Lessons I’ve Learned on Dirt Roads

I’ve spent a lot of time on dirt roads.  When I was a kid, my dad would take me along with him on country drives in his truck.  This could be the over-exaggeration of my childhood perspective, but according to my memory, we were always stuck in the mud, and while it may have only taken an hour or so to get unstuck, as a kid, it felt like an eternity!  I remember groaning whenever I could hear the roar of the truck’s tires spinning furiously while we remained trapped as my dad’s efforts could often dig us an even deeper hole from which we would have to claw our way to freedom.

As a teenager, I often spent my evenings speeding down a dirt road because I’d taken too long to say goodbye to David (my now husband).  My rush was to get home in time for my curfew, often at speeds no person should ever drive on gravel (sorry Mom), but hey, I was never late, and I avoided the cars with the flashing lights who hand out expensive tickets to speeding teenagers.

In my adult years, dirt roads have often been a place of solace. Running is my favorite form of exercise. There’s a peace that is found in the steady beat of my feet crunching the gravel beneath me. There’s usually not a car in sight on a dirt road, only a few animals here and there, and it is peaceful.   It is the place where I find time to talk with God and hear from Him.  It is also the place where some of my deepest friendships have been built while training for marathons with my sole sisters, women who have fought through the trenches with me, not just in running but in life as well.  We have conquered many a mile on dirt roads together, and we have built deep roots together that neither time nor space can break.  When you go into battle together, it changes you, creating a bond that can never be broken.

There is something deeply meaningful about dirt roads.  They are intrinsically ancient simply because nearly all cultures throughout history are familiar with the importance of connection via a rugged pathway.  They are especially invaluable to the small places of the earth where the multiplicity of resources and man-centered activity characteristic of urban lifestyle are replaced by the enveloping of wild, open country.

Even more importantly though, Jesus travelled on dirt roads.  He was born in the small village of Bethlehem, and He grew up in one of the most insignificant towns in Israel, Nazareth.  There was even a saying in His day, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  Jesus loved doing ministry in places the church today would often consider strategically impractical.  He spent most of His time with His disciples traveling from one small village to another, teaching people as they drew near to Him in the desolate wilderness where He most often retreated to pray (Luke 5:16, Mark 1:35, Mark 6:32-35).   It seems odd that the God of the universe would choose to come to us in the flesh and minister in such humble places, but that is exactly what He did, and I believe He would continue to do so today.

Not that Jesus wouldn’t visit urban centers or desire us to minister and plant in those settings, because there is no doubt He travelled to and taught in Jerusalem; however, I think it is irresponsible of us to forget to pay attention to the fact that Jesus cared about the small, the insignificant, the poor, the powerless, and those quaint communities all too often ignored by society and left out of a good portion of church multiplication strategies.  Jesus would love flyover country and would spend far more time there than most politicians do these days.  Jesus believed small places and people mattered greatly.  Throughout Scripture God most often did His work through the people the world would typically overlook.  Moses was not a good speaker.  David was a lowly shepherd.  Esther was an orphan.  Gideon was a coward.  Ruth was a Moabite whose roots were born from incest.  Rahab was a prostitute.  Four of His disciples were fisherman, and one was a tax collector.  God greatly delights in frustrating the wisdom of man by bringing about great works through the foolish things of this world.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God,” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

God loves using people and places worldly wisdom would write off as useless and trivial, not worthy of time and resources.  He does this because it gives us no opportunity to steal any of the glory for ourselves.  If you’ve done something “big for God,” and are able to point to your own efforts as the reason for “your” success, then you’re not leaning on God and are probably not relying on His power and Spirit to do the work only He can accomplish.  You need to step out of your comfort zone, stop following the high speed traffic of everyone else’s life, and slow down long enough to hear from God.  You might be surprised by where He chooses to lead you.  It probably won’t be anywhere that makes sense to your friends, family, or any of the great, strategic thinkers out there pushing that bigger is better.

It’s what God has done with my family by moving us further into southeast, rural Kansas to breathe new life into dying communities.  Most people I know think what we’ve done is pretty crazy.  Before we officially moved, I remember being stopped in the local grocery store and asked several times before I could escape out the door, “Why would you move THERE of all places?”  It makes me chuckle, because from a practical standpoint, it really makes no sense that we moved further away from family, friends, a supportive church environment, and my husband’s job, which provides our livelihood.  Our taxes are higher.  Our gas expense is most definitely higher.  We are juggling two mortgages until our old home sells, so nearly every bill I can think of that we are responsible to pay has at the very least doubled.  Oh and our new roof leaks, and our air conditioner is broken, so those are two ginormous expenses for which we did not plan.

Our lives are a crazy mess, and yet we have a peace like we’ve never had before.  Life is good.  The people God has brought into our social sphere come from a wide variety of life experiences.  We are all so very different from one another that only God could have brought us together.  Isn’t that awesome?!  I can point to the divine appointment that caused each of our lives to intersect creating this strange group of people who are becoming more and more committed to living life together and reaching our community with the hope and love only Jesus can give.  It’s incredible!  Not a single one of these people are those whom the church would typically choose to spearhead a new ministry or lead itself into new territory, yet here they are, ready to go, ready to love God and love people. Wow!  Small places and especially small people really do matter in God’s Kingdom economy!

