Satan at the Grammys

A lot of people were upset by the inclusion of Satanic imagery at this year’s Grammy Awards presentation but I was kind of relieved. For over two hundred years the Satanic brand has been hiding in the shadows in this country, mumbling their curses and befouling their bodies and souls in strict privacy. Before they step into the light to evangelize, they put on clean clothes and act as if other people matter. It does not do, you see, to behave like a Satanist at the local grocery store or elementary school.

Like most political animals, their primary marketing technique has been to spread rumors about their leader’s adversary and, well, who can blame them? It’s not like Satan has an engaging campaign platform. Vote for me!: A disgruntled employee who was fired for insubordination then physically (well, spiritually) picked up and booted out by – you know, that other guy who actually made everything. Vote for me!: Who corrupted other employees (thus inventing politics), resulting in harsher workplace conditions and the loss of incredible employee benefits that – you know, that other guy – had already given us. Vote for me!: Who has stewed in resentment for thousands of years and consumes everything in my bitter rage, including – you know, everyone who votes for me.

Yes, the Prince of Darkness slipped out of the shadows on national TV, toasted one female and showed some pretty cool dance moves. Perhaps his time has come. We seem to have grown tired of his adversary – you know, the guy who actually cares about our happiness. He’s a lot like those tiresome elementary school teachers, who actually love kids and encourage them to do the work required to grow up wise and strong and kind. Well, if that’s not your cup of tea, then consider Satan, who regards children as lunch meat and has been proving it all over the world for thousands of years, though never as successfully as he has done right here and right now.
It’s true, of course, that if you really prefer darkness – the total freedom to do anything your little heart desires to anyone you like, without even having to feel shabby about doing it – then Satan is your man. But don’t forget that he intends to take the same liberties with you.

It that gives you pause, then consider Jesus. (There are but two candidates in this election.) I have never seen him dance, but under his loving authority, every human has freedom and reason to dance. In fact, all of our freedoms – including the freedom to reject him – arise from the fact that he created us in his own image and wants us to be free. Some, including many of our own nation’s leaders, want us to forget that, want us to forget that all true leaders lead as Jesus did, by laying down his own life for those he serves.

Personally, I hope that Satan is encouraged by good press from the TV appearance and shows himself more often. That old serpent fools far more people by pretending to be an angel of light.

Grace and Truth

Ranger looks up, startled by my unexpected arrival.  He meets my eye, drops his head, slinks away.  Plastic wrappers and scraps of paper are scattered around the trash can where he has been foraging…again.  I am angry for a moment and then, for the hundredth time, I see in this sneaky, thieving dog a strong resemblance to…me. 

Ranger is a rascal.  He understands, roughly, his master’s plan and he tries to be good but, well, it’s just hard.  His sinfulness, and mine, came to mind as I was reading this morning in the book of John, who says that Jesus was “full of grace and truth”.  My ears perk up when I hear “grace”, for I am about as good a man as Ranger is a dog, but the word “truth” brings to mind a long, sad list of trash cans I have raided.  I drop my head and say with Paul, “I have the desire to do good but I cannot carry it out”.  What I want to do, I often don’t do, but the things I hate, I often do.
In the battle between grace and truth, I’m clearly rooting for grace, but when I look at Jesus’ life I can find no battle between grace and truth, not even an indication that they are separable things.  To those he heals, he says “your sins are forgiven”, “stop sinning” or “offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded” – all sober references back to truth and obedience, and this is not surprising given his insistence that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”.  Jesus, full of grace, is simultaneously full of truth.   As C.S. Lewis observed after comparing the words of Jesus to those of Paul, “All the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord”.
In what is, for me, the difficult climb of obedience, it seems that grace and truth work together.  Truth tells me where I am, relative to the path and destination.  Grace calls out, encouraging and comforting, reminding that the climb is possible and worth making. 
Grace is not a helicopter, reducing the need to climb, and it is only a comfort so long as I am sincerely trying to climb.  A voice that comforts me in my longing to descend is not grace.  A voice that commends my current position as high enough is not grace. 
Likewise, a voice that condemns me because of my current position is not truth.  A voice that shouts over the encouraging message from grace is not truth.  A voice that says I have fallen too far or too often to be redeemed is not truth.
Sometimes we talk as if grace and truth are divisible, as if either one could stand without the other.  I recognize and share one anxiety that motivates this view.  For many years, the fundamental teachings of Christianity have been mildly endorsed in this country, or mildly ignored.  That  seems to be changing; the Christian who defends the teaching of scripture now pays a price, even if he tells that truth gently and with love.
How much safer it would be if we could pick and choose what Christianity means, or if we could reduce the burden of truth by increasing our emphasis on grace.  How much more attractive Christianity would be if we could quietly expunge unpopular doctrines!  How much easier Christianity would be, even for its followers, if grace could soften the hard edges of truth.
Yes, “the truth hurts”, but if my own soul is any indication, it is not so simple as that.  It is not being in the wrong that hurts, nor even having others say that you are wrong.  The hurt comes when you find yourself privately agreeing with your critics, when your own soul rises up to accuse you.  “God’s kindness leads us toward repentance.”  It is his refusal to condemn us for what we have already condemned in ourselves that allows us to finally let go the defenses that we erected against truth, to surrender to the sweet truth of forgiveness.
The truth hurts, but not so deeply as it heals, and it is the role of grace to lead us to truth.  Grace that leads anywhere else is not grace, and truth that is not permeated by God’s love is not true.  Grace and truth are complementary and indivisible; to surrender either one is to lose both.

Hard Winters

I know, winter is beautiful, but I have not heard anyone say so since Christmas.  By February in Michigan, it becomes a symbol of incarceration; the steel gray skies are a menacing warden, hovering too close, raining down discouragement and obstruction, mocking our hunger for light.
But there are darker clouds over some of our friends.  A man I know took his young son to the hospital on New Year’s Eve.  The stomach ache was really Leukemia and, like prisoners, the boy and his parents have spent most of this new year in one room, chained to a bed with respirator tubes, IV’s and monitors.
A teenager at church, widely recognized for her athletic talent, went to the hospital with a sore knee and came out, months later, with no knee, a necessary sacrifice to the cancer that tried to devour her.
We learn something in Wings of Mercy about the need to ache with those who ache, with those who soldier on under darker skies than we can imagine, and for whom the prospect of Spring and a return to ‘normal’ is a very distant hope, and sometimes gone forever.  And sometimes, as we enter the life of someone who struggles against darkness, we meet a blinding light
I think of a young father I met on one of my first missions, traveling home to die.  There were bitter tears in the eyes of those who helped him aboard and, twelve hundred miles later, there were bitter tears in the eyes of those who took him in their arms as he left the airplane.  But in his eyes, there were no tears; just a steady, weary gaze that seemed to say “Thank you” and an occasional nod that said “I’m ok”.
I think of little Jacob who, from some congenital mishap, does not hear or speak.  Other profound, though less apparent problems cloud his future but every time I see him the sparkle in his eye lights up the room.
For me, this long winter began to lose its grip on a recent flight to pick up Reilly.  A low overcast broods over Northern Michigan and I remember how, on her last flight, she had been so dangerously frail, so focused on her mother for assurance and protection that I wondered if she even noticed us.  We leave the airplane at the fuel pump and hurry through the biting breeze to the FBO.  There, waiting for us, are Reilly and her mom and, with a skip, Reilly bounds over and welcomes us with a hug.
Perhaps the long, dark winter is a gift, the backdrop we need to be properly dazzled by the gift of warmth and light, a small and fleeting ache that awakens us to the deep and haunting aches of others.  We read that “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
We see in our patients this glorious and sometimes heart-breaking desire to dance, if only the pitiless dark clouds would part for a while.  We cannot say why they have been allowed to suffer so.  For now, “we mourn with those who mourn”, sharing a little of their pain, preserving a little of their strength.  But we know that God is good, that He loves every one of them with His dazzling love and weaves of their lives a story that, as yet, we see only a part.  Winter is not a tragedy because winter is not the end.  

