The first step out onto the steel cable came with almost no hesitation. The safety harness ensured that I would only plunge about three-feet of the fifty or so I hung above terra firma. The exposed rocks that appeared below me made me feel even heavier than my 245 pounds, doubting the limits the safety harness would support, so I resolved to never take another glance. I probably would not have time to gaze down anyway as the journey started to look like an endless shuffle from tree to tree, straining for the security of the next solid looking wooden platform. At least that was the part of the course I could see.
Hundreds of Young Life campers had already made this journey successfully, avoiding death and overcoming the challenge of leaving fear and doubt among the tall trees of Frontier Ranch in Colorado. Despite their track record, I still clung to my own doubts, and fear was eating both my lunch and that of my wife, Lori.
I understood the symbolic significance of completing the ropes course, and I recognized where choosing to trust had an important role to play. As Ambrose Redmoon said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” I was at Frontier Ranch as an adult guest of the Young Life program…old enough to know all about the “something else”…but never really had to face a personal moment quite this defining when I could say I felt it in my heart…or in my gut. I cannot speak for the fears or doubts Lori had as she took the same path despite having two knees laced with the scars of three ACL surgeries. She had more to fear than me, but the only outward evidence I could see was the way she chewed on the inside of her cheek in silent concentration.
There were three sections of steel cable, the same quality of braided steel used to snag fighter jets in the controlled crashes they call landings on aircraft carriers. The cables were not going to fail me. I was the only source of failure on this trip, and the trip turned out to be much longer than the three sections of cable I could see at the outset. Me serving as the only source of failure drove a new kind of fear. That moment arrived when I was at the point where there was no turning around and going back. Falling off the cable and dangling like a side of beef waiting for rescue was not an option either. As a 245-pounder, I had already decided the staff could not muster enough manpower to haul my hind parts back up to the cable, so I had no choice but to continue. That mental image of dangling helplessly a half mile in the air…yes, dangling can make fifty or so feet seem much higher…was quickly followed with a realization that the muscles in my arms and legs were beginning to feel the effects of fatigue…not to mention 59 years …and did I mention we were at 9,000 feet of altitude above sea level?
Things were rapidly stacking up to defeat my transit of this challenge. Looking back on it, I probably lost more of my endurance to fear and doubt than to the physical exertion. But then that was looking back. After three sections of steel cable, I could see more of the challenge – a harmless zip-line that slammed your body into a harmless cargo net at about eighty or so miles per hour…yes, height exaggerates speed too. Then, in the midst of your fatigue, you had to climb up the net so the safety dude on the platform could connect a new safety strap before unhooking the zip-line harness. And of course, I plunged into the net at the farthest point from the safety dude. Gasping for the air that did not appear to be there, I was greatly disappointed to learn that I was now half way through the course. Add more fear too, as my body was at least seventy-five percent shot.
They describe Young Life camp as “The Most Amazing Week of Your Life”. I had my doubts about just how amazing it might be until the mid-point of the ropes course. That’s when I started to connect some of the dots. The intent of the Young Life program is to bring kids to the Gospel of Jesus Christ…period. They had to trust Him. They had to trust in themselves too…first. The program is not an alternative to church, it is a supplement, and during this amazing week what a supplement it was. It is not a cult as some describe it, it is a God-thing, and God was at 9,000 feet too. He was also at 13,000 feet on the top of Mt. Chrysalite with 400 kids when they reached the summit. He was relentless in His pursuit of those kids. Staff. Volunteers. Relentless.
With church attendance dropping among teens, we, as adults and as committee members, have to take action to do something, or we let the drug pushers pursue them where they go to school and work and hang out with their friends. So Young Life goes into their world. Leaders do not hold events and hope kids show up. They hang out. They go to where the kids are and share their hearts with the message of the Gospel. They do bold things in the name of Christ, and Camp? What better way to reach them than to drop them into an amazing week where they are threaten with death, right?
Actually, our teens are more likely to face greater risks and face tougher choices in the halls of their own high school than being strung out like ornaments between trees in the mountains of Colorado. The Holy Spirit was waiting at every platform. He was there whispering to keep on going at every mid-point. He was there all week when kids rappelled, many for the first time, off a 150-foot cliff – when they stepped off a platform into a vertical plunge strapped to a huge swing called [appropriately] the Screamer. And I did…like a sixth grade girl.
I was reminded of all of the benefits of this amazing week at the point when three-quarters of my stamina was gone and there were three more challenges to go. My mind and my heart shifted to the only power I could think of to help me find the reserve of strength to get my big behind off that ropes course…preferably without having a stroke or crying in public. I prayed that God would allow me to focus beyond my shortcomings and to give me the power to ignore my fatigue and more importantly – to man-up. There truly was no way to get down. I had to go onward. Lori was tired too, huffing and puffing at about the same rate as me. We shared a quick glance of “What were we thinking?” and then both stepped toward another cable-oriented torture on parallel single-strand bridges suspended between two more strands of cable intended to be used as safety support handrails. I beg to differ…
Handrails are supposed to be firm. Ask anybody. These were not. Everything moved. Every step had a threat status assigned to it, and it was a very long bridge. I finally made it to the safety of the platform on the far end before Lori finished. I could tell her knees were hurting, and I wondered if chewing her cheek was her tactic to generate enough discomfort that she would forget about her knees. My wife earned trooper status that day in my eyes. Two challenges to go; ninety-eight percent shot, and I still chose to carry fear and doubt like it was valuable luggage.
