Have you ever been lost in the wilderness? Or found yourself wandering an unknown area of the mountains, valleys or deserts asking yourself where the trail might be?
In those hard places where few people go, where a path has not worn through the thick skin of the earth, the need for guidance is all the more vital. It is those paths where the cairn proves the biggest blessing.
Cairns have been used throughout the ages to guide the wanderer through the difficult trails. The Inuit in Alaska use them to guide them home when snow reshapes the landscape. Even the Israelites set towers of rocks to remind them of where they’d come from and where they were going. They served as a memory of a long journey through the wilderness.
The avid hiker finds the cairn as they move beyond the tree line into the upper ranks of the alpine. Here the trail can easily be lost as vegetation gives way to rock at the mountain’s peak. The hiker experiences the fatigue of rarefied air and without the encouragement of those beacons it would be easy to falter.
Cairns offer hope.
They remind the wanderer that there is a path to tread. It is a path that others have experienced, it wasn’t too hard for them and it isn’t too difficult for us. They thought of us when they added a stone to the pile, offering us encouragement to continue moving toward the next guidepost.
I thought about cairns a lot on Thanksgiving day this year.
I found myself wandering through the upheaval canyon loop in Canyonlands National Park with some friends that day. Talk about “dry and barren” – there was no water, and hardly anything living that didn’t have sharp defenses. It was dusty, rocky, and utterly desolate. One could easily get lost in the maze of the Canyonlands… and many have.
As we hiked, the one who trekked first would keep an eye not just on their step so as to avoid stumbling or subbing a toe, but also be vigilant in spotting the next cairn. Without care, it was easy to lose the cairn and we had to stop and retrace our steps until we again caught sight of the next stack of rocks.
Once or twice we followed what looked like a trail, feeling confident that we were going the right way. We paid little attention to spotting the cairns that marked the rout going the opposite direction. Sure enough, we found ourselves on the edge of a cliff with no option but to turn around and try to spot the real trail.
All these experiences got me thinking. I am so thankful for those who have gone before. For those who’ve left a stone, a cairn, for me to know where to turn when I have no clue where to go next – to them I am thankful. I am thankful not just for the hikers who thought of me without knowing it as they set an extra stone up to make the way more obvious… but I am also thankful for those in the faith who have done the same.
Gratitude fills my heart as I think of those who personally touched my life at critical junctures and pointed me in the right direction. Some encouraged me with words, others with experiences and still others with their profound and faithful example.
There are so many who have forever changed my life because they were faithful to mark out the way toward discipleship. People like my parents, Christina Smith, John Nugent, George Brown, Dustin Jizmejian, Tim and Mahnon Cline all added vital wisdom and encouragement in my journey of faith. They spoke into my life in ways that have forever changed it and I would not be where I am today but for the Grace of God in giving these people as gifts to my life.
And then I think of those who set down the stones that are beneath those laid down by my mentors. The men and women of faith whose example is read of in books, and who lived a life that represents The Way though their part of the journey ended many years ago. These individuals were faithful to death and without them countless people would not be where they are today.
I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose book “Cost of Discipleship” radically influences millions of people. His example of a life lived in light of costly grace is beautiful and his encouragement to simply follow Christ daily, powerfully impacts the church around the world. He challenges to the core and inspires me more than any other author outside of scripture.
Other faithful believers, like Francis Schaffer, remind me of the dignity of humanity, the sanctity of beauty and creating beautiful art. Sermons of Paris Reidhead were used of God to show me more of what Grace is and the rest we have in the Lord. And my favorite teacher, Malcolm Smith taught me to recognize that life is sheer gift and I simply get to say thank you and live in light of the gifts of God with gratitude and faithfulness.
History is full of the faithful few who built on the solid foundation – that rock of ages – who was the pioneer and trailblazer of our faith. It is Jesus Christ in whose steps we follow. We daily walk through this journey of life and discipleship looking to the next cairn that was placed there first by Jesus, then added to by the faithful saints who walk before us and left their solid examples as faithful followers of our Lord.
We cannot see the end from the beginning but we are gifted with knowing the next step. The one who calls us also offers us the hope that our journey’s end will bring us to a place of rest, refreshment and renewal after the long and hard trek.