At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

An Adventurer’s Guide to Integrating Faith and Work

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There’s something particularly disturbing about seeing nothing but black when your eyes are wide open.

As I crawled around on my hands and knees on the ground of Glade Cave, I carefully listened for the voice of our tour guide behind of me.

A small light quickly consumed the darkness. After my eyes adjusted, I saw it shining from my tour guide’s headlight. “Elise, get us out of here,” he said as he handed me the map of Glade Cave.

Lester Zook

Adventure guide Lester Zook knows no difference between the sacred and the secular, a conviction that encouraged him to follow his calling and start Wild GUYde Adventures L.L.C.(WGA) in 2004.

His small business, based in Harrisonburg, Virginia, provides guided rock climbing, caving, hiking, and canoeing adventures in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains.

Zook is also a physical education and recreation professor at Eastern Mennonite University, where he is the department chair. He says his calling weaves together health and fitness, experimental learning and adventure, and the natural world.

When Zook started WGA nine years ago, he began to think deeply about his role as a Christian working in the secular world. He says a biblical theology of work starts in Genesis:

Adam was given a work to do, and there was no bible to write or congregation to shepherd. He didn’t work for a ministry organization. Obedience for him was “tending his garden,” and we can do the same intentionally, devoutly, and with the joy that comes from being God’s partner in building the Kingdom.

To Zook, work is an expression of worship in which we can find divine purpose. He lives this out in his own work by using the unique talents and passions God has created him with—the gift of teaching, leadership, and love for physical adventure, health, and the outdoors.

When Zook takes clients into a cave or up on a mountain, he says,

We are confronted with a continual visual aid of God’s creative genius. We stand in awe of the Divine Mind that created intricate cave formations, and conjured the mechanism to form them. We feel small beside immense cliffs of rock, gaping valleys, and powerful river rapids.

Leading his clients into the wilderness to be surrounded by God’s creation is a beautiful and spiritual experience. But it can also be scary for some. Zook’s clients are consistently challenged to exhibit strength in face of fear. The physical challenge presents him with an opportunity to teach lessons of character in a very concrete and immediate setting:

My trips present the opportunity for clients to build stronger relationships with those they care about. […] Adventure has a way of driving us to realness with our companions. And adventure can give us meaningful metaphors for life.

Zook on one of his many expeditions.

He recalls a time he took a father and 14-year-old son climbing. Hiking out at the end of the day, the son was about 100 yards up the trail when the dad said to him,

You’ve talked about your kids today and I can tell that you are a Christian, and that you are pretty intentional about your parenting. Now you could probably tell today that my son and I do not have the best relationship. Could I just ask you a little about how you approach fathering?

Zook used the opportunity to encourage the father by using their experience together as a metaphor for life. Zook says those conversations wouldn’t happen unless:

I wake up each day and think about how my product can reach into my clients’ personal lives and promote goodness, and then prepare myself by asking the Holy Spirit to have me ready when the opportunity arises.

In addition to life lessons, he also cares deeply about how his product is delivered. Zook strives for full integrity in his business, from honest advertising to complete safety. To him, virtue in business means congruence between message and substance. Clients will get what they want and need: qualified staff, requisite permits, adequate insurance, and safe equipment.

In the adventure industry, virtue in business also means creation care. Zook says,

An adventure guide service that exhibits virtue will not brutalize the natural environment – we will be sensitive to the impacts of our group sizes, and we will use every trip to teach environmental stewardship and care.

Zook is well aware of the challenges he faces as an adventure guide. He strives to identify and combat temptations so that his work can become “a testimony of redemption in the fallen working world.” Some challenges include promoting an over-materialistic value system centered on image and expensive gear.

But the number one temptation Zook faces as a mountain guide is pride. He says,

The ego temptations in this industry are great. One old quip asks, “What is the difference between God and a mountain guide? Answer: God doesn’t think He is a mountain guide…”

Zook strives to maintain a heart of humility before God’s rugged terrain, which allows the safety of his clients to remain his number one priority. To Zook, true goodness in a position of power means strength tempered with compassion and care.

The author, far right, after her expedition with Zook.

One thing I noticed about Lester’s leadership during my caving expedition with him was his gift to replace my fear with courage.

As he handed me the map and asked me to lead our group out of the cave, I was surprised at his certainty in my ability to temporarily own his position of leadership.

Even though I made a couple wrong turns, Lester’s guidance and encouragement equipped me with the confidence to lead our group to the cave’s entrance and outside to a world that looked a bit brighter than I remembered.

Zook’s work as a wilderness guide extends goodness into the world by teaching, in both a metaphorical and real way, that life—especially the Christian life—truly is an adventure.

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  • Dang! What an awesome piece! You made me really want to visit VA so I could experience what this guy has to offer! It’s so refreshing to see someone who so seamlessly incorporates his faith to his work.

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