by Joel Bates
A couple of the DM staff got the hair-brained idea that it would be fun to enter an adventure race; what’s worse is that they thought I should join them! I unequivocally dismissed the idea of gallivanting all over God’s green earth on foot, in a canoe, or on a bike to search for elusive waypoints with nothing but a map and compass. Then they reminded me that this is pretty much what we do every day. “And besides,” they lured, “They give out free hamburgers at the end of the race.” I do love a good hamburger!
By the time race day came, I was all in. When we received our start maps and the coordinate grids, we diligently began plotting our course and devising a strategy. Since we had purchased special gear and equipment and paid out our cold hard cash for the entrance fee, we were invested in the race. When the starting gun blasted, we sped toward our first waypoint flag, our fresh muscles fueled by determination, confidence in our skills, and a few too many energy bars.
From our canoe, we could see that we were in the lead as we located the first flag, punched our ticket, and threw our backs in to paddling to the next waypoint. Jubilantly we beached our canoe on the far shore of the lake to begin the hiking leg of the race. We were orienteering over rough country, and we were in our element. As other teams poured onto shore directly behind us, we joined in the common mayhem of gathering our bearings and finding the next flag.
We had bagged 5 flags already from the lake portion and were speeding though the brambly hills and hollers, collecting flags six and seven and feeding ourselves a steady dose of overconfidence. Numerically flag eight was next, but our course plan was to take a little side detour to collect the solitary flag nine, which lay at the top of a hollow a half mile off-route to the east.
I carried the map and paused every so often to get my bearings and establish a route. We had picked our way along a small creek that intersected with a valley that ran toward flag nine. Knowing from experience that untended valleys are generally overgrown, I indicated that the ridge running along the east of our end goal would likely be a better path of travel. Without hesitation, we set off up the ridge. We had been fast walking and slow jogging for a while when I suggested we scout for the flag. I was pretty sure we were in the right location. The others couldn’t really argue since they had not been carrying the map. We fanned out across the ridge looking for the flag.
After a time we rallied together on a high point in the forest. “Are you sure this is the right place?” a team member asked. As I laid the map down on the ground to take a more detailed look at it, that question echoed through my mind, and I remembered past DM expeditions. I had asked the leaders the same question and discovered that no matter where they were and how confident they felt, the feeling of uncertainty lurked. “Maybe I was a little bit off,” I said reassuringly. “I’m sure we’re close to the flag. Let’s expand our search.”
Our second search produced no better results. We hadn’t found flag nine, but instead of admitting that I didn’t know where I was, I began blaming the race officials for likely giving us coordinates that were incongruent with the flag’s actual location. In essence, I was shifting blame, throwing someone else under the bus. The more we searched the more lost I felt. Soon nothing seemed to match the map and worse, the realities of the situation denied my self-created identity: “I don’t mess up at reading maps and compasses,” I chastised myself. Nevertheless, the fact that flag nine eluded us told a different story.
Identity aside, I felt the pressure of investment. We had paid the cost, made the plan, and put in the time, so finding this stupid little flag in the middle of the backcountry became my greatest aim in life. The more we searched for the flag, the more obsessed we became in finding it. It wasn’t about winning anymore, it was all about not losing. There is a difference, you know.
In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul tells us to keep our eyes on the prize. He said he looked ahead to the victory forgetting about what was behind and strained toward the finish to win. Isn’t it strange that we live our lives and forget what we’re racing for? After a while, all we can see is what we have to lose. Running toward something is always better than running away from something. The pressures and motivations are vastly different. Running to the prize is motivated by hunger for the victory, the pleasure of competing, and euphoria in finishing to hear the words, “Well done!” However, running from is far more difficult for our soul because we are constantly looking back, feeling chased down as if we are running in terror from a beast that will eventually overtake us. It’s a weary way to travel, one that robs us of abiding peace. Moreover, what is worse is that when we race so as not to lose, all the burdens are weighing on us so we cannot bear the cost of losing.
As we stood there bent over panting, I had to admit that I didn’t know exactly where I was anymore. Our searching and striving had disoriented me even more. In a moment of sheer surrender, I took a deep breath and simply said, “I think we had better go on to find flag 8.” The team was silent. What about all the time we had spent searching? How could we afford just to abandon the mission? This was valuable time that would be totally wasted if we came away empty handed. We wanted to produce something for our efforts, and the harder and longer we searched the heavier the weight of success became. These thoughts were going through everyone’s mind, but we knew we had to let it go. The searching and striving had to stop. We needed to redirect our thoughts and reorient ourselves to the map so that we could press on toward a new goal.
Paul alludes to this concept of loss when in the same breath of talking about pressing on to the prize, he utters the words to “count everything a loss in comparison with finding Christ.” Paul lists his pedigree and privileged life, his education and achievements, and even the adventures he could brag about and the service to God he could boast in. Then with one sobering word, he relegates them to their rightful place, “Rubbish!” Remember the rich young ruler who came to visit Jesus? Maybe he wanted to become a disciple and retain his status. Maybe he wanted validation for his good deeds, establishing him as the head of the class. Maybe he wanted to have some participation in the acclaim of the Savior and the popularity of the Messiah. He did not get the answer he was looking for. Jesus simply said, “If you want to be my disciple, let go of all your stuff, give it away, and then follow me.” The man went away sad, weighed down by the piles of rubbish he had worked so hard to accumulate. Letting go would indicate that he had wasted his life. It was too much to bear.
Later that day, after the race was over, I sat contentedly eating my hamburger and thinking about flag nine. I wondered where it was out there in the quiet woods. It bothered me a little that I would never know. Then with a mouthful of food, I glanced down at my fifth place medal. The token, little more than a participation award, meant something to me. It represented where the race had really begun. You see, we did collect many other flags that day, enough in fact to propel us to the top five finishers. We had done well after all, and for me the race began when I was willing to let flag nine remain unfound. Only then could I begin again. Only then could I turn my gaze on the prize.
What’s your flag nine? What’s something you need to let go of?
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:
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.