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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Balancing Act

 As a child I did gymnastics. I loved it. I enjoyed the thrill of the balance beam: Being up high off the ground and having just 4 inches of width on which to perform tricks. I learned quickly that looking down was a sure way to fall. Our coaches always hollered repeatedly: "Look up! Keep your eyes on the end of the beam!"

Living in Berlin is God’s will for my life and that is the best place to be. It has become my new balance beam. It is the place where I've been dared to learn new tricks, reach new heights. There are days when I love it. I thrive on the challenges of living in Germany, ministering to difficult people and being cross- and counter-cultural. I love the fact that Berlin is a dark place where God’s light shines all the brighter. But the reality of that darkness is sometimes overwhelming. Remaining a foreigner and being different  gets to be exhausting. I waver a lot when I look at my life. I have lots of questions about calling too.

On good days I can see all the walking the kids and I do as “exercise” but on bad days it’s simply a hassle. When I’m upbeat, being friendly to gruff people is rewarding when I see their icy faces melting into a smile. When I’m down I think, “if one more person talks to me rudely or looks at me funny, I’m just going to start screaming!” When I’m feeling independent, being away from my family feels like an adventure but when I’m lonely, the sight of a grandmother with her grandkids is enough for me to burst into tears. At times, I even feel like the balance beam act is upped to a tight rope walk in which losing my balance could lead to a serious fall. The stakes are much higher. That on which my feet are standing is itself shaking. The tight rope is God’s calling on my life.  The only way to get to the other side is to look up and forward. I cannot focus on the tight rope itself because my perspective on it is often skewed by my circumstances. On good days, though the walk may be scary I know the rope is firmly attached. On bad days I look down into the abyss of my own heart and the hopelessness in this world and start to despair. It is then that the rope starts to wobble and I start losing my own balance. My sense of calling wavers. I lose all sense of purpose and direction. I can’t help thinking of Peter, Jesus' friend and follower, who stepped out of the boat to walk on water toward Jesus. It was a huge step of faith! But as soon as he focused on the waves instead of Jesus’ face, he started to sink. I think mourning what we give up to follow Jesus, or shedding tears over this dark world has its place but it cannot determine our life or else we start wallowing in self-pity. What we are doing is looking at the waves. Weeping over the hardness of hearts and the brokenness of this world is not only acceptable, it’s what Jesus did. He wept over the lostness of Jerusalem and over the death of his friend Lazarus. But we start drowning in those waves if we stay stuck there. Jesus spent many hours praying, communing with his Father. It is that communion with God which kept his gaze fixed upward and forward. He lived in the very same tension in which we live. In Gethsemane, Jesus struggled over God’s will and calling for his life which involved great pain. He himself walked the tight rope of obedience to his calling. The difference was that, even knowing he would have to fall into the abyss, he chose to look up, to trust. "Not my will, but yours be done." Maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he talked about the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14). Though it seems so limited to walk on the narrow path, the 4 inches of balance beam or the tight rope of our calling, it is the way that leads to freedom and joy because we are forced to gaze at him and not at our own feet and the path that seems right to us. When we look down, we fall. When we look up to Him, we live.

Have you ever seen the movie or read the book The Lord of the Rings? In it, Gandalf the wizard is the last one of the fellowship to cross a very narrow bridge in the depths of the mines of Moriah. He is balancing on the last piece of standing bridge, a narrow foot path, fighting a fiery demon called the Balrog in order to protect the hobbits.  It wraps one of its tentacles around him and pulls Gandalf down into the fire. His last words to the hobbits are “Run, fools.” As the hobbits realize that Gandalf has sacrificed himself for them, they reluctantly start running, they look back in disbelief and then they finally pick up speed and run all the treacherous way out of the mines.

To watch this clip go to

Our Christian walk is often like that last run of the hobbits. But there is one very significant difference. What they did not know, was that Gandalf would come back to life. How could they have known? They ran driven by their despair and fear. We can succeed at our perilous balancing act because we know that Jesus went before us, taking the fall for us and is now standing on the other side of the chasm with arms wide open and ready to catch us. We can leave the abyss behind as we look upward and forward into his face.

I have a daily choice to make. I can  look down at the negative circumstances in my life that threaten to paralyze me and make me lose my balance or to look up and forward in trust that Jesus is there to catch me. It's not easy. Especially when those circumstances make no sense to me or I cannot see how God could turn them into anything good in my life. It takes faith. But when I look at the alternatives of despair and hopelessness it drives me to want to practice trusting, just like I did when I learned  how to do tricks on a beam as a child. Falling and failing were one and the same thing for me back then. The fear of falling would often leave me stuck on the beam, not willing to go on.  But my coaches would remind me that falling was not failing if I got back up on that beam and tried again. I fall often when I look down at my negative circumstances and allow myself to be dragged down by them, but in every fall is an opportunity to learn to trust more, not a failure. And there is God's Spirit who comes along side of me as a coach and whispers encouragement in my ears: "Look up, keep your eyes on the end of the beam."

 I love this verse in a German song, written in 1941 by Arno Pötzsch, a German pastor who ministered to wounded soldiers and to people before their execution for hiding Jews:

Du kannst nicht tiefer fallen

als nur in Gottes Hand

die er zum Heil uns allen

barmherzig ausgespannt.

You cannot fall any lower

 than in God's merciful hand

which he stretched out to us

for the purpose of saving man

(translation mine)