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Time to re-set our compass

“Something strange is happening.” So says a geophysicist at the University of Leeds in England. Like many in the scientific community, he is mystified by the wandering movements of the earth’s geo-magnetic pole (see NYT, “The North Magnetic Pole’s Mysterious Journey Across the Arctic,” February 4, 2019). It seems the pole is “restless,” moving about 35 miles each year.

The north magnetic pole is used for navigation by compasses on the ground, in airplanes and iPhones so it’s important to know where it is.

When I was in a Mountaineers class in Seattle as a boy, there was a section on “orienteering”—learning to use a compass in the wilderness. I skipped that, either because of school-work or because the mathematics of it was “disorienting” to me. Now we are all spoiled with GPS on everything, so there’s little chance we’ll ever get lost, though we still do.

Which brings me to Mecca and Jerusalem, Rome and Lumbini, and countless “magnetic poles” the world uses to “line up” with the great compass of faith. Pilgrims risk their lives to “saunter” (seek the “holy-land”) and masses of the devoted pour into sacred sites and cities across the globe. No one needs a GPS device for that. Everyone knows where to go. “This is where the saints walked”; “Here is where God appeared.”

I wrote a book of chaplaincy stories, “My Address is a River,” that took its title from Sophie, an elderly German woman who told me she couldn’t remember where she lived in Germany but she could remember the nearby river. There were no zip codes, only natural markers like rivers.

How do we orient ourselves to our world? How do we know which direction to go? Maybe most importantly: How do we know where we are?

As John Steinbeck memorably wrote in “Travels with Charley”: “I pulled to the side of the street and got out my book of road maps. But to find where you are going, you must know where you are, and I didn’t.”

Eden’s divine Gardener asked, “Where are you?” and humans have been unsure ever since, asking the same question of God (Did that Gardener even know where he was before anything was made? Was creating the universe a way for the Creator to get her bearings?).

Here’s the issue: we need to know where we are but we all don’t have the same compass. We each have different “reference points” to orient ourselves to our world. This seems true psychologically as well as physically. In mind and body we ought to have our bearings or we’re “lost at sea” without navigation.

And to complicate all this, the pole is wandering! Just when we think we know the direction we need to go, it changes and we’re left confused, perplexed, lost.

Lostness isn’t a hopeless state. Thoreau thought it was good to be lost sometimes and felt it was better to learn how to find our own way, as he says in Walden:

“To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!—why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.”

Relating this to my years in the church, I wonder if I would have found my way, perhaps even a clearer sense of direction, if I wasn’t handed one compass to lead me in only one direction. I was told how to find “true” north and pointed to the correct route. But no one told me that the magnetic north of faith could move, and so could I.

“To keep track of the pole’s ever-changing home” something called the “World Magnetic Model is updated every five years … because the magnetic field is constantly shifting.” Maybe that’s the hint religion needs: regular updates.

Airport runways have painted directions that guide pilots to magnetic north, which makes me wonder what guides we have on our journeys. When I think of the people I’ve known who gave direction, with their different compasses, I sense it was their goodhearted humility and practical knowledge that were most influential.

When I consider my own experiences, along painted and unpainted trails, I know that these too offered guidance, if only to guide me to understand that sometimes there’s no guidance, no map or signpost—no reception. I’m left with my reason, intuition, spotty sense of direction and of course a wide-open curiosity and wonder that keeps life interesting wherever I wander North, South, East or West.

Sometimes we pause to think, to look around, to make educated guesses, or merely to take a deep breath to be reassured of one unchangeable fact: we can pinpoint ourselves on this pinpoint in space we call home.

This is the magnetism of being a human being.

Chris Highland
2019

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