The Face of Victory
On March 1, 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones stepped into the gondola of a hot air balloon and lifted off from the Swiss alpine village of Chateau d’Oex. Nineteen days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes later, traveling 28,431 miles, they landed in the Egyptian desert. Their journey successfully marked the first nonstop flight around the world in a balloon, earning them the distinction of a world record, a book deal, and a million dollars from the sponsoring corporation. Their victory photograph now rests in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum beside the “Breitling Orbiter III” itself.
As with all successes in life, the accomplishment of Jones and Piccard’s journey is memorable. Like the trophies on our shelves or the moments we remember as crowning, the successful passage of the Breitling Orbiter III is the story we celebrate—a story that seems to begin at Chateau d’Oex and ends in Egypt. But this trip, like most memorable achievements, was not quite the linear move from start to finish we imagine it to be. In fact, the journey that would end with a world record actually had three hopeful starting points and two frustrated finishes.
The often miry course of personal growth and human development is similar. There is a reason Jesus seems to insult the paralytic with the basic question of desire. We indeed must first want to be well; I have long understood this concept personally. But thinking of this call for help as being inherently present within the human developmental process has only recently entered my perspective. What if every pang of trust or mistrust, every cry for autonomy or cry of shame, was the call of the human spirit to that which is beyond it? What if our cries over mistrust or longings for trust exist explicitly because there is one who is trustworthy? Psychology and theology professor James Loder offers this perspective explicitly: “It is evident that human development is not the answer to anything of ultimate significance. Every answer it does provide only pushes the issue deeper, back to the ultimate question, ‘What is a lifetime?’ and ‘Why do I live it?’”(1)
Such are the questions we wrestle with in the twists and turns, stops and failures through the journey called life. How incredibly helpful to suspect there is a reason we ask all along. What if God is not merely the God who comes near in the midst of the pain of adolescence or the cries of an adult for understanding, but is the very creator of the spirit that leads us to crisis and guides us through certain pains? What if it is not merely, as one developmental psychologist writes, the “capacities of the human psyche” that “make spirituality possible,” but it is the Spirit of God who makes the human psyche capable of knowing God?(2) “You did not choose me,” said Jesus, “but I chose you” (John 15:16).
As its name suggests, the success of the Breitling Orbiter III was built upon two previous attempts. The original Breitling Orbiter launched in January of 1997. Only a few hours after take off, the balloon was forced to land when the crew was overcome by kerosene fumes from a leaking valve. One year later, the Breitling Orbiter II stayed in the air 9 days longer than its counterpart, managing to navigate from Switzerland to Burma. To the dismay of all, their flight was cut short when they were refused permission to use the airspace over China. Yet from the finish line of 1999, there is little doubt that these early set backs contributed to the development of the system and strategy that would allow Piccard and Jones to finally pilot their balloon across the Pacific.
Whether our days are marked by victory or by crisis, by progress or the call to turn around and try again, the Spirit goes with us, reinforcing that God has been there all along. To discover that there is a face inherently present behind many of the failures we long to forget, a Spirit within the crushed and wounded scenes we try our best to put behind us, and a voice that speaks over and above the cries that have indelibly marked our journey, is to experience the restorative hope of the creator who intended us to discover him all along. The words of the psalmist describe waking to this knowledge: ”It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them” (Psalm 44:3). What if our days are really marked with the intention of one who loves us? Our winding journeys are a means to the face of God.
(1) James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Inc, 1998), 106.
(2) Ben Campbell Johnson, Pastoral Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press: 1988), 26.