Flying

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Everyone says that man can’t fly.

But they’re wrong.

I’ve flown once.

I don’t mean in a plane, encased in a steel tube and subject to a dependence on someone else. And I don’t mean falling–knifing through the air, being inexorably pulled down towards water or earth or death or whatever we aim for when we leap.

I mean I’ve flown–free from the shackles of my own body–truly separated from the ground, not quite high enough to reach Heaven.

It came about unexpectedly, like Douglas Adams said it would. I just sort of fell and missed the ground. I wasn’t even trying; in fact, I was probably trying to bury myself alive when it happened.

I had been at a worship service. By all of my cultural standards, it was a good, Spirit-filled service, with all the right sacraments. There was an electric guitar and a drum set. They even threw in a light show. You couldn’t help but feel God in the place.

But I didn’t. I was disillusioned with the whole thing. It felt fake, artificial–they were trying to manipulate me and make me feel the Holy Spirit. But I wasn’t having it. Like a tight-lipped prisoner being interrogated, I resisted it. The worship leader, with his Fender and his John Mayer impersonation, circled me and prodded and probed and shined bright lights in my face, but I resisted. And eventually I was released, but not before I saw her.

She was in the front row. She was actually sitting for most of the songs that were played. I was perched high up in the auditorium, surveying the scene. I wouldn’t have noticed her if she hadn’t stood near the end; it had to have been the second-to-last song at the earliest. As she stood, I thought to myself that I had just lost a comrade in arms; a rare holdout against those trying to break us. And then she did something to cement my perception.

She stretched out her arms.

Like a bird floating on a firm headwind, or a butterfly caught in draft, she stood there with her arms reaching out like she would come off the ground in a moment. It was as if the sky, shut out by the metal ceiling of the auditorium, would pluck her out of the place, but the roof was in the way. And so she stood there–for a second or a year–with her arms outstretched and eyes shut tight.

I left with a smug sense of defiance, a touch of bitterness. The whole thing had been a sham, but what I had seen most certainly was not. People cannot pick themselves up and whisk themselves away into the sky, into a blue night flecked with the lights from celestial cities. They couldn’t. And they certainly couldn’t at the hands of some 3rd rate musician attempting to trigger an internal mechanism to be mistaken for the Divine.  Well, it may have gotten her, but it wouldn’t get me.

I got on my motorcycle and headed home. The sky was almost a burden, with its dark expanse swallowing me in its immensity. As I pulled under the neon gaze of a stoplight, I looked up and saw the sky reaching out to me–trying to crush me between ghostly fingers.

I slammed off the light. First, second, third, fourth, fifth. The gears clicked in rhythm as I raced away from those ephemeral hands; a two-legged horse streaking over Los Angeles pavement. The air tunneled out in front of me, urging me on, holding back the night sky for a second longer, till I could make it home and paint some blood on my door and just let the whole thing pass over.

It started in me chest, and blossomed out through my body, pricking fingertips and toes–a hum distinct from that of my horse. It pushed against my skin and bones, crowding them aside. I didn’t know what to do; the sky had not caught me, the earth had not swallowed me. I raced faster and faster, and as I did, so did the humming. It sped ever quicker to my brain and body, and then raced back to my heart, and returned again anew.

I stretched out my arms.

And I flew.

Oblivious to the lights, the night, life and death, I flew above the ground, above the sky, above myself. I danced, suspended between Heaven and Hell, for a second–for a year. Time froze to watch me, and I saw it stretched out, back to the Beginning and running to the End. And I drifted above it. There was no ceiling to hold me, no tether to restrain, no dependence on breath or bread or moments–and so I flew.

If I hadn’t been so entranced, I could have made it around the world before I came back down. I could have seen every single human being, everything about them. Free of definition by anything other than the imprint on their souls, I might have known every one of them. I might have even gotten around to myself. But I was too fascinated, too caught up.

When I came down, I was back on my motorcycle, my hands on the bars. The night sky had returned to guarding Heaven. The air had opened up. I still race along.

I race to get Home.

Trust Issues

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I have trust issues.

I was raised cynical. We all are to some degree. My mother was–and still is–a chemistry teacher with a biology degree. She would–and still does–tell me that one of the things she worries about is that I’m too trusting of people. I’m not sure where she’s getting that; I’ll usually give people the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t expect them to follow through with it.

