Sermon

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

Skygods

By Richard Niell Donovan

I have been reading Skygods, the story of Pan Am Airlines—the world’s premier airline for many years. Pan Am flew to more exotic places than anyone. Pan Am was the first to fly jets. It called itself “the world’s most experienced airline.”

The Skygods were senior Pan Am pilots. The Skygods had begun their careers flying the great flying boats, and then had transitioned into jets. They were the world’s most experienced pilots; they were also the most vain. They were Captains, and they were the boss. They didn’t want input—and certainly not criticism—from co-pilots or navigators. The Skygods didn’t fly by the book. They flew by instinct and experience.

Then terrible things started happening at Pan Am.

• In March 1973, Clipper Rising Sun disappeared from the radar as it descended into Manila on a moonless night. It had slammed into a mountain. There were no survivors. The Captain, Lou Cogliani, was one of the Skygods.

• Four months later, Clipper 802 disappeared from the radar screen just after takeoff from Tahiti on a moonless night. The Captain, Bob Evarts, was one of the Skygods.

• Then Clipper 806 plowed through the jungle just short of the runway on Samoa, killing 91 people.

• Then a Pan Am Clipper hit a mountain on Bali. There were no survivors.

The FAA conducted an investigation. The report was devastating! It concluded that pilot error had caused the crashes. It labeled Pan Am pilots “sub-standard”. It said that the Skygods—flying by instinct and experience—were at fault.

Pan Am began retiring the Skygods. They retired one hundred Skygods! They began a new training program. They began to emphasize standard procedures—in other words, they began to fly by the book instead of by the seat of their pants.

The results! Pan Am never lost another plane due to pilot error. Never! In their first sixteen years flying jets, Pan Am crashed ten jet airliners, four in one year. The next sixteen years, flying by the book, they never lost one airplane due to pilot error. Not one!

I see a parallel between the Skygods and the American people. We don’t like authority. We don’t like being told what to do. We don’t like rules. We like to go with our instincts and intuition. We like to do that feels right and what feels good.

I see a parallel between the Skygods and the church. We certainly don’t come to church to learn rules and regulations. We come to church looking for spiritual values—for friendship—for meaning. For the most part, we operate at an instinctive, intuitive level in our religious lives, just as we do in our secular lives.

There is much that is good about that. None of us, including me, wants a rigid, rule-bound live. But we must consider another factor! Our conscience—our intuition—is only as trustworthy as its training. People do terrible things without a bad conscience, because they have not learned the difference between right and wrong—good and evil. An untrained conscience is not a trustworthy monitor. An untrained intuition is not a trustworthy guide.

As an example of what I am talking about, consider the areas of sexuality and family life. In the past thirty years, our instincts and intuition have not served us well in those areas.

• The sexual revolution started in the 1960s with the advent of the Pill. People began to feel that it was possible to have sex without consequences—because it was possible to have sex without babies.

• About the same time, young people rebelled against the war in Vietnam—and authority in general. They shouted, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” They threw out all the rules—particularly rules having to do with sex and family.

• The media, particularly television and movies, began to flood us daily with the new sexual morality. That continues to this day.

• The Biblical standard of sex within the context of a loving, life-long marriage appeared antiquated—old fashioned.

How well has all of that served us? Let’s take a look at the record:

• There were nearly a million divorces in the year 2000, and the numbers have been creeping up each year.

• Millions of children are being raised in poverty as a result of these divorces.

• In 1995, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development issued a report based on its nine-year study of young people in America. They concluded that we are neglecting our young people—our teenagers—to such an extent that half of them may be irrevocably damaged. They said that our teenagers are in danger of becoming “lifelong casualties” of drugs, alcohol, violence, suicide, AIDS, pregnancy, and failed educations. They noted that suicide among teenagers had more than doubled in twelve years. They reported that one of every four eighth graders have been drunk at least once (Steve Wulf, “Generation Excluded,” Time, October 23, 1995).

• A friend of mine visited an African-American congregation in Memphis. One of the men there commented that they had lost one generation—and were working desperately not to lose the next generation.

• Our children are in trouble because our families are in trouble.

• Our adults have as many problems as our teens. Nobody has it tougher than single-parents. They don’t have enough money or enough time. They live difficult—often desperate—lives. My heart goes out to single-parents. There is more loneliness and heartbreak out there than you can imagine.

Would we have solved all of those problems if we had not been so quick to abandon Biblical standards? No! Would we have solved all the problems if we had continued to emphasize the place of sex within the context of a loving marriage? No! Would we be better off than we are? Would our children be better off? I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t be. I can’t imagine how they could be worse off. The Bible could have helped us during the past several decades. It could have helped us a lot.

Paul said:

“Every Scripture is God-breathed
and profitable for teaching,
for reproof, for correction,
and for instruction in righteousness,
that the man of God may be complete,
thoroughly equipped for every good work” (3:16-17).

What Paul means is that the Bible, tough as it might seem at times, is a trustworthy guide. God gave it to us to help us.

The Bible is God’s love letter to us. It is the love letter of a loving Father who has set in writing all his wisdom—to guide his beloved sons and daughters—to keep us safe—to keep the door to happiness open to us.

Harold Kushner is a Jewish rabbi. You have probably heard of him. He wrote the best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner tells how Jews see the Bible. He said:

“I read the Torah as Jews have read it and loved it for centuries.
For example, I can tell you the middle word in the Torah.
I can tell you the middle letter in the Torah.

“Over the generations, Jewish scholars have read the Torah
not as a novel to see how it ends, but as a love letter.
For instance, ‘Why did God use this word instead of that word?’
‘Why is there a space here?’
‘Why a comma here instead of a period?’

“That’s the way we read a love letter and wonder,
‘What did he or she mean by this word?’

“We Jews have seen the Torah
as not just a book of stories or law codes,
but as a love letter from God.”

I found it interesting that Kushner focused specifically on the Torah as God’s love letter. The Torah is the books of Jewish law. How can anyone love the law—rules and regulations? The psalmist, in Psalm 19, talks about loving God’s law, and he tells us why. He says:

“Yahweh’s law is perfect, restoring the soul.
Yahweh’s testimony is sure, making wise the simple.
Yahweh’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart.
Yahweh’s commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever” (Psalm 19:7-9).

Only occasionally in our lifetimes do we come across something or someone who is really reliable—really trustworthy. It is a joy to find something or someone like that. We feel reassured when we know that we are in the presence of something or something that is really reliable—trustworthy. The psalmist, in Psalm 19, tells us that God is reliable and trustworthy—and that God’s law is therefore reliable—trustworthy too.

Rabbi Kushner talks about the Jewish law as a love letter from God. Wouldn’t you feel good about writing a love letter to your adolescent child—summarizing all the wisdom that you accumulated over a lifetime of hard knocks!

Wouldn’t you feel good about giving your child the opportunity to avoid your mistakes—to stand on your shoulders—to reach higher than you have ever reached!

Wouldn’t it be frustrating to see your child ignore your advice and scorn your efforts! That is how children often respond, isn’t it. They insist on learning the hard way—just like we did.

But wouldn’t it feel good to know that your child would, at some point, pick up the letter and begin to learn! Even if you couldn’t spare your child all the pain, wouldn’t it feel good to know that you could spare them some of it!

The Bible is God’s love letter to us. God didn’t write it to deny us pleasure or to cramp our style. He wrote it to keep us save and happy. Pick it up and read. Read it and learn. Let God begin to spare you some of life’s pain. Let God express his love to you through his faithful word.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2010 Richard Niell Donovan