This is the first of 6 reflections on the theme for the Wellspring National Gathering (2007), ‘Walking the Edge’. Through these reflections, we will explore the theme and ponder the wisdom that comes to us through the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.
When I first heard the theme of ‘Walking the edge,’ I was reminded of the following story.
A bushwalker was enjoying the wonders of the bush on a glorious day. He often wandered close to the edge of the cliff that ran closely along the track and peered over at the extraordinary views. There were breathtaking cliff faces, waterfalls and the extraordinary view of the valley that stretched out before him.
At one point, he peered over the edge and was filled with awe. He edged closer to get a better view and then slightly closer again. All of a sudden, the rock gave way and over he went. He plunged down the side of the steep cliff face. About half way down a tough looking shrub was growing out of the side of the cliff. He was able to grab a hold of it as he sailed by. It nearly dislocated his shoulders but he was able to hang on.
He contemplated his situation – it was a long way up and a long way down! There were no real footholds in either direction – no possibility of climbing up or down. As he pondered his difficulty, he realised that he was not going to be able to hang on forever. Panic welled up within him. Finally, a thought came to him that maybe someone else may be walking along the track and could get him help. He drew a deep breath and cried out: ‘Is anybody up there?’ Silence…
He tried again, even louder. ‘Is anybody up there?’ The silence was deafening.
Once more he drew in the deepest breath possible and with all his might he cried out, ‘Is anybody up there? Can anyone help me?’
This time, a voice came back, firm and even, ‘Yes, I’m up here?’
‘Who are you? Can you help me?’
‘I am God and I believe that I can help you. Do you have faith?’
‘Yes, I believe. Will you help me?’
‘Will you do as I say?’
‘Of course. Please help me.’
‘Okay. Let go and you will be safe.’
After a silence the man yelled out, ‘Is there anybody else up there?’
This story reminds us that the edge can be a dangerous place. As we move closer to the edge, we often become less secure. The edge of the cliff is a dangerous place and when we walk the edge, we are treading on ground that is not always as firm and certain as the familiar and comfortable places that we most commonly occupy.
When we talk about ‘Walking the Edge’, this image holds a range of possibilities. It can be the kind of edge the bushwalker got too close to – the edge of the cliff. This kind of edge can be a physically dangerous place and we may be called into these places for many reasons. Jesus walked into places that were ultimately dangerous and cost him his life. Many of his followers have, and do, walk in physically dangerous places. They are called to the ‘edge of the cliff face’ and fall or are pushed over the edge. The pages of Christian history are filled with the blood of martyrs who have walked into physically dangerous places. They have spoken the truth where such speaking out was dangerous. They have done things that the powers of the world have not appreciated and lost their lives for their efforts. Walking the edge can be physically dangerous!
For many of us, walking the edge may not call us into places that are so much physically dangerous, but move us to the edges of our comfort and security where our resources find their limits. For example, when I am called into difficult situations as a relieving chaplain at a major hospital, I often feel somewhat helpless. I encounter people in tragic and deeply painful situations and I feel powerless to change their situation. What do I say? What do I do? I often find that my own resources are very limited. Some previous experiences and some of my training help but there is very little I can do. I find that I have to rely on resources beyond myself – I have to trust in God! I remember several situations in which I have been unable to truly understand the pain of the experience the person(s). Words seem meaningless and there is nothing I can do to change their situation or make it better. As I sit before them, all I can do is pray and seek God’s strength for them and wisdom for me – I feel somewhat powerless.
The bushwalker found himself in another edgy place after walking too close to the edge – hanging from a branch halfway up (down) the cliff. In the story, God told the man to ‘let go’ if he wanted to be saved. The man’s options were to trust in something he could do, which amounted to nothing, or rely on God. He didn’t trust God. I sometimes find myself, metaphorically, in the man’s position. My own resources have reached their limit. There is nothing that I can do to save others or myself. There is nothing I can do or say to make a difference. I feel helpless and powerless. It is at this point that I recognise, perhaps more than ever before, that I have to trust in God and God alone. This is the true nature of walking the edge.
