Competitors, Charismatics, and Caregivers

By LeRoy Lawson

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies
Lawrence Goldstone
New York: Ballantine Books, 2014

Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think
Jonathan Martin
Carol Stream: Tyndale Momentum, 2013

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times
Jennifer Worth
New York: Penguin Books, 2012

Disillusioned. There’s a sad word for you. It means that something you believe or want to believe or thought was true but never checked out turns out to be not so. You believed an illusion, and now you know. Sorrow comes in the knowing.

11_lawson_books3_JNLawrence Goldstone’s Birdmen shattered my illusions. All my life I thought Wilbur and Orville Wright were heroic figures. I just never checked up on them.

On December 17, 1903, they single-handedly (or more accurately, double-handedly) defied the odds—and they were hefty ones—against heavier-than-air powered flight and, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, lifted their winged machine off the ground four times, the longest trial covering 852 feet in just 59 seconds. As I had previously heard the story, these brother bicycle makers appeared out of nowhere and voila! presented the waiting world with an airplane.

It turns out it wasn’t quite that simple. There were many tinkerers in those days enthralled by the possibility of human flight, each competing to be the first. Then, after the Wrights won the race, the competition became more vicious than ever, only now the combat took place mostly in the law courts. In time, as the brothers sued everybody in sight to grab an airplane-constructing monopoly for themselves, Glenn Curtiss and others in America and Europe kept on innovating. Their machines keep on improving. Eventually the mechanically aging Wright planes slipped into relative obscurity. They had lost their cutting edge.

This is a fascinating story, but as I said, sad. Wilbur died too young, in his early 50s, obsessing over his patent fights. His siblings continued the fights.

Orville and Katharine (their sister) had preying on their minds and characters the one great hate and obsession, the patent fight with Curtiss. It was a constant subject of conversation, and the effort of Curtiss and his group to take credit away from the Wrights was a bitter thing to stand for . . . it monopolized Orville’s attention and discouraged any attempt to incorporate the latest technical advances into the design of Wright aircraft.

Orville outlived his brother by more than three decades. “For all his achievements and notoriety, it is difficult to view Orville Wright as anything but a sad and lonely man who never found his calling—and perhaps never even sought it—and who died without ever making one genuine friend.” Together the brothers had it all: inventive genius, organizational skill, stunning success, and celebrity status, and of course money, but one died bitter and the other friendless. A terribly high price to pay.

Their antagonist Glenn Curtiss, on the other hand, not altogether virtuous himself, nevertheless chalked up a remarkable record. “The list of his inventions and achievements,” Goldstone writes, “is immense and includes the seaplane, retractable landing gear, twist-grip throttles for motorcycles, dual controls, the enclosed cockpit, tricycle landing gear, the step pontoon, the watertight compartment, the airboat, and a number of machines to manufacture airplane components.” This is only a partial list.

The sadness in The Birdmen is in learning about the people: their self-destructive competitiveness, their manipulation of well-intentioned patent law to stifle and even destroy others’ creativity (sound familiar today?), their willingness to sacrifice everything just to get even with their enemy.

But the pleasure in reading The Birdmen is also in learning about the people, especially the courageous aviators (the death rate among those early pilots was extremely high) who kept pushing their fragile planes to the edge of their capacity—and beyond.

It’s a fascinating book. I was amazed to learn how quickly airplanes evolved from the frail Kitty Hawk in 1903 to the increasingly sturdy exhibition planes that very soon were dazzling spectators with their daring-do, on to the battle-ready air machines that were fighting in a World War that began in 1914, just 11 years later.

And now we have the Airbus A380. It can carry up to 853 people (all economy class) for a nonstop distance of 9,800 miles.

What next?

Christianity—Big and Inclusive

Last Sunday I got me some church!

OK, I actually worship with a congregation every Sunday. But last week was special. My wife and I visited a largely African-American church in our town. I warned her as we left that the service would last two hours. I was right on the button, two hours. It didn’t feel like it though. There was singing, of course, lots of it. And preaching—this day was women’s Sunday, so we heard a fine sermon by one of the female members and praising and amen-ing, and yes, some dancing and full-body rejoicing. It was, as you’ve guessed, a charismatic church, and it was fun. It’s not a bad thing for a stiff-upper-lipped admittedly inhibited white guy to unbend a little, to join in another fellowship’s style of praising God.

Just three days later, as I was still smiling over the experience, I read Jonathan Martin’s Prototype. Martin is a Pentecostal preacher, the proud son and grandson of Pentecostal preachers. He is definitely not a rebellious offspring, even though he has ventured beyond them in his spiritual searching and academic attainments (a graduate of Gardner-Webb University’s Pentecostal Theological Seminary and Duke University Divinity School). His scholarship shines between the sentences of his book, as does his appreciation for his heritage.

I suppose it was timing, attending that lively charismatic service on Sunday and reading this intelligent, heart-and-head-connected book on Wednesday. Whatever it was, the experience has been good for me, a reminder that this thing called Christianity is big, inclusive—exciting, even. I can’t tell you I’m comfortable in this kind of worship. I’m too much aware of my otherness, my inhibitions. But as I looked at the congregation Sunday, which is nestled in one of the less prestigious neighborhoods of our town, I felt proud to be a part of something that is freely offering hope and help to people who probably have felt overlooked by those who live at more expensive addresses.

Martin keeps referring to the people in his church as “liars, dreamers, and misfits.” He describes himself on his Internet blog as “falling upward.” I don’t know what his current status is. What I do know is his book is an incentive to keep on walking with Jesus, keep on loving the marginalized, the hurting, and discouraged who, when they can be encouraged to find their way into the arms of a loving congregation, will discover they, too, got them some church.

Christian Charity—It Looks Good

Thanks to a close friend, I was introduced to the BBC television series Call the Midwife. Then, moved by so many of the episodes, I decided I had to read the book.

Well, I’ve read it. I can’t tell you which I like better, the TV series or the memoir it was based on. Sometime in the late 1950s, Jennifer Worth, a privileged, 22-year-old, newly qualified midwife arrives at Nonnatus House in East London’s poorest section. She thinks she’ll be working in a small hospital. She’s surprised to find herself instead in an Anglican nursing convent. A woman of barely discernible faith, she will be working with religious sisters, serving among the poorest and dirtiest and . . . and most human and sometimes most inspirational people she would ever know. Again to her surprise, she learns to love both the sisters and their patients.

There’s too much to tell. Let me warn you—about the series and the book. They are for a mature audience only. Not because they are X-rated. They aren’t. It’s just that they aren’t for the squeamish, or the uncaring.

This is Downton Abbey for the real people on the opposite edge of society. This is a look at Christian charity in action. It looks good.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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