“Learning to Fly”
At graduation time, many are the speeches which encourage those in cap and gown to spread their wings now and fly. Those exact words may not be used, but that’s often the drift. “Now that you have achieved this mountaintop in your educational journey, the time has come to jump out into the wind and soar toward your goals in life.” It all sounds so inviting, doesn’t it? Of course, those of us who have “been there, done that” know that those lofty words soon come smack dab against reality. A diploma isn’t a license to fly. It’s but a Learner’s permit.
After I graduated from college, two small churches in southern Virginia were foolish enough to hire me as a summer pastor. I guess one can’t do too much damage in just a couple months. While there, I lived with a family who ran a dairy farm. Still on “college time,” I was not the earliest of risers. One morning I found a magnet on my typewriter which read, “You can’t soar with the eagles if you’re out all night with the owls.”
“Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles...” (Isa 40:31a) Who can forget those memorable words of the prophet Isaiah? But do we also recall the words that precede them? “Have you not known?” Isaiah questioned. “Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted...” (40:28-30) It’s at this point that Isaiah spoke the promise for those who wait on the Lord, that they will soar like eagles. Learning to fly does not happen overnight, nor is it solely dependent upon our own “wing flapping” ability, no matter how much effort we put into it.
That certainly was true of the fledgling children of Israel in the days of the Exodus. When they finally arrived at the mountain after their escape from Egypt, God said to them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) In reality, it wasn’t the Israelites who did the flying. It was upon God’s wings that they arrived. God reached out and plucked them up with his talons, so to speak, and saved them from whatever fate Pharaoh had in store.
When Moses, at the end of his life, sang out his great song of faith, his words spoke of how God “sustained (the children of Israel) in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded (them), cared for (them), guarded (them) as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, so the LORD alone guided (his children); no foreign god was with (them). He set (them) atop the heights of the land, and fed (them)...” (Deuteronomy 32:10‑13a)
Moses described the God of Israel “as an eagle.” The Great “I am who I am” said to his people who rested at the foot of the mountain after crossing the parted sea and wandering through the wilderness of Sinai, “I bore you (here) on eagles wings.” Soon the Torah, the Law of Moses, including the ten commandments, would be revealed to God’s people on that mountain. They were learning how to fly, but it would not happen overnight. Furthermore, their ability to soar rested in the One who brought them to this place “on eagles’ wings.”
As recorded in the book of Exodus, these were the first words spoken by God to the children of Israel when they arrived at the mountain. How often do we begin in the same place at other “arrival” times, such as graduations? God started out with a prod to the memory. “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I sought out and brought you to this place.” How often do we shift the focus of graduates to help them see the wider picture of their arrival at a certain place? Too often we truncate the view, and describe education as an individual accomplishment, as if this person had arrived at this point solely through their own efforts.
Yes, those efforts are essential to the process. If a person has not invested herself in her own learning, then she does not deserve a diploma. Education should be hard work. Having said that, however, we need to add a reminder of the efforts of others. A graduation is not just the accomplishment of one person. Many other hands were involved, directly or indirectly. Courtney Eiler’s parents and grandparents played a big role in helping her arrive on that stage a week ago, from the very moment she entered this world onward. Her teachers, her community, her church, all were (and still are) part of the process of learning to fly. Lydia Eze’s family, likewise, contributed to her diploma, as did Nicci Smyth’s. No, a graduation is not just the accomplishment of one person.
More to the point, and this is something we need to assert, to remember here - God has been very much a part of the whole process. I encourage our graduates, as well as all the rest of us, to fill in the blanks of the following reminder from God: “You have seen what I did to _____________, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Isn’t that essential to learning how to fly by faith? In some sense, faith is lived backward. That is, only by seeing where we have been and trying to discern God’s hand in the events that have happened in our lives in the past, do we grow in the ability to live our faith forward, trying to see God’s hand in the terrain ahead of us, and fly accordingly. Furthermore, we need the reminder that our wings are not our own possession. Our wings of faith are God’s wings.
The Great “I am who I am” continued his baccalaureate words to the children of Israel at the mountain with this statement, “Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” All that is belongs to God. Out of all of that, though, there is a special place in the heart of God reserved for those who listen and follow, and who thus learn to fly by faith, using God’s wings. They become God’s treasured possession. The King James Version has this marvelous translation of those words, “ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me.”
One of my favorite little books is one by author Frederick Buechner, the title of which is derived from this passage of scripture: “Peculiar Treasures.” It’s a biblical who’s who, looking at the characters in the book of books with a bit of humor over their “peculiarities” which God so treasures. In the preface, Buechner writes, “what struck me more than anything else as I reacquainted myself with this remarkable rag-bag of people was both their extraordinary aliveness and their power to make me feel more alive myself for having known them.”
Those “peculiar treasures” not only populate the Bible. They also sit in the pews around us. I encourage those who graduate, as well as all the rest of us, to recognize these “peculiar” characters all around you, and to treasure them as God does. It is together that we learn how to fly by faith, following this “eagle eyed” God.
Learning to fly... As I said earlier, a diploma is not so much a flier’s license as it is a learner’s permit. That’s especially true when it comes to flying by faith. There is a basic sense of God being at work in our lives, bringing us to this point in time. In his letter to the believers in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote at length about what God has done in and through Jesus Christ, how we have been “justified,” how we have been “made right with God.” God took the lead in this - reaching out to where we are, flying us to where he is. Justification, righteousness is not so much a human experience upon which we build, as it is an act of God. That is, it’s not just our effort that has brought us to this point. God has been involved every step of the way, whether we’ve seen his hands at work or not.
Yes, our efforts are essential to the process. If we are not invested in our own learning to fly by faith, then why should we stand on this stage of life waiting to graduate into God’s kingdom? Learning to fly by faith is hard work. Having said that, however, we need to be reminded that, as the book of Hebrews puts it, “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” those living, and those who have passed on into glory. We are not in this alone, as if faith were an individual affair. Furthermore, and most important, God is involved. Through Christ, the hardest work has been accomplished. Because of him, the destination of our life’s journey is assured. He’s flown there ahead of us, if you will. By the grace of God, those who trust in him will enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s a promise. We don’t live in doubt over whether or not we’ll make it there, constrained by fear of taking risks. We live by faith, and because of this, there is peace – an active peace that makes it possible for us to spread our wings, step off the limb, and fly.
Because we have this peace that in Christ our ultimate future is in God’s hands and we don’t have to worry about it, we can then focus upon learning to fly by faith - even or especially when the weather gets rough. Did you catch what Paul wrote? He said that, yes, we can rejoice, revel, glory, exult, boast (even) in what God has already accomplished for us in Christ. More than that, though, we (as strange as it may sound) can exult, can boast (even) in the stormy weather, when flying gets rough. “Suffering produces endurance,” he wrote, “endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Such words should be spoken at any kind of ceremony, like a graduation, where persons stand at the brink of a new chapter in life. A wedding, for instance, is like a graduation. Yesterday Bill and Chris Tarnowski celebrated the 20th anniversary of their graduation into married life. Do understand that a wedding license is a learner’s permit. If a marriage is to fly, a couple has to learn how to do so together. It can take 20, 30, 40, 50 or more years to learn how, especially since the terrain and weather changes with every stage of life. That’s why our promises speak of “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.” In the bright moments, in the majority of hum-drum days, and especially through the storms life brings, we learn to fly. As we do, however, we need the constant reminder of what God has already done along our way, and how he has brought us to this point “on eagle’s wings.” Our flight is not our own.
We are all learning to fly. Don’t forget, my friends, that these are God’s wings - these wings of faith. “...Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles...”