Up is Down…


 bonanza plane crash

When I was in college, I got a hankering to learn to fly.  The cost was not out of reach back then.  I would sneak away from campus, down to the Bessemer Airport, and get an hour of instruction for $35.

Good pilots know how to focus.  I can still hear the voice of my flight instructor Tom telling me on final approach, “Airspeed! Outside! Airspeed! Outside!”  He was trying to drill into my head that when you land, keep looking at your airspeed and keep looking at your target – the runway.  You need reference points.

I was not a good pilot.  I don’t have ADHD on the ground, but I did in the air.  There were too many interesting things to see: houses, farms, other planes, roads, birds, sky – it was all so amazing.  I would be looking around at amazing sights while Tom was shooting, “Airspeed! Outside!”

Beginning pilots are VFR:  Visual Flight Rules. This means you fly only when you have space to see between the clouds and ground.  You can get an IFR rating: Instrument Flight Rules.  When you have this rating, you can fly into clouds, through fog; but you rely on your instruments to tell you where you are.

Tom explained in vivid detail what would happen if a beginning pilot like me flew into a cloud: You would get disoriented.  Unless you relied on your instruments, you would begin to think up was down and down was up.  I thought Tom was making this up, but he told me we rely more on visual references than we think.

I think all flight instructors have a book of horror stories to tell their students.  Tom proceeded to tell me about a Doctor who only had a VFR rating, but was over-confident.  He took off under marginal VFR conditions, traveling cross country.  Conditions worsened.  He got disoriented.  He flew his Bonanza straight into the ground, killing him.

When you have 10 hours of flight time under your belt, that kind of story makes a point.  During the few years I flew, I avoided marginal conditions at all costs.   Tom’s voice rang in my memory, “In the burned wreckage, they found him with the yoke pushed all the way in.  The only explanation: He thought he was headed up, when he was really headed down.”

Jesus gives us the same warning.  The most dangerous sin of all, the unforgivable sin, he said, was to believe that evil was good and good was evil.  When you are spiritually disoriented, you fly your life into destruction.

Even Christians accept this line of reasoning too often.  We believe an explosion of our temper will solve our problems.  We believe we can steal and cheat and never get caught.  We believe we can control our spouses or our children.  We believe our way is better than God’s.  We wind up flying our lives right into the ground.

The only way to stop this is to check your reference points.  “Airspeed! Outside!” can be changed to “Worship! Bible! Prayer!”  Jesus followers believe worship matters because it is a reminder of true reality, God’s reality, God’s Kingdom.  That’s why being in church to worship matters.  Bible knowledge is not just so you can win Bible Trivia; it is so you have a guide to ultimate truth.  Prayer is daily conversation with God so you can stay in touch with His reality.  What are your reference points?

When do you cross the line to the unforgivable sin?  When you no longer check your reference points.  When your heart is so disoriented you believe what is evil is good for you and what is good for you is evil.  This is what happened to Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus.  He got disoriented.  Despite overwhelming evidence, despite the advice of his own cabinet, he would not see things God’s way.  He flew his army, his nation, and his own life right into ground.

Knowing reality, knowing up from down, knowing good from evil – it’s the most important skill of life.

Are you flying up?  Or down?

Spewing Liver…

spit out

I realize most of you grew up in tasteful families with genteel manners, where everyone was born knowing which fork to use for dessert and which fork to use for salad.  I grew up in a family that was proud to have forks.

We did have some couth.  Chewing with your mouth open or smacking your food meant you were sent to your room without finishing supper and with no dessert.  “That’s disgusting,” Mamma would say.

At this point, I should inform you that I hate liver.  As far back as I can remember, someone has been encouraging me to eat liver.  I was told, “How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it?”  I’ve never tried self-performed surgery either but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.  It did not matter if the liver came from a chicken or a cow, my parents thought there was some virtue in consuming it.

Mamma finally decided on a fool-proof plan to make me eat liver: she would fry it, like fried steak.  Mamma made the best fried steak south of the Suwanee River.  She would flour it with salt and pepper mixed in, and slide it into an iron skillet of hot Crisco.  Then she would cook rice and homemade milk gravy (this was before cholesterol).  Green beans that had simmered all day with a ham hock and homemade biscuits with butter completed the meal.

