In the midst of the pandemic this past summer my family decided to spend more time outdoors. We began going on hikes. It started small, but eventually we went on day trips to State Parks all across MN. We would do a longish hike, find some lunch (or bring it), and eat some ice cream on our way home. They were pretty good days.
Hiking in the time of covid, especially in Minnesota’s numerous State Parks, feels pretty safe. While there may be people in parking lots and around picnic areas, once we got out onto the trail we rarely encountered people. So when we did, it was a surprise.
It would often happen that we would be going up a steep incline with what seemed like endless fields of poison ivy on both sides of the path at a sharp turn so we couldn’t see very far ahead of us. All of a sudden some other family would be briskly walking towards us around the bend. They alway had like 3 large, overly friendly dogs, and aggressive looking children. We would try to jump out of the way off the path, they would do the same. Everyone would be polite and try to socially distance. It was fine, really.
That pesky bend in the path not only obscured oncoming traffic, but it would keep us from seeing our goal. Whether it was the end of the trail, the top of a crest, or a facilities stop, a curvy trail made it harder to see where we were headed. Knowing and seeing your goal is often an encouragement and incentive to keep walking. If my kids could see the goal, they could do it. When they couldn’t see where they were going, they would get discouraged.
In the gospel this Sunday, John the Baptist is asked who he is. He denies being the Christ or Elijah or a Prophet. Instead he quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s role, as he explains, is to prepare the way for Jesus to come. John’s job was to level the mountains and fill in the valleys and yes, to make straight crooked paths.
In the spiritual life, straightening a path accomplishes a couple of things. First it aids us in being able to see obstacles and potential traffic on the path ahead. When the path is straight, we know what is coming and can plan better for those things that might push us off the path and interrupt our journey.
Secondly, a straighten path helps us to keep our eyes on the goal. Often, I think we loose sight of our final destination and the reason we do all this religious stuff. The goal is Jesus. The destination is the Kingdom of God on earth and in Heaven. When we aren’t sure of our goal or can’t see what we are working for, we can easily be distracted and maybe even fall into despair. I think this is one of the reasons why the pandemic has been so difficult. We didn’t really have a clear goal for all that we were doing. We couldn’t see the end.
One more thing, if you think that the on reason the paths are straightened are so that we can have a better spiritual hike, let dispel that misrepresentation. The paths are straightened so that Jesus can more easily get to us. The path is cleared and leveled and straightened so that nothing can separate God from us. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to climb the mountain and find him. No. Jesus gets out on the path and comes for us. He is willing trudge through any hardship, including death and the cross, in order to save you and me.
Live It: Are there bends in the road of your life that makes it hard for you to draw closer to Jesus? Close your eyes. Imagine your life is a hiking trail. Where are the bends that aren’t spiritually helpful? Ask Jesus to make straight the path of your spiritual life. Ask God to inspire you to call out to him. If necessary, head to confession this week to fill in some valleys.