Thirteen years ago today John F. Kennedy, Jr. took off on his fateful flight from Essex County Airport, New Jersey. Heir to the legendary Kennedy good looks, charm and fortune, the young Kennedy possessed unlimited potential for political and commercial fame. But, in less than two hours, his young life would be cut short along with his wife and sister-in-law who were passengers.
Flying at night without instrument ratings, the young Kennedy was dependent upon visual contact with the ground in order to land the Piper Saratoga safely at Martha’s Vineyard Airport two hundred miles away. Unknown to Kennedy, he was flying into a night fog. Choosing to fly over open water, he became disoriented with no visual horizon, and apparently pulled the plane into a deadly spiral. Their bodies were discovered in the wreckage eight miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
Kennedy’s tragic death underlines the dangers of spatial disorientation in flight, something commonly referred to as “flying upside down.” The pilot thinks he is flying right-side up, but is, in fact, “flying upside down,” so that when he thinks he is pulling up, he is instead flying into the ground. Dallas Willard used this metaphor to introduce his book, The Divine Conspiracy drawing the conclusion that Jesus was the only person who ever lived who knew how to fly right-side up. The rest of us, left to our own devices, inevitably fly upside down.
This is the reason Jesus’ instructions sound so counter intuitive. “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down and running over.” “Whoever would save his shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. … If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” “Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”
Jesus’ instructions sound incredulous in a world that operates on systems of revenge and retaliation, of greed and self-interest. Perhaps that is the reason our world seems to be out of control, gripped in a death spiral destined for destruction. Only when we learn to trust the One who alone can see the horizon are we able to “right our plane” and fly right-side up.