Early in my involvement with DM, the senior staff invited me to join them for a rock-climbing foray in Arkansas. I witnessed great instructors like David and Colette Freeman and Ronnie Beller ascend sheer stone walls to heights that arrested my ability to breathe. They did this relying on nothing but a tiny nylon rope, a harness, and a belay partner. Depending on such frailty seemed like recklessness. Little did I know it could get much worse!
We began the day climbing a rock face where we had solidly anchored rope to the top. Trust in the gear set up like this came easily. However, as the veteran climbers began to “warm up,” they pulled out small, odd-shaped pieces of metal which used small diameter cables to attach the metal part at one end to a carabiner or webbing strand at the other. I held my breath as Ronnie proceeded to “lead” climb a wall and “place” the piece of metal into a crack in the rock. I watched him string a thin rope through the device as he explained how it would catch him in the event of a fall and prevent him from hitting the ground. I was convinced this procedure was extremely unsafe, but I was nonetheless intrigued.
Ronnie had ascended about 50 feet when he reached an overhang, missed his handhold, and plummeted toward certain death. His first piece of “protection” popped out of the crack, doing him little good. We gasped as we watched his body careen toward earth and found ourselves helpless to aid him in breaking his fall. Suddenly, inches above the solid stone ground, his body came to a springing, flailing halt. Suspended there he could literally touch the ground with his outstretched arm. His belaying partner, quite shaken, asked if he was all right. Ronnie breathed a few deep breaths and then let out a chuckle that echoed off the sandstone walls. Yeah, he was okay! I decided two things at that moment: lead climbing was definitely not for me, and Ronnie Beller and all the other DM instructors were certifiably insane!
Two decades later at the same climb site, I stood instructing the next generation of instructors in the techniques of traditional lead climbing. My belief system had obviously changed. Sure, I still believed the old DM instructors were crazy, but I also couldn’t deny the fact that at the critical moment all those years ago when Ronnie needed the most help, his anchor held. I guess the physicality of climbing coupled with the fascination of the inventive gear, matched by the freedom and exhilaration of ascending any cliff with pro-placement features slowly lured me into lead climbing. But it was learning to build good anchors that convinced me to stay.
For most of my life, I have relied on other more capable, people to place the anchors and assure me they were sound. Based on their character and experience they earned my unquestioning trust. Now that I was teaching these new instructors, I had to own more of the risk for my decisions. I wanted the group to learn through my instruction. I knew gear was trustworthy, and if they would apply the proper techniques, they could lean into the climbing equipment and release some of their fears, but I still wrestled with a fear of my own. When I had to start creating my own anchor systems, my hands would tremble and doubts assail. As before, I could insulate myself from my own inabilities, but now, I had to accept that I alone was responsible for making a climb secure. The stakes felt higher when I was choosing the anchors and placing the protection.
I acutely feel a sobering truth when I lead climb: once I place that piece of protection, all my good intentions, my talent, my decision-making abilities, and my wellbeing depend solely upon the anchor. If that’s not a picture of our Christian faith, I don’t know what is. We cannot live by the faith of our friends, our family, or our nationality or race. We must eventually take ownership of our belief. A rope secured at the top of a climb to a boulder the size of a house is like the reality of how trustworthy God is, but lead climbing…well, that’s a different story. As we choose the right anchor, fasten it to a firm rock, and keep climbing, this is more like the reality I feel when I choose Jesus despite the lies of the enemy, despite the lure of the world, and because of my own intact love and faithfulness to Him. It becomes imperative that we know as Paul wrote to Timothy: “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim 1:12).
Our faith must pass from the halls of our ancestors and the pulpits of churches to penetrate our own heart with an authentic belief. In our faith journey, we grow through life experiences like my friend Ronnie’s that day he was climbing. When our feeble strength gives out and we plummet from the rock, when it looks like we’re about to take a grounder and there’s no hope, remember that the best part we can play in our own wellbeing lies in the anchor we have chosen. When that anchor is Jesus, the Anchor holds!Our faith must pass from the halls of our ancestors and the pulpits of churches to penetrate our own heart with an authentic belief. In our faith journey, we grow through life experiences like my friend Ronnie’s that day he was climbing. When our feeble strength gives out and we plummet from the rock, when it looks like we’re about to take a grounder and there’s no hope, remember that the best part we can play in our own wellbeing lies in the anchor we have chosen. When that anchor is Jesus, the Anchor holds!
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.