The Cliff-face and the PTO Shaft

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[We have] seen the valley itself, which is as dark as pitch. We also saw there the hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit; we heard also in that valley a continual howling and yelling, as of a people in unutterable misery, who there sat bound in affliction and irons; and over that valley hangs the discouraging clouds of confusion; death also doth always spread his wings over it; in a word, it is every whit dreadful, being utterly without order.
– Pilgrim’s Progress

I had a friend once, an ex-Mennonite who’d been excommunicated because he wouldn’t back down on what he believed. He was also a self-taught vet, and we spent a lot of time together in the barnyard. Sometimes conversations about what semen to order turned into discussions about theology, and he would sit at the kitchen table with my dad for hours. I sat on the other side of the room, listened, and wrote.

Mennonites are legalistic, even excommunicated ones. My dad is very not legalistic, and of necessity debate ensued. A debate that took an interesting turn, when it became a discussion about why it was necessary to discuss differences…

I saw then in my dream, so far as this valley reached, there was on the right hand a very deep ditch; that ditch is it into which the blind have led the blind in all ages, and have both there miserably perished. Again; behold, on the left hand there was very dangerous quagmire, into which, if even a good man falls, he can find no bottom of his foot to stand on. The pathway was here also exceeding narrow, and therefore good CHRISTIAN was the more put to it; for when he sought in the dark to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other; also when he sought to escape the mire, without great carefulness, he would be ready to fall into the ditch.
– Pilgrim’s Progress

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. And it is narrow, very narrow. Dangerously narrow, so that keeping to the center of it is a difficulty even for the strongest. Perpetually one is straying to one side or the other, but on both sides lie dangers. The way my friend described it thus:

One one side of the path is the sheer drop of Legalism. Fearful of that the liberals stay as far away as possible. Too many friends have gone over that cliff and never made it back onto the path.

On the other side, however, is the spinning PTO shaft of License. I’m afraid of heights and want to stay as far away from that cliff as possible, but my friend had seen too many people chewed up in the PTO shaft, and wants to avoid it at all costs.

Time out! What’s a PTO shaft?

That, my friends, is what makes this description so vivid. A PTO shaft is a moving part on the back of the tractor that makes things turn. It’s what makes the blade of a bush-hog mower go round and round, or the bands on a hay-baler. It’s metal, and it spins, and you do not get near it when it’s spinning. You do not ride on the back of a tractor when the PTO shaft is engaged. You do not stand too close to a spinning shaft with loose clothes on. If something gets caught in that shaft it will wind you in, mercilessly. If the operator of the tractor is fast enough to shut it off you might get out alive.

It’s a description only a farmer or someone who lives with tractors would understand at first glance, but it’s a description farmers and people who live with tractors can not easily get out of their mind.

So you’re walking along that cliff I’m so afraid of, but I’m dangerously close to that PTO shaft, and my hair is down. I’m calling out to you, “Get away from that cliff!” and you’re holding out your hands to me, begging me to get away from the PTO. And we are both backing into danger.

Only.

You are my friend, and you trust me, and you hold out your hand to lead me away from the PTO and I take it to pull you away from the cliff, and we walk that way, each balancing the other, pulling each other back from the every present danger.


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