Here Come the Ladies

I literally had to fight off the moms to keep their younger daughters from coming on the first real backpacking trip exclusively for young women, it was so popular. “The vans can’t hold any more!” I protested. “But there is an extra pack! My daughter can share with these other girls,” a mom countered. “But there is nothing to put IN it,” I had to explain. “No food, no tent, no sleeping bag, no headlamp…but the main reason is she is too young. Please sign up next year! We don’t want her to have a miserable first experience.” The moms were not satisfied; we were forced to flee.

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4km in. Still smiling!

In the end, 22 ladies between the ages of 12 and 19 spent three days in the wilderness of Toro Toro National Park, and after the first 100 meters of backpacking, the girls began to ask what sort of military punishment camp this was. Several encouraged me to raise the minimum age to 14. But as the whining subsided, they settled in to the trek, and 8 kilometers later, they rolled into camp, none the worse for the wear. Most were amazed they got this far, and wondered how it happened. Day two was similar. We even had one girl crying as she reached the edge of the canyons under the burning midday sun. But she made it.

We slowly upped the ante as the girls became aware of their own capacity and relied on God and each other to go farther and complete ever more difficult tasks. The descent down the canyon wall placed many of them face to face with genuine fear, and at the bottom we discussed the different ways to express it and control it. Some had nightmares after crawling through caverns and shrieked at the idea of being left alone in the dark. But after some recommendations on how to carry the packs and a challenge to stay ahead, most girls became accustomed to the weight and fell into a good pace. I overheard one of them say with a laugh on the ride home that she used to complain about carrying her books to school.

1Day three saw 20 young ladies rappelling down a waterfall. I was duly impressed by their willingness to trust the guides and the gear and to walk off the ledge backwards. We discussed who and when to trust others during the camp closing, and then had each girl explain her camp experience in one word. “Spectacular. Tiring. Amazing,” came the responses.

At each stage of the camp, the girls were anxious to know how they were measuring up with the boys, who did the same route a few days prior. In all honesty, they hiked every bit as strong, were better at keeping to the schedule, accepted every challenge given them, and got more out of the debriefs and devotionals than their brothers and friends. Not to say that the boys didn’t have a great experience! One guy, physically disadvantaged, showed up the rest by hiking as fast as his legs would go, and consistently made it to camp before others who were in better shape and taller than he. Another, nearly paralyzed by caution as he descended the canyon wall on day two, appeared in the line to rappel down the waterfall. “I want to face my fear,” he explained.

One woman stood out during the first of our three camps. Accepting the challenge to mount a bike almost for the first time, she showed the boys what courage looked like. After falling several times, she kept getting back on the bike, refusing to give up, and showing us all what determination looks like. After a nasty spill that cut her face, she continued to exhibit a joyful attitude that amazed and shamed me. She was clearly infused with the Holy Spirit in a way that demonstrated she has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” (Philippians 4:12-13).

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Melissa and Katie share thoughts on empathy at the second camp

This season’s camps were a major challenge in terms of logistics. Managing three camps of 30, 20, and 27 people stretched our ability to facilitate meaningful learning experiences and individualized attention for all. But thanks to our numerous and talented volunteers, we pulled it off! They carried extra weight, shared in the suffering of the campers, led devotionals and contributed their observations to the chats, and spoke words of life and encouragement along the way.

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Encouragement. Gatorade helps too.

There is an interesting association of terms in English and Spanish that reveal the meaning behind the practice of encouraging another person. In English we say “encourage”: literally, to give courage to another. In Spanish, we can say “animar”: to animate or give life to something stopped or dead, or “alentar”: literally to give breath or vigor to another. All three terms capture perfectly what we do when we come beside someone who is struggling, offer to help them with their burden, and speak words that will infuse the other person with the determination to finish the task.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2). I got to see a lot of that happening over the past two weeks. Both as younger, stronger boys came back for struggling hikers and carried their loads to camp, and when our women leaders shouldered their burdens alongside the girls, and hauled themselves on all fours up the steps, forcing themselves to take that next step in order to be an encouragement and an example for the girls. It has been a joy for me to witness and experience this ministry expanding to include new groups and new volunteers. I have been able to take a step back and watch the Lord at work through others, strengthening and healing people through adventure.

