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FIRST-PERSON: Irish driving in the church


EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–I once read an article accusing American road signs of obscurity, at least by the world’s standards. It’s as though we don’t care whether visitors from abroad can find their way around or not.

I can believe it, for it can be hard enough for us natives to sort things out. Many signs assume a lot of background knowledge on the part of the driver. When it comes to Chicago, I-94 is a north/south route, paralleling the lakefront under the expressway names, Bishop Ford, the Dan Ryan and the Edens. So what is one to make of I-94 West? It helps to know that even-numbered interstates head east and west eventually. But what good is that to a visiting Lithuanian or Filipino who, wanting to head north to Milwaukee, has to make a snap decision at 60 mph?

Then there’s that bike route through Rogers Park. As you head south toward the city, you have to negotiate some street traffic before hitting the protected paths of Lincoln and Grant Parks. I know the sign man meant well, but the bicyclist who makes all the correct turns his first time through should receive college credit. My favorite sign is just off Devon. As you head west toward Loyola, you’re desperately looking for a way to get out of intense traffic on a major artery. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the bike path sign down the street to your right in a place you discover only after you turn right.

Which brings me to the wonderful road signs of Ireland. I’m just back from a few days driving across that nation, a somewhat frightening experience, but not because of the signs. For one thing, you have to drive on the left side of the road while sitting on the right side of the car. For another, many of the roads on the more rustic west side of the island are quite narrow.

I remember one in particular, over Conner Pass on the Dingle Peninsula. They had taken a single lane and then put a strip down the middle of it. As we inched past an oncoming car with only a rough rock ledge on our side and a low stone wall on his (and no shoulder for either of us), I was reminded of a scene in the movie Hoosiers. To show his team the leeway they enjoyed in shooting, Gene Hackman surprised his team by holding two basketballs side by side within the rim. I came to a new appreciation of the width of American roadways.

As challenging as it could have been, the Irish made things a lot easier by lucid and gracious signage. First of all, they drew pictures. Instead of blunt intersections, they often installed “roundabouts,” where you jumped into a traffic circle and then spun off into your proper route when it came up. They diagramed the whole thing, with generous wording, and you could easily visualize your turnoff.

They’re also good with data projection. When we were wandering around Dublin, looking for parking, we saw light boards with capacity updates for the various underground garages. And God bless the Dubliners for painting “Look Right” at their crosswalks.

Back out on the “interstate,” there were sequential hash marks giving you final cues to the proximity of your exit. And when they gave the Gaelic name for a town (e.g., Corcaigh), they also gave the English (Cork).

It reminded me of the need for the church to speak very clearly to those unfamiliar with its ways. For the uninitiated, church and Sunday School can be perplexing. Non-believers and new converts have been driving on one side of the road all their lives, and now we ask them to drive on the other side, to leave the broad way behind and negotiate the narrow way. We throw all sorts of “Gaelic” at them, whether in the form of “propitiation,” “atonement” or “sanctification,” and we often forget to interpret.

On mission trips, we’re more thoughtful. For instance, in speaking to Brazilians at an evangelistic event, we don’t say, “I walked the aisle at Glorieta” or “the pastor is like a quarterback.” How is a Brazilian supposed to know a Glorieta from a quarterback? Similarly, back in America, how is someone from the “pagan pool” supposed to know his Mars Hill from his Mt. Zion without some help?

Though the Irish “stooped” to make things clear to me, they didn’t change their road and traffic systems to please me. They didn’t let me drive on the right side of the road just because it would make me more comfortable. And they sent me on roundabouts, not allowing me to plow straight across intersections, as was my habit in America.

So too the church must not change the rules to make visitors more comfortable. Discipleship is demanding, and we mustn’t give newcomers the impression that they can drive any old way they want –- or take the church wheel and turn its ministry and witness wherever they please.

It has to be scary for those Irishmen, knowing that every time they enter the highway, the road is full of American tourists in freshly rented cars, novices trying to figure out how to shift with the left hand. Many sons of Galway and Limerick have had near misses with disoriented Texans or suffered delays when Californians left their cars to retrieve sheared mirrors on narrow mountain roads. It takes patience and nerve to accommodate strangers to their roadways.

The same is true in the church. “Irish” driving can be tough on newbie and veteran alike. At the very least, we need to be sure that the signage of our discourse is clear. No compromise — but no obfuscation. Wait, let me rephrase that: Don’t compromise -– but don’t confuse them.
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Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist

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  • Mark Coppenger