Monday, July 27, 2015

A Terrifying Leap of Faith

Zip-lining at Loterie Farm in St. Maarten.
I am terrified of heights, a phobia I trace back to the first grade, when I fell off the monkey bars on the playground and landed on my head. Since then, I have largely avoided high places. On occasion, however, I have tried to set aside this fear and taken a leap of faith. I have climbed to the top of Cologne Cathedral on a rickety, rusty ladder in the dead of winter; I have stood 1,353 feet above Chicago on the Sears Tower's clear, plexiglass Ledge; and even now, I live rather counter-intuitively on the fifty-second floor of an urban high-rise. The view from my living room still makes me a bit woozy. No experience, however, has been more terrifying for me than extreme ziplining in St. Maarten this past New Year's Day.

Working my way to the next platform.
The group of tourists and I piled into the back of a pick-up
truck, which clambered up the side of the mountain through virgin rainforest. The most extreme zipline, we were told, was 930 feet long and a dizzying 120 feet above the ground. The view was spectacular, to be sure, but as we climbed higher and higher into the rainforest's canopy, I felt my anxiety rise, too. After some initial instruction on how to use the harness and navigate safely from platform to platform, I clumsily made my first attempt, whizzing diffidently to the next platform. Interestingly, the zipping itself was pretty effortless, once I had gotten the hang of it. What terrified me was the movement between the platforms, which got higher and higher. Most of them were connected by reasonably sturdy bridges made of rope and wooden planks, although I worried that my foot might inadvertently slip between the rungs. At one point, however, I faced--incredulous--nothing more than a thin, steel wire between two platforms--essentially a tight-rope. My only lifeline was a wire above me to which I could attach my harness, and two thin wires on either side to guide me forward. There was no turning back. I had to either walk the tight-rope or be airlifted out.

At the end of the course, bathed in terror-sweat.
In a moment of supreme self-mastery, I mustered up the courage to tread carefully over the wire, slowly guiding myself meticulously step by step over the wire, while I struggled desperately not to focus on the fact that I was hovering a hundred feet above the ground. I slid my hands over the wires in a death-grip as I plodded carefully forward, placing my feet precisely on the wire. After I got about half-way, I began to believe that I might just make it without slipping from the wire and dangling perilously over the rainforest floor. When my foot made the final step onto the platform, I noticed that my hands were raw and pink where the wires had peeled off layers of skin. I also realized that I was bathed in sweat, my t-shirt sticking heavily to my body. This was not ordinary sweat from exertion or the hot, humid weather, I joked. This was terror-sweat.

Ordained leaders discuss congregations in transition.
Last week, I attended a three-day conference for interim rectors and other transition ministers, like me. Although Episcopalians predominated, there were ordained leaders from several Christian denominations. We studied systems theory, reviewed congregational case studies, and debated a variety of complex issues, ranging from appreciative inquiry and learning styles to the dynamics of congregation size and parish life-cycles. We talked a lot about grief and anxiety in parishes going through transition. One of the most valuable insights of this conference was that congregations, once they have reached a stage of maturity, tend to think that decline is the result of programmatic problems, that if they just developed more and better programs, they would begin to thrive again. George Bullard, however, has noted in his congregational development work that the problem is not usually with programs, but with vision.

As congregations, we often cannot imagine our way forward along a path that seems unsteady, leading to a destination so far away to be almost imperceptible. This path is marked with anxiety, even terror, because we fear that life as we know it may end. Instead of focusing on our strengths, we lose confidence in our ability to adapt to new situations and anticipate the worst-case scenario, fearful that we might slip off of the tight-rope we're walking and plummet to our death. A key to successful transitions, then, is to be visionary, to accept uncertainty as a creative space, as a place to explore a congregation's values, to let go of old dreams, and come up with new ones. The way forward may push us out of our comfort zone for a time, but if we can learn to live with a little anxiety--perhaps even some terror-sweat--we may be surprised by what we're able to achieve.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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