The nature of this trait, cultivated and inherited, has the effect of being a lens I wear for my interactions with people. Not trusting means being pleasantly surprised. Trusting is hard. Cynicism is easy. Even Christ, when he walked the earth, surrounded by followers “would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.” (John 2:24)

Ironically, my tendency to not trust people shifted its way to Jesus. I carried my means of dealing with man into my relationship with the Son of Man. That’s probably why He didn’t trust those men around him–men like me. It’s almost impossible to truly trust someone who doesn’t trust you. Without trust, there’s that inherent tension in the relationship that grates and scratches all of the interaction and leaves the relationship feeling shallow. And in many ways, it is. Trust is a commitment; it means that there will be mutual respect, and that one party can count on the other to uphold the foundation of that respect.

Sure, I trust God on an idealistic level: following the rules He laid out for me is for the best. Yeah, I get that. But that doesn’t translate into the practical reality of a trusting relationship. All the kind thoughts and good intentions in the world don’t matter when they aren’t manifested in a way that reflects them. Ask me if I trust God: of course I do. Look at how I live: maybe not so much.

I have my intellectual reservations–the same way that a child sitting at the top of a slide has theirs. Wholesale commitment means total trust. The record shows that I’m not great with that.

Honestly, one of my biggest worries is that full commitment will mean I’ll no longer be interesting. Some of my flaws and sins serve to bring out other aspects of my personality that I happen to like. I’ve even come to define myself by some of them. I’m not ready to give them up to become a white-robed saint walking around, quietly humming Hillsong. Christianity is supposed to make us look like Christ, but a part of me doesn’t want to look like everyone else.

And cynicism has its perks. My mother’s mindset was not one of sarcasm, where there is no right answer and everything is to be scoffed at. It was an attitude of empirical evidence: go figure things out for yourself. If you can’t do it, find someone who has.

There is plenty of evidence that my worries are unfounded.

As I sit at the top of the slide, I can see plenty of people who have gone down it, and they tell me how great it is. Surprisingly, they’re not all wearing the same clothes and talking the same–although they all have a gleam in their eye that shines and sparkles like city lights.  I wouldn’t mind having a piece of that. I want to join them down at the bottom, with their feet firmly planted on the ground and their head in the clouds. But my fear–my lack of trust–however unfounded, is still real.

And so I sit at the top of the slide. I’ve climbed all the way to the top, but now it’s a long way down. If I push off, I won’t be able to stop; I can only trust that I will be caught at the bottom. In my head, I know I will be. I’ve got a good Father. And maybe after I get down, and I take off the dirty old clothes that have been defining me, instead of a plain white robe, He will give me one that shines like glass and has all the color and depth of the sky. I’ve heard He gives pretty good gifts to His children.

But maybe I’ll get a plain white robe. It’s not for me to decide.

I am called to trust.

Drugged

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Over the last 100 years, the Western mind–once exalted and drawn out of lethargy and conformity through 2000-some years of philosophy and growth–has been stunted and dulled through the resurgence of a certain controlled substance. It has taken the mind–free to fly and drift on the air without the shackles of broken thought and darkened perception to hold it down–and made it dumb and soft.

Not only does it affect the mind, but it affects the body. Muscle tissue breaks down and becomes weak and stiff/ Through consistent use of this particular drug, one becomes constrained to the confines of their home, unable to leave or even move about. The eyes grow weak and blood flow constricts to major arteries. Endorphins flow excessively and the mind becomes chemically addicted to the rush that the high causes–and becomes unable to function without it. People say it’s not actually addictive: “I can quit anytime I want.”

And what to do, when a drug is socially acceptable? Especially prevalent is the use amongst my generation–those young adults coming and going from college. But the epidemic is widespread, and shows no signs of stopping. I personally have a couple dealers who will supply me and my friends with a fix at just about any time of the day.

However, it depends on your region. Some more restrictive sub-cultures have placed restrictions on this substance–but they are rapidly shrinking. Legalization is sweeping the nation. California especially is on the forefront of this push, and has been for a number of years.

