Last week I had a meeting with a girl I know to talk about a work project. I don’t know her very well, but we sat down to talk over a cup of coffee and began chatting about a few personal things – and before you could say “another round of donuts please” I had bared a small part of my soul.
I do this quite often. I’m something of an open book and it really doesn’t take too much for me to spill the beans. I’d be rubbish under interrogation. I talked about some difficult and stretching times that I’d walked through in the last couple of years, and the great joy of this particular conversation were the words that came back to me : “I know exactly what you mean, I’ve been there too.”
I love those moments.
The realisation that you’re not the only person in the world to walk this path. Others have gone ahead of you and are alive to tell the tale. They have words of wisdom and understanding to share with you and as they are offered you greedily eat them up, starving for the hope that is given.
A few months ago I was driving back from a speaking engagement in Inverness late one Sunday night. I could have stayed over, really should have stayed over, but the draw of my own bed and being home with my husband was such that, despite the snow falling I decided to risk it. Those of you familiar with the roads of Scotland will know about the A9 from Inverness. A beautiful route when the sun is shining and you’re not in a hurry, but in the darkness of winter it’s quite a different prospect. At times when there is no snow anywhere else in the country, the gates of the A9 will be closed due to several feet of white powder.
As I left Inverness with the snow starting to fall, and thinking that this drive might be a very unwise idea indeed, I made a request of God: “If it’s going to be bad, please give me someone to follow. Amen.” Several miles further on the weather really started to get serious and driving conditions were unpleasant to say the least. Just as I was beginning to get concerned I caught up with a coach that was on the road ahead of me. Thank you Jesus! So then we had a little chat, the coach driver and I. It was quite one-sided but I said some things that I needed him to know. “Ok listen up. I’m following you from here to Perth and I really need you not to go too fast so that I can keep up with you. Now drive safely and then we can all get out when we reach the end and celebrate with some high fives.” I appreciate that actually talking out loud to the driver in front makes me sound more than a little crazy, but I’m hoping that I’m not the only person in the world who does this under duress! On we drove into the night and the snow, me and my convoy. I’ve never been so thankful for a set of tail lights to follow.
At one point, probably when we were at the highest part of the mountain but really who could say, I couldn’t see where the road was. Everything was white. If I’d been on my own I would have pulled over (if I could have found where ‘over’ even was) and just cried. Instead, with my shoulders tensed and my concentration focussed, I fixed my eyes on those two red lights at the back of the coach and didn’t dare look away. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, the road came back down the mountain and the weather began to clear and when we reached Perth the convoy went our separate ways. No high fives – except for the little ones I did for myself in my car.
I don’t know if that coach driver knew that I was following him, but I was so glad he was there. Glad of his experience and that he could see further down the road than me. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need, on the road and elsewhere. Tail lights to follow. When the storm is raging and you can no longer see the road, when you have no idea of the right direction and all you want to do is pull over and cry, we need people to say “I know what you mean, I’ve been there.” Sometimes they are literally a few steps ahead of you in the road, just far enough for you to follow in their tire treads, and maybe not even much more sure than you of where the road actually leads – but the fact that they are there is enough.
Too often in church we try to keep up a pretence that we know where we’re going in life and the journey is all smooth and glorious, bright sunshine and clear roads. But sometimes it’s not. And in those moments of course it’s great to have people who will listen to us, who will bring us encouraging words of Scripture to hold on to and who offer to pray for us. But sometimes what we need more than anything is someone who says “Me too.” Being vulnerable is a risk. I’ve definitely had times where I’ve opened up to someone and have felt their kindness but I know they haven’t the first idea what I’m really talking about. You walk away from those conversations wondering if that person thinks you are an idiot or backsliding and in need of referal to the church pastoral team. But I’d rather be honest, because I believe that honesty, however painful or embarrassing, in the end encourages more honesty. And maybe my honesty is the set of tail lights that someone is desperate to follow.