Yvon Chouinard, climber, surfer, the founder of Patagonia clothing company, and generally reluctant businessman says that true adventure doesn’t begin until things go wrong. If one sets out on a road trip and travels great distances through new and exciting terrain, there is still no true adventure happening. But if the van breaks down in the jungle, or the van is stolen, or a hitchhiker causes some serious grief, or one gets malaria, etc., then the adventure has begun. In this sense, adventures cannot be purchased or manufactured. An adventure travel agency does not sell you adventure.
Adventure is what all great stories are made from. And adventure is often the greatest teacher.
From a broad perspective one can then understand a merely lived life, that is, the life that continues safely from beginning to end of day, from one day to the next, and year to year, is not an adventure. Though such a life can be good and rewarding in many ways. But without adventure one could say something significant is missing. From a Christian perspective adventure may be the process of faith itself.
Imagine sailing on the high seas and your boat is knocked down in a sudden storm, the boat’s mast is sheared off, and the rudder is damaged. What was a fun and pleasant journey has now turned into an adventure of fear and trembling. In such a situation one cannot give up hope or one is likely to die. Work, effort, struggle ensue. The stakes have increased and everything seems riskier. What is important becomes clearer. What is superfluous is not longer cherished. Discovering the true nature of faith happens when one’s mast is sheared off and the seas are coming over the sides of the boat. I don’t see another way around it.
And yet, that is the adventure. As far as I can tell, there is no faith without the dark night of the soul. There is no faith without a wrestling match with God.
There is a problem with this view, however, The problem is not with the view itself per se, rather it is with us, with our longings and desires. We hear the word adventure and we want it. Adventure sounds exciting and even fun. I am more of an armchair mountaineer than an actual one. I love reading stories of mountain climbing, including tales of survival in the midst of dire circumstances. Though I would be right in assuming the life of faith is an adventure, I would be mistaken to think this adventure was always like the exciting stories I read in books. Our problem is to think that adventure, including the adventure of faith, only happens in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.
Truth is the life of faith usually looks on the outside rather mundane. For the Christian the adventure can be a far more private, subtle, and existential experience than it shows to the world. Sure, there are martyrs and great saints, but for most the adventure is inside. When it is visible to the world it is often understood by others differently than it might appear. For example, everyone knows the loss of a child is a big deal to the parent, but what is often going on inside is not merely sadness and grief. The wrestling with God, and with oneself and one’s beliefs, cannot be truly expressed. It is private. Even between spouses. But that same internal, existential wrestling can come about by something as simple as a poor grade in school, or the loss of a basketball game, or the breakup of a relationship.
When I was a young man (maybe thirteen or fourteen) I was obsessed with snow skiing. I nearly worshiped the sport. I would keep my skis and equipment in my room and stare at them when I was not looking at skiing magazines. One weekend I went skiing with some friends. On the way home we stopped by one friend’s house who took her skis off the top of the car and said goodbye. We drove on not realizing that friend had not closed the ski rack. Somewhere on the way to my house my skis came off the car. I never found them. I was devastated. Then my eyes opened. It was like God drew my attention to this lesser god and asked me who was more important, skiing or Him. I was shaken to my core. Anyone else might have just been upset, but for me it was an existential moment. I told this to an adult close to me and he said I was wrong to think that. He said God does not work that way. At that moment I knew he did not God like I did even though he is a Christian. Both of those experiences, the existential struggle and the realization of how God will work in one’s soul, changed my life forever. For anyone else they might laugh at the insignificance of loosing one’s skis, but for me, at that time in my life, I was in the midst of the adventure. And I still want those skis back.
Years later when I held my infant daughter in my arms as her life slipped from her precious body I was wracked with grief. And yet it was not an existential moment like loosing my skis had been years before. How can this be? Words cannot describe the pain of loosing a child. Even as I write these words the emotions come back powerfully and deeply. But was my faith in doubt? No, at least to the degree that any of us can be sure of our faith. I knew God was there, loving me, teaching me, taking me through the harsh reality. I felt connected to all those other people I knew or heard about who’d lost their children and other dear loved ones. In fact I had a sense of God being more present, closer, more obviously involved in my life than ever before. It was strange. I was suffering tremendous grief and yet had such joy. I had a sense that I was being blessed even though it came through tragedy.
I consider both events, that of losing my skis and of losing my daughter, to be important in my own life of faith. One seems trivial and the other is big and tragic, yet God used both to help me see important truths and to know myself better. Both are part of the adventure that is my growth in faith, but only one really turned me around.