On Turning 50: Finding Faith to Fly Again
- 2005 17 May
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “truly I say to you, unless you areconverted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” —Matthew 18:1-3
When I was a child, I dreamed I could fly. I had the dream often. It was effortless—three steps, arms spread, and I would rise up on the wind… somehow aware that it was a dream, and that my flight would be temporary—blissful, finite, as natural as breathing. I also seemed to understand in this sleeping part of me that it was a gift, a God-Dream, something that He knew made me happy, and one that He sent to me often.
Perhaps this is part of the reason I’ve always loved the story of Peter Pan. He not only knew how to fly, but he was willing to share this secret gift with others. "You just think lovely wonderful thoughts," Peter explained, "and they lift you up in the air."
But, we all know how the rest of the tale goes. Silently, secretly, something happens when we grow up. Something happened to me. Life came rushing past, carrying me along with it. Pain arrived with all its unexpected yet inevitable intensity. My family fell apart, and my dreams dissolved. An emptiness descended upon my soul that seemed nothing more and nothing less than a resigned folding of wings. The earth recaptured me. Time passed, and I forgot how to fly.
J.M. Barrie begins the story of Peter Pan like this:
All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.
A few weeks ago I turned 50. And despite all attempts to convince myself how silly it was to feel such a thing, for a while I was depressed about it.
In some ways, this depression shouldn’t come as a surprise; I have lived with bipolar disorder for most if not all of my life. Over the years I have downplayed it to some and concealed it from most, and since my type of disorder is relatively mild, I have functioned quite well over the last 16 years while in recovery from my alcoholism and drug addiction. Lately, though, this old nemesis has raised its vile head again, and I have struggled some. Maybe this is why the upcoming birthday has bothered me so.
I’m both confused and embarrassed by these feelings. The passage of time has never before bothered me, really. I can’t remember another birthday that was in any way distressing. Turning 30, 40…these events brushed by me like a gentle breeze, barely noticed.
As a recovering addict, I have always considered myself to be living on borrowed time anyway, each sober day a generous gift. I could easily have died during those awful years of abuse, and God has restored so much in my life, far beyond what this sinner deserves. So why does this birthday—a meaningless milestone in and of itself—bring with it a vague sense of sadness?
Maybe my birthday has nothing at all to do with these feelings. But for someone who has dedicated his entire life to never growing up, I suppose turning 50 brings with it a certain symbolic significance. Like all alcoholics, I have never wished to accept fully my adult responsibilities.
Perhaps more than others, we addicts ecstatically embrace our childhood, grasping it by the scruff of the neck and hanging on for dear life. Maybe we are designed with more passion, empathy, creativity…born into this world but never quite of it…and thus more vulnerable. We are aware on a deeper level of how beautiful life is, and yet at some point we discover that life is also full of pain. And those arrows that seem to bounce harmlessly off others around us burrow deeply into our too-innocent hearts, and life seeps slowly out. We run. We hide. We live in fantasy.
In Peter Pan, Wendy asks Peter how old he is. Peter is at first taken aback.
"I don't know," he replied uneasily, "but I am quite young." He really knew nothing about it, he had merely suspicions, but he said at a venture, "Wendy, I ran away the day I was born."
My grandmother knew how to fly. She encouraged me to dream. She possessed the innocence and fearlessness of a child. When I was very young and the world very bright, my “Mamaw” and I were best friends. We invented a game. We called it “Getting Lost,” and the rules were this: She and I would climb into the old Rambler Classic, a square white car that Papaw always said could only do forty or fifty miles an hour, tops, “downhill with a good wind behind it.” Mamaw at the wheel, I would shout my commands—left, right, straight, or back. She had to go the direction I ordered; it was the rule of the game. During these half-day-long excursions it was my responsibility to lead us into the darkest, most remote, uninhabited, treacherous areas of rural Benton County. And we found plenty.
She’d be puttering along in that old Rambler, fearlessly manning the helm, when without warning I’d scream “TURN LEFT HERE!” or “STRAIGHT THROUGH THAT GATE!” or “BACK UP! LET’S GO BACK TO THAT MUD ROAD!” And, laughing in the face of danger, decades before the age of Fix-a-Flat or cell phones, we two explorers tried our best to get as lost as we possibly could.
Mamaw had promised to boldly go with me where no five-year-old had gone before, and go we did. Often I worried we were going to get lost, or break down, or be swept under in those low-lying woods by some evil flood or avalanche. But it never happened. Mamaw said Jesus was with us. And I felt safe with the two of them.
