A bewildered traveller was once walking in a strange country. Feeling fearful, without map or compass, he came to the junction of three trails. There was no signpost to indicate where any of them might lead. As he sat on a rock, contemplating the problem, a young boy came by and wished him a bright “Good Morning!” The traveler replied, “And a very good morning to you, son. Can you help me, please? I’m not from these parts, and I’m lost. Where does that trail over there lead?”
“Sorry, sir, I don’t know” said the boy.
“Well, what about that second trail there?”
“Sorry, sir,” replied the boy, “I don’t know.” By now the traveller was getting impatient. “O.K., where does this third trail go?”
“Sorry sir, I don’t know,” came the cheerful reply.
Now seriously frustrated, the traveller snapped back, “For goodness sake, boy, what do you know?”
“I know I’m not lost, sir,” came the confident rejoinder, as the boy went on his way.
I can empathize with the traveller who does not have any idea where he is or which way to go next. This is how I often feel myself, when none of the paths ahead shows any clue as to where it might lead. But I can also identify with the young boy, who admits that he doesn’t know where any trail leads, but who knows for sure that he is not lost.
Not knowing where to go next is not necessarily the same thing as being lost, though the two conditions usually feel much the same. We panic easily when we find ourselves on unfamiliar ground without any signposts. We feel anxious when there are several paths we could follow but we can not predict where they might take us. We want certainty. We want a God who tells us exactly which way to go and what to do next. Instead, we find a God who meets us in the wilderness with the words: “Don’t be afraid. You are not lost. You are just a bit bewildered. If you want to know where the future leads, put your hand in mine and come and see.”
What makes us able to say, honestly, that we believe that promise, that we trust those words? Are they just a cliché, something we would love to believe but usually opt instead for our own paths and our own maps. What could it possibly mean, to know that we are not lost?
One thing that consistently helps me to trust in times of turbulence is my memory of past situations when I have felt myself in the midst of a whirlwind and yet have discovered, right in the eye of the storm, a still center that I know from experience is more real, more true and more trustworthy than anything the storm might throw at me. I can, and do, creep into that still center when I don’t know where I am. Once there, I know I am not lost and never can be.
The family cat is another unlikely mentor in the matter of trust. He has just made a big move, from the English Midlands to the west of Scotland. He howled all the way in the back of the car, in spite of threats to put him up on the roof and use him as a siren. When he arrived, he didn’t know where he had landed or what might happen to him next. But he stopped howling. He did a careful reconnoiter of the new terrain before settling down in a dark corner to gather himself and become grounded again in an unfamiliar place, not trying to work anything out, just waiting for things to reshape themselves before resuming business as usual. Not for the first time I saw that Ihave much to learn from him.
At this time of the year, when we may be starting new work, a new school, a new academic year, we are especially vulnerable to feeling lost. We may beseech God in our prayers, or in the silence of our anxieties, to show us which way to go. And if we are willing to be led by Jesus’ wisdom (Jn 1:39), we will hear the invitation ourselves to “come and see.” Jesus gives no specific address, no clear directions for getting there, simply that invitation to discover for ourselves, with him, where the future is beckoning us.
To hear that invitation, we will need to find the still point in the center of the storm. Only in that inner cave of silence will we, like Elijah, be able to discern the “still, small voice” of God. And to respond to the invitation we will need to trust that wherever life has thrown us, we are not lost.