By Joel Bates
Real life with God…do we pursue it, thrive in it, or fake it? Sometimes, we are unaware of what that life could be. Take Stan for instance. He and his son participated in a recent father/son adventure retreat that I led. On the first day, Stan had responded willingly but with skepticism to the series of group initiatives we had created for his group. The next day, he was more eager to align with his son’s enthusiasm for the cave as we crawled through muddy corridors and explored all the secret passages. By day three, Stan was ready for a turning point.
Standing at the base of the climb site, my fellow instructors and I extended the challenge for every father and son to attempt a climb and a rappel. Stan and his son stood at the back watching and offering an occasional encouraging word to the other climbers. We instructors could see the hesitation in their body language, so we did what we always do. We invited them to climb. Stan nudged his son, “You first.” With obvious doubt, the son hesitated and looked to his father. “I’ll be right behind you,” Stan promised. The young teen reluctantly stepped to the base of the climb. In no time, he was straining with all his might to haul himself up the rock. Stan watched and offered support to his son, mimicking the instructor’s words to give the appearance of knowing more about the advice he was giving than he truly did. His enthusiasm and impetus escalated with every foot of progress his son was gaining. Before long, Stan’s son was at the top leaning into the rope for the easy decent back down.
It was Stan’s turn now, and he was trying to think up any excuse to get out of it. However, his son was glowing over his achievement. The instructor prompted, “Time to back up your talk.” Stan paused, gave the instructor a hard look and then stared for a long moment at the rock face. “It was easier to pretend,” he said without taking his eyes off the vertical slab. Reality lay before him as he lifted a foot and stepped off the safe flat ground. With his son looking on Stan began to climb and didn’t stop until he made it to the top.
Later we circled up for a short discussion about the activity, and I asked what lessons the day’s climbing had taught these fathers and sons. Most shared poignant thoughts related to facing fears and exercising trust, and then Stan raised his hand. “I need to say something,” he said softly. He paused as he worked out the words. “I signed up for this because I thought my son needed it. I thought it would be good for him,” he choked with emotion. “But today I’ve realized that I’m getting so much out of this experience. I needed this for my faith,” he said. “I can’t keep pretending. It has to be real.” I was amazed at his powerful awakening.
I realize how susceptible I am to thinking that everything I do in ministry is for someone else, and I can begin to feel that my faith isn’t real. But when I become like Stan and let the ministry I do for others be a ministry for my own soul, my faith takes on new life. Instead of simply handing out words of insight and challenge, I can minister from an overflow of living a real life in Christ. I can minister from a heart whose first love is Christ.
Like Stan, I live more real when I realize I can’t do it on my own, that I don’t have all the answers, and when I’m willing to be vulnerable with my weaknesses. These attributes are what brought Stan to a more real relationship with the Living God.
By Joel Bates
I was so nervous; I couldn’t sleep many nights leading up to it. When I was 18 years old, I had vowed never to attempt it. A few weeks ago, I stood at its massive base, looking up at the towering, basalt columns and questioned my decision. Why had I come after all these years to make the conversion from tourist to climber by trying to summit the legendary heights of Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming?
My friend Daniel asked me a few months ago if I wanted to try to climb the Tower with him. I guess because it had been a long time since I had been to Devil’s Tower, I had forgotten how terrifyingly high it is. I hesitantly agreed, and in preparation, we studied routes and spent time lead climbing our local crags, all in the hope that we could gain enough skill to make the big ascent.
I knew this climb would be much different from any I had done before. The multi-pitch climb, much higher than any one rope length, required we climb it in stages. Daniel would first climb to a stopping point, and I would follow him up the route. Then it would be my turn to lead up the next lengthy crack to a stopping point. We would alternate back and forth in this fashion many times before reaching the summit. It is an exhausting way to climb with no easy options for bailing out if the going gets tough. You can see why I was unable to sleep a wink the night before we were to climb the tower.
Wrestling with my fear even before arriving, I began to wonder if climbing Devil’s Tower was really God’s will for me. So, I began to pray about it, asking God if my anxiety originated from the Holy Spirit’s warning me not to do something foolhardy or if it was just the common sense, nervousness that accompanies doing something difficult and scary. The more I sought the Lord, the more peace I felt about the climb, yet naturally, some tension remained. I confessed to my wife that though I didn’t feel like I was going to die, I did question whether I had the strength to be victorious over the mountain. Dying on the attempt would be an extreme form of failure, but not making it to the top would feel quite devastating, none the less. I asked her, my friends, and family to pray for me in this adventure. One morning as Julie and I prayed, I could picture the beautiful sight of Devil’s Tower emerging up out of the river valley, and suddenly I saw Daniel’s and my names in bubble letters on the top of the tower. As I pictured this, I heard the still small voice of the Lord say, “I give it to you.”
Even as I write those words, my eyes mist at the remembrance of God’s kind words to me. His statement suddenly made sense. He’d been making statements like this for ages. Right from the start He put man in a garden and said, “I give it to you. I give you dominion over the earth.” Then as Abraham sojourned as a foreigner through a land that God would show him, the Lord revealed His awesome plan in Genesis 13:17, “Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” Centuries later when Moses faced overwhelming leadership decisions among a questionable people, in Exodus 6:8 God reminded, “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.” Over and over again, God has revealed that He is generous and purposeful. I did a quick search and found dozens of times where the Lord says, “I give… to you.” Perhaps one of the most profound of these statements is John 15:16 when Jesus states, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
Abraham doubted, but God fulfilled the promise. Moses and the children of Israel faltered, but God still carried out His plan. Satan tried to lie, claiming that He had the control, but Jesus shut Him down, disarming him through the cross. The disciples cowered, but God empowered them to proclaim the Good News. The early church was oppressed by extreme persecution yet God gave them the nations. We, the church, look at a daunting climb ahead and wonder if we really have been given authority over the enemies of God. Sins plague us regularly, and we wonder if we’ll ever overcome the temptations. We see our society coming apart at the seams, and we fear the future. But…our great and generous God has given us much. He’s given us the promise of a hope and a future. He’s given us the promise of new life. He’s given us victory through His Son Jesus Christ, and He’s given us an intimate, personal relationship with Himself.
