The Problem of Man-Flight – Louis Albert Banks (historic sermon 1855-1933)
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” —Isaiah 40:31
A few weeks ago the postman laid upon my table a little volume entitled ” The Problem of Man-flight.” I opened it curiously, and found it to be a brief summary of the efforts of mankind in aerial navigation. As I looked it over, I thought of all the checkered career of the persistent effort of man. by aid of balloon and flying-machine, to navigate the air. I thought of John Miiller and his artificial eagle ; of the war balloons in the siege of Paris ; of the parachutes and the silly victims of the county fairs; of Darius Green and his living-machine: of all the hodgepodge of wise and unwise efforts of our race to imitate the winged creatures of the air. Put as I pondered my meditation took a more serious mood, and I said to myself, After all, this desire to fly must be a very deep and permanent characteristic of the soul. No amount of failure is able to permanently put it down or disappoint it. And, whatever may be the future success of the navigation of the air by the human body, there can be no doubt that a much more important flight of the soul is possible to us every one.
We have in this noble passage of Isaiah the very simple conditions by which the soul may obtain wings and mount up to a noble career. If there is in your heart a sense of revolt against narrow limitations, and a longing for wider vision and nobler achievement, let us study sincerely the conditions of a buoyant, soaring life ; for we may be sure that no great life will ever result from anything less than honest preparation for it. So much of any great, successful achievement is hidden away out of sight, that many people, who envy the triumph of great souls and covet their success, do not dream of the hard toil, the tremendous self-denial, and the supreme devotion out of which the victory which they covet was born.
How few people, seeing the splendid ocean steamer sailing on the New York Harbor, think of the great coal-bins down underneath the water in the ship’s heart, and the scores of sweating workers feeding its hidden fires, from which comes its splendid speed. On the City of Paris there are sixty firemen, who feed the fiery maws of the forty-five furnaces that create steam in nine boilers. Fifty coal-passers shovel fuel from the bunkers to the furnace door, where the firemen toss it in. And there is something more than the mere shoveling of coal in firing : the stoker must know how to put on the coals so that they will not burn too quickly nor deaden the fire; and he must know how to stir or poke the fire so as to get all the heat on the coal. These grimy workers, hidden away out of sight in the ship’s hold, shovel into the furnaces fifteen tons of coal every hour, or three hundred and sixty tons a day. And yet many people cross the ocean without thinking once of that little world underneath them, whose toilers, by their unresting activity, render it possible tor the ship to make the passage in a single week.
Let this lead us to think how important it is that we wisely feed the fires of the soul, that it may make rapid and glorious flights across life’s stormy sea.
The first great condition that is laid down for us is that of waiting on the Lord. They that wait on the Lord shall fly. He that prays in secret is rewarded openly. Joseph’s prayers in the dungeon in Egypt were rewarded on its throne. Daniel and his friends, praying in their secret chamber together, found reward in wide opportunity for influence and blessing. There is no kind of prayer needed so much in our age as secret prayer. There is no art that is in such danger of beino- lost as the art of meditation. This nervous, restless, inventive time of ours, with its rapid travel, its noise and bustle, threatens to rob men of the old habit of solitary meditation and communion with their own souls and with God. Yet nothing can take the place of that sincere, reverent waiting upon the Lord. David said that when he was in trouble the Lord would hide him in His pavilion, in the secret of His tabernacle, and would shut him in from the strife of tongues ; and so you and I need, every one of us, daily to have some time when we are shut in with God and protected, for a while at least, from the strife of tongues. Father Ryan’s old poem about the valley of silence tells it most helpfully,
“I walk down the valley of silence,
Down the dim, voiceless valley alone;
And I hear not the fall of a footstep
Around me, save God’s and my own;
And the hush of my heart is as holy
As hovers where angels have flown.
Long ago I was weary of voices
Whose music my heart could not win ;
Long ago I was weary of noises
That fretted my soul with their din;
Long ago I was weary of places
Where I met but the human and sin.
