Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Touching the Face of God ...

High Flight

The first time I heard this poem was watching a TV station sign off during the 1970s, such as shown in the video clip below. It was much later that I learned the story behind it and how I would be personally affected by it.

In the summer and through the fall of 1940, the Battle of Britain was waging and the London Blitz demoralizing this one island nation that did break as Hitler's juggernaut was steamrolling across the rest of Europe. During such desperate times, Sir Winston Churchill gave his famous speech: Their Finest Hour

Before the United States entered into World War II, hundreds of Americans crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force to volunteer to fight the Nazis. Though they knowingly broke the law, they had the tacit approval of the then officially neutral United States government.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was one such American, who was 18 years old when he entered flight training. Within the year, he was sent to England and flew the Supermarine Spitfire. As he flew fighters over France and in the air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, Magee rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.

On September 3, 1941, while flying a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight, Magee orbited and climbed upward, a sight that inspired his line - "To touch the face of God."

Back on earth, he wrote about his experience in a letter to his parents. In it he commented, "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem - "High Flight."

Sign off for KSAT

Pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was killed in England at the age of 19 years old when his Spitfire collided with another airplane while descending out of the clouds. That was on December 11, 1941 - four days after Pearl Harbor - 70 years ago this year.

Magee's father was then rector of a Washington, DC church and printed his son's poem in church publications. Not long after that, High Flight was included in an exhibition of poems called Faith and Freedom at the Library of Congress in February 1942 and has been quoted many times world wide. Archibald MacLeish had proclaimed Magee as the first poet of the War.

In the past 70 years, "High Flight" has been reprinted and put on plaques at many air force training fields. And it has been quoted many times world wide.

Twenty-five years ago was one of those times ...

I had just been transferred to another state and that Tuesday, January 28, 1986, I had scheduled a visit to the local utilities company to have the power connected to my new house. Before leaving work early, I was taking a class that morning when one of my co-workers broke into the room with a wild look in his eyes.

"The Challenger Exploded!"

We were all incredulous, and quickly gathered in the lobby. There, we watched the replays of the disaster as the contrails forked in the air and the shuttle exploded. Our world was shaken. None of us - especially the instructor - had any enthusiasm for continuing our class.

Later, that afternoon while making the trip to turn on the utilities I turned on the radio, hearing the chatter of this national disaster. Then President Reagan, who had his State of the Union Address planned for that evening, instead gave the nation and the world the following address:

"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them. ...

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

from the Speech on the Challenger Disaster by Ronald Reagan

In my humble opinion, this speech to a nation in shock by this tragedy was one of President Reagan's finest hours.

Question: Do you have any stories about the Challenger disaster or the words in the poem "High Flight" that you would like to share?


Picture from My View

Monday, January 24, 2011

Margery Kempe (Part 4) - she still speaks centuries later

The remarkable Margery Kempe made a career of pursuing sainthood. And she left us a valuable record of her adventures and everyday life in medieval times by dictating her memoirs in 1438. Though this medieval mystic had her shortcomings - as pointed out in my last post, Part 3: Medieval "Church Lady" - Margery had many admirable qualities.

Here a five of them:

1. Her passion for a direct and personal relationship with God

After a very difficult pregnancy, Margery had become very ill - both physically and mentally. When she thought she was going to die and go to hell, amid hallucinations of devils, she had a vision of Christ, who spoke to her: "Dowyter, why hast thow forsakyn me and I forsoke nevyr thee?"

Margery felt peace and happiness after that experience as she soon made a dramatic recovery of her health and sanity. Her peers saw this sudden turnaround as a miracle and Margery believed Jesus had rescued her from the Devil's clutches.

Since her healing followed by some humbling experiences of failed business ventures, Margery had more visions. (Some may say she was crazy. But who can tell?) Her supporters suggested that Margery's true calling was to follow Christ. And with much passion, Margery sought to directly commune with God and pursue sainthood with all her heart. This "coming to Jesus" was not just a passing fad, but one that lasted throughout her lifetime.

During Margery's life in the late 1300s and early 1400s, the organized Church had sunk to one of her low points. The Church was being torn by the Great Schism, when three popes reigned at one time. The clergy seemed disconnected from the people and more interested in wealth, building great cathedrals and names for themselves, and advancing their own political careers than in feeding their flocks.