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This is why we do what we do: helping at-risk youth dream and achieve everything they are capable of.

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His Arm Doesn’t Matter

There are times in leading adventure education activities when you are suddenly hit with the weightiness of what was just accomplished. Yesterday was one of those days. Interestingly, it did not occur during the two hours that the high schoolers scrambled up the newly constructed third side of the climbing tower, but an hour later.

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Simon leaps to reach a hold above the gap

With the intense afternoon sun at 8,500 feet beating down on belayer and climber alike, all faces turned skyward to witness a feat not at all normal for our facility. A new resident at the boys’ home, Samuel, was nearing the top of the tower. It was his first time climbing, and he was overwhelmed by the ropes, harness, and all the people shouting instructions and encouragement at him. It was a routine event for Fundacion Aventura, one in which it is even possible to become bored if you focus on the activity, repeated hundreds of times, rather than the individual.

But Samuel is different. Just minutes before, the other boys in his dorm had shouted “he can’t do it,” partly out of strategic positioning to get the next available harness, and partly in a genuine belief that Samuel for some reason would not be able to complete this task. His barrier was insurmountable. His was not only psychological, it was physical. Samuel is missing one hand below the elbow.

In a culture where people with disabilities are frequently hidden from the public, live off a measly government pension, or are relegated to begging on the street, most people are not used to thinking that a person with any kind of disability is able to accomplish almost anything. Julio has proved them wrong time and time again by traversing exposed rock-faces, jumping across creeks, and carrying a full pack for miles, despite his autism. Now it was Samuel’s turn to show the rest what he is capable of.

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Rodrigo pulls against the vertical crevice to counter his foot pushing against the hold

Naturally, rock climbing is a lot easier with both hands, both feet, nimbleness and a lot of upper body strength. Even the name of the “holds” on the tower implies that you should have hands to grip them. But that didn’t stop Samuel from putting on a harness, clipping into the rope, and picking his way up the wall. He faced the normal, genuine fear that he would fall at more than one point, but he overcame this one step at a time, hooking his elbow around the silicon rocks and hauling himself up the tower. If this were a Disney movie, his reaching the top would have been met by an astonished hush or a cheesy chorus of emotional cheers. Thankfully, the real-life reaction was much more practical and realistic.

“Great job, Samuel! Now hurry back down, it’s my turn.”

Most people in life are not waiting to cheer our every move, and celebrate our every victory. And honestly, it is more productive and healthier for the boys to skip over the momentous way that Samuel rejected letting others define his abilities for him. They took it in stride, incorporating this new evidence-based truth into their little paradigms. Samuel can do what he sets his mind to. His arm doesn’t matter.

And that’s the point. Just like that, Samuel became “one of the guys”, no longer marked by the fact that he has only one full arm. No longer separated from the group by a physical characteristic he has no control over. “All” that Samuel did was climb a tower. But what he accomplished was to establish a foothold in the dorm, gain belonging, and teach an important lesson to the group. All because he accepted the challenge.

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Jhasmani stretches to reach a hold

We had a slew of other winners yesterday. Andres is pretty overweight, and that fact definitely hampered his ability to get up the wall, but he did it too, trusting the ropes, carabiners and Wilfredo to not let him fall. Sebastian conquered the harder side of the tower after a series of five attempts, refusing to give up. Jilmar made it halfway up the same side, frustrated that Sebastian could beat him, but achieving much more than he really thought possible. Just months ago, his fear of heights overpowered him, freezing him near the top on the easy side.

