This month I want to share with you an experience from our family’s summer vacation. I could share with you our stay in a mile-high mountain range. I could tell you about our hike to a rushing mountain waterfall. I could mention many other delightful experiences, but the one I have chosen to write about is our visit to a hog pen! While exploring the Mountain Farm Museum in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park we enjoyed the log structures, the cellar, the water-house and the barn, but in the back corner of the farm was an animal pen of some kind. One of our children asked what it was? I could identify it with my nose even before we could see inside. The hog-pen display was not primarily a visual or auditory experience; it was most strongly an olfactory one. The smell was horrendous!

This encounter (or, I should say odor) jogged my memory back to the Story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a young man who was restless to be out from under the restrictions of his father’s house. He asked for his share of his inheritance, left home and lived in the fast lane. After he had run out of money and the friends it could buy, he could only find a meager existence tending hogs. His circumstance was so bad that he even envied the food the hogs were getting. It was then that he saw the benefits of his father’s house and said to himself: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19). It was only when he sniffed the stench of the hog pen that he looked back at what he used to be and do.

The story of the prodigal son teaches much about the forgiveness of God, but it also serves as a dual warning. First it warns those who are in the hog pen, or on the way, that they must turn around and come back to the Father’s house. Maybe you should look back at what you used to be and do. If there was time in your life where your service for God was more consistent, your love for God was deeper and your fellowship with a local church was more frequent, perhaps you have left the Father’s house; you are on the road to the hog pen. You have willingly stepped outside the protection and blessings of the Heavenly Father’s house. You can turn around at any point; you can reverse your course and head home. Admit your straying ways to Him and seek His forgiveness and restoration.

The second warning is for those still in the Father’s house. It is better to stay put than to stray away no matter how appealing the freedom of the outside looks. The world, the flesh and the devil make what is out there seem so appealing, but remember the end of road will lead to the bondage in some sort of “hog pen.” Guard you heart.

I like pork as much as the next guy but I must tell you I was glad to leave the hog-pen display and stroll along the tree-lined banks of the Oconaluftee River as it continued its desent toward Cherokee, NC. It was definitely more pleasant to take in the shade, the sound of the rushing water and fresh air of the river bank than the foul atmosphere of the hog pen. Yes, it is better to stay in, or return to, the Father’s house.

(from April 2002)

I have always thought I had a good sense of direction. I can usually tell where I am and which direction I am heading. I am sure such knowledge comes from a semi-conscious awareness of the location of the sun (it comes up in the east and goes down in the west) or of a general knowledge of geography (If one leaves Charleston and goes to Atlanta they are generally going south). Perhaps it is some internal navigational sense similar to a biological clock. (Is there such a thing as a biological compass?) I have tended to trust my senses and have never seen the need to lay down $400 for a GPS system. However a recent experience has reminded me of the limitations of my own senses and the need to have an external reference point to keep one on track.

I was on my way in late August to Hong Kong to spend twelve days visiting with a missionary team. After brief flights from Charleston to Pittsburgh (heading North) and from Pittsburgh to Newark, New Jersey (heading East), I began a sixteen hour flight from Newark to Hong Kong. There were already a number of unique aspects of this trip for me: this being the longest non-stop commercial route flown in the world meant this trip was going to be more than twice as long than any I have ever endured on an airplane. Further, Hong Kong is twelve hours ahead of our time, so (if it is noon here, it is midnight there) I knew a number of adjustments lay ahead. The biggest adjustment, however, was dictated by our flight plan. We traveled North, nearly over the North Pole. The views out the window were unique to me. We flew over vast undeveloped land in Northern Canada, over the brilliant blue water of the Hudson bay and over seemingly endless expanses of ice flows in the Arctic Ocean. The Boeing 777 I was on had a video screen which constantly displayed flight information including a map showing our present location over the globe. I was traveling North, my video map confirmed what my internal compass was telling me. But at some point the little plane on the video screen suddenly stopped pointing toward the top of the screen and began pointing to the bottom. The plane had not made a 180 degree turn, the direction of sunlight had not suddenly shifted. In fact the inside of me was telling me we were going North when in fact we had topped the globe and we were heading South. I had packed a small magnetic compass in my carry on bag and it too confirmed our new direction. But for at least an hour there was an internal argument going on in my brain. One part seemed to cling to the data that had seldom failed me and said that if you are going North and you continue in a straight line you are still heading North. The other a part argued just as forcefully that I was in a place that I had not been before and I had to readjust. I do want you to know that I understood the logic of where I was, but there was a real sense of inner confusion or discomfort that is hard to explain. Perhaps if you have ever been lost and without any sense of direction you can relate, except in this case there was no fear –just a faint feeling of perception and reality not matching up.

Well, no great harm done as I was not responsible for getting the aircraft from point A to point B. I should have been sleeping rather than considering such things at 41,000 feet, but it did remind of this: I have spent far too much of my life following my own “sense of direction” rather than following an absolute compass. God knows that we are easily fooled, easily misled and often choose our own way which is often the wrong way. He has given us the Word of God which is an absolute standard of direction for behavior and life. He has likewise given Christians the Holy Spirit to indwell us and guide us through the murkiness of living. Such gifts are only of value if used. How easy it is to default to trusting one’s instincts, to follow the crowd, to follow the path of least resistence. Perhaps it is time to get back to church, to get back to the Word of God, to get back to listening to the still, small voice of the Spirit.

As I tucked my compass back into my bag and tried to get as comfortable as one can get in a coach seat on a 283 passenger plane, I whispered a prayer that God would give me the good sense not to trust my “sense of direction” but to seek His leading each day.

(From Septeber 2001)