A Leap of Faith

Jeremy’s knees trembled as he tightened his grip on the 60 foot tree he found himself on. He glanced down, at his feet resting on the pegs that had been drilled into the tree, at the ladder he had climbed up, at Ruffin who was anchored in to belay, and finally at the crowd of us, whooping and hollering and cheering him on. “Come on Jeremy! You can do it buddy!” “You are almost there man, just a few more steps!” He really was almost there. The tree he was climbing was part of a high ropes challenge known as the “Leap of Faith”. It was essentially just a platform, attached securely to a tree about 40 feet up in the air. Running from that tree to another was a wire and a rope, creating a swinging effect for the brave soul who jumped off the platform. It really was a leap of faith. And Jeremy was just a few feet from the top.

He returned his glance to the tree in front of him, and shook his head. I could tell that he wanted to jump so badly, but the climb up to the platform was giving him the spooks. I started to plead, “Just one more big step Jeremy! Give me one big step!” And he did! He quickly lifted his right foot, moved it up to the next rung, stood up on it, and evened himself out. But then, just as quickly, he went right back to the step below and started his retreat back to land. We shouted words of encouragement to him, but he just stared at the tree, shaking his head more and more with each step down. He was disappointed. He had really wanted to take the leap of faith. And honestly, I was a little disappointed. Not disappointed in him, but just disappointed for him, because I so badly wanted him to succeed.

A camper on top of the Leap of Faith.
A camper on top of the Leap of Faith.

I was with a group from Youth for Christ Chattanooga and it was our second day at Outdoor Mission Camp in North Carolina. Jeremy had already accomplished so much. He comes from a rough part of Chattanooga, and his life is nothing like mine. At 14 years of age, he has already dealt with more challenges than I will ever face. Before this week, Jeremy had never been further outside of Chattanooga than Atlanta. And now, he was hiking, rock climbing, doing high ropes courses, and later that week, whitewater rafting. He had tackled every new activity with enthusiasm and bravery. He was strong, determined, and persistent. Yet, as we left the Leap of Faith activity, he was defeated. Unsurprisingly, his defeat did not last. No, instead his “failure” on the Leap of Faith only paved the way for a greater victory, and it taught me a lesson I will likely never forget.

Before you get your hopes up, no, Jeremy did not go back to the Leap of Faith and make the jump. That would not have been nearly as cool. He did something much more significant. Less than 24 hours later, the Youth for Christ Chattanooga crew, Jeremy included, was whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. We were having a blast. I saw the three kids we had brought laugh more in their time on the water than they had all week. Each shockingly cold wave ushered in a fresh burst of shrieks and laughs. We got in splash wars with other boats. We bumped into rocks and did impromptu 360s. The amateur raft guide struggled to stay in the boat (oh wait, that was me). And of course, we took part in the River Raft Dash.

The YFC Chattanooga Group
The YFC Chattanooga group after rafting.

Despite the awesome sounding name, it’s not an official event or place. Basically, there is one calm part of the river where the water gets a little deeper and there are rumored “warm spots” that can only be reached by pulling over to shore, flipping over the rafts, running across them and cannonballing into the icy water. Usually, (okay always), the elusive warm spots were nowhere to be found. But it made for lots of good laughs and it was a nice break from paddling. As we pulled our boat up onto shore and prepared to join in the ritual with another group, I watched Jeremy’s face shift from joy to panic. You see Jeremy doesn’t really swim. At least not in deep water. And especially not in the middle of an unreasonably cold river after jumping off of an upside down raft in front of a crowd of people. Jeremy quietly, soberly, stared out at the river and again, familiarly, began to shake his head.

With the skillful tact of a hostage negotiator, I struck up a conversation with Jeremy.

“Man, what do you think about all of this?”

“I don’t know” *still shaking his head*

“Does it look like fun?”

“I don’t know” *shaking his head slightly faster*

“Well do you think you would maybe want to give it a try?

“I don’t know” *again shaking his head in wonder at the stupidity of all these people willingly jumping into an outdoor ice bath*

“Well hey man. I’m a little nervous too. If I go, will you go after me?”

“Okay” *face struck in horror at what he has just agreed to*

“Well that’s okay ma…wait. You said you’ll go?! Okay let’s go!”

