As we felt the bottom of the basket lift off the ground, Adam asked the pilot, “how many times have you done this?”. The man pulling the trigger that blew fire into the balloon smiled, laughed, and said, “oh only a couple times”. We all stared at him. His face softened and he let out a belly laugh. “This is probably my 500th flight, I live for this stuff.” We all breathed a sigh of relief, finding reassurance in his experience.
As I looked out onto the dessert of Pheonix, Arizona from a hot air balloon, I was so struck by the complete quiet. I had never been this high up in the air without the buzzing of an engine, without the humming of a solid vibration under my feet, or without the music from an electric ferris wheel at the fair. This was different— silence filled the air. It’s funny how we subconsciously hear a noise, a buzz of an engine, communicating to us, “I’m working to keep you up here.” The pulling of the cord broke the silence, incredibly hot air filled the balloon and higher and higher we went. It was peaceful and beautiful.
After we landed in the dry hot desert, a light breakfast and glasses of champagne were passed around for a celebration toast. It was lovely, but admittedly, out-of-place. Why is a successful balloon flight a cause for drinking champagne at 8 in the morning in the middle of the desert? The pilot shared with us that the very first hot air balloon flight was made by a pair of French brothers, the Montgolfiers. This is their story:
Their first successful public demonstration was sending up an unmanned balloon made of bright red paper. It looked nothing like the balloons we see today, but it was their masterpiece. Up to this point in history, no manmade object had ever flown before. No planes. No balloons. No descending parachutes or hang gliders. Flight: yet to be discovered. Until their first test flight came in December of 1782. It went better than either brother imagined. The heat they generated sent the balloon up out of their control. Higher and higher it went, sailing out of sight.
Meanwhile, in a town just over a mile away, a community of people looked on in horror as a mysterious, giant red floating thing descended from the sky into their town. They didn’t know about the Montgolfiers’ recent discovery. They got so scared that they armed themselves with pitchforks and waited for the evil thing coming towards them from the sky. When the big red balloon landed on the ground, it was destroyed by the waiting villagers. The Montgolfier brothers arrived on the scene to find their balloon ruined by pitchforks and fear. These French inventors gathered the remains of their masterpiece and went home.
They realized this new technology was going to be scary to some, and might continue to be received with fear and pitchforks. So when they started sending up balloons with pilots, they decided every basket would be stocked with champagne and enough glasses for a celebration. They would enter a town or area with glasses raised and bottles ready to be uncorked. They would come with a champagne peace-offering to share with the people receiving them.
This changed everything. Communities started to learn about them and receive this new and different thing with excitement and participation.
I have been the fear-stricken pitchfork holder. I have also been the proud creator of a beautiful red balloon that is destroyed. It’s caused me to really reflect on these moments. When we don’t understand something, we often fear it. We name it “bad.” This is a common reaction, but perhaps a harmful one. I wonder if our experiences cause us to get stuck in polarities, in all-or-nothing thinking. We go quickly to categorizing, controlling, and defining realities before we even get close enough to the red balloon to touch it, smell it, examine it, engage with it.
There are so many views that can divide, so many ideas that can feel scary, and so many responses that can take the wind out of our sails.
Can we imagine a better way?
When there is conflict or fear, what if we came with a bottle of champagne ready to uncork and pour? What if we came ready with a toast, a blessing over the person who is speculating, doubting, fearful? What could this look like for you? I believe we all have a dream and vision for something so beautiful and worth it. We all want to be heard and for those we love to enjoy it with us. How could this change the course of our conversations? How would this change the assumptions?
And most importantly, how could this change the church and the way we engage the world around us?
Let’s come with our baskets loaded with the finest champagne (or red wine if I’m stocking the basket). Let’s come ready to find and celebrate common ground. Let’s find reasons to toast instead of reasons to deflate. Let’s lay down our pitchforks and raise our glasses to understanding, asking questions, clearing the air and letting go of fear.