Finding your True North

by Steve Brock on February 15, 2017

The challenge

I was challenged by something I just read a few days ago in Dan Kieran’s book, The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel.

He quotes these lines from Philip Larkin’s “Home is So Sad:”

“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back…”

Kieran then asks himself, “In my love of travel, had I begun to view my home as a means to an end, a destination I occupy but don’t really understand?” He continues:

“Wherever you happen to be geographically, travel actually takes place in your brain, so applying the mindset of the traveller to where you live is an interesting way to think about what it means to go on holiday.”

The journey

With that thought, Kieran heads out one day to explore areas around his own home that he has driven by, but never really experienced. The story of his journey inspired me to do the same thing. To get to know the place I call home better in the same way I would if it were some exotic, distant destination.

I drove to a parking lot not far from our home. Then I left behind both the car and my presuppositions about an area so close and yet so far away.

Finding your True North - The Interurban TrailThe trail

The Interurban Trail  runs both north and south of Seattle in two separate segments. I chose this day the southern part, an asphalt path that follows the route of the old Puget Sound Electric Railway trolley that ran here from 1902 to 1928. I’ve biked other sections, but not this one. And today, I walked.

Discoveries old and new

I’d traveled a few miles when I had my first hint that the discovery wasn’t necessarily to be found around me. Sure, there were interesting sights. Low areas now behaving as ponds from the recent snowfall and rain. Playful ducks cavorting in these waters. A shy rabbit darting across the trail when the coast seemed clear.

Industry abuts the trail as do houses, railroad tracks and, eventually, the backside of a shopping mall. All of these were somehow more interesting today than I would have thought. But revelatory? Not really. Surprising. Nope.

An unlikely find

What was unexpected was what I felt as I encountered the sheer normality of these places and sights. I was happy. Content beyond words. Downright joyful. Why?
I could try to rationalize the effect of coming home last week from a long overseas trip. Or the simple pleasure of being outside after a week indoors. Or a host of other factors. But as I walked, I found my answer.

True North Control

Embedded periodically in the trail are these shiny metal disks, markers that, I assume, serve as engineering guides:

True North Control marker

True North Control. This one stumps even Google. I can’t find the actual definition of what these are for. But here’s what they meant to me.

On this day, I had found my True North. I was given not what I thought I wanted — a day to explore and understand better the world around my home. Instead, I received what I needed. Presence. To my settings. To myself. To God.

What do you really want?

Recently, I’ve also been reading James K. A. Smith’s intriguing book, You Are What You Love. In it, he makes the case that it’s not what you know that causes you to live the way you do. It’s what you desire. And the scariest part of that? What we think we desire and what we deep down truly do may not be the same thing.

I left today thinking I needed adventure, albeit of the local kind. I thought I needed to engage my external world. But instead, what deeply satisfied me occurred more internally though I believe it was triggered (as is almost always the case in great travel) by the external surroundings.

What I found along the way was my True North, a mixed up sense of direction, desire and even the Author of all those.

Hidden all around us

God hides in plain sight all around us. Our True North is always available to us. But we forget. We lose sight of what matters. We get confused and we cease to understand what our True North is.

I personally think it’s one of the great tragedies of our age. We pursue what we think we desire without understanding our deeper longings. We travel aimlessly supposing that happiness comes in the journey without realizing that we are made for a direction, a destination.

Remembering what matters

Today I was given the gift of presence. Of peace. Of joy. Of remembering and rediscovering that God gives us what we need even when we think we want something else. And when he does, we find that indeed, that was what we truly longed for but didn’t realize we desired.

So what do you desire, deeply long for? Do you really know? Or do you, like me, need to take the time to just head out on a journey of discovery — perhaps as close as your own backyard — to find that everything you’re pursuing around you isn’t what will satisfy you. Only your True North can both lead you there and meet you there.

But when you find it, you realize that though you may have journeyed far, you have in fact reached your true home.


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Forgetting grace – Part 2

by Steve Brock on December 13, 2016

Forgetting grace - Madrid visa in passport

After losing my passport in the Madrid airport and then finding it, I was now faced with a new dilemma: How could I ever make it through this huge line for passport control in time to make my flight?

I ran ahead toward the front of the line. And there, right where I’d left him was the same official with whom I’d spoken before. I held up my passport. Again, the look of disbelief, but this time in a good way. Others were clamoring for his attention but thankfully, he understood my dilemma and asked them to wait. He told me to follow him as he walked to the head of the line and made way for me four people back from the front. Again, my words of gratitude couldn’t convey my appreciation.

Appreciation was not what the guy behind me was feeling. I heard him mutter something in English, not to me but to a couple taking way too long chatting with the immigration officer. I apologized for cutting in line but explained my situation. He said that he had arrived three hours earlier and still might not make his flight either. It’s a good reminder that even if you don’t lose your passport at the airport, getting through the airport for international flights can take far more time than you expect, especially during busy travel times or periods of heightened security.

The two of us waited anxiously and then, finally, the passport control official waved me forward. A few questions, the thunk of the immigration stamp and suddenly, I was back in motion, running down the concourse. The signs told me it would take 20 minutes to reach my gate. I halved that and made it to the gate three minutes before departure time.

Somehow, against all odds, I had made my flight.

