by Joel Bates
As the afternoon shadows lengthened and the climbers’ arms and legs grew weary, the youth minister stepped up to the rock. He was only a few years older than the group he led, a little overweight, and particularly nervous about heights. “All my students have done it, so I guess I better try it, too,” he said with some uncertainty. One of our interns, Katie, pledged to keep him on belay, and I vowed to encourage him any way I could. Within moments of leaving the ground, he echoed the same lie that had plagued the others all day, “I can’t.”
I’ve heard it uttered by whimpering students, whispered candidly by adult sponsors, and echoed off the surrounding hills by exasperated college students, the all too common phrase, “I can’t!” But the other day at the climb site, it seemed like every other participant had a particularly bad case of this verbal, oath-born malady. They would walk sullenly up to the rock face, tie in to the rope, and before even starting the belay contract, would utter the deadly “I can’t” declaration. They told themselves that the rock was too big, too difficult, and too scary.
I had gone along on the outing as an extra, so as I noticed this negative theme unfolding, I positioned myself at the top of our easiest climb. I did this to help those fearful “I-can’ters” to know someone was at the top waiting for them. I hoped it would be a comfort to them. From my perch, I watched Katie dutifully and gracefully urge timid climbers to go just a little bit higher. She patiently stood through the barrage of profuse verbal resistance, waiting until they were willing to try. I collaborated with her through the occasional encouragement and continual prayer from above.
I love this particular climbing crag because the most difficult part is in the first eight feet of the ascent. While those first moves are more difficult physically, for most the truly difficult part comes later as they will themselves to climb higher. Though the going is easier higher up, the fear grows, thus every small victory is inviting more perceived peril. As a facilitator who is somewhat afraid of heights, I totally understand this challenge. However, I’ve been richly blessed by the cliffs I’ve climbed, pushing against my fear and moving toward victory. It’s a character developing experience that money can’t buy.
Since the hard part is at the bottom, when we facilitators see a participant scramble beyond this section of rock, we can know that they possess the ability to get to the top, at least tangibly. This is helpful in giving us a barometer with which to challenge people appropriately. We can subtly check the physical ability question off the list and move on to the more important matters of the heart where courage, perseverance, temperance, and self-control reside.
I was thrilled to see one student after another make it to the pinnacle. I celebrated the victory with a high-five and reminded them of the truth that they really did make it to the top. But when the youth minister started his climb with the same pessimistic mantra, I had to have a little chat with him. “Listen, friend, your students have been saying, ‘I can’t,’ all day. You just said it, too. This is not from the Lord. Your job is to disciple them in the Lord, and part of that means changing the culture. You have to stop teaching them by the words ‘I can’t’ and start teaching them by the words ‘I can.’” He was panting and red-faced as sweat ran down his brow. He nodded in agreement and looked back at the rock with determination. “You are making disciples in the Kingdom of the “I Can,” I added offhandedly.
Those last words sent chills up my spine as I thought of many of God’s heroes of the faith, struggling with their callings, facing unstoppable foes, and standing against impossible odds. By their own strength, they did not have what it takes, but with God on their side, they could overcome any obstacle. Hebrews 11 provides a list of ordinary people who followed God into the fray to become extraordinary saints, not because they had what it took, but because they served the God of the Kingdom of the “I Can.” I know God revealed His name to Moses as the Great I Am, but sometimes I feel like God’s middle name should be the Great I Can!
Paul said in Philippians 4:13 that he could do all things through Christ. I’ve heard many burgeoning humanists take this verse out of context to promote a theology that we can achieve anything we put our mind to, but this is worldly thinking and obviously foolish. There are some rocks we just cannot climb. Paul listed a bunch of situations that he needed God’s help to get through. Stuff like suffering from floggings and shipwrecks and starvation for the sake of the gospel. Stuff like having plenty and being in comfort all the while keeping these in their rightful place. With Jesus, the King of the “I Can,” we can fulfill the adventurous life He is leading us through. That’s a life bigger than you could think up or even imagine.
