Touch the Face of God

Blind Faith (No. 28, 2017)
Weekly Devotional for July 13, 2017
Touch the Face of God

Last week our younger son’s family was on vacation on the Gulf
Coast near Ft. Morgan. Articles about coastal weather and events caught my
eye. One article told of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s amazing “flight
demonstration” aerobatics squadron, presenting an air show at their home
base in Pensacola. The show included a fly-in of Stearman biplanes in order
to provide flights to WW-II pilots who trained in the workhorse plane during
the war. Flights of fancy launched by memories of the Blue Angels, Stearman
biplanes, and personal flights often land me in recollections of one of my
most favorite poems and a psalm that is central to my faith.

The short poem, “High Flight,” has inspired me since I first heard it.
Before 24-hour cable TV, local stations would sign off around midnight. The
Pensacola ABC affiliate signed off with a brief film of the Blue Angels jets
flying over magnificent landscapes and through towering cloud formations. A
voice-over recited “High Flight.” The words and images always instilled in
me a sense of wonder, hope, and reverent faith:

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 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 put him in close 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. (I recited the poem in the Sunday evening
worship service the night of the first manned landing on the moon.)

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 began studies at Yale University in 1939 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 to pilot a
Spitfire fighter plane 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 on a subsequent flight
with a RAF trainer airplane in the congested skies of WW-II England. He
attempted to land his severely damaged plane, and did avoid a densely
populated area. He was at too low an altitude for his parachute to open
properly when he bailed out and Magee was killed. After his death his poem
became an inspiration to multitudes of wartime fliers and countless others

“High Flight” is instantly captivating to anyone who loves
flying. I am one of those. I will eagerly board and fly in any aircraft. My
favorite flights have been with my Dad piloting small Cessnas, and a flight
in an open-cockpit Stearman bi-plane used as a trainer by the Tuskegee
Airmen. From my limited flights I identify with Magee’s marvel at God’s
magnificent sky as I have flown through it, and with his sense that God is
close enough to put out a hand and touch his face.

Learning Magee’s background caused me to appreciate his poem as
more than an exultation over the experience of flying. High Flight is a
statement of wonder and faith as the poet was doing what he loved to do. In
the course of doing his job – and finding that his work brought him profound
experiences of grandeur and awareness of God’s presence – Magee was inspired
to express his sustaining faith. Magee’s work environment was among the
clouds, but his experience of wonder at God’s creation and his elation at
God’s nearness can be shared as well by those who remain earthbound. His
affirmation that he could “put out my hand and touch the face of God” is the
confident faith that is available to anyone in any pursuit who becomes aware
that God is immanently present in the marvelous world of daily life.

A Hebrew psalmist also marveled at how close at hand God
constantly remains. Psalm 139 is a key statement for my own faith in God’s
unfailing presence. It is a superb companion Bible reference for the
faithful expressions of High Flight:

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
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
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, MSG)

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 awed by 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

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