The middle section of the Whithorn Pilgrim Way was, perhaps, the most scenic. The weather was at least partly responsible, and I enjoyed walks with uninterrupted sunshine and cloudless blue skies looking over the Firth of Clyde.
With views like these, it is little wonder that people travel halfway round the world to visit Scotland. The countryside and sea views are unsurpassed, and the towns are equally pretty.
The front at Girvan has sea as calm as a millpond. This reflection – these words, not the image – is not so much that south-west Scotland’s scenery is worth celebrating (though it is) but, rather, that we need to focus.
Look more closely at Girvan harbour and you’ll see one of the vessels moored there is the lifeboat. That speaks not so much of a pleasant seaside town enjoying calm water, but of the risks and hazards of a sea which can be all too rough and dangerous.
It’s one thing to cruise around the Clyde checking your lobster pots when there’s hardly a breath of wind. It is quite another when there is a swell, and the breeze is more of a gale. Part of the skill of sailing in these waters is to be able to anticipate the conditions and make appropriate decisions ahead of time.
In some respects, this is little different from the people of Israel long ago. They didn’t so much have choices to make about where they would walk (though they would have retold stories of their ancestors doing that in the desert), but they had choices to make about what they should do, and with whom, and in what ways. They were not so different from us.
Sometimes it’s reasonably easy to determine the path, because the trampled grass or gravelled route is unmistakable. At other times, it’s clear where you’re not meant to walk.
The countryside east of Colmonell was a new, and delightful world, to me. I’d walked all the way down to Barrhill along the country roads, which was fine, though the absence of a footpath meant I had to keep my wits about me for passing cars and lorries. On the return journey I came back to Pinwherry, and noticed a sign for a footpath to Colmonell, running parallel to the road but south of the River Stinchar. Since I’d walked along the road on the way there, I thought I’d try this alternative path. It was signposted, so what could possibly go wrong?
The problem was that the path started quite indistinct, and didn’t improve. In fact, it seemed to run out not more than half a mile further on, just at the edge of the river. This was the only part of the one hundred and fifty miles where I thought the game was up and I’d either have to walk back the way I’d come, or chance my luck and swim across.
Bear Grylls, the adventurer on the television, and I share a common faith in Jesus. We share nothing else. I feared that I’d either need to retrace my steps or take th eplunge and wade across wide part of the river, getting soaked or possibly swept downstream. I went for the drier option. It took a bit of climbing back up the steep bank and through quite thorny undergrowth, but I eventually reached the side of a field and, after other adventures involving livestock which I’ve recounted before and intend not to repeat, finally came upon a path which led to the south of Colmonell village.
Part of the problem was that the initial path wasn’t well used. It had become overgrown because there were insufficient people walking it to keep it reasonably clear. Faced, as I had turned off the main road, with a field in front of me and no real clue as to where I should go, the range of choices (keep left, go right, try going right across the middle) was just too great and I ended up on a less helpful path than hindsight indicates (as it always does).
It was quite different walking west of Colmonell, over Knockormal Hill and back towards the sea. The sheep paths were, on the whole, obvious.
In any event, I knew I had to head over the little summit and generally keep to the right. That would let me rejoin the country road I’d walked along earlier that day. So, as long as I kept going uphill, followed sheep trails and didn’t turn left, I couldn’t go wrong.
This terrain was steeper and more challenging than the riverside walk, but turned out to be easier, largely because I could see where I was meant to be heading.
Life seems not unlike this at times. The alternative to travelling well-trodden paths says: walk wherever you like, and take whatever route suits you best. It’s a free society in a free world with, in Scotland, there is quite literally a right to roam largely where you want. Who needs paths- they only restrict. Aren’t choices so much better? At those times when I was tramping knee-high through grass and reeds, unsure whether the next step was as solid as I really wanted it to be or was, instead, a big puddle overgrown with vegetation, I would rather have had a path. And I might even have preferred one with looped round and meandered a little, if I knew that it would, in the end, take me where I needed to go. Freedom is fine, but terra firma can be undervalued and a well-worn route that gets you to your destination is not as dull as you might think.
