“And Grace My Fears Relieved” — A Kingdom Metaphor by Walter Wangerin

Few people write such moving metaphors as Walter Wangerin, Jr. And with today being the closing Sunday of our summer series on doctrine, especially knowing the specific topic was the Kingdom of God and eschatology, I thought this reflective piece on that very kingdom was delightfully fitting. Enjoy!

The coming of the Kingdom is like the coming of my father to my brothers and me when we sat fishing, blithely fishing, from a ledge twelve feet above the water in a stony cove in Glacier National Park.

In the year of sudden awakening, 1954, I was ten.  My brothers, grinning idiots all (for that they followed a fool) were, in descending order, nine, seven, and six.

Before our trip from Grand Forks west, I had furnished myself with fishing equipment. With a cheerios box top and my personal dime, I sent away for ten small hooks, three flies, leader, line, a red-and-white bobber, and three thin pieces of bamboo that fit snugly into one pole. Such a deal! Such a shrewd fellow I felt myself to be.

On a bright, blue morning we chopped bits of bacon into a pouch and went forth to fish.  We sought a mountain stream, though we ourselves did not depart the trail down from the campground. Fortunately, that same trail turned into a wooden bridge that crossed furious roaring waters, the crashing of a falls from the slower bed of a stream.

A mountain stream! There, to our right, before it dived down into the rock chasm immediately below this bridge, was a mountain stream. Filled with fishes, certainly. We had found it.

But the bridge joined two walls of stone, and even the slower stream came through a high defile.

But I was a shrewd fellow in those days, a leader indeed. I noticed that a narrow ledge snaked away from the far end of the bridge, that it was over-bellied by an enormous boulder and therefore hidden from the view of lesser scouts. If we could crawl that ledge on hands and knees through its narrowest part, ducking low the boulder, why, we’d come to a widening, a hemisphere of stone big enough to sit on, from which to dangle our legs, a sort of fortress of stone since the wall went up from that ledge a flat twelve feet and down again from that ledge another direct twelve feet. Perfect. Safe from attacks. Good for fishing.

I led my blinking brothers thither. None questioned me. I was the oldest. Besides, I was the one with foresight enough to have purchased a fishing pole.

“You got to flatten out here,” I called back, grunting in order to fit beneath the out-cropping boulder. They did. One by one they arrived with me in a fine, round hideout. Above the sheer rock some trees leaned over and looked down upon us. Below our feet there turned a lucid pool of water, itself some twelve feet deep.

And so the Brothers Wangerin began to spend a fine day fishing.

We took turns with the pole.

The bacon didn’t work, but—as a sign of our favor with all the world—the trees dropped down on silken threads some tiny green worms, exactly the size of our tiny hooks. We reached out and plucked worms from the air baited the hooks, and caught (truly, truly) several fingerling fish. Oh, it was a good day! All that we needed we had.

Then came my father.

We didn’t see him at first. We weren’t thinking about him, so filled with ourselves were we, our chatting and our various successes. But I heard through the water’s roar a cry. Distant, distant: “Wally!”

I glanced up and to my right—where the bridge arched it—and I almost glanced away again, but a wild waving caught my eye.

“WALLY! WALLY! WALLY!”

“Dad?” Yes!—it was Dad. “Hey, look, you guys. There’s Dad leaning over the bridge.”

They looked, and straightway Philip started to cry, and then Mike, too. Paul dropped my pole into the water twelve feet below. And I saw in father’s eyes a terror I had never seen before.

“WALLY, HOW DID YOU GET OVER THERE?”

Over here? I looked around.

Suddenly here was not a fortress at all. It was a precipice, a sheer stone drop to a drowning water, and that water rushed toward a thundering falls far, far below my father. With his eyes I saw what I had not seen before. In his seeing (which loved us terribly) I saw our peril.

He was crying out as loud as he could: “WALLY, COME HERE! COME HERE!”

But the ledge on which we’d come had shrunk. It was thin as a lip now. The hairs on my neck had started to tingle, and my butt grew roots. I couldn’t move. Neither did my brothers. I didn’t even shake my head. I was afraid that any motion at all would pitch me headlong into the pool below. I gaped at my father, speechless.

He stopped waving. He lowered his arms and stopped shouting. He stood for an eternal moment looking at us from the bridge, and then his mouth formed the word Wait. We couldn’t hear it. He didn’t lift his voice. Quietly under the booming waters he whispered, “Wait.”

Then he bent down and removed his shoes. At the near end of the bridge, he bent down farther, farther, until he was on his stomach, worming forward, knocking dust and pebbles by his body into the stream, bowing beneath the enormous boulder that blocked our freedom.

“Dad’s coming. See him?”

“Yep, Dad’s coming.”

“I knew he would.”

He pulled himself ahead on the points of his elbows, like the infantry beneath barbed wire, his face drawn and anxious. He was wearing shorts and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. Red with darker red squares. I remember.

When he came into our tiny cove, he turned on his belly and hissed to the youngest of us, “Mike, take my heel.” Mike was six. He didn’t.

“Mike, now!” Dad shouted above the waterfall with real anger. “Grab my heel in your hand and follow me.”

You should know that my father is by nature and breeding and profession a formal man. I don’t recall him often to go into public wearing short-sleeved shirts. Nor would he permit people to call him by his first name, asking rather that they address him according to his position, his title, and degree. Even today the most familiar name he will respond to is “Doc.” Dad is two-legged and upright. Dad is organized, controlled, clean, precise, dignified, decorous, civil—and formal.

What a descent it was, therefore, what a sweet humiliation, that he should on his stomach scrabble this way and that, coming on stone then going again, pulling after him one son after the other: Michael Philip Paul.

And then me.

“Wally, grab my heel. Follow me.”

It wasn’t he who had put us in these straights. Nevertheless, he chose to enter them with us, in order to take us out with him. It was foolishness that put us here. It was love that brought him.

So he measured the motion of his long leg by the length of my small arm, and he never pulled farther than I could reach. The waters roared and were troubled; the granite shook with the swelling thereof. But my father was present, and very present. I felt the flesh of his heel in my hand, leading me; and I was still in my soul. I ceased to be afraid.

That stony cove had not been a refuge at all but a danger. Rather, my father in love bore refuge unto me; my father bore me back to safety again. So I did not die in the day of great stupidity. I lived.

Thus is the Kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain man whose eldest son was a nincompoop.

Excerpted from Little Lamb, Who Made Thee? By Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan, 1993).

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