When I was about nine years old, a young boy, I went with my parents, younger sister, and older cousin to a national park in the mountains. As a boy, I loved maps. I plotted out where we would go, told my Dad the direction and what roads to take, and when we arrived found a short trail on a map of the park that I wanted to hike along with my sister and cousin. My parents said they were tired and decided to stay in the car and wait for us, maybe take a nap.
We set off. I led the way, switchbacking up the mountain, periodically stepping over little rivulets of water trickling down the mountain face. After about 20 minutes, I realized that we had taken the wrong trail, as it was missing all the interpretive signs of the nature trail I planned on. I told my sister and cousin that we should go back before we became lost. My cousin, two years older and a girl, refused. My sister, aligned with gender before blood, also refused. After trying to persuade them, I returned to the car to tell my parents. My Mom was a little upset with me for leaving them on the trail.
My Dad took me and we returned to the trail to look for my sister sand cousin. After we reached the place where I left them, they were not there. I knew we were near a trail that was very long, the Appalachian Trail, one that stretched a then inconceivable hundreds of miles across the mountains. I had quite an imagination. I envisioned my sister and cousin lost on that trail, unable to find their way home, hungry, thirsty, beset by bears and other wild animals I had read about, and I felt like I was responsible --- just me --- and that I had to find them. But I did not know where to start. I started crying, and my Dad did not get upset but hugged me and told me not to worry, that we would find them. And I believed he would. I was confident that my father would find them. I felt a great weight lifted from me knowing that he would find them, that he would know what to do.
It's not difficult to picture God's care through my father's love. It's probably the most prevalent of scriptural metaphors and has been massaged to the point of cliche. However, my father, though good, was an imperfect metaphor for God. He was not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, much less all-wise, and he certainly was not immortal. He had no power to protect me from most of the difficulties I would face in life, foresee future peril, or be with me at all times. But I did not know that then, and I did not need to.
We walked for over two hours, calling their names. We never saw them. We made it over the mountain and to the access road, my Dad doubtless weighed down by the burden of two lost children. A park ranger picked us up and carried us back to our car. They were there.
There is no perfect metaphor for the One who finds lost children. But I had a father who did what he could and pointed beyond himself to an ever-present guide, who reminds me even now that someone more able than me leads.
I can't disparage the metaphor even as I realize its limitations. If, as Dorothy Sayers once said, all thinking is analogical, then it is impossible not to think in metaphors when considering the nature of a God whose self-disclosure is limited if sufficient. Forgive me then when I double the metaphors: I am out walking. I am sometimes lost. But my Father will always find me. His business is bringing lost children home.