The high schoolers embraced the challenge of the third wall with abandon, which we built to incorporate a gap of more than a yard, with a slight overhang. Reaching the gap, they stretched to reach the holds on the overhang, leaping to gain purchase, and twisting their bodies like contortionists to scramble past the section with no holds or even surface area to brace against. Each one arrived at the top, exhausted, sweating profusely, and exhibiting a huge smile. After two weeks of maintenance, it was a blessing to see the tower built five years ago continuing to challenge, stretch and grow the boys at the BLC.

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When you’re as buff as Fabricio, you can simply pull yourself up, no legs necessary.

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The Camp Season in Quotes

Jesus hauls himself up the rockface, surprising himself and everyone else when he achieved it

Jesus hauls himself up the rockface, surprising himself and everyone else when he achieved it.

The attitudes and reactions of our campers in the face of planned adversity and intentional suffering are perhaps best captured by Jesus, who upon hiking up the hundreds of stairs to the top of the canyon with a full pack in the sun, exclaimed, “I want to die.” One day later, Jesus accepted the challenge to try some rock climbing on an overhang, and he did it! Upon reaching the top, his euphoria was succinct: “That was super!”  Another of my favorite quotes from the season came from Fidel, who confessed that he rappelled down the waterfall “Because it scared me, so I knew I needed to do it.”  Two other boys from this group went back for a second descent down the rope because “It was so much fun!”  The adrenaline they got while going off the edge was well worth overcoming the fear.

Just like in real life. When we accept the challenges and face our fears, the rewards are often a rush of adrenaline, a spurt of personal growth, and a realization of our potential.  We overcome the risk of failure with determination and will, and accept the consequences.

Mickey celebrating his baptism with a descent down the waterfall.

Mickey celebrating his baptism with a descent down the waterfall.

Mickey (Miguel) accepted the risk of a life of constant surrender to Jesus and the fear of public humiliation when he decided to be baptized in the canyon in front of the group. His public testimony spurred discussions with the other boys, and it was the crowning moment of his camp. At some point he will fail; at some point he will succumb to the temptations of the world and have to swallow his pride in confession and repentance. At some point God will ask him to give up something he really, really wanted.  But the life of peace, purpose and joy he gains in Jesus outweighs all of the risks.

Cristian shared the reason behind his sudden string of accidents on the mountain bike during the final stretch of four hours of madness down the muddy slopes of the mountains into the Amazon: “I had lots of fun during most of the ride, but I was holding back to stay safe.  Toward the end I went all out on the bike, pushing my limits even though it made me crash three times. It was so worth it.” How often are we holding back, playing it safe, instead of experiencing the fullness of life?

Experiencing the fullness of life sometimes mean getting muddy and rising hard in the freezing rain for five hours.

Experiencing the fullness of life sometimes means getting muddy and riding hard in the freezing rain for five hours.

Some of the young people to participate in the Tarija church camp came away with solid decisions and valuable personal insights. One girl confessed that “I wanted to give up something easy, but I gave up the hard thing to God.” One of the older boys shared that because of the personal devotion times anchored with deep-thinking questions to answer, “I feel empowered to fight my temptations. I understand them better and have a plan to avoid and overcome them.” These are just a handful of the victories achieved in the lives of our campers all season.

Teens devoting time each morning to prayer and reflection.

Teens devoting time each morning to prayer and reflection. When we are plugged into God, we have access to the Author of Life.

A different Cristian complained “I can’t do this” literally just steps away from camp heading uphill for a day hike. He repeated the conviction at least thirty times, without exaggerating. But three hours later he reached the high alpine lakes with the rest of the group, just putting one foot in front of the other, not focusing on how much it cost him, but focusing instead on the goal. I was so stinking proud of that whole group for making it so much farther than I ever thought they were capable of. How often do we restrict ourselves because of the effort involved, or accept other people’s inadequate estimation of our ability? Is there someone in your life that needs you to tell them thirty times, “Yes you can,” even when their defeatism becomes annoying?

What is your compass?

What and who is your compass?

