Wandering from the path

Every so often, I get myself lost. That’s despite the fact that I’m usually careful to check addresses and look at a map before I go anywhere new, especially if I have to be there at a particular time. I look at the names of cross streets. I visualize the turns in my head: turn right; take the first left, then immediately left again.

But I can miss important details. Once, in the Seattle area, I arranged to meet with a friend that I hadn’t seen in years. Going online, I found a restaurant located inside a large bookstore near where I was staying. We agreed to meet there. I arrived a little ahead of schedule, so I could browse the bookstore, something I hadn’t had the pleasure of doing for a long time. Then I went looking for the restaurant.

I couldn’t find it.

I asked a clerk, who looked at me in a way that said, “Guess you ain’t from around these parts.” Then he calmly informed me that the restaurant wasn’t at this bookstore. It was at the other one.

Other one? I could feel a little panic rising in my chest. “What other one?” I asked. Seems I neglected to note that there were two branches of the store. I was at one, and my friend was across town waiting at the other.

Thank God for Siri.

I texted my friend to confess my mistake, got in the car, and let Siri patiently guide me step by step: “At the next intersection, turn left.” She even politely informed me when I arrived at my destination, and didn’t scold me when I shot past it and had to turn around. I finally got where I was supposed to be, and miraculously, was only about 15 minutes late. I had a wonderful, leisurely visit with my friend.

And then I got lost on the way home.

Seriously. And Siri couldn’t be as helpful this time. I couldn’t quite remember the address of where I was going, and hadn’t been as careful about studying how to get back. Siri faithfully led me everywhere I told her I wanted to go, and cheerfully told me I had arrived in places I had no business being. Thankfully, after several tries, I finally got the destination right.

Next time, I’ll do a better job of studying how to get where I’m going.

Over and over in our study of the Psalms, we were treated to variations on the same theme of Old Testament wisdom: there is a path of righteousness that we are to follow. The apostle James, writing to a primarily Jewish audience, could assume that his readers shared that same understanding of the life of faithfulness and obedience. Here again are his closing words, this time from the Common English Bible:

My brothers and sisters, if any of you wander from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer, recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and will bring about the forgiveness of many sins. (James 5:19-20)

The word “wander” isn’t meant to suggest aimlessness or cluelessly going to the wrong place; we might use the word “stray” instead. Straying doesn’t have to mean running in the opposite direction. But a small deviation from course, followed by another and another, can lead us places we never sought to go.

In a sense, all of James’ letter is about the many ways his readers had strayed. False teachers in the church were misleading people into thinking that it was possible to have faith without works, faith without love. The church had too many “cultural Christians” who were better at embodying the status-seeking values of the Roman Empire than the truth of the gospel. They envied the rich and disdained the poor, reinforcing the class distinctions of the society around them.

And as we’ve seen, their wandering from the truth showed up consistently in how they spoke to one another: they were quick to speak in anger instead of listening; they spoke in ways that dishonored and disrespected the poor; their envy drove them to constant quarreling; they made empty boasts about their plans; they made empty promises that they didn’t keep.

Note the moral and spiritual implication here. It’s one thing to think of an angry outburst as an inadvertent slip, an occasional bad behavior, a temporary transgression. But it’s another to envision this as evidence that we’re on the wrong path.

At some point, of course, the metaphor breaks down, and I don’t mean to suggest that every angry word shows that we’re plunging toward destruction. Still, it’s better to think of the life of faith in terms of paths and destinations than discrete behaviors to be evaluated by a set of rules. We’re not just rule-breakers, we’re wanderers. And what we may need is a course correction, a re-evaluation of what our behavior says about our goals and desires, about the paths we’ve chosen to pursue.

Some of that re-evaluation we will do on our own, in the privacy of our personal relationship with God. But James leaves us with one more lesson: we are not only responsible for ourselves, but for each other, as we’ll explore in the next post.