By Joel Bates
Panic crept from the hot pavement up through my body as reality pierced my mind like a sniper’s bullet. “My car has been stolen, and I am utterly helpless!”
Just moments before, I had been on the phone with my wife, regaling her with my adventures of having explored San Antonio, Texas. I had been surprised by the paradox of the Alamo, a mere three acres and yet a monumental inspiration that captures a nation’s heart. I had strolled down the River Walk, taking in the restaurant aromas and shops’ wares while I smiled back at the giddy, canal boat passengers. But, what made this day extra special for me was pressing through the unknown and taking the risk to get there. Just hours before this, I had enjoyed a retreat at a breathtakingly beautiful ranch in the Texas hill country. At this small conference, we examined what gives us passion and fills us with excitement for the future. I remembered how one of my joys was going on adventures, so as the conference closed and all the attendees departed, I found myself with a few hours of time to kill before catching my flight. It’s always daunting for me to travel alone into unfamiliar places, but the potential for adventure lured me. Besides, I knew God would be with me. So with my fresh enthusiasm, the invitation of the Lord, and the call of adventure, I risked setting off to see the sights. As I passed my exit for the airport and aimed my car toward downtown, I shuddered a little but cheered myself with the thought that I was living by what I teach.
As a facilitator, I invite participants to walk through the door of the unknown, to take the risk of adventure and reap the rewards of true self-examination leading to a fuller life in Christ. The invitation is the easy part. The trial is not, and as a facilitator I am mostly limited to just watching. Oh, I do walk alongside the struggling participants, and I give encouragement to the hurting and fatigued, but as their facilitator, I also am usually part of the cause of their challenge. I assure them that I have their best interest at heart as I dole out another challenge. I tell people they can do just a little bit more than they thought they could, and while I believe it, it’s still easier to say than it is to do. Some participants get angry with me. Some grow distant and cold hearted for a time because they thought our relationship would be different; they thought the experience would be the adventure with only the reward and not the pain. I believe they need the challenge, so I keep presenting it before them.
As I stood in that downtown parking lot with nothing but a flip phone and the clothes I wore, I joined all those pained, suffering participants that come through DM. I was desperate, way out of my comfort zone, and growing bitter at God with each passing minute for leaving me stranded and exiled in this wilderness of pavement. Hadn’t he invited me into the adventure? But now I was alone and helpless! “What kind of father invites his child on an adventure only to kick him to the curb?” I grumbled.
There was a hotel across the street, and I walked there as I tried in vain to get some help from the 911 operator on my cell phone. She wanted my VIN number. The problem was that the VIN number was on the stolen car. Does anyone else see the problem with this logic? I hung up as I walked into the hotel lobby and asked the clerk at the front desk if I could borrow a pen, some paper, and a phone book. He expressed genuine concern as he listened to my rushed account of my predicament. I had been in communication with my wife, and she texted me info for the rental car company. I dialed the number and was comforted to find the lady on the other end of the line was kind and competent. (I made a mental note to call her instead of 911 next time I had a crisis!) It turns out my car had simply been towed away due to my ignorance of big city parking lot procedures. I hadn’t paid at the serve-yourself kiosk!
Understanding I had less than an hour to make my flight, the hotel clerk phoned a cab. When I got into the taxi, the tires peeled as the heavyset driver with a thick Boston brogue turned around and said, “Pal, if you’re late, it ain’t gonna be because of me!” Now maybe I’ve been in the backwoods too long, but as we broke many traffic laws getting to the airport, I felt like I was in a Bourne movie.
Every time I fly, I always encounter those people who are running really late. They come through the line and have to sort of grovel to the other passengers who got there early. Most of the time people are gracious, but we still give them that smug, superior, examining look that says, “You should be more responsible.” I was that guy! I felt especially bad cutting in front of the lady in the wheel chair and the couple with the newborn in the baby stroller, but only a few people gave me the “you’re irresponsible” look.
I made my flight, but had to leave my luggage, my laptop, and course work in the trunk of the rental car that was nestled deep in the confines of some impound lot. I have to admit I wasn’t counting my blessings that day, and my hope, joy, and enthusiasm for adventure had abandoned me. I replaced that joyful outlook with some bitterness and resentment at God as the plane lifted high above the clouds to take me home. To be honest, that event unraveled a series of discouraging and bitter moments that overwhelmed me during the next weeks.
I was retelling the story to a good friend the other day, now being able to laugh about it some but still unable to see the redemptive quality in an ordeal where following God left me feeling abandoned and vulnerable. My friend insightfully responded, “You were standing in the place of all of your participants, in the midst of the challenge. And, you’re not the only child God has allowed to experience this sort of pain.” As soon as he said it, I felt my face flush and tears well up. He was right. After all the challenges I’ve designed for others, all the adventures I believed in, and the risks I promised would reap a reward, I hadn’t recognized my own wilderness moment in the middle of a strange city where I knew no one. But just like all the adventures God invites us into, He was providing just the right amount of challenge and just the right amount of help through the patient hotel clerk, the salty cabbie, the kindly wheel chair lady, and the setting sun at 30,000 feet that can’t be explained, only experienced. As I now reflect on God’s goodness to me in the midst of trial, my breath catches, and I remember another child of God who long ago was abandoned and scorned, bruised, and bloodied. God offered His only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice so that the worst that will ever happen to me are merely light, momentary, earthly trials. Because of that “Son,” I not only win over the wilderness, I get to live the adventure.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.