Walking with our grandkids along a local trail on Saturday I saw it: an inspiring quotation on a granite marker from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American essayist and naturalist, which read simply:
“Do not follow where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
The only problem is that Emerson never actually penned those words. Nor were the words said by Robert Frost (who also gets the credit sometimes), though Frost did talk about that “road less traveled,” another quote that used to show up in graduation speeches this time of year back when we still had such ceremonies.
Instead, it appears to be a variation of the opening line of a poem written in 1903 by Muriel Strode whom you have probably never heard of, though some called her the “female Walt Whitman” of her time, a backhanded compliment to be sure. Emerson didn’t falsely get credit for the phrase, in fact, until the 1990s, long after both he and Muriel had died.
Still, Muriel’s words are worth considering. For these days would indeed seem to be a bit trail-blazing for all of us. And as we inch our way forward to new patterns of social interaction, there truly are a lot of open-ended questions to answer:
Will people ever shake hands again?
When can we responsibly re-open the church to meet both the safety and spiritual needs of folks?
What metrics should we watch, and which measures should we take, as we make this decision?
And most of all, will we ever be able to have donuts and coffee in church again?
Going where there is no path is harder than one might think, it seems. But the good news is that we never actually have to go alone. For long ago, Jesus told one of His disciples who was similarly in a time of great confusion, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and so He is.
It all reminds me a little of being in the backcountry of Kenya many years ago with a pastor who was taking us to see a particular church. As we literally “bushwhacked” our way through the jungle in his small car, I couldn’t help but notice that there didn’t seem to be a road we were following at all. And when I asked him where we were on the map, he simply smiled and said, “Here, brother, I am the map.”
The way ahead may be similarly unmarked for all of us. But how good it is to be reminded that the One who is driving actually knows the way. For even with uncertain days ahead, one thing is clear: Jesus has already gone before us, and He’s left a trail for us to follow as well.
No matter who actually said it first.