I came in from a hard day of running around being a boy.  Being a consummate consumer of Mamma’s fried selections, I knew this was not fried chicken.  I asked Mamma, “What’s for supper?”  She said, without cracking a smile, “Beef!  Now, set the table.”  I neglected to ask which part of the cow would be served, and with mouthwatering, I set the table.

We said the blessings, and used our single forks to spear a piece of crispy brown meat.  I quickly cut a piece, lifted my fork to my mouth, and let my lips capture the prize.

My taste buds registered surprise.  The crispy fried outside was familiar, but beyond that thin layer was a meat of unknown origin. Instead of the sweetness of round steak, there was a bitterness, like burnt motor oil (don’t ask how I know burnt motor oil is bitter). My brain began to frantically search its memory files.  With amazing speed my neurons went back into the cobweb covered taste recollections.  The taste fit the profile of “liver.”

I promise I did not do this intentionally.  It was an involuntary reflex.  My brain sent an emergency message to my lungs, my tongue, my cheeks, and my lips saying, “Expel this heathen substance!”  I spewed the half-eaten chunk of liver out of my mouth, into the atmosphere.  It landed on my brother’s plate.  He yelled my name: “Clay!”  My brain had moved onto other things, like chugging my glass of sweet tea to wash that nasty taste off my taste buds.

There then ensued a great family debate.  My brothers insisted I be banished from the table because I had been caught chewing with my mouth open.  I insisted I was innocent, because: 1) I had not repeatedly chewed, only moving my jaw once; 2) Spewing a deadly substance out one’s mouth is not a violation of Amy Vanderbilt’s Rules of Etiquette, but a survival tactic; and 3) My Mother lied to me.

Mercy prevailed and I filled up on rice and gravy (which was good, even if it derived from liver).

Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spew you out of my mouth.”

Jesus cannot stand people or churches that are apathetic and disengaged.  To him, they taste like liver.  Jesus can handle opposition.  He loves passion.  He loathes passivity.

When I was an adult, I told a doctor about my aversion to liver.  He said, “I don’t blame you.  Never eat another animal’s poison filter.”

Are passive Jesus followers, passive churches, bags of poison that Jesus will spew out of his mouth?

Or maybe the better question is, “Is Jesus about to spew me out of his mouth?”

The Empty House…

 two story house

No one lived in the old Durrance home place.  The two-story house sat empty most of my childhood and teen-age years.  What had once been home to a family was home to rats and snakes.  The house was a hazard.

The surviving grandson, Juddy, owned the place.  He decided to burn it down (you could do such things in those days).  Mildred, married to a Durrance descendant, asked me to go over with her to see if anything was left in the house worth saving.

The house had been emptied of all furniture years before.  But strewn on the floor were old papers, bills, and books.  It was debris left from decades of a family living and farming and making this house a home.

In an upstairs bedroom I found a Bible.  It laid on top of a pile of papers.  I picked it up and opened to the flyleaf.  Written there was the name “Sam Durrance.”

Sam was a country preacher legend where I come from.  He died before I was born, but I heard the stories.  Once, preaching at Fort Green, he got so excited he ran on the tops of the slat-backed pews from the front of the open-air tabernacle to the back and then ran up the center aisle, never missing a beat (church was more exciting back then).  Not content with just preaching, Sam was a County Commissioner, and a friend of political powers.  He had other colorful traits I won’t mention.

Now, here was his Bible, in an empty house, about to be burned.  If I left the Bible, it would burn up.  I picked the Bible up, gave it to Mildred, and told her if she didn’t want it, I would be honored to have it.  Just then, Juddy drove up.  We showed him our find and asked him if he wanted it (hoping he would say no).  But he said yes, and took the Bible with him.  I never saw it again.

A few days later, Juddy burned the house.  We saw the smoke four miles away at our place.  When we passed by a few days later, we saw still-smoking ruins.  The house was gone, everything good taken out of it.

Jesus told a story about a demon who left a man, trying to find a better place.  After wandering around for a while, he failed to find a new soul that would welcome him.  So, he went back to his old home.  He found the soul clean, but empty.  The demon went out and found seven other spirits eviler than itself, and the eight of them moved into the empty soul.  Jesus finished the story by saying the man was worse off than he was before (Matthew 12:43-45).

