As a child I was fascinated by an adventure of Rupert Bear in which he took a ride in the basket of the professor’s balloon. I cherished a desire to take a balloon ride myself.
However, leisure ballooning was unavailable for a further 30 years, and only with the celebration of a special birthday this year did it all come together. The flight with Bristol Balloons was scheduled for 8 August, the day after my birthday.
Just two seats were left, so my wife decided to come too. The special attraction was that we would take off during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, along with about 100 other balloons.
Fear and anticipation
As one who has ‘butterflies’ when looking down from the top of a ladder, I delayed for many days before picking up the phone and booking the flight. I had a strange mixed feeling of fear and anticipation.
I wanted to make the trip, but realised also that once I had made a commitment there was no going back. This reminds me of my conversion.
Having been brought up in a Christian home, I always knew God existed and that Jesus died for me – and I really wanted to belong to his kingdom. However, I also realised that a commitment was needed and that there would be no going back.
I asked Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart when I was about eight years old. I did this more because I knew the gospel was true than from a heartfelt repentance. I was still drifting with the world, although attending an Evangelical church three times every Sunday.
Yet the recognition of my sinfulness and the desire to be right with God was always there, and when I was about 18 I saw the need for baptism in obedience to Christ’s command.
This was a moment of commitment, attended both by fear and anticipation. I knew there was no going back.
Parables are only pictures, of course. Unlike the promises of God, the balloon trip remained uncertain till the last moment. In fact, the morning trip was cancelled because of poor visibility.
Other factors such as rain or adverse winds can also cause a flight to be abandoned. Indeed, the aviation authorities can stop flights without having to give any reason.
Providentially we had booked for the evening flight. I phoned in the afternoon and was pleased that our flight was still on schedule.
By contrast, God leaves us in no doubt as to his willingness or ability to carry us on our journey to heaven. God’s salvation is always ‘on schedule’. Jesus said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ (John 6:37).
What is your destination?
With God, there will always be room for those who trust in Christ. Furthermore, our destination is assured: ‘For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:40).
With ballooning, of course, the destination is unknown. One has to drift with the wind, which can change with altitude – that is part of the excitement!
In one sense, Abraham set out from Ur not knowing where he was going. But he knew that God would eventually bring him to the heavenly city (Hebrews 11:8,16).
Who is your pilot?
When I passed the 11-plus exam, my Grandpa gave me a book of discoveries and inscribed on the flyleaf, ‘Life is a voyage, therefore choose a good Pilot’.
Our balloon pilot spoke with authority of his past experience, and assured us that if we listened to his instructions, and obeyed them, we would have a safe trip.
But only Jesus Christ has all the qualifications to pilot our souls. He demonstrated his power over winds and waves. He experienced human life and death for himself, and rose victorious from the grave to take his seat at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
He can therefore assure us of our safety: ‘I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day’ (John 6:39).
On the flight
The balloon rose, imperceptibly at first, brushing against other balloons preparing to ascend. About 30 balloons were already floating above us, and thousands of spectators watched below.
Years previously we too had observed such a spectacle from the ground, but to be actually rising into the sky was a far greater experience.
How many people observe Christ from a distance – fascinated by the beauty of his love and self-sacrifice but prepared to go no further. Yet the cost is not too high, for we come to him without money and without price (Isaiah 55:1).
As we rose higher, I thought of the return of our Lord, when ‘we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever’ (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
That is a glorious hope for believers, but tragic for those left behind. We must persevere in seeking to convince others that they need to come to Christ for forgiveness and salvation.
Being a hot-air balloon, the burners must be re-lit at intervals. When this happened, there was a loud roar and intense heat on our heads (those lacking hair were warned to wear a hat!).
The Christian journey is not all plain sailing. There are times when the devil turns up the heat, seeking to ‘devour’ us with temptations and accusations. We must use all means to resist (1 Peter 5:8-9).
The pilot must know both his position and direction. Ours had Ordnance Survey maps, satellite navigation, altimeter, radio contact with the airport control tower – and telephone contact with the support crew chasing us down on the ground.
It is a comfort to know that ‘the Lord watches over the way of the righteous’ and that Jesus himself is ‘the Way’ (Psalm 1:6; John 14:6). The Lord has given us his written word, the Bible, which is our ‘chart and compass’, together with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Although we trust in our sovereign Lord to pilot us safely home to heaven, we have to use the navigational aids entrusted to us, so that we steer our lives in the right direction.
How do we do this? By fixing our eyes on Jesus and obeying his commands (Hebrews 12:1-2; Matthew 7:24-25).
Although the pilot could spin the balloon, he could not determine its direction. We descended to land in Hengrove Park, but drifted over rooftops, only just missing television aerials and chimneys.
We were then confronted by a hillside with a tall radar mast. We were forbidden to go further because we would be entering the flight path at Bristol International Airport.
This had become like Bunyan’s Hill of Difficulty for us. There were just three fields leading up to the ridge. The first contained a bull, the next had horses, and the third had green crops.
The pilot headed for that – reluctantly, in case he flattened a farmer’s livelihood! Fortunately, the crop turned out to be grass silage which would recover easily enough. But there was a strong smell of slurry in the air!
After one small bump the basket came to a halt in an upright position, which is not always guaranteed, but grab handles on the basket reduce any chance of injury.
There was one problem, however – how to retrieve the balloon from the privately owned field. The rescue crew located the farmer who was busy nearby on his combine harvester.
He was minded to block the access lane with his machinery, but the promise of a bottle of champagne and a cash payment soon produced a grudging, ‘Well, go and fetch your balloon then!’
What a contrast with heaven! We do not arrive there only to find that further payments must be made before we can enter (as the erroneous doctrine of purgatory suggests).
On the contrary, our Saviour paid the total price in advance at Calvary! So when believers die they are immediately at home in the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). The dying thief heard Jesus say, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
Will you fall short?
A French balloon landed in the same field as we did, but all others fell short by one or two miles. The big question for anyone on life’s journey is ‘Will I get to heaven or fall short of the mark?’
Only by coming humbly to Christ, in repentance and faith, and trusting our whole life to his direction and control, will we reach our destination safely – and the Holy Spirit will assure our hearts throughout the journey at appropriate times. In Joseph Hart’s words:
‘Tis Jesus the First and the Last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home;
We’ll praise him for all that is past;
We’ll trust him for all that’s to come.