Mountain Busting with Mustard Seed Faith

Mountains represent impossibilities. Mustard seeds represent faith.

For 2017, I am reflecting on what it means to have mustard seed faith. Jesus declares in Matthew 17:20 that we remove mountains if we have a tiny bit of trust in him. Do I believe this?  Atheist Philippe Petit has helped me form an answer. Here’s how.

“Le Coup”

In 1974, Petit, age 25, took a 55-pound balancing pole and illegally walked, knelt, laid down and contemplated the universe for 45 minutes on a high wire strung across the World Trace Center’s twin towers. He called the project “Le Coup.”

Philippe Petit, Aug. 7, 1974, AP credit

The highwire artist’s book, To Reach the Clouds—My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, is poetic, obsessive, crazy, and specific about an impossible feat. His memoir starts out describing his ego: “Rebel poet? By four-years-old, disdain for my fellow man starts to show: I climb onto everything to distance myself.”

Petit’s parents legally emancipate him on his 17th birthday. He understands. By age 18 he has been expelled from five schools for practicing pickpocketing on his teachers and doing card tricks under his desk. A Paris street performer on a unicycle with impromptu high wire acts is the life for Philippe. He practices and performs, wowing crowds and provoking police.

Mountain Busting Begins with Enchantment and a Toothache

Philippe’s dream of a WTC highwire act begins in 1968 at age 18 with a toothache. While waiting to see a dentist he thumbs through a magazine and reads an article about NYC’s future World Trade Center. The towers will rise 110 stories and “tickle the clouds.” He is enchanted. He draws a line between the two towers. He sneezes to cover up the ripping out of the article. Under his jacket it goes, and he is out the door, without getting the tooth fixed!

Philippe tucks the article in a “Projects” keepsake box and forgets about it for a while. He begins to do more difficult tightrope walks and improvises equipment to  perform illegally on the towers of a Paris cathedral (1971) and the world’s largest steel arch bridge in Australia (1973).

Faith in Tandem with Patience and Urgency

In between these feats, he reads a WTC article and is alarmed, thinking: “What if they [the towers] are completed before I link them for eternity? I must keep an eye on them. Once they are officially opened, it may be impossible to take them by surprise.”

Tired of Paris and encouraged by American girlfriends, Philippe visits NYC, Jan. 6, 1974. He’s too busy to visit the incomplete Twin Towers, until three weeks later. “I force myself to go meet them.” And when he sees them, and touches a wall, looking up:  “I cannot breathe. Cannot move, talk, think. I am dismayed, my dream dissolved. I feel fear. Glued to the railing, I am an invalid. I stare, I look, I glance, I observe, I watch. My scrutiny yields only two monoliths, beyond all scale, and carves deeper into me the word: Impossible…I long to flee but still the colossal magnet controls my destiny.

“Obscene Syllabic Obesity: Im-pos-si-ble!”

Philippe finds one tower exit door ajar and runs up the stairs. “I bump into construction workers as my body language declares, ‘What are you looking at? I’m the owner of these buildings!'” Then, at the top, among the construction, he views the other tower and sees “a word stretched across the gap between rooftops in all its obscene syllabic obesity: Im—pos—si—ble!”

Then, there is a mind change: “…teeth clenched, eyes half closed, in horror, in delight, I manage to whisper

Philippe on Aug. 7, 1974, between his WTC Twin Towers

my first thought (whisper, so the demons won’t hear): ‘I know it’s impossible. But I know I’ll do it!’ At that instant, the towers become ‘my towers.’”

Removing a Mountain Takes Help

Book cover of “To Reach the Clouds” shows Philippe accomplishing his dream. He crosses eight times that day.

What the rest of the story tells you is that Philippe cannot accomplish Le Coup without the support of a handful of imperfect people–some who are friends and others who are strangers. As one reads the book, one realizes all the individuals have their roles and come together in an amazing way. Philippe uses the word “miracle” several times in his book for the unexplainable coincidences.  It’s not difficult to understand that God is right there in the mix with Philippe and his little band,  giving them the desire of their hearts.

Against all odds, at sunrise, Aug. 7, 1974, Philippe Petit performs his WTC high wire act a quarter mile up in the air without a safety net. Of course, the authorities are freaked out and arrest him after he steps back onto the roof. But NYC loves a gutsy guy.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in “The Walk” (Sony, 2015)

His punishment ends up being a free performance in Central Park. WTC officials give him a free life-time pass to visit the towers whenever he desires. Of course he first tells them how he worked around all their security protocols.