Several of my congregation watch the ABC’s ‘Songs of Praise.’ I remember some of them telling me of one particular program. It celebrated the ministry of the Life Boats in the UK. These boats are sent out to save those who become lost in the seas of the UK, often in the ferries. In the normal format of the show, there were hymns and songs, descriptions of the work and then an interview with a Christian Life Boat Captain. One of his memorable comments was that he has never met a person, saved by a lifeboat, who was an atheist. He went on to describe the fear and helplessness that people felt when floating in the cold, hostile waters. They quickly realised that there was nothing they could do to save themselves. Their money, education, career, material possessions, personal power or authority, family, relationships, accomplishments etc could not save them! There was absolutely nothing that they could do!
This is what the bushwalker hanging on to the branch on the cliff face experienced. It is what we experience when we follow Jesus into the places that are on the edge. As Christians, following Jesus, we find ourselves drawn to the edges of life because that is where Jesus walked. Jesus gradually moved to the margins of life because this is where those most in need existed. Jesus was drawn to those who couldn’t themselves and whom the religious and political establishments oppressed and alienated. Mark’s Gospel displays this movement most graphically as Jesus begins ministry in Synagogues but soon is forced into private homes and open public spaces. He proclaimed the message of the Kingdom of God and welcomed all to enter. We soon gain a sense that though this is the way to life and hope it is also risky and overturns the values, expectations and values of the world around us. The last will be first. If you save your life, you will lose it but if you lose it for the Gospel’s sake, you will find it. We must become servants and give up pretensions to worldly power and glory. We are even encouraged to give up wealth so that we can trust God for everything. Ultimately, the one who invites us into this Kingdom also invites us to follow him – then he gives his life for the sake of the world. Follow him? Follow him, where? To the cross.
It is clear that following Jesus, far from the gentle, safe and secure images that I grew up with through Sunday school, is a risky, even dangerous pursuit. Following Jesus leads us to the edge of our resources and beyond. It leads us into the place of faith. This is also the place where certainty and control diminish and mystery begins.
Sometimes the Gospel (= Good News) doesn’t sound so convincing or appealing. Perhaps that is why so many churches popularise the Gospel with all manner of promises and by softening the truth of the message. I sometimes wonder whether much of what goes as contemporary middle class Christianity can actually be identified with the Jesus we read about in the Bible. Where is the call to risk, to engage the margins of life and to eat with ‘sinners and prostitutes’? Where is the call to oppose the powers of the world where they are guilty of injustice and oppression or ignore the marginalised, poor and hopeless?
Jesus’ call is often harsh and challenging but much of the church prefers safety and security rather than the uncertainty, risk or even danger. Are our lives too comfortable? Have we been lulled into false security? Are we uncertain as to how people beyond the church might respond to a Gospel that is so seemingly harsh, requires sacrifice, and is costly?
Recently, a friend attended a talk given by Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community in Washington DC. Wallis is a ‘radical’ evangelical who has written a book on US politics and relates the issues to following Jesus. My friend was surprised that over half the 600 or so people were young adults. Wallis commented that this was typical of his audiences throughout the US, Canada, UK and Australia. He stated that he believed young people are desperately seeking something worth living and dying for. Much of contemporary life in the comfortable west is boring and lacking any real depth of meaning – even in the church. They want to give themselves to something that will make a difference and participate in the mission of God to transform the world, a risky, dangerous and exciting prospect!
The Kingdom of God is a risky, dangerous adventure that leads us out of comfort, security and apathy. It leads us into places where Jesus engaged people and offered the transforming power of the Gospel, of God’s deep love and grace. The Kingdom of God is an invitation to throw caution to the wind and trust in God. It is an invitation to engage in life that is 3-dimensional rather than grey, mundane and 2-dimensional.
The Kingdom of God is a party where all are invited to come and celebrate. It is an inspiring, challenging, confronting dream that is about freedom and life for all. The Kingdom of God is a journey to the edge where we might fall over. It is an invitation to let go and trust ourselves in the hands of God! We are invited to walk the edge with Jesus, to risk all for the sake of serving the Mission of God to the world!