On July 4th, my son and I took a 15-mile bike ride on the Katy Trail that runs along the Missouri River near where we live. The river was swollen beyond its usual banks, its currents looking even more unrelentingly powerful than usual. In the middle of the wide river we could see a canoe being pushed along by the strong and steady flow, and the two canoeists were steadily paddling straight downstream.
Ever wonder why canoeists paddle while going downstream?
I’ve spent a lot of time canoeing and kayaking over the years, but I learned about currents, rapids, and whitewater in Central America. While studying Spanish in Costa Rica, my sons and I took a weekend break and joined a raft trip on the Pacuare River. The rapids were listed as level three as I recall, but the river there was swollen, too, and the ratings didn’t match US measurements. In short, once we got on the water it felt like we were heading over Niagara Falls over and over again for the next few hours, frequently finding ourselves flung out of the raft and struggling for our lives in the deep and dangerous currents. I don’t care to repeat the experience anytime soon. The T-shirt my boys bought afterward read, “Remar o Morir!” Paddle or die!
But I did learn a few things. The guide sat at the back of the raft calling out instructions about which side to paddle on, and how intensely to do so. At critical junctures, he’d bark out, “Right!” “Hard left!” “Stop!” “Back Right Hard!” as we approached boulders the size of buses and falls and shoots as high as houses. During one period of relative calm, as the river was propelling us down toward the next deathtrap, the guide was telling us to paddle gently on both sides. One of my sons asked him, “Why do we have to paddle when the river is pushing us downstream anyway?” He smiled and said, “The only way we have any control over the direction we are going is for us to be moving just a little faster than the current below us. So we have to always paddle, or else we just get pushed along out of control.” If we want to navigate with purpose and control our direction rather than becoming a victim to forces beyond our control, we have to keep paddling. “Remar o Morir!”
We live in a whitewater world. Things change so rapidly…communications systems, the makeup of our communities, the tastes and habits of new generations, the expectations and values of congregations, the competing claims of a secular society for our hearts and minds. Life is constantly pushing us along, and sometimes there seems little we can do; we feel like victims, vulnerable and powerless. But we can’t stop paddling. We can’t stop learning, growing, changing, adapting. It’s by reading, networking, risking, innovating, initiating, experimenting, and changing according to our vision and mission that we are able to navigate to where we need to go. Ministry today requires agility, movement, effort, vision, and a keen awareness of the forces at work around us and how to use them for the purposes of Christ rather than become overwhelmed by them.
The canoeists in the middle of the wide Missouri on July 4th were running perfectly straight down the middle of the river, confidently and purposefully toward their goal, using the rush of the water to propel them, but paddling just enough to stay ahead of the flow so that they could control their direction. If they stopped paddling, even for a minute, the river would have turned them sideways, then over and under according to the whims of the wild and never-ceasing current.
Yours in Christ,