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”
1 Corinthians 2:9

Kids and Airplanes

I come from a place with one paved road.  It is short and seldom traveled, surrounded by a sea of grass, now baking in the summer sun.  Here and there a wildflower emerges and opens its hopeful face to the sky.  The wind blows over it and, after a few days, it is gone and its place remembers it no more.  It is the way of things, I know, to rise and to descend.

I know it better than most, for this sometimes lonely place is a small town airport and locked inside the faded barns are machines that long to rise.  Even now, it seems to me, they do not sleep but wait.  They wait in shuttered darkness and silence, longing to hear the squawk of an opening hangar door, to be bathed in a suddenly widening blaze of light.  They wait, with magic in their eager wings.

There is a picture in the airport office, a faded snapshot taken years ago from an airplane passing overhead.  The office was in a smaller building then, the runway shorter and unpaved, and dozens of airplanes lined wing to wing stood at ready beside it.  No one is moving, of course, but it somehow seems that the whole scene is alive, waiting for you to look away so it can resume its vibrant activity.

Most days, remembering that picture makes me sad, but not today.  The picture has come to life around me.  It is a warm Saturday morning in May, the fields of Michigan are brown and ready for seed and our airport is alive again.

The Young Eagles program, sponsored by EAA, has introduced thousands of families to the wonderful world of local airports and hundreds of thousands of children to the magic of flight.  Today, it is our turn.

Outside, the small parking lot is full and cars line both sides of the airport drive.  Inside, there is a roar of voices and faces fill every corner of the FBO.  Loving parents have come to give their kids a memory.  Excited children, anxious and maybe a little frightened, work their way through the registration line.  On the ramp, a dozen airplanes of all sizes and shapes stand ready; Jack’s Super Cub, the old V-tail, Cherokees and 172’s and an Apache.  To the side, in static display, an ambulance helicopter, a big corporate twin and a graceful Cirrus.  And people, everywhere.

The members of our airport community are spread throughout the crowd, doing the many things that must be done well to ensure safety and a great time.  A young student pilot helps stage departing aircraft.  A local pilot and school teacher spends the day firing his Bernoulli cannon and performing other aerodynamics experiments for hundreds of people who cycle through his “ground school”.  Pilots wade through the sea of children, calling out numbers and gathering their little brood for the next flight.  Other pilots and family members man the registration tables, take photographs, print certificates and welcome new friends.

It is a day I would like to store in my memory forever, every detail of this joyful crush.  I lost count of the number of times children on their first flight used the words Awesome and Amazing.  I did count the number of flights in which the phrase “look like ants” did not occur.  (One.)  In the end, I do not know who needed this day more, the kids who received this gift or we who gave it, we who know how precious this freedom is and how important it is that we pass it on to our children.

Too soon, the event was over.  The parking lot was nearly empty and the ramp was quiet.  In the blur of activity I did not think to take a picture as I passed over the field, but it would have been a beautiful scene, proving for generations to come that even in this new millennium our little airport has not yet run out of magic.

Technically, an airport launches airplanes into the sky and safely receives them again to earth, but I have seen it do much more than that.  On this day, it launched the imaginations of 150 kids; gave them a new way to see the wonder of creation and, perhaps for the first time, to recognize how small and blessed we are.  It allowed a few dozen people to introduce our neighbors to flight, to plant the little seeds that, in some, will grow up into love.  In a few years this airport will be theirs, and theirs the privilege of teaching and encouraging the next generation, as our mentors encouraged us.

Our airport is not big, not fancy or nearly so busy as it used to be.  It has just one paved road which, as anyone with a map can see, goes nowhere.  And, as kids all over town now know, it goes everywhere.