Saturday, May 30, 2009

R Is for Retreat, Part Three

Last weekend I helped to staff a high school retreat for my church. This is the third of three posts about it. The first two were about static and silence. This one's about near-death experiences, or something like that.

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I get it. I do. The challenge of a ropes course is to do outlandish, unnecessary things in a controlled environment. The challenge helps you to find your way through some of the impulses and inhibitions that keep you from stretching yourself beyond what's comfortable into what's creative, constructive and in some cases transformational. I'll be honest: the chance to climb around on a bunch of ropes high off the ground was what tipped me over the edge to help staff this retreat.

My first challenge, it turns out, was to sit there quietly, watching a bunch of high schoolers figure out how to get a bunch of stuffed animals from point A to point B, how to get everyone over a five-foot-high suspended log, how to move altogether through a web of bungee cords without touching any of them. I wasn't to offer any assistance, only encouragement. This took two and a half hours. I think it's fair to say I failed my first challenge; I was encouraging enough, but I was far from quiet, laughing loudly at things that went wrong, making jokes as the mood struck me, and one time, whispering a suggestion to one of the students. It wasn't even a good idea, in retrospect: good thing he ignored me.

My second challenge was to stand there and wait while the rest of the group slowly made their way through the high ropes course, climbing on rope bridges seventy-five feet above the ground, latching themselves onto anchor posts and climbing trees, that sort of thing. The camp staff were one adult short to catch and release kids at the far end of the zip line, so it became my job to move a ladder back and forth on a track so the kids didn't slam into it as they zipped by but had someplace to come to rest when their momentum ran out. Originally the plan was for me to switch places with another adult so that I could climb the course as well, but a minor student crisis became that adult's latest challenge, so I stayed put. Challenge two took about an hour and a half.

The final challenge of the ropes course was the "Leap of Faith." You climb a twenty-four-foot-high telephone pole, stand up at the top, then jump off and ring a suspended cowbell in triumph. Your team serves as your belayer, holding on to a rope attached to your back so that if you slip, they stop your fall. It's safe, if you consider placing your life in the hands of ten kids with ADHD safe.

Our guide suggested that, when we're at the top and ready to jump, we count to C and then do it: "A, B, Ceeeeeee!" That way the belayers know when to tighten their grip. I went second-to-last, handily scurrying my way up the post despite being horribly out of shape and much shorter than the climber those footholds were designed for. The climbing, it turned out, was easy. What got me was standing up.

I had one unsteady foot in place and was standing and bringing my other foot up when I lost my balance. I suppose I could have leaned down and resteadied myself, but I panicked. In the process, I forgot to count. Instead, I shouted "Oh, crap." Then I jumped.

The guide tells me that I also shouted "Ceeeeeee!" as a sort of half-hearted, half-rational attempt to alert my belayers to my current circumstance, but by then nothing I did would matter. It was out of my control; I had already jumped. I missed the bell.

Fortunately my belayers make a good team. They quickly recognized what was going on and stopped my drop before it started. THen they lowered me down like a limp fish, all of us laughing all the way.

I won't forget this experience, but I struggle to figure out what lesson might be behind it. I've been on the periphery of youth ministry long enough to know that there must be one, but I haven't narrowed it down yet. Here are some of the bottom-line ideas I've mulled over; feel free to post your own.

Sometimes even mundane and necessary things can push you beyond your comfort zone into something transformative.

If you're going to do something outlandish and unnecessary, you'd better learn first to keep your cool.

Some people will help you even when you don't help them help you. Those people are the people you want around you at all times.

"Oh" is to "A" as "Crap" is to "B." But whatever you do, don't forget "Ceeeeeeee!"

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