Without a moments hesitation, and having little regard for the line of people waiting to jump, I rushed towards the flipped over raft, glancing back occasionally to make sure Jeremy was still behind me. Sure enough, there he was. Butterflies of excitement welled up inside me, and my already frozen tear ducts started to crank out a few small drops. I looked back at him again, prayed he would come after me, ran across the raft and performed a sloppy cannonball. My life jacket quickly rocketed me to the surface, and before I could regain control of my body or get my composure back, I looked up just in time to see Jeremy splashing into the water almost directly on top of me. The Nantahala quickly stole his breath, as it does with everyone, and he started to panic. His arms flailed so rapidly that you almost thought he might fly away. He grabbed onto the nearest thing he could find, which happened to be me. I grabbed him around his life jacket and fought to stay above water, while trying to calm him down, while also moving to shore and still fighting for breath. A couple of alert bystanders waded out to us and helped us to shore.

Post River Raft Dash
Post River Raft Dash

We emerged from the water breathless, shivering, and above all, triumphant. Jeremy was clearly shocked about what he had just done, and I think it took him a little while to recover from the cold and also the slight embarrassment of everyone seeing him struggle. We didn’t really talk about it much right after the fact, but we both knew that he had just taken an enormous leap of faith. Later that night, as the campfire wound down and Jeremy got ready for his first night in a tent, some of the other campers began to talk about how cold the water had been. I watched as Jeremy proudly jumped into the conversation, laughing and joking about his own experience in the water. The moment of doubt on the Leap of Faith from the previous day was washed away, and instead a beautiful, powerful moment of bravery was engrained in Jeremy’s mind.

For a lot of people, jumping off that raft was no big deal. I have done it countless times before, and have never really thought twice about it. And for some people, jumping off that platform into thin air just wasn’t that big of a deal. You see, here’s the thing that I learned from Jeremy: a leap of faith looks different for everybody. For Jeremy, it was jumping into the Nantahala River, knowing that he didn’t swim well and unsure of what would happen. For Trevor, taking just two small steps onto the ladder at the Leap of Faith challenge was in itself an incredible leap of faith. For Cassie, making it through the 3 mile hike on the day before had been an extraordinary leap of faith. For my dad, one of the leaders with Youth for Christ Chattanooga, getting into a whitewater raft for the first time in 18 years after an almost deadly rafting accident was an inspiring leap. (Especially considering his goofball 21 year old son was the guide). For me, deciding to spend last summer as a counselor at Outdoor Mission Camp took a momentous leap of faith.

The truth is that a leap of faith looks different for everyone. On one hand, that is incredibly freeing. We don’t have to do the things we see other people do, and we don’t all have to have the same strengths and abilities. And perhaps most importantly we don’t have to feel shame or defeat when we can’t make the same leap of faith that we see those around us making. Jeremy was so discouraged as he watched camper after camper go off the Leap of Faith. But God had something different in store for Jeremy, and his victory in jumping off the raft was far more spectacular. So there is a lot of freedom in this. But we aren’t totally off the hook. Just as each of the campers (and counselors) at some point in the week encountered an activity that required a true leap of faith, we will each come across times in our life in which God will require us to take a frightening leap of faith. God is asking for our trust, and He is completely worthy of our trust. God is calling us to step out in faith, and my prayer is that when you do take that leap, you will emerge from it breathless, exhausted, and victorious.

 

A Word of Encouragement on a Discouraging Day

I originally sent this message out in an email to my Beta Upsilon Chi fraternity brothers, hoping to shine some light in a dark time. I figured I might as well post it on here. I certainly don’t claim to have any answers or a solution to the hurt, but this is my humble offering of encouragement.

chattanooga
Pray for Chattanooga

 

It’s no secret that these are crazy times we are living in. Crazy, confusing, and tumultuous. Racial tensions have somehow digressed, culture wars have sparked over just about every political view you can imagine, and violence seems to be increasingly prevalent. I don’t mean to be sounding the alarm here. A lot of older folks like to say that the world is going downhill and downhill fast, and that things are worse now than they have ever been. I’m not here to say whether that is true or not, nor am I looking to spark a debate or uproar about how bad things might be. It just seems more and more obvious lately that something is amiss. 

