Make Straight the Path
By Charles Rush
December 10, 2006
Isaiah 40: 1-5
(mp3, 4.3Mb) ]
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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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