In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Friday, June 22, 2012

Faith on a Wire

I've been wanting to post about the June 15 high-wire walk across Niagara Falls by Nik Wallenda, but as always, my insanely busy schedule has kept me from doing so in a timely manner. Patience and persistence usually win out in the end, however. Mr. Wallenda has proved that.

Some months ago I heard about New York and Ontario authorities dispensing with their century-long ban on daredevil stunts at Niagara Falls so as to allow the 33-year-old Wallenda,of the famous "Flying Wallendas" family of aerialists to attempt a crossing of the Niagara Gorge directly over the brink of the Falls. I took a rather dim view of that action at the time, wondering what other silliness local authorites would stoop to promoting in order to generate a few dollars to prop up their ailing economy. More recently, I heard that the "event" would be televised, but didn't make any special plans to watch it, as I regarded the whole thing as roughly equivalent to the second coming of that 1970s oddball Evel Knievel.

But with Friday evening winding down and a little free time on my hands before retiring, I decided to check out the broadcast. I grew up just a few miles from the Falls on Grand Island, New York, and worked in the Niagara Falls State Park for two summers during college, so I'm quite familiar with all parts of it and thought it might be a hoot to see all the commotion and circus atmosphere there on TV.  I had heard that Wallenda had been required to use a safety tether to prevent a fatal mishap, so I didn't have to worry about having to witness something like that (I might be a little more squeamish than the average person). I wasn't quite prepared for the experience I was about to have.

I tuned in just a few minutes before Wallenda started his walk, so I didn't see any of the lead-up coverage. It was interesting indeed to see the area at the head (or is it the foot?) of Goat Island I had walked through countless times brilliantly illuminated, jammed with people at 10 o/clock at night, and being  televised around the globe. Suddenly the camera focused on Wallenda, who climbed up onto a 2-inch metal cable stretched across the precipice of the Horseshoe Falls and the yawning Niagara Gorge into Canada, balanced a long pole between his outstretched hands, and began stepping, ever so sedately, down the wire.

In moments, Wallenda was beyond land and suspended above the raging rapids of the Niagara River as they approached the brink of the Falls. I was transfixed. The aerialist was walking ramrod-straight, atop a wire narrower than an infant's foot,  perfectly focused and calm--even talking casually with reporters and his father by microphone--as the angry torrents rushed past beneath him. Soon he was at and then across the edge of the cliff itself, while thousands of gallons per second of frigid water hurtled over with a deafening roar, into a churning maelstrom 174 feet below (this is not hyperbole; I've spent countless hours at this place myself and can attest to the fantastic power and violence of all that water). The photography during this part of the show was breathtaking, as it focused on the tiny figure traversing the almost-invisible wire while dwarfed by the mighty Falls behind him.

But that was hardly the most difficult part of the walk. Wallenda kept going, robot-like, into the swirling clouds of mist above the center of the "horseshoe."  "Mist" is a misleading word; the flying water here is actually equivalent to a cold, driving rainstorm, whipped about by fierce and ever-shifting winds (if you've ever taken a ride on the Maid of the Mist boat near the base of the falls, you've experienced this for yourself). Yet, through all the breathtaking ferocity about him, soaking wet and perched precariously where the water below is deeper than the Falls themselves are high, Wallenda never faltered, or even paused. His moccasin-clad feet seemed to be small machines unto themselves, advancing in short, careful steps with an amazingly precise rhythm that never varied during the entire almost-half-hour of the walk, regardless of the elements hurling against their owner's body.  Again, the video was amazing; despite the swirling mist, Wallenda (and his incredibly calm, focused gaze) was so clearly visible to the camera I felt almost as though I were walking backwards on the wire just a few feet ahead of him, through the eerily backlit cloud.

The most amazing feature of the event, however--at least for me--was hearing Wallenda, over an open wireless microphone, thanking and praising God and Jesus Christ (for example, "Thank you Jesus, my righteous king . . ." "Thank you, Lord God.  Thank you, Jesus." ) as he stepped relentlessly along the wire. It was electrifying to hear a famous, accomplished person, at the moment of his greatest trial and his greatest triumph, extolling our Lord and giving Him all the glory. I had no idea at before then that Wallenda was a Christian, but learning so at that moment and in that way put the whole event in a new, positive perspective for me. I want to thank ABC for not shutting off Wallenda's mike in secular embarrassment at this flagrant display of religious faith.

