Walking The Plank
Last weekend, I walked to the edge of an 80-foot tower and jumped off. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
As part of our Summer Family Fun File (my wife's invention), we took our kids to a water park / adventure park in White Settlement, Texas, which included waterslides, a ropes course, zip lines, and the 80-foot free fall described above. This last attraction was called The Cliffhanger and consisted of a short plank (yes, an actual plank) jutting out from the top of a tower. Fixed on an arm that extended out from the tower above the plank was a reel-like contraption that held a spool of nylon webbing ending in a carabiner. Riders of The Cliffhanger simply climb the tower, let the attendant use a long hook to retrieve the nylon webbing which hangs out over 80 feet of nothing, clip their climbing harness to the carabiner, and jump off. Simple.
Two things trapped me in ambivalence on that plank. The factors pushing me away from the edge were simple — I wanted to live! Something primeval took hold when I looked down into the eight-story abyss. The preservation instinct that is part of our biological nature beat so strong in my chest that I felt I might have a heart attack. Added to this was my perception of the park itself. The attendant manning The Cliffhanger was a young man in his early twenties who spent our few minutes’ interaction complaining about his long shift and how he hadn’t had a break all day. Not exactly reassuring. I kept telling myself that I had done more dangerous things than this — climbing mountains, flying airplanes, heck even driving through traffic — but in most of those cases my life was in my own hands or those of a trusted guide. At the top of the Cliffhanger, I was being asked to trust my life to a kid making minimum wage, whatever opaque safety checks might have been in place for a water park in White Settlement, and a giant fishing reel. The reel was perplexing. It was a plastic-covered puck-shaped contraption that was supposed to arrest my descent when my full weight was added to the webbing. But I could neither see nor understand the mechanics of such a system, and from my windy perch atop the tower, the whole thing looked amateur.
On the other hand, the factors that were pushing me to jump were also compelling. There was the rational argument: it was just a ride. Lots of people had done it before me. (In fact, I asked the attendant exactly how many people had done it before me.) There was the macho argument: I didn’t want to chicken out (yes, that’s a thing for guys, even 42-year-old guys). And there was the parenting argument: I wanted to appear brave because my son was watching. He had just chickened out of a ride on the big zip line, which was understandable. It was also pretty scary. I had done my best to avoid shaming him while still encouraging him to overcome his fears. I asked him to remember how it had looked like fun from the ground, and even repeated that parenting platitude, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Now, my words were coming back to haunt me. While we had stood in line to ride the zip line, I had pulled my son in for a hug and I felt his heart pounding. Now, mine was doing the same. I want to raise my kids to be brave. I want them to learn what it feels like to overcome fear. And I know they will only learn that if they have an example to follow.
So I hesitated — ambivalent, torn, terrified.
I stood there in my harness, with my wife and son looking up at me, for quite a while. Probably three or four minutes. There wasn’t a line. The attendant turned away, I think out of courtesy, so as not to look upon my naked cowardice. He had said, “Don’t look down. Just look out in front of you and step forward.”
In the end, that’s what I did. I said a prayer, took a deep breath, and stepped off the plank.
The parallels for our faith are probably so clear you don’t need me to explain them, but since that’s the point, I’m going to. Sometimes, our faith calls us to step into frightening and uncertain circumstances. We are called to love our enemies, to live generously and trust God to provide, to turn the other cheek. As we walk with Jesus, he will inevitably call us to take steps that seem foolish and terrifying. He’s like that. Think of all the Old Testament characters that followed him through similar leaps of faith.
Standing on the edge of those callings, we’ll notice that the risk is great. The human guides around us may not be all that inspiring. And the mechanics of Providence are mysterious and hidden from us.
But if we can muster the faith to step out, we’ll find Jesus as good as his word. He’ll hold us when we fall. And our leap of faith might encourage someone else looking up at us from terra firma, wearing their own climbing harness.
In the end, faith is brutally difficult and liberatingly simple: say a prayer, take a deep breath, and step off the plank.