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The Straight Path

John 1:19-28 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
20 he was very straightforward and stated clearly, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 “Then who are you?” they asked him. “Are you Eliyahu?” “No, I am not,” he said. “Are you ‘the prophet,’ the one we’re expecting?” “No,” he replied. 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? — so that we can give an answer to the people who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” 23 He answered in the words of Yesha‘yahu the prophet, 
“I am 
'The voice of someone crying out:

‘In the desert make the way of Adonai straight!’”  (Isaiah 40:3)

English Standard Version (ESV)
23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight *the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
*Or ‘crying out, ‘In the wilderness make straight’

I was caught by the difference between “A voice crying out in the wilderness,” and “a voice crying out, “in the wilderness make straight”.”
I thought, “What difference does it make?” but I kept feeling that somehow it did.

Yesterday I went on a hike that was very familiar to me twenty years ago. I tried to cut across the switchbacks to find the upper part of the trail. I like to climb straight up hills. The terrain was very steep, with aspens and scrub interspersed with stands of evergreens. I went a long way without ever crossing the trail I was looking for. I tried to ‘make the way straight’ but it just wasn’t going to happen. I ended up going back down, following my own tracks down the steep hill, until I came back to the place I had left the trail.

I was trying to make a ‘straight’ way, but to do so I had to get off the winding trail and be a pathfinder. There was no-one around, there were no voices in the wilderness within earshot. I was alone. I couldn’t figure out where I had gone wrong until afterward when I went and looked at the satellite map on Google. I had not gone far enough down the marked trail, so the switchback I was looking for was still way to the north of me.

I was looking for the first switchback, and you can see from my drawing that I hadn’t gone far enough north along the trail to be able to ‘cut the corner’ and intersect with it. I was correct in my direction, but the terrain got too difficult. If I had kept going, I would have eventually crossed the higher trail, but I was intimidated by the unknown. I didn’t know how bad the going would get. I kept thinking of how embarrassing it would be to get lost off of the trail on the mountain. I had enough equipment with me to be able to spend the night, but I knew that if I got hurt, it would be nearly impossible for me to get down on my own unless I found the trail. So, I was ‘making the path straight’ but I failed in preparation, in fortitude, in navigation. I had no maps with me, I had not even looked at one beforehand. I had left home without really knowing which hike I was going to do. 

But here’s the thing— it was fun. It was exciting and engaging. I was immersed in the adventure of not knowing what was about to happen next. My eyes and ears were open; I was alert and curious. I was mindful of my surroundings, and I was careful to look behind to see what the terrain looked like in case I had to retrace my steps. I was the adventurer, the explorer, the intrepid wanderer. I walked on deer trails, and found all kinds of scat, even some that looked a little scary, like maybe it was a bear’s. OH MY!

The thing about going off the trail in the wilderness, is that there is almost always a reason why the usual trail is crooked. In steep terrain, it’s crooked to make it less steep. It winds about to make it easier if a traveler wants to carry a lot of stuff, maybe in a wagon or cart, or in a larger group of people.

A straight trail, one that departs from the customary path, is often one that has to be traveled alone. It’s risky. It takes the adventurer into the unknown. The destination is the same, but the way to get there isn’t anything that can be predicted. To make a straight path means to take chances; to abandon expectations; to give up all the safe bets.
So if you take the quote out of Isaiah (after all, that’s who John was quoting) it says, “in the wilderness, make God’s way straight.”

One step
off the seasoned trail
the world turns suddenly wild.

Silent, solitary, watchful;
making straight for journey's end;
no path visible
before or behind—
only the ground underfoot,
the sky above,
and the wind from the heights.


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