I was afraid and lonely in paradise a few weeks ago. This particular paradise was a lodge in the mountains of British Columbia, a part of the world where majestic mountains touch the sea. We were a long boat ride from the nearest road, and disconnected from any utility services. All the electricity and water were gifts from a glacier, delivered via the sun and gravity.
But that's not why I was afraid; my fear came from old scars.
I received my invitation for this trip from my friend Donald Miller. If you don't know Don, he's written some great books and teaches people how to market better by using storytelling. I haven't known Don long, but his invitation was intriguing.
The lodge belongs to Bob and Maria Goff. Bob's an author too, but he's probably better known for his humanitarian work in international justice. The Goff family uses their lodge to help others rest, heal, and find new perspectives. So, Don and Bob organize an annual retreat for people who work hard to lead, train, teach, or serve others for a living.
A lot of my friends know of the Goff lodge through Don's writing, and a few have been there. They all told me it was the chance of a lifetime, and that I shouldn't miss my chance to visit. Still, I was hesitant. One, I'd been traveling non-stop for weeks, and it was my only "off" week for many more.
That was just an excuse.
My real fear is who might be there. Don has an uncanny capacity to move among different streams of Christianity. Don's friends with a lot of the people I feel comfortable with, but he's also active in much more conservative circles of Christianity than my own. I was afraid I'd end up being the black sheep at the Goff lodge.
But at the urging of my friends and family, I accepted the invitation and booked flights. Jenny said I needed time to rest–I'd become a ghost at home. I wasn't all there anymore on those days I didn't board an airplane.
I made a deal with myself. If anyone asked me if I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, I'd leave and come home, even if I had to swim. I made it almost 6 hours at the lodge before that question popped up, in response to my statement that I accepted Darwin's Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection without any caveat. The young woman who I was talking with was a six-day creationist. Her justification for a young earth was direct: God said it, I believe it.
I wanted to swim home. My fears were confirmed in that moment: I am an outsider with many Christians. I guessed some of these people probably know someone who wrote something nasty about my work in Christian media.
So, I tried to keep quiet, because I didn't want to leave. The fact was the setting was gorgeous and the people were so nice–unbelievably kind, really.
That stemmed from our hosts, the Goff family. They were so happy and genuine all the time that it pricked my deepest cynicism. Part of me couldn't help but wonder if it was an act. I mean, who's that kind? Who welcomes guests dressed as a marching band? Who catches, grows, and prepares food, only to deliver it to a beach or a waterfall for a better-than-the-imagination moment? Who has a "love shaker" they use to prepare all the meals?
Who, in the real world, puts love into action like that for strangers? I just couldn't accept that it was real.
So, I just kept putting up walls. I tried not to talk about myself, and to spent most of my time listening. I enjoyed the experience while maintaining distance and detachment. I played it safe–even as other people jumped off rocks and logs into glacier-fed pools and opened the dark corridors of their hearts.
I was past the halfway through the trip before I realized the flaws in my approach. I've been burned by conservative religious people before, and I bear tender scars from the experience. The fresh memory of that pain makes me hesitant to risk being hurt again–and that hesitance has made me violate one of my most essential personal ethics.
This fear encourages me to judge people without knowing them. I put them in a box called "Evangelical," and then make assumptions about their character.
It's not that I assume my beliefs about God are superior to someone who believes in a young Earth. I don't. It's that I believe that people who believe in a young Earth have the ability to wound me again. It's not just the ability, if I'm honest I believe that wounding is inevitable.
I say it's a great problem in humanity that we classify people into categories and then make assumptions about individuals based on those categories. I say that the only way to live a whole life is to mix those boxes up, to know and be known by all kinds of people, and to get a better look at God's Creation and God's Image in the process.
I say those things, and I practice it by knowing people across political, gender, orientation, cultural, ethnic, and racial spectrums. Yet I'd put up a wall around people whose identity may include terms like "conservative Evangelical," or "creationist." I was choosing to shelter myself in a particular branch of the Church family tree–the one where I felt comfortable and safe.
At some point, I decided that I only wanted to hang out with other toenails from the Body of Christ. What does a toenail want to do with eyes?
That's not who I am, and watching the Goff family endlessly love us opened my eyes to my bias.
I decided to stop being safe and start being myself–the same me that my podcast and blog friends know and accept. I opened up about where I was, what I believed, and why I was afraid of being a black sheep in this Lodge Family.
I was met with love, nothing but love. Before I knew it, I was living in a dream where conservatives and liberals, evolutionists and creationists, evangelicals and mainliners were all together, all one body.
I threw caution to the wind, and climbed over slick, moss-covered rocks and trees to walk behind a waterfall with my new friends. The water was shockingly cold; it had been snow only minutes ago. It was so exhilarating to stand against ancient stone with new, fresh water flowing down in front of us.
People were walking through the wall of water, some rite of passage designed to shock the senses and overwhelm the brain. I followed, but the water was so cold I hyperventilated. I knew I needed to slow my breathing, but my lungs wouldn't heed my instructions, and my vision slowly went black.
The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, trying to keep my head out of the water, as a waterfall pummeled me from above. In that moment, I realized drowning was a possibility, but the realization was insufficient to convince my legs to move, or any of my other muscles for that matter.
I was stuck in a bad place.
Michael W. Smith came after me. I know that sounds like a joke, the kind a pastor would tell before a sermon, but it's literally what happened. Michael was on this trip with us, and he realized I needed help and came for me. Don and Bob followed soon after, and they pulled me out of the waterfall. It took even more hands to lift me from the stream because my traitorous legs were still unresponsive.
There's a picture of all of us, right after that moment. If you look closely, you'll see the others are holding me up so I don't fall under the water again.
I could have been safe, but I took the risk of stepping out of my comfort zone, and trusting that I could trust other people. That waterfall sums up what the whole trip taught me.
Boundaries are necessary, but we have to be careful not to turn them into walls. Those walls can become fortresses, blocking our view of the world and our ability to know others.
A couple of days later, our bus was pulling away from the dock where Bob dropped us off. As the wheels started to turn, I saw Bob's perpetual smile fade, replaced by grief. It clicked: all that talk about spending a month getting ready for us, and our arrival being better than Christmas morning was real. Bob, Maria, and their family really did love us before they met us.
For a split second, I didn't see Bob standing in that parking lot–I caught a glimpse of Jesus instead. I saw what it was like to give endlessly of yourself, to serve others, and to go to prepare a place for others to rest and be made new.
Watching Bob as we drove away made me understand that we are really and truly one Church, one body.
Thank you, Lodge Family. I'm so honored to be a part of your gathering–and your Church.