Monthly Archives: June 2009

Touch the Face of God

Often, learning the “back story” of an event or a work of art enhances your appreciation of it. I had found the short poem, High Flight, to be inspirational since I first heard it. In the days before 24-hour broadcasting, TV stations would sign on around 5:00am and would sign off at about midnight. One of the stations in the Mobile, Alabama area always signed off with a brief film of military jets flying over magnificent landscapes and through towering cloud formations. The voice-over was a recitation of that poem, High Flight. The combination of words and images always instilled a sense of wonder, hope, and reverent faith. I hope that you have some store of inspirational images that you associate with the poem:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds –

And done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –

Wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence.

Hov’ring there I’ve chased the shouting wind along,

And flung My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew –

And, while with silent lifting mind

I’ve trod The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

(High Flight, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., 1941)

Although I had always associated the poem with soaring fighter jets, John Gillespie Magee’s back story reveals a much more intimate level of meaning in the poem. The author died in a training accident early in WW-II, long before the advent of jet aircraft. His flying arguably put him in closer contact with the elements he found so awe-inspiring. Still, aviators in ensuing years have identified with Magee’s concluding line, “Put out my hand and touched the face of God,” as they have flown at far faster speed and higher altitude, even flown in space.

John Magee, Jr. was born in Shanghai, China, in 1922, the son of Christian missionaries from America. After three years of boarding school in England, he returned to America in 1939 to begin studies at Yale University, where his father had become Chaplain. The next year, at the age of 18, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He received his wings June 22, 1941, and was assigned as a fighter pilot flying Spitfire aircraft in England. Following a high altitude training flight, he wrote HIGH FLIGHT on the back of a letter to his mother. He said that he started composing it at 30,000 feet, inspired by the ecstasy of this experience. Tragically, Magee’s Spitfire collided with a RAF trainer airplane in the congested skies of WW-II England. He attempted to bring his plane down, but the damage forced him to bail out. By then he was at too low an altitude for his parachute to open properly and Magee was killed. After his death, his poem became well known, inspiring multitudes of wartime fliers and countless others since.

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.

I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.

You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight.

You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.

I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—

your reassuring presence, coming and going.

This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!

[7-12] Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight?

If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there!

If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,

You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!

      Then I said to myself, "Oh, he even sees me in the dark! At night I’m immersed in the light!"

      It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

    [17-18] Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful! God, I’ll never comprehend them!

    I couldn’t even begin to count them— any more than I could count the sand of the sea.

    Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!

    [23-24] Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me;

    Cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about;

    See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong— then guide me on the road to eternal life.

    (Psalm 139:1-12, 17-18, 23-24,the Message )

    you , too, can put out your hand and touch the face of God. It may not be in the clouds, but it could be touching the face of a child. You can touch the face of God as you celebrate God’s gifts of beauty or fruitful bounty in your flower or vegetable garden. You can find God touchably present as you share a joyful moment with a loved one, or as you comfort someone with God’s grace. Whatever your work, you can know that God is within reach as you know the thrill of a job well done, or as you are freshly stricken with the majesty of God’s creation.

    John Magee’s faith was a vital part of his living awareness of God’s closeness in everything around him as he went about his work. Put out your hand and touch the face of God wherever you are today.

    – J. Edward Culpepper