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Make Straight the Path

By Charles Rush

December 10, 2006

Isaiah 40: 1-5

[ Audio (mp3, 4.3Mb) ]


T h
is image comes from the preparation for a visit from Royalty in the ancient world. In the days leading up to an official visit from the Pharaoh of Egypt, teams of workers would finish work on the roads, filling in potholes and smoothing out rough places so that the litter that carried the Pharaoh would be free from unnecessary bumps.

I think of the luxury we enjoy all of the time, since we drive everywhere on perfectly smooth super highways. Long after all the buildings of Rome had degraded and were no longer of any use, Roman highways still serviced Europe. Even after centuries of neglect, they provided the foundation for the meandering walkways that connected village to village and you can rest assured that 3000 years from now, if there is nothing left of the glass sky scrapers that dot the skyline of Manhattan, the New Jersey turnpike will still have people traveling it, even if by horse or foot.

More than that, every year I spend some time in the wilderness, driving pick up trucks across dirt tracks that turn into mud ravines with just a short amount of rain. There you are slogging up an impossible hill side, maxing out at 4 miles an hour, just hoping for some grip and two miles away cars are hurtling down Rte. 80 at 70 miles an hour, smooth sailing. This one thing would fundamentally astonish ancient people if they could see it now. They hoped to cover 20 miles in a day at the most and we can do 600.

You probably know that most of the villages in Europe are one day's walk apart. That is because the Roman army designed outposts with guard towers so that they could transport mail and supplies safely from one town to another. I remember reading a note about the Council of Nicea, held in 360 A.D. right outside of what is today Istanbul Turkey. They noted that the Bishops from Ireland attended the conference that developed the Nicene Creed, the Orthodox confession that begins "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…" that we still say in most of our churches during the Eucharistic prayers. I was curious as to how the Bishops from Ireland got to Turkey. The answer: They walked. That is a long walk. It took them almost a year and naturally they stayed for 8 or 9 months once they were there, conversing with other Bishops and theologians from across the continent.

It is a reminder that the world was a very big place before the advent of the 360 horsepower engine and that not much could be accomplished before the advent of the hydraulic lift.

The image is beguiling spiritually. "Make Straight the path"… For we have uncanny ability to get ourselves mired into a corner from which there appears to be no way out, usually quite in spite of our best and most noble efforts. This is true personally and it is true socially, as right now we are trying to figure out nationally what we should do in Iraq. We went into Iraq with noble ideals, perhaps too noble, to establish democracy in a country that had no political history of democracy and had just been through two decades of brutal repression.

During the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that 'America was never as dangerous as when she acted out of her highest ideals'. He meant by that, that we never appreciated the ironies that attended our attempts to replicate our way of living abroad in cultures with precious little sub-structure that we take for granted at home. Because of this, the actual outcome of our intervention regularly seemed to migrate towards an unintended consequence that would undermine our authority and prestige. Here we are again, painfully sorting out how a well-intentioned mission, led by the best military in the world, could have gotten away from us.

These times remind me of Warren Zevon's song, "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Dad get me out of this…" It is no less an issue in our personal lives. Barbara Ehrenrich wrote a book 'Nickeled and Dimed' about trying to live on minimum wage in our country. She catalogues the very difficult and multi-layered problem choices that people make every day who work at Burger King. Most of us have someone in our extended family manage to get twisted into knots of their own making.

I will have people stop into the office from time to time, usually pulling some documentation out of their pants as soon as they enter the room. They need to get to Philadelphia and don't have any money. What is in Philadelphia? I need to get my union card at my cousin’s house because I have a job interview back up in the Meadowlands. Why can't someone mail it to you? My cousin and I aren't speaking after my wife and I separated. And how are you going to get back to New Jersey? My uncle will help me out. Where do you live? Well I was living in my car but I can't do that anymore because they towed my car because of unpaid parking tickets and I need to get my car back so that I can visit my kids next weekend… On and on this goes. I can't D until I do C and I can't do C until I do B and since I can't do A, there is no possibility of getting to B, so here I am in this morass… like a Jack Black character in the movies where I can't get ahead because of 'The Man' whoever 'The Man' is.

I've heard this so many times, that there are days, usually when I'm tired and I still have a lot to do, that I'm thinking to myself, 'Don't even start… just tell me what you need.' I understand. You just can't get there from here.

At the most profound level, this is true in our most intimate relationships too. These are the most difficult divorces, the ones where you are diverging from one another because you know each other too well and you reach an impasse.

We need different things from our spouses at different times in our lives. Sometimes the very things that we once found so endearing are no longer endearing once we've grown up and changed our perspective on the world. Those conversations that are the most difficult are where one spouse is explaining that they are not being fulfilled, not that the other spouse isn't trying, but that for one reason or the other, they just can't be fulfilling, and they are coming to a recognition, a place where they can finally give voice to the hopeless thought that this spouse not only isn't fulfilling but won't be fulfilling them in the future. They know them too well and you can't ask people to change some of the things about them that make them who they are. These times in our lives feel spiritually like we have woven this great knot around us that we can't be free of and those around us are tied up in as well. And you just pray for 'some way out', 'any way out'…

I hear people every week at one of our AA meetings talking about how, despite their great business acumen and their considerable education, they managed to make a personal wreck of their lives and get to a point where some radical reorientation was the only possible resolution.

The Bible doesn't give us pat, corny, sentimental answers for these knots, but the image of a crooked path made straight is a powerful one. Indeed, in the story of the birth of Jesus begins with just such a social/spiritual knot. Mary is great with child before she is married and young Joseph has to deal with this. It is one of those no-win situations that looks and feels untenable to those that are immediately engaged in it.

And the resolution is an epic adventure of a sort. They leave behind the mores of their culture and the family gossip, and they start off on their own. They have this baby, and no sooner is it born than wise men come to visit them from abroad and warn them just in time that the Roman legions are coming to kill them. They escape to Alexandria all on their own. Somehow or another things do manage to work out. They have precious little to rely on but God. And they start out on this great adventure. And somehow, they come through all of this changed. They have a new and different future. Young people can be like that. It is almost easier for them.

There is an endearing character in the movie 'The Fastest Indian' who is getting on in years, living on his modest pension. He is mechanically inclined and has quite a gift at making motorcycles that go fast. In particular, he has an old 1945 Indian motorcycle that he has somewhat restored. He believes that it could be the fastest motorcycle in the world but the only way to find out is to enter it at an annual speed race at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

He has nowhere near enough money but he has this dream and one day he takes ill and the doctor tells him that he has a heart condition that they are not going to fix because it doesn't fall under the treatment plan for the citizens of New Zealand. He has this sense that his life is short and that he doesn't have a lot of time.

He goes home and talks it over with the boys that stop by his shop when he works on motorcycles. He talks it over with a lady friend of his. He talks it over with some of the folks in town… And he sets off for Utah to go and see if, at the age of 72, he can set the world record for motorcycle speed. So many zany things happen to him, so many set backs get in the way. But he remains persistent, intrepid in his quest.

Finally one morning, one freezing cold morning with the wind blowing at a clip across the desert, as the early morning sun is rising over the mountains in the east, there he is with his motorcycle at the salt flats, his eyes welling with tears. He looks out over the endless flat salt bed of a dried up lake from the Jurassic period, and he says, 'This is heaven'. Cold, lifeless as far as you can see, inhospitable and impossible to live in… 'This is heaven'. Seeing the straight path right near our grasp is like that.

My brothers and sisters, I hope that you find your star to follow. I hope that you are not afraid to see your life for the adventure that it actually is. And I hope for you the courage and abandon to step out in risk and go for it… May you too become changed. Amen.

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