Balancing Flight

These days, my son David and I go to the gym together at about five every weekday morning to work out. This morning, I was on one of the aerobic machines. The last five minutes of a workout, I go into a cooldown mode trying to get my heart rate back down to something more or less reasonable. Often, I’ll close my eyes and imagine that I’m running alone on a path that’s climbing to the crest of a hill. It’s dark, but I can see the light of a new sunrise beckoning ahead of me. The light gets brighter as I near the top. It’s almost as if I can see the breath of God intermingling with my own as we approach each other. I jog toward the crest of the hill but never quite reach it before the timer on my machine gets to zero.

But in the last seconds of my fatal descent from the heavens, I manage to pull back up, avoiding a fiery disaster, and with my wings fully extended and my engines roaring with new life, I begin to climb.

-James Pyles

I suppose it’s narcissistic for me to quote myself in order to start another blog post, but I couldn’t think of anything else that fit. OK, how about this one?

I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life… that’s when it dies.

-Yuddy (played by Leslie Cheung)
from the film Days of Being Wild (1990)
original title, “A Fei jingjyhun”

I’ve never seen this film and probably never will, but when I Googled what I was thinking about, the above-quoted piece of dialog came up. Interestingly enough, I first heard this idea in High School. A fellow in my Creative Writing class (yeah, I was interested in writing even back then) wrote a poem (I think…it’s been forty years) about a bird without legs that was perpetually in flight. Sadly, that’s all I can remember.

But it’s enough.

I had a conversation like this with Boaz Michael at the FFOZ Shavuot Conference last month in Hudson, Wisconsin. During one of his presentations, he was talking about FFOZ being able to “land the plane,” which meant being able to get past the chaos of how various people and groups reacted to their shift away from the One Law theology. The idea was to be able to move on and focus on the primary mission and goals of FFOZ. This includes being able to reach out to the church in an effort to promote a more pro-Jewish message, and reaching out to normative Judaism to promote the Jewish Messiah.

At some point during the conference, I had several opportunities to sit down with Boaz and discuss various topics. One of the things I said is that the plane would never land because there will always be challenges.

I think that’s true of us personally in the realm of faith, too. Once we are introduced to God and realize that we must strive to approach Him, we take flight. But its only when we are in the air that we realize we can never land again. There is no turning back. There is no true sense of rest or peace.

I know that sounds strange, especially to anyone who has a bumper sticker on their vehicle that says, “No Jesus, No Peace; Know Jesus, Know Peace.” But really. You live in a world that is completely hostile to the discipline of religion in general and a Christian faith specifically (I think only Jews and, in some circles, Muslims are more reviled). Once we leave the ground, there are only two options: flight and death.

Sounds pretty grim.

When I say “death,” I don’t mean (necessarily) actually dying but if we choose to leave the faith, we die in terms of being spiritually dead. We no longer have a sense of God. Our relationship with Him is severed. We’ve gotten a divorce.

But considering flight, what a glorious thing it is. Imagine being able to fly without the aid of some sort of machine. Imagine simply extending your arms, raising your head, and realizing that your feet have left the ground. Up, up, up you go. The air is cold and crisp but you don’t feel chilled. Instead, you are invigorated, excited, thrilled. You are sharing the skies with God, seeking Him, soaring up to Him, as a bird might climb high above the clouds to seek out the Sun.

Now imagine that flying is something like running. Eventually all of that flapping will make you tired, just like running a marathon will exhaust you (not that I’ve ever run a marathon). Sooner or later you will want to land, to rest.

And you can’t.

You’re committed. It doesn’t matter how tired you get. It doesn’t matter if you’re exhausted. It doesn’t matter that your wings feel like they’re made of lead and sometimes, you feel as if you don’t care anymore. You just want to rest. Even if you fall. Even if you crash. It’s like Yuddy said:

I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life… that’s when it dies.

