by Joel Bates
Satan comes to kill, steal, and destroy, and I think the raccoons work for him! On a recent challenge expedition, we made camp on a pristine gravel bar along the Current River. Having camped there many times before with no wildlife problems, I was surprised when, after dinner and group debriefing time, I nestled down for a night’s rest and heard the forest come alive with activity.
I had dozed off a little when I became aware of a scratching sound near my head. Startled, I sprang up unable to hold in my guttural, school-girl yelp as I swatted at the dark creature next to me. He was furry, wore a mask, and had thievery on his mind. My wild, half-asleep thrashing missed him by a mile, and he scampered away to the safety of the nearby forest. My heart was pounding as group members called from under their nearby tarps, asking if I was okay. “We’ve got coon problems,” I said, still a little ashamed at my craven, raucous outburst.
I lay there, hoping the coon would not return and secretly wishing he would go bother someone else. However, within minutes, I could hear him stealthily approaching as the gravel shifted under his tiptoeing paws. With a surge of adrenaline, I spun around and wildly aimed my light toward the sound. There he was…fat, fuzzy, and full of cunning arrogance, knowing full well that I wouldn’t risk chasing him around the forest in my boxer shorts like a crazed lunatic. No, he had calculated to wait just out of arm’s length, waiting for sleep to come to his victim and lull away my vigilance with the aging night and open the gateway to my treasures.
I threw a small pebble as hard as I could from my awkward, prone position. Of course, it missed the mark entirely and was so small that even if it had landed, it would have only served to remind the raccoon that I was not yet asleep. I flopped on my back with dismay. How was I going to get any sleep with this wooly vagabond stalking us? I prayed and asked the Lord to send one of His mighty cherubim to stand guard over my resting place. I pictured the angelic warrior drawing his sword against my furry foe and chasing him well away into the hinterlands of the wild. Suddenly I heard the raccoon scurry. I turned to see not only one portly, vehement creature, but a host of at least three! It was apparent God’s angels had other business elsewhere this night.
I made up my mind to leave as I begrudgingly packed up my belongings and vacated to a more secluded area. I went down to the riverside to sleep under the stars amid the security of openness, offered by the gaping gravel bar. I calculated that the menacing creatures would have to be very plucky indeed to venture so far from their wooded fortress to find me here and steal my goods. I lay solemnly gazing at the night sky and slowly dozed off to sleep, enjoying the peace with my belongings securely nested around me. I had everything right here—everything that is, except a few sundry items left behind with the certainty that no raccoon would have interest in. One of those items left behind was my bag containing my journal, my pen, and my bible.
I slept well the rest of the night, awoke refreshed and eager for the hot coffee already brewing over the fire. After breakfast, the group decided we should all do some individual devotion time since we were beside a beautiful river and the sunrise was glorious. I promptly went to rummage for my devotional supplies—my sitting mat, my journal and pen, a hot sierra mug of coffee, and my bible. Having earlier brought my belongings back to my tarp site, I thought I had everything in one place. As I rifled around in my gear, though, I could not find my bible and journal bag anywhere. I stood there scratching my head. I had just seen it here the night before, but now it was gone. Suddenly my heart sank. I knew instantly and without question that those pilfering, nocturnal, burglarizing raccoons, had stolen my bible!
“It could be anywhere!” I moaned to the Lord as I sat in my devotional time with nothing else to do but pray. I felt angry, less with the mindless coons who were just living by instinct and more at God, who in His power and might could have stopped the coons from advancing. I mulled this over in my mind, suddenly becoming certain that living without His word could not be His will. I voiced a simple prayer, “God, I don’t believe You want me to spend the rest of this trip without a bible. Lord, would you please provide for me to have Your word?” The words had scarcely left my whispering tongue when I heard His still small voice say, “Go and search.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought. “My bible is probably miles away, torn to shreds in some filthy animal den.” Then a question entered my mind, again like the still small voice of the Lord. “Is my word worth searching for?” The question cut me to the heart as tears began to form at the corners of my eyes and dripped off my cheeks to the pebbly ground. In my heart, I knew His word was worth all the searching I could ever do. Missionaries have carried it to the lost people of distant regions of the world. It has sailed across seas to all foreign ports and made its way to the desks of dignitaries and the thrones of kings. His word is unstoppable, irrevocable, unchangeable, and wholly available. Of course, I would search for it, but I still had my doubts. As I stood to canvas the forest floor, I remembered the words of Jesus, “Seek and ye shall find.” With that thought, I stepped into the thicket of briars, brambles, and trees to begin my impossible hunt.
As I went, I was steered through the woods by the poison ivy patches like a sheep being herded as the ivy forced me to move away in specific directions to avoid contact. With no particular aim, I stalked, but not for long. After a mere few minutes of searching, I saw a piece of trash protruding from a pile of sticks and leaves, deposited there by some bygone floodwaters. As I approached, the trash continued to look more and more like…trash. But, suddenly when I was nearly upon it, I spied the shiny Ziploc wrapping, protecting my journal, and neatly stacked under it was my bible. The contents of the bag had scarcely been molested. I knew that this was a gift from God. He had restored my treasure to me.
In John 14: Jesus tells His disciples that the devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but that He came so we could have life abundantly. Psalm 119:10-16 beautifully states,
“With my whole heart I seek You; let me not wander from
Your commandments! I have stored up Your word in my heart
that I might not sin against You.
Blessed are You, O LORD; teach me Your statutes!
With my lips I declare all the rules of Your mouth.
In the way of Your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on Your precepts and fix my eyes on Your ways.
I will delight in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word."
In an age where reason gives way to madness and the treasure of truth is stolen away in the night, let us remember the unequivocal value of God’s precious Word. As James reminds us, “Don’t just listen to the word, do what it says.” Ask, seek, knock, and the door will be opened to you, and by all means, under every circumstance, for all your life when it comes to God’s Word, search for it!r every circumstance, for all your life when it comes to God’s Word, search for it!
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.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.