Do we have the courage to force ourselves to do the hard thing, like Jhair and Josue on the rappel line? To take a long, hard look at the risks, to know the fear, experience the struggle firsthand and then decide to take a second stab at the problem? Victory is waiting on the other side. Sometimes victory is slogging through the jungle, getting bit by mosquitoes, getting rashes from plants, and after checking your compass heading time after time in doubt and lack of confidence, finally finding the treasure chest full of chocolate candies and rubber snakes. But usually it isn’t.

For us victory meant pushing teens to become more than they were the week prior. It meant accepting and utilizing the teachable moments that invariably appear during each camp at times when we have not planned for them to occur. Victory means our sponsors covering the entire cost of Josue’s broken arm. It means an entire group of kids trying the waterfall rappel when two years ago none were ready to make the attempt. Victory is not losing or damaging a single article of equipment thanks to the newly-implemented safety deposit strategy, resulting in greater personal responsibility in all of our participants. It means unforeseen business contacts and a small army of volunteers that helped with logistics, supervision and mentoring. It means impromptu fireside chats and unexpected mentoring opportunities. It means God glorified and God enjoyed.

We were blessed with fifteen volunteers this season!

We were blessed with fifteen volunteers this season!

Thank you for being a part of our cadre of supporters! Thanks to your prayers, donations, encouragement and even your likes on facebook, we enjoyed a phenomenal camp season this year. Be praying for the youth that made real commitments to be a better big brother, to resist temptation, to be a light in their neighborhood and home, to speak encouragingly, to act with confidence, to show determination in their studies, and to focus their thoughts on what is good and right. Check out facebook to see the albums of photos from (most of) our camps.

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Blessing in Discomfort

I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it.  The rain and wet sleeping bags seemed like the perfect excuse to find some other way to the top, namely the truck.  But I knew that this would rob us of the blessing of the struggle to get there on foot. And a struggle it would be. Nearly 6000 feet in elevation to hike up with full packs in order to reach our final campsite. I knew the hike was extremely hard, even when in the best condition, and I was weak. Just ten days had passed since spending two nights in the hospital with two amoebas and hepatitis all at once, and I had lost a lot of muscle.

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Photos cannot do justice to how beautiful the mountains were that evening. So green, misty and steep!

Luckily the kids were undaunted by the rain, and decided to attempt a campfire with soggy wood, and when that didn’t work, to simply tough it out and hoof it up the hill. We started late in the afternoon; not ideal conditions for reaching our campsite by dark, but the first blessing came in right at nightfall.  I was slightly disoriented in the fog, not sure exactly how far away the site was that I had scouted a year prior, we had fifteen minutes of diffused light left, and everyone was exhausted. Immediately we stumbled upon a pasture; it was the only patch of dry ground for miles in any direction. We dropped packs and set up tents while mist gathered and dispersed around the jagged peaks of the verdant ridge-line. The scene was epic and gorgeous. A crystal clear stream gurgled just yards away with water for cooking and drinking. We even got a fire going to dry out bags and socks. I was floored.

The next day was just as hard; same incline, same weather, same distance. But we got to the top just before noon and set up tents just before the rain hit. A late afternoon hike proved fruitless, as the mist obscured every view, but the mist itself was magical and a thrill for the guys. In the morning, the fog lifted and I hiked up to the nearest peak, and was awarded with a spectacular view down the valley we had just climbed, looking back toward the Amazon Basin. I was floored again. Unable to move or tear my eyes away, I had an hour of silence before God, just soaking in his blessing and majesty.

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My view for quiet time Friday morning. Not even any sheep, just me and God.

 

Having packed up the tents, we huddled in the shelter of a rock from the wind until the mountain bikes arrived and we proceeded to bomb down the hill in a spray of mud and sheets of rain. It was epic, we were cold, and nobody cared. We crashed in mud and were so jostled by rocks that sores opened up on our hands from knocking against the handle bars. But nobody would have traded it for anything.