It was on the second section or “pitch,” as climbers call it, that the promise of the Lord began to empower me. I was on lead, moving steadily higher when I came to the crux, the hardest part of the climb. With only a small, hand-placed camming devise for protection, I had to move out toward the exposed rock face, now towering hundreds of feet above the Belle Fourche River, and haul myself up the thin vertical crack to a less exposed cleft where the handholds were more plentiful. As I hesitated at the precipice, I remembered that Jesus was right there with me. It was a strange place to hold a prayer service, but I began talking with the Lord at that moment. I asked for courage and strength and the fulfillment of His promise that He had given this climb to me. As I prayed, I imagined Jesus sitting just above me on the next belay ledge saying, “Come on, boy. You can do it. Just a little bit farther, friend. That’s it.” I could see Him smiling. With a new surge of confidence, I jovially exclaimed, “Easy for you to say, Jesus. You can hover!” Fortified with joy and reassurance, I climbed on and didn’t look back or down!
At the top of Devil’s Tower, there is a steel cache with a notebook inside. Names signed on that notepad testify of those who have made the long and arduous climb to the top. There are no easy ways to get to the top, to have one’s name in that book. But oh the euphoric joy of seeing my name there, knowing I had done it! It reminded me of another book of names, the Book of Life. That, too, is a special list of names of the people who climbed hard, risked much, and overcame by the blood of the Lamb. That Book holds fantastic names like Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joshua, and Rahab. You will see familiar names like Paul, Mary, and John. You will see common names like my friends’ at DM and mine—all names that represent not what we overcame or our hard work and efforts, but names declaring what God has given to us—the redemptive, restorative, all-powerful, all-loving sacrifice that Jesus made for all humanity as He summited Mount Golgotha to the cross. It was a climb none of us could ever make, and because of who God is, He simply, joyously says, “I give it to you.”
By Joel Bates
As Eli eyed me warily, then the ground far below, and then me again, the blood drained from his face and reality set in. He had made it to the brink, but in his focus to get here and achieve the task, he had overlooked—more likely ignored—the one factor that would determine his success: What would he decide?
Eli had spent the day quietly offering up his service to the group, pulling lines and hauling his teammates up to the platform waiting 30 feet high in the trees. Another junior high group was assaulting our high initiative called Mt Zippie’s Revenge, an aptly named zip line that requires a unified group effort to get individual members up to the launch platform. Eli had helped others and had then relied on his teammates to get him to the elevated platform, but when it came time to make a desperate personal choice of faith, he faltered at the height.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he confided to me. I told him I thought he could.
“Will this hold me?” he asked, indicating the trolley apparatus. I told him it would.
He was looking now straight ahead, down the long cable that disappeared on the next rise across the valley. Without taking his eyes off the terrifying expanse, he appealed, “What will it be like?” I told him it would require faith; it would be exhilarating; and after he stepped off the platform, the only thing left to do would be to enjoy the ride.
He looked at me with concern lining his brow, and I gave one last reassurance, “Go for it!” He hunched down awkwardly and shuffled his feet a couple inches to the edge. Then Eli half fell, half stepped off the platform, releasing an animal-like, guttural noise that emanated from the depths of his will, the place where choice, courage, and decision live.
In an instant, he found himself zooming through the air, fully dependent on the zip line, the harness, and the trolley equipment. All the inhibitions and insecurities that had threatened his success he had willfully traded for the exhilaration of really living. He was rapidly picking up speed about 20 feet out from the tower when the guttural noise erupted into an exuberant Hallelujah! What exclamation could be more fitting for that moment! It stuck with me.
Hallelujah is actually a combination of two words Hebrew words, halal and Yah, that simply and profoundly mean, “Praise God!” As I reflected on Eli’s proclamation and his struggle on the zip line launch pad, I began to see parallels in my own life. I am regularly faced with choices of faith, decisions that will inevitably leave me little or no control over the outcomes, and the feelings that Eli experienced atop the sheer drop of the zip line are only a magnified example of my own stepping off into a path that seems at best uncertain and at worst dangerous and costly. As a believer who professes faith in an unseen God, though, I find myself zipping down the line-of-life-in-Christ on more occasions than are comfortable for me.
I’m convicted by Eli’s response. How often do I step out in faith, simply closing my eyes or hollering at the top of my lungs unintelligibly? What if I grew a habit of raising a “Hallelujah!” at the very moment of faith, even before I’ve seen the outcome? Isn’t this what the apostle Paul and Silas did in the Philippian prison? It appears they are facing certain doom, yet what are they doing? Singing! Praising God! Hallelujah! That’s when an earthquake comes and opens the prison doors, but the inmates don’t escape, the jailer doesn’t commit suicide, and lots of people get saved.
That’s the result of a Hallelujah! attitude. Praise God anywhere, everywhere, at all times, at every age!
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.