Finding our way

Last time, I wrote about traveling to a country I had never visited before, and having my luggage not make the journey with me. You may know firsthand what that’s like. Technically, only your suitcase is lost. But you feel a little lost too.

But actually being lost is worse.

Several years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of military chaplains at an army base not too far from my home — we’ll call it “Fort X” — about a 2 to 2-1/2 hour drive. The person who was arranging my visit sent me directions that he had downloaded from MapQuest. I printed them out, and on the afternoon I drove to the base, kept them next to me in the car.

I had given myself a little extra time to compensate for traffic, but it turned out to be unusually heavy. Evening fell; I had already been on the road for more than two hours, and was nowhere near my destination. Eventually, I came on an freeway exit labeled “Fort X Road.” Hmm, I thought to myself as I drove past. That’s strange. I didn’t know that was there. The directions the chaplain sent me didn’t say anything about it.

That should have been my first clue that something was wrong. But I kept going, trusting that if the chaplain at Fort X sent me those directions, they had to be right. Right? Maybe there was a shortcut?

Long story short: he hadn’t checked the directions for accuracy. Neither had I. And to be fair, the directions were probably “accurate” in the sense that I may eventually have arrived at Fort X. But they took me off the pavement and onto dirt roads where there were no lights and no signage, saying helpful things like “In 150 yards, turn half-right.”

After getting myself deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere, I decided to reverse course. I made my way back to the freeway — O, blessed asphalt! — and eventually back to, yes, Fort X Road, which got me there quickly and safely.

It was after 10 o’clock by the time I arrived. The chaplain apologized profusely for the error. Then he told me that the deserted area I had driven through was used for military maneuvers.

Lost. Unsure which way to turn, or where to go. You may know the feeling.

I suspect the psalmist did too.

. . .

Psalm 25, as we’ve seen, is a prayer for help which has a prayer for wisdom tucked inside it. Inside that prayer for wisdom is a prayer for mercy and forgiveness. And inside that are these verses about the humble:

Good and upright is the LORD;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
(vss. 8-10, NRSV)

The psalmist is humbled by the knowledge of his own sin, and grateful that a good, upright God of steadfast love and faithfulness would still teach a sinner such as himself. Note the language he uses: God will instruct sinners in “the way,” and teach the humble “his way.” He “leads” the humble: in the Hebrew, the word is the verb form of the noun translated as “way.” And there is a reference to the “paths” of the LORD, a synonym for “way.”

We see the same language in other verses before and after. “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me” (4-5a). This is the same vocabulary, the same imagery of God leading his people down the right road. Here and in the verses above, the psalmist uses the word “paths” after having used the word “way” in the previous phrase, as if needed to change up the wording a bit to avoid being overly repetitive. Finally, in verse 12, the psalmist asks and answers his own question: “Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.”

If you’re keeping count, that means that from verses 4-12, the psalmist uses some form or synonym of “way” eight times. This is the dominant theme of the wisdom portion of the psalm, a theme that goes all the way back to Psalm 1: there is a way, a path, a road that God would have us follow.

It’s no accident that the followers of Jesus, before they became known as Christians or even Nazarenes, called their own movement The Way.

. . .

The psalm was written to encourage us to reach out to God when we need help. But inside that prayer for help is the acknowledgment of how lost we may be. It’s not just that we don’t know what to do about the problems and enemies that beset us. It’s not just about them. It’s about us, about our brokenness, our sin. We’ve lost our way.

And as we pray for help, we pray for God to show us his way again.