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Trusting the Unseen

The training airplane’s large wing and light weight made for a rough ride in the unstable air. The Cessna 150 rocked, wobbled, and plunged through the sky. Each bounce jerked the plane from either its altitude or its course. While the turbulence hardly counted as dangerous, it gave a sixteen-year-old student pilot flying solo more challenge than he cared for.

But the rough air wasn’t my worst problem that afternoon. Navigating was. I was trying to follow a line I’d drawn on a map from the large Duluth International Airport in Minnesota to my small home field in northern Wisconsin. My primary guides were the map and the plane’s gyro compass. The turbulence had done its share of moving my compass heading around. Now the map’s precise symbols didn’t match the bewildering expanse of trees and lakes passing below the airplane.

Uneasy as well as frustrated, I decided to take the easy way out and follow the highway. But the lake that was to lead to the highway wasn’t the right lake. The road home wasn’t there. My radio calls went unanswered as I wandered nervously through the sky. Someone has said pilots don’t like the word lost, but I definitely qualified as “uncertain of my location.” *

Finally, a private airport slid below. It was well off my course, but proved easy to identify. I quickly calculated a new course and headed off--in the wrong direction.

All the while, a black and white gauge sat waiting to show the way. The gauge, which was coupled with a radio receiver, was called the VOR, or more formally, Very High Frequency Omni Range. VOR transmitters on the ground emitted narrow beams of radio energy called radials in all directions. A flier could use radials from two transmitters to pinpoint his location. He could also single out a single radial and follow it by keeping the needle on his VOR gauge centered. The whole thing was a bit more complicated than it sounds, but I did know how to use it.

I knew how to use it, but my instructor had warned about the VOR before takeoff.  It had just been repaired. The repairs still needed testing. It shouldn't be trusted. Even a lost student pilot has trouble following a leader he doesn't trust. I kept my hands off the VOR and remained uncertain of my location.

Finally, a high-flying airline pilot answered my radio calls. The jet pilot relayed my communications to an en route controller. The controller verified I still had plenty of fuel and began trying to help me. As it turned out, his help mostly involved reassurance. A river came into view. Unlike my questionable VOR, the river was something visible I could trust. I followed it. Before long, I saw an airport.

The map showed a small town, “Angus” near a river. There is no Angus airport, but there was an airport near enough that I figured it must be where I was. I radioed my position to “Angus traffic,” and landed at Osceola. Even by air, Osceola is a long way from the airport I mistakenly called “Angus.” It was also a long way from home. I’d found a guide to trust, but didn’t know where it had led. The airline pilot managed to let my instructor know I was safe on the ground.

Several flying lessons later, I again found myself alone over the forest south of Duluth. The flight plan called for a southwest course to a country airport followed by a relatively short jump home. The woods between Duluth and my destination proved as confusing as the woods between Duluth and home. Extra training or otherwise, my navigation skills still struggled to rise to the occasion. Once again, the line on my map didn’t seem to match the acres of timber below. This time I didn’t follow the wrong lake to a road that wasn’t there. I didn’t strain to pick silent voices from the radio static. The VOR had been tested. I put my faith in it and motored on.

My destination had a VOR transmitter right at the airport. All I needed to do was dial in the right radial, make sure the “to and from” function read correctly, and follow the needle in. The Great North Woods kept its face expressionless. The landmarks remained absent. Tension rode in the empty instructor’s seat, but I kept the needle in the middle of the scale and trusted that unseen radio signal to show me the way.

It has been many years since I flew an airplane. GPS technology has almost replaced VOR technology. Flying has become increasingly expensive and out of reach for many of us. Life, however, remains very much within reach, and yes, questions of faith in the unseen also come up while navigating life.

I’ve been blessed with some advantages when it comes to faith. I had Christian parents who taught me about spiritual things from the beginning. They even sent me to Christian schools. I asked Jesus Christ to forgive my sins and take me to Heaven before I really understood what it was all about. I also learned that the best way to live life is by following the guidance God gave us in the Bible.

But having all those early advantages doesn’t mean I’ve always felt really certain of my spiritual location. The problem has been largely one of trust. As I grew older, I realized that just saying a little prayer about forgiveness and Heaven wasn’t the same as putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ. (The Biblical qualification for forgiveness and eternal life isn’t prayer or sacrament. It’s simple faith in Christ.) I realized I’d also lapsed into trusting my own obedience rather than Jesus. Between those two failures, I recognized the need to reaffirm my faith in the Savior. Faith put my spiritual life back on course.

Even with that basic issue settled I’ve still had to learn the importance of giving up on my own ability to navigate life and trust God. It has involved following the wisdom of the Bible when human “experts” insisted they had a better way. It has meant following God even when I was totally confused as to the direction He was taking me. It has led to giving up on the notion that I really needed the right to run my own future. Like flying, there are times in life when all one can do is forget what he sees and feels and follow his Guide. As I trust and follow, my life stays on course.

Oh, and about trusting the VOR to lead me on that solo cross country flight--I flew along rather uncertain as to my location. I kept the needle centered in spite of my fears. At last, the small rural airport appeared. I landed safely. Faith worked!

That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:7-9)

* I'm not sure who originated this idea. I think I heard it from a pilot I met on a later cross country flight and may have seen it in print as well.

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