The roar was a combination of fury and hunger. Its sound rumbled through us like an ominous warning of the danger to come. In spite of all our efforts, our momentum kept us moving toward its mouth. Our struggle seemed futile as we found it impossible to reverse our course. This particular summer the American River was more unforgiving than usual. The heavy rains had turned the rapids into more than an adventurous joyride. Already the summer had been filled with reports of the tragic end for some of those who had braved its waters. Now it was our turn to either pass or fail the riverís test.
It seemed like such a good idea when we said yes. Though Kim and I had never been rafting, the team who spearheaded this annual adventure assured us it was nothing but great fun. Most of the forty or so who were with us were also novices, so there seemed to be no reason for concern. The water at the point or entry was so calm and peaceful that it didnít even bother me when our particular guide confessed this was his first solo run. Certainly for the first hour or so it seemed like this journey was anything but a challenge. In fact, beyond soothing, it was at times even a little mundane. The lifejackets seemed about as important as wearing a seat belt when youíre parked. Funny how a sleepy little river can lull you into a virtual unconsciousness.
But the roar woke us all up. Itís not that we were asleep, but we were not alert. The rumblings literally shook us. We looked ahead and saw a giant boulder protruding out of the riverís center. Coming out of a blind turn, there was enough distance for us to see two of the rafts in front of us crash head-on into the boulder, flipping them like toys and throwing our companions into the white water. We had enough time to adjust. I am certain that skilled navigators would have found a way around the crisis, but that would have been someone other than us. All I remember is ďRow!Ē
Looking back, I realized we were all rowing, frantically, desperately, with all the strength we could muster. The left side was rowing; the right side was rowing. We were all neutralizing each otherís efforts. In the end, all we accomplished was to increase the velocity at which we hit the very boulder we were working so desperately to avoid. We flipped. Our raft was pointing straight up to the sky. I held on to the side handles, fighting to stay in. One of the men fell directly on top of me, using me to stay above the water and on the raft. I imagine in the moment he considered my head an answer to prayer for his foot. This was working out great for him. It was dramatically less advantageous for me. I knew he was not a strong simmer, so I was apprehensive to let go and have us both go under. But when I was coming down to my last breath, I decided he could learn to swim if he really wanted to. And so I let go, and we both went plummeting into the river.
Once I fought my way to the top, I immediately began swimming upstream looking for my wife, Kim. Our raft had stabilized and two of our crew had somehow avoided falling out. Even while fighting the waters, I noticed that all the men fell out, but the two women somehow remained in the raft. Once I saw that Kim was fine, I stopped wasting my energy working against the currents and allowed myself to begin the trek down the rapids.
It was at this point that our pre-rafting instructions became far more critical. We were reminded to keep our lifejackets tight against our chests. It was so uncomfortable. The river seemed so peaceful. At the time I didnít see any reason to really pull it that tight. Only now, as my life vest kept working its way up to my chin, did I fully understand the importance of a snugly fitting lifejacket. But this wasnít the right time to punish myself for not paying attention to the instructions. So I moved on down the list of important things to remember. Our instructorís voice was so clear in my head: ďIf you fall into the rapids, keep your legs up. At the bottom of the river there are all kinds of rocks forming nooks and crannies. If you donít keep your legs up, they could get easily caught in between the rocks and snap against the weight of the river.
The idea of bouncing down the river with a broken leg was more than unattractive to me and highly motivating, so I kept my feet up. I wanted to see my feet above the water, but every time I got my feet up, my head would slip under. It was impossible to breathe, and I would then have to risk lowering my legs to get my head back up, which in turn caused me great concern. So I would immediately pull my legs back up, trying with all my being to follow the instructions given us. There was just one problemóI donít breathe with my feet. This system just didnít seem to work.
