I’m writing this while spending a few days with the family camping and hiking in Big Bend National Park, Texas. After driving over 600 miles to the Jurisdictional Conference in Dallas, we decided to simply keep driving for another 600 miles until we were deep in the West Texas desert.
While hiking on the Windows Trail with my two sons, my eyes were scanning the treetops for birds when I saw some movement. My mind tried to comprehend what I was seeing as I focused on something large and black moving nearly 20 feet high in a tree, and no more than 50 feet from us. Was I looking at the back of a Turkey Vulture, a Black Hawk, a Zone-Tailed Hawk? Then I realized that the dark triangular shaped movement was the face and forehead of a Black Bear! She was dining contentedly on some berries, acorns, or pines high up in the tree when she suddenly turned to look at us with the same curiosity with which we were looking at her. I made sure each of the boys had a good look and then we quietly and quickly continued down the trail. We began to notice all the “bear-warning” signposts that we had hardly noticed up until our encounter beside the path.
How cool! This is the second time we’ve seen Black Bear in Big Bend; the first was a few years ago. Up until fifteen years ago, Black Bear were unheard of in the area. They had not been seen for more than fifty years. Now they are coming back, and sightings are not unusual. But for me, seeing them is always an awesome and humbling experience.
Remember the old story about the two buddies hiking in the woods when they came across a bear? The bear looked up at them, growled ferociously and got ready to pounce on them. Slowly, the first hiker began to take off his backpack and set it on the ground, then he took off his water bottle and his binoculars and set them down as well. His friend said to him, “Surely you don’t think you can outrun a bear!” He answered, “I don’t have to outrun a bear—I just have to outrun you!”
I always love the way that joke captures the cynical, self-centered, individualist notions of the world. “As long as I get out alive, everything else is ok.” That explains much about why we have the medical systems, the politics, and sometimes even the churches we have. “As long as my needs are taken care…as long as I experience no problems…as long as I make it, everything is fine.”
We can do better.
After our encounter on the path, I’ve taken a keener interest in what you’re really supposed to do in the presence of a bear if you come along one while hiking. The group should stay together so that they become a strong, highly visible, united entity. Bears don’t like things bigger than themselves, and they’ll move away. In other words, instead of hoping I can get out, regardless of the others and at the expense of the slowest, we should figure out how to work together. If one of us doesn’t make it OK, then none of us has succeeded.
There are lots of threats to our churches and pastors these days. The lion of despair crouches at the door and the bear of cynicism stands ready to feast on us. There are threats of isolation, hopelessness, loss of mission and vision. There are the seductions of secularism and personality-based, “me-first” success models. There’s the daily grinding down of spirit and hope that comes with organizational banalities that have us churning and churning while making little progress toward satisfying and fruitful goals. There’s the pain of organizational resistances to change. There is the risk of passionless ministry, going through the motions to get the job done, nine-to-five until retirement.
How do we view these threats to our churches and to our colleagues? “I just have to outrun you!….As long as I and mine are fine, all is ok” or, “We’re in this together, and none of us make it unless all of us make it.” Covenantal, connectional ministry requires us to learn and teach from each other, to support and encourage each other, to stand together and work together in mutual ministry to the world.
That’s why Jesus sent the disciples out “in pairs” or “two by two.”
So they could better scare the bears away together!
Yours in Christ,