Falling Into Faith

FALLING INTO FAITH

When I was a boy I told people that my father was stronger than anyone else in the world.

     He was a handsome man. He sported a swooping curl above the middle of his forehead. He sought my soul with soft brown eyes. When he cut wood to build furniture, the sawdust clung to his forearms. And when he picked me up, it scratched my face with a masculine affection. It filled my nostrils with a woody scent that ever since has reminded me of a small boy’s comfort and his father’s steadfast love.

     We lived on the near north side of Chicago. I would take a stand on our front porch and yell, “My daddy’s arms are strong as trucks! He’s the strongest man in the world!”

     My mother came out and said, “Are you trying to start a fight with someone?”

     I said, “No.”

     She said, “Then what do you mean by shouting?”

     I said, “Robbers better beware. A strong man lives in this house.”

     “Well,” she said, “Wally better beware. Big words want big deeds, you know.”

    When she’d gone back inside, I yelled louder, “My daddy is the strongest man in the world. Big words want big deeds, you know!”

     In those days a cherry tree spread its branches like a canopy over our backyard. This was my hiding place. Ten feet above the ground a stout limb divided into a horizontal fork, a scaffold on which I would lie face-down to read, to think. No one bothered me here. A hiding place is a secret. No one knew I was here. Even my parents didn’t know. They might open the back door and call, “Wally? Wally?” but couldn’t see me in the leaves.

     I was a tricky kid.

     Then came the summer thunderstorms.

    Dreaming in my tree, I was often oblivious of changes in the weather. Only when a midday gloom darkened my book did I glance around.

Suddenly one afternoon a fresh wind ripped through the backyard and whacked my cherry tree with such force it tore the book from my hands and nearly threw me from my hiding place. I locked my arms around each forking branch and held on. My head hung from my shoulders over a world of emptiness. I tried to wind my legs around the limb behind me, but the whole tree was wallowing in the wind.

“Daddy!”

The sky grew black. Dust whirled higher than the house. A lightning bolt dropped from the clouds. For an instant there was an odd, perfect calm. Then the thunder crashed. And that was only the first. Boom! Boom! said the black sky, and the lightning looked like spiders’ legs.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Now the tree bowed deeply and rose hugely. The wind sucked my shirt up to the back of my neck, and the rain hit like B-B’s, and I felt my arms slipping.

“Daddeeee!”

And there he was! He stood framed by the back door.

“Here! Out here! Up here in the tree! Daddy, come get me!”

I rode the tree like riding huge waves on the ocean.

He saw me, and he came out, and I felt relieved because I knew he’d climb up and carry me down.

But that wasn’t his plan at all.

He came to a spot right below me and lifted his arms and called, “Let go.”

“What?”

“Let go the branches, Wally. I’ll catch you.”

Let go? I had a crazy man for a father. He was a half a mile below me. He had hotdog sticks for arms. If I let go, I’d hit the ground and die.

“No!” I screamed. At least I could feel the bark against my body. I made up my mind and shut my eyes. I would stay right here till the storm had passed.

But a greater rush of wind bent the tree backward and cracked my limb at the trunk. I dropped a foot. My eyes flew open. I didn’t shout. I was terrified.

Then the wood whined and splintered and the limb sank, and so did I….

No, I didn’t jump. Nor did I choose to let go. In spite of myself, I fell.

In that swift, eternal instant I thought, This is what it’s like to die.

But my father caught me.

And my father squeezed me to himself. I wrapped my arms around him and felt the scratch of his whiskers on my face and began to cry. He caught me.

My father, indeed—the man with the strongest arms in the world.

+ + +

Here is the meaning of that summer’s event:

The kid didn’t really know the strength of his father’s arms, not until he had actually experienced it. Nor could he experience it until he had no choice but to let go and fall. Therefore, all the boasting he’d done earlier was nothing but words and pretense. He thought he believed, but he didn’t really believe—not to the point of trusting himself completely to his father’s strength. Faith came in spite of himself.

Even so do we cling to our idealized view of the world, or to pious words of faith, not to the genuine thing itself, not truly to Jesus.

And then the storm hits. The storm is anything that threatens us, assaults us, turns our living into a helpless, hopeless dying. Against the storm we finally experience our perfect weakness. Within ourselves we do not have the resources to survive—to survive this grief, or this guilt, or this failure to make it in an unjust world. We can do nothing, and to do nothing means to let go of all the things that have proved empty. We fall.

Now we are prepared for the reversal. When, next, we do not die (when the morning comes after all, and we, to our astonishment, find ourselves able to respond to sunlight, to the bird song we had thought we had lost forever) we find life in the least of its expression. We experience the morning. It isn’t a dogma. It isn’t a catechetical quote.

Likewise, we have experienced the truth of the comfort and the love of God. This is no longer a pretence, no longer boastful words alone. It is trust. We trust our God. We have fallen wholly on the bosom of the Christ.

And what is such trust?

Faith.

-Walt Wangerin

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