by Joel Bates
I had certified as a level four, whitewater instructor twice before, so I assumed this time would be a piece of cake. Leah, Logan, Daniel, and I were taking the course along with a few others in the Asheville, North Carolina, area. I expected to pass, of course, but I also aimed to encourage the other instructors along the way. Seems noble, right? However, it was a lot harder than I thought—both the course and the encouragement.
Things were going well at first. Tasked with presenting some impromptu lessons, I jumped right in, teaching about various river skills and rescue techniques as the certifying trainers looked on with furrowed brows and scribbled things in their little notebooks while giving each other silent signs through raised eyebrows and thin-lipped smirks. I would not let it faze me. I am an instructor by vocation. I know their little tricks!
The next day, they paired us up in tandem canoes for some lake practice. My partner and I were just beginning to get used to one another when the instructors informed us that we would be canoeing together on a local whitewater river after lunch. The stakes got higher; I would have to rely on my partner to be successful. And, we were successful. Well…mostly successful since we only flipped our canoe once. We had told ourselves that we were not allowed to get angry at each other until we’d tipped at least three times, so one flip-and-swim felt like a small victory to me.
I had been looking forward to day three. I would paddle my solo canoe and could show off my talents. That morning as I knelt for prayer, I heard the still small voice of the Lord prompt me to be a shield bearer for the others in the group and to magnify Him as I went down the river. What did God mean about being a shield bearer for the group? With that picture in mind, I cheerfully headed to the river, and from the minute my boat hit the first little rapid, I felt the joy and exhilaration of maneuvering through the turbulent waves. I was going to glorify God by enjoying this moment, the sunshine, the river, and Him.
We paused at a section of river where large boulders lay interspersed amid the flow, creating hydraulic features—chutes, eddy pools, and surfing waves. Here, the course instructors intended to test our ability to control and maneuver our boats. As I watched my co-workers—my friends—attempt to perform the maneuvers correctly and struggle with mixed success and even failure, I realized this was an opportunity to be God’s shield bearer.
When our identities are on the line, two enemies--the Devil and “self”—join forces and whisper and then shout the messages: “You aren’t good enough.” “You don’t have what it takes!” “You don’t have any value in this.” I am all too familiar with those messages. You probably are too. I hate the enemy, and I hated to see what he was doing to my friends. The only thing I could think to do was to keep smiling, spread joy, and give encouraging reminders of what they were doing well. Sadly, my words did not seem like enough to really shield them from the foe of failure.
I pondered this as we floated along and came to another test section in the river. Our course instructors pulled into a large, gentle eddy along the right bank and indicated we should follow. Pointing to the rapid forming less than fifty yards downstream, they asked, “See that big rock jutting up in the middle of the rapid? Behind that rock is your next test,” they explained. “It’s a difficult eddy to catch, but as instructors-in-training you must demonstrate that you can catch it. We’ll go first to show you the line and wait for you downstream.” The pressure increased as we watched them peel out of the eddy, paddle gracefully down, catch the “difficult” eddy, and then calmly maneuver on downstream.
Not assuming I would be first, I asked if anyone else wanted to try it. Looking intently at the rapid and with some trepidation, one of my friends volunteered, “I’ll do it.” We watched with rapt fascination as our brave friend glided successfully through the turbulent waters and into the eddy. Seeing that success, the group’s optimism elevated, and immediately another friend stepped up to try it. I watched each member of our group paddle down to the big rock, turn the boat at a 45-degree angle, and move magnificently into the solitary, calm eddy pool amid the turbulent flow.
Now I was alone. It was my turn. My confidence was brimming as I did a couple of strong forward strokes, drawing my boat toward the menacing rock. I approached with my line just right to catch the eddy high and in good form. At the last second, I confidently threw a cross-forward stroke to propel me over the eddy line and onto the tranquil pool. Then something unexpected happened. As the whole class and my course instructors looked on, the bow of my boat hit the calm water of the eddy a little too hard, and in the blink of an eye, I capsized.
I lay floating in the cold water, stunned—not so much by the icy water flowing over me or the hard rock just below the surface of the water gouging my right shoulder, but because I had failed! This wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill mistake either. No, the instructors had said this one counted! To make matters worse, I had failed in front of the whole class, most of whom I had taught how to paddle.
As I lay there trying to collect my bearings and clasp any dignity I had left, I remembered the still small voice of the Lord telling me I was supposed to be a shield bearer for the others this day. Now I was just a floundering mess, flailing in the water, weak and shaken. Then the Lord did something kind and generous. As I righted my boat to gingerly make my way to the group, He reminded me that I am a good boater and that even good boaters make mistakes and fail sometimes. Regaining my boat and beginning to paddle on, a smile formed on my face, thinking I must have looked like a total buffoon as I flipped over in the eddy. I couldn’t help but grin widely as I made my way on to the others.
The instructors were very kind and picked out another test eddy at the next rapid for me to show off my proficiency. With the whole group looking on, I set up for the catch. I’m sure they were shocked as I once again flipped over the side of my boat and splashed forcefully into the mocking eddy. This time when I came up for air, there were no thoughts of dismay, only laughter in my soul! I shot a prayer upward jesting with God, “Are You flipping me on purpose, God?” I didn’t hear an answer, but I got the sense that my less than stellar performance was by some cosmic design. What could I do but just enjoy the comedy of the moment! It felt even more hilarious to me when I saw the alarmed looks on my friend’s faces. Some of them looked at me with pity; others looked away ashamed for my loss. No matter, the truth remained. I am still a good whitewater paddler, and I suspected that God was using this comedy of errors for His divine purposes.
At the end of the course, our trainers ask us to circle up one last time and think of something that impressed us most about the person to our left. I was just to the left of one of our course trainers, a good instructor, though one whom I doubt knows the Lord. He looked at me and said in all seriousness, “The thing that most impressed me about you was that you flipped twice and came up smiling like it never even fazed you. Then you went on to finish strong.” It seemed strange that he was not impressed with my paddling proficiency, my ability to maneuver the boat with good form, or even my ability to teach the skills. It was my weakness that shone through!
This, then, was the shield I was to bear for the group that day—a shield of joining the others in their white-watery suffering, a shield of being an example of one who can fail well and get back up again, a shield of weakness. Now I better understand 2 Corinthians 12:9 which says, “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The power of Christ is what my instructor saw shine through, and though Jesus used my weakness, He did not leave me struggling for long. That last day of the course I redeemed myself and caught two eddies, grinning widely the whole time!
by Leah Fuller
My heart thumped in my chest as the current in the river picked up speed and the water roiled about me. I knew that I was approaching one of the largest rapids I had ever navigated as the river began to funnel itself into a narrow chute ahead. I had spent the previous day paddling the upper section of this river, experiencing some success and many swims! I had spent most of the night dreaming about this rapid, aptly named Tablesaw, and well…maybe it was more like having nightmares. So, as I approached Tablesaw, I was definitely questioning whether or not I would survive upright.
As the river narrowed and the horizon line dropped away in front of me, I found myself staring at a long, turbulent drop with waves crashing into the chute from both sides. I could see a few of my friends ahead, bobbing up and down over the waves in their descent. Right at the bottom of the rapid were two large eddies awaiting anyone who might survive. As I entered the chute, I took a deep breath, threw up a quick prayer, and my mind suddenly cleared. Keep your hips loose and keep breathing, Leah, and you will be fine. I bobbed down the rapid, fixing my eyes on the eddy below, and within a few seconds found myself gliding into it, looking back up at the rapid I had just descended. My heart leapt in celebration as I realized that I had successfully navigated the one rapid I had fixated on and feared would overcome me.
I find it interesting how often we can find ourselves facing what feel like overwhelming odds, producing a great deal of anxiety and fear. We can spend hours fussing and fretting over what we should do or shouldn’t do, re-playing scenarios in our heads with every solution under the sun. How easy it is to fix our eyes on the difficulty or trouble ahead and forget all of the truth, training, and transformation we have experienced to even get to this point!
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). This is truth straight from God. It is reliable and trustworthy. When we take a step back from fixating on the problems that lie in our path and talk to God, we really do have access to His peace. This peace enables us to take a deep breath and remember that He really is in control.
We need help, though, with allowing God to bring peace to our hearts and minds. In many ways, peace is a cognitive choice we must make to surrender our efforts at understanding and to allow God to astound us with His solutions, which are often simple and miraculous. When I made the cognitive choice on the river to stop fixating on the rapid and to take a deep breath, focusing my mind instead on Christ, my mind cleared, and I was able to remember my training and respond from the place of truth, rather than fear.
It is important to note that I did not end up on this river by accident. No, I came here on purpose to face these big rapids. You see, I have undergone training. Over the years, I have learned to skillfully paddle a canoe in whitewater, spending time practicing the maneuvers and paddle strokes, learning to shift my hips and gaining awareness of my surroundings in the midst of the rapids. I would not have attempted to paddle this rapid on this river without that training. Training is what enabled me in the moment to remember to breathe, keep my hips loose, and to fix my eyes on where I needed to go. Suddenly, I was no longer out of control; I was confident and able to draw on the muscle memory I had been practicing over the years.
We also do not face trials in life on accident; they are to be expected if we have chosen to pursue Christ wholeheartedly. As we grow in Christ, learning by experience that He is trustworthy and soaking in His Word, we are able to draw on His truth as we face challenges on the journey. Some would call this spiritual muscle memory. When Jesus was tempted by the devil during his excursion in the wilderness, He drew upon the spiritual muscle memory of God’s Word, which dwelt in His heart. Just as I drew upon the muscle memory of years of practice in paddling, we can draw upon the muscle memory of God’s faithfulness and truth as we face the “rapids” we encounter in life. This kind of spiritual muscle memory is what enables us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance, and perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2).