“How beautiful are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation,” Isaiah 52:7

So here are a couple of lessons I’ve learned on dirt roads and why these pathways mean a great deal to the God of the Universe and why He might be calling you to find some forgotten roads on your journey toward following Him.

Dirt Roads Lead to Uncharted Territory.

As the roads less traveled, dirt roads can lead us to places we’ve never considered worth our time to visit.  There is great beauty and adventure to be found if we are willing to explore the unglamorous parts of humanity.  A retired pastor recently told me that he tried for years to recruit young pastors to join him in ministering to rural communities.  He was never successful at getting anyone to join him, because they all believed they would be more successful if they remained in and around big cities.  They didn’t want to risk their ministry careers becoming “insignificant.”  In today’s church economy, numbers are king, even if we choose not to admit it.  We celebrate the mega, the celebrity, the giant conferences, and the book deals, mistaking the business model of church leadership and growth for the miraculous.  I can assure you, there is nothing miraculous about drawing a crowd.  That’s relatively easy.  If history is any proof, the ability to attract a large following does not necessarily a great leader make.

However, learning to lovingly guide a group of people through Spirit-filled sacrifice and servanthood, toward life transformation by being willing to get down into the messiness of their lives and show them through a living example what it means to be a Christ follower, is miraculous.  The power to influence lives in such a way that those lives go on to influence others in the same manner is an unstoppable force, especially when it is empowered by the Spirit of God.  In God’s economy, more attendance and bigger buildings in great cities aren’t always better, sometimes it’s just more.  One truly transformed life means more to God than a thousand megachurches full of spectators whose lives never really change in such a way that they resemble His Son’s life as He lived it while He stooped down into humanity to relate to us.  Every life matters to God, and every city, village, and community across all cultures matter to God.  No place is too small for God to use to change the world, and no genuine ministry seeking to love people as God loves them is insignificant to God.

There’s Less Noise, so it’s Easier to Hear from God and one another.

There’s a reason Jesus would retreat to a desolate place to pray and teach His disciples.  Dirt roads are quiet and free of the hustle and bustle that so very often characterize our lives.  I love running on dusty pathways.  It offers me time away from my own busyness.  There’s less traffic, and it’s peaceful, plus I have a better view of the wonder of God’s creation.  It’s in the quiet moments of my life that I am able to hear God speak most clearly, because in these moments I’m free of the distractions, to do lists, and agendas that demand my attention.  We are surrounded by a constant barrage of buy this, go here, do that, sign up, keep up, live up to someone else’s standards…Even when we go on vacation, we’re so busy seeing and doing and going that when we get back home, we need a vacation from our vacation.

I once heard a man on the subway in Boston say, “Midwest people don’t know the value of a minute.”  It was all I could do to not respond to him and argue against his slanted view towards the people from my area of the world.  I desperately wanted to retort, “Well, east coast people don’t know the value of slowing down, pausing, and enjoying the perspective stillness and rest can bring.  There’s a secret that people who live along dirt roads know that people who live among rush hour traffic don’t.  The country is peaceful. Being amongst the quiet, wide-open views of nature can do much good for the soul.  It has a way of bringing a clarity of mind one cannot get when life is consistently noisy and busy.  Jesus was surrounded by a crowd wherever He went.  There were always people who needed Him to do something for them.  However, He never rushed in an effort to help as many people as He possibly could with the little time He had.  In fact, of the thirty-three years He spent here as God in flesh, He only utilized three of them for the specific purpose of ministry.  That means Jesus walked the earth for thirty years living an average, everyday life before He began preaching, teaching, and healing.

Check out this scene: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’  And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.'”

Jesus always had the bigger picture in mind, and if he needed a quiet place to retreat, rest, and pray in order to remained focused on that picture, then we need the same even more than He did!  Some of my best places to get away have been discovered via a dirt road.

Oh and Jesus also brought His best friends along with Him.  The calming atmosphere of the countryside, gave Him time to develop deep relationships with His disciples and teach them to refresh themselves at His feet before heading back out into the world of people in need.  I cannot even begin to tell you the wonderful treasure of deep friendships I’ve formed while striding down dirt roads with my running girls.  It was during these times when my friends and I would talk intimately about life, faith, and encourage one another to press on and seek even bigger goals and dreams.  Without my girls, I never would have qualified for and run the Boston Marathon, one of the big moments of my life!  Small places create deep spaces to form faith and friendships that will help carry you through the most difficult challenges life is inevitably going to throw at you.

The next time you consider where God might be calling you to visit or move to on your life’s journey, consider embarking on a little trip down a dirt road and letting it take you wherever it leads, even if it’s a tiny place in the middle of nowhere.  You never know what you might find there.  It could end up being a seemingly nothing of a place that changes everything about the pace and trajectory of your life.  It’s at the very least worth a shot!

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