Saturday, 19 March 2011

Parachutes and Harnesses

This morning offers a stunning blue sky, steam rising from the formerly frosted roofs of sheds and other outbuildings in curling billowing clouds, a compelling stillness in the air, and perfect conditions for a whole array of flying. Within a short amount of time, the sailplanes will be turning in the thermals above the hills not far from here, and that most compelling of spring and summer sounds, small aircraft practicing in the distant sky. If conditions remain as they are into the evening, hot air balloons with begin their majestic ascensions, with the occasional roar of the burners audible from the ground.

This reminded me of a recent holiday that I enjoyed with my family. It was one of those adventure holidays where bicycles and walking shoes were more the order of the day than flip-flops and suncream. During my stay I chose to pour two hours of my life into an activity called 'High Ropes', where I was called to traverse beams many feet in the air, perform tricks whilst balanced sixty or seventy feet from the ground, climb vertical poles and balance at its top, throwing myself at a trapeze bar - just for fun! Now I should say that I was wearing a support harness throughout and no possible harm could come to me. The same for my gliding - I always wear a reserve parachute in the event of the catastrophic failure of the near-parachute I would already be dangling under. Pilots of planes and fixed-wing gliders will also have such things - fail-safes.

Oddly though, when standing on a round beam seventy feet in the air and then doing star-jumps on it; when gliding at two or three thousand feet over cliffs and rugged mountain tops - the fact of the failsafe is almost completely forgotten. Rationally, both activities should have next to no risk, but it doesn't feel that way. When we stand at the edge of something very high and look down, we feel unsafe, without need. It the top of a vertical pole, standing on a plate that was barely large enough to accommodate my feet, that was wobbling as wooden poles do, my heart beat fast and I felt afraid. I have felt unsafe while gliding.

There are times in our own lives when we feel completely unsupported, alone and vulnerable. We have all experienced those times to one extent or another. They are not nice, and we almost always feel unsafe. But like those who like to climb trees or glide through the air, there is never a time when we do what we do without the embrace of a harness, and without the 'failsafe' of a parachute or a guide-line. God is beside us always, in all that we do. How easy it is, in the adrenaline of the moment, or the terror, or the exuberance - to feel fearful, yet we need always to pause but a moment and remember that whatever we do we are never unsupported. At times we may find the support to be un-comfy or heavy, inadequate or excessive - but it is always there. The thing about all the supports in our lives, their presence is often gentle and more apt to be unnoticed, and so it goes. Perhaps that is how it has to be so that we feel free and not stifled, and that sensing fear or foreboding is simply part of the experiences of living this life.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Excitement of Spring

Today granted me one of those 'magical moments'; a time when after many cold months the sun felt warm on my skin and the world seemed more colourful and bright. It didn't just please me; it also suited the many glider pilots who were sweeping around the skies over Wendover.

I was reminded of the time when I learned to fly. In the beginning I was reticent; fearful perhaps. It took me an age to take advantage of a gifted lesson. The first few attempts were poor and I more often than not landed in a ball on a hillside with my glider. However, I will never forget how I felt. It is perhaps the same for those times when we gently acquire new skills of any kind - that inability to think about, or do anything else. After my first hop into the air (well, one that could be counted in minutes and not seconds), I could think of nothing else for weeks afterwards. I would daydream about flying, counting the days until the next opportunity. The fear dissipated fairly quickly to give way to this intoxicating addiction to the new talent.

In my spiritual life, I have experienced the same effervescence! I have been a practicing Christian all of my life, but it was only in my teens that I took a hold of prayerfulness with any intention. I remember feeling frightened of it, that it felt forced that it made me feel oddly coy. I remember the first time when prayer felt normal, an encounter that stopped being about how I felt and one when it just happened. Nothing much beats that feeling of getting it right for the first time, or the second, or the third, or ...

Spring is a stunning season. Death moves into new life. The air warms and becomes fragrant. Colours re-awaken and the world seems so hopeful. It is a time when pilots fly, perhaps for the first time in months, with all the excitement of the first flight. It is also a time when our partly dormant senses come alive to the hope in God, the hope of the Resurrection that is only days away. We have Lent to take stock and make preparations. Like the checks that pilots have to make - without them, that perfect flight may not be possible for lack of the right frame of mind. Surely the same can be said for our flight with God. The air is perfect and it is waiting. So is God; time to fly!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Taking In The Scenery

Free-flight (that is, without an engine) is dependent on a number of things to make it possible - suitable air being chief among those things. Indeed, powered flight is affected by the same phenomena, but due to advances in powered-flight, their effects are less apparent. One of the great joys of gliding is that it demands a new sense, and that is to have a sense of the activities and behaviours of an invisible force - the air.

All glider-pilots want all air to go upwards. Why? Because it is the very thing that we need for our flight to go as we had planned, and is the means by which that flight is made longer and therefore more fulfilling. Upwards is what we want. Prayerful people also feel the same about the action of another very invisible force - the Spirit. We quite naturally want every prayerful encounter to be satisfying, as long as we choose it to be, and in every sense the answer to the prayer that we make.

Pilots of non-powered aircraft will know only too well that not all air goes up. It rotates, smashes against solid surfaces like breakers against rocks on our coast-lines. It whirls and swirls, and yes, it even goes upwards at times (as often as it goes downwards). Glider pilots cope with this by recognising how air reacts in given places. Behind a hill, air rotates turbulently - not for good flying. Above flat dry areas drenched in sunlight, the air invariable rises in thermals - wonderful flying. If the air hits a slope it rises like water would, and it is possible to surf that air like so many folks on a Cornish beach! Little techniques bring such considerable yield.

