Early one morning an experienced pilot took off on a flight from a small Montana airport with two friends on board to fly across the Rocky Mountains. This ill-fated flight disappeared from the radar screen about ten minutes after departure. The remains of the crash were discovered later that day by a helicopter pilot who found the mangled remains of the aircraft embedded in a rocky hillside. All aboard had perished.
I was familiar with this particular airport, and the flight path of this fatal crash, because as a young pastor I augmented our family income as a flight instructor and charter pilot. I had flown in and out of this particular airport many times.
This flight would have been routine for this pilot. The morning of the flight, the entire valley, and the tops of the surrounding mountains, were covered in clouds. In order to depart, a pilot would need to file an instrument flight plan to fly up and through the cloud cover to “get on top,” as pilots say.
Each aircraft has an instrument that tells a pilot how high he is flying. This instrument, called an altimeter, is pressure sensitive and reads altitude based on barometric pressure. An altimeter needs to be adjusted for each flight to make sure you are flying at a precise altitude. If you miss this one item on your checklist, and fail to make the proper adjustments, you could actually be flying lower than your instruments are telling you. This can get you killed if mountains are in the clouds.
Somewhere in the process of departure this experienced pilot missed one thing on his checklist. He failed to adjust his altimeter. This fatal mistake was discovered later by the NTSB investigators when they examined the wreckage.
A few years after this crash, I was hiking near the top of the Rocky Mountains that overlook the beautiful Flathead Valley where this incident had taken place. These mountains surround the valley like a beautiful necklace. To get in or out of this valley requires that one deal with the mountains whether you drive or fly.
As I walked along at the timber line, I was in that zone where the vegetation and trees are thinned out and the ridge line was mostly rock and gravel. Ahead of me I saw a dark stain in the soil that was about six feet across. In and around the stain were bits of aluminum and pieces metal. I realized that I had come upon a crash site. The dark soil was the remnant of engine oil. From my vantage point I mentally calculated the instrument flight departure from the airport in the valley below and knew this was the crash site of the three men who had perished just a few years before.
I walked over to the oil stain and paused. This was a place where three men were talking and laughing about the coming day one moment and in the next moment they entered eternity unexpectedly. I was standing on sacred ground.
After a few moments of reflection, I began to investigate the crash site. Upon impact, the aircraft was traveling at a high rate of speed and drilled itself deep into the mountain side. When the airplane exploded on impact, oil from the fragmented aircraft engine was driven into the mountain leaving the dark stain still visible that day.
As I stood there I looked up to the top of the ridge line. The impact point of the crash was only six feet below the top of the mountain. The difference between life and death was only six feet. Failing to adjust the altimeter to the changing barometric pressure was a fatal error.
Clouds hide mountains that can kill a pilot. The clouds of life can also hide things that can kill relationships and destinies. We can be heading in the right direction, but be flying at the wrong altitude. Having enough altitude is what keeps us above the dangerous terrain below.
Probably no one in the scripture illustrates this point better than Saul. When the people of Israel wanted a king, so they could be like the nations around them, God gave them Saul. The results of Saul's leadership were disastrous.
When Saul began his reign as king he had it all going for him. He was well-equipped for the job.
He was blessed with physical attributes.
I Samuel 9:2 “Saul was the most handsome man in Israel—head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land.”
He was anointed.
I Samuel 10:1 Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it over Saul’s head. He kissed Saul and said, “I am doing this because the Lord has appointed you to be the ruler over Israel, his special possession.”
He was given a new heart.
I Samuel 10:9 “As Saul turned and started to leave, God gave him a new heart, and all Samuel’s signs were fulfilled that day.”
He exercised spiritual gifts.
I Samuel 10:10 “When Saul and his servant arrived at Gibeah, they saw a group of prophets coming toward them. Then the Spirit of God came powerfully upon Saul, and he, too, began to prophesy. 11 When those who knew Saul heard about it, they exclaimed, “What? Is even Saul a prophet? How did the son of Kish become a prophet?”
Saul began his reign heading in the right direction and possessing everything he needed to become a great king. But Saul had a problem - he was flying at a wrong heart altitude. He lacked the spiritual altitude that comes when we manage the condition of our heart on a daily basis. Saul thought he could rely on his initial direction and not worry about going higher. He flew on autopilot into his future. Somewhere along the way he stopped making heart adjustments. In the end, his life would crash into the mountains of pride and foolishness that were hidden in the clouds of his calling.
As you read the story of Saul in I Samuel, you see a man who became presumptuous with God. He took liberties not assigned for him to take. He assumed things. Somewhere along the path he began to lose altitude. I Samuel 15 reveals what a life can look like that begins a journey heading in the right direction but ends up crashing because the altitude of the heart was too low.
He wasn't loyal to God (vs. 11).
He built monuments to his greatness (vs. 12).
He blamed others for his mistakes (vs. 15).
He thought too little of himself, failing to see himself through God's eyes (vs.17)
He kept what belonged to God (vs. 19).
He feared people more than he feared God (vs. 24).
In I Samuel 15:11, God speaks sobering words when he said to Samuel, “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has again refused to obey me.” God was sorry that he ever made Saul king because he had to change the plans he had for Saul's life. Saul was the one who chose to derail his destiny. God can do amazing things through us if we will simply adjust our hearts each day.
The rest of Saul's life is a sad story of a man who is living in turmoil with himself and others. He began to throw spears at those he should have loved. His rage so blinded him that he could not see how much David honored him. He became abusive. Saul crashed when he should have flown higher. This man, who was anointed and heading in the right direction, collided with his own selfish desires and it ended his ministry. In the end God took the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David – a man after God's own heart.
A pure heart gives us the altitude we need to clear the obstacles that are in our flight path. A pure heart is what carries God's anointing to the end of our lives and helps us finish well. When we get rushed to make the destination, or feel pressured to hurry along the process, we can fail to examine our hearts as part of a daily spiritual checklist and the results can be tragic.
Every pilot knows how important it is to set the altimeter to the correct pressure levels at the departure airport and then along the way for the entire flight. A safe flight requires re-calibrated instruments in all phases of the journey. If our heart instrument is out of adjustment, we can be heading in the right direction, but be flying at the wrong altitude.