Choosing Life 2

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Flying Lessons

I have always wanted to fly.  Everything about flying to me is thrilling.  In 1989 a heaven-sent opportunity arose when a friend came to Zimbabwe’s capital looking for some hands-on legal experience at our Bar before setting up on his own in Bulawayo. Significantly, he brought with him his 1957 Piper Tri Pacer and an instructor’s rating. On discovering my passion for flying, Tim volunteered he and his plane for lessons at only fuel cost. In those days ‘avgas’ was about half the price of motor fuel.

I will never forget a single moment of those magic hours. Floating across the blood red msasa woodlands and skimming the tops of bolder-clad kopjes guided mainly by whim gives a sense of freedom impossible to express in words.  Not even the heart-stopping events of our first flight dampened my ardour.  Being the introductory flight, Tim, of course, was in sole control. Shortly after takeoff the lateral movement of the yoke (the sort of half ‘steering wheel’ that controls the elevators and ailerons) jammed solid due to rust accumulated by the massive rains that had recently broken a long drought.  This was not a matter of mere inconvenience since technically, the nose could neither be raised nor lowered and, of course, what goes up, one way or another must come down. Unfazed, Tim in a display of dispassionate professionalism and consummate skill executed a perfect landing at Charles Prince Airport, using only the throttle to lose height. In the world of commercial multi-engined aircraft there is only a single recorded incidence of this having been done completely successfully3.

We soon set to work and having ripped out the seats, found the fault. Five minutes and a little oil later, we were again airborne, this time with a shaky new pupil at the controls.

You’re probably wondering what the point of this story is so let me get to it.  Have you ever seen one of those movies where the pilot of an aircraft is incapacitated and some novice takes control, successfully landing the plane with radioed instructions? Personally I don’t believe it’s possible.  Flying looks a lot easier than it is.  Even maintaining level flight for the untutored novice would be fraught with difficulty with the “graveyard spiral3a” ever waiting to catch out and kill the unguarded. And landing in one piece? Forget it. It can’t be done.  Amazingly, though, eighty-one year old Helen Collins of Florida did just that on 3 April 2012 after her pilot husband died at the controls4, but she’d had flying lessons years earlier specifically to cater for such a possibility and had flown at her husband’s side for most of their life together.  She survived because she and her husband had planned for the occasion. Mrs Collins' twin-engined Cessana is pictured to the right.  She ran out of fuel as she landed, one engine having spluttered out, but she managed to keep the aircraft headed down the centre of the runway even with the nose oleo collapsed.

Flying Blind

It’s inconceivable that a novice would voluntarily place themselves in the position where they had to take over the controls of an aircraft with neither training nor backup, or at least having read a manual on flying.  Yet it’s an astonishing fact that so many people face the inevitable end of their own lives with little or no thought as to what lies beyond or whether anything we do in this lifetime may impact upon us in the next.  Of course, for those who cling to the view that there is nothing hereafter, the question is settled. But simply believing something to be true does not necessarily make it so. Does not the same ‘reason’ that assures the sceptics that life does not exist beyond our physical death also provide some element of doubt, some need to investigate the facts to ensure that they are correct?

Setting Priorities

Dr Peter Hammond of Frontline Fellowship, Cape Town, in a brilliant article about the terrible retrogression of human standards since the sinking of the Titanic a century ago, writes compellingly that:

"Life is short and uncertain. According to the designer of the Titanic, whereas decorations were discussed for many hours, the lifeboats were only discussed for "five or ten minutes!" It is an amazing thing that so often we give most of our time and attention to the trivial and we give so little attention to what is most important. When they set sail very few of the people on the Titanic could have realised how little time they had. We should set our priorities in the light of eternity and live our lives as those who know that one day we must stand before Almighty God and give an account."4b

