The Broken Airplane

I lean over the broken airplane, twisted metal reflecting dim lights from distant hangars. The engine clinks as it cools. My friend, Luke, shakes his head.

Five minutes ago, all was well. And then, as we left the ground, we heard a sharp thump and the airplane darted sideways, away from the runway, its propeller desperately clawing at the night sky. Somehow, she held onto the sky, limping sidelong and tremulous as we circled back to earth, and here we stand in the dark, shaking our heads, taking photos of an airplane that may never fly again.

The thump was a deer, sprinting across the runway. If she had arrived half a second later, we would not have met. But we did meet, and the deer, like the airplane, picked herself up and stumbled a few steps further, finally dragged herself off the runway to die.

As the shock of the moment passes, I begin to ask myself what this means, if it means anything at all. For now, it means I’m largely out of a job because most of my teaching was done in this airplane. It means the loss of a good machine and days of paperwork and email and phone calls. Bad luck, I suppose, yet here we stand, shaken but uninjured. Not dead. Not worse than dead, demolished in some hospital bed.

How many steps do you have to go back to measure your luck? Is it worse to wreck an airplane than to never have an airplane, maybe never to fly at all? Could I even count the hundreds of good things I have received that made this bad thing possible? The thousands of hours airborne in which bad things might have happened but didn’t; the dangers I didn’t even notice; the deer that crossed just after I passed…

I don’t know the moral of this story, but I believe my days are numbered, and that’s a good thing because they are numbered by the one who gave me those days.

* * *

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways…

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

– Psalm 139

– Note: The middle photo is from a flight a couple of days later, showing how little fear deer have of airplanes. The deer that struck our airplane twisted the entire tail section (thus, her insistence on flying sideways) and partially separated the elevator and horizontal stabilizer.

“God!”, He Moaned

It doesn’t take long to know Owen. I am a stranger, but he looks at me with his big eyes, says hello, turns back to help his mom get bags out of the car. He seems older than nine, and in some ways he is. Owen has seen more trouble in his short life than most of us ever will. Nineteen surgeries. Almost thirty Wings of Mercy flights back and forth to hospitals. Organs that still don’t work right. A feeding tube that runs from his belly to his backpack. The embarrassment he feels, being different at an age when it hurts to be different.

These are hard things, but still, he looks you in eye, grabs the biggest bag he can handle, soldiers on; a little soldier who has been there and done that. He is small for his age because of the trouble. His hair sticks up a little, like kids’ hair does. His face is open and sincere in a way that tugs at something inside of you.

We get them inside the airplane, but Owen has been in many airplanes. He folds his slender body across the seat, falls asleep.

I am still thinking about another flight this week, a mission that wasn’t. We flew to another city to take a man from one hospital to another – an older man, alone since his injury, longing to get closer to home. The ambulance was waiting when we arrived and, with all the tenderness we could manage, we slid Charles from one stretcher to another, safely inside our airplane. And then it happened, something that almost never happens. We started the airplane and ran our tests and one of the instruments failed.

I will long remember what Charles said when I told him we could not go. “God!”, he moaned in a voice that sounded less like a prayer than a lament. It was the only word he said.

Again, the ambulance draws near and, again, we transfer Charles to another stretcher – one that will bear his broken body back again, to a place he does not want to go. An hour later, the airplane is tucked into a hangar for service and three pilots are droning across the state in their little rental car, back to where the day began, having apparently accomplished nothing.

“God!”, he moaned. A prayer? A complaint? Both? Who can make sense of this world, of the suffering of Owen and of Charles, of our own efforts which often help but sometimes don’t? If only we could fix what is broken, with a scalpel or pill or an airplane. But the world’s brokenness runs deeper than that.

Life is hard, and the need to love our neighbor is woven into the fabric of life – the need to strengthen and pull together the broken and lonely strands. The beauty and value and purpose of Owen and Charles are far beyond our power to calculate, even when their problems are beyond our power to repair.

This week, we will again send airplanes for Owen and for Charles, do our best to reduce their suffering and get them home again. We cannot fix but we can love. We pray with Charles, in a prayer that is sometimes a lament at the sorrow in this world: God have mercy. And we pray to a God who loves and hears: Make us instruments of your mercy.


“A man…”, the story begins, and that’s not much of an introduction. “A woman” would have been more interesting, I think, or – better still – “A child.” But, no, there’s nothing special here. Just “A man”. And barely that, because he is almost dead.

Anything he had to attract us is gone. His physical beauty – if he had any – is broken now and spattered with gore and dust. His good clothes – those not wrecked in the mugging – were stripped from his body and jammed into a bag with his watch and wallet and phone. Perhaps he was brilliant or gracious or funny, but not now; only pitiful groans escape his bloody lips. He is the residue that remains when everything else has been taken away – all the symbols of success, all the layers that hide our frailty and nakedness.

As he lies there dying, a stranger comes along, a strong guy of good reputation, the kind who deserves a better introduction than just “A man”. But he is not the sort to get mugged and, frankly, doesn’t think much of people who get themselves into that kind of situation. He sees the wreck and walks on.