Given some time to reflect, I considered how God had been hounding me with blessings over the past few weeks, but that the blessings hurt. The sickness hit me in the worst spasm of stomach convulsions I have yet known, and it scared me. I lost sensation in my legs and arms and all I could think was that somehow I had contracted Polio or some nonsense. But my roommates found me sprawled on the floor of my room, and carried me down four flights of stairs to get me to the hospital, where I threw up on myself and convinced the nurses I was not well. But the guys stayed with me all night, and took charge of obeying the doctor’s orders, fixing meals I could eat and generally displaying an affection and care I had not known existed before the sickness.

The trek was hard, especially with atrophied legs, but God awarded us with breathtaking views and perfect campsites. The sickness sucked, landing me in the ER over Christmas right in the middle of our busy season, and forcing me to cancel the “fun trip” to La Paz for ziplining and mountain biking. But as I slowly recovered, God gave me the strength I needed to do the rest of the camps, and provided great helpers to handle physical tasks when I ran out of steam. It was a classic example of being forced to let others bear my burdens and allowing God to show himself strong in my weakness.

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What is amazing is most often uncomfortable.

There were of course other blessings. The first night we camped in a beautiful clearing in the woods, only to find that in the rain, the trees fall over at random because their root systems are too shallow and cannot grip the soggy ground. God protected us that first night, and provided a better spot in a safer place nearby the following night. My new tent has proved a champ, keeping out every drop of moisture, just as my boots have done. God provided two contract camps this season, filling the calendar and bringing in work that pays for itself. As a result I got to spend several days with my friends Jesus and Olivia in Toro Toro, adventuring and catching up, and finding out that they have had a very hard year, which gave me some perspective on my little health issues. On our trip last week, one of the boys was baptized in the canyon, and it was a joy to be able to focus the entire camp on discipleship. On Christmas Eve I was asked to read the story of Jesus’ birth to the boys at the BLC, something which is very near and dear to me. That night I was moved to tears (probably in part by the fever) multiple times by the joy, and peace, and unity.

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Community is always better than going it alone.

God never promises us a life without problems, in fact he guarantees that we will have them. Sometimes the difficulties come straight from his hand, and are designed to strengthen us, build us, to tear down what needs fixing and help us refocus. But he also promises to be there with us in those tough times, as his name Emanuel implies. I have been blessed to have him accompanying me, carrying me, and pushing me in the past few weeks, and on that testimony I can assure you that he will do the same for you this year, no matter what comes, if you trust him to.

Grace and peace to you this year, and abundant blessings, even the ones that hurt.

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Forest Bathing in a Pickle

The Japanese have a word for just spending time in nature and drinking in the peace and growth all around you: Shinrin-yoku.  Apparently it is trending in the US this year, but the concept is one of the basics of adventure or wilderness therapy: get outdoors and let creation regenerate and heal.  God designed it that way, and it’s one of the reasons we need to take care of it.

I needed my own forest bath after driving four hours over winding roads through the mist behind semi trucks to take one of our campers to the hospital for an insanely expensive broken wrist.  After leaving Josue in the hospital, his older brother surprised me by opening up during the entire drive about life and difficulties in his neighborhood, but more importantly the way he and the boys have changed over the years thanks to the investment by the people at OBADES and our camps.  These boys come from the same neighborhood where a teen was burned to death this year in gang rivalry.

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Team A running with their loot (camp food) to follow the next clue using their compasses.

We rolled into camp around 9pm and found my assistant Carlos and the boys gathered around a campfire they had managed to start despite the wet wood, having learned the value of determination and persistence in lighting the fire the previous night under worse conditions.  Combating the sense of defeat and discouragement that runs rampant in all of the youth we work with is one of our highest priorities, and it was great to see progress taking place in specific victories during the camp.  Oliver was the only one to refrain from entering the river, but after some encouragement, took the plunge and a broad smile erupted on his usually somber face.  Jadiel abandoned his group on day one in search of comfort and security after traversing difficult terrain, but on day two transformed into the group leader, blazing trails over creeks and through bramble-choked woods.

