Cross Road Blues

This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.'” Jeremiah 6:16 NIV

The legend goes that Robert Johnson was a mediocre blues artist at best, with modest guitar skills. That is, until he went down to the crossroads and there met the devil, with whom he made a deal: his soul for music fame. Within a few years he would be dead, at the young age of 27; but after death, he would gain that fame as one of the greatest blues artists and guitarists that ever played.

I don’t believe this story, but more on that a little later. The point is that we have moments of decision in our lives, many of them, in fact – some small, some big, but all changing our course for better or for worse. Some of these decisions are momentous, for example, selling your soul to the devil! Others seem trivial, such as “Hmmm, should I have cereal or eggs this morning for breakfast?” It is these smaller ones I would like to focus on for now.

Years ago, I attended an outdoor Bluegrass concert while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. I have mentioned this in a previous post, but it is worth mentioning here, because a seemingly small decision on my part would eventually have a life changing impact.

My friend and I had driven to the concert, which was in a clearing in a wooded area. We arrived and parked in a nearby field, which had been set aside for that purpose. Upon exiting the car, a long haired, bearded individual in cutoffs approached us and offered my friend a small book. My friend said “No thanks,” but when he offered it to me, I said “Sure,” took the book, stuffed it into my back pocket, said “Thank you,” and moved on. As I grabbed it though, I glanced at the title. It read “The Gospel of John.”

Months later I was sitting in my apartment in Fayetteville. I turned and looked at the lamp table beside me and there it was, “The Gospel of John.” To this day, I don’t know how it got there, although I do have my suspicions. I picked it up and read the first few lines, and something told me, this is truth! I relate the full story in my post I Did It… My Way?, if you wish to know more; but suffice to say, accepting that booklet changed my life forever

We often don’t know the impact of our decisions when we make them; in fact, for most of us, our lives tend to be filled with them, both big and small. We barely give the small ones any thought at the time, each one taking us in one direction or another, each one offering us a choice, and maybe more importantly, each one resulting from some previous decision. Self or other, love or hate, G-d or the devil, each decision leading to the next and to the next.

The question is, which path is the right path? How do we know? I could say, well just have faith, and take the one that seems the best. Ok, you might respond, but is it really that simple? We are not made in such a manner that we can just “have faith” and pick the way that “seems the best”; we require some criteria, right? Which way is “the best?”

I have found this to be true, that G-d does not simply say have faith, and then leave us guessing. Even in Eden, He told our first parents: don’t eat from that tree “for you will certainly die.” He gave them a reason!

So what reason or reasons does G-d give us to choose one road over the other? Some of that is dependent on the nature of the particular crossroads at which we are standing. But there is one criteria for choosing that applies to all, when appropriate. Jesus said it best in Mathew 7:13-14:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

This is laid out in Jeremiah. The Lord says “Ask where the good way is and walk in it,” and those who heard said “We will not walk in it.” All they had to do was ask and G-d would have shown them the good path, the path to life, but it was also the narrow road. Was this the reason they rejected G-d’s plea? Because few were traveling that path, while many were going in another direction, the path they also chose to take?

The thing is, it’s easy to take the wide, well-traveled path. After all, could all of these people be wrong? It is an easy decision! One of the nick-names my father gave me when I was young was “Hard Way Bill.” It was his contention that if there were two ways to do something, I would inevitably choose the harder way. I think there is some truth to that, even to this day, and why that is, I am not exactly certain.

I think it is just my nature to be that way. I am not saying that it is good or bad, and I am not necessarily recommending it to anyone. All I can say is that it has worked for me. I certainly can’t say that it has always prompted me to take the narrow path; it has not. Fortunately, if you belong to Him, He will always get you back to that path. One thing I will say about it, I do believe that I learned much by taking the harder route.

So why do I think that Robert Johnson did not make a deal with the devil? As I mentioned above, it was only after his death that he achieved fame. What kind of a deal is that? Now, you can say that the devil is a trickster, and you would be correct, but also listen to the lyrics to his song. He sings,

“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above ‘Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please'”

This doesn’t sound like a man making a deal with the devil. He is on his knees asking G-d for mercy. In fact, if you listen to the whole song, it could be the Sunday sermon at the local church! What do you think?

