For seven generations, members of the family known as “the Flying Wallendas” have performed daring and dangerous stunts – such as traversing tightropes while forming human pyramids and walking high wires strung across ever-increasing distances and over famous landmarks. This past week, Nik Wallenda continued the family’s tradition by walking across a tightrope spanning a section of the Grand Canyon.
The event was televised on the Discovery Channel. After about 4 hours of buildup, Nik was finally poised to begin his trip across the 1400 foot span. 1500 feet up, as he took his first step on the two inch wide wire, Wallenda seemed poised and ready. The audience was able to follow along each step of the way as the live cameras were trained on him, a helicopter broadcast images as it circled his position, and every word that he spoke was amplified by a microphone that he wore.
Almost immediately upon beginning his walk, Wallenda began to pray out loud. “Thank you Jesus,” “All glory is yours, God,” “Thank you Lord.” Throughout the 22 minute walk, Nik mentioned Jesus 63 times and “The Lord” 39 times. At first, it was kind of endearing. It was interesting to see a person wearing his faith on his sleeve and I thought it was an interesting opportunity for evangelism. With presumably millions of people watching, maybe it’s wasn’t a bad time to let people know about God. One shot showed televangelist Joel Osteen waiting at the other end of the wire and I as thinking that he may have given Nik some of his marketing ideas.
Unfortunately, the endearing quality of Wallenda’s announcement wore thin pretty quickly. After a while, the repetition became…well, repetitious. Hearing him say the same thing over and over again started to sound monotonous at best and annoying at worst.
After a bit, his petitions changed and that’s really when he lost me. In the beginning, he was talking about giving all glory to God and thanking Jesus. As he moved further along the wire, as the ground dropped out further from underneath him, and as the winds blowing through the canyon became stronger, Wallenda’s requests seemed to become demands on God. He started telling Jesus what to do – to command the wind to stop and to calm the wire rocking back and forth.
Finally, after making it successfully across the gorge, Nik Wallenda stepped down off the wire, and kissed the ground. Suddenly, it seemed as though God was no longer part of the picture. Now, I’ll admit I didn’t watch every second on the follow up interview but I never did hear him thank God for answering all of the prayers that he had been stringing together. He simply had others things to do.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. I don’t blame Wallenda. I’m not saying he’s done anything I haven’t done myself. Most of the time we lift our prayers to God when we think we need something. It is much less often that we remember to lift up prayers of thanksgiving. It’s easier to ask than to find the time to say thank you. Most of the time, we have other things to do.
In the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is surrounded by volunteers and students – good people who want to follow him — just not right now, because they have other things to do. The first volunteer tells Jesus “I’ll follow you, to any destination.” Jesus’ reply seems to say “there is no one destination, following me is a lifelong journey and you may never get where you think you want to go.” A second volunteer says “I’ll follow you but I have something else to do first; I have to attend my father’s funeral.” The Teacher’s reply is that it is more important to bring the message of God’s new realm to the living; that our attention should be on life, our focus should be on now. The third volunteer is also willing to follow Jesus, but only when he gets around to it. He wants to take care of a few other things first – say goodbye to his family, get his affairs in order. Again, Jesus corrects him and points out that we need to look forward in our faith journey, not backwards.
We all want to do our best to follow Jesus. We want to try hard, to be a disciple of Christ, to take care of the least of these and get out of our comfort zone (a little). But we usually find something else we have to do first. There’s always another appointment we need to make or problem we need to solve or canyon we need to cross (although, the canyon is usually metaphorical).
Jesus tells us “now is the time.” Now is the time to break out of our habits. Now is the time to push ourselves a little more. Now is the time to try harder. Now is the time to discover what God is calling us to do so that we can share the good news of God’s Kingdom through our actions, finding new ways to love our neighbors – all of our neighbors. By feeding the hungry, speaking out against injustice, forgiving enemies, taking care of each other and by finding the courage at this moment to say “yes, I will follow Jesus even when the path is difficult or dangerous or inconvenient.
Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walking stunt was an interesting method of evangelism, an interesting way to get people talking about God and thinking about Jesus. But it’s not the way I understand the call to proclaim the good news. I believe that we are called to preach gospel with action, doing what Jesus told us to do, not commanding God to do what we ask. We are called to be disciples of Jesus, working hard to bring Gods’ kingdom of peace and justice to reality, and following in the footsteps of Christ. Sometimes though, taking the first step onto that path can seem even more frightening than Nik Wallenda’s trip across the Grand Canyon.
But I have faith. Faith in God, faith in myself and faith in you. The walk may be scary, but together – with Jesus leading the way – we can struggle through the rough winds of change and travel over the shaky wire of faith across the great canyon of our doubts and, together, we can do it. Together we can create a little more of the world that God intends for us. Together we can be God’s church. Together we can make a difference.