When I was in college, I participated in the Army ROTC program. One of the fundamental skill sets we learned early on was Land Navigation, which consisted of map reading, orienteering, and plotting out a course over the terrain to find different points on the map. We would often use a variety of skills and tools to hike through the woods to these points. We’d use compasses, protractors, and different techniques to find our points.
When I think of trying to better understand or connect with God, I think of this hiking or map reading imagery. So here are four things that you can use to connect with God:
Everything hinged on the map. From the very beginning, the one thing the instructors drilled into us was that we could not lose the map. The reason was simple – even if we lost everything else, we could find our way back with just the map. It might be more difficult, and take longer, but if we had the map, we could find our way.
The Bible is our “map”. If we have that, we have everything we need. Sure, we may not understand something as quick as we’d like without consulting other tools, but we’ll still get there. And more than that, the other “tools” don’t work without the “map”. If I just had a protractor and compass, it wouldn’t do me any good without a map to plot off of. I can read great commentaries, talk to others about what God has spoken to them, and think back over God’s work in my life. But none of those will connect me with God right now, or show me where I’m supposed to go next. Without scripture, the other tools don’t work.
One of the things that stood out to me about the land navigation training was that it was built over the years. It had been passed down from class to class, and each time someone figured out a good trick, or technique, we’d share it and the entire class would benefit from it. More than that, we were benefiting from the practice and refinement of these techniques from the past two hundred years of standardized American military training. With each round of training, we began to focus in on what are called ‘best practices’ – things that have been proven to work.
Churches have ‘traditions’, or practices and beliefs, that work the same way. For two thousand years, the church has convened, discussed theology, organization, and doctrines. They’ve standardized language and teachings, meaning that I don’t have to make it up myself. Instead, I’m able to build off of what has been established before. There are so many great theologians, authors, and scholars from generations past, who have answered many of the questions and issues we face. And we get to benefit from their work. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we can work on building a bicycle from their wheel.
Each semester, we cadets would travel to a place in eastern Kentucky where we would practice our land navigation. One of the consequences of this frequent training on the same course was that we began to memorize it. After about the fourth time out, some of us had started to remember where the points were. So if we began to plot our points out, and we recognized the spot on the map, we’d breathe a sigh of relief and not worry as much. We had already been there, and knew how to return.
Our experiences in life can tell us what God has done in our lives, or in the lives of others around us. The familiarity can give us reassurance and confidence in what God is up too. We can also offer our perspective to someone else who is struggling with the same thing we’ve already faced. One of the techniques we had for learning land navigation was pairing up with more experienced cadets with younger cadets to learn from them. Many of them knew not only how to find the points, but the most effective way to get to them, and we could learn those same things.
Logic and Common Sense
I remember one time a cadet came back from the land navigation course, soaking wet, having gotten into a river to find a point. The problem is that we were explicitly told that there were no points on the other side of the river. If we plotted a point outside of our boundaries, something was wrong. Apparently this cadet was more confident in their skills than the maps. A “common sense” check would have saved them a swim.
Sometimes simply slowing down and thinking through a question a little bit would solve the answer to our problem. The pieces can be right there in front of us, but we get so focused on one thing that we mess up the rest of the process. God has given us reason, critical thinking, and common sense in order to put some of the pieces together.
I want to reiterate the need for “the map”. One of the things I’ve become more and more clear on in my own life is my need to read scripture for myself. I know I’m not the only pastor to say this, but it remains true. I can read other authors (and have), but I’m not engaging with God directly there. I can talk with others and hear what God is doing in their lives, but miss what God is trying to tell me in my own life. And even though I love spending time in the text for a sermon, looking at scripture through that lens is different than just letting the text speak to me, and me alone.
Sometimes I need to pull out the map for myself instead of for others. It’s easy for me to get lost trying to lead my congregation, and daily readings help keep me centered.
Remember, I love y’all and there’s nothing you can do about it.