Friday, July 13, 2018

The High Roads and Low Roads Can Lead to God

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

Pictured are steps on the Perimenter Trail at Sewanee, in the section from Memorial Cross to Morgan’s Steep.

This summer, I took a course at Sewanee on images of God in scripture. One of our assignments was to choose a Biblical image and live with it for the summer. I discovered that sometimes you choose an image, and sometimes it chooses you.

I was pondering what in the world I was going to do for the class when I stumbled upon the Sewanee Natural Bridge (when I say I stumbled upon it, I mean that both literally and figuratively).

I had missed a turn and there it was, a massive bridge made of rock, as solid as ... a rock. It stood on the edge of the woods, a high stone path protruding from the ground. It’s stunning beauty resembled the ancient aqueducts of Greece. This path was not designed by utilitarian humans to go from one place to the next. It was crafted by our Creator to stand tall. It was indeed a “high” way, an enduring way.

Jesus said “I am the way.” It’s interesting that that the Greek for “way” in the New Testament almost always means something more tangible than what we think. It’s not just a method, process, procedure, or technique. It is a street or path, a roadside or route. The magi “returned to their county by another route.” “Take no bag for the journey,” Jesus said. They use the same word.

After standing in awe of the natural bridge for a few moments, I began to explore this high, stone path through the woods. I could easily walk under it and eventually climbed to the top to walk across it. It was immeasurable and immovable.

I do believe Christ is the way. It’s funny how people add the word “only” in front of that statement, as if he didn’t clarify his exclusivity enough. There’s not even a “the” in the Greek. Jesus said, “I am WAY.” He is the personification of the path, the embodiment of the expedition, the incarnation of the excursion. He’s a road trip indeed.

Sometimes the way of God is a “high road,” and sometimes the way is a “low road” (a hidden road, that is).

God as the “high road” is easy to imagine. Highway imagery is everywhere in the Bible. In Old Testament times, “highway” meant exactly that ... it was a road built up, raised from its surroundings so ruts and depressions did not become places where water collects. The technology we use now, including shaping a paved road so that the center is slightly higher than the edges to help with water runoff, has been around a long time.

In Biblical times, local roads were just beaten paths, so a highway was pretty special and took a lot of effort. “Build up the highway, clear it of stones,” Isaiah says in chapter 62. “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way” says Isaiah 57.

Sometimes I travel through through Birmingham, where two major interstates, I-65 and I-59/20, come together at what is not-so-affectionately called “spaghetti junction.” Not long ago an eighteen wheeler fell off the top ramp onto the highway below and exploded, making a huge mess. Finally, last year, they started reconstructing it.

I’ve always wanted them to fix it ... until now. It’s taking forever, and I miss a turn every other time I drive through there. Sudden darts of the car are required to manage the latest temporary turn lane.

I have no idea how road construction works, and trust me, I’ve been trying to figure out what they are doing at spaghetti junction. I’ve concluded that it’s way above my head (again, I’m speaking both literally and figuratively).

But what I have learned about road construction is this. It requires a whole lot of planning, design, and earthwork before you even start paving.

First, the building of a highway requires exhaustive plans by a relentless planner. Next the contractor builds embankments using cuts and fills. Then a grader or bulldozer comes and pushes dirt. Leveling the bumps and filling in dips creates a surface that will last.

After that, the screened dirt is sprayed with water and compacted. During this stage, they install drains and sewers. As I have said, the center of the road is made higher than the edges so water will run off. Drainage is critical for life expectancy of the pavement. All this work must then pass strict inspections.

Then the contractor places gravel in twelve–inch layers on the road bed. Workers moisten and compact each layer. Over and over, layers are added and compacted until the road bed reaches the height required. All of this is before anything is paved. Wow.

I also learned that road construction companies boast of what they call “Context Sensitive Solutions.” Context sensitive? God is that personal with you and with me. 

The psalmist sings, “lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness ... make your way straight before me.” God who is our path is also our pathmaker. God will diligently work to lay a road before you, perhaps especially for you. God is the chief strategist with a hard had, discerning and planning and analyzing all the way.

Like any smart road planner, God considers crash statistics when making a plan. And oh, do I ever have crash statistics on the road of my life. Yet with the diligence of grace, God makes a way.

Sometimes the way of God is a high road. But sometimes it’s a low road (a hidden path).

I have been fascinated by a Vermont government guide entitled “How to Find Ancient Roads.” Written for aspiring road historians, it gives guidance on how to find and map historic road locations that might just lie beneath your town.

I imagined using this guide to search for God, and the advice in the publication made perfect sense. It noted we should expect setbacks but “go back to it and find the rhythm in it.” It mentions that the project goes better if you have help from others in mapping it. It emphasizes keeping a journal and thoroughly, systematic searching.

And listen to this. It notes that “it is not a job for the weak of heart. This task will take organization, commitment, a few tools, and a good deal of time, more than you think.” The printed guide describes the basic tools (spiritual disciplines, if you will) of road records, maps and how to find them, metes and bounds, local history, deeds, and topography. I reflected on the emphasis on topography. Perhaps my topography is the compilation of life experience that tells you where a “natural place” for a road would be.

As if to encourage the saints, the guide concludes “Do not be surprised to discover you can’t find all the answers from your hard work ... The reward is small victories, the long, hard-earned discovery ... You could be breaking a genetic code or opening a long-lost pharoah’s tomb, for the exhilaration you will feel when you make that wondrous discovery.”

God indeed gives joy to those who search until they find the path already laid out before them in the mystery of grace.

Whether you experience God as a protruding path or a hidden way, a high road or low road, God is an ancient path. We can walk on it and find rest for our souls. I know that sounds like an oxymoron since you don’t rest much when you are walking.

But that’s just it ... we never arrive. I’ll never get “there” but Jesus, who said “come follow me,” wasn’t talking about a destination. He was talking about a path, and it’s the path of Peter and Paul, Martha and Mary. It’s the ancient path so many have walked on before. Just being on the path brings rest for the weary soul.

I just finished my fourth summer term on the mountain. I’ve almost finished hiking or biking all 26 miles of the Perimeter Trail around Sewanee. Almost. Last week, I did one of the hardest parts between the Memorial Cross and Morgan’s Steep.

With my class in mind, I pondered the strange concept of walking on God. If God is the way, the path, the trail, who am I to walk on it?

Then my mind wandered to the Irish blessing, “may the road rise to meet you.” God does that. That’s grace.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at