The Big Dipper

It has been a rough few weeks for my family, so I want to tell you a story.

When I was young, we used to go to a place called Spring Lake Amusement Park. The park is gone now. It wasn’t in great shape when we went there, but it was still a magical place. There was an Alpine Skyway that took you over a lake and back again, a wonderful carousel, a train, and several smaller rides. However, when I went to Spring Lake, there was one thing I wanted to do: ride the Big Dipper.

A wooden roller coaster built in 1929, the Big Dipper was almost 50 years old by the time I started riding. It was rickety, loud, rough, and fabulous! I can still remember how it felt. The release of the brakes as we started rolling. The cars jerking as the cogs caught at the bottom of the first hill. The rhythmic clank and clack of the pull chain filling my ears. No matter how many times I rode, I still got excited as we approached the top. I could hear the cars disengage from the cogs one at a time as we crested the hill. Then we plunged to the bottom, stomach in my throat, as fellow passengers screamed and yelled. At the bottom of the hill, I was pressed into the seat as the car changed direction and was carried by its own inertia up the next hill, only to repeat again.

The Big Dipper was an “out and back” coaster meaning it went “out,” made a tight turn, and then came “back.” That turn was a doozy. At the halfway point, the coaster still had a lot of speed, and the cars would slam into that turn and bounce you against the sides. I remember having bruises sometimes after riding. Then, way too soon, the ride was over; we slowed while coming into the station and stopped.

Usually you had to get out, go around to the entrance, get back in line, and wait to ride again. Except one day there wasn’t any line. That day the operator let us stay on the roller coaster and just kept sending it out, over and over and over again. I rode the Big Dipper at least 50 times in a row. I was in paradise, and I never wanted to get off.

The last few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster for my family. I think the person who first used that term to refer to emotional turmoil didn’t like roller coasters. However, I think I like the analogy.

Sometimes our emotional lives are like a roller coaster—up and down, anticipation and expectation, sudden drops and turns, inevitable climbs and subsequent falls. Just like the ride, we find our stomachs in our throats, screams caught without the breath to release them, and bruises and bumps from being thrown into the corners and pressed into the deepest bottoms.

On a roller coaster, you are not in control of the car you are in. It is following a path you did not create and often cannot see. Part of the fun is the surprise. You must trust the car to stay on the track. In life, I must trust the path, even when it feels like I am leaving the rails. It can be frightening not to be able to see over the next hill or around the corner, but I have been on this ride before. I should remind myself that I know the car will hold.

On a roller coaster, the thrill comes from the variation between the highest point and the lowest point. If there wasn’t a bottom, the top wouldn’t mean much. In life, the differential is what defines the edges. Without sadness, joy would be meaningless. Without pain, there would be no growth. My journey will take me through highs and lows as a normal part of the process.

On a roller coaster, the first hill is the highest. After that, the rest don’t seem so big. As the ride progresses, the hills and dips vary and change to keep you bouncing and guessing, but the big drop on the first hill is the main thing. Everything else pales in comparison. In life, I am constantly redefining the “big hill.” This is called perspective. Going through something difficult helps me see all the things I have that are good. Knowing others’ pain helps me see my own in a different light.

On a roller coaster, the energy put into the system by pulling the car to the top of the first hill is all there is. The rest of the ride is driven by the inertia created from falling down the first hill. It is hard to tell during the ride, but you are slowing down the whole time. In life, other people and circumstances (both outside my control) often add energy to the system, and all I can do is ride along until things slow down. I might want to apply the brakes (or get out of the car), but I don’t always have that power.

In John 16:33, Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (NIV).

That’s what counts. God knows where the track of my life is taking me because he’s already been on this ride. He made the world to be a place of contrasts (good and evil, mercy and justice, light and dark) because without the differentials our lives would be flat. As much as my life can sometimes feel like it’s out of control, it is never out of God’s control. So, I can have peace and enjoy the ride.

When I rode the Big Dipper, I trusted the people who designed and built it and the operator who ran it. That might not have been the best place to put my trust, but I did. In life, I have decided to put my trust in God.

Another thing about riding the roller coaster…it was much better if the car was full of my friends. I am so glad I have you all to ride with, and I think I’d be happy to stay on and go around again