Several years ago, I invested the time and money to get my private pilot’s license. I can attest to the truth of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous quote “Once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” But our temporary habitation among the clouds is a fragile thing, maintained only through the pilot’s continual vigilance, and even then always uncertain. Storms, fuel limitations, pilot disorientation, mechanical failure, and migrating birds are among a host of factors that may bring a plane crashing back down to earth. That place we long to be is not a stable position, and there is more working to bring us back down than there is to keep us aloft. And so pilots have made a habit of reviewing the final reports of NTSB accident investigations to (hopefully) learn from the often fatal mistakes of others rather than learning the same deadly lesson themselves. My aviation magazine had a regular feature each month titled “Never Again”, a somber warning written by pilots who had survived a near-accident, but realized how it could’ve easily turned out differently.
Now, every accident investigation and every personal story of survival reveals a series of cause and effect events – links in the so-called “accident chain” – that, if stopped prior to a point of no return, would have prevented the accident. What often happens is the pilot doesn’t realize the danger he’s in, and so continues down the causal path leading to the accident. Call it tunnel vision or target fixation, or “gotta-get-there-itis”, the pilot often ignores red flags pointing to a growing problem. Sometimes they see the warning signs, but underestimate their seriousness, maybe due to problems like hypoxia (low blood oxygen level, typically from flying too high in an unpressurized aircraft). Other times, they think they can make it through this event because they’ve managed to somehow pull a solution out of thin air before. This blind faith in their own “luck” or in their own abilities without any understanding of how they previously survived their bad choices is particularly dangerous.
Spiritually, many are not aware of the danger they are in. Whether through apathy (“I don’t want to think about that…”) or willful rejection (“How dare you tell me I’m a sinner!”), people continue down a causal path that can only result in God’s judgement and their condemnation. But just like the pilot flying into a storm, understanding the reality of the danger is the first step. Hence, the Christian focus on man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness. God’s supreme love for us, and His action to rescue us, falls on deaf ears until we understand our need to be rescued. Like the pilot suffering from hypoxia, we may feel everything’s going just fine, even as we unknowingly approach the time of our own crash. The Bible warns that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” We can choose to ignore warnings like that; we can choose to ignore the “close calls” with death that should be wake-up calls; we can think this flight will never end, that this physical life is a stable thing that won’t plummet downward and be over before our next breath. Or we can face the seriousness of the situation and prepare accordingly.
I’ll leave you with a frequent memory from my flight training. My flight instructor was always fond of cutting the throttle on me when I was most preoccupied, sometimes with a statement like, “Uh-oh, your engine just died – now what?”, and sometimes more sneakily later in my training. As I would trim for best glide speed and frantically try to remember the last suitable emergency landing spot I’d seen, Walt would remind me that I should already know where I’m going to try to land before the emergency. Do you know where you’ll be “landing” spiritually when you die? Have you made the needed preparations beforehand? The Bible gives another warning about the danger of delay when it says “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” You don’t know when your time on this earth – this training flight, if you will – may come to an unexpected end. Don’t assume there’ll be time to “get right” before you die. That’s why the Bible says the right time is “today”. Plan well for eternity, and you’ll break the links in the spiritual “accident chain” that lead to an eternity separated from God.