A favorite example of this wonderful God of the “I Can,” is found in 2 Corinthians 1:18-22:
As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (ESV)
God’s answer to you today is, “Yes!” Are you forgiven? Yes, you are! Is He with you? Yes, He is! Will He help you with your troubles today? Yes, He will! Is He able to redeem the mistakes you’ve made and set you back on course toward a bright future? Yes, He can! Are you His beloved whom He loves to spend time with enjoying rich fellowship? Yes! Yes! Yes! These are made possible because we are part of the Kingdom of God.
There was a terrible day long ago when the Father said, “Who can redeem all humanity and restore their fortunes bringing them back in fellowship with me? Who can defeat all the enemies of God and humankind with a single act? Who can destroy death itself eradicating the curse of Adam?” The heavens and the earth were silent in response to the Father’s question until one man, King Jesus, climbed Golgotha, hung on the cross, and there, in the balance between sinful men and holy God, he cried out, “I CAN!”
As my youth minister friend pulled himself to the top ledge, completing the climb with his last ounces of strength, he had victorious tears in his eyes. “You were right,” he said. “I can!”
by Joel Bates
On a recent, eight-day challenge expedition, the Lord reminded me about making plans. As is the custom on our challenge trips, I gave the group a destination to find, using their maps and compasses. So, they laid their maps on the ground, studied them a while, and came up with a plan. Then, we shouldered our heavy backpacks and set off. Immediately, we had to ford the gently flowing river. I thought this might create some challenge for them since many groups wrestle with finding a convenient passage only to discover that the fastest way across is simply through the water. This group didn’t even pause to consider. They just put on their water shoes and walked across with about as much concern as if they were strolling through a park. I felt encouraged by the progress and even allowed myself to believe that at this rate we would probably reach the destination well before sundown!
With the water crossing accomplished, the group trudged up the brambly ridge and headed toward the destination in the next valley to the east. After a short time, we emerged from the woods to encounter a faint, dual-track path. Most groups do not stumble upon the easiest path, but here we were, standing on the trail that would take us directly to the destination. I began wondering if I would need to add some other sort of challenges to the day since the hike was turning out to be a cinch for the participants. Then I watched with confused fascination as they turned the wrong way on the trail and began walking down the hill in the opposite direction from the destination.
We were soon thrashing through thick underbrush, heavy forest cover, and stinging nettles. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, we popped through a forbidding thorn thicket and stood on the banks of a river—the river we had crossed a few hours earlier. What a revealing discovery for them! I thought that surely now the group would understand the error of their ways and turn back in the right direction. Then I heard one of them say, “I think we can cross here.” Was I hearing correctly? Were they planning to go back across the river?
As facilitators of challenge, we let groups go the wrong way quite often, but we eventually pose some very pointed questions about their plans. The time had definitely come for those questions. “Hey group,” I said. “Can you show me where we are on the map?” They produced their map, and to my surprise, they pointed to our exact location! So, I followed with, “Do you remember where the destination is?” Again, they astonished me by pointing directly to it! They knew full-well where they were and where the destination was. What didn’t add up was why they continued going in the wrong direction!
I asked them to explain in more detail their plan. Indicating the mouth of a creek on the map, they confidently said, “We have to get to this creek. It will probably take us right to the destination.” Grudgingly, I asked, “But is that your destination?”
Ignoring my question they continued describing their lavish strategy of travel in great methodical detail. “We need to cross the river here, so we can find easier terrain on the other side. Then we will go a few hundred yards and cross the river back until we come to some cliffs. We will have to cross back over the river and go a little further and finally cross back over right at the mouth of this creek.” They smiled with satisfaction at the conclusion of their scheme.
“But where is your destination?” I asked unimpressed. They looked at me incredulously, “Well, it’s over here,” again indicating the exact spot. We were nowhere near the destination, heading in the wrong direction on a course that could put us in danger!