Perhaps it's only natural that someone who makes a career out of risking his life would get into the habit of praying, mostly to be spared sudden, violent death. But Wallenda didn't seem to be praying for deliverance so much as thanking God in advance for success and for the opportunity to glorify Him in front of millions of people. There wasn't a trace of fear in his voice, only exultation.

Some people have criticized the feat as a pointless, self-glorifying stunt that only "tempted" God even as Wallenda was flaunting His name. Others have suggested that Wallenda's prayers were but a cheap play for sympathy, approval, and even money from a gullible public. I can't see into another person's soul--no one can--so I couldn't pass judgment on Wallenda's motives. I can only judge what I witness, and what I saw Friday night was an intensely focused, remarkably calm, utterly confident man who--for all the world to see and hear--committed his every step in absolute trust and gratitude to his Savior.

Wallenda's "stunt" seems much less crazy and irresponsible when one considers the combination of personal and spiritual elements that made it possible: ambition, resolve, tenacity, self-assurance, self-sacrifice, patience, relentless preparation, carefully cultivated skill, and, perhaps most of all, faith: faith that it could be done, that he could do it, and that the Lord would sustain him and see him through to success in the end. Maybe the act of walking on a wire over rushing water does not, of itself, substantially benefit anyone. But the fact that Wallenda could do such an improbable thing and the way he did it, despite the laws and elements of nature and all the challenges that would have defeated a less stalwart man (like me), serves as a compelling model for all people of the faith it takes to realize a seemingly "impossible dream."  Wallenda's feat maifests the truth of what Christ himself said: "With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26) The formula: strive to and beyond what you think are the very limits of your capability, and then, when you have done all you can do, trust the rest--and yourself--entirely to the Lord. That's what Wallenda did up there on that wire a week ago Friday night.  As he explained in a post-event interview: "Faith plays a huge role in what I do," Wallenda said. "I believe God has opened many doors for me in my life and this is one of them. To inspire people around the World, let them know the impossible is not so impossible if you set your mind to it."

As another perceptive commentator has observed:
What Wallenda taught us as he walked across the Falls was the power of awe.  He taught us the power of worship.  Intensely concentrating in order to maintain his balance and composure, Wallenda's mind was on His God who had given him the incredible ability to pull of this stunt and who had created wonders of creation such as Niagara Falls.  And so he gave witness to Christ all the way across the Falls.
* * * * * 
One other thing about this event merits discussion. Wallenda expressed some embarassment and annoyance both before and during the walk at having to wear a safety line that secured him to the cable, which was required by ABC, and perhaps local authorities, as a condition of getting permits and TV coverage for the act. While that might have been an "insult" to Wallenda professionally, I am SO glad he used it and didn't take it off during the walk, as some people predicted he might. Wallenda has a wife and small children, all of whom were present at the event.  It's unthinkable what they and we would have had to witness had he not worn the safety line and fallen from the wire, all the more with such a tragedy being broadcast on television around the world. In my personal opinion, we don't need any more obscene violence, or threatened violence, for people to watch as "entertainment."  Enough with degrading voyeurism!  That this wasn't necessarily a "death-defying stunt" (it still might have been; safety devices don't always work, as parachutists know all too well) didn't detract one iota from its power for me; in fact, I wouldn't have watched it otherwise. It was enough to see whether such a feat was humanly possible. That he did it, regardless of the harness, thrilled me and millions the world over to no end. If Wallenda attempts a wire crossing of the Grand Canyon, as apparently is his plan, I pray he uses (or is made to use) a safety tether again. If so, I'll watch and be thankful to him for the faith he's so boldly modeled for all, whatever the outcome.

SEE FOR YOURSELF!  Click here to see the complete Niagara Falls high-wire walk program from ABC (including pre-event coverage, with commercials). For raw video of the walk itself (no audio), click here.  For highlights of the walk itself (without commercials), click here.