The medium with which we travel determines to a large extent how we will appreciate our surroundings. Take for example someone traveling through a National Park in a vehicle at 120 km/h. Everything outside will be reduced to a blur. A magnificent lion or a vista in the Grand Canyon become nothing more than conflated lines. The message or content will therefore be appreciated according to the medium used to explore it.
Take now the same person, traveling in the same National Park but this time per foot. What would the encounter with the lion be like? How would it affect the appreciation of the vistas at the Grand Canyon? It’s obvious that some mediums will serve the message better than others.
At least once a year I take a group of men into the wilderness spaces of South Africa – mostly the Drakensberg. It is always a fascinating experience. When we leave Johannesburg, we leave the city by way of the highway called the N3. As we travel on it the highway makes way for country roads. Country roads make way for dirt roads. When we start our hike, these dirt roads that vehicles can use make way for roads that are only fit for off-road vehicles. These then make way for roads that can only be accessed by foot and then when we get into the deep alpine wilderness, the path disappears all together.
When we leave the city it always strikes me how the conversations and attention level of the group is affected by the medium we use to travel. In the vehicle on the highway the chatter is usually incessant. As we transition onto the smaller roads and open the windows, it is as if we emerge out of a city hibernation and start to notice again. Once we’re in the wilderness our verbosity comes to a screeching halt, for it is mostly inadequate to describe the grandeur and magnificence of what is around us.
Roads and paths are very important when one considers the journey of following Jesus. The following or medium is an essential part of what it means to follow Jesus. Just think of a few phrases used by Jesus, “I am the way” and “enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Jesus says that the motion of being caught up in following him, is not a highway but a footpath. This is so important to understand. I recently read that Jesus, in the passage above, juxtaposes normal Palestinian roads with the Roman roads used to Hellenize all of Israel. The gates that lead unto these roads bore the Roman standard. Jesus is saying that the Way is more like a dust road.
This picture of Roman roads reminds me that when I was introduced to Christianity, one of the tools that was used to explain salvation, was called the Roman Road. It consisted of taking people to selected Scriptures (all in the book of Romans) to explain how one can obtain salvation in three easy steps (steps are also a metaphor of ways or roads). These three or four steps involve: know that you’re a sinner, confess your sins, accept Christ through a prayer and be sure of your salvation. This is a classic example of changing the picture from a dust road to a highway. The path becomes an accelerated 120 km/h highway taking people to the destination “heaven.”
I don’t want to digress into discussing the theology of the Roman Road except to say that I think that the steps are not false. Its just not true enough. It reduces the wonderful wilderness of the kingdom of God into a domesticated zoo. Another thing that strikes me is that it focuses people on the destination of the afterlife, but what if the destination is a person? Jesus. He is the destination and the Way to that destination.
A spirituality marked by the dust road and not the highway will be more intense (for we will face the lion of Judah on these footpaths and not in the safety of a vehicle), slower, more exciting and less efficient. It will also give us time to assimilate what we’ve seen around us. It will also give us the opportunity to develop new senses. Have you noticed how much more you get to know your neighborhoods when you walk through it? It is as if the newness of the place strikes one all over.
This kind of spirituality will not be obsessed with ‘speed reading’ or an ever increasing desire for more. It will savor what is there, not what is not there. It is this kind of footpath following that I’m interested in. A few evenings ago I read an essay by Wendell Berry where he recounts how the pilgrims entered Kentucky and demolished a wooded area to build a road there. As I read it, it made me aware how we’re doing the same thing with the kingdom-of-God-woods. Let me end this musing by quoting from this essay and offering a few observations.
The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography….
I only want to observe that [the road] bears no relation whatever to the country it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built, not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmlands and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it…. Its form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety. It represents the ultimate in engineering sophistication, but the crudest possible valuation of life in this world.
If we use Berry’s writing above, then we can say that following Jesus is a way that can be likened to a path and not a road. Road Christianity is marked by haste to get to heaven, an abstraction of things physical by an incessant focus on what is ‘spiritual.’ Furthermore it seeks pleasure and the least amount of effort. Its main aim is what is profitable and removes all that is deemed to be obstacles. This road is a perfect fit for our culture that produces narcissism at the speed of light. It is this kind of highway I left in the year 2000, but I must add that it is not without its attractions.
Every other Friday we take Tayla to her grandmother in Alberton (a town forty-five minutes from our home). Tayla despises the highway. She always asks if we are going on the “hoofweg” – Afrikaans for highway. She then asks if there is not another way. Lollie and I lie to her every other week for we know that to take the back ways will take so much more time and effort. There are more stops and starts and more traffic. This little incident plays out in other areas of my life. Do I deliver a sermon and then get out of there, or do I stick around to be with the people? Do I speed read through the Daily Office or do I linger for a bit longer? These are the daily choices we/I face. Jesus keeps on reminding me that He is the way. Two ways, and yes Tayla there is another way!