When I preach I have occasionally used this little vignette that I have titled, “the parable of the CU campus.” I grew up in Colorado and the reference I had heard was to the university campus in Boulder. Since then I have heard the parable repeated numerous times giving credit to a number of university campuses, including our own OSU campus in Corvallis.
But whether the story originated in Colorado or Oregon the message is exactly the same: sometimes vision follows the people, not the other way around.
The story goes that when these universities were putting in their landscaping they planted trees and bushes, they put in flower gardens, they erected sculptures and they completely sodded the campus. They did everything EXCEPT pour concrete for sidewalks.
The thinking was that there were hundreds of examples of campus sidewalk networks that were carefully planned and laid only to find that students were cutting new paths through the campus that were shorter and more convenient. The result was hundreds of American university campuses with a mixed mesh of planned concrete sidewalks and informal dirt paths carved by hundreds of pairs of feet wearing down the grass in unplanned areas.
Landscape architects at our Colorado and Oregon campuses looked at that and said, “Wait, why don’t we wait a year and see where the students naturally walk and then put in sidewalks.” In other words, in essence, they said:
“Let’s not create the vision and try to force people into it. Let’s see where the vision emerges and build our structure around that.”
Such paths, whether on university campuses or in parks or in the forest are called “desire paths.” They are paths that get formed from people’s desires rather than from a well-thought out landscaping plan.
I personally think that one has be careful about generalizing this story and claiming that vision always follows the desires of the people rather than the other way around. I say that because I have seen some situations “where there is no vision, the people perish”—a reference to Proverbs 29: 18.
But I do believe that there is just enough truth in this parable to take some lessons from it for our presbytery. I believe a both/and approach will probably serve us the best. That is, we need enough of a vision in order to get us moving, but not so much vision that we pour the concrete and cut off people’s actual desires and passions.
In my role I feel like I am trying to do two things—tease the presbytery with a hopeful, God-oriented, compelling vision and then watch for the places where this vision takes root, where energy begins to emerge, where desire naturally shows up, and where people get itchy and impatient for something more.
I like this parable of the CU/OSU campuses. Not enough vision and people won’t get off their duffs and go anywhere at all. Too much vision and we will smother and strangle people’s natural desires.
Now that I think about it this sounds very much like a God thing. We need just enough vision to invite God to clear a path for the way forward. But not so much already-established vision that God has no room to play and create.
The moral of the parable of the CU/OSU campuses is this: