So this past weekend, I took my 11 year old for a first in his journey: A Boy Scout excursion to North Carolina to paddle the Nantahala. I was intent on fathering him this weeked, providing opportunities to speak into his life regarding his far-too-rapid (no pun intended) approach to manhood, through class 3 rapids. What I wasn’t prepared for was God’s intent on fathering me through the exact same thing.
One thing I didn’t know about the Nantahala, and the outfitter we used, is that this river, unlike the Ocoee, is not guided. You get in the boat, and you’re on your own to navigate your way down the series of rapids. I and the one other dad in my boat were all of a sudden responsible for the safety of our 3 boys, 11 and under, on their first ever river run. Then, the biggest surprise: I was told that I was to be the guide. Oh, my. In that moment, I felt the familiar tentacles of my wounds begin to constrict around my heart: “You can’t do this. You will fail. You do not have what it takes”. It was powerful, as the wound always seems to be whenever I’m faced with a challenge. But…something was different this time. I realized immediately that Father was involved in this, understood that He desired an opportunity to father me, if I would only choose to let him.
So I said nothing.
I chose to let the adventure come to me.
I didn’t regret it.
We who were tasked with primary navigation were led to a map of the river, where we were given an impossible-to-remember layout of where the dangers were, where we were to aim the boats, what would happen if we did not. We were told that, given that there are no professional guides on these trips, it was an absolute guarantee that we would lose someone out of the boat at some point. Unavoidable, we were told. The last rapid on the river that we would face was called ‘the Falls’ for a couple of reasons: one, because it was a waterfall, and two, because if you hit the Falls sideways, you were going out of the boat…all of you.
So, with that encouraging information in the back of my mind, we made our way to the beginning of the run. I was not confident, not at all. I just knew that I would get us ‘dumped’ right out of the gate. Everyone in the boat was counting on me to successfully navigate the river, recognize the danger areas, know when to have everyone paddle, all that. And I didn’t remember any of the map instructions.
It was terrifying.
But a voice within me spoke up as we started.
“You will not lose a single person.”
I’d love to tell you that the voice gave me confidence. I’d love to…but I can’t.
Something wonderful began to happen as we started. I began calling out orders, where to paddle, how, and when. We were actually doing pretty well. I felt my confidence grow-we might just do alright!
Then, we beached on a rock. Beached hard. No one fell out, but there we were, water rushing over the side of the raft, other rafts going right by, and we were stuck. I heard the wound again: “See? You’re pathetic. What an embarrassment. You can’t do anything right.”
But again, there was another voice, strong, kind: “You can do this. Just trust yourself, and trust Me”. And after a couple of minutes fighting the rock, fighting the current, fighting the demons…we were free, and off again. We beached a couple more times along the way, but the wound’s scoffing no longer seemed quite so loud-it sounded rather pathetic and weak now. And we kept going…but ‘the Falls’ were looming large in the back of my mind.
However, before we could get anywhere near the Falls, another adventure: rain. Not just any old rain, mind you. Pounding, blinding sheets of rain. Rather than being debilitating, though, it felt…Epic. The adventure had just become a High Adventure, and my spirit soared at the opportunity. I felt my Father’s smile, and a wink in His eye, as if He was saying: “Try this on…I think you’ll like it.”
Oh, I did.
It was so much fun.
We couldn’t see.
The kids couldn’t hear my instructions.
The river got wilder.
And I was LOVING it.
I just knew that Father was deepening the adventure, because He had something very specific in mind for me.
We stopped about 20 minutes shy of the Falls to rest our weary arms, to wring out our soaked baseball caps, dump our boat, and prepare for the big finish. Fear attempted to rush back in, telling me that we would overturn the boat, that we had been lucky so far, that our luck was about to run out. I tried to ignore it, but it cast a large shadow on my mind. I got the boys back in the raft, and we pushed off.
What happened next was just…well…it was just awesome.
As we approached the Falls, everything tightenend up. (and I do mean everything!) My mouth went dry, and I stared down what had become, due to the deluge of rain earlier, a much nastier piece of work than what it normally was. The Falls. As I guided us toward the mouth of the beast, we began to drift toward a large, protruding rock at the right side of the rapid, right at the drop-off. Despite our best efforts, we hit it head on, and it turned us…sideways. Uh-oh. I heard the other dad in the boat say, “Well, here we go-we’re dumped!” Something in me rose up, something strong, confident, and sure.
“No, we’re not going to dump-everyone paddle backwards-NOW!”
It was counter-intuitive, and they didn’t immediately commit.
We dug our paddles into the frothing water, and the boat turned. Yet we didn’t hit the falls looking ahead.
We went over backwards.
“Everyone hold on!”
We went over the Falls without being able to see where we were going, hit the bottom, gave a lurch, and…we were all there. No one fell out. No. One. Fell. Out. We had come to the end of our journey, and a raft with 2 men, only one of whom had ever ridden this river (he had fallen out the other trip), and 3 young boys had bucked the odds. We lost no one.
It was glorious.
As we coasted into calmer waters indicating the end of our run, the other gentleman, who is older than I, looked back at me and said, “You did a great job.”
Though it was him that was saying it to me, I felt a greater voice saying the same thing. It was my Father.
We climbed out of the raft, high-fiving each other, each genuinely stoked by what had just taken place. I was in awe. God had taken me to my darkest places, and had spoken words to me there that shone light into those dark areas. Yet more than words, He allowed me to find out for myself through this initiation.
To borrow from Eric Liddell, the great runner from Chariots of Fire: I felt God’s pleasure.
I received a wonderful gift: A fathering moment.
And a river runs through it…