This actually happened years ago.

It was in 1968 on an airplane headed for New York — a routine and normally very boring flight. But this time it proved to be otherwise.

As they were on their descent pattern, the pilot realized that the landing gear was not engaging. He messed around with the controls, trying again and again to get the gear to lock into place...without success. He then asked ground control for instruction. As the plane circled the landing field, the emergency crew coated the runway with foam and fire trucks and other emergency vehicles moved into position.

Meanwhile, the passengers were told of each maneuver in that calm, unemotional voice pilots do so well. Flight attendants glided about the cabin with an air of cool reserve. Passengers were told to place their heads between their knees and grab their ankles just before impact. There were tears and a few cries of despair. It was one of those "I can't believe this is happening to me" experiences.

Then, with the landing only minutes away, the pilot suddenly announced over the intercom: "We are beginning our final descent. At this moment, in accordance with International Aviation Codes established at Geneva, it is my obligation to inform you that if you believe in God you should commence prayer." Scout's honor...that's exactly what he said!

I'm happy to report that the belly landing occurred without a hitch. No one was injured and, aside from some rather extensive damage to the plane, the airline hardly remembered the incident. In fact, a relative of one of the passengers called the airline the very next day and asked about that prayer rule the pilot had quoted. The answer was a cool, reserved "No comment."

Amazing. The only thing that brought out into the open a deep-down "secret rule" was crisis. Pushed to the brink, back to the wall, right up to the wire, all escape routes closed...only then does our society crack open a hint of recognition that God may be there and — "if you should commence prayer."

Reminds me of a dialogue I heard on the tube shortly after Mount St. Helens erupted. The guy being interviewed was a reporter who had "come back alive" from the volcano with pictures and sound track of his own personal nightmare. He was up near the mouth of that mama when she blew her top, and he literally ran for his life...with camera rolling and the mike on. The pictures were blurred and dark, but his voice was something else.

It was eerie, almost too personal to be disclosed. He breathed deeply, sobbed, panted, and spoke directly to God. No formality, no clichés — just the despairing cry of a creature in crisis.

Things like, "Oh, God, oh, my! Help!" More sobbing, more rapid breathing, spitting, gagging, coughing, panting. "It's so hot, so me, God! Please, please, please, please...."

There's nothing like crisis to expose the otherwise hidden truth of the soul. Any soul.

We may mask it, ignore it, pass it off with cool sophistication and intellectual denial...but take away the cushion of comfort, remove the shield of safety, interject the threat of death without the presence of people to take the panic out of the moment, and it's fairly certain most in the ranks of humanity "commence prayer."

Crisis crushes. And in crushing, it often refines and purifies. I've stood beside too many of the dying, ministered to too many of the victims of calamity, listened to too many of the broken and bruised to believe otherwise.

Unfortunately, it usually takes such brutal blows of affliction to soften and penetrate hard hearts.

Remember Alexander Solzhenitzyn's admission?

"It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.... So bless you, prison, for having been in my life."

Those words provide a perfect illustration of the psalmist's instruction:

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word....
It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)

After crisis crushes, God steps in to comfort and teach.

This actually happens somewhere in our world every day.

Taken from Charles R. Swindoll, "Commence Prayer," in The Finishing Touch: Becoming God's Masterpiece (Dallas: Word, 1994), 550-52.