More than a hundred years before the Reformation, Margery desired to break down this barrier between laity and clergy and commune personally and directly with God. David had expressed that same burning desire for communion in his psalms. (Psalm 27:8; Psalm 40:8; Psalm 42:1) Likewise, St. Paul had the desire for knowing Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:2; Philippians 3:10)

Margery challenges me to have that same passion and not lapse into the coldness of complacency.

2. Her courage and stamina

In her desire to get closer to God, Margery did what many of the pious tried to do in her day - go on pilgrimage. Medieval life was dangerous as it was, but even more so as a woman traveling alone, most of the time on foot. Margery made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and many other shorter pilgrimages to shrines throughout Europe. She had a confidence that God would see her through. She faced danger from illness, travel, and hostile company. She got herself into many scrapes, but was delivered from them all. Pilgrimages were not for the faint of heart and she had the stamina and will to push on.

I think of St. Paul on his missionary journeys - most on foot - and all the perils and dangers he had faced, including a shipwreck (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). Margery had a taste of something St. Paul went through on pilgrimage on foot across much of Europe, on sea in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the North Sea, during times of peace and war, and in fear of bandits, pirates, evil doers, illness, and many other perils.

I wish I had Margery's courage and strength to keep going on my "Pilgrim's Progress" - especially when life seems scary and difficult.

3. Her conviction and perseverance

Once Margery's mind was made up, nothing deterred her from her goals as she pushed forward with pigheaded stubbornness. Her countrymen on pilgrimage had ditched her many times, but she never gave up, continued on, and found them - again. This terrified them.

St. James gives warning of the double minded man (James 1:8). Margery did not have that problem. St. Paul preached perseverance in not growing weary in well-doing (Galatians 6:9). And Jesus told parables of persistence (Luke 18:1-7).

I covet Margery's stick-to-it-iveness. She was not one to be deterred from her goal.

4. Margery knew her stuff

Though illiterate,Margery had priests read to her from the Bible and other sacred literature. The readings helped the priests as well as Margery to know the Holy Writ better as well as important writings of religious scholars.

In England, John Wycliffe (who first translated the Bible into English) and his disciples, the Lollards, challenged the authority of the Church. This left the leaders quite testy and suspicious of an outspoken woman as Margery. Her detractors had accused her of being a Lollard, which put her at risk as being labeled as a hectic and in real danger of losing her life. (Czech priest John Hus had been burned at the stake in Rome in 1415 about the time Margery had visited on pilgrimage.)

When brought before inquisitions of priests, politicians, and bishops at various times, Margery took them all on and answered them very intelligently. She convinced them all she was a faithful orthodox Catholic and even got the Archbishop of Canterbury's certificate of approval, which made her autobiography "safe" to read.

St. Paul urged his disciples to study and be prepared (2 Timothy 2:15). St. Peter counsels to always be ready to give an answer (1 Peter 3:14-16).

I am challenged to have that same readiness to give intelligent answers about my faith like Margery had done throughout her many trials.

5. Margery had a testimony

Though her fellow pilgrims had ditched her many times and her neighbors had made fun of her, they must have wondered if she really did have a connection to the Almighty.

In Venice on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Margery changed sailing vessels as in her account the Lord had given her warning about the craft her fellow pilgrims would embark on. Her companions must have thought this was a great stroke of luck as they were finally rid of this irritating woman that followed them doggedly throughout Europe.

The voyage on a stinking galley across the Mediterranean was fraught with perils from the storms at sea, pirates, and the crew, many whom were criminals and men if ill repute. Margery's countrymen must have had second thoughts about their boat as they bit their tongues, and with extra cost and difficulty changed their plans and went with Margery on her vessel of choice. We do know they all arrived safely at the port of Jerusalem in Jaffa.

Later, in her home town of Lynn, Margery had become a joke - an object of abuse. But during the "Great Fire" that swept through the town, Margery wept quite loudly and prayed. This time, those - who had ridiculed her before - now begged her to continue praying. The sky, which had been clear, suddenly turned dark and a great snow storm came rushing in. The citizens of Lynn now had the fire under control. Everyone seemed to agree that the storm that quenched the fire was due to Margery's efforts.

