The Path of the Familiar

By Rev. Susan K. Smith

Dr. Martin Luther King said, many years ago, that the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism and militarism” were “strangling the soul of America.” A year later, he was gunned down in Memphis, his voice forever stilled, but it occurred to me that he was walking down a path of the familiar. Racism, materialism and militarism have been banes in the quest for justice ever since there have been governments and people. The American empire is no different, really, from the Roman Empire – and other empires – in so many ways.

The path of the familiar, then, is well-traveled and worn and it has stubbornly resisted efforts to dig it up or plant new life on it. We, God’s people, trample the same path empire after empire. Although many regard the current president of the United States as the “worst ever,” he is no different than a lot of his predecessors. He is arrogant and ignorant; he is brash and egotistical; he is insecure and weak…but he is not different. Herod Antipas, in 14 CE, was a predecessor of our current leader. He built the city called Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He loved “making deals.” His deals were good for the wealthy but threw the masses into economic despair. He might have been one to talk in superlatives, as does the American president. He was full of himself and wanted to turn the Sea of Galilee, a small, body of fresh water which had lots of fish which provided income for the Empire, into what he called a “real sea,” a “little Mediterranean pond,” something over which he would have complete control.

The path of the familiar.

These paths are all over the place. We walk on them without even thinking about it. We recognize them even if we don’t identify them as such, but what we fail to realize is that if we refuse to identify them, name them for what they are, and we continue to walk to where they lead us, we cannot get to where God wants us to be.

It is scary to go a new way, on a new path, do a new thing. It is scary to not know the ground on which one walks. I remember recently being in DC. I was going to the Museum of African American History and was going to take the train, but I was scared to death. What if I took the wrong train? What if I got off at the wrong place? I was filled with anxiety. The easy thing, the path of the familiar I could have taken, would have been to call a cab and all it a day. But it was just a train! I got maps. I talked to the ticket agent. I looked at the maps on the wall. I am ashamed to admit how frightened I was, but I finally took a “test run.” It was such a quick trip from where I was. It was “different” but it was not “difficult.” Had I taken the path of the familiar, I would have had to pay money which I really did not have.

Sometimes, we have to breathe in and avoid the path we know. In our lives in general and in working for justice in particular, there are always at least two paths, the paths of which we are familiar and the paths which lead into the seemingly unknown. We do not know what it will cost us to step into these unknown spaces, but it is clear that if we do not take one of these unfamiliar paths, though we will be walking, we will be walking to nowhere, because walking into the sameness which has kept us back, or unhappy, or frightened or angry or whatever our issue is will only lead us back to the same place of departure which we have taken every day of our lives.

It seems that taking the path of the familiar is detrimental to our very souls; that path is definitely detrimental to the progress of the Kingdom of God. I think about that train in DC now and giggle; I have taken trains in England and in New York and been in airports where nobody, it seems, spoke English but me. There has been nothing “familiar” about many of the places where most of us have gotten some of our most rich experiences. Had we not risked whatever we feared, we would have tread that old, familiar path and been stuck.

God wants us to abandon the path of the familiar and risk change, risk loss, risk pain. It is called faith, yes, but also courage. We are afraid to leave what we know. We are afraid of how deep the water might be into which we jump. But just as morning always comes after the night, paths that are unfamiliar always lead to something which we can identify and take comfort in, even as we wrestle with the newness around us.

God wants us to try avoiding the path of the familiar. In the name of what this life can offer us, God wants us to leave the path of the familiar behind us and look for the paths on which we might never even think of treading. Jesus the Christ said he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly.

The abundance we seek might very well be found on the unfamiliar paths we are careful to avoid.

About The Author

Dr. Susan Smith Dr. Susan K. Smith is the former pastor of the Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. She received her education from Occidental College, Yale University, and United Theological Seminary. She is the author of five books and the proud mother of two children.

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