by Joel Bates
We were about three hundred feet up when my climbing partner looked down and casually said, “If I fall, you fall.” I stared at him blankly, obviously not catching his meaning. “The rope...you’re tied onto one end, and I’m tied onto the other,” he said. We were big-wall climbing, and either we would both go all the way or neither of us would. The reality that I was stuck with him sent a little chill up my spine as I watched him dangle at the next crux, trying to place a piece of protection into the crack. I glanced down at the rope securely tied around my harness and gulped. His success suddenly became my greatest desire.
What if we lived our Christian lives the way lead climbers do? What if instead of comparing ourselves to a rival, we would pray for blessings to abound in them? What if instead of splitting up over petty differences, we would fight to stay together? What if instead of living isolated, independent lives (except for on Sunday mornings), we would seek out each other’s well-being, encouraging one another daily in the hopes that together we would not fail but have victory? What if instead of hunkering down for the long winter of pandemic, we joyfully proclaimed hope?
As a Jesus follower, I’ve tried to live a life committed to unity, but I almost always end up isolated and independent. So what’s my problem? Maybe rock climbing has something to teach us about the concept of unity. Let’s explore that thought.
Before beginning the ascent of a lead climb, partners rope up. This step is not just for camaraderie, but it is vital to protecting their lives as they alternate belaying one another up the rock face. They tie in at the bottom, and they don’t untie until reaching the top. This connection is unity at its core, and it grows stronger as partners depend on each other.
What causes climbers to depend? Lots of reasons, but mostly the ever-present fear of falling. Climbers will tell you that having a belayer catch them on a short fall, before they hit the ground, builds confidence and trust in that belayer and the equipment. The system proved true, but every type of fall still takes one’s breath away and weakens his nerve to continue. There is an unmistakable bond formed between partners when one’s body, mind, and soul experience this threat of peril. The belayer sees his partner when he is most vulnerable and remains true to his pledge to support the climber. Climbers know that their own success is entwined with their partner’s. They simply cannot achieve a solitary victory, no matter what course they follow.
Rock climbing demonstrates how dependence creates unity in three ways: Personal safety is at stake; vulnerabilities are exposed, and victory is bound to another. This is a scary combination. That’s why my hands have trembled at the base of every big wall I’ve ever climbed. These concepts are not original with climbing. Jesus knew how difficult it would be for his disciples to live in unity when he said in John 15:12-13 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Later in John 17:21 Jesus prayed, “…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you..”
The Apostle Paul echoed this sentiment in Ephesians 4:1-6 expressing, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.“ Here, Paul connects his being bound to the body of Christ and the risks involved to being a prisoner. For him there’s no escape. It’s do or die. He calls us to be unified by practicing humility, patience, and gentleness and taking vulnerable actions as we interact daily. Then he ties it all together reminding us of the reality of oneness, not only being tied to others in the body, but to the plan of God and His very self through Christ.
We’re not just climbing some obscure rock with a random partner, but fighting for our lives in a great, cosmic battle tied in with the body of Christ—past, present, and future—and with God Himself holding us on belay. This is serious! So…seriously…is the promotion and growth of the Kingdom of Jesus your greatest desire no matter what it costs you? It’s time to rope up!
By Joel Bates
“Peace on earth!” is the theme of Christmas, but for my family, peace this year has been elusive. It all started when my wife, Julie, succumbed to the dreaded COVID virus the week after Thanksgiving. At first, I feared for her safety, but as her symptoms abated, the reality of an all family quarantine loomed over us. Peace went right out the window as we considered the possibility that our family might be missing Christmas this year. We yanked the wall calendar down and laid it out on the dining room table to figure the quarantine period. We intently huddled over it like we were reading a top secret document. If my calculations were correct, we would not be out of quarantine until Christmas eve!
Groans filled the room as the kids thought about all the holiday festivities we would miss. We would miss the staff Christmas party, the town parade, making cookies with Nana, watching holiday football games with Papa, caroling to the old folks, and on and on. I slumped down into my chair thinking out loud, “No peace this Christmas!”
Just a couple weeks previous, I had written a letter to the Discovery Ministries donors about how this was such a good year despite all the mindless rioting, pointless pandemic, and irritating election drama. Now I was facing a year with no Christmas, and I didn’t like the reality. I had so easily written those words extolling peace during the holidays, but I wasn’t suffering two weeks ago. I wondered, in that moment, if I would take comfort from my own words of encouragement.
I called an emergency family meeting, which was easy since we were all right there at the table. “What are we going to do about this?” I asked the family. One of my daughters thought it would be a good idea to social distance from each other, especially her brother! Another child suggested that Julie and I go live in a tent in the wilderness, and the kids would run the house until the quarantine was over. “No,” I said. “We need to stay together. We need to remember that God knows about our struggles and that He can provide to make this a great Christmas.” The kids all nodded in agreement, and I resolved to believe my own words. So, we set to the task of seeing how we could salvage this Christmas.
One of the most disappointing cancelations for our family this season was our plan to attend a local church’s Advent ceremony each week. It was now the second week of Advent, so we set out two candles, gathered some song books, and prepared some scriptures to read aloud. As we circled around to light the second candle, Julie read an excerpt from an Advent devotional. This candle was to remind us of the peace of Christ. That word peace took me by surprise, and before I could steel myself, my eyes misted as the anxieties warring in my heavy heart rose to the surface. Wrestling with the thought of watching my wife and kids suffer illness and confinement during this holiday season, I stared into the flickering candle of peace, reminded of our Savior’s not-so-peaceful entry into the world.
I tried to imagine what that first Christmas must have been like as Mary and Joseph reached Bethlehem after their long journey, knowing that the baby’s birth was near. It was a time when tyrannical government edicts mingled with social inequality, colliding in a bustling country village in Judea’s hill country. I pictured Joseph going door to door seeking shelter for his wife amid the thick crowd of pilgrim travelers, undoubtedly angry because they had to be counted. The street vendors, the inhospitable locals, and the Roman soldiers filled the streets, but the desperate couple must have felt so alone among the myriad of strangers.
These lowly, obscure newlyweds were simply trying to not miss Christmas. Can you imagine what our lives would be like if they hadn’t found that stable? I mean, Jesus almost missed Christmas. But when hope threatened to fade, they found shelter…a stable out back, the leftovers, full of the noise of needy livestock, the oxen of many travelers, and the din of donkeys, cows and chickens.
For just one, single, solitary moment could not the Son of God have had a little peace and quiet? He was the Prince of Peace, for crying out loud, but at the first Christmas, He would be born into no such luxury. In a stall, He came into the world He was destined to save. Then as a newborn taking his first full breaths of air, He cried, adding to the clamor. Still no peace! But then, perhaps Joseph, being a conscientious husband, filled the other mangers with hay to keep the animals quiet. We can assume he asked the shepherds to come in and stand at the fringes of the firelight. Mary, sensing the safety of having Joseph by her side and knowing her heavenly Father was near, took the newborn to her breast. The hungry Son of God, was pacified as He nursed contentedly.
Suddenly, as though by divine intent, all is calm…all is bright. Perhaps in that moment, the reality of the Prince of Peace, here with us, first dawned on the shepherds, and they quietly exited the stable to loudly proclaim the story. Joseph breathed a sigh of relief because he had found safe sanctuary for Mary and the child. Now he could rest. Mary’s sweat and tears of childbearing were over, and now sweet tears of joy lined her cheeks. She had remained faithful. And the baby slept in peace. Soon this Prince of Peace would save us all.
As the advent candle glowed in our living room, I sat watching the firelight dance on my children’s smiling faces. I saw my lovely wife resting comfortably in her chair with my youngest daughter asleep on her mama’s lap, unfazed by any fear of contracting an illness, and I felt full of the peace of Jesus. Whether it’s the threat of illness, the isolation of a quarantine, the problem of provision, or the fear of the future…no matter what happens this Christmas, peace is ours in Christ. Let there be peace.
By Joel Bates
Real life with God…do we pursue it, thrive in it, or fake it? Sometimes, we are unaware of what that life could be. Take Stan for instance. He and his son participated in a recent father/son adventure retreat that I led. On the first day, Stan had responded willingly but with skepticism to the series of group initiatives we had created for his group. The next day, he was more eager to align with his son’s enthusiasm for the cave as we crawled through muddy corridors and explored all the secret passages. By day three, Stan was ready for a turning point.
Standing at the base of the climb site, my fellow instructors and I extended the challenge for every father and son to attempt a climb and a rappel. Stan and his son stood at the back watching and offering an occasional encouraging word to the other climbers. We instructors could see the hesitation in their body language, so we did what we always do. We invited them to climb. Stan nudged his son, “You first.” With obvious doubt, the son hesitated and looked to his father. “I’ll be right behind you,” Stan promised. The young teen reluctantly stepped to the base of the climb. In no time, he was straining with all his might to haul himself up the rock. Stan watched and offered support to his son, mimicking the instructor’s words to give the appearance of knowing more about the advice he was giving than he truly did. His enthusiasm and impetus escalated with every foot of progress his son was gaining. Before long, Stan’s son was at the top leaning into the rope for the easy decent back down.
It was Stan’s turn now, and he was trying to think up any excuse to get out of it. However, his son was glowing over his achievement. The instructor prompted, “Time to back up your talk.” Stan paused, gave the instructor a hard look and then stared for a long moment at the rock face. “It was easier to pretend,” he said without taking his eyes off the vertical slab. Reality lay before him as he lifted a foot and stepped off the safe flat ground. With his son looking on Stan began to climb and didn’t stop until he made it to the top.
Later we circled up for a short discussion about the activity, and I asked what lessons the day’s climbing had taught these fathers and sons. Most shared poignant thoughts related to facing fears and exercising trust, and then Stan raised his hand. “I need to say something,” he said softly. He paused as he worked out the words. “I signed up for this because I thought my son needed it. I thought it would be good for him,” he choked with emotion. “But today I’ve realized that I’m getting so much out of this experience. I needed this for my faith,” he said. “I can’t keep pretending. It has to be real.” I was amazed at his powerful awakening.
I realize how susceptible I am to thinking that everything I do in ministry is for someone else, and I can begin to feel that my faith isn’t real. But when I become like Stan and let the ministry I do for others be a ministry for my own soul, my faith takes on new life. Instead of simply handing out words of insight and challenge, I can minister from an overflow of living a real life in Christ. I can minister from a heart whose first love is Christ.
Like Stan, I live more real when I realize I can’t do it on my own, that I don’t have all the answers, and when I’m willing to be vulnerable with my weaknesses. These attributes are what brought Stan to a more real relationship with the Living God.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.