“If you know where you are, and you know where the destination is, then why are you going the wrong way?” I asked, expecting them to see the obvious. They blinked, wiped the sweat from their brows, and with clear irritation replied, “This is the plan. We made a plan, and we are sticking to it.”
As I considered their folly, I had to admit that in real life, I often make the same mistake. Planning is not the problem. Putting our plan ahead of the Lord’s plan is the problem. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” How often do we really trust in the Lord’s plans? He is rarely carrying them out according to our schedule and seldom according to the way we imagine. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 3:20 that God is at work in “exceedingly, abundantly more powerful ways than we can ask or imagine.” That’s a pretty powerful plan. In fact, I cannot fathom its greatness.
Despite this truth or maybe because of it, I find myself regularly doing one of two things: going about life according to my plan or running ahead of God, tricking myself into believing that to keep in step with Him means to go faster and work harder. I often picture walking with Jesus through life and suddenly realize that I’ve gone on ahead of Him while He patiently waits on a park bench, simply enjoying the fresh air of freedom. “Come on, Jesus!” I say in my head. “We’re falling behind!” But the God of the universe is never behind schedule. He’s never in a rush, and He always has a plan. Proverbs 19:21 is a helpful reminder which says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”
When you consider your best laid plans, do you lay them out before the Father and ask Him if they are part of His plan? Are your plans simply to rush ahead with the steady stream of worldly traffic? Are your plans of the flesh and not of the Spirit? Are you so caught up in your own plans that you’ve forgotten about the destination?
Maybe it’s time for a redirect. Maybe it’s time to sit and rest at the Fathers feet. Maybe it’s time to submit your plans to God and set a course for a new destination, His way.
by Joel Bates
A couple of the DM staff got the hair-brained idea that it would be fun to enter an adventure race; what’s worse is that they thought I should join them! I unequivocally dismissed the idea of gallivanting all over God’s green earth on foot, in a canoe, or on a bike to search for elusive waypoints with nothing but a map and compass. Then they reminded me that this is pretty much what we do every day. “And besides,” they lured, “They give out free hamburgers at the end of the race.” I do love a good hamburger!
By the time race day came, I was all in. When we received our start maps and the coordinate grids, we diligently began plotting our course and devising a strategy. Since we had purchased special gear and equipment and paid out our cold hard cash for the entrance fee, we were invested in the race. When the starting gun blasted, we sped toward our first waypoint flag, our fresh muscles fueled by determination, confidence in our skills, and a few too many energy bars.
From our canoe, we could see that we were in the lead as we located the first flag, punched our ticket, and threw our backs in to paddling to the next waypoint. Jubilantly we beached our canoe on the far shore of the lake to begin the hiking leg of the race. We were orienteering over rough country, and we were in our element. As other teams poured onto shore directly behind us, we joined in the common mayhem of gathering our bearings and finding the next flag.
We had bagged 5 flags already from the lake portion and were speeding though the brambly hills and hollers, collecting flags six and seven and feeding ourselves a steady dose of overconfidence. Numerically flag eight was next, but our course plan was to take a little side detour to collect the solitary flag nine, which lay at the top of a hollow a half mile off-route to the east.
I carried the map and paused every so often to get my bearings and establish a route. We had picked our way along a small creek that intersected with a valley that ran toward flag nine. Knowing from experience that untended valleys are generally overgrown, I indicated that the ridge running along the east of our end goal would likely be a better path of travel. Without hesitation, we set off up the ridge. We had been fast walking and slow jogging for a while when I suggested we scout for the flag. I was pretty sure we were in the right location. The others couldn’t really argue since they had not been carrying the map. We fanned out across the ridge looking for the flag.