I walked through the world with the worldly,
Yet I craved what the world never gave ;
And I said, ‘ In the world each ideal
That shines like a star on life’s wave
Is tossed on the shores of the real,
And sleeps like a dream in a grave.’
And still did I pine for the perfect,
And still found the false with the true ;
And sought ‘mid the human for heaven,
But caught a mere glimpse of its blue ;
And I wept when the clouds of the mortal
Veiled even that glimpse from my view.
And I toiled on, heart-tired of the human,
And I mourned ‘mid the mazes of men;
Till I knelt, long ago, at an altar,
And heard a Voice call me; since then
I walk down the valley of silence,
That lies far beyond mortal ken.
Do you ask what I find in the valley ?
‘Tis my trysting-place with the Divine;
Where I fall at the feet of the Holy,
And above me a Voice says, ‘ Be Mine.’
And there comes from the depths of my spirit
An echo, says ‘ My heart shall be Thine.’
Do you ask how I live in the valley ?
I weep, and I dream, and I pray;
But my tears are as sweet as the dewdrops
That fall on the roses in May;
And my prayer, like a perfume from censer,
Ascendeth to God night and day.
In the hush of the valley of silence
‘ I dream all the songs that I sing;
And the music floats down the dim valley
Till each finds a word for a wing:
That to men, like the dove of the deluge,
The message of peace they may bring.
But far on the deep there are billows
That never shall break on the beach;
And I have heard songs in the silence
That never shall float into speech ;
And I have had dreams in the valley
Too lofty for language to reach;
And I have had thoughts in the valley,
Ah, me! how my spirit was stirred,
They wear holy veils on their faces,
Their footsteps can scarcely be heard ;
They pass through the valley like virgins,
Too pure for the touch of a word.
Do you ask me the place of the valley,
Ye hearts that are harassed by care ?
It lieth afar between mountains;
And God and His angels are there.
And one is the dark Mount of Sorrow,
And one the bright Mountain of Prayer.”
Now let us study the character of this flight that is promised to the reverent, waiting soul whose trust is in God. “With wings as eagles ” is the promise. Well, we know something about that. If they are like eagles’ wings we know they must be wings of eager purpose. This is not the kind of wings the Psalmist was praying for when, all worn out and disheartened, lie prayed, ” Oh, that I had wings like a dove! for then I would flyaway, and be at rest.” He wanted wings with which to dodge duty : wings to escape life’s work. But the wings that are promised to the waiting soul are of a very different character as they are wings of purpose.
One of the greatest causes of failure among people who set out to make the Christian flight is that they are dominated by no great, worthy purpose. All their plans are little and petty. And a man with only insignificant purposes and motives cannot help being a bore to save his life. On the other hand, a great purpose will ennoble and dignify the smallest means, and make wings out of unexpected material. An English preacher was once talking to his congregation about the heathen, and how great was their need of the Gospel. In the congregation was one little boy who became greatly interested. He went home and told his mother that he must give something to help buy Bibles for the heathen. But he and his mother were very poor, and at first he was quite puzzled to know how to raise the money. Finally lie hit upon a plan. The people of England use rubbing- stones, or door-stones as they are called, for polishing their hearths and scouring their wooden floors. These stones are bits of marble or freestone begged from the stone-cutters or marble-workers; and it is quite common to see a donkey with a pair of panniers or baskets across its back, loaded with door-stones, which its boy-driver is selling. Now, this little boy whose missionary enthusiasm had been aroused had a donkey named Neddy. He thought it would be nice to have Neddy help in the good work. So he loaded him with stones, and went around calling as loud as he could cry, ” Door- stones, door-stones ! Do you want any door stones ? ” And before long lie had raised three pounds, or about fifteen dollars. So, one day, the minister heard a knock at his door, and, opening it, there stood the little boy, holding out a package, saying:
“Please, sir, send this to the heathen.”
” But, my little friend, I must have a name to acknowledge it to.”
