Wednesday, November 15, 2006

[springlist] Limits of Time and Space

Despite my best efforts, nothing happened. I ran. I jumped. I even flapped my arms. Nothing. No matter how hard I tried, I failed. After dreaming again and again and again that I could fly, I almost convinced myself it was possible. Sitting in church, I’d visualize myself hovering above the room, encircling the congregation and soaring up into the sky. Then the sermon would end, and I would realize that I was the one preaching!

A couple weeks ago while sitting in a large hall at a business conference in Chicago, I gazed up at the ornate ceiling. The old sense of flying returned. Ah, this looked like the perfect room to let my imagination soar. Suddenly my mind flashed with light and I discovered this profound insight: I cannot fly.

No matter how hard I wish, no matter how hard I flap my arms, this body is not going to start floating. Catching my breath from this overwhelming illumination, I wondered where does this desire to fly come from? While there are many reasons why other people and myself dream of flying, one reason stands out in the moment: the desire to fly can sometimes be a desire to escape the limits of the material world.

The gift of this physical world comes with a variety of limitations. We cannot stare at the sun. We cannot breathe underwater. We cannot walk through walls. We cannot fly. By virtue of affirming the realness of the world around me, I must accept the limits of this same wondrous world. Limitations play an essential part in the game of life.

Each of us walks through life with a variety of particular limitations such as race, heredity, age, height, eye color and more. There are limitations by virtue of our birth, limitations due to natural laws and limitations that are imposed on us by others or even ourselves.

If I turn right at the stop sign, I cannot turn left at the same time. By turning right, I limit myself to the world on the right hand side. Every decision is a confinement, a limitation that I impose.

Limitations can also be imposed upon me. Education, finances, health, family and other factors may all limit the choices readily available to me in life. Sure we may exalt the few who seem to break through these limits but most of us do not. We live in the midst of certain constraints we will never overcome.

Most of us will never be billionaires with the freedom to jet about the world at our hearts desire. We will work regular jobs, raise families and learn to carve out a life without the excesses of unlimited income.

Most of us will never rule nations or even cities for the matter. We may hold certain levels of responsibility within our work, our church and our communities, but we will not shape world events. Like the unnamed masses throughout history, we simply live and eventually die, making a small ripple upon a tiny pool that soon fades.

This may sound negative. In fact, limitations seem negative. They seem like a denial. So we can easily focus on the limitations in our own lives and suddenly dream of flying. For example, instead of accepting the limitations of our own particular finances, it is easy to continuously wish for more money. Or worse yet, to act as though we have more money by incurring debts that are beyond our ability to pay.

Our limitations may drive us to wishing. We may wish to live in another time period. We may wish to live in another part of the world. We may wish to have different parents, different relatives or different skin color. We may wish for a different life: any life but our own. We may also regret: regret the choices we didn’t make, the person we didn’t marry, the job we never had, the house we never built, the life we never lived.

Or, we might just learn to revel in the limitations of our particularity. While there may be a time for “breaking out of the box,” there is also a time to be grateful for our particular box. This tension between pressing up against my limitations and accepting my limitations may not be an obstacle to fulfillment but may actually be the specific point where the wonder of God’s grace manifests in my life.

Looking back over the last 25 years, I realize that being diagnosed in High School with chronic kidney disease provided a limitation that shaped the person I became. In the midst of the challenges, I learned gratitude and wonder and delight in each waking moment. Sure I could have read that in a book, but that would not make the idea a core part of me.

While we read good ideas and hear good teachings, it is in the arena of living our lives with our particular constraints that we become whom we are. We are not all created equal. We are all created particular. The Creator formed each of us uniquely. We may curse these unique qualities that define us who we are or we may celebrate them.

In this act of celebration, we express gratitude for the gift of our particular life. And at this point, we might just realize the defining limitation in our life: we are not God. Those who do rule the world, those who do become rich and famous and those who are recorded in the history books are still not God. The distance between the Creator and the creature is not measurable and cannot be overcome.

If we are not God, then we are dependent. Life is a gift. Breath is a gift. Our particularities are gifts. Instead of wishing for other gifts, we might celebrate the gifts already given. We might learn to live within the constraints. We might discover the creative wonder at our disposal right this moment.

The limitation of gravity combined with the design of the human body means that we cannot fly. In the midst of this insurmountable obstacle something new emerged: humans discovered the possibility of creating machines that do fly. And in fact, after my conference in Chicago was complete, I boarded an airplane and flew home.

As I reflect on the wonder of that flight home, I pause and give thanks to God, anticipating the other wonders He is revealing in and through the limitations in my life and the lives of those around me.


Matte said...

Personally, this is one of the most powerful things I have read in a long time, other than the Bible, of course ;-)

I have been forwarding this particular piece to my friends and I read it at small group this week to start one of the most intense discussions we have ever had. Thanks for living within and without your limitations in beautiful paradox, Doug.

John said...

Great post! Happy Thanksgiving Doug, and may the Lord bless you and your family abundantly!

Be encouraged.