Last week during my family’s annual vacation to Twisp, Washington, I ventured out for a backcountry trail run. This has become a tradition for me and a chance to get some of the alone time that refuels my soul and spirit. The previous two years I had chosen a close-by canyon that required only a few hours to conquer. This year I wanted a change of scenery, so I examined the local trail map and selected an area in the upper Twisp river valley. Because I was unfamiliar with the area, I wanted to wait until I drove to the vicinity before making my final trail selection based on ease of trailhead parking, crowds, and scenery. All I had told my family was that I would be heading up Twisp River road and would be gone about two hours based on what I could see from the map. The simple choice to leave my destination “open-ended” would end up being the first in a series of miscalculations that led to an unplanned outcome for everyone.
One trail was called Williams Lake. As I pulled into the trailhead parking area there wasn’t a single car around, so as far as solitude, it looked perfect. I approached the trail kiosk to pay the recreation fee and get a more detailed description of what was ahead. From what I could tell from studying the basic trail map the night before, it should have been about a seven to eight-mile round trip to the lake, and the description at the trailhead confirmed this at seven and a half miles. However, what I failed to realize, and the language used to describe the trial didn’t make clear, was that it was seven and a half miles one way! With plenty of water and a few snacks, I set out on my way running up the ascent.
I have nearly twenty-five years of running experience under my belt, so based on the time elapsed and my pace, I began to wonder where the lake was at about mile four. With the sound of a rushing creek parallel to my route and constantly changing topography with what appeared to be a clearing in the trees up ahead, it became a mind trick that the lake had to be around one of the upcoming bends in the trail. Considering I was enjoying my run, I really wasn’t put off too much by the elusive lake, but at mile six, as I began to break out of the thick canopy into the thinning alpine tree layer, I realized my mistake in reading the map. In reality, I still had over a mile to go and it was time for an assessment.
I paused briefly to refuel with a bit of food and water and check my phone. I was already close to an hour beyond the estimated time I told my family I would be back, and it was very apparent that in my desire for an adventure, I had grossly miscalculated the scope of the trail I had chosen. To top things off, I had no cell service. I attempted a text to my wife, but I kept getting a prompt telling me that my message could not be delivered. Even if I turned back at this point on the trail, I knew that if my family didn’t receive a message from me soon, they would certainly begin to worry. I had to keep moving, so I decided to continue on to the lake, hoping if I ran with my phone in my hand, checking periodically, I could find a “pocket” of reception. Each time I saw my phone connect briefly, I stopped to resend the message, but each time it failed – except one. One time, I never received the failed message prompt, but I also didn’t receive indication that the message was delivered either. At this moment I prayed that the message would make it through somehow.
I made it to the lake and was completely struck by its majestic presence: crystal clear water surrounded by mountain peaks and grassy meadows. There was not another soul around, and I lifted my hands in excitement and praise for the moment I was experiencing in God’s creation. As tempting as it was to stay and take a dip in the lake after the long trek up, I knew I had to quickly descend to make contact with my family. Several times on the way down I checked my phone to see if I had received any messages- but nothing. It was only when I got all the way back down to my car that my final phone check showed me what had transpired. My message had been received, but not until my wife and dad where already on their way to look for me. Worry had set in that I was lost or something had happened, and they had made the decision to begin looking for me. Thankfully, only about a half mile onto the road and they received my text, prompting them to head back home and await my arrival.
On the heels of this event, my mind was racing through each of the decisions I had made, and what I could have done differently. I hated the fact that my choices caused my family stress. I realized if something had truly gone wrong, I did not take the necessary precautions to ensure they knew where to look. For this I apologized. In the midst of processing all of this I began thinking about what actually constitutes someone being lost. There is the obvious scenario, when someone has no idea where they are and how to get to their destination. But what about when the person wandering does know where they are, but the person looking for them doesn’t. Are they lost then?
I not only began thinking about this because of my experience on the trail, but my experience in the church too. It’s all too common for those within the church to refer to people who do not have a relationship with Christ as “lost” or even “the lost.” However, I’m certain if you were to ask those individuals if they viewed themselves as lost, the answer would be no. In fact, chances are, they may not even know what you are talking about. Once again, I used to be one of these people, and lost was not one of ways I chose to describe myself. In fact, I know several people who don’t profess faith in Christ that are content with their life, give selflessly to their neighbor, and would consider themselves anything but lost. How can someone suggest otherwise? It helps to think about the moment I reached the lake and the two very different experiences my family and I were having. I was proud of achieving something I was determined to do, enjoying my surroundings, and caught up in the excitement of adventure. If asked whether or not I was lost, I would most certainly have answered no. I knew where I was and where I was going. At the same time, those that loved me were deeply concerned, feeling a sense of uncertainty and trying to figure out a way to find me. If they were asked if I was lost, their answer would have been yes. My experience tells me that a person will always be lost to the one who loves them until they are reunited.
This truth exactly expresses the heart of God. He is deeply concerned for those that are far away, and will not rest until all of his children are reunited with Him. In the Parable of the Lost Son, Jesus shares of the true compassion his Father has for us. The story tells of a man with two sons. The younger asked for his inheritance early and promptly gathered it all together and left home to engage in wild living. It wasn’t long until he had squandered it all and realized that he had it much better off at home. He tucked tail and returned home, not expecting his father to take him back, but to his surprise the opposite happened. Not only did his father take him back, but he ran to his son upon seeing him arrive, called for his servants to adorn him with the finest clothes and prepare a feast in celebration of his return (Luke 15:11-31).
There are a few key elements that I’d like to focus on in this story. First, the son never referred to himself as lost, only the father did saying, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Luke 15:24 & 31
Second, what the son did recognize was that he had sinned against heaven and against his father, which caused him to turn from the life he was living and go home (Luke 15:21). When I committed my life to Christ, I had no one around me telling me what I was doing was wrong. In fact, everyone around me was engaged in the same destructive activities as I was. No one told me I was lost, nor did I recognize that I was, but God certainly did. What did happen was I was introduced to a holy God who loved me as I was, and the desire to live for Him was so strong, I knew I couldn’t become the man He was calling me to be and go on doing the things I was doing. This is the conviction of the Holy Spirit and it is a good thing! It’s like an internal homing beacon directing us to turn our faces towards the Father that is calling for us to come back (John 16:8). God is fully capable of doing this in a person’s heart and doesn’t need us adding our confusing religious talk to the process.
I become deeply concerned when I see our faith communities concentrating on what people are not instead of what they are. A person should not be defined by the position that they find themselves in. Christ declared that he came into the world to “seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). It’s incredibly important that we examine the language that he uses. This verse, and the parable we looked at, never use the word lost to describe the personal characteristics or mental state of an individual. It’s only used to describe the action that has taken place that created the distance between the person and their father - like something being misplaced. The moment sin entered the world, separation between God and his creation happened, and all of us became that which was lost. This, however, is from God’s perspective and should only be used to explain His constant pursuit of our hearts.
If lost is something we are told we are in the middle of an incredible “run” in our life, we are likely to never turn from it, because what we are told doesn’t equate to what we are feeling. However, if the focus shifts to the truth of being a son or daughter to a loving father who is worthy of a celebration, we will soon realize the true distance that separates us from God. As I’ve finished reflecting on this last week, it’s hard to understand but nonetheless true, that at the pinnacle of my run in the midst of the most stunning view, I couldn’t have been more lost to those that loved me. Although the situation was not ideal, I can’t help but think of how serendipitous it was that my father was one of the ones searching for me.