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Life Lessons Learned on the New River Gorge

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go on a father-son trip with my son, Luke, other sons/dads, and leaders from E91’s 8th grade boys’ small group. This was somewhat of a “rite of passage” trip as our sons move into high school, and the challenge was high… as was the water. Part of the experience was for us to put on a life jacket and helmet, grab a paddle, and get ready for whitewater rafting on the New River Gorge outside of Beckley, WVA. The water was about three-feet above normal levels, which our guide told us was optimum to catch some really good rapids. And catch them we did.

As we floated and plunged, and plunged and floated down fourteen miles of raging river, we passed through several Class 5 rapids along with a few lesser, yet still turbulent, rapids in Classes 3 and 4. I was proud of our little “band of brothers” that fought the good fight and finished the race with no rafts overturned and no sons (or fathers) projected out of our little, rubber vessels. Along the way, our guide taught us commands and maneuvers to aid us in our quest, and, preacher as I am, I thought of the application these lessons give us far beyond running the rapids. Here are a few of them:

Lesson #1: When you enter the rapids, keep paddling. Our rafting guide taught us that when you enter a Class 4 or 5 rapid, the worst thing you can do is stop paddling. He said that fear would grip us when we plunge six or seven feet down and are met with the insurgence of waves and the roar of the crushing water. Then when we would fly back up on the crest of another wave, it’s all we could do to keep ourselves in the raft. At that point, according to our instructor, we would do what seems natural: grip the side of the raft and stop paddling. According to this pearl of wisdom, if you stop paddling, your craft can turn sideways, you lose momentum, and you can quickly be overtaken by the waves. So, what did we do? We kept paddling. Great lesson for life, marriage, parenting, and church. When you enter rapids, don’t grip the side in fear and stop paddling. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Keep paddling as though your life depended on it, because it very well might.

Lesson #2: Paddle together. Our little group of 8th grade—now 9th grade—boys, dads and small-group leaders was matched up with a group of Army Rangers. I kid you not. Boy’s (and dad’s) dreams come true! Who else would you want as fellow travelers than Army Rangers? As we were floating downstream getting a few words of instruction and encouragement, our guide pointed to the Rangers in the next boat over and said, “Those guys can have all the strength in the world, but if they don’t paddle together, they’ll never make it through the rapids without capsizing their raft.” He went on to explain that even if you paddle with half the strength as some of the Army’s best, you will succeed in your mission if you paddle together. When you fight against one another and each person is paddling in a different rhythm, the boat rocks and could lead to capsizing the boat. Again, the life lesson is unmistakable. If you’re going to pull through the rapids of life, marriage, parenting, or church, you have to be in sync. Paddle together.

Lesson #3: Always wear your life vest. If there was one word of instruction given over and over again, it was to keep your life vest on, and keep it snug. Fortunately, the only times we needed our life vests were when we voluntarily jumped out of our rafts to do a little swimming during the slower parts of our river journey. But our guide made it unmistakably clear that there is a strong likelihood that we would fall out at some point, and without our life vest, we would not survive. Amen and amen. We all know this to be the case in life, but perhaps we need to be reminded. You will face rapids, and sometimes they will be much bigger than you. Eventually, at some point in life, you will fall. Life happens. Storms surge. Waves come crashing down. And if you don’t have on your life vest, you might not survive. And what (or who) is our life vest? We wear the vestment of the mighty presence of the Lord God Almighty. We wear the cloak of righteousness. We wear the armor of the One who shields us from the flaming arrows of the enemy.

As the Psalmist writes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:1-3). Whatever you are facing right now, whether it’s a Class 3, 4, or 5 rapid, know that God Himself is your refuge and strength. So put on your life vest and helmet, grab a paddle, and get ready for the ride of your life!

Just Be Yourself – a “Christ-one”

Americans can be pretty good at claiming to be someone they’re not. Christians can be, too.  Research psychologists have found there are at least three situations when we are not ourselves.

First, the average person puts on airs when he visits the lobby of a fancy hotel. Have you ever done that? A number of years ago, Laura, the kids and I would travel to French Lick for weekend vacations at a hotel with a small water park. The hotel is nice, but relatively inexpensive, for families with young children. Right up the street, however, is the West Baden Springs Hotel. Originally built in 1855, this elegant structure was once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” with European-influenced architecture and an atrium that spans 200 feet. Our low-budget family would stay at the hotel with the water park and then drive up the road to walk into the atrium and pretend we were guests on a weekend, modish excursion.

Next, according to research psychologists, the average person will try to hide their emotions and bamboozle the salesman when entering a new car showroom. Buying a car can be one of the most excruciating experiences birthed right out of the pit of the underworld. But the few times I’ve walked into a car salesman’s office, I act like I’m an old pro who knows exactly what he’s doing. That salesman had better not try any of those shady sales tactics on me, because I’ve been around the block a few times, and it isn’t my first rodeo. Okay, so maybe I’ve only been around the block once.

Can you guess what the third environment is where we are not ourselves? According to this same psychological study, it’s when we take our seat in church. Whether we’re in a fancy hotel, a new car showroom, or church, researchers indicate we pretend to be better than we really are, and we want people to believe we are someone we’re not.

It’s hard for us to be who we really are and not pretend to be someone else. We might not like who we are, or we think people might accept us more if they saw as someone with a higher class, style, money or power. I remember times in high school where fellow students would ask each other what their dads did for a living, and they would respond with such occupations as attorneys, businessmen, contractors, and the like. You know, the “cool” jobs. When students would ask me what my dad did for a living, I would hesitate, because I didn’t like saying, “My dad is a pastor.” Uncool. So I not only pretended to be someone I wasn’t, I pretended my dad was someone he wasn’t.

Why do we care so much what other people think? Why do we succumb to the pressure of trying to be someone we’re not? Why aren’t we more comfortable “in our own skin”? Perhaps part of the issue is that we have not fully embraced the biblical teaching that God created us (Genesis 1:26-27), loves us (John 3:16), and makes us a new creation through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

If we see ourselves as God’s creation, that our Creator loves us, and He has even re-created us and given us new life, then we have value, worth, purpose and meaning regardless of our looks, job, income, or status. We don’t have to pretend to be someone we’re not. We don’t have to put on airs, try to bamboozle people, or wear masks when we take our seat in church.

Not everyone will agree with this, of course, but the Bible is pretty clear that our worth, value, hope, meaning and purpose come when we turn over the reigns of our lives to God who “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:5-6).

You are not what you do. Your identity is not wrapped up in your profession, status, or appearance. If you have given your life to Jesus, then you are a “Christ-one,” a “Christ-ian.” You were made alive to God in Christ (Romans 6:11). You were redeemed in Christ (Romans 3:24). You have eternal life in Christ (Romans 6:23). You have been set free in Christ (Romans 8:2). And you are part of the local and global body of believers in Christ (Romans 12:5).

So, the next time you enter the lobby of a hotel, a new car showroom, or a church, you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not. If you’re not in Christ, I humbly encourage you to give Him your life. If you are in Christ, then remember your identity is rooted in Him, not in your ability to negotiate the purchase of a new car.

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