This month, I had the privilege of studying in Oxford, Cambridge, and London while working on my Doctorate of Ministry in Workplace Theology and Ethical Leadership with a cohort of students from the US, Canada, and Australia. As part of our studies, we went on an extended tour of Westminster Abbey. In one little nook of the incredible structure, there is a small memorial for the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, of whom Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Our tour guide said that there was one American represented in this group, even though the U.S. had yet to join the war. He then told us about this young American pilot who had joined the Canadian Air Force to help the cause. I asked him if he knew about the famous poem written by this young man. He said that he did not, so I was able to tell the rest of the story.
For the Love of Flying
In 1940, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a young Christian man, was one of hundreds of Americans who slipped into Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and volunteer to fight for Britain against Hitler’s war machine. Within a year of his enlisting, Magee was sent to England as a fighter pilot and was assigned to the RCAF No. 412 Fighter Squadron, where he rose to the rank of Pilot Officer, flying fighter sweeps and combat missions over France and Britain.
In September 1941, Magee was assigned to test a newer model of the Spitfire V. During one high-altitude test flight that took him to a height of over six miles, he began composing a poem in his mind. After he landed, he sent a short note home to his parents about his experience and included the text of his poem “High Flight” on the back of the letter.
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, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Three months later, he was killed. He was nineteen years old. We may not know John Magee, but his poem was made famous by President Reagan in a speech on January 28, 1986 as he consoled the nation after the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Why All Work Can Be Kingdom Work
The vocational call on John Magee’s life led the eighteen-year-old to pass up a scholarship to Yale University and instead enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Using his God-given skills, he quickly became an accomplished pilot. His poem reveals the great love and satisfaction received from his work as a pilot, even though the hours were long, the working conditions harsh, and the pay substandard. God used the work of this young man’s hands every time he climbed into the cockpit of his airplane—not only for the common good but also in some small, although significant, way to further God’s kingdom here on earth.
It is easy for us to see how John Magee’s work in helping defend Britain from the assault of the Third Reich served the common good. From our historical perspective, we can also see how God used Magee’s vocational calling to impact culture, pushing back the darkness of fascism and positively impacting the kingdom of God. If Hitler’s totalitarianism had not been stopped, religious freedom would have been extinguished in Europe making the spread of the gospel much more difficult.
Magee’s vocational work is kingdom work because it serves Christ our king as he establishes “his rule and reign over all creation, defeating the human and angelic evil powers, bringing order to all, enacting justice, and being worshiped as Lord,” as Gerry Breshears, writes in his book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe.
Sometimes it is difficult for many of us to see how of our own vocational work serves God’s kingdom. The work flowing from God’s vocational call on our lives is an extension of God’s work of maintaining and providing for his creation. But even more than that, it is a chance for us to reweave shalom. It is a contribution to what God wants done in the world. It is bringing the reign of God to bear on all of our spheres of influence. It is pushing back the darkness; it is kingdom work.
As we obediently answer the vocational call in our own lives, we must learn to believe God uses everything we do for his purposes: “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Through the grace of Christ working through his people, all of our work, even the most mundane things we do, are taken by God and transformed into kingdom work.
Editor’s note: Learn more about the eternal value of your everyday work in How Then Should We Work?
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