The call of adventure

If you haven’t noticed, story is big right now. Tell your story. Tell your company’s story. Live a better story.

Photo by Jim Killam

Photo by Jim Killam

As a writer, I like this trend. I’m predisposed to see life as a series of story ideas. The best of those stories involve adventure: some sort of unusual, exciting exploration of the unknown.

In his book, “Facing Leviathan,” Mark Sayers writes about journalist Henry Morton Stanley and his legendary search for missing missionary David Livingstone in late-19th century Africa. Stanley’s tales of adventure caught the world’s attention. After finding Livingstone, he found his own faith and spoke often about his desire to help open Africa for evangelism. “Yet judging by his actions,” Sayers writes, “his quest for adventure and personal glory motivated him much more powerfully than preaching the gospel.”

Stanley’s heroic dispatches from Africa captured Europe’s attention. But the real Africans he interacted with knew him as an increasingly murderous tyrant. Stanley was widely suspected as an influence for the character of the madman Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.”

All of that provides a healthy caution. Adventure is a fantastic byproduct of following God with everything we have. In the years since I left a safe, secure career for a life in missions, I’ve gone places and experienced things beyond my wildest imagination. On numerous occasions I’ve stopped, looked around and said, “What the heck am I doing here?” I love that about this work.

But adventure can’t be the objective. My focus must be to play whatever small role God has given me in helping to complete the Great Commission. Like my high-school band director used to tell us: “Be sure that you can play your part perfectly.”

If I simply want adventure, I can find it: a vacation, a great hike, a new job, a new place to live … even a great mission-trip experience. And I’ll flit from experience to experience, feeding the monster called More. That’s a good description of addiction or idolatry.

Churches and the mission movement often use the lure of adventure to recruit people for short-term trips or even sign up for lifetime service. That’s an enticing promise, because we’re wired with a deep longing for adventure – living a more exciting story. This approach becomes a problem, though, because it places the focus squarely on ourselves and our experiences.

Is it OK to pursue adventure? To do things just for the fun and the rush? Gee, I hope so. Nothing makes me come alive more than hiking in the mountains. But I can’t allow striving after those experiences to consume me – taking my passion, my money, my time.

Is it OK to enjoy the fact that life as a missionary is about as adventurous as it gets? Absolutely. But it’s the byproduct, not the objective. I can’t mix that up with God’s calling to reach the lost. That calling is not about me.

Sayers again: “We can exploit the people and places God has called us to in order to gain a sense of identity. Historian A.N. Wilson suggests, ‘Stanley saw Africa, as many explorers and missionaries did, as the metaphor for the uncharted territory of their own personal struggle.’ We must examine the ways in which we have attempted to turn our own ministries, workplaces and mission fields into the playgrounds of our own personal struggles.”

For me, the funny thing has been: When I stopped striving after adventure, and instead simply started saying yes to opportunities God dropped in front of me, I got adventure beyond belief. Jesus told his disciples: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25)

God has ultimate adventure waiting for us – better than anything we can imagine. We find it when we stop seeking it, and instead seek him.

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