Topography Transformation

Sadly we know the towers do not outlive Petit. At age 67, however, the artist is still busy. He has an artist in

Philippe Petit
Philippe Petit

residence space in NYC’s  Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In Petit’s book acknowledgment he quotes the church’s retired Rev. James Parks Morton, his “spiritual father”: “Philippe does not believe in God, but God believes in Philippe.”

I like the thought that God has more faith in us than we have in him and in ourselves. And I am encouraged to believe if Philippe could do what he did with the object of his faith being his own abilities, I certainly can remove some mountains with the object of my faith being Jesus who said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

I have much to learn about mustard seed faith, but this is my takeaway from Philippe:

<><Faith begins with an idea bigger than oneself. It begins with an attraction one might not fully understand.

<><Faith works with both patience and urgency.

<><Faith, although a gift, often requires preparation, perspiration, and perseverance.

<><Faith overcomes discouragement; the timetable of mountain busting is controlled by the one who created time and is not limited by it.

The challenge of mustard seed faith is to spy the mountain, accept it, and then work in tandem with the author and finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2). After that, watch the topography transform.

Want More of Petit?

For more on Philipe Petit try his memoir and other books. Online, you can find numerous You Tube clips and a TED talk by him. I enjoyed the Academy award-winning documentary film, Man on Wire (2008), by UK director James Marsh and the biographical drama The Walk (2015), directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. The Caldecott award-winning picture book, The Man Who Walked Between The Towers (2003), by writer/artist Mordicai Gerstein, began my interest in Petit. A beloved three-year-old and I read it often and then line up tiles and pretend we are high wire artists.



Christmas Animals Advent Series: The Donkey

Advent has begun, and we turn toward the Bethlehem manger. What new Christmas insights can we discover from the old, beautiful story of Jesus’ birth? In Christian tradition, the manger animals point to some wonderful truths. This week, let’s meditate on the manger’s donkey.

A donkey carries the load of another.
A donkey is a burden carrier.

Did Mary Ride a Donkey?

Actually, the donkey is not mentioned in the biblical Christmas story. But early church history established the animal in art and drama. Commonsense indicates that a pregnant Mary would need transportation to travel some 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Even if Joseph and Mary were poor, it is not unreasonable to believe they would find a donkey in their village to borrow for their journey. Carpenter Joseph probably used a donkey many times to carry his wood.

The photo above from the movie The Nativity Story shows Joseph and Mary on a Jerusalem street as they travel the final six miles to Bethlehem. Do you think Jesus stirred in Mary’s womb while in the Holy City of his destiny? Some thirty years later he would ride on a donkey colt among waving palm branches and the shouts of Hosanna.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9, ESV).

Donkeys like buddies
Donkeys fare better with a  buddy (courtesy of Pixabay).

The Talking Donkey

There are only two animals that speak in Scripture: the garden serpent and Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22). Balaam is a nasty prophet for hire—so evil in leading people away from God that he is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11; and Revelation 2:14. Also, the prophet is so blind to God’s truth that he cannot see what his donkey sees on the road of disobedience. Balaam’s donkey acts like a typical donkey. He stops when he senses danger, he pushes against a rock wall for defense, and he refuses to budge. Balaam beats his donkey mercilessly three times for not following his lead. During the third beating, God opens the animal’s mouth to speak to Balaam, reminding him that he, the donkey,  has been a faithful servant to his master.

Although Balaam is corrupt, God opens his mouth to speak blessings rather than curses on the Israelites. Among those blessings is a future Christmas vision and prophecy:

…The oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High,

who sees the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered.

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel…” (Numbers 24:17, ESV).

Stubborn Donkey Stereotype

People who love donkeys protest the saying, “Stubborn as a donkey.” Equine expert Ben Hart says, “A donkey knows plenty of things, but he’s wary of things he hasn’t seen before, things he doesn’t know about. A donkey isn’t good at solving problems that are acceptable to humans. Our problem is that we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are….A donkey’s nature isn’t to be stubborn or difficult, but purely to learn and survive” (from The Wisdom of Donkeys–Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World by Andy Merrifield).

The Donkey Legend

If you look at the donkey’s back you will discover darker fur in the shape of a cross. Legend says the Palm Sunday donkey could not look at the horror of Jesus on the cross. When the animal turned his back, the cross’s shadow was lovingly tattooed upon him.

The dark brown markings in the form of a cross on a donkey's back inspired a Christian legend.
The dark brown markings in the form of a cross on a donkey’s back inspired a Christian legend.

I never thought much about donkeys until the past two weeks, but I now have a greater appreciation for them. Donkeys are sturdy, dependable, good listeners with their big ears, affectionate, and loyal. Perhaps these are qualities we can cultivate in ourselves during this first week of Advent. And maybe, like a donkey braying its ridiculously loud “Eeyore, eeyore, eeyore!” we can joyfully shout out too:

Joy to the World

Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world! The Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Lyrics by Isaac Watts


The movie jacket of The Nativity Story shows the main actors,--Joseph, Mary, Herod, Herod's son, and a star and Roman soldiers on white horses in the background.
The Nativity Story, 2006, stars Keisha Castle-Hughes and Shohreh Aghdashioo. Rated PG, it is a good choice for older children with the warning that the Bethlehem massacre is short and intense.
This book cover shows a donkey with a daisy in his mouth.
I enjoyed reading this book Flash by Rachel Anne Ridge (Tyndale, 2015). The book jacket says Flash is about “the homeless donkey who taught me about life, faith, and second chances.”

Cow Flies and the Naked Lady

Have you ever experienced nature’s violent turn, just when you thought all was tranquil in the great outdoors? I am thinking about cow flies and a naked lady. Here’s the story:

Beginning on a Country Road

It started on an isolated highway along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. I zoomed by a herd of 50 cattle, noticing that all the mommas were black and the calves were brown. They were lying contentedly in the corner of a pasture, near a watering hole, with no bull in sight.

The herd looked so darn cute, and the color contrast struck me as unusual. Photo op? With no other car around, I made a U-turn and parked along the ditch.

All eyes were upon me as I got out of the vehicle, leaving the door open. The cows chewed cud as I clicked and thought, Wow, their manure sure smells potent for meadow cattle.

Eight-year-old blond-hat Macaulay Culkin's holds hands to face, eyes wide and distressed, and mouth opened in an "ah" sound on the dvd cover of the movie Home Alone. Smaller images of the two burglars are behind him.
Eight-year-old Macaulay Culkin’s unforgettable verbal “aaaaahhhhh” in the 1990 movie Home Alone.

I tromped back to the car, and then I noticed them. Tiny flies ornamented my clothes and many dotted the window. I didn’t scream outloud, but have you ever had a primal Aaaaaahhhh in your thoughts? Yep! That was me.

What to do?

Driving Like a Maniac!

I jumped into the car and slammed the door. I touched my hair and was grossed out to feel hard, little flies. Aaaaaahhhh!

Flies on flowers
Imagine hundreds of these little flies in your car and on you!

Quickly, I turned on the ignition, fastened the seatbelt, and pulled onto the road. I accelerated in panic and opened all the windows as black specks went spinning for the ride of their lives.

Meanwhile, I flicked my hair with one hand and tried not to drive like a maniac into the ditch. It felt like a scene from a horror movie where a crazed old lady head-bangs in a death dance.

For 15 minutes, I drove with one hand while the other hand squished bugs with a tissue. Oh, why did these creatures have exoskeletal plates that reminded me of soft shell crabs? To make the driving more distracting, the little guys kept crawling in and out of car crevices. I rolled electronic windows up and down, up and down. Aaaaaahhhh!

How Now, Cow Flies?

Finally, I could sigh, seeing only a few bugs around me. Visible survivors had migrated to the rear window.

But this ordeal was not over. I had to figure out how to let myself into the house without a gang of flies. Surely, subversive one were still on squirmy me! It took the rest of the drive home to figure out what to do.

Here is the protocol, just in case you ever need it:

>Drive into garage.

>Close garage door.

>Strip to birthday suit.

>Run quickly into house and throw clothes into washer.

>Run quickly to bathroom and get in shower.

>Finally, dress and have drink of choice.

Moral of the story: Nature has a dark side. Pay attention or pay the consequences.

And by the way, the cow pictures were crap and went spinning into oblivion–just like those cow flies.

The Ends

The Ends