And how they speak to us of the wonder -- or is it the meaninglessness? -- of life.
It's a beautiful spring day with a cobalt sky and cottony clouds wheeling high overhead on the breeze, and I'm standing in our backyard near the huge maple, the one that overhangs the whole world. Staring upwards in 4-year-old fascination, I watch the budding leaves swish in the breeze as winged seed pods swirl to the ground.
By the hundreds they come, the tiny green streamlined packages of nascent life; whirling from branch to ground in a brief, glorious flight. Half an inch wide and two inches long; curved with the bulge of a pregnant seed. The pods fly on the wind that carries them away to a remote final resting place.
Of course, I know none of this at age 4. I simply know they're magical.
Mom picks up one of the winged wonders from the ground. "Do you know what these are, Georgie?" she asks.
I shake my head, but stare curiously at the object in her hand.
"They're helicopters," she says. With that, she releases the fragile seed-carrier into the breeze. It spins away on the wind, floating and twirling its way to the ground.
I cautiously pick one up to see if my childish hands can duplicate adult magic. Breathless, I release the helicopter ... and it soars! Captivated, I pick up another, and another, giggling with delight. Each one dances with the wind. I scoop a cloud of seeds in two hands and watch them flutter to the earth with wild abandon.
The helicopter seeds are a carefree day; a childhood caught in a moment. I have discovered wonder.
It isn't until I'm older — much older and much harder — that I realize how useless the seeds are. Thousands flutter from a tree, and for what use? In our patch of backyard grass and tight-packed gravel drive, they will be ground under car tires and choked by grass and wither on parched earth. A few will sprout and eke out a meager existence this summer, struggling against the odds to spread roots below and branches above. But when the snows come, they will have struggled in vain.
For all their fleeting glory in flight, not a single seed is likely to become a tree. Such a waste.
I'd seen Julie before that memorable Sunday — even flirted with her. But one morning while I sat in a pew and she sang in the choir, it happened. I caught her smile as bright as May and watched her brown laughing eyes and saw her love for God oozing through every word she sang. She wasn't one more girl at church now: I wanted to take her to dinner Saturday if she said "yes."
Earlier that week I spent hours in my apartment soaking up the boredom with a magazine I didn't want to read. The time dragged on and passed from memory like a thousand other unmissed days in my life.
I don't claim to understand what renders one moment significant and the next forgettable. I do know that sitting alone in my apartment was as tedious as the following Sunday was memorable.
The year before I met Julie I spent my Saturday nights at a youth center, hanging out with urban teens. Most of them were kids you might see in a raucous group on the corner, and then decide to cross the street. They were frequently too cool to talk to a 20-something geek like me, but enjoyed playing basketball and shooting pool and when they got bored, peeing on the bathroom floor or stealing anything not nailed down.
Sometimes I had conversations. I remember the night a high school senior told me how insecure he felt under the street-bravado. The times a seventh grader without a dad hung around me; desperate for a male role model. The afternoons I talked to a freshman girl who served on our Youth Council and seemed very mature, but desperately wanted someone to pay attention to her — badly enough that she wore form-fitting tank tops and dated a 19 year old. I listened a lot and tried to bring God into the discussions.
Even now, those moments of conversation sparkle like a firework in my mind. I went home feeling I'd "made a difference." But they were so brief: a bright flash for 20 minutes on a single day; fizzling like a spent sparkler and even now probably gone from the teens' memories.
So far as I know, the freshman girl who's a senior by this time still flaunts flesh while the basketball player struts and poses on the dangerous streets and the seventh grader lives fatherless. I have nothing to show for those moments except bittersweet memories of young wounded souls from Cleveland. Did I accomplish anything on the Saturdays I sacrificed?
Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless, proclaims the Philosopher. A chasing after the wind.
The generation I call mine, "Gen X," stands accused of many sins. Cynicism, because we've seen so much advertising that we hold nothing as truth and see propaganda underlying every communication. Distrust, since we are the children of divorced parents and demolished families; the generation that craves relationships like food while we run from their poison. Lack of compassion; because we don't vote or tithe or volunteer.
In short, the self-appointed sociological commentators proclaim, this generation doesn't care ... about anything. We're too busy navel-gazing to see the world around us.
But I suggest a different diagnosis: We care too much.
Corrupt politicians and fallen pastors and lying salesmen have conspired to convince us change is impossible and progress is illusory. The sheer weight of the AIDS epidemic and the National Debt and the starvation of children conspire against us. We read about the 15 million-plus AIDS orphans and can't imagine that many people in the universe.
Tears collect in our downcast eyes; our empathy goes out to every hurting soul. And then we realize ... there is little or nothing we can do in the face of a disaster of epic proportions. Meanwhile, the emaciated child staring back at us from the relief website tears our soul to pieces, and what choice to we have but to click away?
So we visit Comedy Central; watch Jon Stewart mock all that's wrong in the world without proposing a single solution — and without affecting our hearts except to add another layer of cynical shielding. The problems are too big to comprehend, and too risky to undertake and fail.
So why try? It's only going to suffocate our souls as we watch the starving child in the picture inevitably die.
I was exhausted — empty. I sat down on the couch at the back of the youth room; stared straight ahead and half-hoped no one would talk to me.
I've been through doubts in my life: doubts about God's reality and the Bible's veracity and Jesus' resurrection. In a 30-minute message, I had just relived those agonizing questions in front of my church's youth group. I hoped kids who were tempted to leave faith behind would hear the words and wrestle with the vacant heavens. Maybe they could hold to their remaining shards of Christianity and come back to God from the brink of the abyss.
