The ground was seventy-five feet below. I was standing on a precarious platform lashed to the trunk of an enormous jungle tree. The platform itself was some kind of plastic grid that I could see right through; I was standing more on air than on substance. Looking out into the jungle I could see a beautiful, breath-taking view, down into a ravine. Looking down felt breath-taking in a different way.
There was so little standing between me and a twenty-two-yard fall–this flimsy platform and a short safety line that hooked me to the tree with a carabiner. I knew (intellectually) that I was safe. But my head was still spinning as I looked down. Trust was hard.
I had ridden a zip line through the jungle canopy on an adventure excursion outside of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with my wife and some other family. We’d already zipped between seven platforms to get this far. Some were far closer to the ground, but as we got over the ravine the ground fell away, and we flew through the leafy green, sometimes more than a hundred feet off the ground. This platform was a transitional point.
Now it was time to rappel to the ground. Rappel. Two people had gone before me. Now it was my turn. My guide hooked my harness onto the rappel hardware and then unhooked my safety line.
Then he said, “Just take a seat, Marc.”
Just Take A Seat in Midair.
He gestured off the platform into empty space. There was no seat there, just the rope I would be using to rappel myself to the ground. We’d gotten cursory instructions on how to control the speed of our descent. There was a second safety rope attached to me that allowed a guide on the ground to control my speed if things got out of hand. So intellectually, I knew I was safe.
All I had to do was bend at the waist and let myself sit down backwards off the edge of the platform. Just let go and trust my guides, my gear, and the fact that thousands of people had made this descent before me safely. But that was all in my head. My heart was pounding, racing, not ready to take the risk.
I wanted to go because of the experience; I wanted to stay because of the safety. For a moment I was stuck.
This is a place I have found myself in spiritually as well. I’ve lived most of my life in my head, taking calculated risks that I could intellectually justify. I’ve related to God through good doctrine and careful Bible study. I’ve read lots of other people’s experiences of God; I’ve even had some of my own. But the relationship I’ve had with God has been much more informational than emotional. That’s worked–or at least, seemed to work–for a long time.
But there’s been an enormous amount of transition in my life in the past few years. I’ve got a six-year old and a five-year old stretching the boundaries of my life. I became lead pastor of my church eight years ago. I’m twelve years into my marriage and it’s proving to be harder work than I ever expected. Oh, and I turned 40 last year. During all this upheaval, my life had been broken in a hundred painful ways.
During all of this, I’ve become aware that not all of my experience has been healthy. Some of my intellectual spirituality has been good. But some of it has been rooted in a kind of self-defensiveness, an internal screen walling off the chaos and unpredictability of emotion, a way of protecting my heart from unpredictable pain. The problem I’ve started to see is this: You can’t selectively screen out emotion.
Are your curtains open wide?
A counselor friend of mine uses this helpful illustration. Emotional experience is like a window with drapes. When the drapes are open all the way, you can take in the full vista–the beautiful and happy on one end, the ugly and sad on the other end. With the curtains open wide, all of that is available to you.
But we don’t like pain. All of us do different things to try and limit our emotional discomfort. This is like pulling the cord that draws the drapes. Pull the cord a little and the drapes on both end close a bit. Pull the cord a lot, and you can restrict the view to a narrow strip in the middle.
In an effort to avoid pain, we close the drapes a bit. But that means we’re also screening out emotion at the other end of the scale. Protect yourself from profound pain and you limit your capacity to experience profound joy. Draw the drapes tight with denial, or control, or substances and you limit the range of your emotional experience even further. Close them too tightly and all you allow in is a tiny sliver in the middle, neither painful, nor happy. Just numb.
This leaves me with a tightly controlled, rigid kind of experience in every part of my life. My relationships dry up. My passion evaporates. The life pursuits that used to give me joy don’t seem to work for me anymore. All because I’ve so tightly controlled my emotions. Even my spiritual life turns drab.
When this happens, I’m left with a tiny sliver of spiritual experience that–in the depth of my heart–feels like nothing at all. But that is not Jesus’ intention for us. This is not the place of abundant life, living like flowers and birds that receive their beauty and provision from the hand of their maker. This is not the place of faith, where we step into unparted rivers only to see dry land appear. This is not the place of hope, where we believe that lives can change, wounds can be healed, and the power that raised Jesus from the dead is well and truly present within us.
Trust God and risk and leap
Following Jesus is much like that moment where my guide pointed to the open air and said with a smile, “Just take a seat, Marc.” There’s risk. There’s fear of losing control. Of looking foolish. Of making a bad decision. But there’s also the promise that there is One with His hand on the safety rope of our lives. Will we lean back and step off the platform of our own preconceptions and control? Will we allow God to truly call us into a life of faith?
It’s a tremendous risk, living like this with the curtain wide open. But it changes the way we experience everything. There’s no motivation to thank the rescuer, if you don’t feel like you’ve been rescued. There’s no sense of gratitude unless you believe you’ve been given a gift. And there’s no exhilaration of faith, unless you’ve thrown yourself off the platform of certainty and control, and into the open air of faith and trust in the God who calls you to be a part of bringing His kingdom to life.
Where are you needing to take a flying leap today?