At Work

Imagine Work So Fulfilling that You Compose Poetry

"Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth..."
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In 1940, John Magee, Jr. crossed into Canada and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was one of hundreds of Americans who crossed the border to volunteer to fight for Great Britain against Hitler’s war machine.

One year later, Magee was sent to England as a fighter pilot and was assigned to the RCAF No. 412 Fighter Squadron. He rose to the rank of Pilot Officer, flying fighter sweeps and combat missions over France and Britain.

Magee was assigned to test a newer model of the airplane Spitfire V in 1941. During one high-altitude test flight that took him to a height of over six miles, he began composing a poem in his mind. He sent a short note to his parents about his experience and included the text of his poem on the back of his 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-spit clouds and done a hundred things/You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung/High in the sunlight 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 might not know John Magee, but his poem was made famous by President Reagan in a speech he delivered on January 28th, 1986, as he consoled the nation after the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

The vocational call on John Magee’s life led him to pass up a scholarship to Yale University. Instead, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Using his God-given skills, he quickly became an accomplished pilot. His poem reveals the great satisfaction received from his work as a pilot, even though the hours were long, the working conditions harsh, and the pay sub-standard.

God used the work of this young man’s hands every time he climbed into the cockpit. God used Magee not only for the common good, but also, in some small, significant way, to further his kingdom here on earth.

It is easy to see how John Magee’s work defending Britain from the Third Reich’s assault served the common good. We can also see how God used Magee’s vocational calling to impact culture. He fought to push back the darkness of fascism and positively impact the kingdom of God. We have no problem seeing Magee’s work as kingdom work.

What is difficult for many of us to see is how our own work serves God’s kingdom.

All work flowing from God’s vocational call on our lives is an extension of his maintaining and providing for his creation. It is reweaving shalom. It is a contribution to what God wants done in the world.

We must learn to believe that God uses everything we do. In obedience, we answer the vocational call placed on our lives. The apostle Paul describes what happens next in Romans 8:28:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

All of our work, even the most mundane task, is taken by God and transformed into kingdom work. This is the foundation of deeply fulfilling work.

As believers at the beginning of the 21st century, we stand in the same place as the 16th-century Reformers. We have the opportunity to teach the truth of scripture. We have the chance to radically influence our culture, making a positive difference in our communities, our cities, our country, and our world.

Alistair McGrath describes our situation this way:

If Christianity is to remain a positive force and influence in American public life, all Christians need to be present within that life, as salt and light. To remain safely behind the barricades may seem more secure…but it denies us any chance of reforming, renewing, and recalling our culture.

If we are serious about making a difference, we need to rediscover the biblical doctrine of work.


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Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Hugh Whelchel’s How Then Should We Work: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Order your copy today in the IFWE bookstore.

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  • Phillip Nash

    Hi Hugh. Thank you so much for this inspiring and challenging piece. My staff and I look forward to welcoming you to Jakarta on 9 September and to hearing you present at the Mission Retreat. I have already shared some of TIFWE’s work with my staff and will continue to do so.
    Phillip Nash

  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    I have a copy of Magee’s poem in my poetry file; what an inspiring back story! Your words ring true in so many ways–that our work would be as a prayer to God and a witness to the world. Thank you.

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