Walk the Line
I will never forget the unmistakable drawl of Johnny Cash. “Because of you, I walk the line.” The iconic song was chosen as the title of his biographical movie in 2005, a moving account of the artist’s complex attempts to stay on the right path. I have often asked myself, “What does it look like to walk on the straight and narrow? How do I walk the line?
By the way, Jesus famously coined the phrase in contrast to the broad way where many go to self-destruction. “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14b).
What is this straight and narrow way, this narrow road that leads to life Jesus promised? At first, I get the picture of a long straight line of obedient children at a parochial school with their uniform shirts starched to perfection and their smiles noticeably absent. Or maybe I could see a row of Royal Canadian Mounted Police with their bright red jackets and black boots, the kind where you can see your reflection if you are close enough. The “relentless pursuit of perfection” as the Lexus ad states, that’s the main picture I get.
Judging from the real life examples in Scripture, here’s a picture I think Jesus actually had in mind. It’s the picture of the wobbling, foggy-headed, achy, awkward gait of marathon finishers when the body is broken and the mind has lost a lot of its clarity, but the feet just keep going. When I and 4 teenagers ran our first marathon, I dedicated the effort to my brother, Phil, because I think he has embodied this stance for me. His life reminds me of the feelings I had from miles 18 to 24, those miles when the mind starts to fade, the body is spent, and deeply embedded habits take over.
We all hit moments in life when we don’t have the strength. Something happens that threatens to stop us. In these times there are several obvious and logical responses that are pretty clear. These pragmatic options are often presented by well-meaning acquaintances who try to fix the situation with a comon-sense detour.
Imagine a car wreck. What is the quickest response? I can blame the other driver or I can blame myself. It seems like you have two clear choices and a decision needs to be made about who will pay. These options are logical paths forward, but there is a third option. What about just stumbling forward in the fog? Maybe it is just a sad incident, maybe someone just needs to hold those shaking in shock, or clear the debris from the highway. This is the third way, the straight forward kind of way that is less about fixing the situation or finding someone to blame but just focused on doing the next right thing.
In 1995, my mother was killed by a moose when my dad was driving. My brother could blame my dad, he could blame the snow plow, or any other logical and clear cause. Instead he gave me a hug. That’s the straight and narrow third way.
My brother spent the best decades of his life building a small church camp into a powerful nonprofit expanding its impact 30 or 60 fold. Amid moral controversy, he resigned and walked away. In the years that followed, the clearest paths would be to (1) blame others involved or (2) blame himself. Instead, he walked straight forward. He went straight through the thicket, through shame and into grace leaving his vast, positive reputation like so many grave clothes strewn along the path. The straight path is walking right into and through shame, uncertainty, and avoiding cheap justice.
This year he got cancer. He could get on the anti-chemo bandwagon and stick it to the medical-industrial complex. On the other hand, he could visit Kenneth Copland and come back claiming his cancer doesn’t exist. But, no, his prayer is that he would not waste this experience. That he would learn and experience ALL that God has in store. He is following the straight path forward even when he has no idea where it is going at the moment.
The point is this. Whenever we are faced with tragedy or personal failure, we are given wide clear paths of blame, dismissive notions, denial, delusional faith, or myriad other logical responses. These paths, painful as they may be, allow us to keep our core selves intact. These detours insulate us from true change and growth. They give us an allusion of wholeness by not allowing us to be broken. We can follow these avoidance mechanisms and claim great faith, we can convince ourselves we are champions of justice, we can obsess about the faults of others, and we can do all kinds of things to hold it together instead of accepting the power of pain to break and change us.
The straight and narrow is a foggy path with just one foot in front of the other that accepts no detours.
How did this play out in Jesus' life? When faced with the biggest obstacle of his life the night before the cross he said, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” but then he stumbled forward and drank it anyway. He saw the detours, he wanted the detours, but he just kept walking forward anyway. And it didn’t get any easier, the next day on the cross he said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
This is the murky path straight forward, and, believe me, it's narrow. Jesus was all alone. Its the best picture I know of what faith actually looks like. It is a cry that sounds more like confusion. This is the exasperating straight and narrow middle choice between denial and rationalizing, between escaping and avoiding — it’s the path forward into death itself where we are changed. It is the narrow path that ironically “leads to life.” Everything else is a broad detour to destruction.
Seems a bit ironic now, but here's a song from the 70's that I remember Phil singing in our living room. That was back in the first couple of miles of the current marathon.