I shouted encouragement to Lori, but I doubt if she heard me if the ringing in her ears matched mine. Next, we both had to walk across a log bridge about a mile in the air, which by the way had NO handrails, and the only thing between us and death was a strap clipped to our chest harness that…I’m fearing…had probably not been stress tested to handle my tonnage. From someplace down deep, I got the urge to either die right then or be quick about crossing, not giving myself time to contemplate the plunge when the strap broke. I nearly ran across the log to the final platform.
The safety dude on that last platform had a smile that stretched from ear to ear, and he had Christ blazing behind his eyes. Christ was in the other safety dudes [and dudettes] eyes too, but I did not take the time to look into them as deeply as I did right then. Maybe nearly dying a half dozen times had something to do with that moment, but I am convinced that the spirit of God was everywhere – all week – not just in safety dude’s eyes. His Spirit pursued me as hard as He pursued the teenage campers. He was relentless. And He was going to use safety dude to get me off that ropes course.
The final stage presented what I feared most of all – falling. Oh sure, you had the chance to jump off this perfectly safe and solid platform to a trapeze kind of thing…positioned well out of reach, but then what? You either missed the bar and plunged downward until the person down below holding your belay rope caught your fall and lowered you to safety…or…you grabbed the bar in a small victory of sorts and hung there until your hands either gave way…or you caved…and let go, again placing your trust in something…someone…other than yourself. At least that was the script, as I understood it. I can honestly confess I have never been more afraid than at that moment, looking down at 115-pounds of college sophomore girl on the business end of my belay rope squinting up at me wondering why I would not step to the edge. Did I mention 245-pounds yet? One of my closest friends in this world, and a much bigger dude, was holding my wife’s belay. Something seemed out of balance at that moment, and I made an urgent plea to have someone with more butt in their pants to be on the other end of my belay, but no one seemed to hear my request.
That was a bona fide Kodak moment for those snickering from the safety of the ground as I hugged the safety of the tree. I was about to wet myself. Lori and I did not look at each other. We did not speak words of encouragement, nor did we say goodbye and predict seeing each other on the other side. We did nothing but stand there in silence. Finally, safety-dude-with-eyes-full-of-Christ, sealed our fate with the offer to count to three. Before we could discuss the pros and cons of a count-down, he was already at two. It is hard to describe what happens inside of you when you come to that tipping point moment to make the decision – to make a choice in your heart – to let go of whatever you are holding onto and jump into the arms of trust outside of yourself. But I did. So did Lori. So did over four hundred campers and cabin leaders.
All the kids from Batesville, Indiana made that leap too. Nineteen out of thirty-seven of them took another leap that week too – right into the arms of Christ for the first time in their lives. Some of the others who leapt reaffirmed whose arms already held their trust. Others were not yet ready to turn loose and chose instead to jump – baggage and all. Christ already had my heart, but that ropes course reminded me that He shows up in the strangest places, at the strangest times and in the strangest ways. It also reminded me that I needed to jump into His trust every day. That tiny little 115-pounder held my trust on the end of a belay rope, mostly because I had no choice but to trust in her ability. But I chose to jump. I grabbed the bar, and I held on for dear life before making yet another choice…and letting it go. It really is about choices isn’t it?
Our kids confront choices every day that I never had to deal with when I was a teen. I never had the option to trust a heroin dealer in the halls of my high school promising me a new and better high. I never had the degree of sexual momentum forced upon me by media of all sorts and a plentiful source called the internet. But being older does not eliminate the temptations, nor does it decrease the opportunities to choose, and when you look at the playing field, we are all on it together, and it still comes down to choices.
I have made another choice and that is to support the Young Life program. My choice is to support those young leaders who are bold enough to go into the same high schools and compete head-to-head with the drug dealing minions of the enemy and offer a differ choice for those kids searching for a new high. Every day they offer a platform from which to jump. Every day they are bolder than I could ever be. And they choose to be there…as relentless as He was all week.
Yes, I jumped…chose to jump, though under a little duress…and I survived. The 19 kids that took a bigger jump are what that amazing week was all about. I’ve seen a lot of amazing things in my lifetime, but I can say I have never experienced a week like Young Life camp gave to me. When you look back on the big things, the big moments in your life, it is easy to see other choices you could have or should have made. I know for a fact that I would choose to do one thing differently during my week…and yes, I would do the ropes course again – but when I got to that last platform, I would have hugged that safety dude with the eyes full of Christ and thanked him for giving our kids a better choice of where to jump.
This was a change of pace, though no less an important race. The race is for our teens and the choices we have within our power to offer to them…as opposed to the ones this world will offer instead. I had the chance to spend a week at Frontier Ranch, a Young Life camp as an adult guest this summer. They describe the week as “the most amazing week of your life”. I had my doubts…and then I had the most amazing week of my life. This short piece was about one tiny slice of that amazing week. So…not about corporate learning; rather, about learning we do in life no matter how old we may be. I hope you enjoyed it.