Down the Crooked Miles
I fully realize that summer is still a way's off, but if you're like
me, you're already thinking about vacation, which often means auto travel.
The great American love affair with the car is well known, and every year
millions of us get into our "flying seats" to hit the road yet
again. Perhaps we'll head to Maine or the Cape or to Anywhere U.S.A. to
relax or visit family or friends.
For me, I enjoy driving, visiting out of the way places and talking
with people who think and act differently from what I'm used to. And cars
seem to be the best way to get there. With just a road map and a tank of
gas, you can go anywhere - and on your own terms.
In all my travels, though, there is one road I would recommend you
avoid at all costs - the New Jersey Turnpike - also known as I-95, that
at-certain-points 16-lane monstrosity that runs from New York City to the
Delaware border. If you're headed south, you probably don't have much of a
choice. But for me, I'd almost rather go anywhere else than be stuck on
what just may be the modern equivalent of Dante's Inferno.
If it's not the thick smog and choking pollution that dims the sky and
takes your breath away, it's the unsightly landscape of large warehouses
and factories, billboards and grime that seem to go on and on forever. My
all-time favorite sight years ago was traveling at night during the month
of December and seeing large Christmas lights festively draped onto
smokestacks billowing noxious fumes. The eerie, luminous orange haze only
added to the effect. Certainly nothing says 'Joy to the World' like that!
But there is yet another reason to steer clear of this infamous section
of the Eisenhower road system. And it has to do with safety. As it turns
out, the New Jersey Turnpike is among the least safe roads in the country
- and for a surprising reason. I would have thought it had to do with the
amount of traffic and the speeds people drive. But it's actually because
its being straight and flat! With neither hills nor curves, it offers
drivers almost no variation. This is precisely what the engineers who
designed it thought would insure safety. But in reality the opposite turns
out to be true. Studies show that on straight, flat roads drivers are far
more apt to fall asleep. And with little variation, one's attention is
easily diverted. Mile after mile of unchanging road conditions actually
threatens our safety and well-being!
This almost certainly suggests something about us human beings. Though
we may yearn for smooth and uncluttered roads, we actually thrive on the
more difficult. Our children's minds and muscles grow, for instance, at
the scout camps and through the hard studies at school - not when they are
looking passively at MTV.
The Apostle Paul offers a case in point in his second letter to the
church in Corinth. From Eugene Petersen's transliteration, I quote:
"Because of the extravagance of those revelations (meaning the
extraordinary spiritual visions Paul had had), and so I wouldn't get a big
head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with
my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact
did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and
mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove
it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, 'My grace is enough; it's
all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.'"
We here who are acquainted with troubles may find comfort in the
thought that unless the troubles destroy us, they may try our minds and
hearts and call forth faith and ingenuity.
Consider, for instance, what may seem a bizarre proposition: that we
humans are ill-fitted to live on planet Earth. Almost every living thing
that has survived on Earth seems to be fitted for living in the
environment. It has been noted that the cockroach is the perfect example
of the all-purpose earth creature, because it is the oldest unchanged
specie, and has been found in every clime. Cavemen swatted the same kinds
of cockroaches we today spray with bug-killer.
Other creatures either have become extinct - like the dinosaur - or
have made physical adjustments that fit them for whatever changes occur.
Instinct or natural adaptation keeps animals and plants going, but women
and men are peculiarly ill equipped to live on earth. Earnest Hocking of
Harvard wrote: "Human Nature is adapted to Mal-Adapting." That
is, if life seemed to fit so perfectly, it would not really fit our
natures! We develop ourselves because we are in a world that does not seem
to fit us.
Think about the limited areas where the human being can live
year-around with no worry about climactic conditions or ample food supply:
a band around the earth no more than 150 miles on either side of the
equator, if we eliminate the desert areas.
