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Pushing Past Pretend

October 28, 2019

“I don’t want to push my trekking poles into the earth!”

I had been trying to help this 18-year old student ascend a two-mile hill, with bits of advice about proper technique along the way. But she was done with my words because she was done with this hill.

Tears came all of a sudden. Sniffles at first, then volume as her frustrations made their way into the crisp morning air. Others wanted to help, but I placed a finger to my lips for them to wait. Her breathing became erratic. We weren’t going to stop what needed to happen.

Between sobs, she cried out, “I don’t like hills, and this one keeps going on and on forever. Every time I look up, there is more, and I’m tired, and I need more breaks, and I don’t want to do this.”

In her defense, it was one in a series of difficult climbs.

“Deep breaths,” I said quietly from behind her on this 75-mile loop trail in northern Pennsylvania. “That’s it.”

And then, as she gained composure, and for a reason I can’t explain, I asked if I could take her picture. She turned around almost enough to face me, and I clicked the shutter.

“You might want this someday.”

She grinned slightly and said, “I know that I can do it. I just have to get everything out and then I’ll be okay.”

I consider it a privilege to walk hills and valleys with college students. It is sacred work, having so much access into a person’s life.

The breakdown of pretense on the trail happened in the backcountry, but in the frontcountry, we excel at hiding. Out there on the trail, however, exposure is a real risk, and the terrain and weather and inescapability from fellow hikers who sleep, eat, and travel with us 24 hours a day provoke us in ways we can’t manage very well. Before protective strategies have a chance to mitigate rising emotions, someone coaches us one more time on how to use trekking poles, and it’s too late.

What’s ironic is that when the unfiltered heart and mind betray our best efforts to appear collected, beauty shows up. Not at first, of course. Anger and ugly words come first; impatience and passive aggression come first. The curtain of our feigned holiness gets pulled back and we are found out, first. That’s what happens first. Only then – after honesty has had its way – can we have real conversations about real life, real pain, real fears, and real hopes. Only then – after the imposter has been silenced – can the Word of God and the words of a community turn masks penetrated into masks removed. Fear leaking out turns into hope settling in.

It may sound obvious, but when we limit communal access to what exists on the surface, the community can only address its members superficially.

I love this work because the wilderness pays no mind to superficiality. Every hiker contains a weak spot, a metaphorical bleb in the vein – myself included. I don’t have a clue where that might be in others, and I don’t wish for participants to suffer needlessly (That would be cruel on my part). But by living in a physically challenging environment, keeping the heat on mentally, and providing copious amounts of love and space for trust, we discover a setting where growth can happen in surprising ways.

What’s tricky is replicating this type of environment in the frontcountry, where most of us live and move every day.

Campus life is not wilderness life, which challenges even the best of us on how to make use of the built environment as a catalyst for growth. The effort, however, should not be avoided.

Metaphorically speaking, there are plenty of inclines, like asking an insecure student to sit with strangers in the cafeteria (or to sit alone and journal about the experience), encouraging a closed-minded student to join a minority club as a white person, or helping someone who avoids conflict to work through a roommate issue instead of working on a way out of it.

Just this afternoon, I met with a talented crew of student leaders at a Christian college. As long as they are surrounded by believers and religious comforts, and as long as they follow the predictable formulas, they will shine as self-made ministers. But take away those formulas and confidence will go away.

The question we discussed was this:
“How can the music set or the Bible study I’m preparing serve a student five years from now, when they are far from this insulated community, and Jesus is asking them to live as disciples in the real world?”

Question filters like these upend the casual vision to simply fill the room and call it the Lord’s work.

How did the leaders respond? By feeling the weight of the task. They recognized the challenge of doing ministry beyond what they knew. No more walk in the park. Instead, they will have to face the incline (and possibly cry along the way). It’s uncharted territory and it’s risky because they will most likely come up short, which means getting exposed.

Each glimpse into the hidden places reveals what small new thing might be handed over to the Healer. My job is to push just enough and then steward whatever comes out. As we sometimes say in this profession, “Good leaders don’t create chaos. They illuminate it.”

So, for this reason (but also because proper use can alleviate muscle and joint fatigue by 25% or more) I will continue telling students to push those trekking poles into the earth.

Questions to Ponder

  • A few practical connections were made between backcountry and frontcountry ministry. What other campus-based activities could mimic the wilderness setting and challenge students to surrender more to the Healer?
  • How do your students respond to being pushed? Why is it important to keep pushing?
  • As disciple-makers, we are also disciples. Where do you need to be challenged personally?
  • If you are a student reading this story, what do you need from your campus minister or faith mentor that you haven’t asked because you are afraid of the answer?

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