I felt as if I had carried that freaking canoe for a thousand miles.
Wait…carrying a canoe? My wife and I were portaging. For the uninitiated, that’s a fancy French word for “carrying a canoe over your head, until you wish God would carry you to heaven.”
Algonquin Provincial Park
Sounds majestic, doesn’t it? The brochure was so picturesque, and making the trip with a dozen of our students sounded amazing. “Let’s take some kids from our country church to the most desolate part of Canada and have them carry their canoes around for a week,” we naively thought. I could tell after 30 seconds that my marriage was in trouble with the two of us in a tippy canoe together. I think we legally were separated about 10 feet from the dock. Oh, and my other favorite part of the whole trip was learning that I’m allergic to mosquito repellent.
Here’s how it happened: Canoe across an endless lake. At the end of the lake, carry your canoe for 6 miles. Throw up. Canoe across a lake that seems to have no end. Carry your canoe another few miles. Look for a nice place for your burial plot. Eat a handful of trail mix. Sleep in the rain. Pray your eventual death later that night will be painless. Wake up. Canoe across an endless lake. Repeat for eight more days.
Although I lost 12 pounds on the trip, flipped the canoe over daily (and wanted to flip off my wife an equal number of times), ate all of the food we had packed for the whole trip in the first 24 hours and practiced a few swear words, it is still a trip I talk about all the time.
This particular trip was so out of the ordinary that it remains something so extraordinary, something that seemed impossible, and that’s what makes it so special. The foreignness of the situation made it powerful; and yes, foreignness is really a word.
Routines Are Ruts
I don’t like routines. I have another name for them. Ruts.
The reason that particular wilderness adventure trip was so powerful is because it was anything but familiar. It put our youth group (and this youth pastor’s marriage) in a whole new environment with new circumstances and tested them completely. It pushed for new spiritual muscles to be worked out and relentlessly pushed conversations to the forefront, ones we never would have had otherwise. At one point, we talked about making sure we had a living will in case we didn’t make it back to the park entrance.
The deeper we got into the nature preserve, the deeper our conversations became. When we ran into adversity on the trip, it helped us see more clearly and confess the adversity in our lives. Somehow in the dense forest, we may have seen God more clearly. Sure, part of that was the whole nature thing, the wonder of His creation; but in a larger sense it was because our ruts previously kept us from seeing God. We become so comfortable in our routines that we don’t realize our routines can hinder our growth.
I’m a big fan of escaping the ordinary, getting out of the ruts, leaving town for a while. It gives us freedom when we don’t realize we were encaged:
• This is why we leave the office to brainstorm: to get out of a creative rut.
• This is why we change the order of service at youth group often: to get out of a liturgical rut.
• This is why we hold winter retreats in the mountains: to get out of a routine rut.
• This is why we go to Rwanda for mission trips: to pop the Orange County bubble and get out of our cultural rut.
Being uncomfortable opens us to try new things, thereby creating memories. Getting out of the humdrum, predictable rut is critically important.
Here’s what I do when I find myself living in the mundane cycle of another week in youth ministry:
Get Away from Routine
There’s nothing better than getting suburban kids up in the mountains. I love watching them marvel at their cold breath for the first time—the one kid who immediately pretends to be smoking or lighting up a joint—it’s totally part of it. They play in the snow, pee in the snow, slip and slide uphill to their scrubby cabins and stare at the sparse furnishings they’re going to call home for the weekend.
It is more than challenging their surroundings; it is also a challenge to their hearts. Escaping the ordinary allows us to pause, reflect and retreat. Today, most of our students are busier than ever. Between sports, extra-curricular activities, homework, practices, friend groups, SAT tests or school clubs it is far too easy to hide what is really going on in their lives. Busyness is a great mask. This is why retreats are so important. They allow students to come out of hiding. This is why our winter retreat this past December was simply themed Pause. It was an invitation to get away, stop, make changes, which happened on the ride there, around campfires, and in the sessions with the speaker. That kind of special Jesus-retreat-life-change-magic just doesn’t happen down the mountain in the same way.
My experience in 20 years of youth ministry tells me that retreats are still incredibly effective. When you get out of town, it disarms students from their normal defense mechanisms. It gets them away from cell phones and toxic friends. It allows light to shine into the shadows of hearts.
Get Away from Your Culture
I keenly remember seeing a student grasp the armrest of an airplane as he left the ground for the first time. I remember students awkwardly greeting new friends in broken Swahili as they attempted to understand each other. I remember their eyes lighting up when we worshiped together in Kenya, England and Costa Rica—the epiphany of the lights coming on that this whole globe worships God every week.
You just can’t experience those moments by staying in the mundane.
I hope you’re planning a mission trip outside of your area in the near future. I love ministering in our own communities and know the impact that can be made locally, but I sure do love to witness the life-change that happens overseas. I love to see students outside of their comfort zones because it is in our discomfort that we experience new growth.
There are some talented organizations that can make this experience painless: Leadertreks, Download Youth Ministry, YouthWorks, Group Work Camps. That latter one sounds as if it might be for juvenile delinquents, but I promise you it isn’t. They’ll handle so many tasks for you while you get to sit back and watch beauty unfold.
Get Away with Your Spouse
If you’re married, or hope to be someday, I’d nudge you on this one, too. Get away with just your spouse for the sake or your marriage. Too many marriages end up in routine and ruts and lose the wonder of what started it all. We’ve been in a 14-year rut called raising four kids that is as awesome as it is relentless. You need to escape that and enjoy each other, or one day the kids will be gone and your spouse will be, too.
So take all the vacation days you can get. Ask for more time off rather than a raise, because time well spent can be far more valuable. Plan a road trip, a romantic getaway, something for just the two of you. No, summer camp doesn’t count as vacation. Make sure you’re getting away, as well, so you two can reflect on your marriage, values, goals and love.
Get Away with God
What about your own personal spiritual life? In the crazy routines and ruts of your schedule, the endless streams of email and alerts, when do you get alone with God?
I don’t mean this in a condescending way. I’m a fellow journeyer here, so I know only too well the frustration of a steady diet of the Twitter Verse of the Day or Bible App Daily Scripture emails. I’ll confess now that I leaned into my AWANA upbringing for way too many years as a young youth worker.
For years, I got away with being a spiritual person when my soul was dry and empty. I was ministering from an empty cup rather than an overflowing vessel. I wish I had someone teaching and modeling to me how this looked.
I don’t know when I’ll get back to Africa. Winter retreat is now another 10 months away for our youth ministry. I don’t have plans to be in a canoe with my wife anytime soon, and I’m sure she doesn’t have plans to be in one with me either. It still comes up in therapy every so often…Blessings to you as you leave the city limits.