9.11.19

Today’s thoughts are going to be more along the lines of “stream of consciousness,” so please bear with me. I have written about this before, so I apologize if it sounds a little like a re-run.

I was in a unique position on 9.11.01. I was flying an airplane. I was flying with a company check pilot on a FAA mandated recurrent check ride (something we had to do as commercial pilots every six months.) We announced our arrival and intentions to the airport to which we were flying (no control tower, just announce where you are and look for other traffic), and a voice came back (which was very unusual for that airport at that time of the morning), “Well, you can land but I will not let you take off again.” Well, the check pilot (an experienced pilot with a major air carrier) got kind of huffy and said back, “What do you mean, we cannot take off again?” (or words to that effect). The strange voice came back, “Because of the attacks on the towers in New York, all air traffic is grounded by order of the FAA.”

Shock, and dumbfounded silence.

What do you do when your happy place is turned into your casket?

I grieved for all the victims of that horrible attack, but I guess my heart went out to the pilots and their families just a little bit more. There is a kinship among pilots, a kind of social attachment that only can be experienced by someone who has commanded an airplane. Talk to a pilot and he or she can tell you exactly when and where he or she first soloed. I had a pilot friend who took everyone out to eat every year on the anniversary of his first solo. We all understood.

In 2001 the doors to the cockpits were not secure. In the cockpit of a major air carrier the space is extremely cramped. The pilots had their backs to their attackers, and stood no chance to defend themselves. They probably fought as best they could – but with multiple attackers coming with complete surprise, they really had no chance.

A group of people gathered around the TV and watched the towers fall – again and again and again. In somewhat of a stupor I walked out onto the parking ramp where my plane sat, almost as if it was saying, “Hey, we have a job to do – why are we not in the air?” I looked up. At that moment not a single airplane was in the air – except for our nation’s air defense planes.

Not one single airplane in a nations of hundred of thousands.

A co-worker and I were housed in a hotel for the next several days (three, if I remember correctly). Finally the FAA allowed planes to fly again, but under extremely strict guidelines. We had to file very specific flight plans. We had to use a special call sign. There would be no deviations, no special requests granted.

As the city of Albuquerque came into view the Air Traffic Controller in the regional center “handed me over” (as pilots say) to the Albuquerque approach controller. Because we flew in and out of Albuquerque daily, we sort of knew the controllers by their voices. There was a tenseness and a kind of sadness in everyone’s voice that first day back in the air. The voice who responded to my initial call was a familiar one, although I could never know who I was talking to. After the required information was exchanged, I said, “Sure is good to hear your voice again.” He responded, “Sure is good to hear your voice too.”

I lost it.

Its kind of hard to fly an airplane through tear filled eyes, but I managed to get mine down. The day was absolutely beautiful, a splendid example of a September day in northern New  Mexico. The airport was overflowing with parked jets. The contrast in feelings was surreal. The beauty of the day was beyond description. The sadness and the bitterness of the reality of a world gone mad was palpable.

We were all, pilots and air traffic controllers, just happy and comforted to hear the voices of people we had never met, but upon whom we relied for our lives and livelihoods on a daily basis.

“We will never forget” is so often said, and is genuinely expressed, no doubt.

I will never forget 9.11.01, nor the day I flew back into Albuquerque and heard those words that I never expected to hear.

I wonder what it will be like when we see Jesus, and we can say, “Sure is good to hear your voice!”

But, even more, I wonder what it will be like to hear Jesus say, “Sure is good to hear your voice again too.”

Let’s be careful out there today, okay?

Not Every . . .

Not every mountain is a molehill . . .
Not every molehill is a mountain . . .
Not every misspoken word is a heresy . . .
Not every thought needs to be acted on . . .
Not every major news story deserves a sermon on Sunday . . .
Not every sermon deserves discussion on Monday . . .
Not every change in worship order represents a rejection of truth . . .
Not every prayer is answered the way we want it . . .
Not every answered prayer is met with gratitude or thanksgiving . . .
Not every gift is a blessing . . .
Not every hardship is a curse . . .
Not every truth is benevolent . . .
Not every lie is malevolent . . .
Not every kindness is returned . . .
Not every act of evil needs to be avenged . . .
Not every person who dies goes to heaven . . .
Not every Bible is read . . .
Not every sin is confessed . . .

And,

Not everyone is perfect.

Why can’t we learn these things?

The Glory of the (Not So) Ordinary

Today my mind was struck by a goodly theme – pardon me for not being academic or profound or philosophical or theological. Today I’m just being me.

I wanted to write a post on the glory of little things. I have been touched so many times lately by things that at other times I would have just missed – either through my hubris or just plain inattention. That got me to thinking about how I have been formed by little things. And the more I thought, the more the “little things” came to mind, proving to me that they really were not little at all. In fact, in retrospect, they were really quite huge.

Let me begin with the description of a little gift. My wife and daughter gave me a framed picture of me on a horse. Just a little gift you say? Bite your tongue, knave, I respond. That picture is utterly priceless to me. It reminds me of me as a little boy – so innocent and full of promise. It reminds me of my childhood home, and the treasures that are associated with it. It reminds me of my precious friend – Wimpy – the horse of any little boy’s dream. Wimpy was the horse that Trigger and Champion and whatever Matt Dillon’s horse was named all dreamed about being. He was the best! I loved that horse, and I treasure that picture with all that I have!

I think about my “little” job of flying freight. I had a co-worker named Barney. Barney was the greatest. He scared me to death. One day I had the privilege (terror?) of flying with him. He knew his route so well that he put the plane down to about 100 feet off the ground, put it on autopilot, and started working a crossword puzzle!! Like I said, Barney was the best. One day we were all sitting around commiserating about our mutual sad affairs. One pilot said that he looked forward to getting a real job, one that was important. Barney gave us one of those Clarence speeches – you know, Clarence the angel in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Barney pointed out that we were flying critical freight – boxes and letters and other time sensitive materials that could make or break someone’s life – or at the very least enhance it. “Seems to me,” Barney said, “that this job was mighty important after all.” We all sat in silence, in awe of the greatness of the Barney-meister. Barney was the greatest, and no one who was blessed by his skill in getting packages from point A to point B would ever have known his name.

I think about the little preachers in my life – the ones only a truly few people are blessed to have heard preach. I remember one time in Farmington N.M. when a bunch of us preachers got together to have a little seminar of sorts. It was during a VBS – one preacher would take a night during the VBS to speak to the parents and other members of the church. I worked and worked and worked and “waxed an elephant” and probably sprained an elbow congratulating myself on what a wonderful preacher that I was. And then a fellow minister by the name of Philip James stood up and delivered one of the most truly awesome lessons I have ever heard. Never heard of Philip James? – I don’t doubt it. He preaches for a little congregation in a little community in northern New Mexico that you probably would not remember if you drove through it. At the time Philip was almost blind – I don’t know if he has received the healing he so richly deserves – and he was quiet almost to a fault. He was also one of the funniest preachers I have heard, once you got him to tell a joke. But people will go on and on about all the “mega preachers” in all the “mega churches” and they will never have the blessing of hearing Philip James, one of the greatest preachers I have ever heard.

I think about the little people in my life – the guys like George Olmstead. Don’t know George Olmstead? He was just the custodian at Montgomery Blvd. Church of Christ – and gave me one of my first jobs. He asked me to help him clean the building on Saturdays so he could do some of the more heavy cleaning and waxing and what-not. Every once in a while he would bring a bottle of “pop” over to where I was cleaning and just sit and talk with me. What a giant of a man! Few people knew, or ever cared to know, about George, but to me there was not a bigger or more important man in that congregation, and there were some heroes of my faith in that congregation!

I think about little words of praise. Due to my severe acne problem I never got to play high school football beyond my 9th grade year. My coach was named Bob White. Coach White was a zen master to me. One day we were doing a particularly painful drill in which we had to line up in two lines facing each other and, on Coach White’s whistle, try to knock each other into semi-unconsciousness. There was somewhat of an unwritten rule that the big guys tried to arrange it so they would hit a big guy, and leave us little squirts to whale on each other. Well, something got goofed up because I ended up facing our number one running back, Buddy Baker. Buddy was a great guy, but he was a beast. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then looked at Coach as if to say, “can we switch, Coach, I don’t want to hurt the little fella.” Coach looked at Buddy, looked at me, and said, “what’s the problem, Smith can do it!” We got into position, and the last thing I clearly remember was hearing Coach’s whistle, and then a pain like I have never felt before. As I stumbled back to get into line again all the guys were looking at me in a state of disbelief. I lost the battle, for sure. It had to have looked hilarious. But I will remember those words to my dying day – “Smith can do it.” Well, sometimes Smith can’t, but I’ll always line up and wait for the whistle.

So many little things, so many little people, so many little words. But none of them are little to me, all of the people are spiritual giants, all of the gifts are priceless treasures. All of them make up who I am.

The glory of the ordinary, even if it is not ordinary at all.

Overwhelmed

Regular readers of this little blog have probably noticed something – I have been uncharacteristically silent over the past several days and even weeks. It’s not that I have disappeared, its just that life has kind of backed a dump truck up to my life and let loose an entire load of issues, problems, and catastrophes. To wit:

  • At the beginning of October we discovered my wife’s cancer has returned. This has created an avalanche of doctor’s appointments, over-night trips, and the associated scramble for time and resources.
  • Just this past week a related but preventable problem forced an all-night visit to the ER, a medical flight to a major hospital and an emergency surgery. I do not think I have ever been so disoriented as I was during a 72 hour stretch as I was those few days.
  • I am needed to help my sister deal with our aging mother and to do some things that will provide for her continued care. More travel, more emotional drain, more financial stress.
  • Ministry issues don’t go away just because there is illness or other problems. In addition to my wife’s health, I am struggling with other issues totally unrelated, but that have consumed the lion’s share of the time I am not focused on providing help to my wife.

In other words, I have just been too overwhelmed over the past few weeks to really attend to my thoughts here. When I get a few free moments, all I can think of is the need to pull back and rest.  I do not want people to think I have disappeared, but on the other hand, disappearing for a few days doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

I have been working on preparing some continuing thoughts on what it means to ascend by climbing lower, and I hope that soon I will be able to share those thoughts. Oh, and I finally got around to reading a C. S. Lewis masterpiece, Mere Christianity, about which I have much to say. (Why it has taken me over 30 years to read this book is absolutely beyond comprehension. What a book!)

I know that some folks are continuing to stop by and read some previous posts, and for that I am deeply thankful. Please be patient with me, and as time and energy permit I will return to sharing what I believe is critical for the future of the Lord’s church. Until then, peace be with all of us.