Saturday, August 1, 2009

A better Vantage Point, Part I

I’ve experienced some very beautiful and inspiring sights in my career. Experience has taught me to expect when one will occur. Breaking through the top of a cloud layer and climbing out into the burning blue and a blazing white sun is one. Gazing upon an expansive and colorful sunrise or sunset is another. Witnessing up close the power and grandeur of a mature thunderstorm is awe inspiring. These last two you can do from the ground, but airborne you seen to have a better vantage point.

A few rare times, I’ve been truly surprised and transfixed, found my mouth open with no breath left at what’s in front of me. I’ll share one of these moments with you now.

It’s etched in my mind like a memory which becomes more beautiful with age, like a legend that gets better with time. One spring in my Great Lakes days, circa 2001, we had just taken off from Utah’s Canyonlands airport, just north of Moab, Utah, and turned south over the rugged land toward Lake Powell, Arizona. The ‘Mighty Beechliner’, our Beechcraft 1900D turboprop, had to stay at a relatively low altitude for a few moments until ATC had us in radar contact.

From the captain’s seat my window beheld a magnificent panorama, using nature’s entire color palette. A valley stretched out to the east, showcasing a pointed and dominant mountain peak at its far end. Upslope on both sides from the bare valley floor, the vista displayed Grand Canyon shaded stripes of white, tan, orange, red and pink. The peak had the same colors, abruptly changing with elevation to a vibrantly green forest, and then to a hard and gray granite above the tree line. Above our altitude the summit crowned itself brightly with snow. The azure blue sky capped above it all had a presence which seemingly stated this clearly: “The Lord created all this, and it is good”.

Our sequence of flights from Denver to Phoenix always had potential for great sightseeing. Denver to Canyonlands (Moab for better reference) was flown west over the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Moab to Page was flown south, next to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, and low over crystal clear Lake Powell. On a good weather day the Page to Phoenix flight delivered an expansive view of the Grand Canyon itself.

I was so curious about the sights I was blessed with that I googled it recently. I’m fairly certain that what I saw was a three peak range called the La Sal Mountains, a few miles east of Moab. With elevations up to 13,000 feet, they are the tallest peaks in that area. Although I unfortunately couldn't find any photos which matched my memory, although the one above is close, click here for stuff I did find.

Savvy, or so they thought, travelers would purchase the cheapest Denver-Phoenix internet ticket available, or cash in their frequent flyer miles, not knowing they were booked on Great Lakes. They would inevitably wind up anxious, apprehensive, and confused on our little nineteen seat turboprop. This is a good airplane, but one where each seat serves as both a window and an aisle seat. There is no lavatory, there is no Flight Attendant (although the First Officer doubles as one), and there are no ‘good vibrations’, only the uneasy kind. We would coax them into continuing with us, with promises that the wondrous scenery they would have on each of the three legs the route to Phoenix consisted of would be worth it. We usually didn’t disappoint. We had a different and better vantage point, at a lower altitude and over more beautiful and varied terrain, than big blue United Airlines had while flying high, nonstop, and quickly.

I’m not sure of it, but I like to think that we had one or more passengers from Denver all the way to Phoenix on this particular flight, and that they appreciated the same incredible views that I did.

Similar to our alternate route to Phoenix and the wonderful scenery it entailed, in life it’s worth the extra time and hardship to take the long, narrow road, which provides the new vantage points. It might seem audacious for me to state that categorically, but this has been my experience. Jesus actually teaches this in part of his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:13-14, (NLT): 13 “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell (Greek for the road that leads to destruction) is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” For a good study on the narrow road, click here.

I think this passage, involving the terms ‘kingdom’, ‘gate’, and ‘life’, can be interpreted in more ways than one; it is more than just about salvation and obtaining the promise of eternal life. It’s about the abundant and full life we can have on Earth, as travelers on the narrow road in the Kingdom of God.