The same must be true for prayerful people. Little techniques work, are time tested. Taking in the scenery is perhaps the most valuable pre-requisite for a healthy flight, or a worthwhile moment of prayer or reflection. To do either blindly, without some 'flight-plan' would render the moment to luck and often to failure. As a pilot should, so should prayerful Christians stop and enjoy the view. After all, like any wind the Spirit can only be discerned in its effects on other things. Of course, if we are only ever passengers, then we can do all of the this with eyes closed - but where is the joy in that?

Monday, 17 January 2011

On Being Known

When anyone takes to the sky, there is a raft of papers and a plethora of documents that determine the fitness (in all senses) of the pilot in question to be more than a few feet off the ground. The simple fact is that every human being in the air, and in control of an aircraft (powered or otherwise) is fairly comprehensively known to the regulatory authorities. There is no real way of avoiding that, and for good reason.

We find ourselves, at the moment,  in the wonderful and hopeful season of Epiphany. The season of 'revealing' gives us a chance to unwrap afresh the perfect gift of Jesus in our midst. It also grants us another chance to unwrap ourselves and discover the 'us' that God knew before we were born (cf. Ps 139). I believe that the person that God knows, as distinct from one we think we know, ourselves, takes a lifetime to get to know.

I am blessed with twin daughters who, perhaps unsurprisingly, look very much alike - except to their mother and I. To us, they couldn't be more dissimilar - not because we have especially good attentions to detail - but because we 'know them' so much better than anyone else. Few people can tell them apart, as you would expect. Those people are good, kind, and caring people - it is just that they are not blessed to know as we know. If that difference can be so marked in humans, imagine what we must really look like to God who knew us even before our mothers?

Friday, 22 October 2010

Up and Downs

I was sat in a plane last week and watched rapt at the information that was placed before us: flight time, altitude, temperature, and so on - I confess that a world formed by numbers in flux appeals to me. However, I was reminded of a flight I once took in America - a short hop. The plane took off, reached a given height and then immediately began to lose height until it found the runway.

To me that seemed pointless. Gaining height, maintaining a cruising altitude and then gliding back down when on the landing approach - now that makes sense to me. Imagine a flight path like Table Mountain in South Africa, as opposed to one of those pointy mountains that our kids draw for us with zigzag snow just below the summit! Why climb to a height only to come down from it immediately?!

I don't doubt that there are clear reasons for doing that - fuel economy maybe, but I wondered if this is not a pattern of flight that we adopt in our own lifetimes: we are born and we gain altitude through education, qualification and/or promotion until we run out of time and dive down to the 'landing'. I have seen lives lived like that - without any plateaus, without any cruising height.

It seems to me that a life without cruising height is a life constructed only of hopes followed endings - but without the enjoyment of the fruits of those hopes and dreams somewhere in the middle. Maybe that is what is wrong with modern living - we are all so focussed on status and excelling that in the event we reach that lofty heights that we seek, we have not a moment to enjoy the ride or its views before our mortality causes us to make our landing approach.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I have just journeyed to Jerusalem, and for a period of a couple of weeks. Such a journey required of me two conscious thoughts: how long and why. These questions attracted their answers and those answers then informed what I took with me on that journey - both in terms of specifics and in terms of volume.

To me, prayer is a journey before and with God. It seemed clear to me, as I toiled across an airport concourse with a large suitcase that I had just that which I needed - perhaps an obvious statement, but one that nonetheless should not be ignored. Had I travelled for a weekend, I would have taken a small pack. Had I travelled for a gliding holiday, I would have carried with me things quite distinct from the clothing and materials that I had packed for this journey.

I have pondered this over the last little while in regards to my own prayer life. Whilst I can only ever speak for myself, I now recognise that in prayer I take with me into that encounter with God what I think I need, and mindful of the time-frame in question. This is to say, I am try to be purposeful in prayer - be that the purpose of pondering, of supplication etc. What I am now conscious of is not to turn up for a 'weekend' prayer packed for a month, and not for a study tour with my gliding paraphernalia.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Prevailing Winds

With any kind of flight, the stability and condition of the air around the aircraft (be that powered or free-flying) is an important factor in the duration, quality or indeed possibility of the flight.

As ever, it is a matter of reading the invisible by the effect that it has on the visible, in order to judge what may or may not happen.

An odd thing that pilots discover during the process of learning to fly gliders is that air speed and ground speed are not the same, and are in fact mutually exclusive. Simply put, if your air speed is 10 miles-per-hour directly into a wind of 10 mph, then your ground speed will be zero. Put another way, you may actually be flying very fast, but from the ground you are still.

The movement of the invisible forces of the air condition the flight to such an extent that we have to work with it in order to arrive at the place where we have to arrive. To try and land with the wind behind us would force us to the ground at near terminal speed, so we fly into the wind.

I was cycling into wind over the weekend just past, and this whole notion occured to me once again. I think that I have to regard the Spirit as the air in which I try to fly. I know there are times when I have seemed to the world that I am at a complete spiritual standstill (I may have even shared their view), when in fact, I was passing through the Spirit at speed. I think it is easy to become hooked on the achievement of ground-speed in prayer rather than air-speed. Temporal speed or spiritual speed?