Before I knew it I had exhausted myself as I fought the rapids, and I felt it overtake meónot just the water, but surrender. I wondered if my efforts were only a symphony of futility. Was it simply better to calmly accept my fate and give myself over to the river? It was a surreal moment. I watched the water swirling around me. I could see the sounds but could not hear them. I donít remember any fear. Just regretóregret of things undone. Flooding into my mind were thoughts like, Would I leave my wife when we still had so much love to share? Would my son and daughter grow up without their father? Would I give up on them so easily? Thatís when I knew. There would be a day when the end would come, but if I had anything to do with it, this would not be it. I knew there as more life in me than there was water in that river. It was as if I could hear a voice inside of me both crying our and confessing without shame, ďI want to live!Ē
I fought my way back to the surface and noticed that there were branches ahead with vines hanging down to the waterís surface. As my body came under an extended branch, I reached and grabbed one of the vines. As I held it with my right hand, I was able to pull myself back against the water and grab it with my left hand also. As I began to pull myself toward the branch, the vine gave under my weight and I found myself lunging backwards down the river. As quickly as I could turn, I saw another branch low enough to grab, waiting there for me. I pulled myself to the shore, exhausted and grateful for being on land. I looked up, after catching my breath and there was my wife, Kim, waiting for me. I still donít understand how she got so far down so fast and happened to be exactly where I pulled out.
The journey I am inviting you on is not unlike my trek down the American River. There will be moments of great calm, but they must not fool us or lull us into a slumber. This journey is filled with rapids and laced with white waters. There will be times you will find yourself drowning, overwhelmed by the circumstances that surround you. At every turn there is the invitation to journey ahead on an adventure that will not leave you unchanged.
And it is important to note that in reality there is now way back. One moment I will never forget is when we all finally found ourselves at the other side of the rapids and how many had no desire to continue. There were some who made earnest requests to be taken back to the beginning point. There was no meanness in the instructorís voice, no attempt at insensitivity. He was simply stating the facts. ďThere are still hours ahead, and there is no way out except forward.Ē We had been told about a place on the river known as Satanís Cesspool. We began to ask for affirmation that it was now behind us. Our guide gave us the unwanted news: this challenge remained ahead, and the most dangerous was yet to come.
The same people who fell out of the rafts got back into the rafts, but we were not the same. We were so attentive, so focused. No instructions were seen as too trite or meaningless. What was really important became very clear to us, and it was the important things that really mattered. It was such a great trip, so much fun, the kind of adventure you live for. You know, the kind of experience you avoid at all costs, but when itís unavoidably, it changes you when youíre through it.
This is how life is supposed to work. Itís an adventure, a journey, a trek filled with uncertainty, excitement, and risk. One bad or painful experience can cause you to remain on the banks. But when you do, you neither move forward nor backwards; there you sit, just watching life go by. Yet I am convinced in all of us there is a voice crying out, a confession waiting to be declared without shame, ďI want to live!Ē
The theme of life and death has been with us from the very beginning o f the human journey. Godís warning to man was that if he ate of the forbidden fruit, he would surely die. Adam and Eve did eat of the tree, but there was no apparent death at the moment. I think we often assume God was speaking metaphorically. Yet what we find throughout the Scriptures is that in the most important way we truly did die. We are now dead in our trespasses and sins. We are in a sense even dead to life. We merely exist and think we are alive. We have traded the authentic for the imitation. Human history can be summarized as a desperate search for life. We look for it everywhere and in everything. We pursue wealth, power, success, pleasure, and endless experiences just to feel alive. Yet with all that we gain, there is always the inescapable stench of death all around us. Even if we gain the whole world, we die with our souls empty and hollow.
Ironically, what we are so often willing to sacrifice is the very thing most essential for lifeóGod. God formed us in His image and then breathed life into us. His life in us is sustained by His character. When we lose the character of God, we lose the life of God in us. But to have His character, we must first die to ourselves, because to become like Him is what it means to really live. Because this book is a quest for life, it is also a quest for character, a quest to regain what was lost in the Fall. It is a journey to unleash what is promised in the future and to discover and live out a God-given destiny.