And I admit, I’ve used for years. I was introduced right about the time I got into college, and what was initially just a recreational drug quickly turned into a solid, full-fledged addiction. I used it to relax, I used it to fill time, I used it to fall asleep. And I was unequivocally addicted. Whenever I had any free time, it was time to get high–whether it was alone or with someone else–it was just what I did. Hours and hours every day, wasted on some substance that was dictating the way I thought and dulling my mind to everything else around me.

So I decided to get clean. I’m not expecting to be perfect in my sobriety; who ever is? I’m not even going to say I won’t miss it; I like having something to fill my days up. But I am going to try to improve, to turn my focus to more worthwhile things, and make better use of my body and mind. And I’d challenge everyone reading this who struggles with this particular substance to do the same.

Turn the damn TV off and go do something worth doing.

Go Get Lost

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As I sit in a tiny hotel room in east Rome, with the sun long set behind grey clouds and ancient monuments erected to the remarkable tenacity and creativity of humanity, I’m struck at how comfortable we are with being comfortable. Every day in the city, crowds of hurried tourists on holiday rush by, following their captain–a tour guide waving a red umbrella so that nobody gets lost. They stare at benchmarks of history through the viewfinders of their cameras, then snap frantic pictures of sculptures and artwork that was crafted while Western Europe was still barbarian tribes. And they trudge from place to place, as fixed and consistent as if they were on a track. Don’t wander too far, be on time, hurry up, catch up, let’s go, next stop, right, left, right this way.

And so it goes.

I often find myself falling into this mindset; as human beings, we don’t like being lost. The idea that someone is in charge is comforting. We may search foreign shores and seek out the things that broaden and bend our perspective, but we like to do so under the trained hand of one who knows where to go. Everybody likes going rock climbing when they’re on belay; it takes a special type of childish fascination and risk to climb without ropes.

And yet Jesus said to become like little children. So maybe there’s something to getting in a little over our heads. Perhaps the best way to live wholly and completely is to neglect the instinct of clinging to the safe and the known and venture out onto the ocean, even if we don’t have a boat. After all, the worst we can do is sink–and the best way to learn how to swim is necessity.

Saint Augustine once said something along the lines of “The world is a book, and if you never travel you are only reading one page.” That doesn’t mean every one should pack their bags for a far flung city (although it would surely be a good and decent thing if they had the opportunity to). But it does imply that as human beings, we should view the world as more than the sum total of our own personal experiences. And comfort is an experience that most folks are familiar with, especially us Americans. The entire American dream is rooted around concepts such as comfort and stability. Get an education so you can get a job. Get a job so you can get a family. Get a family and then build a house. Build a house so you can fulfill the illusion of security.

While these things are not wrong, this life we live is not stable in nature. We learn to speak by stuttering. We learn to walk by falling. Why do we stop? Learning to read was arduous for me and a vicious batte for years; does that mean I shouldn’t have tried? When I was a child I thought like a child and I acted like a child. When I grew up, I put my childish ways behind me. I learned that flawed and garbled speech is a necessary phase. I came to appreciate the scars on my hands and knees because they taught me how to run and jump and play. I traded my fear of being lost for a trust that I will make it home. And I learned that home may not be where I thought it was.

Knowing where you are is nice–the bed with the shape of my body pressed into it, the roads on which I know each pothole and dip–it’s easier on me. It’s hard to picture being lost and not having a guide to tell me how to get back to my suburban apartment and my Keurig coffee maker. But there comes a point when we will be asked to give up everything we hold and embrace life. And like the wealthy young man in the Gospel of Luke, the more that we have, the harder this will be. If we have never fallen, we will not learn how to walk. If we have never been lost, we will not be able to venture into the unknown.

Foreign lands can be intimidating. High walls of ancient concrete jut up above the cobbled and uneven streets and sometimes everywhere you turn there’s the impression of being in a hedged-in maze. A different language means communication is sometimes impossible beyond a kind nod or a sympathetic glance. Yet still–wander around. It could be Rome, it could be the town down the road, it could be a waitress you don’t have the nerve to talk to.

Yet still–wander around. Twirl and spin to a dance that you don’t know. Jump when you can’t see. Put off the robe of respectability and try on the habit of Saint Francis. Learn to laugh at yourself; learn how to stand back up.

And for God’s sake, go get lost.