Hedging One's Bets

A man named Blaise Pascal once developed an idea which would become famously known as Pascal’s Wager.  It goes something like this:  If you wager that there is no God and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything.  On the other hand, if you wager that there is a God and you are wrong, the most you have to lose is some hurt to your pride.  As you can imagine, many atheists have attacked this idea on various fronts4a. To avoid these, lets rephrase Pascal’s wager from a Christian perspective: Assume for a moment (1) that there is a Divine Creator and life after death as the Christian Bible says and (2) that in order to be assured of gaining eternal life in paradise, it is a prerequisite that we accept the free gift of life Jesus purchased for all who accept it by dying on the cross and by loving God and one another and by seeking to live in obedience to Him.  If then it turns out that these assumptions are correct but we do none of these things, this would, without any possibility of doubt, be the gravest error we could ever make in this life. 


Dare you exit the desert of unbelief, that desiccated place that shrinks your very soul
And enter verdant pastures to drink of the eternal springs that will cause you to be whole?
Are you but flesh and blood, spawn of some one-celled ancestor chance kindled in primordial ooze?
Are your all musings and your thoughts synaptic firings over which you’ve no power to choose?

Seek therefore seek! Find the key to the invisible shackles that bind you to that murky pond
Break free from the chains of ignorance that hold you unrelenting fast in their bond
For the key is not hard to find and the chains will vanish like dewdrops in the morning sun
If only you’d open your heart to Him through whom both you and the world were begun.

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 3On November 22, 2003, shortly after takeoff from Baghdad, Iraq, an Airbus A300 cargo plane owned by European Air Transport (a subsidiary of the German express-mail service DHL) was struck on the left wing tip by a surface-to-air missile. Severe wing damage resulted in a fire and complete loss of hydraulic flight control systems. The pilots used differential engine thrust to fly the plane back to Baghdad, and were able to land without any injuries or major aircraft damage. This was the second time a plane had been landed after entirely losing hydraulics and using differential engine thrust as the only pilot input (the previous example being United Airlines Flight 232), but it was the first time it had been done without injury or additional significant damage to the aircraft.



4a Wikipedia at has a concise article on some of these and includes the following:   

Since there have been many religions throughout history, and therefore many conceptions of God (or gods), some assert that all of them need to be factored into the wager, in an argument known as the argument from inconsistent revelations. This, its proponents argue, would lead to a high probability of believing in "the wrong god", which, they claim, eliminates the mathematical advantage Pascal claimed with his Wager. Denis Diderot, a contemporary of Voltaire, concisely expressed this opinion when asked about the wager, saying "an Imam could reason the same way".[12] J. L. Mackie notes that "the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshipers of Kali or of Odin."

Pascal considered this objection briefly among his notes compiled into the Pensées, and dismisses the objection as disingenuous:

What say [the unbelievers] then? "Do we not see," say they, "that the brutes live and die like men, and Turks like Christians? They have their ceremonies, their prophets, their doctors, their saints, their monks, like us," etc. If you care but little to know the truth, that is enough to leave you in repose. But if you desire with all your heart to know it, it is not enough; look at it in detail. That would be sufficient for a question in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake. And yet, after a superficial reflection of this kind, we go to amuse ourselves, etc. Let us inquire of this same religion whether it does not give a reason for this obscurity; perhaps it will teach it to us."

This short but densely packed passage, which alludes to numerous themes discussed elsewhere in the Pensées, has given rise to many pages of scholarly analysis.

Pascal says that unbelievers who rest content with the many-religions objection are people whose scepticism has seduced them into a fatal "repose". If they were really bent on knowing the truth, they would be persuaded to examine "in detail" whether Christianity is like any other religion, but they just cannot be bothered. Their objection might be sufficient were the subject concerned merely some "question in philosophy", but not "here, where everything is at stake". In "a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are concerned", they can manage no better than "a superficial reflection" ("une reflexion légère") and, thinking they have scored a point by asking a leading question, they go off to amuse themselves.

4b100 Years After the Titanic Tragedy