So you can glide. Find a sustaining wind, a jet stream, a thermal and let them do the work. Just hold your wings out and let them catch the air and feel yourself suspended between Heaven and Earth; between life and death.

Isn’t that were we all are right now?

Bette Midler sings the Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley song Wind Beneath My Wings (no, I won’t inflict the YouTube videos on you) and the song ends with:

Fly, fly, fly high against the sky,
So high I can almost touch the sky.
Thank you, thank you,
Thank God for you, the wind beneath my wings.

That last line should probably say, “Thank God, You are the wind beneath my wings.” Without God, how could we sustain such an existence.

We all want to enter into His rest. We all long for the Messiah’s return for just that reason. The character Yuddy said cynically, “I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn’t gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning,” but if that were true, then faith is in vain. The atheists say that, and they say they are more alive than we are. There are more than a few believers who have been unable to find that updraft to support them, and exhausted and flightless, have collapsed back to earth like a latter-day Icarus, not because they flew too close to the Sun, but because they flew too long with leaden wings. They never found their source or they lost the will to keep seeking out that great imagination.

Now let me tell you a little secret. My wings get tired, too. It isn’t always easy to find a convenient wind to keep me aloft. Sometimes I doze and drift and wake up to find myself in a spiraling descent. I rouse my wings and push and lift and climb.

But sometimes it’s a close call.

Somewhere between Heaven and Earth are the forces that balance flight and falling. I know that God would not have called me into the sky if He only intended me to lose my ability to fly, but like that first generation of Israelites who were called out of Egypt, I sometimes doubt and complain. Like them, I sometimes feel as if God really did call me into the Heavens just to break my wings and send me plummeting back into the mud and tears. Like them, sometimes my faith is shaken. Like them, I fear defeat.

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” –Psalm 95:7-11 (ESV)

What a horrible thought that, after all of this effort, after tiring days and sleepless nights, no rest, no sanctuary, no oasis, constantly encountering resistance and opposition, that when it’s all over, I will not enter into His rest anyway.

So desperately terrified of a flight that never ends even after I have collapsed into shredded bone and flesh, I look around for some sign of another thermal. I try to find a way to let the wind lift me so I can rest my wings. I strive to look for the courage and strength to make it one more day in the air. I hope that God will show me, not just the ponderous effort of flying, but the glory of infinitely ascending across the skies.

Because sometimes, that’s all I have left.

Each journey the soul travels takes her higher.

There are journeys that are painful, because there is struggle. Struggle to wrestle out of one place to reach another, struggle to discern the good from the bad and put each in place, struggle to face ugliness and replace it with beauty. But in each of these, a sense of purpose overwhelms the pain and brings its own joy.

Then there are journeys that seem to have no purpose. Where nothing appears to be accomplished, all seems futile. There is no medicine to wash away the pain.

But every journey the soul travels takes her higher. It is only that in some, the destination is a place so distant, so lofty, she could never have imagined. Until she arrives.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Unimaginable Journeys”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I hope, I pray, I plead that every day is a journey that takes me higher. But the destination is so far away and the effort to reach it is so great. Yet I dare not consider the possibility of falling. I must climb. I must soar. I must fly.

May God, by His grace and mercy, give me the strength. May He grant it to us all.

4 thoughts on “Balancing Flight”

  1. I stopped flying once, and found out that His hands continued to hold me up. Then I stopped worrying about it. 🙂

    I may have missed the point here, but I don’t think so. I think foundationally, I disagree with it, because it’s not my strength, it’s not my power, it’s His spirit who keeps me in the faith. It’s His spirit who works in me to make me better. It’s His Spirit who will bring me home. And in that I find rest.

  2. You haven’t missed the point, Dree. You just have a different perspective on what holds us up. On the other hand, it’s not like we don’t have some sort of responsibility for our flight. We’re expected to flap our wings, too. What happens if we don’t feel God beneath our wings? Are we just not looking for updrafts in the right places?

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