Unexpectedly, the moment of opportunity comes to us—a wakeup call, the prospect of entering a reality larger than we’d guessed. Spacious options open up before us, urgent demands that seem to call for special enterprise, life-threatening perils or summons to action. Suddenly we realize that such a moment may never come again, that it’s now or never. One of those moments happened to me a few years ago in Queenstown, New Zealand, when I went out on a limb, or more literally a small, square bungee takeoff platform.
We had gathered for an extended family reunion in New Zealand and were driving a convoy of cars down the backbone of the South Island on a brilliantly sunny day. Turning a corner, we saw a large blue and white banner—BUNGEE—by the roadside. Curious, enticed, we pulled over, parked, walked out to a viewpoint over a deep chasm and watched.
The first thing we noticed was that this was clearly a successful commercial enterprise. A long line of tourists were waiting at a ticket office. Crowds of onlookers were leaning over the viewpoint railings and gasping as intrepid individuals launched themselves, one by one, tiny human bodies in space, from a bridge high above the void of the rocky gorge. Several young men were lined up on the bridge, awaiting for their chance to be heroic. Each of the jumpers looked as small as an ant against the vast rock walls. A violent thread of water rushed along the valley far below.
I have a hard time resisting such an opportunity. At the ticket of- fice I picked up a brochure listing dates, fees and precautions. Even then I asked myself, What is it in me that cries out to be tested, to rise to a new challenge, to succeed at something new?
I learned I could get a senior citizen discount for signing up and propelling myself off into space . . . The rest is history, or as one of my sons would say, “The rest is mystery.”
After completing the bungee jump twice, I realized I’d been living out a parable of belief. (This was a relief to me: given my strict upbringing in a Christian work ethic, I always feel reassured when something I’ve done for pure fun or pleasure can also be seen as useful.) Bungee jumping, being considered a rather incautious thing to do, was for me a test of faith. Though I had checked into the safety record of the A. J. Hackett Company—entrepreneurs who have found the highest jumping-off spots around the world and who make big money enticing extreme sports enthusiasts to spend their hardearned dollars verifying that the force of gravity still works—I still had to believe the claims. I still had to take the chance.
To experience the tingle of risk, I had to trust the cool dudes who’d set up the system 250 feet high on the span of a suspension bridge over Skipper’s Gorge and the Shotover River. I had to believe that their scales were accurate, that my weight in kilos (written, embarrassingly, in indelible ink on the back of my hand) corresponded to the test weight of the fat rubber band they call a bungee cord. I had to feel some confidence that the bungee cord itself was the right length so that at the far end of the fall I wouldn’t dash my brains out on the river rocks below. I had to believe that when the attendants wrapped a thick towel around my ankles, over which they strapped tight blue nylon belts clipped to the rubber cord, my feet wouldn’t slip out of their grip. I had to obey the jump master when he told me to inch forward, shuffling on my closely tethered feet until my toes jutted four inches over the platform’s edge into space.
Now, I didn’t jump naked or exchange marriage vows with another jumper on the way down (as has been done several times, followed by blaring headlines), but I had to smile broadly at the video camera aimed toward me, then respond without hesitation, diving for the horizon, at the final word of the shouted count, “One, two, three—jump!” And finally I had to trust that after the exhilarating free fall and the rebounds were over—when gravity had prevailed, when I had stopped the exhilarating, circling swings and had come to rest, helplessly hanging upside down like a piece of meat, quite literally at the end of my rope—someone would rescue me, bringing a jet boat underneath me in the swift current so that I could be lowered into it and ferried to the safe, solid riverbank.
RISK AND TRUST
Yes. Risk must be firmly grounded in trust. And trust, by definition, always includes risk, the risk of the unknown or the dangerous known. Reaching the riverbank and the safety of solid ground felt a bit like reaching heaven after an earthly life of belief in the midst of often perilous and uncertain circumstances.
Last spring, my husband and I signed up for a whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. Included in the registration forms was a paper that we had to sign: “Acceptance of Risk Factors.” It’s a pretty standard release form for exploits that include danger, but it reminds me of the fact that just about any adventure that is off the beaten track may involve risk.
Going to the hospital for some kind of surgical or medical procedure? You’ll be asked to sign a waiver of physician or institutional responsibility in case something goes wrong. Which it often does. Medical personnel are human, and technologies fail. But the hospitals are full. People are not staying away in droves because of the risks. Need overcomes fear when life or health is threatened.
