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Metaphors #1

September 27, 2010

This post begins a periodic series on Metaphors for the Christian life. Many of the pictures here were taken with my iPhone during recent walks on the Trail, while a few of them are from the Perkiomen Trail website (see link below).

Exercise, for me, usually involves walking, biking, or running on the Perkiomen Trail (which runs through my neighborhood). The PT was built on an old railroad line which once was the path for the Perkiomen Branch of the Reading Railroad. Today it is a beautiful stretch of public park, used by many people daily for recreation. As I was biking on the Trail recently, I began to think about the Trail as a metaphor for Christian life and practice (or the Way of Jesus). Of course every metaphor breaks down at some point and I’m sure this one is no different. But perhaps this could, in a small way, help to communicate some truth about the Way of Jesus in my particular suburban context? As I reflected on my time on the Trail and thought about journeying the Way of Jesus, the following elements came to mind.

The Perkiomen Trail is 19 miles long and its path runs through numerous communities and parks, crossing multiple township lines and roads. It even crosses a natural boundary, the Perkiomen Creek, in various places. I’m reminded of how the Way of Jesus (Good News) also crosses boundaries, not being contained in one place but instead spreading out over the world. It is something that is moving, and transforming the territory it moves through.

The Trail’s path has a particular size (about 10′ wide). It’s not as wide as a road, but it’s also not as small as, say, a tightrope. A tightrope is a path that can be traveled only by an individual. But a larger path like this one can be traveled with others. The Way of Jesus is not just an individual path (which has, in my opinion, been overemphasized in the American Church for far too long), but rather one walked in community.

So this path is a relational one. We meet people here. We travel together. Relationships-and particularly their reconciliation-are a vital element of this path. The Trail goes through a number of county parks-gathering places for groups of people. Traveling through the parks I was reminded that we are to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), because this Way needs to be lived in community. We need to gather together to learn, to discern, to encourage…to become a Body.

There are “entry points” on the Trail. Places where people can get on the trail and join in this experience. Most of these entrances have a station with directions and pertinent information, and are especially helpful for folks new to the Trail. On the Way of Jesus there are entry points: intersections where folks come into contact with this upside-down Story that is so different than the stories told by our culture. In the church we strive to be a people of invitation-inviting people to imagine being a part of a Story that is bigger than themselves, and helping each other to walk together. This is a Story that is going somewhere, headed toward reconciliation and restoration. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we also learn that it’s a Story, or a path, that is entered through a narrow gate (Matthew 7:13).

There are exit points as well. The Trail at a number of places intersects with area roads and neighborhoods. At these intersections one can choose to leave the path and go a different way. Since the Way of Jesus does exist in the real world, we will be aware of other roads or paths. One may even be tempted to take one of these other paths. I’m not talking about the old “Can you lose your salvation” debate here. Rather, I’m thinking about how one might choose to go another way, perhaps if the upside-down, self-sacrificial Way of Jesus is perceived as too difficult or lacks meaning. Traveling on this Way is voluntary-it’s a choice that one must make to give allegiance to Christ and walk this path. Jesus’ path was one of humble service that led to a cross-sort of a downwardly mobile direction, though one which God used to make true shalom & ultimate reconciliation possible. Through the Eucharist we remember and practice this Way of life. Some may feel a need to exit, for whatever reason. But these same people may yet return at a later time, when they are ready. How might we respond to those who (for whatever reasons) have left the path?

Stretches of the Perkiomen Trail are out in the open without trees around, and you can feel the warmth and brightness of the sunshine. But there are also dark stretches as you enter the wooded areas. These places have a canopy of trees, and it actually feels like going into a tunnel. In our life on the Way of Jesus we will not be immune to dark times (doubt, trouble, hardship). But when we are in one of those dark times, can we trust the promise of “God with us”? What difference does that promise make in persevering through the dark times?

The Trail takes you into some of the most beautiful parts of the Perkiomen Valley landscape. Gazing at the Perkiomen Creek from atop one of the Trail bridges provides you with a wonderful vantage point in which to observe God’s creation. After a long ride, stopping to rest and reflect in a place like this is a true joy. Even though perseverance is required to get through the dark times, there also are times in this journey of great joy and beauty. I started writing this post on a day when our church family celebrated a Parent-Child Dedication (for twins!) as part of our morning worship. It’s a true joy to see dedicated parents consecrating their children to God, and it’s particularly beautiful to see the gathered church committing themselves to the support and nurture of these children and parents.

There are places on the Trail where you can witness some of the brokenness of our world. Drug use and vandalism take place in a few of the places the Trail passes through. Ironically, this Way of Jesus is one that takes us toward the brokenness of the world. Jesus tends to take his followers to the margins of society. So we have an opportunity on this path to become aware of the brokenness and discern how to help alleviate it. This Way shows us current reality. But it also reminds us that God’s light shines even into dark places.

In my town, as you travel on the Trail, you will notice that there is a revitalization that is underway. Structures which once housed thriving industry a century ago are today only a shadow of their former existence. Some have been in a state of disrepair for a long time and are now being renewed and restored. This revitalization will be a long process, but it is done with the hope of bringing new life to this place. There is evidence of God renewing his world, and I think that followers of Jesus on the Way keep this grand Story of renewal firmly in mind and in practice. God is on a mission to redeem and to renew all things. My friend Shane often describes God’s work like this-that God is building something new “in the shell of the old.” I think that’s a beautiful way to think about it. So we keep in mind that Jesus seemed to think that this world matters to God, especially when he taught his followers to pray, “…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Perkiomen Trail accomplishes a number of important purposes in our community:

  • it helps to preserve nature
  • it provides recreation
  • it’s a path for transportation
  • it enhances the properties near it
  • it helps to contribute to the local economy (users have access to local businesses)

The Trail is something that benefits the community. It helps to create a better place. I’m also reminded that God has a purpose for the world and for the Church, and that a vital part of the Church’s identity is to be a blessing in our location. Perhaps the instructions from Jeremiah could be helpful again-to “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29:4-7). God sends his people into the world as part of God’s mission to renew it; sometimes this direction is described as being “missional“. So I want to continually be asking questions like these in my congregation: Does our presence here bless this community? If we were not here would anyone notice? Are we valuing and caring for God’s creation? Are we helping the local economy? Are we sharing hope for a better Way?

Thanks for reading and for contemplating this metaphor. And if you’re ever in the Perkiomen Valley be sure to spend some time on the trail. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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