A few minutes later, another man of stature, another shake of the head.

And then, a third guy. For him, being called “A man” might be a step up. He’s been called a lot worse. Like the others, he was on his way to do something important. Unlike the others, a man bleeding in the road strikes him as even more important.

You know the rest. The third guy, the guy from whom nothing good is expected, turns out to be the hero; saves the life of a man who might have hated him, too, if he had not been mugged first.

There is often that kind of reversal in Jesus’ stories, a turning upside down of what we teach ourselves to expect. In this story, I think he’s telling us we are all the sort to get mugged, by one thing or another; by cruelty or cancer or age. After all, the cemeteries are full of people who were beautiful and smart and strong, just like we try to be.

He’s also telling us that the things we try to be are something quite different than the rich, deep, and enduring thing he calls “love” which sees great value in life, even when everything else has been taken away.

This story was Jesus’ answer to the haunting question: Am I only this body, and soon to be hidden with it under the earth? Or, to put it another way, is there really something more than this, some way to outlive our bones and find the enduring community we long for?

Jesus said yes, which surprised no one, but they were surprised to hear that mercy figured so prominently in his answer, as if you cannot separate love for God from love for those who suffer. As if it is better to be like the third guy, of whom nothing much is expected, than to be an expert on religion who sees the wreck and walks on.

This story is at the heart of our work. The “mercy” in Wings of Mercy is – we hope – his kind of mercy. The kind that honors God by honoring those who bear his image; knowing we are all, at times, in need of mercy.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass. They flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.”

Psalm 103

(The story of the good Samaritan is found in Luke 10.)

The Day After

September 12th, 2001. The day after. A nation mourns and the skies are empty… or almost empty. With permission from the FAA, a Wings of Mercy crew flies from Holland, Michigan to Cleveland, transporting Walter Johnson for spinal surgery.

Two years earlier, Walter had been in a car accident and sustained a potentially crippling injury. (The same injury that paralyzed Christopher Reeve – television’s Superman.) Even before the collision, Walter had trouble with his back, cutting short his career with a semi-pro basketball team affiliated with the Harlem Globetrotters, and launching a season in his life of almost perpetual pain.

Looking back in 2011, Walter wrote, “When you do nothing but suffer for twenty years, you turn from the physical side of your life to the spiritual side. Wings of Mercy has not only helped me get to and from my surgeries but has helped me grow spiritually through their compassion for others.”

Paul Elzinga and Kristi Gerritsen piloted the Beechcraft Bonanza on that sober Wednesday, getting Walter to the Cleveland Clinic for the surgery he needed. It was strange to be the only airplane in the sky, strange to be met at the airport by the police and escorted to the hospital, but it was one small way in which our nation carried on and began to heal.

The Texan

The pilot is a Texan, resettled for some years in Michigan, but still a Texan; plainspoken, fiercely independent, sometimes gruff. I sent him a text on Saturday about a patient who needed to get home from the Mayo Clinic. He called back and I could tell by his voice that he didn’t really want to go, and he could tell by my voice that I didn’t really want to ask, but a day later, here we are, shutting down in Rochester, MN.

Texans are pretty tough, I think. As we struggle out of the hot airplane and scuff across the smoldering ramp, I see that he’s still dragging his leg a bit, pushing through an injury he didn’t bother to mention the last time I asked him to help.

We whoosh through the sliding glass doors, into the sweet, cool air of the FBO where Liz, the patient, is waiting. She’s had a rough time, enduring a series of painful surgeries and bone transplants, but she is cheerful and thankful and ready to go home. Liz reminds me a little of the last patient we flew together, the Texan and I. Debra was returning to Marquette, weak and in pain, and desperate to get home.

Texans are pretty tough, but – like all supermen – they have their Kryptonite. For this guy, it’s people in trouble. About an eighth of an inch beneath the crusty Texan exterior, I suspect that Scott is full of goo. His leg hurts, and it’s hot as blazes and there are a million other things he could be doing with his Sunday, but those things all hurt less than knowing that he could have helped someone but didn’t.

This is sort of a story about Scott and Liz and Debra, but it’s also a story about Alsae, Scott’s granddaughter. A few months ago, when she faced her own crisis, Wings of Mercy was able to help and, well, any friend of Alsae is a friend of Scott’s. Since then, he’s donated his time and airplane to help quite a few people. Her mom once told me that “Alsae’s light shines bright”, and so it does. Her courage and love for life now shine through Scott upon Liz and Debra and others. That’s what love does; melts our heart of stone and turns us to goo, helps us feel the ache in the stranger.

So this is sort of a story about Scott, but it’s also a story about all our pilots; tough guys (and a few gals) who push themselves hard to become strong and capable. But their strength is only half of the story. When the phone rings or the email arrives – the sometimes-annoying people at Wings of Mercy again, asking for help – something strange often happens. Beneath the tough exterior, a big heart pounds. The pilot remembers a brave and beautiful face – an Alsae or Liz or Debra, remembers that someone is hurting, and decides that whatever else he had planned to do that day is not so important after all.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36

More about Alsae here: