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!
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.