The Journey — 9 things a canoe trip teaches us about following Jesus

When each of my boys turns 13, I take them on a week-long canoe trip on the Bowron Lakes — a chain of about a dozen lakes way up in the interior of British Columbia. It is a great time of being away, together, and immersed in creation. It’s been eight years now since I took my oldest son, Emett. We were joined by my good friend Bernd and his son Eli. (I went again three years ago with my middle son Josiah, accompanied by Scott and Tristan.)

Below are some thoughts I jotted down after that first trip, thoughts that have returned to me as I plan to return for another trip, this time with my youngest son, Matthias. There were so many things that we experienced on the trip which parallel what it means to be church — a community of Jesus followers.

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  1. We are followers of the Way.

The first thing that struck me was that we were on a path.

Now, one of the things about canoe camping that is unique is you don’t actually see a well-trodden path. The path is water. Instead of getting hard and beaten down like backpacking trails, the liquid of lakes resists our imprints.

Because of that, there were times it felt like we were the first ones ever to be there. It was so pristine and untrampled, it felt wild and undiscovered.

But then we’d come across some other canoeists or we’d see or stay at one of the few and very small campsites, and we’d know we were not alone and not the first.

I love how Hebrews 12:2 describes Jesus — as the “pioneer and perfecter of faith.” He’s the Pioneer. He’s the one who discovered this land of faith that we live in. He’s the first one to travel it. He’s the one who drew up the map and marked out all the important spots along the way: the places to stop and rest, the places to avoid because of danger to us, and the places to avoid because of danger to the habitat.

This faith path is so associated with Jesus the Pioneer and Perfecter of it that Jesus calls himself the Way in John 14:6. And he even goes on to say that “no one gets to the Father apart from me.” He is the Way.

Emett and I would not be here today if we had strayed from the path (and neither would Josiah, my second son, who also took the trip). We’d be lost out there in Canada.

Interestingly, “lost” is how early Christians referred to their lives before following Jesus the Way. And even more interesting, before they became known as Christians (the term was actually intended as a mockery and given to them by non-Christians in the city of Antioch), the early followers of Jesus referred to themselves as followers of the Way, as the book of Acts shows.

Way. We’re on the Way. We are not trailblazing. It may feel like it at times. But we’re not. We are following the Pioneer and Perfecter of faith. We are following the Way. We’re following Jesus.

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2. There are varieties of experience on the one Way.

And yet, on this one and only one Way, there are all sorts of varieties of experiences.

Only 40 people are let loose each weekday on this 72-mile chain of lakes — 200 per week. And there are fewer than 50 campsites. So, everyone is widely spread out. So much so that you don’t often see, much less talk to, anyone else.

We slept at six of those 50 sites, not even stopping to check out most of the rest.

Where you and I stop and rest or get sick or eat or do those things that must be done by us all — they’re different. There is a similarity to them, but there is a difference as well.

And even in our small, two-canoe band of brothers, there were lots of times when one canoe would be on one side of the lake and the other on the other side, half a mile away and so small it could hardly be seen. Bernd and Eli would be checking out streams coming down the mountain on one side, while Emett and I would be looking for bears in the forested slope on the other side.

One path. Different experiences.

Because the path is the same, there are the same basic rules and guidelines, the same basic expectations and needs. But the encounter, the experience, is filled with nuances unique to each traveller. Because of that not only can’t you prepackage and sell the experience on a DVD and call it authentic, but you have to take time to listen to people as they tell you about the uniquenesses of their journey.

3. Travelers of the Way are made up of many different kinds of people.

And there were some unique people out there. A whole bunch of Germans. A Boy Scout troop. Some Canadians. And even some brash Americans.

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4. It’s vital to be prepared.

The website for the Bowron Lakes Provincial Park provides an extensive list of the things needed for the trip — canoe, portage wheels, mini stove, dry bags to keep you clothing and sleepings bags from getting wet (you are in a canoe and it does rain a lot there), tarps, rope, water filter, and on and on.

And there are other websites which provide all sorts of information about the best kinds of food for these kinds of trips.

You have to think well as you prepare for two reasons.

First, you don’t want to be stuck out there without the things you need to survive.