Jesus is teaching us that it is not enough to get rid of evil in our lives.  This is why most of us fail in our battle against evil.  We falsely believe if we have enough willpower, we can stop doing wrong.  We succeed for a little while, until evil comes back with a greater force, and wrecks our souls again. We’ve got to fill up our souls with something else, something more powerful than evil.   We must fill our souls with Jesus.

I think about the old Durrance place, empty all those years.  But there was something eternal there, a Bible, God’s word which endures forever.  When the Bible was removed, the only thing really to do with that old wreck of a house was to burn it down.

If Jesus is not occupying your life, evil will move in.  It will shove out everything eternal, until finally, your soul is like an empty house, only fit for snakes and rats and burning.  That’s not what God wants for you.  He wants to give you eternal life and make your soul his home, his beautiful home.

Is your soul empty?  Or full of Jesus?



My brothers and I were given the chore of cleaning out the horse stalls.  Steve was seventeen, Bobby was fourteen and I was ten.  Over time, the horse stalls fill up with processed horse feed.  My step-father, Lawrence, never one to waste a resource, wanted us to shovel it onto the truck, and then shovel it out into a sandy section of the orange grove to build up the soil.

My brothers made it their mission in life to let me know where I stood in the pecking order.  When they were left in charge, I would have to run around the house three times before I could have one potato chip (I was a lot thinner then).  When the three of us were assigned chores, they tried to arrange things so they did the supervision and I did the labor.  This chore was no different.

The problem, however, with them supervising and me shoveling was that a scrawny ten-year-old boy can’t shovel very much.  They soon realized they would have to work as well.  Much colorful language ensued as we piled the contents of the horse stalls onto the truck.

We all three crammed into the seat (this was before super crew cabs) and drove over to the sandy place in the grove.  A fight ensued about who would drive the truck and who would shovel.  My brothers realized that if I shoveled, we’d be there all afternoon.  That’s when the miracle occurred:  they let me drive.

To those of you aghast at the idea of a ten-year-old driving a truck, I should explain we were all taught to drive early.  In the country, driving a truck or a tractor was an essential skill.  I learned to drive in a 1959 Willys Jeep truck three-speed, when I was five.  No body worried about me running into something.  There were only orange trees and cows.  The trees would stop me and the cows had enough sense to get out of the way.

My brothers climbed in the back with the shovels, giving me strict instructions that I was to ease forward, then stop.  They would shovel out the soil enrichment material and then I would ease forward again.  I put the truck in first gear, let out the clutch slow as I had been taught and eased forward.

After about five minutes, boredom had set in.  A bored ten-year-old mind is a dangerous thing.  I began to remember all the times my brothers made me run around the house for a potato chip.  I remembered them telling me about the monsters that only lived under my bed, because they liked young, tender meat.  I remembered when they told me I was adopted (I’m not and I have the pictures to prove it).  Then temptation came to me.

I can’t say where the idea formed, only that it sprang to life in my conscious.  What would happen if the next time they yelled, “Pull forward,” I popped the clutch and plopped them into the load of processed horse feed?  They would be covered in revenge.

A small voice in my head said, “Love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you.”  Another voice said, “It’s time to get even.”  Can you tell which voice belonged to God and which belonged to Satan?

Steve yelled out, “Pull forward.”  I popped the clutch.  They plopped into the pile of processed horse feed, revenge covering their faces.

I had enough sense not to stick around.  I opened the door of the truck and ran for the house.  I had a good head start but forgot they had the truck.  I looked over my shoulder to see Steve gripping the steering wheel, wiping the processed horse feed out of his eyes, bearing down on me.  Bobby was still floundering in the back of the truck, unable to get his footing.  I zig-zagged around orange trees, trying to shake them.  Steve was grinding gears, making those four cylinders whine.  I reached the house just as the truck skidded to a halt.  Mamma came out to see what all the fuss was about.

I can still see her, looking at one son, panting, out of breath, then looking at her other sons, covered with processed horse feed.  She covered her mouth and tried to look disapproving, but she broke into laughter instead.  She did not punish me.

