Leaps and Landings
Sometimes jumping is the easy part
There’s a scene near the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy has almost reached the sacred grotto of the Holy Grail. Our hero emerges from a tunnel and finds himself at the edge of a precipice. Looking down, all he sees is a sheer cliff face and a thousand foot fall. And across the impossibly wide expanse, hundreds of feet away across this yawning chasm, is his goal. Being Indiana Jones, he does what any adventuring archaeologist worth his salt would do: he consults the clues he’s compiled during his journey. His book assures him that there’s a bridge from where he is to where he wants to be, but, as he looks across the empty space he sees nothing, not even the remnants of a span. His goal is so tantalizingly close, yet impossibly far away. After contemplating his situation (he could always go back the way he came), he takes a deep breath and steps out into the void.
Our lives are like that, aren’t they? We journey for a while, then we reach a decision point. Sometimes it’s of our own making — What college do I choose? Do I propose to my boyfriend? and sometimes it’s forced upon us — I’ve been downsized; what am I going to do for work? Do I have the surgery or should I just do chemo? Sometimes these decision points feel like we’re at a crossroads, with clearly defined choices laid out before us. Do we turn left or do we turn right? Other times, often times, we feel more like Indiana Jones, standing on the top of a cliff. Our toes are hanging out over the edge and we have to decide whether to turn back or to step off into the unknown, to take a leap of faith.
We hear that term a lot, don’t we? “Leap of faith.” It’s a beautiful metaphor, really, for any action we take when we don’t know or can’t predict what the outcome will be. But that’s only part of it. Because to take a leap of faith is not to act blindly or recklessly. To wade into rush hour traffic or to jump out of an airplane without a parachute is pure foolishness, not a leap of faith. To make a leap of faith we need more than just the courage or the foolishness to leap. When I left my successful career in business and law to attend seminary, many friends and colleagues told me that they admired my courage in taking a leap of faith.
But what I’ve found through this transition is that the courage, the faith, is not in the leaping, it’s in the landing. To believe that the landing will be soft, to have faith that our fall will be gently cushioned or that we won’t, in fact, fall at all, is the hard part. When I tell people that things will all work out as they should, or when others tell me this, we are making a statement of faith. It’s not a statement of absolute certainty, mind you. We don’t know for a fact that things will work out, because, in reality, sometimes they don’t. To be faithful is also to be doubtful.
William Sloane Coffin wrote that “In matters of faith, first we must do, then we will know.” That’s an interesting way to faith, don’t you think? Coffin is saying that we don’t gain faith through study, through reciting catechisms and creeds, through reading about the lives of saints and sinners, through prayer. Instead, he says, we gain faith through experience. Our experience shapes and informs our faith. To become faithful, to grow and mature in the ways of faith, he says, we must first make the leap.
What does it take to “act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty?” I believe it requires four things of us.
• Clarity of purpose. To make a leap of faith, we must have a clear sense of why we’re about to do what we’re about to do. A strong sense of purpose empowers us to focus our attention and it keeps us from becoming distracted by the demons that lurk at the edge of the abyss. When we are secure in our understanding of what motivates us, what we seek to accomplish, and why it is important, when we possess a singularity of purpose we help to align the stars in our favor. If we step off into the void with a clear sense of purpose, we are far more likely to fly than to flounder.
• Do your homework. While, to the outside world, your leap of faith may appear to be spontaneous (and perhaps ill-advised), you need to prepare the foundation, to investigate the situation, and to lay some groundwork. Leaps of faith are not, or at least should not be, impulsive acts. It took years of careful research, analysis, and planning to bring Indiana Jones to the edge of the void.
• Round up a network of support. This is not the same as building a safety net (although that’s a prudent thing to do). Rather, it is to appreciate the fact that, when we are faced with a difficult choice, we need the love and support of others. A strong partner, a wise mentor, even a loving critic can help us see more clearly and give us the courage to take risks we might otherwise avoid and thereby gain rewards which might otherwise go unrealized. We are not necessarily asking these people to make the leap with us, but knowing that we have champions and cheerleaders behind us makes the step off the ledge a whole lot easier.
• Be open to surprise. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.” No matter how well-prepared we are, no matter how much investigation and analysis we do, no matter how clearly we see the path unfolding before us, the Universe throws a mean curve ball. To act wholeheartedly without absolute certainly is to take a risk that things won’t turn out just as we had planned or hoped for. It is our choice whether we view this as failure or as opportunity. If we are able to remain open to surprise, if we pay attention and respond to the unexpected, if we invite the unknown and the inconceivable into our lives, we may just soar to new heights and greater horizons.
As he stood on the edge of that cliff, Indiana Jones possessed a clarity of purpose. He had prepared his whole life for this moment. He had done his homework and he had the support of his father and his mentor. He had no idea what would happen when he stepped off the edge, into the void. But he took his leap of faith. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens, and if you haven’t I don’t want to ruin the ending for you.
Instead, let me leave you with these words, from the poet Patrick Overter:
When you have come to the edge
of all you know
And are about to step off
Into the unknown,
Faith is knowing that
One of two things will happen:
There will be something solid to stand on
Or you will be taught how to fly.