Many years ago, when Philadelphia was making a real push to start the redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, one of the first, trendy restaurant-plus places that opened up was called the Beach Club. It was just north of Penn’s Landing, and its big feature was a crane that went out over the water for bungee jumping. A group of around seven or eight of us who were working together in Frankford at the time were all in our late twenties or early thirties, just the right demographic for that kind of adventure. I have no idea whose idea it was, but somehow an agreement was reached that one Friday evening we would meet at the Beach Club to hang out and if anybody in the group wanted to bungee jump we would all split the cost evenly among us.
So there we were at 7:00 or so, watching people lifted up to the top of the crane, almost even with the level of the Ben Franklin Bridge, just off to the left. Then a horn would blow and off they went, headfirst, almost but not quite hitting the top of the river, and bouncing around upside-down a couple of times before being lowered to a kind of sandbox built for the purpose. You could see them from where we were, removing their helmets and letting the blood drain back into their bodies from where it had pooled in their skulls. Of course, these folks were all laughing and you could see how exhilarating it had been, so there was a lot of pointing and nudging in our group.
Around 9:00 we were still debating who wanted to go first. By that point, the question of whether it was a good idea to bungee jump on a full stomach had been raised. 10:00 came and went, and the quality of the band was more of a preoccupation. 11:00 and the list was probably too full for the rest of the night to bother. Then people started leaving, and that meant that the cost would go up a little and not everybody would get to watch anyhow. There was some talk of maybe another time, but it never really got to that point, because there were other things to do and see that summer.
Maybe there are a few people who are made for that kind of thing, but it wasn’t us. And we knew it. You’d have to be trying to do something pretty big to pull a stunt like that, trying to prove something to someone (maybe yourself, even), and none of us in that group were in that boat. In fact, following through on something that dangerous to impress coworkers would probably have had the opposite effect. Could you trust the judgment of someone who would bungee jump from a crane on Delaware Avenue? Probably not.
Yet everybody there that evening, I feel safe in saying, had already decided to take a longer-term jump in how they would live their lives, consciously taking a step out in faith. They were all living and working in positions of Christian service that they knew would not put them in control very often. If they found themselves at the top of things, that might be just when Jesus told them to jump, and it might be just as they thought things were about to end in a destructive landing or, at best, a horrible splash, that would be just when they felt the tug of the safety line catch them and pull them back.
One man who was there was a brilliant guy who had chosen, very consciously, to go into social work and help children who were at risk. He understood them, because his own mother, who was single, had died when he was six. Now there he was, having come through a lot, and doing well when, about a year after this bungee-watching party, one of the parents he worked with was charged with neglect and abuse of a toddler, leading to the child’s death. He, as the caseworker, went through a very public investigation. He was totally cleared, but the toll it took on him was incredible. He looked at his own competence and performance much more rigorously than the official investigators.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?” [Psalm 130:1-3]
What helped was the awareness that if he had not been involved in the situation, there were other children who might have ended up the same way, and he had prevented that.
“But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.” [Psalm 130:4]
It took a lot out of him, but God’s grace was there. That is what allows real discipleship that makes a difference, which always matches Jesus’ pattern of surrendering the glory and the good report and the safety and the warm fuzzies to go into the places that call for healing and the power of God. Jesus left heaven for earth, and then left this life on earth by way of a cross and the darkness of the grave. For us. Those who follow him, follow him. For others. Along the way they may call out
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!” [Psalm 130:1-2]
Their voices, their whole being, may scream out like someone bungee jumping, having that stomach-churning second when they suddenly realize what commitment means.
Don’t think Jesus didn’t have his own second thoughts. Oh, his last week began well enough, with the crowds cheering him, and waving palms, and shouting his name. But by Thursday the tide had turned and he was on the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that if he could possibly be spared all that lay before him, that God would take it away. Even on the cross he called out to ask where God was, why he who had begun in the glory of eternity, the very glory of God the Father, was now turned over to the angry maw of a fearful system that had condemned him to a slow and painful death, surrounded by mockery and filled with a sense of total failure and the weight of the sins of the whole world, with no one able to help. Only a handful of his friends would even stick around and there would be nothing they could do. He would quote a different psalm:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1]
And yet, those who cry from the depths are those whom the Lord hears. Those who cry out from their hearts in real faith, are those on whom the Lord has mercy.
On January 7 of this year, that social worker I mentioned, the one who could easily have given up on it all, was sworn in as the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the entire state of California. He’s sort of taking another dive into service. He was in the state legislature for four years where he at least had a vote on the budget. Now he has less actual political power, having chosen to forgo it. In the speech he gave that day
“He reflected on the fact that the state schools chief does not have direct responsibility for what happens in districts around the state. ‘It’s a hard job,’ he said. ‘This is the kind of job when you get all the blame for what goes wrong, but you don’t have the resources to fix what needs to be fixed.’
‘I accept those challenges,’ he said.”
Christian discipleship is following a king who rides a mule, not a stallion. It means walking the way of one who turned his back on life in heaven itself to be with us. It means going into situations where we know we cannot win or will not succeed – at least in the ways that the world defines winning or success – and going in with our eyes wide open to the realities involved. It means praying, like Jesus,
“yet, not my will but yours be done.” [Luke 22:42]
Christian discipleship means faith and trust and reliance on God in those times when you are powerless and everything around is turned upside down and you’re hurtling toward who-knows-what but you say,
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.” [Psalm 130:5-6]