By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister
Life offers many opportunities to learn humility. James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, said, “Life is a long lesson in humility.” This can be particularly true for those in leadership, whether you are a CEO, pastor or youth sponsor. You are expected to lead by good example. One of the things I have learned as a pastor is that the good example we can provide as a leader does not necessarily mean perfection. Rather, it often means the ability to not think too highly of ourselves, to acknowledge our mistakes, and to learn from our missteps.
In June, I was invited to provide the bible lessons for the high school camp at Laurelville Mennonite Retreat Center. Part of the week included a rafting excursion on the Youghiogheny River.
I take some pride in my ability to engage in wilderness adventure experiences such as white water rafting, so I decided to join the campers in a wild ride through the rapids. It fit with part of my theme for the week in taking risks and living into the adventure of following Jesus in life.
We were split up into groups of five per raft with a designated “captain” in the back. Before the trip, our guides gave us clear instructions on how to work together as a team on our rafts and follow directions from the captain. River guides were in kayaks ahead or on the side of the river to help us navigate the rapids. We were told that it was essential to pay attention to the guides and their directions for the more dangerous rapids.
Confident in my ability to navigate the rapids, I took a turn as captain in my raft. However, as we approached one of the rapids, my ability to follow directions from the guides and give good directions to my crew evaporated. We headed straight for a rock at the point of the rapids that we were instructed to avoid. The disaster that followed still plays like slow motion in my head.
As the accompanying photos illustrate in glorious fashion, while the rest of the crew took cover in the center of the raft, I was launched headfirst into the angry rapids. To make matters worse, I managed to hit the head of one of my raft mates with my knee as I went overboard. Thankfully she had a helmet on although she did suffer a mild headache as a result.
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My crew was gracious enough to pull me back into the raft after that failure. They even offered for me to captain again. I took it as an opportunity to allow the youth to take the lead for the rest of the trip. They taught me about what it means to work together as a team, showing grace in our mistakes and having the courage to take humble leadership.
On this day, on the rapids of Youghiogheny River, life offered me a healthy dose of humility. I am certain more lessons in humility will follow. I am reminded of a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets” where he says “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”