The weekend after my father died fourteen years ago, I took two things away from my childhood home that had belonged to him. One was an almost-new t-shirt that I'd slept in every night that week. That t-shirt is now old and kind of dingy, its seams beginning to tear from repeated washing and wearing. The other thing I took home was a compass. A well-worn, metal-rimmed compass on a piece of rectangular plastic. I'd found it in the top drawer of his dresser, which was like a treasure-trove of Dad's best things. The day my father died, when we got home from the hospital, I consciously walked into his room and pressed my face into his robe (a robe which is now hanging in my closet), laid my hands on the clutter on his dresser, grazed my fingers along the line of shirts hanging in his closet. I wanted to soak him in. And all that week all of us found our way into his wallets, old letters, belt-buckles and camping gear. We dove into the piles on his desk and rummaged through his storage room as we wouldn't have dreamed if he was there. I remember wandering around the storage room as a child, breathing in the musk of camping, old clothes, pipe smoke and man that clung to what he kept there. How many times I asked Dad for something I couldn't find in the seeming jumble, and he'd unearth it in a moment with the question, "Did you even look?"
There was an allure to Dad's things because it connected us to Dad. But also becuase there had always been that mystique to his things. All my life I'd open his dresser drawer (especially the top one) to gaze in wonder at his collection of treasures, even in the ordinariness of the items, like the pieces of lists, small knives, tie clasps and Boy Scout neckerchief slides. Watches and compasses. He had wallets from when he was sixteen and too many watches for me to count now. But when it came time to take something home as a small keepsake, I didn't go for one of the fancy watches or beautiful compasses, but the old workhorse compass he'd used on more hikes than I can count. It used to have a string on it that let it hang around Dad's neck out on the trail, but somewhere over the last decad and a half, that string's disappeared.
But I keep the compass in the top drawer of my dresser now. I have since the day I brought it home. It lives beneath my socks usually, though I have it sitting beside me as I write this post. I don't go backpacking too often. OK, EVER. And, to tell you the truth, when my Dad first showed me how to use a compass, I couldn't quite understand how it worked. From my childish point of view that red arrow just spun around and around and around with no rhyme or reason. I would watch Dad pull it out, line it up, point a finger and head off, and there we'd go. And it was as mystifying as many of Dad's life to me.
But somewhere along the way, I suddenly got how a compass works. Probably much later than for most people. I just don't have the right kind of brain. Anyway, once I got it, I couldn't believe I hadn't understood before. The red arrow ALWAYS points NORTH. It only spins if you turn the compass. As soon as you stop spinning, it will settle back to north. As a result of this tiny tool, you're safe in the wilderness. It's those who venture out without a compass who are most likely to get lost. Unfortunately, most people don't rely on compasses as they should. They trust trail signs. It's good to be in touch with the compass well before you need it, not just in crisis. Trail signs are all well and good, but what if you get off the trail? A compass can lead you back but it's a little harder. It's easier to simply stay on the path in the first place.
This is a rather obvious metaphor, isn't it? Our relationship with Christ is our red arrow, pointing us always to North. Always in the right direction. He keeps us where on the path, only as much as we pay attention to Him. And, even when we're lost, He can help us find our way back. It's a pretty apt picture of the Trinity, come to think of it: God the Father is True North, Jesus the Son is the Red arrow pointing toward Him and the Holy Spirit is the compass given to us--within us. We are blessed to have such a built-in compass. And do well to allow it to work, to keep us headed where God intends us to go.