There’s a story Rhonda and I first heard while studying at Regent College in Vancouver in the summer of 2006 that has become a bit of a theme in our lives, resurfacing over and over for the past 15+ years. Any time a tough decision is pending or a dose of courage is required in the circumstance we find ourselves in, this story finds its way to the forefront of our minds, reminding us of its truthiness and giving just the right dose of conviction we need to move in the direction we’re called to.
Anyone familiar with Gary Haugen and International Justice Mission (IJM) will likely know the story. At the time we had heard it, we had not heard of Haugen or his organization. I’ve since heard him speak a number of times over the years and have read a book or two of his and can attest that a story he returns to frequently. And with good reason, the story provides a brilliant analogy to the journey of faith we’re all on. I know often when I speak on the topic of growing faith and trusting God I tend to recount this story as well.
A quick disclaimer: I haven’t heard the story in a long time so I’ll freely add details that may or may not have been part of the original story but that shouldn’t impact the story’s lesson. I hope.
Haugen recounts the tale of a time he and his older brothers were going on a hike with their dad up a mountain. The first part of the journey was easy enough: it was uphill, of course, and had its moments of challenge, but it was mostly upon boardwalk and well-traversed trail ground, secure footing along the way with little obstacles or uncertain moments. This part of the trail brought them to a visitor centre, complete with a gift shop with games and activities, interactive displays featuring local nature exhibits and other such things I’m sure you can picture if you’ve ever been to one of those state park visitor centres.
The family spent a few minutes taking in the visitor centre and enjoying the comforts of AC before moving on with the rest of the hike. It was at this point that a decision was required of young Haugen. The next part of this journey would be significantly more challenging. A sign at the trailhead warned of the next several miles being extremely arduous, consisting of challenging obstacles, jagged rocks, steep inclines, risk of falls and more. Haugen jokes that the sign was undoubtedly written by a team of lawyers.
Haugen’s older brothers and his dad were excited to carry on with the adventure but he was decidedly not that excited. In fact, he decided he would be better off staying back at the visitors’ centre while the rest of the crew did the climb. “Are you sure?” asked his dad, “Remember – I’ll be with you every step of the way and will be there to help you through any challenge or seemingly insurmountable obstacles. You’ll be a part of this great Haugen Family adventure and will have so much fun, I promise!”
Despite his dad’s pleading, Haugen decided it would be best if he stayed back while the others carried on. And so, the rest of the family commenced with their journey up the mountain while Haugen turned back to the comfortable, welcoming AC of the visitors’ centre. At first, the visitors’ centre was great. Haugen enjoyed rediscovering the exhibits that they had explored earlier, fooling around with the different games in the gift shop and just sitting around, people watching. Predictably, after only an hour or so of this, Haugen had become bored. The displays and gift shop and people watching and all the other features of the centre had run its course and now lacked intrigue for the intrepid adventurer. Haugen regretted not going with his dad and brothers up the hill but at this point could do nothing but sit and wait for their return.
After several long hours, the crew eventually arrived back at the visitors’ centre. The whole party was visibly exhausted with red faces, heavy breathing and cuts and scrapes on their legs. They had been pushed to their limits on the journey but they had made it and the view at the top, by all accounts, was simply spectacular and worth the pain and hardships they had to endure to get there. What’s more, they had stories to share – stories about the journey, filled with moments of intensity and uncertainty but also with laughs and inside jokes and ultimately of their experience at the end. There was a sense of accomplishment each held along with a camaraderie they shared having gone through the journey together. And, perhaps most importantly, each of the boys had experienced a certain level of intimacy with their dad – a moment of intimacy that Haugen missed out on.
Eventually, attention turned to young Haugen. His dad asked how his time at the visitors’ centre went. Feeling a tad sheepish, Haugen responded that he, too, had a blast, that it was a riveting afternoon, filled with new discoveries and educational experiences. His wise dad, however, could likely read between the lines but opted to say nothing to help Haugen save face in front of his brothers. Truth be told, of course, Haugen regretted bending his knee to his fears and risk aversion and doubts and on the ride home, as the stories of the big adventure continued to spill out of his excited brothers, Haugen sat quietly staring out the window wishing he could go back in time and join the journey with his family.
This analogy packs a punch. Sure, it’s cliché in ways but just let that slide as you consider the lesson to be gleaned here. How often in your faith journey have you been compelled toward some thing, some course of action, some decision that comes with a cost – whether it be your safety, comfort, cash, whatever – and you opt not to go forth with it because you’re just not willing to risk it? You’re not alone. Rhonda and I have turned back from these lawyer-composed warning signs of impending danger so often in our lives together that you’d wonder what exactly we meant by “faith” journey. Where’s the element of trust? “Remember – I’ll be with you every step of the way and will be there to help you through any challenge or seemingly insurmountable obstacles” echoes in our heads and yet even this refrain echoing isn’t enough. We still find ways to justify avoiding the challenge and staying back at the Visitors’ Centre: What about the kids – maybe we should just wait until they’re older. What message will doing X send to our friends and families? People will think we’re self-centred adventure junkies. We have this mortgage to pay. The job has great benefits. Honestly, I really, really like just being comfortable. Sigh.
In asking these questions and resisting the pull, how many adventures have we missed out on? Adventures that would cause us to grow beyond a reliance on our own abilities and strength and draw us closer to our Father? And, more importantly from a less self-focused vantage point, how many needs of hurting people have we missed out on alleviating? How much brokenness could have been restored had we opted to go on the adventure?
I think this is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not believing in a bunch of doctrine or practicing a bunch of rituals, as helpful as these things may be for some, but rather it’s saying yes when we’re confronted with asks that are too big for us to address on our own. This is what following is. It’s not believing – it’s walking alongside. And if you’ve ever read the stories of Jesus, it becomes very evident very quickly that his heart is never associated with the comfort and well-being of the privileged but always on the side of the hurt, the oppressed, the broken. So, if you’re wondering about taking that “step of faith” toward buying that bigger house or new car or whatever other material thing you’re looking for, I’ve got bad news for you. It could very well just be religiousy verbiage to justify your heart’s desires. Go ahead and make those purchases but just don’t do it in Jesus’ name. Barf.
Woah, sidetracked there for a sec. Let’s get back on track and wrap this up before you completely dismiss me as a judgmental hypocrite (which, I am. ☹).
Far too many of us are stuck at the Visitors’ Centre. Sure, we’re safe. We’re comfortable. We can distract ourselves with gadgets and people watching – but ultimately, we’re bored and directionless and looking for something more. There’s a pining that’s happening in that space – a pining for an adventure that takes us beyond ourselves. I don’t think this pining has to culminate in some literal epic adventure like going to Africa or even changing careers. Maybe it does for some of us, I’m not sure, but I think we’re asked every day to go on these little adventures of trust – adventures that will cause us to relinquish control and power in exchange for reconciliation and redemption. And yeah, there’s a cost and there’s cut ands scrapes and discomfort and we miss out on the luxury of AC, but in exchange we get to experience the awesome summit. We get stories to share. We get to establish a camaraderie with others on the journey. We get to feel alive and have a deeper intimacy with God himself.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t think Rhonda and I are hopelessly too self-centred or afraid to follow Jesus up the trail. We have said yes to the arduous climb at different points in our life together. I guess the goal (point?) is to be able to do so more frequently and as the asks gets tougher and tougher. But this is the journey of faith isn’t it? The adventure is always going to be there, waiting, all around us – we just need to take the first step on the jagged rocky path before us.