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Van Ens: Thankful when life is broken

Charles Lindbergh wowed fans, like tabloids stoke frenzy for Brad Pitt today. This renowned aviator stood at fame’s pinnacle after completing the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. More people around the globe recognized him than fans who adored heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali at his prime.

Returning from Paris to the United States, Lindbergh found himself in a swirl of public engagements. From President Calvin Coolidge to industrial titan Henry Ford, everybody in America wanted to meet Lucky Lindy. A student at Smith College, pensive Anne Morrow, had a huge crush on him. She swooned in her diary, “Colonel L. is the only saint before whom I light a candle ” the last of the gods.” Lindbergh appeared to have a firm handle on a dashing life.

Flying westward over the Rockies that cut into southern Wyoming and eastern Utah, Lindbergh spied a wide expanse of desert below. The crush of reporters and giddy fans jammed his life with crowded hours, but the desert invited Lindy to solitarily reflect.

So, he landed his plane on the desert floor. “What peace I found there,” he later mused, “on that warm but cooling surface of our planet’s sphere.” Lindbergh admitted how thankless too much fame and fortune are. Fame entices many to assume that notoriety grants the recipient a firm grasp on life. But making headlines can break life because we feel the public owns us.

Biographer Scott Berg describes how Lindbergh “realized he had been sentenced to a life as a public figure on a scale to which no man before him had ever been subjected. Feeling overexposed, over extended and over exalted, he wished to ‘combine two seemingly contradictory objectives, to be part of the civilization of my time but not to be bound by its conventional superfluity.'”

Lindbergh decided to downsize his life. He quit investing in fame with its haunting isolation. He’d rid life of banal accolades, perfunctory awards and society chitchat. Lindbergh desired a companion with whom to share his life. He wanted another person’s hug, a marital partner who thought well of him. Fame enslaves the human spirit, Lindbergh discovered. Fame may act like a hot date, fleeting and tinseled. When fame marries the soul, it often shrinks it. It shrivels gratitude. “The fame he never sought,” Berg sadly observed, “threatened to turn him into a freak.”

Thanksgiving Day rates as my favorite holiday. Commercialization hasn’t gobbled up the turkey as it has devoured Santa and the Easter Bunny. Thanksgiving Day provides time to find our own desert in which to land, as Lindbergh did, and to thank people who have shaped our lives for the good.

When life feels broken, we regain a firm grip when we sense we can’t go it alone. We are not self-made. Capture the Apostle Paul’s spirit. His gratitude to Christians living in an isolated military outpost at Philippi rose like a rocket. Paul exclaimed, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you … grateful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3,5).

This Thanksgiving I gratefully honor three superb teachers who died in 2007. As years unfold, I realize how their influence sneaks up on me, more poignant and powerful than I knew when they lived.

In “Memories of Childhood and Youth,” Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) describes how certain folks significantly shape our lives. They form and mold us in years when we are unaware. “Much that has become our own gentleness, modesty, kindness, willingness to forgive, in veracity, loyalty, resignation under suffering,” Schweitzer testified, “we owe to people in whom we have seen or experienced these virtues at work, sometimes in a great matter, sometimes in a small. A thought which had become act sprang into us like a spark, and lighted a new flame within us.”

Schweitzer concludes, “If we had before us those who have thus been a blessing to us and could tell them how it came about, they would be amazed to learn what passed over from their life into ours.”

Who were the three pivotal teachers for whom I am thankful?

Princeton Seminary’s Bruce Metzger, the world’s top textual biblical scholar, came to class dressed in a three-piece suit. He had a tailor sew pockets on the inside of the vests he wore. Here Metzger stashed note cards. When a thought struck or an insight shimmered, Dr. Metzger jotted down his reflections. His mind served as a library of magnificent proportion. I’m thankful for how this gentle, erudite Christian inspired me to never graduate from a school called life.

Gratitude wells up, too, for my speech professor at Princeton, William Beeners. His eyes, bulging like Rodney Dangerfield’s did, told a thousand stories. His humor won our hearts. His stories introduced a magic world that lures the listener to beg for more. Professor Beeners nudged me into storytelling.

Clarence Boomsma, a third mentor, often studied at Princeton. He served a church in my hometown for four decades. Like Thomas Jefferson, his books were as precious as his children. He always asked, “What are you reading?” His voracious appetite for books was never filled. He coached me to live and die with a book in hand and the Bible at heart.

Those brimming with thanksgiving don’t feel like a lonely Lindbergh in the desert. Others have formed us for whom we are grateful.

The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries.


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