Beth A. Faeth
Scripture John 20:19–31
From sheer terror to true exhilaration, with only seconds in between.
It may not have been the smartest thing I had ever done. But it was definitely one of the most memorable.
Years ago, I took a group of senior high youth on a mission trip to the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was July, and it was hot. Really hot. We worked long days for Habitat for Humanity building a house. In the afternoon when we were finished, we could not wait to get to the nearby swimming hole for some full-body refreshment. It became a game to race from the vans to see who would hit the water first. On our first day we noticed, some 50 yards or so from the public swimming area, a large retaining wall—25 feet high or so—from which some local youth were having great fun jumping into the cool deep waters. All of us—youth and leaders alike—decided we needed to check it out. To get to the ledge one needed to climb a hill, scale a wire fence and hoist oneself over a gate. This invited the most adventurous in our group to try it out, especially once they received an invitation and some instruction from the locals. The sounds of utter delight could be heard miles around as youth and adults leaped into the water, soaring for a few seconds before plunging into the depths of coolness. Several of our group made the initial endeavor, and their excitement and joy encouraged others to try it, too. But there were some in the group—me included—who were more inclined to stand back and watch.
By midweek the group determined that we could not go home until I made the leap.
Have I mentioned that I have a paralyzing fear of heights?
On our last day of the trip, knowing that I would never be able to live it down if I didn’t try, and needing to maintain my hip minister image, I decided to face my fear and give it a go. To say I was petrified was an understatement. But what I remember more than the fear was the overwhelming encouragement I felt from the group. About six of the youth and the two other adult leaders decided that they would hold my hand, hoist me up, walk with me every step of the way and do whatever else I needed them to do to be successful. The rest of the group stayed on the ground offering vocal encouragement and documenting the process with photos and video.
The first hurdle was scaling the fence. Have I mentioned my fear of heights? With some ahead of me and some behind me all I could hear through each painful step of the process were voices—“Don’t be afraid, Pastor Beth. . . . It’s going to be fine, Pastor Beth. . . . You’re doing great, Pastor Beth. . . . You’re almost there, Pastor Beth.” These were kids whom I had mentored for years, who had shared with me their own fears and doubts, those with whom I had walked and prayed through difficult times, laughed mightily with and shared tears with. The minister was now being ministered unto. One way to face your fear is to have companions along the way, and sometimes those who empathize and support are not those whom we might expect. The youth decided they would project their faith and courage onto me, so as to help me conquer my fear. Once over the fence and on the ledge, I could see just how high up we were. With my heart pounding out of my chest, my palms sweating and my stomach churning with nausea, the youth surrounded me and, again, holding my hands walked with me—sideways—to our jumping place. It took forever—because I moved as if I were 103 and walking through tar, inch by inch, with youth reassuring: “don’t be afraid,” “everything will be fine,” “you’re going to love this.” Once we reached our destination, I knew there was only one way to get off that ledge—because I wasn’t going back the way I came. The youth showed me, with great finesse, how it was done, leaping joyfully into the water. The chants came up from below: “Pastor Beth, Pastor Beth, Pastor Beth.” One of my co-leaders remained next to me, not jumping until I had gone. This was the moment to release my fear and just do it. I prayed, I fretted, I worried, I wondered. I took forever. Never once did those youth give up on me, or call me chicken, or stop encouraging. “Don’t be afraid,” they kept calling. “Trust us!” they said. And then after moments of agonizing, I jumped. It was over in a flash, but I still recall emerging from the water with my arms triumphantly raised over my head—smiling with true joy—as all my kids stood on the shore, applauding, whooping and hollering as they shared my triumph. And while indeed the jump only lasted a split second, I can still recall the feeling of falling, the wind in my hair and on my skin and that sweet surrender of letting go—and being completely free of any fear. Sometimes it is the smallest of victories that are most memorable.