The little boy hesitated, as if he did not understand.
“You must tell me your name,” repeated the minister: “that we may know who gave the money.”
“Oh, well, then, sir. please put it down to Neddy and me. That will do, won’t it, sir? ”
So even a donkey’s long ears may be changed into wings, if there be a sufficiently noble purpose at heart. Nothing can withstand a great purpose.
A writer in an electrical journal proposed to measure thought by means of the heat developed within the brain, acting upon the thermopile. The proposition was received in some quarters with considerable skepticism ; but, like many other seemingly impossible things, it has been accomplished. Not long ago a celebrated electrician stated that he could ” think a hole through an inch board;” and by ‘connecting an inch drill so that it could be actuated by the electric current produced by the concentration of his thought, he actually did it. If a man by the aid of an electric current, harnessed by his own hands, can think a hole through a solid timber, what can he not do when his purpose is supported and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit ?
Again, the wings of the eagle are wings of aspiring faith and exultant hope. He who waits upon the Lord does not find himself becalmed on waveless seas, but mounts up where heavenly trade-winds blow.
Dr. A. J. Lyman tells how he was once travelling on a steamer on Lake Superior, when he saw a wonderful sight. There was no wind on the water ; it lay bright and wide without a ripple. Glancing up at the top of the tall smoke-stack he expected to see the issuing volume of smoke drifting far astern through the moveless air ; but, to his great astonishment, he saw the great black coil of smoke cut off flat at the top of the smoke-stack, evidently by a powerful wind, but carried toward the bows in the very direction they were going and streaming away through the heavens ahead of the steamer for miles. He turned to the captain, near whom he was standing, and said, “Captain, am I dreaming? Look there!” He looked, and said, “No, you are not dreaming. Perhaps half a dozen times in my thirty years on these lakes I have seen that occurrence. Fifty feet above our heads half a gale of wind is blowing, and blowing in the same direction we are going, and twice as fast, though to look at the water you would say there was not a breath. That wind is from the upper currents of the atmosphere. We are going twelve knots, and that wind is going thirty.”
That which happens so rarely to a lake steamer is the thing which may he well known to him who is strong in the faith. The soul that waits upon the Lord, and mounts up with wings as eagles, enters into the domain of the heavenly trade-winds, where all things work together for good to them that love God.
The more we come to know of the grandeur of the universe, the loftier will be our nights of faith and hope.
Not long ago Sir Robert Ball, the astronomer, said in a lecture, that a telegraphic message would go seven times around the earth in a second ; and if a telegraphic message could be sent to the moon, it would reach its destination in a little more than a second. It would take something like eight minutes to arrive at the sun; but to reach the nearest stars, travelling at the tremendous pace of one hundred and eighty thousand miles a second, it would take three long years to accomplish the journey ; and there are stars so remote that if the news of the victory of Wellington at Waterloo had been flashed to them in 1815 on the celestial telegraph system, it would not have reached them yet. And back of them are stars yet so much farther remote, that if, when William the Conqueror landed in England, eight hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the news of his conquest had been dispatched to them, the signals flying over the wire at a pace which would carry them seven times around the earth in a second of time, that news would not yet have reached them ; and back of them, in the great depths of space, there are stars so far away that if the glad tidings of the angels’ songs to the shepherds in Bethlehem, nearly nineteen centuries ago, had been telegraphed through the universe at the pace of a hundred and eighty thousand miles a second, the music of redemption’s song would still be on the wing.
How our hearts bound within us as we come to realize that He who holds all these worlds in His hands is our Father and our Friend! Well does the Psalmist say, ” Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.”
A very interesting little story has been going the rounds of the press recently, how for a number of years a pair of storks built their nest annually in the park of an old castle in Berlin. Finally, one of the servants placed a ring marked with the date and name of the place on the male bird, in order to be certain that the same bird returned each year. This spring the stork came back to its customary place, the bearer of two rings. The second one bore the inscription, ” India sends greetings to Germany.” Well, that is very interesting; but what is that to the fact that heaven sends its greeting to earth with every morning sunbeam, and over the telegraph wire of faith to every prayerful soul?
