Used to be that when you'd get the family together for a long road trip; one of the parents (usually Dad, who refused to ask anyone for directions) would load up the glove box of the family car with those fold-out paper maps -- you know, the kind that featured an oil company logo on the front and never folded back to its original configuration!
Dad would go down to the local gas station, and while the attendant filled up the car, checked the oil, put free air in the tires and washed the windows, Dad would go inside and grab some free maps for the trip. If you were AAA members, though, Dad would most certainly have already ordered the TripTik, which gave him turn-by-turn directions and stamped-on warnings about construction that would cause Dad to want to leave at o-dark-thirty in order to "beat the traffic."
These days, though, you can hardly find a paper map at the gas and sip, and, even if you do, you'll have to pay for it after you pump your own gas, check your own oil, and find quarters to activate the air hose. Then again, you probably don't need the map anyway because you have a GPS on the dashboard or you downloaded the directions off of Google Maps or MapQuest, or you know you can look up your current location on your smartphone. Even if you're off-road, a hand-held GPS can tell you your current location within a couple of feet. With all that gadgetry available to you, even if you're in the middle of nowhere, you can determine that you are at least somewhere.
Paper maps seem to be going the way of the cassette tape and the black-and-white TV. You might even want to ask your congregation for a show of hands of who has maps in their cars right now. Chances are that nobody under the age of 50 has one. Many would say that we're at the point of simply not needing them anymore.
But are we there yet? Will paper maps someday be something we only see in museums? Well, not so fast, says Rand McNally, the nation's largest mapmaker: "I don't think paper maps are going anywhere, but people may be using them differently, more as a companion to the online or digital map." In fact, the paper map may be the only truly reliable full-time form of navigation. Despite the ease and convenience of technology, batteries go dead, a spilled coffee can fry a GPS unit, or you may be in a place where the signal is weak, not to mention the fact that the GPS is sometimes just dead wrong. Bob Kaylor reports that people using GPSes to find his church always wind up on the back side of the property, acres away from the church, where there is no road to get there from the GPS destination. He has a map to the church printed on the back of his business card and tells people that the map is always the best way to find it.
The other reason why maps aren't going anywhere is that they provide one thing that GPS and online directions -- despite their colors, detail and satellite imagery -- cannot: context. While a GPS can tell you where you are and what's immediately in front of you, it can't show you all the alternate routes, the possible shortcuts, the way to get around that traffic jam. It won't lay out the whole trip for you in one panoramic view (unless you relish trying to read fine print while driving at 70 mph). "Paper maps offer big-picture geometry," says Debra Turner, vice president of marketing for Compass Maps. "They can show you four or five counties, and not just the neighborhood you're driving in." Where a GPS chirps "Recalculating!" when you veer off the route, a paper map will quietly show you all the possible ways to get there that you may never have considered.
The book of Acts reads like a travelogue for first-century Christianity. Indeed, it's helpful to have a paper map nearby when you're reading it just to track where all of the apostles are going. This week's text isn't strictly a geographical travel narrative, though Peter does travel back up to Jerusalem from Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast at the beginning of the passage. Really it's more of a spiritual TripTik outlining the direction God was taking the early church. When Peter goes to Joppa and eats with the Gentile Roman centurion Cornelius, the other "apostles and believers" think he has marched completely off the map, their criticism sounding like that voice on a GPS calling for Peter to "recalculate" his ministry back to the circumcised Jews and away from the pagan Gentiles (Acts 11:1-3).
But where the other apostles and believers only saw the narrow route laid out by their old downloaded GPS (Genesis to Prophets Scriptures) -- a route that they perceived to be only about the way and law of God's chosen people, the Jews -- Peter explains to them that God had showed him the context of a much larger map that revealed the new road God was building toward inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. The context that God shows Peter, came in the form of a threefold dream, where a large sheet was lowered from heaven full of animals he and his fellow Jews considered to be unclean. God's command to Peter was, essentially, to march off the long-held maps Peter and his people had walked for thousands of years by eating only kosher foods permitted by the law of Moses. "Get up, Peter; kill and eat," says God, inviting Peter to eat food that was only suitable for Gentiles (v. 7). God was carving out a new route that would bring Jews and Gentiles together: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (v. 9).
God, in fact, doesn't just give Peter the map but also the direction of the Spirit to go with the Gentile guides to Caesarea (v. 11-12). Because Peter marches off the old route, he begins to see how God's plan for the whole world is unfolding like a huge gas station map. Cornelius had also received a vision from God, which altered his maps as a Roman centurion and citizen who likely had seen a lot of the world. The Holy Spirit sent Peter, a Jew; and Cornelius, a Gentile, off their prescribed routes to meet each other as an example of the new route God was showing the church. No longer would Jews and Gentiles run separate paths, but they would serve the same Lord as part of the same church. As Peter put it, "I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" (v. 16-17).
A GPS can be a great tool, but it can also lead to a kind of tunnel vision that causes drivers to focus so much on the route on the screen and the directions given by the voice that they fail to see the full picture of the road in front of them. In 2011, for example, three women were in a rental SUV on their way to a Costco convention in Washington state when they followed their GPS instructions to the letter: down a boat ramp and straight into a lake. Neither of the other two passengers in the car stopped the driver. They just did what they were told.
A lot of Christians may view God's instructions the same way, focusing only on what we perceive to be our one and only path and not on the big picture context of God's mission in the world. Many are the Christians who have doggedly stuck to their own theological or hermeneutical interpretation of Scripture without listening to the Spirit's guidance for the larger context. As a result, they wind up off track and in deep water. We can become like the Pharisees whom Jesus called "blind guides" who "strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24) -- another way of saying that we sometimes miss the forest for the trees!
God invited Peter to unfold a much larger map that reveals a world of possibilities for people of all kinds, united around the singular direction of God's grace and God's redemptive mission in the world. What is the current path that you're on that keeps you from seeing God's big picture? Who are the people whom others consider to be off the map and outside God's grace? How will you, like Peter, listen to the Spirit's direction and march off the map to reach those whom the rest of the world whizzes by?