The youth from that trip are adults now, scattered and grown, some with kids of their own. Recently, I encountered parents of a boy who was a part of that trip, and they told me that they knew this story, that he had shared with them my success on the ledge. So it was a moment to remember for all of us. I think about standing on that ledge often—whenever I am faced with a decision, whenever I need courage to delve into something new and different and especially during the season of Easter, when we are invited into something new, something different, something risky, something without a known outcome—a time to practice resurrection and proclaim the wild possibilities of life.
On Easter evening, the gospel of John states that the disciples had locked themselves away. Their ledge looked like a windowless room with locks on the doors. Their ledge was one of fear and grief and loss of hope. They were not planning to leap into anything, especially when their future seemed so uncertain. But at least they had each other. They had returned to the upper room, as progressive spiritual writer Bruce Epperly states, to “recalibrate their spiritual GPS and discern the next steps of their journey, whether as a team or as individuals. In that moment, Jesus appears to his followers and, first, proclaims ‘peace be with you.’ Peace occurs in times of crisis as well as placid days. Peace involves a sense of God’s presence amid our pain, uncertainty, fallibility and fear. Peace is the recognition that God is with us in all the seasons of life and will provide a way to the future when we see no way ahead.” Peace is necessary to discern which direction to take when standing on a ledge—literally or figuratively.
Thomas, known to us as the doubter, is instead a realist. He wants exactly what we want—proof that Jesus is real. He is the one disciple to not lock himself away following the discovery of the empty tomb. Who knows where he was? Perhaps standing on another kind of ledge—figuring out what was next in his life, whether to jump onto the bandwagon of believers or start a new course, find another cause to pursue. How must he have felt to have missed out on seeing the risen Christ? So when Jesus appears again, offering Thomas the same kind of peace as the disciples, suddenly the ledge no longer seemed too narrow, there was space, there was breath, there was peace. Says Epperly, Thomas’s “doubt is aimed at belief, not skepticism. When he encounters Jesus, he believes wholeheartedly and, as the legend goes, becomes the apostle of the good news to India.”
We will stand on a lot of ledges in life, unable to foresee the future, unsure of our current situation, plagued with fear and uncertainty about what comes next. We look down and our palms begin to sweat, but we can’t really bear returning from where we came. Status quo is no longer enough. Like the disciples, like Thomas, we need some kind of sign, a presence, a notion that gives us the courage to leap into something new, something not yet done, something that brings us life and hope . . . and peace. Jesus literally breathed new life on his disciples, and they knew their mission and ministry had just begun. On that hot July day when the temperatures threatened to melt us and the cool waters beckoned, my beautiful cadre of youth prompted and lovingly cajoled, supported and loved me enough that I could do that which I thought could not be done—in that moment, I conquered my crippling fear of heights and I leapt, and the knowledge of that accomplishment continues to feed me today. I am reminded from that moment, hands over my head in victory, baptized by grace in the Crow River, that I can do hard things. That fear is real but so is faith. That seeing, and doing, really is believing.
Jesus may not appear to us to breathe upon us a blessing, but signs of peace come in a variety of ways, if we are open to notice them. Encouragement from a friend, a learning from a book, a revelation from nature, a divine voice of prompting, a strong desire for something different. Let us pay attention to the signs inviting us to know peace, to try something new, to take a different course, to climb a fence, to bask in new waters.
You and I are standing on a kind of ledge this morning. We do not know what the future holds, but we know whatever is ahead for Plymouth Church will be different from what it was before. You will decide today if we should continue in relationship, if my ministerial gifts seem a good fit for the current congregational moment. And if you should decide that it may be so, we will move together into a new chapter here—where the past will guide us, the present will bless us and the future will be ripe with possibilities. How fitting that we are in the Easter season, which beckons us to newness and risk and resurrection.
As Jesus breathed peace unto the disciples, let us place peace into each other’s hands, bound by covenant and connected with love. Embracing the message of Easter, let us grab hold of one another, give that hand a gentle squeeze, cheer one another on, and then, with joy, let’s leap.