20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ Joshua 4:20-22 NIV
On a recent climbing trip in North Africa my partner and I had a very long day. We had just climbed a 1000ft plus mountain trad route and descended to the base as the sun dipped below the horizon. We hurriedly made our way through the underbrush in the dark by headlamp following the steep climber's trail the 2 or so miles downhill back to our vehicle. In many places the faint and seldom used path was crisscrossed by goat trails used by herders. At one point we completely lost the trail and spent about half an hour bushwhacking our way through dense snarls and thickets before we were able to find the trail once again. Once we discerned the correct path we set a Cairn for future travelers, and made our way back to our vehicle. It only took a few more minutes to get out once we were on the right trail.
For thousands of years people have been setting up cairns, (simply piles of stone), to mark the way. Often on a wilderness journey the welcome sight of one of these simple way-points will ease the mind of a weary sojourner. A cairn is almost always a positive sign and means you are most likely headed the right direction.
In the book of Joshua, the great Hebrew leader instructs his people to make a Cairn of sorts. They were to pile 12 stones from the Jordan river as a visual reminder that God had split the waters by His mighty power to bring the 12 tribes into the promised land. For many years this monument must have been a moving sight to generations that followed. It was here that God fulfilled His promises and Israel truly became a nation.
In the chapter on study in Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster refers to the great Christian works in much the same way. He says, “Many others have traveled the same path and have left markers. Remember that the key to the Discipline of study is not reading many books but experiencing what we do read.” When I read biographies of saints who have gone before me, or great works like Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God, or even more contemporary classics like C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I am moved by how the authors experienced the love and faithfulness of God in their day and time. Scripture itself is the greatest repository of wisdom and experience by those who have walked the path before us. The unwritten words of faithful elder saints who God has put in my life have also served as an incredible guide and beacon of hope on my journey.
As you travel the rugged pathway of life, keep your eye out for cairns erected by those who have gone before you. Let them remind you of God’s goodness and faithfulness. In time you may indeed place some of your own.
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