Leaving This Ground

Move over Wright brothers, here comes the Kitty Hawk Flyer

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air,” – Wilbur Wright

Flying has always been fascinating for me.  The fact that in the early 1900’s the world suddenly became smaller, not by inches, feet, or yards; but the world became smaller by hundreds and thousands of miles, in a way that no one fifty years before could have imagined.

One of my grandfathers was a pilot, not professionally; and he used to talk about flying sometimes.  Talking about the “joy” of anything was not really his style, being one of the greatest generation.  His style was nuts and bolts and competence and safety.

“You have to pay attention . . .”

“You cannot be trying to do two things at once . . .”

“A lot of good pilots are killed because they don’t listen and become over-confident . . .”

“You really won’t know what you are doing until you log at least 500 hours . . .”

Situational awareness.  Caution.  Attention to detail.  Humility.  Not – not traits that I had in abundance at 21, 22, 23.

In the summers I was working as a river guide, paddling white water, and decided one day that I too would like to become a pilot.  I called a local flight academy in Belgrade, Montana, and explained to the instructor that I was interested, but also busy.  I was busy leading float trips on the river. 

I would like to “knock out” a pilot’s license on the week-ends, when I had the time; maybe I could “knock it out” over three or four long week-ends; make it sort of a “crash course,” no pun intended.

In my unbounded confidence, and my infinite capacity for imagination, it never occurred to me with whom I might be speaking on the other end of the phone. 

I could not know that Ray Anderson had recently retired from the Air Force as a flight instructor.  I could not know that he had flown tours in Viet Nam, reconnaissance over the Bearing Sea, trained hundreds of military pilots in the Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic trainer.  Oh . . . hearing the sound of my own voice . . . there is so much that I could not know.

And so this is sometimes how the Holy Spirit is moving – hearing only the sound of my own voice, the confidence and the gusto, I could not know that Ray had heard this tone of voice many, many, many times before.

I arrived at the airport pumped; ready to knock this thing out and get on with my flying career.  I had never really been near a small aircraft, had never sat in one.  It was a hot day, and I distinctly recall a new smell, a smell that made my stomach turn over a bit; the smell of aviation fuel in the heat. 

Sitting down in the Tomahawk next to Ray; it was cozy, the cockpit felt steamy.  And our shoulders were almost touching.  “There’s no aisle in this thing is there?”, I said.  “Really?” Ray said smiling.

As we sped up for take-off, I felt my stomach climbing up into my chest.  The runway simply seemed to swallow this tiny bug of a machine, and I simply could not believe we were going fast enough to lift off into flight.

In the air, I looked out at the mountains around Bozeman, Montana; we were simply crawling, like a tiny ant, in altitude, crawling up the elevation of the surrounding mountains.  I began to breath more quickly, a light sweat on my forehead, my stomach queasy, and out of the corner of my eye all I could see was the tiniest corner of a wing supposedly holding us up in the air.

In an uncharacteristic moment in my life, I was speechless.  As sure as I am standing and talking to you today, I could feel the bottom dropping out of that little bubble of a plane, and was waiting for us to drop out of the sky.

Some thirty years later, I can still feel it today, the physical realization, the recognition “in my bones,” that the only thing holding up from the ground rapidly retreating beneath me were a few millimeters of aluminum; I was riding through sky in Coca-Cola can.

The new sensations of flight were a deadly mixture for me.  I could hear my heavy breathing through the head-set; I tried to calm myself down with controlled breathing; I was dizzy, the cold sweat moved to my whole body.  My stomach was somewhere on the ground. 

I wanted out of that thing that very minute; the plane pitching every now and then in the high rocky mountain winds.

“You know it’s been mighty dry the past few weeks.  You on the river much these days?”

Ray was having a walk in the park during the midst of my death sitting next to him.

“We are having to pump a lot of water for my sheep out at the ranch,” he said.  “Look over there, Charlie is putting some irrigation as well on his place.”

I simply nodded my head because I could not speak.  Over and over in my mind I told myself, “I am not going to die today . . . not really . . . not today.”  For a split second I thought of what I might grab ahold of to keep from falling through that aluminum floor.  The seat belt, the seat, the steering wheel.

“ . . . son you need to let go of the wheel,” Ray said.   “Alston . . . son you need to let go of the wheel,” he said in a soft voice.  “Look to your hands . . . you need to let go of the wheel.”

Two things always come to my mind when I am terrified:  “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want .  .  .”  These were bouncing around in my head as we climbed.

“Son look at your hands,” Ray said.  And it took moment for things to register for me.  I looked at my hands, and it seemed they were made of concrete; I could not move them.  I had taken the steering column in such a death grip that I could not feel them; as though they were part of the plane itself. 

My lifeline.

“You really believe that you are holding this thing up in the air – don’t you?”

“Son, you have to let go .  . . you have to let go . . . we won’t fall . . . this thing was built to fly.”

It took a few moments.  Finally I let my fingers fall from the wheel.  Ray was encouraging, positive, empathetic; all the things that make for a good teacher.

“You can let go.  It’s all right.  Let me show you,” he said. 

I glanced to the right and saw Ray holding our Coca Cola can in the air with two fingers on the steering column of the plane.  Two fingers, pulling gently, holding steady.

Ray had a big smile on his face; big smile of kindness.  No shame.  No ridicule.  No kindness masquerading as hazing, “You see, you see how it works; it was built to fly.  It’s all right.”

Those first moments in the small plane with my oversized ego, and a kind teacher, and accepting the reality that I personally was not keeping that plane in the air, they were a spiritual lesson; a lesson that I have replayed in my life of faith and following Jesus.

Throughout his time with his disciples, it seems to me that Jesus is always trying to tell them in one way or another, “Let go . . . this thing, your life, your heart, your soul, it was built to fly.  Let go, have faith.”  Undoubtedly, none of us will walk on water, not intentionally at least.  Even Peter, the Rock of the Church, was unable to follow our Lord so completely.

What we do share with the disciples is that the ship of our lives finds itself beaten and battered by waves.  We feel that we very well might sink; living with a fear of falling.  The best laid plans, the best intentions, our best efforts, even certain that we have covered every eventuality for failure, and still something beats against us as we try to make our way. 

While we have prepared for the “flight” in our minds, it may be that our hearts have not caught up to us; it may be that our doubts crowd and suffocate us when the mishaps and uncertainties of life beat against us.  A time like the present certainly pulls back the curtain on such assumptions.

The promise that Jesus makes again and again is that we are not alone in a world contained within the boundaries of our own perceptions; He is forever in our midst.  A hand, a voice, forever in our midst; whether we see and hear Him or not in the midst of our doubts, our fear, He is present and He is patient.

If we would pause for a moment, for a moment, and let that hand reach into us and hold us in our tossing and turning; let that hand be the one thing that does not move, when all around us there is spinning.  If we would pause, for a moment, we might hear him.

“Let go . . . let go . . . stop white-knuckling everything in your life.  You cannot hold up the entire world.  Turn loose of your death grip.  Calm down.  You will not fall.”

“You were built to fly, to soar.  I am with you.  Let me show you what it means to live in this faith.”

Also in the words of another believer, Corrie Ten Boom,

“Never Be Afraid To Trust An Unknown Future To A Known God.”

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