“People who hike sometimes get lost in the wilderness,” wrote the unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing, a book on Christian spirituality written in the mid 1300s. He goes on to say that this is true in our spiritual lives as well. That in either hiking the wilderness or following the narrow way of Christ, feeling lost is not always a result of straying from the path or not following Christ.
Lost? Sometimes the Path Is Just Strange or Difficult.
On a recent hike on the Colorado Trail with The Redheaded-Wildflower, I thought we were lost in the wilderness. We had climbed to 12,500 feet above sea level. All around us fierce mountains gritted their teeth against a menacing sky. To our west, 2,500 feet below and six miles further on, lay the parking lot where our daughter, Emmy was going to pick us up. Which meant another three hours of hiking added to our six.
Boiling storm clouds had followed us for hours and now stacked up on the near-by peaks. We needed to get off this magnificent peak soon. I re-read the pages of the guide book and re-checked my map. The descriptions still didn’t match. A buzz of panic skittered across my brian. I searched the terrain for markers. Not even a cairn appeared.
Despite the map showing several trails, there was only one scrabbly track leading southwest and away from where I thought we should be going. The incline below us was so steep and rugged there was no possibility of making our own trail. The guidebook said this trail, if we were on the right one, would take a sharp right soon. But all I could see was a single track like a dirty gold ribbon stretching for miles, leading away from our destination through sharp unmarked granite.
We had no choice but to trudge on tired and confused with muscular rain clouds taunting us like playground bullies. Lightning stabbed through the distant clouds. We had yet to descend below 12,000 feet. We made perfect lightning rods. I checked and rechecked the map and guidebook. I searched the beautifully desolate tundra for the “sharp right” or the “tree line” they mentioned.
Doubt gathered with the clouds.
“Do you think we missed the trail?” I asked The RH-WF.
“There is no other trail.”
“But look where it leads.” The trail hung on the side of steep, rocky Ten Mile Range, not descending, not turning right, but meandering away from safety, away from our destination.
This predicament could describe our spiritual journeys as well.
All Who Founder Are Not Lost
I have a friend who believed God was calling him to start a brew pub that would be a third place for people to gather. A third place functions between work and home as an alternative place to belong. In an era where the church is often failing to be a third place, he felt called to establish one. He ran this vision by others, including me, and prayed about and studied the idea. All signs pointed forward. He and his wife and family climbed the peak of finding a facility, raising money, designing logos, securing licenses, absurd delays, and finally launching it. Right as they reached that peak the COVID storm hit. They raced the storm but it caught them and they eventually had to close their beautiful pub.
Their dreams were dashed. The big question they have now is: did we hear God wrong? Did we miss the trail and head out on our own?
No. As painful and costly as the closing of their dream was, dreams cannot always be judged by what we call success or failure.
Visions and dreams God gives us are not deterministic and destined to succeed. Nor are they tricks or delusions. Reading through the Bible in a year does not promise that you are now a saint or a Bible scholar. When you founder in Leviticus does not mean you misheard or failed. It means the trail grew thorny and hard.
These trails rather are opportunities for obedience and recognizing God along the way. And God always redeems them.
We’re Never Lost in God’s Presence
Confronted by a man born blind the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned to make him blind, the man or his parents?”
The true answer was much harder than the laying of simple blame. “This happened so people could see God work.”
Here Jesus proclaimed the ultimate journey versus destination theology. Can we see God in the giving of a dream and walking with us in the dream rather than just in the fulfillment of the dream?
We must. When we cannot, we skewer ourselves and others with debilitating shame. Often these slow, steep, difficult dream-trails reveal God’s presence and care more than arriving at the promised destination.
I coach church planters and they also struggle with this. Many (most?) in the church world gauge church planting success only when the church can boast of many people, a building, and a fully funded budget.
What if what God does in and with us along the way is more significant than the bottom line? For that matter, what if God cares not a wit for the bottom line? The small church we planted struggled to grow numerically but formed and shaped people in ways I never expected: friendships were born, marriages began, faith was renewed, a relational view of God and the church blossomed, children learned to worship, and my friend started a brew pub. And God was with us all along the way.
The Trail Holds its Own Rewards
We are not always on the wrong trail nor did we make a mistake simply because the trail gets hard or ends in places we least expect. And maybe God leads us down strange and difficult paths just so, like children, we will then grab his hand.
As The RH-WF and I trudged on, I felt a shift in my heart. I let go of desire for the destination. The fear of being lost lessened. Once again I began to notice the beauty and majesty that surrounded us. I became present to God’s presence again. I realized how fortunate we were to be able to make a treacherous and demanding hike like this, especially in our 60s. Several miles on we found a trail marker. Then the rain caught us. We donned our rain gear and slopped on sure now that, though the way had been difficult, we were on the right track and God had hiked every step with us.
When is a time you thought you were lost but were not and felt God with you?
P.S. Speaking of difficult, I’ve had a few hard, busy weeks and it derailed my writing of my blog. Thanks for your patience and I’m hoping I’m back on track, though one can never be sure.