Going out on a limb

I was ten years old. Adventurous, brave, ready for any challenge. I crossed the field opposite our house, clambered over a barbed wire fence, leapt the small stream, then climbed the second barbed wire fence. I joined boys my age and older taking turns on, what seemed to me, the longest rope swing in the world. The bravest person in the world must have climbed high up a large oak, and tied the rope to one of the topmost branches. Now it hung almost to the ground, with a thick knot in the rope for holding on. This was the mother and father of all rope swings.

I watched what the boys did. It would be tame to start swinging from ground level, so a boy would climb up the tree, edge his way out on a thick branch, and another boy would pass the rope up to him. He’d hold that rope as tightly as he could, launch off the branch and swing down and forward, skimming the ground, rise up the other side, and keep going back and forth as long as the ‘pendulum’ lasted.

‘Looks scary’ I murmured to one of my friends. He agreed, but added ‘It’s not too bad providing you know exactly what to do.’

‘What do I need to do?’ I asked.

‘Well you’ve got to hold really tight.’

Okay. I had no problems understanding that.

‘When you launch yourself out you must do it with a slight curve. If you swing away in a straight line, when you return you’ll crash into the branch you started from and break your back.’

I took a deep breath.

‘But you can’t launch out at too much of an angle because…’ he pointed to the fence I’d climbed earlier ‘…you’ll curve round into the barbed wire. You wouldn’t want to do that.’

He was right. I didn’t. Another deep breath.

‘And, as soon as you step off the branch you must get your knees up quick or you’ll break your legs against the ground.’

I stopped breathing at all.

‘So have you got all that?’ my friend asked.

‘I think so,’ I gulped.

‘Repeat it back to me then.’

So I did. ‘Climb up to the branch. Get a super tight hold on the rope. Launch off at a slight curve so you don’t crush your spine swinging back into the branch. But not too much of a curve or you’ll go right into the barbed wire fence.’

‘What else?‘ he asked.

‘Oh, and get my knees up fast or I’ll break my legs on the ground.’

‘Perfect,’ he pronounced. ‘You’ll do fine.’

And with that reassurance, I was pushed towards the tree.

I had serious doubts about how fine I’d be. But with twenty lads from my school standing round, I’d no choice. ‘Do or die!’ I thought, not at all certain which of those two was about to happen.

I clambered up the tree, and edged my way out on the branch, clutching tightly to twigs and leaves to steady myself. The rope was pulled up to me. It felt very strong. I felt very weak. But I would do this.

I knew the routine. Hold the rope firmly. Go out at a slight angle. Not too much to risk the barbed wire. Knees up to protect my legs. Got it!

I gripped super-tight, closed my eyes… And let go. Not from the branch. I let go of the rope. I just hadn’t been able to make myself launch out and swing. To the mocking of the crowd I climbed down from the tree.

I climbed up to the branch twice more in the next hour. Rehearsed in my head exactly what I had to do. And then pathetically climbed down again. Head held low, I eventually went home.

Next morning – refreshed and determined – I went back. No-one else was there. That made the swing impossible because someone had to pass the rope up to you on the branch.

A few minutes later my friend David arrived. He hadn’t been there yesterday, and wanted to know how to use the swing.

‘I can tell you exactly how to do it,’ I said brightly. I gave him the whole speech. Hold tight. Go out at a slight angle, but not too much or you’ll be in the barbed wire fence. And get your knees up fast or you’ll break your legs.

‘Got it?’ I asked.

‘Got it!’ he said. ‘Let’s do this.’

Up the tree he went and out onto the branch. I passed the rope to him. He took one deep breath, and off he went. Perfect. Knees up – angle just right – no broken legs, no broken back – just a long and glorious swing. He enjoyed it so much he did it twice more.

‘Now you,’ David said. He’d sensed my nervousness, and encouraged me. ‘You know exactly what to do. You’ll be fine. Up you go.’

So up I went. Along the branch I went. And as I took the rope from David, I knew he was right. I could do this. I would do this.

I counted slowly: One, Two. Three. Drew in an enormous breath, flexed my legs, tightened my grip. And then… Then I did nothing at all. I just stood there. I counted again, breathed in again, prepared every muscle again. Still didn’t move. One more time and I’d do it. But I didn’t. I climbed down from the tree.

Two or three more times that day I went up the tree. Each time I thought through what I had to do. I knew it. I’d seen others do it. I’d even taught others to do it. But I just couldn’t get off that branch.

I must have been very fond of that branch! I hated that branch! With all my being, I loathed it. I didn’t want to stay standing there. But I did.

Why? Because that branch was safe. Nothing bad could happen to me as long as I stood still. But if I stepped off holding just that rope…? What if it all went wrong? I didn’t step off. I revisited that branch on several more days, but never once used that swing. Not ever.

Only crazy people want to feel unsafe. But when the desire for security becomes the controlling power over our life, we’re in a bad place. We cling to what we have rather than risk something uncertain. A new challenge or opportunity is screened out by default.

In my mid fifties, I was invited to become President of a seminary (a graduate college, mostly preparing people for Christian ministry) in the suburbs of Chicago. It would be a great privilege, but leaving the UK for the USA would also mean a great sacrifice. I loved the work I’d been doing for twelve years directing and overseeing life-changing mission projects around the world. People appreciated my leadership. I was secure. Everyone assumed I’d be there until I retired. We had children and grandchildren nearby. Our lives were good, and safe, and comfortable. But Alison and I decided we couldn’t stay. What felt right with God was moving on, moving away, letting go of what we had for the new thing he meant us to do.

When we shared our news, thankfully no-one said ‘Glad you’re going!’ Some were truly and visibly sad that we’d no longer be near. Some were excited for us because they could see why the new post was a great fit.

And some were shocked. The change made no sense to them. How could we leave our nice house, a secure and important job, and especially how could we go so far away from our family? Several said: ‘I could never do that’.

I thanked them for their concern. But, afterwards, I wasn’t sure they’d said exactly what they meant. Their words were ‘I could never do that’ but probably their meaning was ‘I wouldn’t do that’. Of course they could move to live and work in America. But they wouldn’t.

It troubled me when Christians said that. They knew I believed the move was what God wanted, but they implied I could refuse. They would have refused if faced with the same challenge. I couldn’t. I have always understood that when I gave my life to God, it really was given. Not given with an escape clause allowing me to opt out if I didn’t like what God asked. To say ‘No Lord’ involves a contradiction. If God is Lord, saying ‘no’ is an impossible response.

But this isn’t an issue only for Christians, I’m troubled that anyone would cling so tightly to their status quo that they couldn’t consider any change. I’m not advocating rashness. But to prioritise safety, security, comfort rather than take any risk results only in missed opportunities and an unfulfilled life.

Getting off our safe branch can be immensely hard. But a life well-lived is hard. And one of the worst regrets in older years is the memory of being on the edge of stepping out into an exciting new venture but instead climbing down and never doing what you knew you could and should do. Sometimes letting go and stepping out is scary but it can be exactly the right thing.