When we find ourselves swimming in the turbulent waters, rather than riding the waves, it can be easy to forget who we truly are. This is why it is so important to remember the transforming work God has already done in our lives. Having taken a few swims the day before, it was easy for me to question whether or not I was truly up for the challenge that lay ahead. Likewise, when we find ourselves in the mire of our anxiety or get tripped up by our pride or other sin, Satan loves to tell us that nothing has changed at all. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10), working hard to erase the transformation that has occurred in our lives. In these moments, returning to the truth and training that got us to this point is absolutely vital, remembering that “we did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but have received the Spirit of adoption as sons…heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15, 17). We can truly celebrate victory as we claim the truth of our identity in Christ!
When we face trials, as promised in James 1:2, we can rely on the truth, training, and transformation God has used to equip us for the battle. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6).
Take some time to reflect on a recent trial you have been through or one you are facing:
by Joel Bates
In the highly acclaimed film documentary, “The Dawn Wall,” pro climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson attempt to be the first to free climb the intimidating Dawn Wall face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Aside from their sheer talent and determination to make it up this 3,000’ rock face, the viewer witnesses the incomprehensible life that they lived for 19 days as they were suspended in mid-air, somewhere between the ground, the sky, and obsession. They weren’t just climbing the rock; they had made a home there.
When climbers predict it will take longer than a day to ascend a really high “wall,” they will usually haul along a port-a-ledge. This lightweight, mobile tent is fastened to the side of a cliff face to create a temporary sleeping shelter. It’s not what one would call comfortable, but a lot better than the alternative.
As I watched the film, I imagined what it must be like to dwell for so many days with only a port-a-ledge as a shelter. I got a sick feeling when I envisioned sleeping high up on the crag. I have this thing in me; I like to fall asleep with my back to the wall and my face to the exposure. Tossing and turning on a port-a-ledge would inevitably result in having my back to the great expanse of Yosemite, totally exposed to the void. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
I was talking to a friend the other day about leadership--the triumphs, the struggles, the loneliness, and the unknown. Even at a little camp like DM, I still feel the heavy burdens associated with the weight of leadership. As we talked, I was taken back to the “Dawn Wall” documentary and the vulnerable, wide-open space, shielded by the port-a-ledge. It’s how I feel as a leader. There is an ever-present void that I feel with this responsibility—like when an aging parent dies and, even though I’ve been running my own life for quite some time, I feel an emptiness, sensing that I have lost some direction-finding, life compass.
I’m amazed how often I feel like there’s nobody around to give me the answer to the next step; I’m held in a vacuum of time and space—perplexing, paralyzing, and wondrous. Yet, in desperation I’m tempted to re-invent the wheel, cash in all my chips, or make stuff up just so those following me will think I know what I’m doing. It’s a sad state of affairs until I remember God’s Word.
Most of us are in leadership in one way or another. Do you have responsibilities? Are you stewarding something or overseeing a delegated task? Then you are shouldering leadership responsibilities. Maybe you have felt that emptiness, too, and just maybe you turned to God for answers.
During times like the ones we are living in, we need answers; we need comfort even when facing terrible emptiness. We need guidance. The Bible declares it is a light for our feet and lamp for our path. In Proverbs 3, we find often quoted advice: “Lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge God.” This has held true for me, and I can especially see it playing out this year as we minister while navigating through the COVID pandemic.
It would take too long for me to recount for you all the ways God has provided for DM and shown me the next steps to take this year. But just the other day, as I was crunching numbers trying to make the budget balance, I felt like I was facing a lot of unanswerable questions. When I started praying for God to show me the way through this void, I heard His still, small voice remind me, “I will take care of the provision. You just do what I say.” At the end of the day, we have a Great Leader…always. His name is Jesus. He can lead us through any peril or unknown and redeem hard times into the adventures we retell.
There’s a scene near the end of “Dawn Wall” in which the two climbers, knowing it’s their last day before reaching the summit, linger on the port-a-ledge, sip coffee, and soak in the sunrise, almost afraid to leave the place that has held so much vulnerability to the void. One of them says, “I’m gonna miss this.” What they will miss is not the peril, the fear, or the deep unknown, but the turning of the corner, the dawning of the new day, the culmination of the story that is on the cusp of victory, marked by adventure and rich with real life. Because of the comfort of Christ…the joy of His presence, we can release everything to Him when it’s just too much for our meager selves. We can experience living and leading through difficult, vulnerable, and uncertain times as we rely on Him. Then when we see how far we’ve come with Jesus and we too can say, “I’m gonna miss this.”
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.