The New Testament saints had testimonies. When St. Paul was a prisoner on ship, the crew did not heed his warnings, but later they all took his advice and were kept safe because of his testimony. (Acts 27) St. Peter urges that because of a good testimony, evil doers will be ashamed (1 Peter 3:16). Many scoffers had to eat their words when they sought Margery's prayers in a time of trouble.

I desire to have a testimony as strong as Margery's, especially one that my enemies take notice.



Though Margery had her failings, she bears witness to a faith that did not fail and a constancy of her convictions. Searching the web, I did not see that she was canonized as a Catholic saint. In the Protestant definition, a saint is any believer, set aside for God. (Ephesians 1:1;  Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2) Her testimony still speaks through the centuries as she was as a saint in medieval England.

Question: Does Margery speak to you today?

Picture from Wiki Commons: Saints of the Catholic Church

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Margery Kempe (Part 3) - Medieval "Church Lady"

"Well, isn't that special?"

So is the catch phrase of the Dana Carvey "holier-than-thou" character "Enid Strict" in the Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit "Church Chat with Church Lady."

Effective comedy is based on truth and "Church Lady" pokes fun at these ugly truths: It's an easy slide from righteousness to self-righteousness. And the world so readily sees it. Even in the Middle Ages.

Before Christmas, I had written two posts about the Life and Times of Margery Kempe, whose autobiography dictated at the end of her life in 1438 is perhaps the first one in the English language.

Part One paints the volatile times she lived in before the Reformation.
Part Two sketches the real life characters that Margery had encountered during her adventures and lifetime career of pursuing sainthood, which rival Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The "Church Lady" persona is not new, but is as old as religion itself. And Margery Kempe unwittingly reveals herself as a medieval one of these though she casts herself in the best of light.  This medieval "Church Lady" presents herself as the martyr, suffering for her piety, and all her detractors - of course - are the villains, the uninformed, the ignorant.

Looking back at her life 700 years later, it is easy to fall into the trap of presentism. Yet Margery's spiritual warts and faults are not only seen through the lens of the 21st century, but also by the Judeo-Christian standards of the 1st century and earlier.

Many negative lessons of what not to do can be garnered by studying this medieval candidate for sainthood. Below are a five of them.


1. Judging others

"Judge not, that ye be not judged" are well known words from the Sermon on the Mount as well as Jesus' warning that we will be judged by the same standards we judge others (Matthew 7:1-2). But Jesus did say we are to use our brains and be fruit inspectors of a person's life - by their fruits you shall know them (Matthew 7:16-20).

Margery could be judgemental, like she was with the one erring son she mentioned, whom she admonished for dressing like a dandy and having a strong desire for the company of girls. Undoubtedly, this drove the boy away from her for many years. Also, Margery boasted that she knew who was saved, and who was not. Yet, the prophets in the Good Book, such as Samuel, caution that though we look at outer appearances, God sees the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

2.  Lecturing others on their self-improvement

It's so easy to want to correct someone else's bad habits - especially when they annoy us. But Jesus warned of our tendencies to see the speck in our brother's eye, but not the plank in our own. (Matthew 7:3-5)

St. Paul had something to say about this, too. When we see someone overtaken by a fault, the spiritual - in meekness - need to restore such a person, being cautioned that we could be likewise tempted. (Galatians 3:1) And speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15) Likewise, we are to kind to one another, loving and forgiving. (Ephesians 4:32)

St. Peter reminds us that love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) St. Paul exhorts us that when possible live peaceably with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

As Margery tended to moralized and correct others, was it no surprise her traveling companions ditched her so many times on pilgrimage? The priest kicked her out of the English hostel in Rome? Eventually, those in her hometown grew tired of her and shunned her?

3. Making a big show of spirituality

Margery wept and shrieked very publicly, very loudly, and incessantly! She was a total kill-joy to be around. It drove everyone crazy.

