When I was a boy, an old man told me a story that I’ve always loved in spite of the fact that it was almost certainly a lie. He said he was walking across a long railroad trestle one dark, dark night when he heard a train coming. He had come far enough that he knew he couldn’t turn around and outrun the train to the far end of the trestle. He considered running toward the train in hopes of beating it to the near end, but without knowing how far he was from solid ground, that was awfully risky. He decided his best bet was to crawl over the edge of the trestle and hang there until the train passed by.
So there he hung by his fingertips as the train rumbled past—the engines, then the freight containers, then the coal cars. Coal car after coal car after coal car clattered over the trestle, mere inches above his head, while he grunted and strained and sweated, praying that his now-numb fingers could keep their purchase long enough for the train to pass.
When the caboose finally clackety-clacked by, the man discovered that he lacked the strength to pull himself up. It was all he could do just to hang there, arms extended and straining against their sockets, and not plummet to the ground below. His lantern was long gone, having vibrated off the trestle about the time the engine thundered past. So he dangled there in the dark, waiting for daylight to come. It was a miserable night, filled with terrors both real and imagined.
But he held on until dawn, when he was disgusted to discover that he was hanging only a few yards from the end of the trestle. His feet dangled only two or three feet from the ground.
The old boy played the story for laughs. But the ironic twist at the end doesn’t change the fact of the genuine terror of hanging there in the dark and the silence, unsure if you’ve got the strength to make it through to morning—and unsure of what will happen even if you do make it that far.
The real reason I love that story is that, in spite of all appearances, the outcome never hinged on the man’s success or failure at “hanging in there.” The outcome came from the solid truth that terra firma was right there, ready to receive him. We devise all sorts of strategies for hanging in, holding on, but even the best and truest of those strategies aren’t nearly so true as the fact that God is holding on to us. We grunt and sweat and struggle in the dark—and there’s always the possibility that we will lose our grip and fall—but we don’t dangle more than a foot or two from the palm of God’s hand.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.