First, an explanation: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is the title of a book edited by Genevieve West. It’s a book of short stories written by Zora Neale Hurston, a black writer from the 1920’s and ’30’s. Zora died penniless and in obscurity, but her work was discovered later and she is described as an “outstanding novelist, skilled folklorist, journalist, and critic…who for thirty years was the most prolific black woman writer in America.” Her tales are both humorous and serious, taken mostly from the culture of the Deep South in the early 1900’s, but sprinkled with stories about northern cities as well.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked stick is not only a book title; it’s an idiom, or expression of speech, that describes making a way out of no-way—overcoming great difficulties and achieving extraordinary things by seemingly impossible means. Beating the odds, i.e. An example of hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick is a person who grows up in a bad environment without much guidance, but who somehow manages to rise above it and achieve great things in spite of the odds against him/her. That person hits a straight lick with a crooked stick. I bought the book as much for the title as for the short stories…I didn’t know much about Zora Hurston, but I enjoy colloquial idioms and I’d never heard this one before. And I was struck with the fact that, in this life, we’re all more-or-less “crooked sticks” trying to hit “straight licks”—imperfect, but with God’s help doing the best we can.
We come into this world with wrinkled skin and wailing cries, not air brushed and smiling for cameras. While learning to walk, we fall down again and again and again…but eventually we get the hang of it. The same is true for learning how to ride a bike. And learning algebra, and all sorts of things. Developmentally, we may be on par, but we still often feel like crooked sticks trying to hit straight licks. And if we struggle in certain areas, like with coordination in sports or with testing anxieties, our sticks begin to feel a little more crooked than we imagine other students’ sticks to be. And then our self-esteem gets bent crooked, or our self-confidence, etc. Perfectionists may have the greatest crisis with crooked sticks…they try so hard not to be one, yet find it impossible to be perfect. Tragically, some persons’ sticks are bent by childhood trauma, accidents, or other maladies, but still manage to overcome—like Joni Eareckson Tada who was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident at the age of 17, and went on to become an artist, author, speaker, and musician.
Joni would never say, however, that she has hit straight licks as a quadriplegic all by herself. She has had family, friends, and a strong system of support, and most of all—with time following the accident—faith in God that grew and has sustained her. Her story is testimony that God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick, or at least he can help us hit straighter ones than we can without him. Remember the Samaritan woman at the well, whom Jesus met in John 4? Her life was bent crooked by multiple marriages, by her social location, and even by her religion, yet scores of people in her village came to faith in Jesus through her witness. Jesus hit a straight lick with her crooked stick. Then there’s Zacchaeus (Lk. 19), a crooked tax collector, whose encounter with Jesus led him to a radical redistribution of his wealth—another straight lick with a crooked stick. And Peter, who lied, and all the other disciples who deserted Jesus—restored, and who became pillars in the early church. And Saul the persecutor who became Paul the church planter. Crooked sticks in the hands of God hit some mighty straight licks!
Several times in Isaiah God promises to make crooked things straight (Isa. 40:4; 42:16; 45:2), and John the Baptist quoted Isaiah in Luke 3:5--“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” Seems like God has been hitting straight licks with crooked sticks since the beginning of time, and the best is yet to come. Death, for example, may be the most crooked stick ever, but the promise of resurrection is a straight lick for that. The ultimate straight lick comes in Revelation 21 where God makes all things new—a new heaven and a new earth, the home of God is among mortals and God dwells with them; he wipes away all tears, death is no more, mourning and crying and pain are no more…the crooked world is finally set straight on its hinges! A straight lick for a crooked stick. Thanks be to God.
Phil Kanagy, pastor
August 12, 2020