After a time we rallied together on a high point in the forest. “Are you sure this is the right place?” a team member asked. As I laid the map down on the ground to take a more detailed look at it, that question echoed through my mind, and I remembered past DM expeditions. I had asked the leaders the same question and discovered that no matter where they were and how confident they felt, the feeling of uncertainty lurked. “Maybe I was a little bit off,” I said reassuringly. “I’m sure we’re close to the flag. Let’s expand our search.”
Our second search produced no better results. We hadn’t found flag nine, but instead of admitting that I didn’t know where I was, I began blaming the race officials for likely giving us coordinates that were incongruent with the flag’s actual location. In essence, I was shifting blame, throwing someone else under the bus. The more we searched the more lost I felt. Soon nothing seemed to match the map and worse, the realities of the situation denied my self-created identity: “I don’t mess up at reading maps and compasses,” I chastised myself. Nevertheless, the fact that flag nine eluded us told a different story.
Identity aside, I felt the pressure of investment. We had paid the cost, made the plan, and put in the time, so finding this stupid little flag in the middle of the backcountry became my greatest aim in life. The more we searched for the flag, the more obsessed we became in finding it. It wasn’t about winning anymore, it was all about not losing. There is a difference, you know.
In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul tells us to keep our eyes on the prize. He said he looked ahead to the victory forgetting about what was behind and strained toward the finish to win. Isn’t it strange that we live our lives and forget what we’re racing for? After a while, all we can see is what we have to lose. Running toward something is always better than running away from something. The pressures and motivations are vastly different. Running to the prize is motivated by hunger for the victory, the pleasure of competing, and euphoria in finishing to hear the words, “Well done!” However, running from is far more difficult for our soul because we are constantly looking back, feeling chased down as if we are running in terror from a beast that will eventually overtake us. It’s a weary way to travel, one that robs us of abiding peace. Moreover, what is worse is that when we race so as not to lose, all the burdens are weighing on us so we cannot bear the cost of losing.
As we stood there bent over panting, I had to admit that I didn’t know exactly where I was anymore. Our searching and striving had disoriented me even more. In a moment of sheer surrender, I took a deep breath and simply said, “I think we had better go on to find flag 8.” The team was silent. What about all the time we had spent searching? How could we afford just to abandon the mission? This was valuable time that would be totally wasted if we came away empty handed. We wanted to produce something for our efforts, and the harder and longer we searched the heavier the weight of success became. These thoughts were going through everyone’s mind, but we knew we had to let it go. The searching and striving had to stop. We needed to redirect our thoughts and reorient ourselves to the map so that we could press on toward a new goal.
Paul alludes to this concept of loss when in the same breath of talking about pressing on to the prize, he utters the words to “count everything a loss in comparison with finding Christ.” Paul lists his pedigree and privileged life, his education and achievements, and even the adventures he could brag about and the service to God he could boast in. Then with one sobering word, he relegates them to their rightful place, “Rubbish!” Remember the rich young ruler who came to visit Jesus? Maybe he wanted to become a disciple and retain his status. Maybe he wanted validation for his good deeds, establishing him as the head of the class. Maybe he wanted to have some participation in the acclaim of the Savior and the popularity of the Messiah. He did not get the answer he was looking for. Jesus simply said, “If you want to be my disciple, let go of all your stuff, give it away, and then follow me.” The man went away sad, weighed down by the piles of rubbish he had worked so hard to accumulate. Letting go would indicate that he had wasted his life. It was too much to bear.
Later that day, after the race was over, I sat contentedly eating my hamburger and thinking about flag nine. I wondered where it was out there in the quiet woods. It bothered me a little that I would never know. Then with a mouthful of food, I glanced down at my fifth place medal. The token, little more than a participation award, meant something to me. It represented where the race had really begun. You see, we did collect many other flags that day, enough in fact to propel us to the top five finishers. We had done well after all, and for me the race began when I was willing to let flag nine remain unfound. Only then could I begin again. Only then could I turn my gaze on the prize.
What’s your flag nine? What’s something you need to let go of?
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.