On Water-Walking

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Some years ago my wife arranged for us to ride in a hot-air balloon as a birthday gift. We went to the field where the balloons ascended and got into a little basket with one other couple. We introduced ourselves and swapped vocational information. Then our pilot began the ascent. The day had just dawned — clear, crisp, cloudless. We could see the entire Canejo Valley, from craggy canyons to the Pacific Ocean. It was scenic, inspiring, and majestic. But I also experienced one emotion I had not anticipated. Want to guess?

Fear

I had always thought those baskets went about chest high, but this one only came up to our knees. One good lurch would be enough to throw someone over the side. So I held on with grim determination and white knuckles. I looked over at my wife, who does not care for heights at all, and relaxed a bit, knowing there was someone in the basket more tense than I was. I could tell, because she would not move — at all. During part of our flight there was a horse ranch on the ground directly behind her. I pointed it out because she loves horses, and, without turning around or even pivoting her head, she simply rolled her eyes back as far as she could and said, “Yes, it’s beautiful.”

About this time I decided I’d like to get to know the kid who was flying this balloon. I realized that I could try to psyche myself up into believing everything would be fine, but the truth was we had placed our lives and destinies in the hands of the pilot. Everything depended on his character and competence.

I asked him what he did for a living and how he got started flying hot-air balloons. I was hoping for his former job to be one full of responsibilities — a neurosurgeon, perhaps, an astronaut who missed going up into space. I knew we were in trouble when his response to me began, “Dude, it’s like this?”

He did not even have a job! He mostly surfed. He said the reason he got started flying hot-air balloons was that he had been driving around in his pickup when he’d had too much to drink, crashed the truck, and badly injured his brother. His brother still couldn’t get around too well, so watching hot-air balloons gave him something to do. “By the way,” he added,”if things get a little choppy on the way down, don’t be surprised. I’ve never flown this particular balloon before, and I’m not sure how it’s going to handle the descent.”

My wife looked over at me and said, “You mean to tell me we are a thousand feet up in the air with an unemployed surfer who started flying hot-air balloons because he got drunk, crashed a pickup, injured his brother, and has never been in this one before and doesn’t know how to bring it down?” Then the wife of the other couple looked at me and spoke — the only words either of them were to utter throughout the entire flight.

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You’re a pastor. Do something religious.
So I took an offering.
The great question at a moment like that is, Can I trust the pilot?

I could try telling myself that everything would turn out okay. Facing the flight with a positive attitude would certainly make it a more pleasant journey. But the journey would be over soon. And the real issue concerned the dude who was flying this thing. Were his character and competence such that I could confidently place my destiny in his hands?

Or, was it time to do something religious?

Every day you and I take another leg of our journey in this giant balloon that’s whirling around a vast universe. We only get one trip. I long to take it with an enormous spirit of adventure and risk — and I’ll bet you do, too. But it’s a pretty uncertain ride sometimes. I wish the walls to my basket went up a little higher. I wish the balloon was a little thicker. I wonder how my little ride will end up. I’m not sure how it will handle on the way down.

I can try to psyche myself up for taking chances and believing everything will turn out okay. But the real question is, Is there somebody piloting this thing? And are his character and competence such that he can be trusted? Because if they’re not, I don’t want to take a chance. My story, like every human story, is, at least in part, the struggle between faith and fear.

Because of this, I have found myself drawn for many years to the story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on the water with Christ. It is one of the greatest pictures of extreme discipleship in Scripture.

From If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, Copyright © 2001 by John Ortberg and published by Zondervan. Used with permission.

John Ortberg is a teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, and previously served as teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. He is the bestselling author of Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them; If You Want to walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat; Love Beyond Reason; and Old Testament Challenge. He has written for Christianity Today and is a frequent contributor to Leadership Journal.

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