It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were tired, and ready to get back to camp after a day of hiking. The map indicated that a straight cut had been made through the forest for the sake of power lines, and it looked like the perfect shortcut to bring us to our tents and dinners. We left the trail. It wasn’t long before we regretted it. The forest had been cut at some point, yes, but it was doing a good job of coming back. As we picked our way through the brambles and saplings, we didn’t notice the hornet’s nest, but they noticed us. To make matters worse, we lost our bearings in the unexpected undergrowth and missed the place where we had intended to rejoin the trail, heading off in the wrong direction without even realising it. Eventually, we discovered our error and limped the long way back to camp with our scrapes and stings – and a new appreciation for trails.
I’ve helped cut trails. It’s a lot harder than it looks. The better the trail, the more time and effort it takes to make it. But when the job is done, the way is easier for anyone who follows. That’s the whole point of trails: to show us where to go and give us a clear path to get there. I suppose that’s why we celebrate the trailblazers, the people who have cut new paths through life at great cost to themselves, and by doing so have helped make the way easier for those who follow. The world needs trailblazers, and ought to celebrate them. They get the glory for a reason. But if their hard-won trails are going to do us any good going forward, then the world also needs trailfollowers. What’s the point of a path if no one uses it?
We don’t care. We don’t like old trails. We think we can do better. Paths worn down by the footsteps of generations are just the sort of things we would rather ignore and replace with fresh ways, or best of all, our own ways. Maybe we’ve celebrated the trailblazers so much that we’ve become preoccupied with trying to be like them. Maybe we want to share the glory, and that’s why our culture hunts constantly for a new wilderness to bravely cut through, to be the ones who boldly go where no one has gone before. But there’s a difference between us and them: the old trailblazers knew where they were going, and cut their paths to help us get there. These days, our culture doesn’t seem to want to consider where our trails will take us, we just love to blaze them. Maybe we forgot that some trails are well-worn for a reason: they really are the best way through.
I’m not saying that every old path is good, simply because it’s well-traveled. The most important thing about a trail will always be where it takes you. History has shown us clearly that popular paths can still arrive at terrible destinations, but that doesn’t mean that every well-worn trail is useless, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every new path is better. New paths can go off in wrong directions just as easily as the old ones. They can still lead us through hornets nests. They can still end in disaster.
What we need most is clarity about where we’re going. I’ve spent enough time in the woods to know that trusting my own senses and gut feelings for that kind of clarity and direction is one of the most effective ways to get lost. The only way we got back to camp after our “shortcut” through the hornets was by letting the map show us where we went wrong. Thankfully, God has provided us the map for life in the Bible. Will we use it? Once we know where we’re going, we might find that trails have already been cut to help us get there. Will we ignore them simply because they’re old? Will we insist on cutting our own way through the thorns and hornets? At the end of the day, I’d rather be a trailfollower on the path towards home than a trailblazer who’s lost in the wilderness.