(I'm doing a bit of an archaeological dig into articles and poetry written years ago. Somehow this article seemed to fit with the White Water Rafting of the previous post!)
Walking backwards off the edge!
I must be very careful of the illustrations I use when leading a retreat! Recently I talked about abseiling as an picture of trust and surrender. I was quoting from Parker Palmer whose own experience of abseiling had been a salutary lesson in faith. It was a great illustration - written with humour, yet taking seriously the spiritual challenge embedded in the physical experience.
I suppose I should have guessed that someone would ask me if I'd ever tried it myself! "Well, no actually, I haven't. I watch other people abseiling quite often though - almost every day I walk past a recreation centre where they teach outdoor pusuits. So I can see how safe it is and it looks like fun!" Having put it like that I could hardly back out when my friend admitted it hadn't felt like fun the one time she'd tried it and asked me to go with her to have another try - this time as a conscious expression of trust. So with a slightly sinking feeling I agreed.
Part of me hoped she would just forget about it. After all learning vicariously from someone else's experience is good enough isn't it? Alas, she was serious! A few weeks later we were booked in to actually do it!
Our instructor was great. He found out about us and our past experience - one with a bad experience and one with none! He talked us through every detail of the harness, the ropes, the helmet, the safety rope he would hold and the way to walk backwards off the edge! The only thing left was to do it. His final word was: "Trust the equipment. It will hold you. If you slip, or even just want to pause on the way down I will hold you steady with the safety rope. Trust me!" We assured him that trust was exactly the name of the game!
And so I walked backwards off the edge (yes, that is me in the photo!) - leaning out into the harness, letting out the rope at my own pace and looking up at the instructor calling out encouraging words! It was a challenge - especially that first step over the edge. But the equipment and the intsructor were trustworthy and once I knew that from experience it was fun! We had two descents each and left feeling both exhilarated and thoughtful.
Walking backwards off the edge is a crazy thing to do without the right equipment and a competent instructor. When both are there, however, it may be the best way down to a new level of faith. The Christian pathway isn't always through green pastures and beside still waters. Often enough it leads to apparently insurmountable cliffs and crevasses that seem to disappear into an abyss. We are used to walking forwards seeing the next step and choosing it carefully. Walking backwards goes against our strong desire to stay in control. What's more we are used to walking on the horizontal plane. "I'm not designed for vertical descent," we gasp, as life tips us totally out of our comfort zone. Walking backwards off the edge disorients us. It gives us a stark choice: Trust and descend safely to a new level of being or stay in control on the familiar flat land.
The faith equipment that will hold us needs to be carefully put on piece by piece before we reach the top of the cliff so that at that "first step over the edge" moment we have confidence in what we are leaning into. Walking backwards means our eyes are free to watch the Instructor who encourages every trusting step and promises to hold us steady even if we slip. Faith is a challenge - and the exhilaration of surrendering to it cannot be felt vicariously.
While we were abseiling on one part of the wall a group of young children were going down alongside us and we were told that earlier in the day people in wheelchairs had been enabled to abseil too! Trusting, like abseiling, is not reserved for the mature or the strong. Trusting is about leaning back and knowing you will be held. Sometimes children and the disabled know more about this than most of us!
(PS In case you are wondering: no I haven't been bungy jumping and I have definitely decided never to use it as an illustration!)