Thursday, July 26, 2012

Learning to Fly

Learning to fly, but I aint got wings.
And coming down is the hardest thing...
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Learning to Fly"

Flying and Catching

Henri Nouwen was a well-known Catholic priest and author.  He at one point spent time getting to know the members of an acrobatic troupe[1].  Among them were flyers and catchers.  Flyers captured the public eye as they soared through the air—they got all the applause. Catchers worked behind the scenes, lurking in the shadows, just out of view, waiting for the critical moment during the act when they reached out of the darkness to catch the flyer and bring them safely home. I can only imagine that the flyer was “very glad” every time that moment came.

Nouwen once asked the leader of the troupe what the secret was to making the act work.  His response was simple but profound: The secret is that the flyer does nothing; the catcher does everything.  “When I fly to Joe, I simply have to stretch out my hands and wait.” 

While I see the point of the sentiment, I don’t necessarily agree that the flyer does “nothing.” In fact, I actually think he ultimately makes the choice that makes the whole act possible.  You see, the flyer is the only who can decide to jump. 

There can be no dramatic catch until the flyer makes the fateful choice to "let go" and fly.

Once we're flying, then I agree, the outcome is sort of out of our hands, but I don’t think we should diminish the importance of that initial choice to "let go[2]." 

Sounds all well and good, but humans don't have wings!

It looks routine, but it actually takes
lots of practice to learn to fly.
I think what makes us spectators “ooh” and “ah” when we watch the remarkable performances (like the one Nouwen got to experience) going on above our heads is that they seem to be doing something humanly "impossible."   We know what they are doing is very dangerous; injury or even death is possible if things go poorly.  We're on the edge of our seat to see how it turns out.  This kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to anyone, and yet as these flyers and catchers do it night after night, such death-defying acts begin to look routine—like the outcome was never in doubt.

We ask ourselves:  How in the world do they make it look so natural?!

Having never done a high-wire act, I can only guess, but, in a word, I would say the answer is: practice.  

More specifically I would imagine that they would have to:

·      Get to know each other—very well.  Flyers and catchers no doubt spent lots of time together.  I would imagine a troupe like that even lived together.  A flyer had to know that the he could count on his catcher to do his job well—and vice versa.  

·      Work together—a lot. Something this difficult to do only looks routine and effortless to the audience because the performers have put in long hours working together as a team.  The flyer and the catcher have built a strong connection that enables trust between the two. Each almost knows instinctively what the other will do in any given situation. They can anticipate each other's moves and adjust accordingly.

But even after all that training, imagine how it must feel to climb that ladder and stand up on that platform before a packed house.  No matter how much you've prepared, to take that first step out into nothingness must be hard. As you leap, you are leaning on all the practice that has bought you to this point and on the trust you have placed in your friends who are there with you

And then, in an instant, it happens.  Each does their part.
The flyer flies; the catcher catches; and the crowd goes wild!

Choosing to "Let Go" and Fly

Have you noticed that real life has a way of putting us in a similar place as those flyers on a regular basis?  While we’re not usually literally hundreds of feet off the ground on a narrow ledge waiting to jump, we often face critical moments in our lives where we have to make the fateful choice to “let go”—or not.

Once we "let go," we might fail spectacularly or we might succeed beyond our wildest dreams.  We can't control the outcome once we're airborne. But we can be sure of one thing: 

Until we decide to let go and fly, nothing will happen—good or bad.  We'll be stuck in "neutral," plagued by uncertainty and doubt, haunted by the notion that what we desire remains just beyond our reach here on the platform.  

So all this got me thinking:

Could our churches be "flight schools"?

Without a doubt, making that initial decision to "let go" is hard.  Flying out into nothingness and placing your trust in "unseen hands" to catch you and bring you safely home doesn’t come naturally to any human being.  Left to our own devices, most of us will probably never “climb the ladder,” much less have the courage to “jump”.  No, if we're ever going to fly, it will probably take the support and encouragement of some friends who can perhaps help make the "unseen hands" just a smidge more visible for us.

Could your church, small group, or other gathering become a "safe place" to practice flying?  Could we practice and prepare together for our flights?  Could we learn to trust each other implicitly? Could we offer support and encouragement as we each summon the courage to step to the "platform" and fly toward that whatever it is we sense God calling us to do next?  Could we be there to catch one another when we fall—as will inevitably happen from time-to-time?  Could we offer congratulations and consolation to one another as needed, and encouragement to keep flying even amidst the turbulence of doubt, fear, and uncertainty?  

Could we help each other mount the platform, take the leap out into the unknown and fly, trusting the Divine hands that promise to catch us and bring us safely home?


[1] Ortberg, John: Know Doubt: Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith, Chapter 2, pp. 36-38.
[2] I think this is why Ortberg ends Know Doubt the way he does—see Chapter 11.  The whole book is about dealing with uncertainty and doubt in our faith, and his point is that these only fade as we make the choice we are capable of making in this process—to "let go" and experience the freedom God gives us to "fly."  And we must make that choice over and over again in our lives.

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