A COMPELLING EXAMPLE
I think I must have come honestly by the desire to live life as an adventure. Perhaps it’s a kind of genetic anomaly passed down to me from my father, a missionary surgeon in the Solomon Islands early in the last century. Besides being a minister of the gospel and of tropical medicine, he was an explorer and photographer of several until-thenuncharted Pacific Islands. His exploits were several times chronicled in the British Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, which organization he was invited to join as a result of his explorations. He was also the first Westerner to cross the mountainous volcanic island of Guadalcanal, where many U.S. soldiers later fought and died in World War II. (Many of these marines and infantry soldiers entered eternal life there too, converted to faith in Jesus by the witness of native islanders who had themselves become believers through the witness of fearless missionaries like my dad.)
In those days, early in the twentieth century, cannibalism still flourished in those islands off the beaten track of trade. Three of my father’s missionary colleagues were killed and eaten for the sake of the iron nails they had used to build a primitive shelter before beginning their work of learning the language and building relationships with the islanders. My father told me of a feast to which he was once invited as an honored guest on the island of Guadalcanal. Handed a choice piece of meat from the fire pit, he recognized, surgeon that he was, that it was a woman’s thigh bone.
The powers of evil and darkness were strong. The islanders were animists, worshiping the spirits of their ancestors, whose skulls were revered and preserved on elevated platforms in the forests. Dad often felt the dark oppression of evil spirits as well as the threat of getting caught in prolonged battles between feuding Solomon Islanders.
In spite of the danger, he never carried a weapon. His practice was to disarm the natives with humor, dancing up and down, standing on his head and grimacing grotesquely. His comical faces and gestures convulsed them with laughter and rendered them helpless— and friendly. It’s hard to kill someone after they’ve supplied you with that kind of comic relief. I surmise that this little burlesque itself took some nerve to pull off. But it didn’t daunt my dad.
Later, having had to retire after twenty years of medical and evangelistic ministry in the Solomons because of my mother’s severe bouts of malaria—and having begun a worldwide conference ministry, moving between England, Australia and Canada—he took the risk of begetting children in his sixties (my mother was fourteen years younger), an age when most men are looking forward to grandfatherhood and restful retirement. But Dad never retreated into old age. When we were youngsters he taught us to skate and encouraged my young brother and me by joining us in climbing steep cliffs, camping, canoeing, sailing in stormy weather, and swimming miles across northern lakes in Canada. When we lived in Sydney, Australia, for a time, in winter he joined us in “the polar bear club” as we all dashed into the cold breakers to prove that we weren’t “soft.”
Doctor that he was, he nevertheless pooh-poohed our minor childhood cuts and scratches, believing in the body’s healing powers. “Let it stew in its own juice,” he would say dismissively about a scraped knee or a cut finger. He wanted us to stretch ourselves to the limits, physically and mentally, often to the dismay of my much more timid and protective mother. Later, he was the one who taught me to drive, a task from which many a father might retreat with fear and trembling. The car was an old secondhand Studebaker, and I stripped its gears before I learned the use of a clutch. But we got the car fixed, Dad persisted, and I learned to drive—one of my favorite occupations from then on.
At eighty-three Dad was still traveling and preaching at conferences and churches around North America and abroad. He had just preached fifteen times in two weeks when we got the news that he had been hospitalized in Toronto with an atypical form of leukemia requiring frequent blood transfusions. The prognosis was not good; he had been given only a few months to live.
At that point I was living in the Chicago area, married with two babies, but I was able to get away to Toronto and be with him for two weeks. While at home with him and my mother it was my task to type his goodbye letters to many of the close friends he had made around the world and for whom he prayed consistently, starting every day at about four a.m.
There were no computers then. I made do with Dad’s ancient typewriter and carbon copies and managed to print out scores of the letters to be mailed. Though I was filled with conflicting emotions— eager to help but dreading the reality to which the letters were pointing— Dad’s infectious enthusiasm spurred me on. He told his friends how excited he was at the prospect of seeing Jesus. “I’m feeling like a boy expecting a new bicycle!” he grinned as he dictated the words to me. “I can hardly wait.”
If bungee jumping had existed while my father was still alive, I’m convinced he would have hugged me and shouted, “Go for it!”
Here’s a poem I wrote in memory of my daring, devoted father:
Sailed among the coral reefs
at night, feeling his way
in the humid dusk. Clowned
for cannibals in Melanesia.
Scorned safety—the first white man
to cross one tropic island
un-armed, and survive.
Preached, baptized, doctored,
explored, loved for twenty years.
