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.
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.
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.
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.