Steve and Bobby, however, got their revenge a few days later.  This time we were in the grove, pruning trees.  They found a black snake, a harmless little thing.  Then a tempting thought entered their mind.   They waited until my back was turned and threw the snake at me.

I don’t know who was more traumatized, the snake or me.  The snake went one way and I went the other.  The war of the brothers continued most of that summer.

It’s been a long time since I thought about that summer and a long time since I was tempted to get revenge on my brothers.  My mind focused on different things.

Your battles, your wars always continue until you say “no” to temptation, “no” to revenge.  The best way to defeat temptation is to focus your soul elsewhere.  Focus on what God wants for you, not on putting people in their place.

Funny, though.  Suddenly I have this urge to call my brothers and pretend to be an agent of the IRS, telling them they have a tax audit.  Time for me to refocus again.

Peter Meets Jesus on Easter

Jesus laughing

It is just a fragment of a verse: “The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34).”  On the day that changed the world, Jesus took time to personally appear to Simon Peter.  Peter, of course, would become the leader of the church, the preacher of the first Christian sermon, and the one who broke the racial barrier by offering the gospel to the Gentiles.  Most scholars agree with the tradition that Peter provided Mark with the stories for his gospel.  Yet there is no detail of this encounter in Mark’s gospel.  Only Luke mentions it.  Why?

Imagine the President calling you personally.  I’d sure post it on Facebook.  I’d probably write a column about what was said.   One thing is for sure; I wouldn’t keep quiet about it.

I can’t help but wonder how this encounter between Jesus and Peter happened.    Maybe Peter was haunted by the events of early Friday morning.  He had vowed he would never deny Jesus, he would never run away, he would never be a coward.  In the span of minutes, he broke all his promises and hid in shame the rest of the day.

Saturday after the crucifixion was a day of rest.  Travel was forbidden.  Peter was house bound with the other disciples, perhaps still in the upper room.  When Sunday dawns, it is time to make plans for the next chapter of life.

All travel plans are put on hold by Mary’s news that the tomb of Jesus is empty.  Peter and John run to the tomb.  John gets there first; Peter arrives and goes in; John follows.  John believes.  Peter still has questions.

Peter and John go back to the other disciples.  No one knows what happened in that meeting.  My hunch is they argued (they were good at that).  John argues Jesus is risen.  He puts together all of Jesus’ teachings, predictions, and the empty tomb, and believes resurrection is the only logical possibility.  Other disciples are saying “No way!”  Some argue to get out of town now; others say let’s wait and see.

I wonder if Peter was off in a corner, for once not the leader.  Maybe part of him hoped it was true.  Maybe part of him was worried it was true.  What do you say to the Risen Lord you denied three times?

Did Peter go for a walk to get out of the house while everyone argued?  Did he slip down back streets where no one was likely to see him and identify him as one of Jesus’ disciples?  Did he find an unmarked trail up the Mount of Olives to be alone?  Did he look down at the city, seeing the Temple Jesus cleansed, the hill where Jesus died and the house of the Chief Priest, where he had denied Jesus?

Maybe it was at this moment that Jesus appeared to Peter.  I can imagine Jesus coming up behind Peter, tapping him on the shoulder, and saying, “Hi Rocky!”  Peter would have nearly jumped out of his skin, hearing that voice he knew so well.

When Peter turned and saw Jesus’ face, what did he see?  I imagine Jesus smiling at him.  Peter might have taken two steps back in shock.  Did Jesus reach out and bear hug Peter?  I can see him doing that.

What did Jesus say?  “I forgive you?”  Did Jesus remember another moment with Peter, when he walked on the water and his fear got the best of him?  When Peter started to sink, Jesus grabbed his hand, and said, “O you of little faith.  Why did you doubt?”  I wonder if Jesus repeated those same words again, with a twinkle in his eye.

We will never know what happened during Jesus’ encounter with Peter.  My hunch is the moment was too sacred for Peter, too holy to ever describe.

Sometimes if you try to describe something amazing, it makes it diminish in your soul.  Telling the story makes it lose size and power.  I think that’s what happened to Peter.  This was the holiest moment of all, to be treasured and never diminished.

Everyone needs that kind of moment with Jesus.  Have you had yours?