Jesus warned about not making a big show of our spirituality, but to do spiritual acts, such as fasting, in secret. Those who make such an outward display have their reward - the praise of men, but not from God. (Matthew 6:16-18) And Jesus had some scathing words for the scribes and Pharisees about their big show of spirituality, while their actions showed otherwise. (Matthew 23)

4. It's all about me

Margery was wrapped up with her many visions, but they were all about her. Most centered on her being involved with the everyday living of the Holy Family, and how Jesus was very pleased with Margery in every way.

St. John tells us that Jesus is the spirit of all prophesy - not us. (Revelation 19:10). St. Paul had an astonishing vision of the third heaven, of which he was not allowed to speak, and he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. (2 Corinthians 12:1-8)

With that thought, at the church I now attend has this unwritten ritual. When our minster says, "It's not about you." And the congregation responds back, "And it's not about you, either."

5. Pride

This is the biggy. Here is one example in Margery's life:

While praying in church, Margery had survived a direct hit from a  large stone and piece of wood which with a loud noise dropped from the vault. All witnesses agreed it was a supernatural event. Margery's detractors said it was sign of God's wrath directed at her. Her supporters said it was a miracle that she was unhurt and a sign of God's favor.

On pilgrimage to York to give thanks for such divine favor, Margery retold of the event to her audiences about God's sign: "Thei that worshep thee thei worshep me." (They that worship Thee worship me)

Quite boastful on her part? To her, anyone who modeled their conduct on her advice would be assured of reaching heaven. Her relentless pursuit of sainthood centered on her - her visions, her advice, her sacrifices, her own importance.

Pride greases the slippery slope from righteousness to self-righteousness.

St. John gave a warning about prima donnas, those who love the preeminence. (3 John 1:9-11) Topping Solomon's list of the seven things God hates is pride (Proverbs 6:16-19). Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Publican tell how the humble will be justified before God, but not the proud. (Luke 18:10-14)

Her countrymen, fellow pilgrims, and many prelates found Margery quite irritating. As a result,they ditched her; they made sport of her. She did not see it that way as she told sympathetic listeners that all her sufferings were for "the lofe of God."

What did the Apostles say of this? St. Peter wrote that there is no glory for suffering for our own faults. (1 Peter 2:19-20). Likewise St. Paul instructs us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. And if we do so, we are "not sober" - hence crazy. (Romans 12:3)


Her incessant and loud weeping and shrieking, her conceit, and her moralistic outlook gave much fodder for Margery's detractors to scorn her in the 15th century - much like today's critics scorn the pious through comedic skits such as "Church Lady."

Enough Margery bashing. Margery had her strengths and many admirable qualities worth emulating, which will be discussed in the final post.

Question:  Any good advice to avoid the slippery slope from righteousness to self-righteousness?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Advice for all seasons - Be safe

Be safe

One of the authors I follow on AuthorsDen appends that caring line in her thank you messages for those reviewing her many blogs, poems, and articles. It's great advice with universal and infinite applications especially where - literally - the rubber meets the road.

For those in northern climes, we are plowing into the middle of winter when driving can be more of a challenge. One of the physics articles I wrote back in 2009 was on that subject: Winter Driving, It's all about the friction.

I thought many would think "winter driving" was a dull subject, especially since it dealt with the different types of friction - static, kinetic - and how that plays out when slamming on the brakes, especially during inclement weather. Are your eyes rolling yet?

This article was surprisingly one of my most well read and googled articles.  Its salient point was that rolling wheels grab the slippery road better than locked wheels.

Why? You have to read the article. Hint. Hint. : )

Another good piece of advice for all seasons - Always wear your seat beat.

Seat beats can mitigate the consequences of Newton's First Law of Motion - Every object moves in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. And during a crash that object may be your body moving in a straight line until it is acted upon by an outside force - such as the force of an oncoming windshield, steering wheel, dashboard, car engine ....

I find the following video clip - Embrace Life - always wear your seat belt - so effectively illustrates this:

Let's hear it for the Brits! This video is compliments of the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership (SSRP):

Buckling up is good advice in all seasons in all places - even in England where they drive on the "wrong" side of the road.

Embrace Life


Be safe!

Question: Any great tips to share to be safe on the road, especially this winter?

Picture from everystockphotoTahoe