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.