Thomas Leinbach

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 hazards come.

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 fulfilling life.

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 living."

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 heart.