We don’t really know specifically what the decision is that the storyteller is faced with in the song. That it is a moment of desperation for him is clear. He is trying to leave, but no one will give him a ride. Why? Because he is a stranger, no one seems to know him.. So he is stuck at the crossroad and the “risin’ sun goin’ down”.

He stands there, repeatedly, maybe frantically, looking East and West and lamenting “Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress.” No one to give him a ride; no one to give him comfort.

Finally the song ends with the singer apparently meeting someone, and he tells that person to run and tell his friend Willie Brown that “…I’m standing at the cross road babe, I believe I’m sinkin’ down.”

Some, those who believe the devil story, say that the song describes Johnson after his encounter with the devil. A man, terrified, seeking comfort, consolation, and forgiveness, salvation even, but there seems to be none. Since I don’t believe the devil story, I think that it is just a very good song that describes a man in a common situation – one in which there appears to be no way out, no forgiveness, no comfort; a situation probably of his own making.

So what does explain Johnson’s transformation into a truly great musician? The story, from those who knew him best, is much more mundane than the one related above. Johnson met and became friends with a well-known and great blues guitarist named Ike Zimmerman. Zimmerman agreed to provide Johnson with lessons. In fact, Johnson was there so much, playing and practicing with Zimmerman, probably for a period of several years, that Zimmerman’s young daughter at the time later related that she thought that Johnson was her brother and even asked her father if this was so! Ok, yes, the other story is much more interesting, which is probably why it has survived for so long, but this may have a better lesson concerning the rewards of practice and hard work.

Johnson isn’t the only artist that has written about the crossroads. Robert Frost comes to mind, with his poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

On the surface, it would seem the writer is recommending one should take the less travelled road. I have to admit that this is what I thought when I initially read it, as I think many others have. But if he is, it is only obliquely, and that is not the point of the poem. The teller of the tale is faced with a dilemma. He can take one of two paths, and he is searching for clues as too which is the better path to travel.

They both look pretty much the same to him. He thinks he sees a difference in that one road is grassier and therefore less traveled, than the other. But then, in the next verse he says “…the passing there had worn them both about the same.” Our traveler is looking for something, anything, to help him in his choice and finally decides to take what he has convinced himself is the less traveled road.

We don’t really know why the writer took this path, why being less travelled, at least in the writer’s mind, made this path more attractive. Perhaps it was a sense of adventure, or perhaps he had heard that this is what one should do. Regardless, he consoles himself with his decision by telling himself that on another day, he may come back and take the other path, but at the same time understands that given the vagaries of life, he would likely never have that opportunity.

The poem ends with the writer speaking of some time in the distant future when he will be relating to others the story of his moment of decision. He will say, with a sigh, “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” With a sigh? Does he really believe this is what made “…all the difference?” And what is the difference? How could he know, since he didn’t take the other path, which looked much like the one he took? Finally, let’s not forget, the name of the poem is not “The Road Less Traveled,” it is the “The Road Not Taken.” Some regret, perhaps?

Often when we have to make a decision, we search for reasons to go one way or the other. If no reason is forthcoming, we still may grasp at something, anything, to help us make up our minds. In this story, the writer finally concludes that he sees that the one path is less traveled than the other, even though he seems to suspect that it really is not, but he takes it anyway.

Why? Perhaps he had a distant memory of Sunday School and the story of Jesus admonishing us not to take the well traveled path. So, he grasps at the perception that the one path is a little grassier than the other, and despite the solid contradictory evidence indicating otherwise, takes that path. He seems to know that he is fooling himself, because he says at the time, that in the future he will relate with a sigh, and perhaps some regret, that taking the less traveled path made all the difference.

When we are at a crossroad, how do we make a decision? Do we vainly search for minute clues? Do we frantically look up and down the alternate paths, paralyzed by fear? Do we invent reasons? Or do we ask G-d for guidance? If we do the latter, we have G-d’s assurance that he will provide us with that guidance. If we don’t, we will often remain paralyzed with fear, or make an uncertain choice, for which we may later have regrets, always playing “What if…”.

And even though it may be true that most of our decisions are not between a narrow path and a wide path, remember that when G-d does guide us down the less traveled, narrow path with the narrow gate, though it may be much harder to navigate and it may not have the comfort of a crowd to accompany us and assure us of the rightness of our choice, it is always the right path to take.

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