Something is indeed amiss. But here’s the thing: our God is not surprised by any of this. None of it is catching Him off guard. Does he feel grieved about the violence of today? Absolutely. Does His heart break when His children are living in sin? Of course. But He is not shaken, and He is surely not surprised. He is still sovereign, He is still powerful, He is still loving, and He is still ruling over all. God is on the throne.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that the hurt and the pain from the incidents like today are very real. But I think there is something more to it. I think that the more evil we see in the world, the more we are stirred up to long for home. This nation, this world, is not our home. We were created with a sense of something more. God has instilled in each of us a desire for an eternally perfect, peaceful, and sanctified home. The more that we are exposed to the brokenness of this world, the more we long for this eternal home. Praise God that this home exists, and that we will all be going there soon.
Perhaps, if nothing else, the events of the past year will simply remind us how much we need a savior. My prayer is that we would grow in our desire to know this savior, who offers this eternal life and is preparing our eternal home. But this doesn’t necessarily explain what in the world we are supposed to do now. Frankly, I don’t know. There is not a standard, go to response for times like these. I am reminded of a verse in Micah 6:8 that says, “What then does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.
In a time full of extreme reactions, heated internet debates, and responses full of hate, I pray that we, as a group of believers, would choose to respond justly, with love, and full of mercy. We should continue to pray for our community and for all those affected by the tragedy of today. We should find solace in knowing that God is still God and he will never cease to be God. I’m grieved and hurting today, but I will wake up with joy tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, knowing the power and majesty of our God.

 

People are Great: Episode 1

As some of you may know, about two months ago I purchased a car of my very own. My previous car, generously passed on by my older sister, had been a wonderful, reliable vehicle until it finally bit the dust earlier this year. When I was looking for a new(to me) car, I knew that I wanted a Subaru. So that’s what I got. It was a little older and with a little more miles than I would have liked, but it was in my price range and it was a Subaru, so I went for it. My relationship with Donatello (like the Ninja Turtle) has been rocky to say the least. I still love Subarus, and I think Donatello is the bomb, but it seems like I keep running into headache after headache. Oil leak here, randomly not starting there, broken spedometer and odomoter, you get the picture. This past week in particular has been especially hellacious for me and Donatello, but that’s not really what this is about. This is about the countless wonderful people that I encountered amidst some very frustrating situations.

Incident #1: Last Saturday I was driving to White Bluff, TN to help with Grace Community Church’s middle school camp. I stopped for gas and a snack at a random gas station somewhere near Shelbyville. When I went to get back on the road, Donatello struggled to start up, and then slowly sputtered to a halt right at the edge of the gas station driveway. I struggled to revive him for several minutes before admitting that something had to be done. I went inside and asked one of the gas station clerks if he could maybe help me push the car to a safe parking spot, which he happily did. As we pushed my car to safety, and I wondered what in the world I was going to do, considering where the nearest bus station might be or how long it might take me to walk the remaining 60 miles, I finally looked next door to see Arrington Auto Care, right next door. It was a small, Mom and Pop style shop. I spotted a fella that might best be described as a “good ole boy” out working on a big semi-truck.

I sheepishly asked him for help, and he willingly obliged. The rather large fella hopped on a rather small ATV, and rode it the 50 yards over to my car. He then spent the next thirty minutes bent over the hood of my car, examining and re-examining everything that could possibly be causing the problem. Throughout the conversation we talked about where I was headed, what my church was like, and even some cool insights about God. He couldn’t find anything, and finally resorted to letting the engine relax for 20 minutes, and giving it another try. He had me turn the key in the ignition and pushed the throttle until my engine finally roared to life. He shook my hand, said “God Bless” and sent me on my way. I made it to camp safely.

Incident #2: After a pretty exhausting week of camp, I was driving back to Chattanooga and thought I would reward myself with a classy meal at the always delicious Taco Bell in Manchester, TN. After my wonderful meal, I got back in my car and…oh no. Same exact thing as on my way to camp. I could not have been more annoyed. I was supposed to be at work in just a couple hours, and did not want to be stranded in Manchester. As I stood over the open hood of my car, pretending like I would be able to figure anything out, a younger guy drove by and asked if I needed help. He quickly hopped out of his truck and started fiddling with different parts Donatello’s engine. He didn’t see anything right off, and quickly called one of his buddies to see if he could help. Before I knew it, there were 4 different guys, from all different walks of life, looking over my car, trying to figure out what was causing me so much grief. Some of those guys spent almost a half an hour helping me out. Not only were they super generous with their time, but they were also incredibly friendly. Although they couldn’t figure anything out, I offered to at least buy them some lunch, which they graciously declined and offered a suggestion of where to get my car towed.

