by Joel Bates
While most people eagerly await the countdown for the ball to drop on Time’s Square or lean in for that first kiss of the year or raise a glass to toast the end of another chapter, I think about the “Day One” adventure. Our family has developed this tradition of opening the year with an intrepid outing that goes back to my high school days when my dad and I attempted to summit the highest peak in my old stomping grounds, the Black Hills. Harney Peak, as it was called back then, rose up to a respectable height of nearly 8000 feet above sea level. However, it was not the altitude that created the most challenge. It was the deep snow pack that concealed the trail and often left us foraging waist deep in fresh powder and heaving for oxygen in the thin, cold air.
Now that I live in Missouri, where the highest elevation in the state is but a trifle to the Rocky Mountain region, what we lack in altitude on our New Year’s Day hikes we make up for in distance. This year, we picked a seven-mile section of the Ozark Trail that we had never been on, which is saying something as I’ve spent the better part of the last 18 years leading backpacking trips on or near this fantastic path. Even if the trail offered little in the way of snow-packed, high mountain adversity or the promise of alpine vistas, it offered the key ingredient to all adventures…the unknown.
As my wife and kids and I set out, it was not snow that covered the ground, but a thick carpet of fallen leaves that mostly obliterated the trail. Repeatedly, the lead hiker would veer off into the woods only to discover that there was no track. We would branch out until we found the path and call the others over to regain the trail.
It took so much focus to remain on the path that we barely took in the scenery around us. About half way through the hike, we came into a section of trail that was maintained better and easer to follow.
My spirit rose now as I trudged along finding that I could pay much more attention to my surroundings: the distant hills rising in the mist, the stag on the adjacent ridgeline, the crisp, pure air filling my lungs, and the silent amity of the old forest sentried by thick, aged oaks and tall, ragged pines. The destination lay clearly on the map, but how we would get there was a mystery unveiled only by continuing down the winding track. I felt a deep gratitude for this trail and all the trails I’ve trod and was reminded of one path in particular—the way of faith.
It’s no surprise that trails are a common theme in scripture since everyone walked wherever they needed to go. Making a journey is a spiritual concept, and it is no surprise that paths make it easier to get where you’re going. The right trail makes all the difference in getting to the intended destination, and even now with modern maps and GPS, one can see how easy it is to lose one’s way and stray off course. God hasn’t left us to aimlessly walk our own way. Scriptures provide proof:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalm 16:11
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways. Psalm 139:3
With weeping they shall come,
and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
I will make them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
for I am a Father… Jeremiah 31:9
Scriptures like these magnify the Lord’s intentions to walk this journey with us, and there are even tools to help us navigate.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it. Psalm 119:35
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life,
but he who rejects reproof leads others astray. Proverbs 10:17
In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. Isaiah 26:8
Through leadership, evident commands, the lamp of scripture, the light of God’s voice, the instructions and reproofs, and waiting on the Lord, we obtain exemplary tools for navigating this strange and wondrous course. But similar to hiking on a leaf-strewn path, the way can get confusing, and our sinful selves wander off the way, sometimes by our own willfulness. What then?
One of my favorite passages of scripture comes to this trail traveler as a great comfort when I consider how perilous the way is and how many snares, and wrong turns there are. Isaiah beautifully addresses the traveler’s concern,
And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity
and the water of affliction,
yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore,
but your eyes shall see your Teacher.
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying,
“This is the way, walk in it,”
when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.
Can you just hear that whisper at the critical moment when you are desperate and don’t know which way to go? Maybe you’ve turned down the wrong path and been traveling for what seems like too long a time to turn back and ever find your way again. There is hope softly spoken. This deep, impenetrable comfort is for all of us who walk this trail of faith when we consider that the Holy Spirit is right there with us every step of the way—graciously, patiently, lovingly whispering the directions all along the way.
Drawn to these thoughts by the simple ritual of an annual excursion—a day’s journey down a new trail—it merely marked the start of a new year. However, the eternal stakes of our life’s path and the direction we take are of supreme importance. As you consider your path in the coming year, the question is not simply are you walking on the Trinity’s trail and in the divine direction, but are you listening to the Whisperer of the way?
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
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