The next morning I awoke early and refreshed, and enjoyed some time with God looking over the glassy millpond at the forest and misty mountains beyond.  You could say I had taken a leap of faith and got burned, but I in no way felt abandoned.  We had decided to hold this camp under less than ideal circumstances: the vast majority of campers had not turned in their documentation, and of course, one of the kids ended up with a serious injury.  Lesson learned, rigid camp policy formed.  And honestly, it led to an outpouring of generosity and support from all of you, and to the impromptu mentoring session.

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The millpond at Incachaca.  Hard to be stressed here!

My morning reverie was interrupted by a cow, one of several, that invaded our camp and set to munching even the grass under the tent edges.  Our group devotional was again interrupted as another cow absconded with a sleeping bag stuff sack, half swallowing it before we could pull it free. It may have been the same cow that succeeded in devouring a 10 Boliviano note and a pair of socks.  Having a well-cropped green pasture in which to camp apparently comes with a price, but it was useful in helping teach the campers to keep their gear well-stowed!  This was also the first time we employed the 20 Boliviano safety deposit practice with the campers, and it achieved amazing success in making sure all our gear was returned in good condition.

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Working together to cross the river

We had some other mishaps; the frog in my tent, the two semi-drunk men who came in the rain in the night asking to share our campfire stole a machete in the process. But mostly there were victories.  The leading team in the treasure hunt showed great solidarity with the other team by sharing their chorizo and gas canisters the first night.  We had a great turnout of 14 teens that are forming into a solid and consistent group that we can actually track to measure long term effectiveness.  The boys formed a human chain to help each other get across the river to the swimming hole they built, and it was a huge blessing to me to be able to rely on Carlos to oversee the camp while I took care of Josue.

The first camp of the season, with Fundacion Emanuel, was a similar success.  The major achievement in this camp was creating a positive and encouraging atmosphere where the young men and women could try new things and confront fears and obstacles without being harassed by their peers.  This took a verbal and written commitment, numerous chats, devotionals and practices, as well as bribery and threatening.  But in the end, they learned how to encourage one another, and developed a unique camaraderie and joyful unity I have rarely seen in our groups.

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Celina rappelling for the first time, like a boss

I was also really pleased with how all of them pushed themselves way beyond their limits! Jhair and Josue were way beyond feeling secure as they did the rappel, but both pushed through, with Josue taking a second stab at it after backing down the first time.  That to me was impressive; knowing exactly how petrifying an activity is and having the mental fortitude to give it a second go just a few minutes later, and following through.  The girls surprised me by going in the water, just knee deep at first, but then they went farther and farther out into the freezing water, going under completely and swimming despite waves created by the cold wind. It served as a useful teaching tool later as we discussed how big problems can seem daunting but are achievable if we break them down into manageable bits.

Love seeing the growth in just a short time with teens from a variety of backgrounds, and it is a blessing to have so many volunteers for helpers this summer!  Five guys are lined up literally competing for spots to assist in each camp, and all of them are trustworthy, capable guys we’ve been working with for years.  This Sunday we leave with a group of 11 from the BLC orphanage and head to Toro Toro for a few days of adventurous fun.  I’m looking forward to seeing my friend Jesus and his wife Olivia again.  This week started out hectic but God is always there holding the helm.  It’s up to us to trust him and take a deep breath and maybe take a walk in the woods.

P.S. If you would like to help us cover the costs of Josue’s operation, or would like to contribute toward the work we do with Bolivian teens all year, please make a tax deductible donation through CTEN.

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Delight in the Detour

It is a life philosophy that is becoming more and more prevalent in my day to day undertakings: take the detour.  I often get a nagging prompt in my mind to turn down a side road, to investigate a hitherto unexplored nook or bend, to research a random topic of interest, or to try something I haven’t done before.  And I have found that following this impulse usually takes little time and sometimes brings big rewards.  I like to think it helps to maintain or develop a sense of wonder in the world in which we live; something akin to having the childlike faith Jesus asks of us.  In any case it helps to defeat some of the boredom or monotony of life.  The new road may turn out to be uninteresting, or we may fail at the new thing we are trying, but at least we will have made the effort and gained a new experience.

