…You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip. -Psalm 18:36
Just after my high school graduation, before heading east for college, I was working in a mountain resort town in my home state of Colorado to earn money for school, and a friend invited me to join him and his roommates on a three-day backpacking trip along the patch of Continental Divide that stretched just above our sleepy summertime ski village. After a short ride on the nearly abandoned Berthoud Pass chairlift we began our upward wandering toward the nearest summit with nothing more than small rock piles, known as cairns, as sporadic trail markers to guide our way back to civilization.
That particular trip proved memorable for many reasons, thanks to a late start, terrible weather, and a few unintended treks through glacial marshes. But the image of those tiny cairns piled up along the broad swath of bare peak and endless sky have come back to me on several occasions in the years since. Over the past ten years of life and work, I have come to appreciate those feebly fearless rock structures as a compelling picture of how it feels to discern and pursue faithfulness across the various spheres of my efforts, responsibilities, and commitments. Where I once thought of my vocation, or calling, in somewhat linear, marked-trailhead sort of terms – hoping to somehow discern the all-inclusive single occupation best matched to my personality profile, or to divinely sense the most intuitive, singularly direct path for making a positive difference in the world – my experience has instead felt more like wandering-with-intention toward the next little rock pile where I inevitably see more of the terrain that lies before me.
In nearly every conversation with good friends and mentors who long to be wise and faithful in their lives and work, I am continually reminded of this somewhat counter-intuitive understanding of calling. That while it is certainly true that in certain moments or seasons the Lord is faithful to lead us along narrow paths, to place us in limiting circumstances or hem us in with few, if any, choices in order to clarify his voice. At other times, most of the time I would argue, out of the same great kindness He leads us into broad places where we are free to choose among many options and possibilities. In Psalm 18:19 the psalmist writes, “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me,” And later in verse 36, “You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.”
For many of us, however, this freedom borne of God’s delight in us is more than we know what to do with. We prefer a “right answer” rather than a relationship, a particular assignment rather than an open invitation. Yet even in this hesitancy and uncertainty God longs to meet us, to speak to us, to guide us to the next little cairn if we will simply yield to the precarious-feeling bits of terra firma that he has already set under our feet.
In my life the smallest of all the cairns, the pebbles if you will, have come in learning how to consent to the little excitements and admirations that litter my thoughts and experiences – to let them count as a way God might be guiding or inviting me into more of his work even if they feel a lot like nothing to me (even if they look a lot like nothing!). I have learned to trust that even the smallest cairn can keep me on the ridge, trekking forward to the next larger pile, rather than wandering down toward the tree line. Other feeble-yet-lasting cairns have been built by noting nuances when I recognize myself having a unique perspective or insight about something or someone. Some little piles have grown simply by noting things about which I feel curiously averse or bothered. These help me take mental note of what it is I long to see be done differently, better, more sufficiently – the back door approach to discovering my greatest loves is by paying attention to all those things I simply can’t stand!
But perhaps the greatest testament of the cairns is simply that they are a product of time. They are the product of many people walking the trail before me, and a sign that there are many more to come after me. They remind me there is no one right way to get across the Continental Divide, just as there is no one single, correct way to live a faithful life. For each person the path will be slightly different – perhaps radically different – but trusting the guidance of others who have gone before, having confidence to put down markers of your own to help others avoid precarious territory, and most of all learning to trust and enjoy the broad, open, unmarked terrain that spans between each stone tower, can be abiding assurance that even without a customized trail map, time-weathered cairns are enough to get you across one way or another.