Before I was a chaplain, I was a pilot. I flew the Super Constellation, EC-121 and the Super Jolly Green Giant, HH-53. The “Connie” was a big four-engine propeller-driven airplane that was used for Airborne Early Warning and Control when I was flying it in the 1970s. The “Jolly” was a big helicopter used to rescue downed aircrew members in Vietnam. One of the exciting parts of flying both airplanes was instrument flying — flying “in the clouds.” Whether flying a big, multi-engine airplane or a helicopter, a pilot had to learn to fly in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) conditions.
It is a great metaphor for “walking by faith.” Let me try to explain.
Of course, one cannot “take off” or “land” in a cloud; so the start and the ending of the flight is “in the clear.” When one begins his or her walk with Christ, it must be “in the clear.” We must hear and believe the Gospel message. It is one reason I love the Christmas season so much. It is the perfect time to tell people of God’s great love for them. The entire Christmas message is about God’s amazing love for all mankind. Just like He promised long before the event, God sent His Son to be born of a virgin, celebrated by the shepherds, worshipped by kings and recognized in the Temple by Simeon and Anna. The Gospel message takes us from Christmas to Easter. It includes the message of the Cross of Christ. Jesus’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross paid the price of our sin and made “the Way” for us to be saved. It is not a “cloudy” message; it is very clear. Our faith in Christ is based on the very clear and powerful message that “the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” (I John 4:14)
Every believer in the Lord Jesus knows this wonderful assurance that we have been “born again” through our faith in Christ. It is not “cloudy,” it is very “in the clear.”
Back to the flying metaphor. Our life with Christ is like flying an airplane. We are mostly flying in clear skies. Almighty God opens the gates of heaven to guide us in the journey. He gives us a purpose for living. He gives us His Holy Spirit to fill our lives with love, joy, peace — the gifts of the Spirit. He gives our lives direction, whether we are a carpenter, a soldier, an executive or any other profession that serves the needs of the world. We are not called to walk in darkness, but light. So, we “take off” and begin the exciting life with Christ.
If someone told you, “life with Jesus is always clear skies and smooth sailing” (for the Navy-types), they must not have read the Bible or the newspaper. We know that life does have the cloudy days and even some pretty violent storms. Every time the storms come by, we hear the Master say, “Fear not.” I love those words. Like you, I have heard them many times. “Don’t be afraid; I am with you.” Dr. David Jeremiah wrote in his study Bible, “Safety, however, is not the absence of trouble but rather, the presence of Jesus.” This is a great truth, especially when you are walking by faith, “in the clouds.”
How does a pilot fly in IFR conditions? He/she trusts in the instruments. If you takeoff “at minimums,” you have to transition to the instruments very quickly. You keep a close eye on the airspeed, the vertical climb rate and the direction of flight. You cannot fly in the weather by “feeling,” you must fly by faith in the instruments. It is critical to believe the information that is coming from the instruments. When you break through the cloud deck, you can realize that the instruments were telling you the truth.
Almighty God has given us an incredible “flight instruction” manual, His Holy Word, the Bible. I call it the “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth.” The “short sermon” is when we are led by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ, we trust His Word to show us the way.
Let me close this “flight lesson” by getting us through the approach and landing. Every passenger on board hopes this part goes well.
Every pilot learns to put his/her trust in the instrument called the ILS (Instrument Landing System) indicator. In the classroom, it is easy. We learned about the radio signals that tell the indicator if the plane is above or below the glide path and left or right of course. The ILS indicator is just two “floating lines” — one horizontal, one vertical. If the horizontal line drifts down, you are above the glide path. If the vertical line drifts left, you are right of course. The goal is to keep the lines centered in the middle of the instrument. Flying the ILS indicator in the simulator taught us a skill that was more about trust than about radio signals and floating lines.
But — not until you are actually flying in the storm when the ceiling at your destination is at minimums, can you say, “I trust the ILS indicator to bring me home.”
So, there I was, in the soup. I dialed in the frequency for the ILS approach. The Air Traffic Controller directed me to the approach course and said, “Cleared for an ILS approach; call runway in sight.” The lines start to center. Then I trust them. Horizontal line rises; “pull up.” Vertical line drifts right; “turn toward the line.” All the way down; keep the lines centered in the middle of the instrument. Trust the ILS indicator. If I say, “I feel like I’m OK” and take my eyes off the instrument, I am in trouble. Trust the lines. I hit minimums and call the tower, “Runway in sight.” The controller says, “Cleared to land.”
God has given us a gift that will bring us all the way home; it is the Cross of Christ. The Gospel is this, “Christ died for our sins, he was buried and that He rose again the third day.” When we believe in Him and trust Him as our Savior and Lord, He says, “James/Susan, (He calls our name) this is your Father. I read you loud and clear.” He says, “Follow Me.” He says, “Do not be afraid; I am with you always even to the end of the age.”
And then, as we keep the Cross “centered” in the middle of our lives, the Lord Jesus, like the lines on the ILS indicator, leads us through the storms of life. And then, one glorious day He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; cleared to land.”
Chaplain Charles C. Baldwin (major general, USAF, retired) is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He and his wife, Anne, have been married for 46 years and have three married children and ten grandchildren. They are members of the First Baptist Church, Charleston, S.C.