Either North or South

The rain poured all day. Soaking wet, cold, and tired, we kept hiking through West Virginia wilderness. The trail head was two hours away. I was leading my first backpacking trip with a small group of junior high kids. Somewhere along the trail, Ellie, our senior high leader asked me a question. “Should we be going north or south?”

“North,” I said, not noticing the concern in her voice.

Pointing to her compass she said, “We’re going south.”

Her words took my breath away. I panicked at the thought of being lost in the wilderness. 

“Paul,” I said to one of the kids, “run ahead and see if the trail turns north. Look for a trail marker. Go!”

Desperately I waited for good news. Paul came running back. “The trail keeps going straight. No marker.”

Dang! This can’t be happening! I said to myself. We’ve been hiking all day. We’ve been so stinkin' careful to follow the map! We’ve followed the trail markers. How can we be lost?

I stood in the rain with eight exhausted kids. They stared at me, asking which way we should go? I had no idea. Overcome with confusion, I was too afraid to make a wrong decision. Then, in the middle of the silence, a student named Biz spoke up, “Why don’t we pray?”

I hate to admit it but my self-talk sounded like this—How can God possibly show us which way to go in the middle of nowhere? We haven’t seen a person for two days. How can God make the way clear?

I shoved my doubts aside and thought, God can help us even though it seems impossible. I said, “That’s a good idea, Biz. Let’s get in a circle and pray.” Holding hands in the middle of the trail, we asked God for help.

“God, please help Mr. Heim know what to do.”

“We don’t know how you could do this, God, but would you please show us exactly where we are and give us certainty about which way we should go on the trail?”

“Thank you, Jesus, for helping us. Amen.”

The last student had barely finished saying amen, when one of the kids said, “Look!”

Looking down the trail, we saw a middle-aged backpacker coming toward us holding a walking stick with his golden retriever alongside him. Overcome with joy, I ran to the guy.

“Can you tell me the name of the trail we’re on?” I asked.  “We’re kinda lost.”

“I know,” he said. “I saw you praying. I can do more than tell you the name of this trail. I can show you exactly where you are on the trail and I can tell you which direction you need to go.” He pulled out a GPS and several waterproof maps. Pointing on one of the maps he said, “Here’s exactly where we’re standing. Keep going in the direction you were headed. You’ll be at the trail head in about an hour.”

Shouts of joy and praise to Jesus rang out from my fellowship of junior high adventurers. We thanked our rescuer and set out down the trail which turned north within a half mile.

Real life is frustrating
Life can be like my wilderness experience in West Virginia. Your day is going pretty well. Then something suddenly happens that takes you “south”—someone criticizes you, you get a flat tire on your way to an important job interview, you lose your job, your spouse says they want a divorce, the doctor says the tumor is malignant, you find out your daughter’s pregnant, someone else got the promotion you were counting on. One minute I was happy and confident we were on the trail that would lead us home. The next minute I nearly despaired at the thought of being lost in the middle of the wilderness. I panicked and defaulted to shame, anger, and self-contempt. And then God graciously invited me to trust him and ask him for help through the humble request of a young teenage girl.

When we experience the struggles of life, too often we quickly default to unbelief, worry, bitterness, and despair. We “go south” and react in hurtful ways instead of “going north” by turning to God and finding our “true north” in him so we can respond in helpful ways. 

Too often, like I did, we scramble and just try harder to figure out what to do when we’re confused and afraid. But Jesus never told us to just try harder. He asks us to open the door and let him in (Revelation 3:20). I needed to remember we weren’t alone in the wilderness. I need to remember I’m never alone and neither are you.

What is one area in your life where you are experiencing hardship, where you feel like you’re alone in the wilderness? Where is Jesus asking you to open the door and let him in?