Navigating around cities is not one of my spiritual gifts. People always remark to me that it’s not that difficult to find one’s way around if I just use the public transit system. While this may seem like common sense to most, personally it just sounds like telling someone who doesn’t know how to swim: “it’s not that difficult, just hold on to this anchor.”
We’d been in Reykjavík only a couple of days and Bill had borne the burden of picking us up via car anytime we needed to go somewhere. Obviously this system wouldn’t be sustainable for our entire time in the country, so on our third day Bill drove us to the mall where we bought bus passes. As the lady at the counter was ringing up purchase, I picked up the bus map and glanced at it tentatively: it was covered with different colored lines and names like “Hæðargarður” and “Lækjartorg”; nothing on the page bore remote resemblance to the city I’d been living in for the past two days. In fact, if you’d have paid me 100 Icelandic krona right then and there to tell you where we were living on the map, I couldn’t have pulled it off. For that matter, I couldn’t have even told you that the bribe of 100 krona was hardly worth enough to open my mouth (it equals about 87 cents). I was too stupefied to even be stupid.
So it would seem inescapably necessary that Bill would give us the assignment of spending the entirety of the next day learning to use the bus system. We were told to navigate our way from one corner of the city to the next, exploring it’s various neighborhoods while understanding how to get from point A to B to C and finally to Z hopefully without becoming irrevocably lost somewhere in between.
We arrived at the bus stop the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to discover that we’d just missed the closest scheduled bus and the next one wouldn’t arrive for at least another twenty minutes. So we sat at the empty station while, somewhat ominously, it began to rain. Good start.
Within a half hour the next bus pulled up and we jumped on board. My wife flashed her bus pass like and old pro, but I strode right past the driver as if I owned the whole city before realizing my mistake. When I finally did, it lead to me fumbling through my wallet, nervously muttering apologies in every language I knew (“sorry”, “lo siento”, “my bad, brah”) and finally showing the driver my pass somewhat abashedly like it was a fake ID at a night club. Despite the scene, he didn’t seem to care too much and with a nod, turned and jolted the bus into gear. We were off.
Our first destination for the day was Mjódd one of the focal points of bus routes in the city. From there we were going to try and catch a transfer to Hlemmur then onto Harpa which was right on the waterfront of the city. Being as unaccustomed to city transit as I am, I was uneasy, anxiously anticipating my next stop. Not knowing the language magnified the anxiety greatly; a lot of the names here sound the same to me.
For instance: when traveling to Höfðatorg I might hear the announcement for the upcoming stop at Holtagarðar and, though I correctly believe Höfðatorg to be at least five stops away, will stand up quickly, slam the stop button and sprint to the door in expectation, only to second-guess myself when the doors open, eyes glance in expectation of my departure, and, noticing now that we are actually at Holtagarðar, will return to my seat as inconspicuously at possible. I’m not saying this has actually happened (or that my wife has ever been caught in the cross fire of these cross-cultural anxiety attacks) I’m just saying that if it had actually happened, it’d be embarrassing. That’s all.
It was during this time that I also started preparing for my first sermon here in Iceland; it is without coincidence that I find the correlations between navigating my way around a city and through a Biblical text to be endless. There’s something entirely wondrous yet equally fearful to me about opening the Bible. It’s like opening the map to a grand city, full of mystery, perplexity, and the ability to find and lose my way at each and every turn with each and every decision.
I am constantly amazed, if that is the right word, by people who simplify their understanding of the Bible by saying things like: “I just read it literally.” I cannot say whether I doubt or admire this kind of faith; I simply don’t understand it. It sounds to me like someone looking at my perplexity with urban navigation and saying: “your problem is that you’re not reading the map literally.” While it may be that simple, it also isn’t that simple, as anyone trying to decipher the enunciated difference between “Höfðatorg” and “Holtagarðar” or what it really, practically, physically, down in the dirt of day-to-day living means to be a “living sacrifice” to “take up your cross and follow me”, can tell you.
But: “The answer is right there! You’re holding it in your hands.” And yet there I am stumbling around the city, jumping off and on busses at the wrong points, waving the banner of Christ’s name over misinterpretations of his words throughout my life and teachings.
And so there is grace. Several times throughout the day bus drivers pulled over so we could get off the bus after we’d missed our stop and were scrambling out of our seats in a panic. Once or twice a kind bystander affirmed our location at a bus stop, nodding politely when we inquired “English?” while pointing to a map and asking where the deuce we were. At the end of the day, we returned to our apartment (after missing one last bus, I might add) alive, safe, and slightly more confident in finding our way around the city. Slightly.
The next day I took the morning to navigate through the week’s passage and prepare my sermon. And, like the previous morning, I felt lost among streets of mystery and alleys of unknowing. And as I prepared I knew there were times I was getting off at the wrong stop, I knew there were places I was misunderstanding certain words. How could I not? I am, after all, a stranger in a foreign land, an adopted earthly child in the kingdom of heaven.
And so I prayed for wisdom, prayed for understanding, and prayed for grace that’s already been given.
And as such grace abounds, we continue navigating our way through the city.