Many of us, especially those with Scottish blood, are probably familiar with the well-known traditional Scottish song The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, often known more simply as just Loch Lomond for short. Loch Lomond is a large Scottish loch located between the counties of Dunbartonshire and Stirlingshire. The song Loch Lomond was first published in 1841 and is often the final piece of music played during an evening of revelry of one kind or another in Scotland – a phenomenon not seen in other parts of the United Kingdom. The best know part of the song are the first two lines of the refrain (which I have translated into English):
‘You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland before you’
There are many theories about the meaning of the song. One interpretation is that it was written by a Jacobite Highlander who was captured after the 1745 rising. The English played games with the Jacobites. They said that one of them could live and one would die. The song was sung by the one sentenced to die (written to a sweetheart who lived near the loch), the ‘low road’ referred to being the passage to the underworld. A related interpretation holds that a professional soldier and a volunteer were captured by the English in one of the small wars between the countries in the couple of hundred years prior to 1745. Volunteers could accept parole, a release contingent on the volunteer’s solemn promise not to rejoin the fighting, but regulars could not and so faced execution. The volunteer would take the ‘high road’ that linked London and Edinburgh, while the soul of the executed regular would return along the ‘low road’ and therefore would get back to Scotland first. Another interpretation is that the song is sung by the lover of a captured rebel set to be executed in London following a show trial. The heads of the executed rebels were then set upon pikes and exhibited in all of the towns between London and Glasgow in a procession along the ‘high road’ (the most important road), while the relatives of the rebels walked back along the ‘low road’ (the ordinary road travelled by peasants and commoners). Yet another interpretation of the ‘low road’ is that it refers to the traditional underground route taken by the ‘fairies’ or ‘little people’ who were reputed to transport the soul of a dead Scot who died in a foreign land (in this case, England) back to his homeland to rest in peace.
Interestingly there is quite a lot in the Bible about two contrasting roads, although they never seem to lead to quite the same place, and there is always an element of choice that come with them (denied to many of the Scottish rebels in the traditional Scottish song). We may think, for example, of Jesus’ teaching concerning the choice between the ‘broad road that leads to destruction (or ruin)’ and the ‘narrow road that leads to life’ (Matthew 7:13,14). Traditionally this passage has been used evangelistically to present a clear choice between those who choose the somewhat narrower way of following Jesus Christ and his ways, and those who choose to remain on the broad way of self-centered sinfulness. The former leads to eternal life in all its fullness, whilst the latter leads to ruin and eternal loss. Similarly Psalm 1 has been used to illustrate a clear choice between two ways – the ‘way of the righteous’ and the ‘way of the wicked’ – one that leads to fruitfulness and prosperity, and the other to judgment and doom! We Christians are probably wrong, however, to simply apply the teaching here simply evangelistically. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:13-27 is taken up with impressing upon his hearers the difference between real and merely nominal discipleship – choosing the ‘broad way’ rather than the ‘narrow way’ is just as much a challenge for believers as unbelievers. Indeed, in many ways, it is more of a challenge because we continually face these kind of choices as believers as, on one hand Satan tempts us to turn from ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2), and on the other hand new steps of faith God calls us to. Equally, the instruction given in Psalm 1 primarily presents two ways that God’s covenantal people can choose.
Equally interestingly we find this idea of Christians being faced with the choice of the high or low path in the writings of such different preachers as John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon. Wesley suggests that ‘From long experience and observation, I am inclined to think that whoever finds redemption in the blood of Christ … has the choice of walking in the higher or lower path. I believe that the Holy Spirit … sets before [us] the ‘more excellent way’ and incites [us] to walk therein – to choose the narrowest path in the narrow way … But if [we] do not accept this offer [we] insensibly decline into the lower order of Christians … [we] still go on in what may be called a good way, serving God in his degree and find mercy in the close of life through the blood of the covenant.’ For Wesley there are clearly times when set before us is a ‘higher path’ which we should always take. Taking the ‘lower path’ does not mean we lose our salvation but, for Wesley, it certainly means that we have settled for second best – we may be of some use to God and others but, for Wesley, not as much as we could be. One can almost feel the disappointment in his voice. Spurgeon says something remarkably similar when he suggests that ‘There is a point as much above the ordinary Christian, as the Christian is above the world.’ Of such people he says, ‘Their place is with the eagle in his eyrie, high, aloft. They are rejoicing Christians, holy and devout … doing service for the Master all over the world, and everywhere conquerors through him that loves us.’
Experience has taught me that life is a journey, and just like any other journey there are countless numbers of junctions and cross roads where we have to make decisions which way to go. The decision whether or not to follow Christ is perhaps the first, but for those of us who choose to follow Christ and his way there are many other occasions when we have to make equally important choices. What we do with our lives? What kind of career we choose? Who we marry? If we marry? Where we live? Where we serve God? and so on. Even as professing committed Christians we can make decisions within those decisions. We can ‘lay our all on the altar’ so to speak, or settle for something less than our best. We can sing our worship songs with enthusiasm, but still be ‘coasting’ in our Christian commitment? As local churches (and even denominations) we can settle for the ‘safe choice’ rather than the more adventurous one God is calling us to! Even we Pastors can be guilty. When I was a young Pastor I was warned that we Ministers faced three particular temptations: sex, money, and power! I would suggest that there is another temptation that is even more deadly. It is the temptation to ‘sell out’. To settle for an easier, more comfortable, hassle free, politically correct (in terms of church or denominational politics) life. But whether we are Pastors or just members of a church or congregation the message is clear … don’t take the low road, take the high road!