I had prayed all the way through this process and all I could tell my relieved family when they saw me on the plane was, “God is so good.” And for the next hour as we took off and I finally settled down after this whole fiasco, all I could do was praise God for his kindness and grace. There was no doubt in my mind that God had performed a miracle. He had pulled the needle from the haystack and opened the doors to get me on this flight.

But as we cruised westward at 38,000 feet, something began to change. I replayed the scenario over and over. What was a miracle a few minutes ago became a carefully plotted explanation of how it all occurred. My passport likely got caught inside the X-ray machine. Someone found it and handed it to the right person to go in their equivalent of a “lost and found” pile. I worked through enough people to finally find the one who knew of this and voila! I had my passport back. And getting back on time? It was just smart on my part to have found the same guy who had helped me before.

In no time at all, I had explained away my miracle.

How can that be? How? Because I do it all the time. The Madrid airport was just a more dramatic example of how God comes through for me all the time in situations big and small. And at first, I am grateful. But soon after, I forget what really happened. I forget grace. Or more specifically, I choose to believe more in my own explanations than to concede that maybe, just maybe, God is real and active and concerned about things like lost passports. Or rather, the impact that lost passports have on his children, people he cares for so deeply.

I pray for miracles and when they happen, I am quick to dismiss them. The rational side of me isn’t comfortable with the possibility of divine intervention and mystery. But here’s the coda of this story.

I may have forgotten grace in the comfort of that flight home. But now, when other crises occur or I awake at 3 a.m. with some concern that no rationalizing can salve, I think back on my passport. It has become more than a government document now, a means of clearing borders. It is a symbol.

It represents answered prayer, God’s coming through in difficult straights. But most of all, it symbolizes that I am not alone however much I may explain away God’s presence and intervention into this material realm. I cannot prove God. But neither will I disprove him by refusing to believe that he still acts, intercedes and loves. That little blue passport book is a testament to a grace that continues when I remember it and even when I don’t.

It’s a symbol that at the end of all of this, it’s not just a passport that was found.


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Forgetting grace – Part 1

by Steve Brock on November 7, 2016

Forgetting Grace - Madrid Airport“It’s not here,” I replied to my wife’s inquiry as to what was wrong. “My passport is gone.”

This realization occurred in line to go through passport control in Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. My wife, two sons and I had made it through security and customs and had this one last checkpoint to clear. But when I pulled out our stack of passports, instead of the usual four, I had only three.

I frantically searched pockets and my bag, but that little blue booklet that let me in and out of countries was nowhere to be found. I fought the panic as I told my family to go ahead, board the flight to Chicago (our stopover on the way home) and God willing, I would try and find my lost passport. At this point, we had about 75 minutes until the plane departed.

I figured there were two possibilities. First, I could have left my passport on the bench where I waited for my family as they did some last minute shopping in the terminal. Second, I recall thinking it odd that in security, they had put our four passports and tickets into the small plastic bowl to go through the X-ray. When the bowl came out the other side, our passports were all scattered on the belt. I just assumed the bowl had been knocked over so I grabbed the passports and tickets without counting them.

Madrid is the main entry and exit point for Spain. Its airport is huge. Signs inform you that it can take over an hour to reach particular gates because of security, the trains that shuttle you back and forth, and the sheer length of some of the terminals. Just making it back to security and then to return here would be tricky enough given the logistics of the place. And that assumed they had my passport in security.

I started by asking the man there at passport control what to do. He gave me an expression I would see multiple times over the coming moments, an incredulous look like, “How can that be? Who loses a passport at the airport itself?” Well, someone like me.

He told me to return to security. I caught the train (a ten minute ride), had to exit all of the secure area, go back through X-rays, try to get an answer at the airline counter (too long a line), go to another airline counter (not helpful), go to the information desk (not clear), and finally go to security, only to find out that they had no report of a lost passport. They told me to go to the police station in the airport. I asked several others along the way for directions and got different answers. Finally, after a few more inquiries and similar expressions of shock and conflicting responses, I went back to a different section of the security area than before. By this time, I had forty minutes until the plane departed. Perhaps that registered on my expression for when I asked another woman there about where to go, she didn’t hurriedly point me to a different location. She calmly told me to wait right there.

Moments later a police officer in full body armor came over to me. I started to explain my situation. He stopped me mid-sentence and asked my name. My name? Was this to suddenly turn into a social event? But I gave it. My full name. The one you’d find in a passport.

He too told me to wait (something that was becoming increasingly difficult to do). However, I did. And one minute later he returned and held up a little dark blue booklet. My passport.

My Spanish, which had somehow got me through this mess so far, suddenly failed me. I think I repeated “Gracias” about seven times. It’s all I could say. I would have hugged the man, but all that body armor…

Instead, I ran. I went as fast as possible pulling my carry-on through the airport. Out of security. Through the main terminal. Down to the train area. I waited then boarded the same train back out to my concourse. With the ten-minute ride, I was now down to 20 minutes until my flight departed. I was practically leaning into the train doors when I finally got to the concourse. I flew out and went around the corner expecting to go down the hall and into the main passport control area where, an hour earlier, maybe 30 or 40 people had been ahead of me.

Now, I barely made it off the train before I ran into the line. This queue to clear passport control currently had several hundred people in it. How could this have happened in less than an hour? My guess is that if I got in that line now, I’d be there for at least another 90 minutes.

I had been praying all through this experience, but now, the combination of incredulous relief that I’d found my passport ran smack into the reality that it was possibly all too late. I’d never make my flight now.


(To be continued…)


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