When I was a school teacher, I used to take part in an event every year. Some of our students would complete the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which included an orienteering task. Students were given a starting point, a finishing point and an Ordnance Survey map. It was up to them how they got from the start to the finish – there were a number of possible routes. Over a few weeks they would study the map, plan their route and list everything they needed to take for a fairly gruelling hike followed by an overnight bivouac.
The staff who organised it put out an annual appeal for teachers to accompany the students on their walk and I usually volunteered and was assigned a group of about 6 students. It was not for me to tell them which route to take, nor to correct their errors. They had to use the map to work these things out for themselves. This was just as well, as I am seriously challenged when it comes to things pictorial. I have a complete mental block about interpreting graphs, diagrams, charts, etc. Map reading is something I find beyond difficult – nearly impossible.
The first time I volunteered for this I learned a very valuable lesson. My little band of students (aged fourteen and fifteen) set out with high hopes and even higher confidence, down the hill on the path they had planned, and deep into the woods. Then things began to get complicated. There were so many more paths between the trees than were marked on the map. Clearly these were “unofficial” tracks, some of them perhaps made by the deer and badgers that inhabited the area, and it was very hard to distinguish them from the “official” path that we were meant to be taking.
I had been told to allow the students to make their own mistakes, and only step in if it got hopeless. Sometimes we would stop at a fork and an argument would break out within the group as to whether or not it was the path they had planned. There were a lot of fruitless wanderings which resulted in us retracing our steps, and added many minutes, in fact probably a couple of hours, to our journey. The students began to get disheartened, and I noticed that as they lost confidence in their route and became discouraged, they appeared to feel the weight of their backpacks much more than they had when they were striding ahead with assurance. They were more inclined to complain and they lost patience with each other. Frankly I was of no help at all to them, other than to keep their spirits up (at one point I had them marching along to rousing choruses of “Lloyd George knew my father” and “Always look on the bright side of life”). But maps are a mystery to me, you might as well have handed me the periodic table, it was equally obscure.
Then I remembered something. As a teenager I had done a lot of sailing on the North Sea. Often, the landmarks ashore and the lights of the buoys and beacons were enough to steer a course by. But when the fog descended, all these visual markers disappeared, and the only hope of arriving safely at the desired harbour was to plot the course on the chart and set the compass to the right reading to take us there. Then no matter how disorientated we felt, even if we seemed to be going round in circles or back the way we had come, I learned that the compass was a far more reliable guide than my feelings. I learned to respect the compass and put my faith in it. It never lied and we always ended up at our planned destination.
Once I remembered this, the D of E walk became a whole lot easier. Every time we came to a fork and the students were not sure which path they should take, I got them to check the map and see which direction the path should be taking them. Then I made them take out the compass and see if the path they were contemplating did in fact go in that direction. They soon got the hang of this and progress became more rapid. The one thing they learned was what I had discovered on those sailing trips many years before – the compass never lies. You can trust it.
I am currently facing a fork in the path of my life, and I’ve been wondering which way to go. Three years ago I found myself facing the hardest decision of my life, one over which I had agonised long and hard. What I began to discover then was that the peace of God was like the compass for my life. The right decision is always the one that has God’s signature peace on it. In Colossians 3 verse 15, it says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Or, as the Amplified Version renders it more fully, “And let the peace (soul harmony which comes) from Christ rule (act as umpire continually) in your hearts [deciding and settling with finality all questions that arise in your minds, in that peaceful state] to which as [members of Christ’s] one body you were also called [to live].”
Two options lie before me. One is logical and sensible. It’s what any level-headed friend would advise me to do. The other is risky, insecure and counter-intuitive. And strange to say, it’s this latter one which fills my heart with the peace of Christ when I contemplate it. I am left in no doubt that God is calling me to an uncertain path, one which involves a leap of faith. The other one ought to offer more security and more peace of mind; and yet God’s peace is absent the moment I begin to step foot on it. But I have learned to trust the compass.
I have had a very disorientating few months – another lifequake. It has left me hardly knowing which way is up. Neither of the available paths looks quite like the map I thought I had, and it’s hard to be sure if I’m going on or back, or simply round in circles. I am going to trust the compass. As soon as I say to God, I am going to trust You, to trust Your provision for me, Your guiding, Your removal of all the obstacles that seem to bestrew this path, and I am going to walk this way, I sense God’s approval , the joy and comfort of the Holy Spirit and the signature peace of God. The compass is pointing to true north, and although the way looks completely obscure and I certainly can’t see where the path leads, or even where it emerges from under the dark trees into open land and broad daylight, I know that the compass never lies, and I’m going to trust it.