My grandmother possessed that marvelous combination of faith and wild abandon that all children have, and she knew instinctively the difference between living with daring and passion and living recklessly. She liked to have fun. She was gracefully childlike rather than childish, responsive to the music within her. And she cultivated in me the same stuff. Never, never, never be afraid to dream—her memory seems to be constantly saying—Just tell me which way to turn. It’s better to be lost and frightened than never to try a new road.
And so we would go, deeper and deeper in to the unknown places, further down the path of pure, exhilarating faith, until the canopy of oak and pine and maple and sycamore thickened and the sky disappeared, day becoming night, a very young boy sliding ever closer along the Rambler’s bench seat till he was snug against his favorite girl, both of them clinging to an invincible friendship.
And as we went further into those dim and mysterious places, the gravel growling menacingly beneath the tires, the sun now no more than an occasional glimmer of hope, Mamaw and I would press our spirits and our courage and our dreams together, bound by a faith much stronger than our fear.
The Wings of a Dove
Mamaw told me all about Jesus. And she taught me—without speaking—that God and children were uniquely connected. But over time something happened, somehow, and as I grew up, my spirit slowly grew more distant and I felt drawn away from our eternal spring together. Mamaw taught me about dreams and wings… but at some point, I forgot.
I wrote about this in my memoir, Prodigal Song:
We grow up. Some of us do, anyway, without meaning to or knowing how it happens. We sometimes take the light God has given and turn it into something else, something dark and caved in upon itself, something heartless and selfish and cruel. We walk away from our little towns, however large or small, and our families, however bright or broken, and go to distant countries, wandering after other gods…leaving our dreaming behind…
For a long time, I did not seem to miss God much. I put my thoughts of Him away somewhere and just went on ahead alone. I don’t know why or even exactly when, but one day I simply turned away and didn’t look back. Then, many grown-up years later, after traveling a road no one could have predicted, I found myself once again calling out His name, crying to Him from the ground, looking up, broken-winged, bleeding and frightened. And I would learn, just in time, that there are both God-Dreams and dreams of our own making, and that those who have tasted His need never be lost to the other.
And so, here I am. Fifty years young, as they say. And the truth is I shouldn’t even have this opportunity to mark the passage of time in my life, because for many years my life was all but gone.
Coming to my senses, I have decided the sadness doesn’t really fit after all. Because by His grace I was given another chance. Christ died to give me—each of us—that choice. And when I felt nearest to death, He came to me, and gave me new life. Broken, I finally could not stop the sobbing, and He held me. Here, in the safety of this embrace, I listened.
And I came to believe, slowly, that hidden somewhere between the dreaming and the waking there waits an indomitable Truth, and within that Truth lives all mystery and meaning, all purpose and plan…once more lifted up on God-dreams, our childlike arms spread out wide …alive, flowing, soaring into the coming morning on the soft white wings of a dove.
Remembering the Way
At the end of Peter Pan, Wendy had grown up, and had a family of her own. Her daughter, still innocent enough to believe in miracles, asks about the days long past, before her own mother had forgotten how to dream…
"The way I flew? Do you know, Jane, I sometimes wonder whether I ever did really fly."
"Yes, you did."
"The dear old days when I could fly!"
"Why can't you fly now, mother?"
"Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way."
We forget the way. Many of us have wounds, and have become deceived by them. We have grown old. And yet, perhaps this is where God steps in, seeking the child in us all. If we let Him, He brushes His hand across our wondering eyes, once more granting us the freedom of flight, guiding us to a place where we might find mercy in our memories, and grace in our regrets.
This is where Jesus, the Living Christ, comes alongside and offers us what could be the greatest gift of all—the chance to choose whether we wish to be haunted by our dreams, or given flight by them. This is where we make that bravest and most childlike of choices, and head down a dirt road deep in the woods…. Listen—the barely audible echo of footsteps as childhood fleets away, the days all pressed together and hurrying past like shimmering glimpses of a dragonfly darting just above the water’s surface, humming, hovering, gone . . .
Never, never, never be afraid to dream—her voice now more than mere memory, a living thing with wings—Just tell me which way to turn. It’s better to be lost and frightened than never to try a new road…
Jim Robinson is a successful songwriter, musician, speaker, author, and recovery counselor. A graduate of Christ Center School of Counseling and Addiction Studies, Robinson is founder of ProdigalSong, a Christian ministry utilizing music, speaking, counseling and teaching to convey healing for the broken spirit. For information about his ministry, music, or his book, also called Prodigal Song, visit www.ProdigalSong.com or contact Jim via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.