The Giving of Alms

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I recently had a conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend of mine. The topic of giving alms to the homeless came up, and immediately progressed into a lively discussion about the ethics of such an act. He was firmly opposed to the giving of alms. Mind you, this was a young man who owned two cars and attended a private university in Southern California. There was no lack of resources, so I was puzzled at his adamant refusal of what I thought was forgone conclusion amongst the Christian community.

The fact is I would be hard pressed to try to convince a person that giving alms to beggars was the right thing to do, providing they held no religion or ethic which suggested otherwise. How could you have a conversation with someone who held no concrete ethical convictions? I had no such intention. However, the person in question was a self-professed Christian. This placed him under a stricter standard of ethics than your average run-of-the-mill citizen. The Christian standard is what I applied for the framework of our dialogue.

As for a foundation on which to make claims besides Scripture, the following are statistics, provided by the Los Angeles Almanac, to help to portray the situation of the homeless population in Los Angeles County. Both me and my friend reside in the area, so it is fitting to use it as a case study. The numbers are as follows:

– There are an estimated 254,000 people homeless at any given time in LA County

– 20-43% are in families

– 41% of adults were employed within the last year

– 16-20% are currently employed

– 25% are mentally ill

– 20% are physically disabled

– 48% graduated high school, 32% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher

– 33-66% of single individuals have substance abuse problems

Two of the dominant themes that my friend brought up were thus: those who are begging are being lazy and therefore should not be enabled, and/or they were addicted to certain substances and giving money only fueled that addiction. The statistics above were intentionally chosen with these assertions in mind.

One of the consistent witnesses my friend brought forward in defense of not giving alms to beggars was that the Bible clearly states that those who work shall not eat. I was familiar with that particular text, having heard it quoted from my mother numerous times in my youth. And while it is a valid argument, there are a much greater number of texts that speak of giving to the poor in the time of need. My mind immediately goes to the numerous verses that speak of giving alms as though you were lending to the Lord, and other passage along these lines. In a brief overview of both the Old and New Testament I found no less than 46 verses that directly mentioned giving to the “poor” or “needy.” There are surely more, as it was a perfunctory search.

In contrast I found only three verses that mentioned that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat. Two of these were Proverbs, specifically worded to individuals, and those individuals indulging in the vice of sloth. Only one was framed in such a way as to potentially target a frame of thinking for a member of the Christian community. While there are more passages that would deal with laziness, nowhere can I find that the supposed laziness of a stranger should concern the giving of alms by one who would subscribe to the tenants of the Bible. The message of those Scriptures referencing that distasteful sin of sloth is directed at the individuals engaged in it, not at those who would give.

Now continuing to the other argument that was made in the course of our discussion: “If I give beggars money, they’re just going to use it to buy alcohol or drugs.” It is a statement I often hear from very respectable people. This seems like a valid argument until you begin to examine the facts of the matter. The Bible is vague on this, leaving us without a reference per se. But there are other means of examining the dilemma. Making an estimate of the figures above, roughly 50% of those who are homeless and single have a substance abuse problem. Couple that with the figures from how many are in families and the number could be assumed to be slightly lower.

Mind you, this takes into account mild alcoholics as well as heroin users. There are those who suffer addiction stemming from mental deficiency, free will, or are constrained by genetic predisposition that they lack the strength or support to successfully combat. But while this is certainly a tragic figure–from a conservative estimate–it is not even a majority.

But this is beside the point. With the endless rationalization and relativism of the world, I am not suggesting one more theory along that style of reasoning. I am merely suggesting that one who is bound by the Christian ethic is bound to give alms to those in need. I am not calling into account the character of those who refrain from giving alms. However do not let ourselves remark that we do not give because the poor are lazy, or addicted, or degenerate. The fact is they are needy and if we have abundance–subscribing to a Christian ethic–we are to be their salve as best we can. And this could be a number of things: time, money, relationships, etc. Every person has a different ideal method for helping the needy, but I would agree with almost all of them to a certain level.

Christians should give. For anyone who believes that they are giving as unto the Lord, it is ironic to hear justification of why withholding alms is really helping a person. The God of the Christians does not ask for our advice on what to do with our tithes and offerings. He merely asks for them. This should not be interpreted as advocating the reckless distribution of money. All the same, I would be happy to see more folks reexamine their perspective on this particular Christian ethics.