special for me about soaring above my troubles below. It certainly takes faith in your glider, your abilities, and God to just run off a mountain with some Dacron and aluminum strapped to your back.
But I am a believer that faith honors God, and God always honors faith.