I went back into the Taco Bell, where I called and waited for a tow truck to come rescue me. As I sat there waiting, I sent out a general plea for help in a group message with my BYX brothers, thinking I would probably need a ride the rest of the way to Chattanooga, or at least a place to crash for the night until I could get my car fixed. Within a matter of minutes, one of my brothers had called me offering some advice on how to find a bus or a form of transportation back to Chattanooga, and even offering to find a friend from Nashville to pick me up. Another one of my brothers who happened to live in the area was willing to pick me up and have me over for dinner with his family and stay the night if need be. I was still stressed about the car, but could not have been more thankful for the love and support of my brothers. It is such a blessing to have a group of guys who have your back like that.

The tow truck guy pulled into the parking lot, and right before he set it up to be towed, he tried out the key in the ignition, and wouldn’t you know it, it started right up. Instead of shaking his head in annoyance, or complaining about me wasting his time, he followed me to an AutoZone where we added in some oil and he did whatever he could to get the car ready for the rest of the trip. He gave me his personal cell phone number, a firm handshake, and sent me on my way. The rest of my trip went perfectly fine.

Incident #3: Today as I left work, praying that my car would start up, I was thrilled to find that I had a flat tire. However, I at least found out in a joyful way. Somebody left me this on my car:

Thanks Suzanne!
Thanks Suzanne!

It was a note breaking the news to me that I had a flat tire, apologizing to me for the bad luck, and wishing me luck with the rest of my day. They also included this giant thing of bubbles with the added message, “Hope these bubbles can cheer you up!” It was simply signed, Suzanne. I’m not sure who Suzanne is, or why she felt like bubbles are what I needed to feel better, but I literally could not have been more grateful. It was a small gesture, but it was loving, and kind, and generous.

After I admired the kindness of Suzanne, I started rummaging around the trunk of Donatello, wondering if I even had what I needed to change a tire. I found a tire jack, and a spare tire, but no tire iron to loosen the lug nuts. I started weighing my options, wondering who I could call to come help me out. I then was thankful to see an older couple sitting on their porch about thirty feet from my car. I walked over, explained the situation, and asked if they might have a tire iron I could borrow. The gentleman went inside, and came out a few minutes later wielding a giant tool kit in one hand and a tire iron in the other. He didn’t just give me the tools and walk off. No, he stood by and walked me through every single step of the process, until my spare tire was finally ready to go. I thanked him, we introduced ourselves, shook hands, and went our separate ways.

I’m a little annoyed by how many things have gone wrong with my car in such a short amount of time. However, more than that, I am overwhelmed by the goodness and generosity of so many people. Each of these situations would have been a heck of a lot worse if it weren’t for the selfless, kind-hearted people that I encountered along the way. When you watch the news, it can be easy to get cynical about the nature of people, or to think that the world is just going downhill. But each of these people served as a reminder of the goodness that can be found in this world. I’m thankful for each one of these encounters, and for the beauty that was revealed in so many different shapes and forms and personalities. It was a great reminder that sometimes, most of the time really, people are just great. Now hopefully it won’t always take a broken down car for me to see the goodness in people.

Hey, Thanks John Mark McMillan

In 8th grade, my faith was dead. No, I hadn’t given up on God or turned away from my belief in Him. Maybe dull is a better word. I knew who God was, and I even knew that I was a Christian, but it didn’t make much difference to me. It was mostly just a fact of life, not something that had any significant impact on my life. I grew up going to church, sunday school, youth group, and the camp that my dad took his youth ministry to each summer. Besides that, my life didn’t look much different than my friends, both believers and nonbelievers alike. My life was mostly consumed by baseball, girls, and American Eagle clothing. Christianity and faith was really just an afterthought.