Second, you can only take so much with you. You’re only allowed 60 lbs. in the canoe when you portage between lakes. The rest has to go on your backs. And let me tell you (Emett will confirm it), it’s hard enough manouvering your canoe 6 km the first day on a thin, rutted, bumpy path without having to haul a heavy load on your back.

Now, there are things that are essential. Paddles, for instance.

Things that are required but don’t get used by many. Life jackets.

Things that are forbidden. You don’t want to have an iPod on in bear country. I’ll leave that to you to figure out why.

Things that are optional. A deck of cards.

Just before calling Jesus the Pioneer and Perfecter of faith, the author of Hebrews calls on us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

We’ve got enough necessary stuff to haul around with us in this life as it is. We don’t need any more baggage. But foolish, unexperienced travelers that we are, we load up our backs.

Just before we started out, I pulled out my jeans and the shoes that Emett and I had packed. I went through some of the supplies the Stroms had packed and removed the duplicates. And guess what? We didn’t need a single one of those things.

5. Be prepared to improvise.

But there were some things I wish hadn’t been left behind. Even though we didn’t end up needing it, I wish Bernd had brought the rope he had in the van. I wish he’d brought the fly for the tent, which we ended up not needing either. Amazingly so.

And after we had portaged our canoes for 6 km and paddled through two lakes the first day, I wish I hadn’t left our pot and pan at the campsite at the start of the lakes.

When we arrived at the first site — 8 hard-earned miles into the circuit, too far in to go back — and I discovered we didn’t have either pot or pan, I froze up.

You see, three of our meals were pasta, requiring boiling water. Other than one breakfast with raisin bran and powdered milk, the pancakes required, well, a pan, and the oatmeal required boiling water. How were we going to make it through?

Well, you improvise.

Fortunately, the Stroms had bought camping plates and bowls that were metal covered in ceramic. We were able to fry the bratwerst on one of them for that first meal and sort of able to fry pancakes the next morning. And even though it was just a cup-and-a-half each time, we were able to boil water for oatmeal in their bowls.

The ability to take what you’ve been given and make due with what you don’t have is essential in this journey of faith, both individually and as a church.

I think it’s interesting that we’re given several lists of gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament, but none of the lists tells us all that much about how these gifts are to be used other than lines like this in Romans 12 — “if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach … if it is giving, then give generously ….” That’s not very helpful, Paul! (And some people call the Bible a guidebook ….)

Actually, it is helpful. Too much explanation and we’re stuck with a bunch of rules. But when we’re handed a bunch of tools and filled up with the very Spirit of God himself in us, we are prepared and set free to improvise.

It’s funny how good mangled pancakes taste when they are cooked on a blue plate near a lake in Canada.

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6. Be grateful for unexpected allies.

Thank heaven for angels. The supernatural kind and the human kind. The word angel is an untranslated Greek word (angelos) that means “messenger.” And there are people who are sent with messages of hope along the way.

We had gone exactly halfway on our trip when I met three Canadians — a man and his 14- and 18-year-old sons. They were slowly kayaking the lakes. I try to be pleasant and make conversation with almost everyone I meet. You never know what kindness might be repaid by it.

Well, a few miles through a river, a bog, and half of a very long lake, we ended up at the same campsite with them. It was the only time we shared a campsite that week. We had set out to be by ourselves, but I needed a pot badly, even if for just one meal.

So, we set up camp and I got the dinner stuff all ready, making conversation with the older son as I did. And then I made the big ask: “May I borrow a pot.” The dad, a nice Canadian, said, “Sure.”

After dinner, when Emett had cleaned the pot, I brought it and three freeze-dried ice creams (yes, they make freeze dried ice cream — and, yes, it tastes like the real thing, though ice cream just shouldn’t be able to crumble like that) to them as a thanks offering.

In the morning, the dad brought back the pot and said he didn’t know why he’d packed two pots, but he had and this one wasn’t necessary for them. We should use it and then leave it in the back of his truck in the parking lot.

You can imagine just how relieved I was. Our meal problem was now solved.

But not only that, it solved our water problem. I didn’t know it at the time, but our water filter had just decided to quit. We were all drinking two quarts a day and boiling it a cup and a half at a time just wasn’t going to cut it.

On this faith journey and as a church, it is so easy to isolate ourselves, to just be about what we’re about. But there are all these people around us who can be our angels and allies.

