Gawkers, Gapers, and Rubberneckers: Wisdom for the Trail

Last Sunday, Willard gave us some considerations to take into account when hiking a trail. He talked about his motivation to hike the North Country Trail: one was to get to know Michigan at eye level, so to speak; the other to savor the earth “at the scale of the human footstep.” He talked about the difference between a path and a trail: a path being what lies ahead; a trail is what is left behind as a marker for those who might follow. Willard concluded by saying that he thinks Florence is on a trail, and it’s up to us to read the signs and blazes that are left for us to follow along the way of life. 

Our worship theme this fall is “Where is God going?” Has God left a trail behind for Florence to follow? Willard suggested that some of the same advice hikers follow, is applicable in navigating the way to life. His advice was:

1. Pack light: The less weight you have to carry, the farther you can go. We can’t prepare for every eventuality, so, with Wisdom, leave what is unnecessary behind.

2.  Walk together, when possible: Many of the hazards of the trail—getting lost, getting injured, getting sick, getting depressed—are made more manageable by companionship.

3.  Keep walking: In the words of the poet Antonio Machado, “The way is made by walking,” both for ourselves and for those who come after.

4.  Mend: The Trail needs to be maintained. It soon becomes impassable if not for those who tend it.

5.  Expect to be surprised: Revel in it when you can!

Willard has left us with many things to ponder as Florence finds its way forward. This morning I have chosen to consider how we might identify the blazes and the markers that have been left for us to follow. It might be reasonable to think that this might require a good bit of wisdom. But what if wisdom is the blaze? What if wisdom is the marker?

In the passage we read from Proverbs today, it tells us, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gate she speaks” (Proverbs 1:20-21). It goes on to say that most people do not even recognize what is going on. They simply ignore wisdom’s voice. You might say, they ignore the blazes or markers left by wisdom. We may sit and gawk, but we do not recognize what we are seeing.

Years ago, I used to listen to a lot of Chicago sports and news radio. A common feature on such stations was a traffic report “every ten minutes on the eights,” meaning that at eight, eighteen, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-eight, and fifty-eight minutes after the hour they gave traffic updates. This past Friday I was in Chicago and was driving through some off roads. I recognized many of them from those traffic reports I had been subjected to but which meant nothing to me as someone living in Southwest Michigan. But for the person travelling to work in Chicago, the reports are a lifeline. Knowing there is an accident or a traffic jam along their intended route allows the commuter to take an alternate route, saving them a ton of time.

A typical report might go something like, “It’s a half-hour ride from Kedzie Avenue to the Loop on the Kennedy Expressway.” Often the traffic report might include some version of the following: “There’s a gapers delay on the inbound Dan Ryan Expressway with an accident pulled off on the left shoulder at 35th St. Traffic is backed up bumper-to-bumper all the way back to Garfield Boulevard.” For a long time, I had no idea what the term gapers delay meant. It made no sense to me. Finally, I figured out what they were talking about. People were rubbernecking to see the accident, slowing down traffic and causing a needless delay, that is to say, they were gawking. Sometimes the gapers would cause their own accident because they were not watching the road, rear-ending the car in front of them and causing even more delays. Needless to say, I don’t like driving in Chicago; I much prefer Southwest Michigan.

I think of another kind of sign that often gets missed at times. During my time at Michigan State University, the chair of my dissertation committee, John Norder, was an archeologist who was considered one of the foremost experts on pictographs of the Canadian shield. Pictographs, such as the one on the photo above, were painted by Indigenous people hundreds of years ago. These drawings are often found on the side of a sheer cliff above a lake or river. How they got there remains a mystery. Historically, these paintings—which are made from ochre, a natural red earth clay pigment—have been scrutinized for their meaning, usually being associated with some aspect of religion. John, my advisor, who himself is Native, takes a different approach. He understands these paintings, which are located along what would have been well-traveled waterways, to be signs for travelers who are coming along behind. They tell other travelers, “We have been here; we have taken a moose; we have taken some fish; we encountered a severe storm here.” For the people who painted them, they were billboards; they were signs; they are blazes in the trail to help others along the way.

That might disappoint those of us who are looking for some sensational meaning in these paintings, but maybe we are just gawkers or rubberneckers when it comes to pictographs, and we miss the real sign. We end up crashing, not into another car (or canoe), but into our own narrow way of seeing the world. 

Returning to the passage from Proverbs, I find it significant that “Wisdom” is in the street, is in the public square, where people are moving about. People are traveling along the way, and wisdom is calling out to them to give them some sort of direction or guidance on where to go. To me that picture is very clear here. But the people are simply gawkers; they are rubberneckering to hear the strange voices calling out along the way. If there are not traffic jams in this scene, there are at least traffic accidents. The writer goes on to say, “No one heeded . . . you have ignored my counsel” (Prov. 1:24-25). As a result, calamity will come “like a whirlwind” (Prov. 1:27). 

