I always wanted to go up in a glider. My dad was a pilot; I grew up around airplanes; flew a little bit with him when I was a kid in Indiana. I’ve always liked to fly. Anything that has wings and a reasonably good chance of coming back to earth safely, I like being in it.
One day about 10 years ago a friend arranged for me to have a glider flight at a little airport down in Homestead.
I got in the cockpit with the help of the pilot, whose name was Tom. Getting my half-crippled carcass in that tight little space was no small task, but I finally got wedged in. I asked Tom what he wanted me to do besides sit there and enjoy the ride. He said, “You’re going to fly the thing. I’m just going to sit back here and relax. I may take a nap.”
“By the way,” he said, “do you get airsick?” I should tell you: Tom, when he isn’t flying gliders, also flies aerobatics. Those stunt planes you see doing things airplanes aren’t meant to do? That’s Tom.
“Well, I never have … so far ….” I hoped he wouldn’t take that as a challenge.
The tow plane pulled us aloft with no problem. Tom told me to hit the cable release … and we were on our own. Several hundred pounds of men and machine flying through the air with no engine, no power, just … air keeping us aloft.
Tom followed the air currents, looking for thermals – warm air currents that rise up from the ground. He wanted to get into a thermal so we could turn in 360-degree loops, gaining altitude as we did. He found one he liked, did several 360’s, and then told me to take the control stick and do what he just did.
Actually, he gave me a little more instruction that that, but not much more, and told me to take over. He could tell I wasn’t sure this was the greatest idea in aviation history, so he said, “Look, you can do this. Keep the altitude above 2700’ or so, keep your wings at this angle, and keep turning 360’s till I tell you to level off.”
And then he added this: “Don’t worry. There is absolutely nothing you can get us into that I can’t get us out of.”
So … after all of about 15-20 minutes of experience in a glider, I took the stick and began to try to do what Tom told me. I’d love to tell you I was an instant success, a natural born stick-and-rudder man, that my dad’s genes took over and I used the Force and all that. The truth is, I had a very difficult time watching the altimeter, keeping my wings at the correct angle, maintaining adequate air speed, and I’m pretty sure my fingerprints are still imprinted in that control stick. Not on it; embedded in it.
Tom looked over my shoulder and said, “Relax your hand. Don’t try to overpower it. Don’t watch your instrument panel all the time – look at the horizon. Keep your wings at the same angle I had them … and relax.”
After that – just a couple of pretty basic corrections – I was able to do pretty much what he told me. We stayed in the thermals till we got the altitude we wanted, then we’d level off and fly out in some direction for a while until we needed to climb back up. We stayed up about an hour and 20 minutes, and of that time, he let me play pilot about 45 minutes or so.
That glider flight is a good analogy of redemption and renewal. We didn’t get off the ground under our own power; we were completely dependent on someone else. We didn’t stay in the air under our own power; we were completely dependent on something else, namely, those invisible thermals rising up from the ground. As long as we stayed in their lift, we cruised right along. We didn’t control the thermals: we didn’t manufacture them or determine where they were or anything else – we just went where they were, and rode them.
And I didn’t do any of it on my own ability – I was completely dependent on others: someone arranged the introduction to the pilot; the tow plane pulled us up; the thermals kept us aloft; and Tom told me what to do, how to do it, patiently corrected me and assured me he could handle anything I got us into.
It’s a great picture of God’s grace: God initiates our redemption; provides for it; sustains it; patiently corrects us; and as long as we stay in the flow of His redemptive grace, keeps us aloft. We need to relax, keep our eyes on the horizon – the place where that empty cross is silhouetted against a crimson sky – and realize there is nothing we can get ourselves into He cannot handle.
“Kent, what do you mean when you say, ‘As long as we stay in the flow of His redemptive grace’ – ? That sounds like works to me.”
What I mean is, if we avail ourselves of the usual means of grace and the normal avenues of discipleship – corporate worship, Bible study, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship with other Christians, evangelism, servanthood, hospitality – if we avail ourselves of these, we will find that we are in the flow of His redemptive, transformative grace, and that little by little, day by day, we will not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but will be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
And all we have to do is be willing to climb aboard and go along for the ride.