A couple of weeks ago, my family got to go to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. If you’ve never seen or heard of the Balloon Fiesta, it’s a gathering of more than 500 hot-air balloons who fly together every day for a week. It has often been advertised as the most photographed event in the world—once sponsored by Kodak. We have a unique sort of ‘in’ at the fiesta because my parents are hot-air balloon pilots. On October 5, 1996, my mom and step-dad were married in a hot-air balloon somewhere over the New England Coast. It was just the two of them, the pilot and the pastor. It just so happened that their anniversary usually falls on the opening weekend of the yearly balloon fiesta, and so they started going to New Mexico every year on their anniversary until one year, they came home with a hot-air balloon. They received their FAA licenses and started flying around San Marcos and within a year or two we all started going out to the Balloon Fiesta together. Almost 20 years later, my parents still go out to Albuquerque every year, but my daughters had never had a chance to see it. Their school had a five-day weekend that just so happened to coincide with the festival this year, so we took the chance to drive out to Albuquerque and see the balloons.
Having not helped to set up the hot-air balloon in probably 10 years, I was a bit surprised at how quickly it all came back to me. Setting up a balloon is no simple task and every step has to be completed in just the right order to make sure the balloon is safe for the pilot and the riders. The burners have to be attached to the basket. They have to be inspected and tested before every flight. A safety-tether attaches the balloon basket to the ground so that the balloon doesn’t leave early (remember Wizard of Oz?). Every carabiner, rope and load-tape must be inspected and attached a certain way. The balloon “envelope” (the material that makes up the balloon) must be inspected and laid out so that it doesn’t get tangled on itself or caught on any objects nearby. The pilot checks the weather forecast and often releases a helium balloon and will watch it for about eight to ten minutes to see where the wind will take the balloon. All of this happens before the inflation fans are turned on. Once the fan starts cold-inflating the balloon, there are more procedures that take place. There is a “parachute” in the top of the balloon envelope that must be attached by Velcro. This parachute is attached to a red-line that the pilot can pull to allow air to escape quickly if he or she needs to descend quickly or the balloon fabric gets too hot. The turning vent lines often get tangled in the process and have to be sorted out as the balloon is inflating. As the balloon inflates, it becomes susceptible to even the lowest wind speeds, so there is a person who steadies the top of the balloon while it’s laying on the ground with a rope called the crown-line. The entire process is structured and procedural, although to someone looking from the outside in, it can appear sort of chaotic as lots of things are happening at once. Once the pilot determines it is time to add heat to the balloon, the fan is cut off, the burners are re-lit and the flames heat up the air inside the envelope causing it to rise.
Flying in a hot-air balloon is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. There is almost no sensation of movement. One minute you’re standing on the ground and the next you’re still standing, 15, then 50, then 500 feet in the air. There are no g-forces like you experience in a plane (or even an elevator). The world turns quiet as it shrinks away. Above 500 feet, there is almost no sound except for a gentle breeze, occasionally interrupted by the brief roar of the burners keeping heat in the balloon.
For all of the procedure, practice and planning, the actual flying of a hot-air balloon is anything but structured. Once the pilot calls for hands-off and the balloon gently ascends towards the sky, it is, from that moment on, at the mercy of the wind. A pilot cannot steer a hot-air balloon. I mentioned turning vents, which allow the pilot to rotate to his heart’s content, but they do not steer the balloon. The only navigating a pilot has at his disposal is to change altitude to where the wind might be blowing in a different direction. Sometimes, pilots are able to fly in a “box” pattern. They may fly for a mile in one direction, then rise up a little higher into wind traveling the opposite direction and then land in the same field they took off from. So often, however, the pilot is usually more concerned with paying attention to obstacles and looking ahead for potential places to land. Nobody wants to be in a hot-air balloon that’s run out of fuel… So the pilot for all of the structure and planning has to surrender some control to the mercy of the wind.
That one detail is usually the biggest hang-up that observers have about hot-air ballooning. “Wait, you mean the pilot doesn’t get to decide where to go?” Nobody likes to give up control of their environment, their safety, their usefulness, or their livelihood. It’s risky. You can’t plan for it because you have no idea what will actually happen. Author Timothy Ferriss has written that given the choice, “people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.” We are so averse to not knowing what’s ahead of us that we’d rather stay back in Egypt. During the stewardship focus this October, as we consider how living gratitude is our response to all that God has done for us, it’s important to acknowledge that committing 10% of what we earn to the world-transforming work of God through the church makes us uncomfortable. There’s uncertainty about how much we can actually afford to give (you can call the church office at any time to change your commitment by the way). How much you give is between you and God. It’s an exercise in gratitude, and it’s an exercise in trust. We don’t always know what God will do with the gifts that we’ve given, but we trust that it’s so far and away beyond anything that we could ever imagine that we give up control to the mercies of the Holy Spirit who guides us ever so gently towards the Kingdom of God.