The summer after my 8th grade year, I went to a church camp called BigStuf down at Panama City Beach. I had gone the year before and had a good time. Met some new friends, hung out on the beach, and made some lasting memories. Oh, there was good worship and stuff too. But that was about the extent of it. I expected this time to be about the same. I knew more people this year, and there were even some pretty girls to occupy my girl crazed, hormone infused adolescent mind. Any spiritual benefit from the trip was really just a bonus. Or at least that was my mindset going into it.

Looking back now, that was one of the most significant weeks of my life. I don’t quite remember who I shared a room with, or who was in my small group. I think the theme might have been “Rhythm” or something like that, and I only vaguely remember what the messages were about. I don’t know who the speakers were, and I don’t remember anything about the worship leaders. What I do remember, was singing one phrase loudly, repetitively, and wholeheartedly.

Yeah He loves us

Oh how He loves us

Oh how He loves us

Oh how He loves

I had never worshipped like this before. I’m not sure if I had ever really worshipped before then. Not like this. Not with a pure heart, with lifted hands and with tear filled eyes. Not with real feelings, and real emotions, and real love. I had always known that I believed in God, but for one of the first times in my life, I could really feel Him. I walked away from that camp feeling more inspired, more connected, and more in tune to the love of our Creator than ever before. This was a God worth knowing, and a God worth living for.

The song was “How He Loves” and it was written by John Mark McMillan. I was quick to download it to my iPod when I got home, and I might have even made it my MySpace song for a little while. I started to read up on the song and the artist behind it, and the more I learned the more significant it became. In short, John Mark McMillan wrote the song as part of his grieving process for the loss of a dear friend. It was a reflection of the angst and the agony he went through, and the redemptive love of God that ultimately gave Him peace. It was an anthem to the great love of God that is present through all circumstances. There is a version of the song that includes McMillan aching through a truly heartbreaking last verse:

I thought about you

The day Stephen died

And you met me between my breaking

I know that I still love you God

Despite the agony

See people they want to tell me you’re cruel

But if Stephen could sing

He’d say it’s not true

Cause you’re good

A couple of weeks after my meaningful experience at camp, I tried out for the high school baseball team. I had a successful middle school baseball career, and thought I was a shoe-in for the high school team. I wasn’t. And as I scanned the list of players names over and over, searching frantically for my name while tears began to well in my eyes, these words slowly drifted into my mind and heart. “Yeah He loves us, Oh how He loves us, Oh how He loves.” My heartbreak, in comparison to losing a dear friend, was minor. But at the time, it was my world crashing around me. Baseball was my life, my heart, and my identity and it was gone. And instead of wallowing in the heartbreak, that song helped draw me in to the God who’s love can heal all wounds.

Fast forward three years to the summer after my Junior year of high school. I’m leading a group of 8th grade guys at my church’s middle school camp. Our worship leaders introduced us to a song that was new to me, called “Death in His Grave.” It was emotional, captivating, and full of praise. It evoked those same feelings I had felt years ago at BigStuf camp while singing “How He Loves.” I watched in amazement as some of the guys who had been closed off all week, slowly, humbly, began to lift their hands in worship, perhaps for the first time. It was a powerful moment for me, and it was a huge part of a week that was monumental in my development as a spiritual leader. I went home from camp and quickly downloaded “Death in His Grave” and looked up the man behind the music. Wouldn’t you know it, it was John Mark McMillan.

My photography skills are sub-par
My photography skills are sub-par

Now fast forward 4 years to tonight, July 1, 2015. I am 21 years old, about to start my final year of college, and have no idea what I am going to do with my life. I am doing my best to follow the Lord’s will, and I am excited to see where he leads me. I spent the last couple of hours worshipping alongside my sweet sister at a John Mark McMillan concert here in Chattanooga (shout out to Mackenzie for the birthday present). I am at a far different place in life then I was 8 years ago when I first heard the sweet chorus of “How He Loves,” and the weight of those words has only multiplied since then.

Tonight, as he closed out the small and intimate worship night, I was encouraged to see John Mark deviate from his plan and take the time to lift up an audience member in prayer, before leading the crowd into an emotional and spectacular version of How He Loves. Earlier in the show, he mentioned that one of his main goals in his music is for people to be able to feel what he felt when he wrote it. I think he has done just that, and I will forever be grateful for it.