Four Spiritual Lessons of Rafting

As we come to a time of graduations all over America. I offer these life lessons learned in the rapids of Colorado.
A  picture may be worth a thousand words, but as I look at one of these photos from our vacation (I am still away, but wanted to write you today with these “First Thoughts”), I recall at least four valuable spiritual lessons.

I had never rafted on white water before in my life. Neither had Mae or John Michael. Well, we learned a lot. But here are the lessons I am thinking of now.

1. Follow the Guide

The big thing in white water rafting is to let the guide lead. This is important. Without the voice of the guide, who is constantly shouting, “Full back!”? (meaning to row backwards) or “Ahead!” (which means to row forwards) or “All left!” (which means the rowers on the right need to immediately move to “river left” side of the raft, in order to avoid turning over).

In our spiritual lives, there are constant threats in life. And the best way to get through the rapids of life is not to just “do it my way” but listen to our Guide, the Lord.

The Bible says, over and over again, that God is our guide:

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.  Exodus 13.21

In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.  Exodus 15.13

For this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.  Psalms 48.14

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.  Psalms 73.24

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  John 16.13

Our guide knew that stretch of the Arkansas River that we were rafting like the back of his hand. We had never been that way before. Our safety, our success, our lives in a sense, depended on listening to the guide.

As I prepare to return to the work of the Gospel at our church, I am reminded of this truth. Follow the Guide. Listen to His voice. He will get me safely home.

Here is the second life lesson from white water rafting.

2. Work together

This is a simple lesson. When the guide shouts out the command, we have to listen and then work together. If you look at the picture, you will see two children in the front of the raft. The one on the left is our son. The little girl on the right belongs to the folks to her rear (they were Thousand Oaks, California). That little girl had to listen to the guide’s call, make the move, and we all had to move our oars in rhythm with her. If she didn’t move quick enough our guide would give her some decisive encouragement. If we didn’t follow her motion quick enough we too were told, “Come on people, work together!” Again, our safety depended on it, as well as our success in navigating the rapids.

According to Paul, the Church is a team that must work together. So he wrote the Ephesians:

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  Ephesians 4.16

As I think about returning to the work of Christ among you, my beloved, I am reminded, again, on my call. I am reminded of the joyful vocation of being a pastor in this flock. But I am also reminded that I do nothing alone.

One of the most valuable lessons I was ever given by an older minister was this: “Do no ministry alone. Somehow involve others, equip others, and hand off to others. Minister together.”

This is the lesson I learned again. Work together.

3. Lean in

Wow. I will not forget this one.

The Arkansas River is a crystal clear, but snaky river, that moved us along through fields of rocks. There were big rocks right in the middle of the river. And as we headed towards them I must admit I wondered if I was going to be swimming in that ice-cold river with a big knot on my head, or worse. But every time we were headed for a big, bald rock our guide yelled out, “Lean in!” That meant, as we were instructed before we ever got into the boat, that upon that command, we were all to lean in to each other, and our weight together, could move us away from the danger. We were safe when we were moving in.

I have already learned, since I was away, of some of our dear saints who have graduated to glory. I have been praying for others of you who are facing illness. Yet others of you are going through tremendous obstacles that threatened to turn you over in your lives. And this lesson is God’s Word to us: beloved, “lean in.”

Being God’s people together in this fellowship called First Presbyterian is important. Being a covenanted part of this fellowship is to traverse the rapids of life, not alone, but with each other. And as we go through trials, difficulties, and as we see big boulders in our way, we need to “learn in.” That is what being a part of a church is all about.

Thus, the writer to the Hebrews wrote:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10.24, 25

In a real way, I also needed this time with my family because I needed to “learn in” to their lives. There are always rocks ahead. The Lord wants us to turn to Him and turn to each other. And let us always be open to others out there, sharing the larger raft of humanity who also need to lean in. Let’s be welcoming to others to come and join us.

Finally, I give you a fourth lesson from our Arkansas River experience.

4. Give High Five Paddles

There were, in the stretch of river we rafted, approximately 40 rapids that had to be navigated together. Some were not so bad. Indeed, most of the obstacles were easily overcome, with teamwork. Others were extraordinary. One, in particular, was downright scary! And here is the thing. After each one, whether treacherous or common, our guide shouted, “Paddle Five!” and we all made a sort of “high five” with our paddles. The children, the women, the men, and even our guide (who has done this a thousand times), all celebrated. Each obstacle overcome was a victory.

I wonder. Am I, as your pastor, leading you to celebrate victories? As a community of disciples of Jesus, we face many obstacles together. Some of them are fierce. Many are common. But I believe that God is calling us to celebrate our lives together.

Paul instructed the congregation at Thessalonica to celebrate their lives together.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.  1Thessalonians 5.11

Each time a new  family joins our church, each time a child professes faith in Jesus Christ, every Sunday, every time we meet together, let us celebrate God’s grace, His victories, His glory in our midst, and what He is doing through us.

There were more lessons. But for today, four is enough to chew on. But one last thought:

One child in our raft wasn’t sure if we were “just going to circle around and end up where we started.” But the guide assured all of us, if we didn’t know, in our childish inexperience, that we were actually going somewhere. There was a team waiting for us.

And my dearest saints in Christ, lessons from the Lord are intended to carry us onward and forward. We are, in a word, going somewhere. There is a great team, a wonderful host, awaiting our arrival.

And I can’t wait to rejoin you for the journey. But for now, for just a few more days, I will lean in. But I will raise my paddles with yours again, Lord willing.





About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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