FEARLESS IN THE FACE OF CHANGE
I looked down at my arm and expected to see blood seeping through the sleeve of my shirt. Karen was squeezing it so tight that I was confident her nails were breaking through the shirt and then into the skin. When I asked her to move her hand a bit she laughed nervously, released her grip, slid her hand down a little then reestablished her grappling hook like brace; this time without the nails. Her hand grasped my forearm so tightly that I began to wonder if it might break. How can she hold on so tight for so long, I wondered…and why?
Karen, David, Mary, Raju, Purna, Rose, myself and a fearless driver were in a jeep, fleeing the madness of Katmandu, Nepal and headed to the village where our three week hike would begin. When I say our driver was fearless I say it with tempered admiration. The road, a week after the monsoon season ended, was a horrible muck of seemingly bottomless mud. There was only one set of ruts and a long line of vehicles headed in both directions. We passed people on the left and the right. If you dared look to the right you could see the endless abyss that would be our final resting place if we slid off. It did not seem unreasonable to think we might. If we died today, we died together. Our driver had to be fearless to drive this road at what felt like breakneck speed. However, the demonstration of a little fear on his part would have been helpful. I wanted to be sure he knew what was at stake in the heart of this cowardly American!
Karen was sitting on the right edge of the rear jeep bench. The side of the jeep on one side and me on the other. She leaned over to tell me that she is afraid of heights. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. In my mind Karen knows no fear. She is not like the rest of us. She is strong, brave, and has the ability to maintain focus in the face of physical challenge like few people I know. To top it all off she offers insights born of deep critical thinking and bolstered by a gently demonstrated spiritual integrity. By the end of the trip our Nepali guide, Raju, in admiration of her strength, said, “In the pantheon of Hindu and Buddhist gods Karen is only a minor deity.” As he said it he laughed. Our crew of American Christians laughed as we shook our heads in agreement.
As we travel beyond the familiar and into the unknown I am on a journey I did not anticipate. I find myself working to sort out who I am as I move from 38 years as an ordained United Methodist pastor to a new life as an ordained UMC pastor without responsibility for a particular congregation. Questions of identity are assumed to be the work of adolescence and young adulthood. As this story plays out I am in my 60s.
I recall a New Year’s day when I was spending a few hours in my office engaged in an exercise I have practiced for many years. One part of that practice is to restate a group of personal values and establish related goals. As I worked I heard someone enter the building. I looked up as my friend Robbie came joyfully storming into the room. “Billy my lad! What are you doing in your office today?” I explained to him the process I was following. When I finished he laughed, put his hands on my desk, leaned forward and said, “I have one goal. To be fearless in the face of change.” Then he came around and clasped me on the back before he left.
It’s been my primary goal ever since.
My life is changing. Everyone’s life is changing. A quest for new vocational challenges, a change in the nature of my heart disease, children become parents and invite us to new lives as grandparents, other children move away in search of adventure. And me? I want to face it all without fear.
The jeep ride may have been the most frightening day of our trip but it was not our final or even most dramatic exposure to heights. As we moved from the jungle into the Himalayan Mountains we would soon find ourselves crossing narrow suspension bridges that swayed with each step, spanning bottomless canyons. On occasion we would share them with yak, goats, donkeys or horsemen.
As far as I know David and Mary do not suffer an unusual discomfort when faced with narrow ledges and dizzying heights. I have never been uncomfortable with heights. Sure, a reasonable person looks over the edge and gulps for a moment but no real fear. Local people do this every day. But to be afraid of heights? To face fear and then face it several times a day for three weeks, that takes courage. This is how movement becomes prayer for me. I look over the edge, tell the truth, acknowledge God alive and present in the moment, recognize myself to be afraid, or excited, or disappointed, joyful, eager or…
As I move into the new year I know there will be days when I cannot claim to be fearless in the face of change. When they come I’ll rub my forearm, imagine the imprint of Karen’s crushing squeeze, then move forward, afraid of heights but more afraid to stop.