John never said anything truer than when he declared, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”‘ For that is the only real conquest we get over the world. A man may be able to make steam and electricity do his bidding, and yet be himself their slave, and only have added to the burdens which press down his weary shoulders. As one well says, ” Steam and electricity are our masters, not we theirs. We are like hands in some great factory and the faster the wheels revolve, the more unremitting and exhausting is our work to keep up with them.” When the seventy disciples came back to Christ, and told Him of their success, and were especially jubilant because the devils were subject to them, Jesus replied that they should rejoice not that the devils were subject to them, but rather rejoice because their names were written in heaven.
Some one writing about Enoch the other day, commented on the fact that one day Enoch was missing ; for God had taken him away, we know not how. And then, speculating about it, said, “It may have been by means of a golden chariot drawn by snow-white, winged horses, a whirlwind, a blaze of light and glory ; or, possibly, angelic creatures robed in white, with far- reaching wings, gently lifted him above the earth and its cares, and conveyed him softly to the Father’s bosom. But, as I lead, I said to myself, “While you are at it. brother, why not suppose that he walked with God until his own wings of faith were strong enough to bear his weight, and carried him home to heaven? ”
Again, they that wait upon the Lord mount up on wings of triumphant love. The editor of the Rams Horn says, our God employs no hired help.” Love is the great omnipotent. In the old story, Una leads the lion about with a silken leash. Do you remember the demoniac of Gadara? All the physical force of that pork- producing community could do nothing with him ; but he was like a lamb at the feet of the gentle Christ. A writer in the Outlook, not long ago, tells a story which occurred in a woman’s club, organized in a poor tenement- house district in New York city. The purpose of this club, like that of clubs organized in the up-town districts, is social intercourse and entertainment. And each week the club invites before it some musicians, sometimes very famous people, who seem to enjoy their opportunity quite as much as the hearers enjoy theirs. One week, among the musical guests of the club, was a tenor with a charming, sympathetic voice. His singing had aroused the enthusiasm of his hearers to a white heat. He was so touched at their appreciation that, noticing that many of them were German women, lie sat down at the organ, touched a few chords, and sang in German a little ballad, “I love her so.” One of the members of the club, an elderly woman, seemed to be deeply moved by the song, so much so that her eyes filled with tears. When the song was finished, she leaned toward her nearest, neighbor, an intimate friend, and said something in German. Her hearer burst out Laughing, and then called out to the president of the club, “She says that is the song her husband always sings to her when she gets mad at him.” Then the woman whose confidence had been revealed said, “It is really true. Yen I gets mad to Charlie, and vill not get glad mil him, he always sits him down and sings me dat Song.” Wise husband ! He had caught the secret, of omnipotence. Jesus in John’s Gospel says, “Henceforth I call you not servants . . . but . . . friends,” and this pleading love it is that gives us such marvelous power.
Such soaring lives cannot fail of noble achievement and achievement which shall not only bring honor to God and give happiness and glory to themselves, but which cannot fail to give helpfulness to others. Many of yon have just been studying in the Sunday -school lessons the story of Joseph. Do you remember the words, “The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake”? And there are multitudes of beautiful illustrations not only in the Bible but in our common lives that prove the great Christian law that God often blesses one man for the sake of another. Do you remember that fearful storm on the Mediterranean Sea, when captain and sailor and soldier were alike discouraged and ready to give up in despair? But Paul stood in their midst with chained limbs, yet with a dauntless winged spirit that no chains could limit or restrain, and said, with cheerful face, ” There stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, Fear not, Paul ; . . . lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.”
So I covet for every one of us a lofty spirit, a winged soul, not for ourselves alone, but for all these brothers and sisters about us whose numbed and broken wings appeal to our sympathy and love.