Staring into the Abyss

I spent a few years in Florida growing up with most of it being in Ocala which is about 90 minutes north of Orlando and an hour to either the Gulf or the Atlantic.  When I was a Senior in high school a group of friends and I went to a place called the Devil’s Den.  It is a natural spring and a hot spot for divers because of the vast cave system throughout the walls of the cavern.  The actual spring is at a depth of 50 feet.

“If you’d been journeying across northern Florida in the early 1800s, you, too, might have thought the site looked like an entrance to the nether world. In those days Devil’s Den was nothing more than a vine-shrouded hole in the ground, hidden beneath spreading water oaks. On chilly mornings, great clouds of steam rose from its mouth, suggesting a chimney from the fires of Hades.” (1)

Devils Den

Not too many places have caught my attention like the Devil’s Den.  Looking from the top down it appears to be somewhat of an abyss in the blinding Florida sunshine.  You can’t tell how far down it is from up top but there’s an immediate jealousy and intrigue with the others looking above dressed in scuba gear.

It’s been 20 years since I went to the Den. Not unlike other teens I was the adventurous type but I never was the first to jump. I had to witness at least one leap, for safety’s sake, and then I would praise the idiot who went before me seeing that he knew a little more than I’d credited him.  You’d think by my self disclosure description that I naturally live without fear of the unknown, but the opposite is actually true.  If anything I’ve grown more cautious as I’ve aged.  Maybe it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to paying mind to my kids and their need to be safe.  Maybe it’s because I worship comfort.  Perhaps a bit lazy?

In the real world, where you live and I live, there are many Den’s we refuse to look into whether it is turning a blind eye to the suffering of others because we feel a sense of helplessness, or regret for turning our heads for too long.  Maybe you would feel guilty for living the life others could only dream of.  Besides, what would we do if we felt a sense of calling to a certain group of people who live under the tyranny of systemic poverty, human trafficking, or have no access to a solid evangelical witness?

I talk about Rich Mullins a lot.  Rich to me is like George MacDonald was to C.S. Lewis.  Rich was more than a musician.  Many people would at least know of the song “Awesome God” that he wrote in the late 1980’s.  His sister said in an interview one year after his death “We used to watch TV and it was mostly cowboys and Indians back then. He would cry when an Indian got killed. You’d see this four year old, sitting there crying with a tear running down his face. It was something that you just never expected to grow into something else. You expected him to grow out of those kinds of things, but he didn’t – he held onto them and they got bigger as he got bigger.” (2)  During the last three years of his life he devoted his time and wealth to building homes on Indian reservations and teaching music theory to children all because he was willing to look down into a devil’s den of sorts.

This was not the only den, or abyss, he would stare down into.  His music was laden with stuff so complex and painful that writing a song was almost like performing surgery on himself without the shield of anesthesia.  Amy Grant comments, “Most of us, we kind of have a brush with God, and we’re enamored and frightened. But it’s always kind of that barely leaning in. And Rich just had a way of running headlong into the unknown that was frightening to most of us. But in his own unique way, it seemed he always was able to find the edge and look into the abyss and come back and write a song about it and tell us what he’d seen.” (3)

Contrary to what I previously said about myself I’ve been accused of being reckless.  I’m sure at a few different times in my young life it could have been said with certainty.  

Admittedly, my recklessness was not done in a vacuum.  My wife and I spent 10 years in full time student ministry and there was no way to feel the full weight of caring for someone’s teenager(s) when I hadn’t had any of my own.  I learned that you don’t have to do something too brazen to make someone feel like they’ve been jerked around.  Add their kids or grandkids into the mix and you get labeled a reckless jacka**… for life.

Recklessness can serve as a total discredit to those in leadership but on another note “reckless” individuals scare people who don’t want their comfort disturbed.  Being a leader with the zeal of someone sobered by the violent injustice of an abyss is a force to be reckoned with.  Some choose the recklessness of abyss watching and some refuse to look.  Some are mildly curious about what really goes on down there but confuse the intrigue with the recklessness of actually looking into an abyss.

One thing’s for certain that choosing to look into an abyss will change you.  Based upon the vile nature of the one you choose, there could be some emotional whiplash as a result.

  • I’m afraid to watch the videos released about Planned Parenthood because I don’t want to witness an abortion.  I can’t watch a baby being butchered and frankly I care about being labeled as a “fundamentalist freak.”
  • I refuse to watch the videos of people being beheaded at the hands of terrorists because of the nightmares I would probably have.
  • I haven’t read anything on same sex union from someone who has a different perspective than I because frankly I’m afraid of becoming a “flaming liberal.”

Here is a list which is by no means exhaustive but will serve as a primer for approaching an abyss.  Beware that if you choose to look into it intently you will come back different, solemn, scared… changed.

1. Be willing to put others interests first.

I’m trying to spare you the platitude but this is fundamental for doing so.  This means you and I have to be humble.  I can’t think of too many arrogant tyrants who changed the world for the better but there are slews of examples of people who gave up the right to their comfort and did so.  John Maxwell says, in How Successful People Think, “People with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think of themselves less.” (4)  You and I have no claim on comfort nor the promise beyond the moment you’re experiencing right now.  Lighting someone else’s path sheds light on your own as well.

2. Expose yourself to situations where people have genuine needs.

Start small if necessary.  Go to your local food bank or homeless shelter and talk to a representative about the abyss they stare into every day and then buy them dinner.  Go on the next missions trip that your church hosts.  I have yet to go overseas like many of you.  I’ve been to Mexico twice but that limits my exposure to people with completely different problems than I’m even aware of.

3. Continually check your motives.

God may use you as a catalyst in your world to lead out of what you discovered.  Getting your eyebrows singed while staring into an abyss will probably hurt but it will also help you to reevaluate your priorities.  Checking your motives is necessary because we all know people who shroud their need to be bossy behind the idea of leading.

Gut check: If you have a need to be a leader, but have no abyss from which to speak of, you are not operating out of the right motive.

I’ve been frightened my entire life of what others think of me.  “Impatient, clueless, arrogant, flaky, inconsistent… reckless.”  The burning words of my critics sliced with prophetic authority.  Some of them have looked into my abyss and have assessed my nature which is undeniably flawed.  Like them I am also broken on the wheels of living.  Some have assigned the soot of another abyss foreign to my experience.

Q. What is an abyss that you’ve choosen to turn away from?

Q. What’s the worst that could happen if you actually did?

Q. Who’s welfare is at stake by avoiding the abyss?

Heedless of the comments and “BOO’s” of others protecting their comfort from the cheap seats of false enthusiasm…

… be reckless.

  1. “Devils Den FL Page.” Devils Den FL page. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. <http://www.dtmag.com/dive-usa/locations/devilsdenfl.html&gt;
  2. “Homeless Man Transcript.”Homeless Man Transcript. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. <http://www.kidbrothers.net/hm.html&gt;
  3. Smith, James Bryan. Rich Mullins: His Life and Legacy: an Arrow Pointing to Heaven. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000. Print.
  4. Maxwell, John C. (2009-06-01). How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life (p. 107). Center Street. Kindle Edition.

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