A few days ago, when writing about lessons learned while skiing, I made passing reference to our culture’s deification of explorers and discoverers – of bold adventurers. My guess as to how many people try such things and fail was off by more than an order of magnitude. According to Alec Wilson, who recently wrote a book (The Ice Balloon) about a failed polar expedition, 751 died trying to reach the North Pole in the late 1800s. Note the qualifiers. This figure does not include individuals who died in the 1900s, nor individuals who died at any time trying to reach some other place, such as Mt Everest or the South Pole. In case you were wondering, more than 200 have died trying to climb Everest. Only 17 died trying to reach the South Pole between 1897 and 1922. And I can find evidence of only one expedition resorting to cannibalism.
The question for me as a Christian is not whether “a live donkey is better than a dead horse,” as Shackleton put it (a man who nonetheless died on expedition – the second expedition after assuring his family that he had no desire for further exploring.) I prefer to paraphrase my former CPE instructor, Rev. Marion Thullberry, who would repeatedly remind me that I needed to CHOOSE the hill upon which I was prepared to die. Which she did mean metaphorically (there are many hills on which I have staked friendships and other relationships, upon which I have staked position, reputation, or career.) But it applies literally as well. What is worth dying for?
Explorers are those who will risk death in order to know the truth of a place first hand. Or, to put it another way, they would rather die than not be the first to know a particular place in a particular way. Upon reflection, my problem with these “men of great daring” is not that they think too big, but instead that they think too small. Knowledge is worth dying for? Knowledge of the Earth or of space or of the limits on one’s own body? No, knowledge may be a means to an end, a useful thing to have on particular occasions. But knowledge pales beside love. As for knowledge, it will come to an end – but Love never ends. For God is love. And we are called to love one another as Christ loved us, which is to say that Christians are called to die on behalf of one another, for love of God and love of one another. Which we can do without fear because we know that we have nothing to lose. Not because our lives are without value, but because God loves us beyond any human understanding of value, and will not allow us to die forever.
But I still stand before the previous post about slowing down – because I trust that God does not wish for me to go up in flames for something as trivial as proving that I am smart or productive or possessing any other “virtue.” As both Jesus and Paul warn us in the New Testament, we need to be more concerned about our reputation with God than our reputation with *anyone* else. So long before I reach the precipice of martyrdom, I need to be asking myself, “What exactly am I witnessing to here?” And if the answer is anything less than “The love of God as revealed in Jesus,” then it is time for me to change course.