Practicing Your Faith

I line the little plane up with the runway now coming clearly into my field of vision as I stare over the engine cowling. Now, ease back on the throttle a bit. The roaring engine quiets to a near silent idle.  Glancing quickly at the panel, I note my airspeed is too low. Give it more throttle. Don’t want to stall.

I raise my head and check out front again. We’re drifting to the left. Have to put in some correction or I’ll set this thing down on the grass, or worse. Palms now really sweaty. Adrenaline pumping.

We continue to descend. Boy those trees at the end of the runway sure look close. Did the small engine cough? Pull out the carburetor heat. Forgot. If not, icing could build up in the carburetor and clog the fuel flow. No fuel, no engine. No engine. Plane becomes a glider. I become a glider pilot. That’s not what I want to be.

Now we’re too fast. Pull back on the yoke. Leave the throttle alone. Forgot. Control your airspeed with attitude, not power. Right. Where’s the wind? We’re drifting to the left. Turn yoke to right. Too much correction. Man, those trees are passing by fast now. And the runway is below us. Why am I so high? Throttle back. Ah, yes, now we’re sinking down onto the runway. Still drifting left. Kick in right rudder. The stall horn blares a warning. I’m going to STALL! Can’t stall yet. Too high. Give it power. The runway now getting closer and closer. There goes the centerline. I’m aimed too far to the right. Left rudder, or is it left aileron? Power? Pull back, pull back! Stall warning still shrieking in my ear. BOUNCE!

Thank God, I’m down. Bounce again. Back in the air! Aimed for the edge of the runway. Crap, going off the runway. Right rudder, aileron! Which? Both? Bounce again, this time as we slip off the concrete onto the soft grass. Throttle back, brakes, turn right back towards the runway. Finally, oh, thank God, we slow down. And down and down and finally come to a stop, on the soft, wet grass. I push the throttle in to get us moving. Nothing. I push in further. The little engine is now screaming at take off power. No use. Am stuck in the wet, spongy grass. Throttle back. Start to shut down the engine.

And now for the embarrassment. Who was watching? How could I have forgotten everything so soon? I almost crashed. Trashed the airplane. Maybe hurt or killed myself. Thank God.

Yes, thank God. How often do we invoke that wonderful phrase of praise? Thank God. I had not practiced in weeks. Flying an airplane is NOT like driving a car or riding a bike. You can leave either for weeks, months, and hop behind the wheel or climb aboard your two-wheeler and take off without a care. Absent yourself from the cockpit for a few weeks, or, worse, a few months, and you are asking for trouble. Your mind may know how to coordinate the machine across the multiple dimensions of flight–controlling power, ailerons, rudder, elevator–but your physical “memory” fades rapidly. Your reflexes simply do not respond in a coordinated and instantaneous manner.

I can think of no better metaphor for living a Christian life than flying an airplane. Both include moments of epiphany, both demand constant practice to become better and better after one has discovered the joy.

I am a pilot in my off hours as teacher and historian. It took me weeks, months, and years to develop my flying skills after I took my first flight in the spring of 1988. I didn’t get my license for a year after my initial training. Reason? I went to Peru for five months to teach and research and could not practice. When I returned, I couldn’t find a flight instructor. When I did, he turned out to be a temperamental, “yelly” one, one who constantly screamed “WE’RE GOING TO DIE,” if I performed a flight maneuver any less than perfectly. When I finally took my “final examination,” the famous “check ride” with an examiner, I almost was blown off the runway by a crosswind that I didn’t properly control for. The dreaded Examiner (Executioner?) wasn’t impressed. It was like God sitting in the right seat, and he almost failed me.

My career in flying has been checkered. My logbook records moments of sheer terror, and flights and destinations of pure enjoyment. Now I have over 1000 hours, a wonderful old twin engine Cessna, an instrument rating, and am a pretty good pilot. I constantly practice. I know my limitations. But I also learn something new virtually every time I fly. Or my family and I go to new, maybe far away, places, to strange airports, night landings, tropical islands, the cold, gray cities of the North in late fall, the Atlantic sea islands of Georgia in spring, the cool mountains of North Carolina in summer, the lobster towns of New England, the flat open spaces of Texas and Oklahoma. Each is a new experience. For each trip I have to plan and study and practice.

And I still get into tight spots.

“Where IS that airport?!” I wonder in a night approach to a new field. If it is an airport in a major metropolitan area, or even a small city, the lights at night strewn out below us like sparkling diamonds are spectacular. What beauty! But, WHERE is the airport amidst all this display of lights, some twinkling, some blinking, thousands, millions in every direction! And if there are mountains or high towers in the area, or both, WHERE are they? Slamming into one of them can positively ruin the evening. So, I plan and plan and plan, and practice and practice and practice.

The flying metaphor for practicing Christians is apt, but let’s leave it for a while. Practicing Christianity is different in one big way. It will ALWAYS get better for you as you practice, and Jesus Christ will NEVER fail you. But to make your faith work for you, you need to practice it EVERY day. In that way, it is not too dissimilar from the demands of flying safely.

In this short book we are suggesting some ways to practice your faith. You should be able to call on God all the days of your life, not just in times of “crisis management” when the phrase “Thank God!” comes to mind more as an expression of relief rather than one of true thankfulness. Like an athlete in training, you will only derive the fruits of your quest as you practice. Christianity is no different.

You already have a hunger for God, for Scripture, for meaning to your life, or you wouldn’t be reading these pages. But, if you are like me, it will take you awhile to find, and then practice, your calling as a Christian man, or woman, or young man or young woman. You will have questions. You will want answers. I don’t have all of them–questions or answers–but have been where many of you are. And one of the biggest questions I faced as a neophyte Christian was: Did Jesus Christ really live? If he didn’t, then the whole Christian thing is a sham. God is but a manmade invention to satisfy our desire for some sort of celestial order. When we die it comes to an end and we sink into a black hole. If, on the other hand, he lived, ah, then there may be some hope. That is the where we start in the next chapter.

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