One way in which Bolivia has made me grow is by developing in me a comfort with bushwhacking.  Granted, there are places in which it is inappropriate to do this (people’s yards, environmentally fragile areas…if there is a sign to stay on the trail, please stay on the trail!)  But getting off the beaten path and high tailing it into the wild or following unmarked footpaths has kindled a sense of adventure and discovery in me that makes me feel like a true explorer.  Usually this requires some extra effort, and some extra risk.  The more interesting road is often the more difficult one.  It is out of the way, inefficient in getting you to your goal, and might lead to a dead end.  But at least we don’t have to live with the nagging wonder at what was left undiscovered, at what could have been.

I recently took a road trip through some parts of the US Southwest and was presented with a number of opportunities to follow through on this philosophy.  The most rewarding was the discovery of a well-known (and now overrun with tourists) photogenic site just off the highway between Flagstaff and Page, AZ.  I grew up in Flagstaff, and had passed this site numerous times on the way to track meets and backpacking adventures father afield, and not once had I turned off the highway to catch the view over the cliffs where the Grand Canyon begins.  On this occasion we turned the car around and accepted the challenge, and discovered Horseshoe Bend.

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Just a few miles away, nestled unsuspectingly in a nondescript sandy wash just a stone’s throw from a coal power plant that dominates the empty skyline for miles in every direction, lay another spectacular example of erosion, sedimentary rock, color and light that I had driven past multiple times, never suspecting its existence until it appeared as a Windows background image: Antelope Canyon.

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

I can only imagine how just a few local hikers and ranchers must have discovered Antelope Canyon and kept the secret to themselves, bathing in the glow of sunlight refracting off of red rock.  Maybe sitting for hours in the sand in silence, just watching the shadows and beams of sunlight move around the gentle curves and sharp edges of the stone all around them.  But now it is a major tourist destination, flooded not with rainwater but with people all struggling to enjoy the beauty while trying to get the best photo for facebook.

Allow me a tangential side rant.  What kills me is that I could have seen these beautiful sites fifteen years ago, before the dawn of social media, and just enjoyed them for what they are: a unique twist in a colorful canyon; a simple example of God’s creativity and artistic talent; a mix of color afforded by shallow water full of algae in a red sandstone canyon carved by a bend in a river.  A slot canyon carved by flash floods through layers of compacted sand.  No selfies.  No photos even.  No crowds.  No fiddling with the color settings or vantage points on the camera.  Just simple, awe-provoking experience.

The age of the camera and social media are spoiling moments otherwise intended for us to experience and reflect in.  Instead of stopping to smell the roses we are stopping to snap a (usually poor quality) photo of them.  I am as guilty as any of us, if not more.  Indeed a large portion of my job is capturing the special moments for each teen and helping them remember their victories and life changing experiences.  And maybe because of that, I am feeling more and more a check in my spirit to leave the camera at home, to turn off the cell phone entirely.  After all, if it is stunning and life changing, shouldn’t it leave a lasting impression?  For those of us with poor memories, failing to take pictures often means that the experience goes largely forgotten.  But is the tradeoff worth it?  Is fully experiencing the moment worth the inability to remember it later?  I think it is.  And instead of simply documenting our life adventures, perhaps we will gain an enhanced perspective and deeper sense of existence by simply being present within each moment, and truly delighting in it.

Let’s be clear. I will not judge you for sharing photos, and I will continue to post them.  Sharing is something we love to do as social creatures.  But let’s make sure we are doing it for the right reasons, and make sure that viewing them does not produce in us the seeds of discontent or jealousy.  I am also aware that this post is hugely hypocritical in that I am posting pictures of places while telling everyone not to do it.  But the bottom line is this:

God means for us to delight in him and in the existence he has given us.  I truly believe that may mean forgoing the photo op and just taking it all in, especially in those moments when we are stunned.  I think it also means taking the random break from routine to try something new.  Instead of yearning to see the places everyone else is experiencing, maybe we should explore where we are a little bit better.  Instead of a bucket list, take into consideration that where you live may be a place others long to go.  It is good to dream about far off places, but God wants us to be content wherever we are.  And when we do find those places that make us gasp at the beauty, perhaps instead of whipping out the camera, we should simply thank and glorify God for it.

