Saturday, October 6, 2012

Finding one's way

Physically, Venice, more than anything else, resembles a maze. Venice’s streets appear to follow a perpendicular pattern, though the length of blocks and width of the streets varies widely. But never have I seen so many people staring at maps, confused about their specific location and how they arrived at that place.

More careful observation reveals that Venice is full of subtle acute (less than ninety degrees) angles and dead end streets. What appears to be an alley may be the principle avenue; the broadest path may go nowhere. Watching the directionally challenged in Venice reminded me that Jesus used a similar analogy to characterize his teachings. Those who walk the Jesus path to life abundant will choose the narrow way.

A useful principle for walking around Venice is to follow the crowd. A street, no matter how promising or appealing, with nobody walking along it is unlikely to go very far. Spiritually, the path of abundant life flows in the direction of community and not individualism. Of course, the crowd may lead in an undesired direction (San Marco instead of the Rialto bridge, for example), but the direction in which nobody is going is more likely to be a dead end.

Too often Christians have wrongly described the narrow way, perhaps most famously in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the broad path is full of perils dear to an evangelical’s heart and the narrow path challenging because of worldly temptations. We have an unfortunate proclivity to characterize our path as narrow and paths other than our own as broad, i.e., we seek to be exclusive rather than inclusive in our theology and ecclesiology. If this is a costly path for me, then surely those who do not pay the price deserve far less.

We forget (or ignore!) Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers who labor for varying amounts of time and yet all receive the same wage. What is a costly for us may be easy for another. Of course, the converse is also true.

A second useful principle for getting around Venice is that there are many ways to reach one’s destination. The lazy, wealthy, or those in a hurry take a boat. For the rest of us, walking affords a wonderful opportunity to see a unique city. Around almost every corner is something worth seeing. In other words, the journey is as important as the destination and each path offers its own rewards, with its unique decision points, dead ends, and detours.

Walking the Jesus path does not require necessitate claiming that it is the only path. Indeed, the exclusive language of the New Testament is better understood as the language of love than of logic. That is, statements such as Jesus saying he is the only way to the Father reflect that for the disciples who knew him, who hear his words and passed those words along to the authors of the gospel, Jesus was the one, much as a lover tells his/her beloved that he/she is the only one who can bring the lover happiness. Regarding the words that gospel authors attribute to Jesus as his actual words betrays fidelity to the process that birthed the gospels, substituting human words for a divine word.

A third principle for navigating around Venice is to notice the directional signs. Within a few blocks of most parts of the city, one can find at least one sign, and often several, on a building, usually just above the level of the ground floor ceiling, that points toward one or more major landmarks. Amazingly, some people wander around Venice for days without noticing the signs’ existence. Similarly, many people wander through life without ever paying attention to the signs – the instructions or directions – that point the way to the abundant life, discernible in the writings, constructions, and lives of others. Most helpfully, we can best see those signs when God’s light illuminates them; the signs, like the ones in Venice, are hidden in the darkness or go unseen by the preoccupied and those frantically searching for the way.

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