I walked a certain path so often that a trail began to form.
I watched the grass first bend and then retreat, the strip of dirt becoming more pronounced, more permanent. It marked my way until an onlooker could never tell if the trail was something that I followed, or something that followed me.
And isn’t this how so many trails form? The treading of feet tamping down grass or leaves or mud, indicating a way. A way into the woods. A way to the peak, to the lake, to the overlook.
Or a way out.
Every trail is a sign that someone has been there before you. That someone found their way in or found their way out and left you a route to travel. Every trail is a sign that you can make it too.
So often I want to see the end of the trail. Or I fear where this one is leading and I want to hit the undo button. Go back to the beginning. Try again. Prepare differently. End differently.
But God did not make us omniscient. And sometimes getting into messes and cleaning them up teaches us more than avoiding them altogether. The hard lessons don’t live at the edges. The hard lessons live in the middle. When the heroine is down to her last dollar, her last moment, her last nerve.
I stand against a wooden railing looking deep into the shallow waters of a bog. The tangle of green water plants is somehow beautiful to me. Me, who at the moment wants to enter another world, another time, another place, just for a moment. To feel peace. I search and search amidst the weeds for a sign of life. A small fish, a frog, a turtle. The weeds stir, but nothing emerges.
If our faith teaches us anything at all, it’s that we worship a God of the messy. Our God does not observe from the edges. Our God comes into the midst. Into the tangle. Into the mess. Jesus came and laid a trail for us to follow. When we follow his dusty, sandaled footsteps we see that the worst possible mess – the mess of torture, of betrayal, of loneliness, of death – is just the middle of the story. The trail keeps going.
The trail does keep going.
I feel the breeze against my face, watch the weeds sway lifeless just beneath the water’s surface. It occurs to me that while I’m looking for life amidst the depths, the depths themselves are alive. The whole green mess, the whole tangle that I know secretly contains hidden life, the whole slimy, swaying mass – the whole thing is life.
I lift my eyes and watch across the surface of the water two white swans. They are graceful only while floating. When they struggle airborne they take on the gangling appearance of lopsided cargo planes. The roar of their wings is punctuated by the slapping of their feet as they half-run, half-fly across the water. They are almost out of runway when they finally gain altitude and begin to climb.
The chortle of their takeoff raises something in me akin to a laugh. Did they realize as they raced east across the pond that they were almost out of surface water? Did they realize one moment longer and they would have hit beak-first into the muddy bank? Was it that one last panicked thrust of the wings that gave them just enough height to leap up, to grab hold of some invisible hand of wind that pushed them higher?
There is beauty in the struggle. There is life in the mess. On the loneliest of trails there is, nevertheless, a trail.
Janet Beagle, Ph.D. serves as director of graduate programs for Purdue University’s College of Engineering and is a writer, a Bible study teacher, and a student of God’s word. In her spare time, she likes to eat other people’s cooking and hike with her dog, Marly. Read more of Janet’s Christian reflections at www.mustardpatch.org.