Gratitude and the slippery slope – Part 2

by Steve Brock on June 6, 2012

The fact that I’m writing this is a good indicator that I didn’t die on the hike to Annette Lake (just an hour east of Seattle) with my two sons several days ago…

I may not have suffered any major injury, thank God, but I did have an immediate change of perspective.

I went from focusing on the future – the interminable hour or so it would take us to go the three remaining miles to the lake – to a focus on each second, each careful step across avalanche slopes covered in hard snow.

After we made it across that perilous first slope, each additional crossing became progressively easier. We never lost sight, however, that one slip could lead toward a long slide and a world of hurt or even death in the valley below.

We discovered through that experience that there are two distinct – almost opposing – ways to walk these snowy/icy slopes:

  1. Firmly, digging your heel in first, if the substance is malleable snow.
  2. Gingerly, if the snow has turned to ice, for a hard step will throw you, sending you slipping, skittering and flailing.

Those of you more experienced with snow hiking will likely laugh at our naïve realization, but this is how one learns.

We made it to the lake which was mostly covered in snow and ice. We enjoyed a brief lunch, grateful for our food, our water and our being there…together and unharmed.

Soon, we were back on the meager trail, passing over the same steep avalanche slopes, careful, yet without our initial trepidation. As my confidence built and as we got to the forested, non-snowy section and the boys raced ahead, I found that my trekking pole was no longer necessary. Worse than that, I no longer wanted to even carry it.

This same collapsible aluminum stick which, arguably, had saved my life earlier was quickly becoming a nuisance. And that’s when I realized it: I’d lost a sense of all the gratitude I had felt just hours or even minutes before.

I quickly went from a moment-by-moment dependency on God and that trekking pole to a self-assured jaunt along the less treacherous parts of the trail. I went from being gratefully present to all that was around me back to how I started: an inward focus on the future and plans for what I would be doing when we returned home.

I likely would have continued in this vein had not I encountered God’s secret anecdote to much of our forgetfulness: other people.

First, I met a ranger racing up the mountain to warn the unprepared away from the slopes and to point the way in the section where the trail disappeared. Next, I met a lone hiker who had moved to the area months before and who complained about how snobby most people on the area’s trails seemed. His gratitude for my taking time to talk, to explain the trail ahead and how to traverse the slopes rekindled my own thankfulness for what we’d just been through.

So as I met others heading up as I went down the mountain, I spoke to them, offering insight, advice and encouragement. In a virtuous cycle of gratitude, we all went our own ways better for the encounter.


Sometimes we are given difficult situations not just for us to overcome, but to learn from and to share that learning with others. And so I did. And in the doing, I remembered what I had come for this day.

I drove home grateful; for trekking poles and trees, snow and snow-covered lakes, slopes and switchbacks, moss and mountains and the One who upholds us in all the ways we so often slip.

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The danger of fear

by Steve Brock on January 10, 2011

Sometimes the small fears - like what might be in this glass - hold us back from what matters most when we travel.

We’ve been looking at the issue of traveling dangerously and the impact that going to locations of profound suffering can have on us. I think most of us retain an idealized part of ourselves that tells us we should go to such places, make a difference and be changed. The only problem is that the less-than-idealized parts of us come up with some pretty convincing arguments as to why staying home or going to the beach make more sense.

I know that for me, comfort gets me in a half-Nelson and starts applying pressure whenever I even think of going somewhere challenging. But comfort is a pushover compared to the one thing that holds me back most: fear.

I wish it were something heroic such as the fear of being dismembered at the hands of terrorists or being kidnapped by guerillas or crashing in a fiery ball of jet fuel. But those fears are too abstract for me. I get more concerned about the really important things like being embarrassed, looking stupid or getting sick. Even though I’ve experienced all those things and have survived, I still have this worry that the next time is going to be the really bad one. And so I too often avoid engaging situations on trips that I know I should.

But not always.

Several years ago, I was in one of those difficult places of suffering, a large slum outside of Mexico City. I was there with both locals and some other foreigners learning about the needs of the community and observing the amazing efforts that people there were making to raise themselves out of poverty.

At one point, I was invited to the house of a local family to hear firsthand about their situation. I went with a local colleague who translated. We walked into one of the nicer homes there in the slum: this one had cinder block walls and a well-swept concrete slab for a floor. A family of five lived within the ten foot by ten foot confines.

After we made introductions, the wife uncovered a bottle of 7-Up. It was clear this was reserved for special occasions and while I wanted to protest that she shouldn’t open this on my account, I knew better.

The woman had a plastic bucket half filled with water that she obtained from the one water source a few blocks away. She then took four plastic cups, one for her, her husband, my colleague and me, rinsed them in the water, loosely shook them dry, then poured the prized soft drink into each cup. That is when my old traveling companion fear decided to speak up.

I knew the quality of that water and all that it likely contained. I knew that much of it remained in the cup. But I also knew that I had a choice: graciously receive the offered drink or give into the fear of getting sick. So I prayed a quick prayer of protection, accepted the cup and swallowed the 7-Up, the remains of the water and my fear all at the same time.

And I never got sick.

We rarely do. Hardly ever do the things we fear most on trips come to pass. And yet these often silly fears hold us back from so much of life.

What are your greatest fears about travel? Is this the year you stop listening to them and do something bold, maybe even dangerous? Why not try something adventurous and see what actually happens instead of worrying about what might. You will never know what lies on the other side of your fears into you cross them.

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The most dangerous places on earth

by Steve Brock on January 7, 2011

Last time we looked at  traveling more adventurously, perhaps even more dangerously, recognizing that how you do that will be different for each of us.

Some of you have commented that traveling – or living – dangerously may not be the most appropriate goal. The concern is that seeking danger for its own sake isn’t beneficial unless you’re a thrill seeker.

Here I am in Bosnia after the war there naively smiling before a burned out Serbian tank and an active minefield. But that wasn't the real danger of such places...

I agree. The meaning here, however, isn’t to travel dangerously just for the adrenaline rush or to make adventure itself another idol to serve but instead to break the idols of comfort and so-called security that most of us unwittingly bow down to. And few things are as iconoclastic in freeing us from our grip on comfort as travel.

Still, even with travel, we can play it safe. So let me share some comments that a friend of mine, Tom Getman, made a few years ago. I worked with Tom at World Vision and among his many other roles there, he headed up World Vision’s office in Jerusalem near the end of the first Intifada (the Palestinian uprisings). He’s also spent time in other places of conflict, in particular South Africa during and after apartheid.

When I asked Tom about meaningful travel, particularly to difficult locations, he noted that war-torn countries and places of great suffering are the most dangerous places on earth.

I naturally assumed he meant because of the risk of getting killed or injured but he went on to explain: Places of conflict are dangerous not because of the physical harm you’re likely to sustain unless you do something stupid. Most of us are wise enough to avoid active battle situations unless we’re there for that reason.

The danger, particularly to Christians but really to anyone who is sensitive to the plight of others, is that you will experience suffering in ways you’ve never seen before. And once you experience that, it gets to you, gets inside of you. It can even haunt you. The danger isn’t to your body or health. The danger is to your status quo and your comfort. Traveling to such places will disrupt your life and change how you engage the world, if you let it.

If we’re open, God can use what we experience on a trip, particularly one to places of great suffering, to change us so that we, in turn, become agents of change in a broken world.

And that can be very dangerous indeed.

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