Storm clouds are rolling in. These are scary times with the dips and plummets of the stock market. I’ve been having consultations with pastors. I am sad to admit that fear has replaced expectancy in many. Who wants to ponder retiring next year if a person’s pension fund is in the tank? Who wants to move to a new parish when they’ve just figured out who the snakes are in the parish they’re in? Issues about children, school, spouse’s employment, and parents’ illnesses abound. We want to play it safe in an itinerant adventure.
Playing things safe is a natural tendency for many people. Taking risks has bitten us more often than not. Armchair quarterbacking has been replaced by the safer second-guessing that comes from the sofa. “It’s too dangerous!” is a good thing to say to precocious children, but, if we’re not careful, we may oversell fear to the point that children, or any of us, aren’t given the permission to risk and fail. Risking failure is at the heart of maturity. Wisdom comes from experience, and the only way to get experience is to try something.
Risk-taking for growth is so counter-intuitive. It goes so much against the grain of our “Be Safe!” society. One of the most frightening experiences to me was extremely counter-intuitive. I was in a seminary course called, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I should have gathered from the title what I might be in for, but naively I went along hoping for a nice camping trip in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
Everything was fine with the hiking. It was cold, but not unbearable. Even as this was in the middle of May, there was chest deep snow along the trail through some of the passes. After a week of hiking and camaraderie we had our first stretching experience. Each of us was given a piece of plastic for a tarp and then led off into the woods where we would be alone for three days. I didn’t know where I was. No one was allowed any food so that we had to fast. I did have a water bottle that was surreptitiously refilled each night by someone I never saw or heard.
The first half day was okay with my mind focused on settling in, setting up my tarp, unrolling my gear, etc. That night was a little scarier. We weren’t allowed flashlights, and it was literally pitch-black. The stars were amazing, but the rustling sounds of wildlife kept me on guard. During the night some animal came barreling through my open-ended shelter. It was probably one of the many tiny chipmunks that inhabited the area, but, in my mind, it sounded like it was the size of a wild boar, an impossibility in the Adirondacks.
The next day was spent reading the Bible and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together. What was constantly on my mind frankly wasn’t what I was reading. I kept thinking about food and wondering what time it was. The group leaders confiscated my watch before leading me out into the wilderness. The food issue also possessed my thoughts. I tore through my backpack hoping that a stray M&M had escaped from my gorp bag before it had been absconded. There was nothing to be found. That day lasted forever, it seemed. I was frustrated in every way: bored, grumpy, and totally out of sorts.
The next day was more of the same until mid-day, at least my best guess of mid-day. Finally I gave up on hunger. I quit thinking about time. Nature and God finally pierced my notions of time and space with the extreme beauty of nature and God’s own quiet closeness. The sounds and the silence of the forest became relaxing and exhilarating friends. My reading of the Bible and Bonhoeffer was suddenly charged with a clarity that I had never known before. When darkness came I slept with a contentment that was rare.
Three days of solitude and fasting ended the next morning as I was led back to the group gathering area. All of us were treated to lentil soup and hot tang to reaccustom our stomachs to food. Everyone seemed cleansed, purified, and peaceful. It was great and it was needed. The risk was worth its reward, and it was good preparation for what came next – rappelling down a 1000-foot cliff. Such is life with a wild God leading us, the solitude on the mountain to the valley of overwhelming need. There is no playing it safe.