So I dumped my guts on a plate in front of a hundred teens. Then completely spent, I sat down alone on a couch in the back.
One kid came over and thanked me for my talk — I suspected he was trying to make me feel good. Most of the teens headed out the door talking about their lunch plans or moaning about the homework they hadn't touched yet.
Then one of the guys running the sound board walked over to my couch. He had shoulder-length blonde hair and stylish glasses with an intense look in his eye. "George?" he said tentatively.
"Hi." I tried to smile.
"I'm Benjamin. You might not remember me — "
"Sorry, man ..."
"That's OK. You were handing out brochures for the college ministry ..."
"Look; I heard your talk, and ... I guess ... that's kind of where I'm at."
"You mean doubting?"
I didn't know what to say. I hardly knew how to find the way back myself — the grace of God, I guess. Didn't have many other answers. "I'm sorry," is all I could manage.
"Look, do you think ... maybe we could get lunch? Or something?"
We grabbed sandwiches from Panera Bread. I found out Benjamin and I had a lot in common. Both of us grew up church brats, then developed intellectual doubts as teens. He wanted to believe ... but sometimes he couldn't.
Philosophy was going to be Ben's major. He had the brain for it; with four years of college behind me I could hardly keep up with him. He explained some of his favorite philosophers and latest maunderings about God. I tried to help him sort things out the best I could and encouraged him to pull closer to Jesus. "God reveals himself to people who seek him," I said.
We had lunch a few more times after he started college, but he seemed to be drifting away from church. I tried to encourage him to get back on track. I wished I could take his doubts away, or bring him to the place of relative confidence I'd found in my faith, or even better, a place where he'll never doubt again. But I couldn't. We gradually drifted apart, and haven't heard from Benjamin in a long time.
A year after my talk I ran into another kid at the mall; didn't remember who he was among the faces. He said my message on doubt was the best sermon he heard all year. But what did that mean: that I entertained him or God worked in his life?
What could I do except pray that somewhere, somehow something changed for someone in the 30 minutes I held a mic? That one or two out of a hundred teens didn't forgot my talk like 52 other messages they heard in a year of Sundays? I wanted to know something was different because I shared my life that morning. I wanted to believe that I didn't waste my moments.
Perhaps that doesn't matter. Perhaps it's ultimately not about the lone teenager in the room who might change or the shards of meaning I'm trying to find in life. Perhaps what I do is an offering to the God who made every moment and places me inside the ones He chooses. Perhaps it's wrong to seek "results." But doesn't the Bible say to look for "fruit" from ministry?
Perhaps it's all a chasing after the wind.
The Redemptive Moment
Many years before I was born, outside a city atop a stony parched rubbish heap, three men met their deaths surrounded by flies and buzzards. One was a traitor; one a thief. One was the would-be savior of the world.
Bored soldiers threw dice to pass the time in this tedious execution detail, waiting for their charges to be tortured to death. Most of those who'd followed this Jesus had joined the rabble calling for his blood, and the rest were cowering for their lives in a secret room. Meanwhile, the Son of the Living God asphyxiated atop a wooden pole with spikes in His wrists and the weight of a million billion unholy offenses pressing on His soul.
Most of the world was indifferent — the empty casket made very little stir. The 5,000 who believed after Peter's sermon on Pentecost made up only 1/30,000 of the world's population. Most who heard about the cross spit and scoffed and turned their backs on the man paying the supreme price for their souls.
So it's understandable that the night before his agony, Jesus knelt before God and begged for relief with tears mingling in drops of blood. It was a huge price to pay for the murderous, hate-mongering rabble who filled the planet.
Worse, as he waited for merciful death to arrive, as the Son asked the Father why He'd been forsaken by God, as His mother wept and the darkness fell, Jesus knew a terrible truth: Most of the souls who would ever lived were going to reject His sacrifice.
Still the Merciful One did not take the cup of suffering but held it to His lips. Apparently, it was better for one man to die for some than for all men to die for nothing.
Some 21 years have passed since I discovered the Helicopter Seeds, and now I'm much older, wiser ... harder. I stand on the edge of a hill above a grove of springtime maples, whose tiny seed packages still spin to the ground. I watch the precious cargos gently find the ground; whirl in an ecstatic dance of new life.
Most of the seeds fall in vain, the same as 21 years before; on rocks and weedy patches they will wither into nothingness. My hardened mind, which cares too much to care, wants to believe that a few of these seeds will live to canopy the forest floor and one day drop their own helicopters. But the odds are against a single one outlasting the snow.
So I watch them spin through the air in moments of glory that last only seconds. I imagine a few taking root against the odds, growing against all hope — and finally dying.
But I find that I cannot focus on the cold mechanisms of biology. I almost start to cry, not because so many seeds will fail in vain ... but because in this moment the Helicopter Seeds are so, so beautiful.
Perhaps it doesn't matter that so many will never grow. Perhaps it is enough to see them fulfill a divine purpose. Perhaps the beauty is enough to make this breathless moment is its own reward. I even dare to imagine that maybe the seeds fall so I, and the God who made them, can be lost in childlike wonder again.
Or perhaps ... they fall for nothing. But as I reluctantly turn from the edge of beauty and walk towards my car, I try not to believe that.
Copyright 2007 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.