Kingdom, an old word we don’t hear much about anymore, refers to the realm where a king rules, of course. God’s kingdom is certainly in Heaven, but it also rules in believers’ hearts who have submitted to him in all their ways, and made him ‘Lord’ of their lives. In the gospel of John, Chapter 18:36 Jesus tells Pilate, the Roman ruler who was questioning him before he was condemned and crucified, that “my Kingdom is not of this world”, bolstering the idea stated above. His followers had wanted it to be an earthly one; they hoped he would be the leader of a violent rebellion against the Romans, who occupied and controlled Jerusalem. Furthermore, In the gospel of Luke, chapter 17:20-21, Jesus ultimately answered the Pharisees question of ’when the kingdom of God would come?’ by stating that “indeed, the kingdom of God is within you”.

Jesus’ very excellent and similar words from the gospel of John, chapter 10 help to illustrate. Quoting Jesus (NIV): 1 “I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! 2 But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. 5 They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.” 6 Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, 7 so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. 9 Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. 10 The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.”

Jesus Christ said to enter the God’s Kingdom from the narrow gate, in order to travel on the narrow road and have life. Then he said that he himself was that gate, and that he came to give a rich and satisfying, abundant life. What a promise we have in him!

If we are sheep, as it seems, then we aren't very smart animals. We have a hard time knowing what is best for ourselves. We would need a lot of help to stay on the narrow road. We need a good shepherd, and that is what Jesus is. For an account of an actual Shepherd who actually serves as a physical gate for his sheep, click here.

A new vantage point, on the ‘narrow road’, helps us to see our lives in a different way, and appreciate anew the blessings and opportunities we have. That’s what I’ve experienced this last school year through participating in a discipleship program called Vantage Point 3, which my church hosts annually.

Our associate Pastor had asked me to participate in it last year, but I stalled, not wanting to sacrifice my weekends and especially my Sundays, because the class meets on Wednesdays, and I would have to bid trips which had me flying on the weekends. I’m grateful Jon didn’t relent though, as my wife and I enrolled in the class this past fall. The sacrifices and discipline it has required have been well worth it.

I’d like to tell about what life was like before. In essence, I was one of those anxious and dissatisfied passengers stuck boarding a small, scary turboprop, when I had expected a big, comfy jet.

Just a year or more ago I would tell others I flew with that I was burned out on airline flying. I was actively looking for another job back in Mechanical Engineering, or as a Corporate Pilot. The job wasn’t worth the sacrifice and suffering I constantly put myself and my family anymore. People would say “but you’re ‘living your dream’”. I would respond thinking yea, but I feel like I’m ‘dreaming of the life’. I would ask God ‘If this is your will for me, to continue to fly a jet full of skeptical strangers across the sky, to wade through crowded airports with rushed passengers and rude vendors, and sleep in sanitized but uncomfortable hotel rooms: is it worth the constant struggles and sacrifice, and can I justify the precious time away from my wife and children? If this is God’s will for my career, why is it such a struggle, and why is the joy in it so often bittersweet?

I had lost my conviction, desire, and fire to be a good witness for Christ to other pilots I flew with. And a big reason for that and why I felt burned out was the negative, cumulative effect my wife and I let my time away from home have on our marriage. I had developed a standoffish relationship with God. I wasn’t giving him my best, not loving him with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. My grudge had debilitating effects on my attitude in general, and toward my wife as well. Over the years, bitter roots had grown in both our lives toward each other, as she resented me being gone and we lost some of the emotional intimacy we had before. It was sometimes hard to reconnect with my wife and family when I was home. It was difficult at times to accept my life as it was.

A sense of purpose was missing from my job. I still enjoyed flying and meeting the daily challenges, but that alone wasn’t worth it. The extra reason I kept showing up to fly wasn’t there anymore, and I didn’t realize it for a while, grinding on from month to month. On faith, I used to believe my position as an airline pilot entailed a divine purpose, but I had lost this somewhere in my frustration and questioning in the skies.

In part II, I’ll share about another plane I’ve flown, and the Vantage Point program.

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