Hiking and camping weren’t new to me that summer of 2010. I’d been enjoying the great outdoors since my teen years. But now I was leading eight junior high kids through the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. That was a lot of responsibility.
When I was a teenager, time in the woods meant freedom from my difficult home life. The sights and sounds of nature quieted the condemning voices I’d grown up hearing at home. But I could never completely escape them, especially when others were counting on me.
So far, this camping trip was going great. I used our hike through the woods to encourage the kids to “turn north” to God during tough times. Even when there are no trail markers, I told them, God will show us the way to go.
“Mr. Heim!” one of the girls in the group called. “I thought we were supposed to be heading north. My compass says we’re walking south.”
South? That wasn’t possible. We’d been hiking for seven hours. I’d checked and rechecked our position on the map. I couldn’t be so wrong that I was leading our students in the opposite direction, could I?
I sent one of them to run ahead and check for trail markers. We hadn’t seen any other hikers for a very long time. Maybe too much time, I thought.
“I didn’t find anything,” the student reported when he came back.
I kept my face calm, but condemning voices had already started in my head. It would be dark soon. The kids were tired, and their leader had no idea which way to go. You’re not good enough, I chided myself. You’re pathetic! What a loser! I tried to turn my mind “north” toward God like I’d been teaching the kids. But I couldn’t do it alone. “Let’s pray,” I said.
The kids circled around me. They poured out their feelings about being wet and lost and asked God to show us where to go.
We’d barely started walking again when I spotted a man in the distance. Finally, a fellow hiker! He was wearing a backpack and carrying a hiking stick. A golden retriever bounced along at his side. “Can you help us find our way?” I asked.
He took out a map and showed us exactly where we were. “You’re headed the right way,” he assured me. “Just keep following this trail and you’ll reach base camp by nightfall.”
I thanked him profusely. After walking on ahead a few yards, I turned around to wave to him and his dog behind us on the trail.
“I can’t believe God sent an angel right to us,” one of my students said.
“Right after we prayed for help!” said another.
We continued to talk quietly about “our angel” until we came to a fork in the trail with no directions about where each path led. The kids all looked to me. Right or left? I turned around, trying to get my bearings. I had no idea which way to go. Already, after God had just—
There he was again. The very same hiker. He was sitting on a rock near the right side of the fork, his golden retriever at his side. How had he gotten ahead of us? We’d passed no alternate trails that could have been shortcuts.
I turned back to my students. They all stared at the man, obviously thinking the same thing I was. We didn’t even have to say it. We veered onto the trail to the right, which led us straight to the base camp. When my confidence failed me, all I had to do was look to God and I would find my way.
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