SOURCE: Larry Libby/Discipleship Journal
Most visitors to the city of Portland, Oregon, have no idea that 100 to 150 years ago it was known as “the most dangerous port in the world.” When Portland’s working men or visitors stepped out of the rain into a bar, opium den, or brothel, they were in grave danger of never walking out again.
This was because of a practice known as the “Shanghaiing Trade,” a crude but effective method of supplementing the crews of undermanned freighters bound for the Far East. Thugs in league with shady ship captains would drug or knock unconscious able-bodied sailors, loggers, cowboys, sheepherders, ranch hands, and construction workers. Then, through secret basement passageways or trapdoors, they lowered the victims into a maze of tunnels beneath the streets and carried them to ships docked in the harbor. (The tunnels, now known as the Portland Underground, are still there. You can take spooky tours through the musty passages.) Once the men were on the ship, they stayed on board for years, and there wasn’t much they could do about it except grab a mop and start swabbing the decks.
Try to imagine it. One minute you are strolling down Burnside Avenue on your way to a late dinner, and then you wake up…where? In the bilge-filled bowels of some rusty steamship rolling on the Pacific waves, your head splitting, your stomach heaving.
One minute you are sitting on a stool in a warm, smoky tavern, sipping cheap whiskey, and then…your whole world changes.
Has something similar ever happened to you? Have you ever opened your eyes in an alien land—a place you never, never thought you would be?
• You suddenly realize you’re about 10 minutes from entering a sexual affair and betraying your spouse. How in the world did you end up here?
• Your smooth ride through the Christian life lurches off the familiar rails, plunging you into unbelief. Gone are the calm assurances of childhood. You’re perilously close to abandoning your faith.
• You’ve come from the fresh grave of a spouse or child, and all your plans and dreams have suddenly been wiped off the hard drive. Where there used to be data, digital photos, to-do lists, and full calendar boxes, there is now only a blank screen and a mindless electrical hum, and you don’t know what to do.
• You’re sitting in your car in the parking lot of the medical clinic, staring without seeing at the traffic on the street. The word cancer is still ringing in your ears.
Whatever the cause, you’re standing on the edge of a sinkhole that has opened before you, into which everything dear and familiar slides: your job, your health, your family, your security, your reputation, your career. The entire structure of your life is about to slip into the chasm. And you can’t go back to the way things were. Not ever.
When you pray—if you pray—your prayers are not going to sound the same or feel the same or be the same.
Prayers from the edge know nothing of stained glass reveries or kneeling at the bedside with soft shafts of morning light stealing through slats of half-opened blinds. These prayers do not spring from forest strolls on pine-needled paths or cool twilight walks by the river.
These aren’t the prayers you learned in Sunday school, at your mother’s knee, or in Bible college. These prayers come from different regions. These prayers don’t associate with music or laughter or peace. They tie more closely to anger, rage, despair, raw fear, and nausea.
A prayer from the edge will sound like a sob. An angry challenge. A burst of frustration. A sigh of loneliness. A cry of anguish torn from the marrow of your bones.
Hear my cry!
David had been shanghaied. One minute the young son of Jesse had been a national hero eating royal dainties off platters of beaten gold, a close companion of King Saul, married to the king’s daughter, best buds with Prince Jonathan. And then, such a short time later, he found himself crouching in the dark depths of a limestone cave, hiding from Saul’s death squads. He was on the run—a wanted man and a fugitive—for the next 15 years.
Hungry, thirsty, cold, and gripped with fear, David pleaded, “Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need” (Ps. 142:6). Or as The Message renders it, “Oh listen, please listen; I’ve never been this low.”
David yelled his fears. He made demands. He warned God to act quickly, because he was walking on the ragged edge of sanity, and the dirt under his feet was beginning to crumble.
Most likely in those same terrible days, he scratched graffiti like this on the walls of his cave: “You’d better listen to me and listen to me now. I’m like a match flame in a gust of wind, and if You don’t do something fast I’m done. Get with it, God. Help. Come. Don’t step away from me now. I’m on the edge and I’m losing my balance.”
I know how he felt.
The loss of my wife four years ago brought me to the brink of a similar sinkhole. I’d never been that close to the edge in all of my 51 years. I saw death reach into a sun-filled hospital room and take the dearest and best. With my world reeling, I found I didn’t have the faith I thought I had. I wasn’t the man I thought I was.
And I couldn’t pray the way I used to pray.
I still believed in God. Still believed in His goodness. But I just couldn’t trust Him. I was too wounded. Too hurt that He’d heard my cries for mercy and healing, He’d seen my tears…and He’d taken my wife anyway.
Even so, I kept the phone line open with Him, and He with me. Cutting through the pain and fear and disorientation, I heard the Spirit’s whisper: Trust Me. And I usually replied, “Not yet. I want to, but not yet.” Still, the line stayed open.
An Inch at a Time
Here’s the most important thing about the edge you’re on, whatever it is: You need to inch back toward God. Make some kind of movement in His direction, even if it’s only a glance. A sigh. A tear. A groan. A muffled cry in the night.
Start in your mistrust and disbelief. Start in your dryness. Start in your doubt. Start in your despair. Start in your anger and grief. I remember lying on the floor in the living room, too crushed to lift my head, and having the sense that God was lying there with me listening to the words I couldn’t form or say.
That’s what it can be like on the edge—and you do what you’re able to do. If you can’t raise your hands, you move your little finger one centimeter toward the living Christ. If you can’t speak, you move your lips. If you can’t move your lips, you form the words in your mind. If you can’t form words, you just turn your thoughts toward Jesus, even for a moment.
Don’t wait until you’re in a better mood. Don’t wait until you’ve cleaned up your thoughts. Don’t wait until you’ve escaped the sickening undertow of temptation. Don’t wait until your anger and bitterness abate. Don’t wait until your nerves stop jangling. Don’t wait until you’ve straightened out your theology and banished your doubt.
Why? Because walking on the edge might soon put you over the edge—and you may not have such a Godward inclination again.
Anything at All
In the book of Isaiah, the Lord says, “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations” (65:2).
What would God have responded to as He stood all day with His hands outstretched? Do you think He required a formal prayer? Do you suppose He waited for a carefully worded confession, a perfectly offered sacrifice, someone bowing low, someone on his knees in a pool of sunshine?
I think God would have responded to the tiniest, most imperceptible movement. I think He watched and watched and waited and waited for the most infinitesimal stirring toward Him. And He would have responded like the father of the prodigal, running down the dirt road to embrace a son slouching home from the far country.
The main thing is this: Get away from the edge. Don’t worry about protocol or formalities. Call, yell, reach, lunge, turn your thoughts and your will even one degree toward heaven. Although your movement is small, God’s mercy is mighty. When He runs toward you, very, very big things can happen.