I like how the writer of Hebrews in chapter 13 writes that some of us have entertained angels unawares.

But doing that requires and openness to those that you don’t know and a humility to ask and to share with them.

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7. There be dangers along the way.

It’s a dangerous path that we’re on. It’s beautiful, but it’s wild and dangerous.

Emett and I only glimpsed bears, but they were out there. And every day we locked all of our baggage with any kind of smell at all in sturdy lockers call bear caches and poured our cleaning water in the pit toilets.

Emett and I got stuck on a sand bar about 15 feet from a massively horned moose. If he’d stepped on our canoe, it would have broken in half.

Water, waterfalls, sickness, injury. The potential for danger was everpresent.

We were exactly in the middle of the widest lake when a massive thunderhead rolled over the top of the mountain on our right. And the lightning began with tremendous peals of thunder booming over our heads. Knowing that lightning seeks the highest point to strike (meaning, us) we paddled out absolute hardest for the shore. And even so, it took us 20 minutes to get there.

There were no fires in British Columbia when we started our trip. But when we finished, lightning had caused 300 fires right behind us. By the time we crossed the border into the U.S., 900 were burning. The air was thick with smoke.

On the road to the Bowrons, we drove past a place called Hell’s Gate. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said to a different Peter that the gates of hell would not stand against him or us.

It’s dangerous out there. But there is nothing that our God cannot handle.

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8. Community is important (and difficult).

We didn’t do the trip alone. I guess it could be done that way. But it’s far from ideal.

When God finished his creation at the end of Genesis 1, he proclaimed it very good. And yet after seven days of “good” followed by this “very good,” when we get to Genesis 2, God finds something “not good” — that the man was alone.

We were created by the God who is community in the Trinity to be community ourselves. Alone is not good.

In Genesis 2, God makes a helper for the man. And that’s what we discover on the journey, whether canoeing on in church: We need a helper.

It was Eli who came up with the idea of cooking on plates.

It was Emett who got us to paddle through the Rollercoaster, which was for experienced canoeists only.

When we finished a day’s paddling, I took care of preparing dinner, the boys set up the tent, and Bernd took care of the other details. It was a rhythm quickly and easily established. And it worked beautifully.

But not always.

We didn’t always agree on how fast or how far to go. Some wanted to go slower and stretch it out. Others wanted to blast through it.

And some, because of what they ate, made strange and powerful odors in the tent at night.

Community is an important, beautiful, sticky, smelly thing we just can’t live — really live — without.

The image the book of Revelation gives of heaven is not of solitary bliss — solitude and isolation are C.S. Lewis’ image of hell in his brilliant book The Great Divorce. Rather than solitude, Revelation’s vision of the future is of a city and it’s filled with people of every nation, tongue, language, and tribe. A vast, sprawling community it was we were created for and what we were saved to. Community is at the beginning and the end of God’s story.

9. The journey has an end.

Which, of course, brings us to the end.

There are people who are all about the journey and others who are all about the goal.

Now, Emett and I drove 15 hours north with the goal of going on the canoe trip, so our goal was the journey.

But for us, as followers of Jesus, we follow with a destination in mind, not just to follow. In the same passage that Jesus talks about being the Way, he talks about going to prepare a place for us so that he can come back and take us to be where he is.

We follow the Way in order to be like Jesus and act like Jesus here and now along the way, but ultimately we do so to get to the goal of the way, being with Jesus.

Now, as I said, there are two approaches. Those who are all about the journey and those who are all about the goal.

I tend to be more about the journey, so I slowed down at the end, soaking in every last bit of my surroundings, enjoying each leisurely stroke, talking with Emett.

Bernd tends to be more about the goal, so he and Eli sped to the end.

Now, as much as I wanted to stay longer on the Bowrons, the closer we got to the end, the more my heart and thoughts turned toward home — to my wife, my family, my bed, and, strangely, to eating at A&W on the way home (which we did, twice — there are lots of them in the Great White North).

I’m hoping that as my earthly journey gets closer to its completion I will not slow down, but pick up speed.

My hope is that I will be so filled with a longing for the One who stands waiting for us at the end of the journey, I will not just meander or even walk or run, but fly into his arms.

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