How many times do we see wisdom along the way of life? We may slow down, gawk, and  look for the sensational, but ignore the signs of the trail that is being blazed for us, and we end up running headlong into calamity, which suggests that we may not even recognize what wisdom really looks like. Proverbs suggests that wisdom is sitting on the street corner and crying out to those who are passing by. Wisdom is standing in the public square trying to get peoples’ attention. The caricatures we have built of Wisdom are of the old sage with the snow-white hair and long beard rattling off a set of abstract maxims to his students seated around him, or the young, beautiful mother, Sophia, imparting wise old tales of warning to her young son or daughter.  

This does not fit the picture I conjure up when I think of someone sitting in the street and crying out to those who are passing by. What I see is a poor old man in tattered clothes, a young child begging for money, or a young mother with a gaunt child at her shriveled breast. Proverbs gives us a picture of wisdom stretching out its hand—the picture of a beggar (Prov. 1:24). But how can these be the cries of wisdom? Isn’t wisdom how to best care for our 401(k)s? Isn’t wisdom knowing which is the best school to send our kids to? Isn’t wisdom knowing which is the best part of town to live in? Isn’t wisdom knowing who is the right candidate to vote for? These are not the kinds of things we would expect to receive from the beggar, the orphan, or the widow. We expect them to take from us, not give anything. But maybe they have something to give to us to help us along the way of life if we would stop gawking at them.

In the Gospel reading today from Mark, Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. They answer that people think he might actually be a prophet. Then Jesus asks them who they thought he was, and they replied, “Why, you’re the Messiah!” I’m not convinced Jesus’s disciples fully understood their own reply. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus indicates people would fail to recognize his face in the naked, the sick, the poor, and the prisoner (Matthew 25:35-40). These people may have stopped to gawk, hoping to see something sensational, but not expecting a signpost for the way of life. In fact, if anything, the situations of these people are in are the very situations you would advise your sons, daughters, and students to avoid.  

On the other hand, those that listened to their cries and pleas for help in the streets prepared meals for the hungry, poured a drink for the thirsty, sewed blankets for the cold, visited the incarcerated, and cared for the sick (Matthew 25:41-46).

Wisdom is not so much a formula by which you can live your life as it is seeing what needs to be done around you and setting about doing it. Wisdom is not a set of rules that tell you what to avoid and what embrace. Wisdom is not the map of trail that we can study and then follow. Wisdom is the signpost, the marker, and the blaze that confront us along the way to help steer us along the way of life. Wisdom is not something we carry with us on our journey, or even how we respond to what we encounter; wisdom is the encounter. It’s up to us whether we decide to follow or gawk.

I wonder what the motivation is behind rubbernecking. Is it to appease our curiosity? Do we have a craving to see disaster? Are we tempted to stop and help, but like the Levite and the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan, reason that we have other places to go and more important and wise business to tend? I don’t know; I’m not a psychologist. What is becoming clear to me, though, as I have thought about Willard’s meditation and as I have prepared for this morning, is that wisdom is not something you can monopolize or market. At the moment you think you have it cornered, it pops up in an unexpected place, and, if we are not prepared, we are left gawking. This may be part of the surprise that Willard is talking about discovering along the way. Just as you don’t walk the trail by talking about it, you don’t find wisdom by reading maps. You need to actually get out on the trail and look for real signs.

You know what it’s like when you imagine what a place is like that you have never been to, and then, when you get there, it is not anything like you imagined.  At Florence, we can imagine all we want what it’s like to walk the way of life, as Willard put it, but until we get out there and begin walking with each other, we will never see the signposts; we will never see wisdom guiding us along with her cries in the streets.

Over the past several weeks, the world has been shocked by one more refugee crisis as the United States has pulled its military out of Afghanistan. We gawk at the TV from the comfort of our couches as we watch thousands of people flee for their lives and for safety from the Taliban. We may have wondered as we watched, “How can we help?” but then promptly gone on to our jobs or dinner; after all, what can we do from Southwest Michigan? In a way, using Donald’s metaphor again, it is one more case in which we feel like we are left standing outside the fence while the excavation going on inside. But wait . . . do I hear a voice crying out in the street? Is there someone calling out in the public square?

As Southwest Michigan prepares to host an untold number of refugees in the coming months, could this be one voice of wisdom calling out to Florence to help us along the way of life?

Published by Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite

We are an Anabaptist community that welcomes all people to join us in the work of local, national, and international peace and justice.

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