Is there a similar idea in relation to how we live and approach life’s big issues? We have been living for more than a generation in a cultural context which says there is no grand narrative any longer; there’s no big story to guide a whole society, or at least a very large proportion of it, to live in a particular way. Everything has become more relative, and so each of us increasingly does what seems right in our own experience. The field is wide open, paths are few and there’s an invitation to walk where you will.
There’s much to commend that. Too much social pressure to conform, or to accept as correct something that had been handed down without any critical reflection, does no-one much good. It can lead to racism, to the transporting of children from the UK to Australia and to the continuing of entirely unacceptable abuse of young people in all sorts of institutions, both religious and secular.
And yet the move towards everyone being free to do what they wish in their own eyes hasn’t created a better world. We still want to think, as Rowan Williams has written about “what kind of people we are, and want to be, and want others to be; what are the habits we want people to take for granted, what are the casual assumptions we’d like people to be working with?” In other words, we have some kind of instinctive sense that there is at least some kind of path to walk along; it’s not that everyone goes their own way.
Williams notes a move towards the individual:
“We have as a society allowed those habits and assumptions to drift steadily towards a preoccupation with the individual’s power to maximise choice, so that ‘freedom’ comes to be defined as essentially a state in which you have the largest possible number of choices and no serious obstacles to realising any of them.”Rowan Williams
He has a view about where this gets us: “as our current debates seem to indicate, we have woken up to the fact that this produces a motivational deficit where the idea of the common good is concerned. … What I feel, and my capacity to externalise what I feel, are not the end of the story – arguably not even the beginning of the story. They must lead into a real mutuality of concern.”
We need some kind of path or, if not, at least a guide through unclear and uncharted territory. The people in Isaiah’s time, as we read today, seemed to have forsaken the well-trodden paths of obedience to the Lord. People may have been doing their own thing, or, perhaps, they were doing nothing at all. In this passage comes the command to leave Babylon – yet there is no hint about where the people should go, or by what path they should travel.
How different was the first escape from captivity in Egypt, when the people were led by the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. This went before them both to protect them and to show them the way. In Isaiah’s image, there’s a sort of push into the unknown, but apparently little sense of direction. We might not be so different from them.
Things, however, are not as bleak as they seem. The two narratives of escape or rescue do share features in common. The principal one is the command to be in relationship. Through Isaiah the prophet, God says to his people; ‘‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.”
Suddenly, it does become personal. God does not issue a list of commands on the understanding that keeping them is the key to life. That way leads to imprisonment under the law. Instead, an encounter with the Spirit of God by all the people of God enables all of them as individuals, and as a people together, to follow some kind of path.
It may not always be the well-worn path of the ages, for new situations present new challenges which may need to be addressed in new ways. At other times, apparently novel problems are in principle just like old ones. And we always need to be able to discern which are which. There are paths, old ones we would do well to walk in, and new ones we need to forge in our time. Even the new ones may be guided by principles from earlier experiences.
I got into a fankle by going off the beaten track and following only one sign. I probably needed more guidance than was available and, of course, I didn’t have a map with me. However, armed with only the summit of a hill and a few tracks made by the sheep, I got on much better. Paths can make a positive contribution.
Jesus did not give a long list of dos and don’ts, though he was living in a culture which readily welcomed them. He does, unashamedly, emphasise the importance of the law – yet he summarises it in terms of relationship. Fulfilling the law,as Jesus describes it, is about demonstrating dedicated love towards God and one’s neighbours, two essentially relational activities. He also says, ‘Follow me.’ That’s a personal invitation which demands a response from each of us; but it doesn’t mean we do what we want.
It is in the company of Jesus which is, at the same time constraining and liberating, that we walk by faith. We are guided by his example. We learn from his stories. We are inspired by his principles. These things focus us that we might go on to live expansively. Christianity is not a dull and narrow tramp through a dark valley, but a life-enriching adventure which is meant, at its best, to give us new glimpses of wonder, to bring glory to God, to gift joy to humanity.
This is the path he invites us to walk in, in company with him. Indeed, he invites many to walk so that none is alone. Together we are led by him and it is as we engage regularly in the discipline of faith that these paths become more clearly helpful to us, freeing us to live in all its fullness. For this is the path God graciously sets before us, that we may walk in it. And, like water found in the desert, God’s path offers us a refreshing route towards full life.