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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!