Moved back to what was called
the larger world. In his sixties
sired the two of us, to our mother’s
joy and terror.
Woke every day at four
and prayed his way around the globe,
his face glowing to God in the dark.
Taught us to sail, skate, swim,
to devour poems, to climb cliffs.
In the northern hemisphere, into
his eighties, chose the harsh baptism
of cold, spurning overcoats,
hot baths, thrashing dolphin-like
in icy tubs; through the doors we
could almost feel the tidal waves.
In a characteristic excess
of energy, always bounded up stairs
two at a time.
Spent six weeks crawling
on all fours after a fall across
a boat thwart, before
walking upright again. Only later,
on the X-rays, acknowledged
his fractured, mended spine.
Grew into his life for 83 years,
until leukemia. Even his final disease
was energetic, launching him
in two months
into the new adventure.
A week before he took off, wrote
a goodbye letter to all his friends:
“Excited. Feel like a boy expecting
a birthday bicycle; can hardly wait.
Wonder—what’s heaven like?”
Then bounded up
the steps of air
two at a time.
(in The Angles of Light)
THE MISSIONARY LEGACY
I am almost sure that my father had received the genetic legacy of fearlessness from the generation before him. His aunt, my greataunt Florence Young, was a single woman living on her family’s property, one of many sugar cane plantations in Queensland, Australia.
In the late 1800s Australia imported South Sea islanders from the Pacific as “black labor” to work on the plantations and ranches. Florence felt compelled by divine compassion to visit all the workers on the vast family plantation, Fairymead, near Bundaberg, learn their names, and begin to teach them about Jesus and his love for them. She conscripted others to visit and teach the workers in surrounding plantations.
The islanders spoke only pidgin English, so their instruction in the faith must have been simple indeed. But it was remarkably effective. Hundreds became Christians before the Australian government, due to a depressed job market and pressure to give the jobs to white Australians, reversed its policy and the native workers were shipped back to their homes in the Solomon Islands.
After their return, and after a stint as a missionary to China, Florence began to receive messages relayed back to her from the “baby Christians” in the islands, most of them illiterate and with only a fairly rudimentary knowledge of the gospel. They pled for her to come and help them. New in the faith, they needed teaching and support in the midst of the prevailing animist culture. So this intrepid woman set out to help them.
There were demonic forces and cannibalism to be dealt with. Health in the tropics was precarious; malaria was a prevalent affliction. Communications, housing and travel were exceedingly primitive. Yet without much financial backing or any denominational organization behind her, Florence began a mission that flourishes to this day, and in which at least seven of my uncles and aunts, and my own father, became involved.
By comparison, bungee jumping seems utterly trivial. Sure it was a physical risk. Sure it was a test of nerve. But the motive? That was another thing altogether. Motivation is primary, and further along in this book we’ll take a long hard look at our human motivations for action.
Though I have always been more than likely to respond enthusiastically to a dare, I feel ambivalent about encouraging anyone else to take a life-threatening risk merely for the sake of thrill, the adrenaline rush, or the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. Risk should not reflect a celebration of foolishness but a freedom from fear. “Extreme sports,” with increasing levels of difficulty or danger, make for sensational TV programs and stories in sports magazines. But are they simply the result of the impetuosity of youth, a lack of mature judgment, an explosion of hormones or a desperate need for attention?
Was I overly impetuous and foolhardy to jump from that small platform into the hugeness of space? I wondered later which of my friends would congratulate me and which would shake their heads, muttering something under their breath about this woman’s “crazy irresponsibility.” I’d have felt a whole lot more satisfaction if my risk had saved someone’s life, or if it had been in the service of God and his kingdom.
HOW JESUS SAW IT
Matthew 25 tells Jesus’ parable of the talents, or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message titles it, “A Story About Investment.” While a boss was away on business, two of his employees took the risk of investing money (left with them for that purpose) at varying rates of interest. Their investments paid off, and the boss rewarded them with promotions and hefty bonuses.
The third worker, reporting on his own way of dealing with the amount that was entrusted to him, told the boss this: “Master, I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.”
The master was furious. “That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? . . . Get rid of this ‘play-it-safe’ who won’t go out on a limb” (Matthew 25:14-30 The Message ).
