I recently heard a story about a Norwegian acquaintance of mine. She was in Germany at a conference, and when one of the German academics first met her, she told her: “oh, you’re from Norway! I’d love to visit Norway someday.”
That’s nice. Right? Norway is a beautiful country. Nothing strange about what this woman said. Presumably, lots of people would love to visit the land of fjords and mountains. But what was a bit jarring was what came next. “My grandfather always told me stories, as I was growing up, about how lovely a country Norway is,” this German academic told my friend. “So I’ve always had this image of your homeland as a very special place. He said that in the early 1940s he spent some of the happiest years of his life in Norway.”
My acquaintance was a bit nonplussed. Did the German not realize what she was saying?
Yes, World War Two is long over. Yes, now Norwegians and Germans are neighbours and, very often, even friends. Yes, there are lots of German tourists welcomed in Norway every year. But did the German not realize that the ‘happiest years of life’ for her grandfather, who almost certainly was in Norway as a soldier during what was a brutal occupation of the country, were not exactly the happiest years of Norwegian history?
Countries, like people, don’t mature and grow up without suffering, and sometimes, without causing suffering. And the church is the same.
Perhaps no institution in the western world has been the cause of so much growth and help, relief and education and hope as the church. Perhaps no institution in the western world has been the cause of so much misery and pain and ignorance and hate and death, as the Christian church. So when we hear the words of the prophet: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the Way, we need to start by being a LOT more sensitive than that German academic. We have to ask ourselves exactly how we, personally, might be implicated in the message. Is Advent good news, or bad news?
For one thing, it means, without apology, that it’s okay to be political. The first words we hear about John the Baptist are political: in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Luke writes, naming the dictator of the day: when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… You can’t escape it. Advent always comes to us in the midst of politics.
This year, the politics are again brutally obvious: more and more and more shootings, most recently in California, and all the while some Americans saying that there’s nothing to be done. Rivers of blood staining the streets in Syria. Extreme weather events killing people and creating refugees globally – even as world leaders gather in Paris, in a city so recently scarred by the awful terrorist murders of innocent youth, to debate whether the climbing thermostats will make the world uninhabitable for our grandchildren. Millions of people flooding across borders and across oceans. A mass migration of misery. Children dying. Drones dropping bombs. Changing governments, a plummeting dollar, financial insecurity, increasing surveillance, and everyone uneasy.
Prepare the way of the Lord. As if we have time and space and hope enough for that, we think. Make God’s paths straight.
The most basic thing these words tell us is that something IS happening. We can’t put our heads in the sand. Changes are coming – have always been coming – and we can’t pretend otherwise. The world is changing. We are, as individuals, as institutions, and as families, facing massive upheavals. Our bank accounts, our homes, our educations, will NOT be walls high enough to save us. None of us will be the same ten years from this Advent. We can’t escape.
We are heading down some sort of path, into this hard environment, what the Bible calls this desert.
Making paths STRAIGHT seems to be about how we go forward, which is a matter of justice. When it comes to refugees, it’s clear, in recent news, that we can either straighten refugee routes, or we can block them. Between those two options, the Bible is quite clear. Hospitality to the poor and the oppressed is not just expected. It’s demanded. I was naked, and you clothed me, says Jesus, in Matthew, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was on the evening news huddled in the rubble on the newsfeed, and you did something. Whatsoever you have done to the least of these, you have done for me. To prepare the way almost never seems to be about protecting our own interests. Far more, it’s about allowing into our shelters and onto our paths those who need it most. I do not desire your offerings, says the LORD in the Hebrew Bible, but let justice roll down like streams. And yet. And yet we ALSO need to have a good solid sense of ourselves to undertake that prophetic work, otherwise what we do will be insincere and superficial.
And maybe this is the other part of the story. It seems like a paradox, but it’s a basic truth: the more comfortable we are with our own selves and with our own place, the easier it will be for us to travel through the coming desert, to face adversity and to make the paths straight for others. Our basic equipment, so to speak, is how we feel about ourselves, and what we know ourselves to be.
If we FEEL loved, we are better able to love. If we know that we are valuable, it’s easier to value others. If we learn to be gracious and forgiving with ourselves, we will, in most cases, have an easier time being gracious and forgiving with others. So our first task is to remember – and to remind ourselves and others – that WE are valued creations, loved, and accepted, just the way we are. Then we can treat others that way.
We are ALL strangers, and preparing a way means making that highway through the desert big enough for everyone.
There was a lovely video I saw recently about the settling of Saskatchewan. It was so well designed and shot. It talked about how life was hard for the European pioneers, but how life got so much better, and about how prosperous most of those families are now. In one sense, there was nothing wrong with the video at all. It was quite beautiful. But when it was done, I thought the same thing as that Norwegian academic I started out describing, thought of the German: do they not realize? Yes, the pioneers – among them my grandparents – worked hard. Yes, prosperity came. But at what price? The film, meant to be so inclusive, never once mentioned the First Peoples, and the disaster that European settlement was for them.
For us to celebrate an anniversary, or to prepare a way through the wilderness, two things must come together – a commitment to justice AND a sense of our own fractured and imperfect belonging. My friend Kathryn recently posted a quotation from a 4th century ascetic, Amma Syncletica, about how we develop a relationship with our Creator. Amma was a desert woman herself, and she wrote: In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: At first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.
The desert is not ahead of us. It is where you and I are traveling already. There will be cold nights and hunger and difficulty. As we journey, we can either take note of our fellow travelers, or not. When we do, and when we welcome them, and work for justice, and share love, we are already making the paths straight – for the Creator of all, the One who calls us, is already that stranger who travels with us.