Round a bend in a canyon without trails

Round a bend in a canyon without trails

 

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Diligence and Humility

I have been hit recently with several offers of help and support, numerous opportunities to multiply the impacts of this ministry by pairing up with other organizations, and multiple examples of the fruits this ministry is producing.  It is an easy time to think that we are doing everything correctly, that we are enjoying the just rewards of our labor, but it is not so.

The seemingly haphazard way that support has been rolling in and opportunities for work have opened up has eliminated any chance of claiming this as a victory, and it has given me a chance to see a humbling reality of how ministry works: God seems intent on expanding and blessing this ministry pretty much with or without me.

“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.” – John 3:27.  I cannot force the people we work with to mature and grow.  I cannot entice them to trust and to seek counsel and to make better choices.  I cannot give us favor in the eyes of directors and organizations.  I cannot produce key learning moments and divine appointments.  I cannot force our campers to apply the skills and abilities they have discovered in camp to situations in their daily lives.  I cannot fabricate interest in people to volunteer.  I cannot grow this ministry or build it to meet our vision unless it is also God’s vision.

We must all make ourselves available in whatever sphere God wants to use us, and be diligent in doing the work he gives us.  He does the rest.  He provides the opportunities and he produces the results.  We can plan, and market, and design, and project, but none of that leads to fruition unless it is part of God’s plan.  We can pester individuals with our advice and even gestures of encouragement and love, but unless their hearts have been openend by God to receive it, it crashes like waves on a rock.  We must be content and pleased with our place and role in the Kingdom and obedient in carrying it out.  “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” – 2 Timothy 4:5

So what is my ministry?  I believe God has called and prepared each person to serve him right where they are; rarely are we called overseas to do this.  And we should begin now. God has already given us all we need to achieve his immediate purpose.  It is that churchy platitude of “God equips the called.” (Hebrews 13:21)  But it’s true.  When we start praying that God would use our material blessings to do great things, here and now, he answers that prayer, and opens our eyes to ways we can serve him with what we have.  It is not wrong to pray for the big recreational space, or the new ministry vehicle.  If those are tools God knows you need to achieve his plans, he will give those things as well!  But how can we utilize the resources we already have to glorify him?  I am not talking money, I am talking about in-kind donations to the work of God.  How can I use my vehicle to serve his kingdom?  How can I use my house or apartment for his glory?  My point is to be creative and not limit ourselves in what we can do, or to wait for some nebulous point in the future to start doing it.

Another aspect of ministry I have been reminded of recently is that it wholly, utterly, is not about us.  Facebook, photo albums, videos and other marketing techniques are actually a huge temptation that has the potential to lead us away from the fact that our left hand should not even know what our right is about.  It even becomes questionable whether our publishing happy showcases of our work is an effort to bring glory to God, or to achieve other ends: name recognition, more donors, community buy-in, or even to document the great things we are doing.  There is even the danger that we are doing it to stoke our own egos or those of the people we rely on.  But beware, even the intention to bring others into the ministry or to applaud what others are doing is a very slippery slope.  Heck, even this blog could deviate from the intention of disseminating truth and sharing experiences with others in order to spread joy and give glory to God, and become a means of defending my worth, or a fan page whose success is measured by numbers of followers, comments, and likes.

“We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:4b

“We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:6 (no offense)

It is so easy to be caught up in the mentality of awareness campaigns.  “We just need to reach more people; get the word out.”  Do we?  Or will God bring the people, the resources and the opportunities we need to reach his goals?  Don’t get me wrong, I found my home church through a website, and others have found it through verses on coffee cups.  The key is not thinking that our strategies or efforts are what bring the results: it is God, and solely God, who does that.  We are called to make ourselves available to his plan, and to work diligently until we achieve it.

 

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