My toes, legs, knees were shaking. Although I was standing on warm, solid rock, barefoot, I felt the wind could have lifted my feet and poured me over the edge. Below, the bright blue river was foaming and hungry. Dustin had spotted this cliff when we were still in our kayak. “It’s probably 15, 20 feet high,” he said. “We can definitely do this one. “You mean we’re going to jump?” I asked. “I don’t know, man.” We rested our kayak against three walls of rock, and a few others from our group arrived. After some encouragement, I agreed to jump. I took off my t-shirt, gave my glasses to Becky, the director of the retreat, and shakily followed Dustin up the cliff, heaving myself up a wiry rope.
At the top, I hunched over. The combination of being afraid of falling and not seeing clearly kept me bent. In the distance, red tables and towers of stone stood crooked over the Arizonan desert. Later that day, when I paddled with Becky, I would note how these rock formations have been here thousands of years, shaped by the wind. “So it’s kind of like God is still in the process of making them,” Becky said, “and we don’t see the finished product yet.” The finished product now, though, was my landing safely in the water. I knew the river would catch me—if I could fall without bashing my head on the rocks on the way down. “So do we go head first?” I asked Dustin.
“No, you’ll want to pencil it.” Dustin held out two fingers pushed together pointing down. We counted from three, and jumped together. I remember yelling, partly because I needed to get fear out, but mostly because it seemed fitting to do that in this situation. Like a pencil, I thought. My feet smacked blue and I slipped into the shadows of the Colorado River, the waters surging around me, first cold and then warm. I felt like Jonah must have felt just before being hurled out of the great fish. I pushed my arms down and surfaced, and we made some kind of sound like laughter, and the wind was strong against our wet faces.
This memory came to me when I first began worshiping in silence at ESR. Only now, the river I was looking down into was darkness and silence. When I began entering the silence, I would try to listen for God’s voice. But often my thoughts would distract me, and I would wonder what God’s voice sounded like. I recently read a story which has helped me learn about God’s voice. It’s when the prophet Elijah stood in the Lord’s presence.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains part and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13, NIV)
Once during unprogrammed worship, I thought I heard the Lord. A paraphrase of Psalm 62:11-12 swirled in my mind: “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: That you, O Lord, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” Is this God? I wondered. Should I stand and speak this? I reasoned that among the three others in the room, probably none of them needed to hear it. After my inner wrestling, someone left, and so did the prompting. I felt a little like Jonah might have felt when he was first swallowed by the great fish.
I’m not sure why, during those first experiences of worship at ESR, I didn’t think so much about the other time I cliff jumped. It was the summer after kayaking down the Colorado River. I was in Kansas celebrating the wedding of two of my friends, and for the bachelor party, about 11 of us drove to Two Buttes, Colorado, where apparently we were going to jump off a certain cliff.
“There's different ledges,” said Erik, the brother of the bride, as he drove a carful of us between corn fields into the sunset. “You can jump it from 30 feet, 40 feet, or even 60 feet. But we'll only jump from 40 feet.” Someone asked about the possibility of rocks.“An underground current connects the lagoon to the sea,” Erik said, “so there isn't a bottom." When we arrived at the campsite, it was night. The campground was sheltered on three sides by tall trees, and at the end was a lagoon. There, shadowed by cliffs, the water shimmered beneath a large moon.
One by one, the guys swam to the other side, where they climbed onto the bank, ascended the cliff, and jumped into the darkness. I couldn’t see them; I could only hear feet scraping dirt, followed by a stretch of silence, and then a splash. Afterwards they gave a yelp of some kind to let us know they made it. Along with a few others, I didn’t jump the cliff that night. (I did the next morning, though.) One guy’s ankle was sprained, making it risky. Another said, “There’s no way I’m jumping off that.” Friend spoke my mind.
When we returned to the campground, we built a fire and dried. We ate s’mores and imitated the bullfrogs croaking around us. Someone mentioned the grime that collects on his toilet. When the flames died down, Erik invited us to climb one of the Two Buttes nearby. "I think I'm gonna kick it back here,” a friend told me. “Are you going?"
"I think I am."
"All right! I was just seeing what you would say."
We all drove a few miles away and parked beside an open field of shrubs and rocks. In the moonlight, we could see the silhouettes of the two pyramids of stone and sand. We hiked like rabbits, ascending the butte in a zig-zag. Flashlights helped us avoid the cacti. Some of the boulders were so big we had to clamber onto them. When we reached the top, there was plenty of room for us on the stones. At first, we hopped around, finding our places. Some guys shouted. The land stretched before us like the ocean, like a thousand railways vanishing into points. We could barely see our cars parked below, beside the wiry road. Beyond them, red lights from steel towers pulsed. Up there, the wind was almost as strong as jumping into water. I stood straight with my arms held out to my sides. If I had tiptoed, the wind would have pushed me back. Then, for a few moments, in silence we sat and stood, facing the moon and the wind.
Josh Seligman is a student at Earlham School of Religion. He is from San Diego, California, and lives in Richmond, Indiana.