God’s best or our least? That’s the question Jesus asks us even today. What drives our decision in one or the other direction? Why did the timid servant fail to invest the money in even the most conservative of savings banks? How can we refuse to go out on a limb when entrusted with a responsibility by God himself? When Jesus said “It’s criminal to live so cautiously, ” he might well have said “timidly” or “fearfully.” It was fear of loss, embarrassment and personal or financial failure, as well as fear of the disapproval of his employer, that caused the cowardly worker to hide his money in the ground rather than taking the risk of investing it.
This story suggests that our guarantee of security is God’s promise that the gift we obediently invest will accrue interest for his kingdom.
RISK-TAKING AND YOU
Has your heart ever been blown open by the sudden exhilarating thought, This could be my Year of Living the Adventure? And if not, why not? Another book could be written, I am pretty sure, about the blessings of rest and contentment with who one is, what one’s life is about. This is not that book. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn addressed all humanity when he asked, “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”
Unlike many of our contemporaries, hedged around with insurance policies, obsessed with “risk assessment” and “risk management,” Galen Rowell, American nature photographer renowned for his capture of light and its effects, wrote in his book of photographs of Yosemite,
Climbing mountains has definitely affected the way I think about the world. . . . People gained their power . . . from having put themselves in situations where they had to actively adapt themselves to their . . . surroundings. . . . By immersing themselves both physically and mentally in situations of risk . . . they discovered a new way of viewing the world that profoundly changed their lives. (The Yosemite)
Naturalist John Muir observed, “The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains, mountain-dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature’s workshops.” Many women can be acknowledged as having contributed in similar ways.
All of life, in the entire world, no matter the era of history, is a risk. Standing behind a podium to deliver a lecture or a sermon, I have often felt a sudden jolt of adrenaline, a tingle of fear that the words wouldn’t come easily, the ideas wouldn’t flow or the audience would merely be bored. My dad, a fluent and articulate public speaker, once advised me that without a prickle of excitement or fear, a presentation would have little cutting edge.
Simply to drive a car, let one’s weight down on the seat of a chair, enter an elevator or a plane, or walk down a flight of steps invites possible injury. Just to go to church and be confronted with a spiritual challenge we feel inadequate for, just to confide a secret to a friend, or use a computer knowing that our hard drive may fail, leaving us with a blank screen instead of a finished document, involves uncomfortable risk. Or voicing a controversial opinion, or visiting a foreign country. Or simply backing the car out of our own driveway in the morning—each is a moment of possible hazard, when we put ourselves in jeopardy.
How are we to live ordinary life, let alone the Adventure, in the face of such pervasive risk? Terrorism in our own time is frightening because it is in the air and its source is only guessed at, unpredictable, shadowy. The who, the when and the where are unresolved questions that make us hypersensitive to threat. Dread is almost guaranteed given the number and diversity of known and unknown terrorist organizations, let alone the ordinary thugs and criminals who flourish in a free society. Each of us is at risk. And each of us must learn to live with it and even thrive on it.
As 1 John 4 reminds us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Who in this terrible, beautiful world can attain to or experience perfect love—the depth of love that banishes fear? Or an absolute confidence that God is with us and that our welfare is best left entirely in his hands? Faith and love, perfect or imperfect, are intangibles—we experience them but cannot quite put our finger on or define them; they seem to escape us. Such spiritual qualities are, by definition, “unseen.” We move in their direction, hopeful, believing, but seldom achieving with absolute certainty. God himself, a Spirit, real but invisible, calls us to live the Adventure guided by a hand and an arm that we cannot see or prove in irrefutable terms. And this is the dwelling of faith in which we all must learn to be at home.
In this book we’ll think through some of the distinctions between fear, faith and fanaticism, turning the topics around and examining them from fresh angles. We’ll identify some old boundaries and ask ourselves: Is God inviting me to venture beyond the fences of my comfortable pastureland? Will he call me to dissent from commonly held platitudes? Will he summon me into unknown territory? And what would that look like in real life? We’ll also study the examples of some risk-taking individuals, in Scripture, history and contemporary times, who have been willing to live the Adventure and prove God true to his promises.
Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets and natural philosophers, a man of faith and what seems like almost infinite wisdom about the human condition, faces down the risk of living in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” From it I have extracted a few suggestions that challenge us, an increasingly corseted society in which the predictable and the secure are seen as desirable above all else:
There it is—the Adventure of resurrection, a new life given into God’s hands. Now, on to the risk of practicing it!
FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Take time to think back over the opportunities and challenges of your own life. Then ask yourself:
• What was the greatest risk I ever took?
• What was my motivation for taking that risk?
• Did the risk prove to be worth it?
• What were the results? Was the outcome positive or negative?