In the other parts of the earth, we must build shelter, devise means
for keeping warm, protect ourselves from wind and storm, and cultivate a
food supply. Humans are apparently more susceptible to infectious diseases
than other creatures, and have neither great speed with which to escape
danger nor enough claw and muscle to complete in a fair fight with a
good-sized dog. Yet humans have not only survived but live longer than
other creatures and even threaten to out-populate insects.
How has this come about? Maybe because things have not come easily to
us. We may think we want the wide and easy road down which to travel, but
in reality we thrive on the crooked mile. And though we human beings are
ill equipped to live on earth in our natural state, we thrive on the
survival challenges presented to us and in our attempts to master the
difficult. So even though we thrive on hazards, we always have in the back of our
minds the dream of the flawless way of life, the smooth, straight and easy
road. And yet, we continually are confronted with enough realities to
realize that there is no flawless way of life, utterly free of difficulty.
Peter had wanted to stay on the mountaintop, to build a dwelling there,
to live day-in-and-day-out in the transcendent moment, free from conflict
and difficulty. On the mountaintop, the veil had been lifted momentarily;
he could see. But Jesus knows that he and all of must must descend from
the mountaintop, back down into the confusion and need of everyday life,
where salvation in fact takes place.
Paul, no stranger to the ecstatic moment, had found his mission in the
world. He had found his Lord, his cause, his purpose. He was in Christ,
and he knew that nothing could equal that. He had overcome the hazards
(including his own prejudices), fought many battles, and gained many
victories for his Lord. Now he was afflicted by some unnamed and
undiagnosed ailment - what we're not entirely sure.
Thus Paul was, at the height of his power, afflicted by a
"thorn." Perhaps he thought of Job who, at the time of his
righteousness, lost his sons, his wealth and his health. Paul, too, was
visited with unwanted, undeserved affliction.
Consider how often this happens. We know about it because we have seen so
much of it in our own lives and in the lives of others. We travel down a
crooked mile. And when our dreams of the flawless way seem fulfilled, the
Years ago, Peter Gomes, Professor of Christian Morals and Minister of the
Memorial Church at Harvard, gave a commencement address at Mt. Ida College
in Newton, MA. In his address, he urged his young audience to question the
conventional wisdom that says that they can do anything they want in this
life, that there is nothing but "sweetness and light" awaiting
them out in the world.
Instead, he urged them to consider what he called "the virtue of
failure." Why? Because failing not only is inevitable in life but it
also teaches us far more than easy successes. For when we fail, we are
forced to reflect on what went wrong, which means we learn, and from such
learning comes great profit. The "inconveniences of life," as he
put it, which often produce disappointment and sadness, also serve as
"a wise and prudent teacher." In this we learn the "joys of
instructive failure," which lead often to a deeper and more
After commiserating with the young graduates about the poor job market,
he urged them to reconsider their parents' generation, many of whom
graduated into careers offering both money and security. In some cases
these same careers have become a hindrance to life because, despite the
comfort and security they afford, they have proved unfulfilling and
unsatisfying, yet too comfortable to give up. "Make a good
life," Gomes therefore urged his young hearers, "not just a good
He closed his remarks with this famous poem found on the body of a dead
Confederate soldier, the same one Rev. Anne Beams quoted last Sunday, the
one where all he had asked for is denied, but where, in reality, his
prayer is fully answered.
Sometimes when we are too safe, too comfortable and too secure, we forget
our primal need for God, and thus the grace and power that come from
dependence on the divine. Paul reminds his readers of that curious great
truth that in our weakness alone can we know the grace of Christ, not just
because in weakness we are reminded of our essential humanity - which at
its core is needful and dependent - but because this weakness opens us up
to receive God's transcendent power.
As our model, Jesus does not remain on the mountaintop, but travels down
the crooked miles, not the smooth and uncluttered ones - down to the
Garden of Gethsemane for that glorious prayer, to the mockery of a trial
before the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, to Herod, back to Pilate, and then to the
cross - all this before the glory of the resurrection that conquered
death, and then on to the proclamation of his word to a planet of troubled
and needful people. Down the crooked miles, but straight to the