Off-Road in Bethlehem

Five years ago I was in Bethlehem. Five years isn’t that long, but it’s odd how the memory works. Or doesn’t work! I remember touring the church they say is built over where Jesus was born. I remember the Lutheran Centre where we heard speakers and bought some crosses and shared worship. But from the actual streets of Bethlehem I remember little.


My strongest recollections are NOT of the official streets, the paths we should have taken. My strongest memories of Bethlehem are of the very few times – two, I think – of going off-road. Leaving the group. Abandoning the security of our guide and just exploring.

There was one main street that led from a drop-off point downhill to the Church of the Nativity. We had walked up and down that street a couple of times and frankly, to me, it got kind of touristy and boring. There were so many other streets to explore. So I asked my friend DL, whom I knew would have the same urge, if she’d like to try the side-street. Off we went.

It looked like it should run parallel, but you know the old saying about looks. Soon there was a left turn, and a right turn, and then a whole warren of little alleyways.

As we walked we were both getting quieter and quieter. I didn’t want to say anything to DL, and I suspect she didn’t want to say anything to me. It had only taken maybe ten minutes.

We were lost.           

A voice says: Cry out! And I said: “What shall I cry?” Did you hear that from Isaiah this morning? Get thee to the desert, it says, to the wilderness. And there prepare the way of the Lord, a highway for our God.

For whatever complicated historical and economic reasons, we live in a society that, more and more, wants to train the unpredictability out of us. We live in a world of systems. Computer systems. Communication and transportation and economic systems. Everything is a system. We’re told to behave in a certain way. Not only do most of us more or less successfully behave like that, but we get VERY upset with those who don’t. Or can’t. We put them into institutions. If John the Baptist were around now he’d be in a hospital or on the street. Or on meds. The only times we allow ourselves to see our wildernesses, our wild places, is up on the movie screens, where we can safely walk out of the theatre and tell each other that that’s nice, but it’s not real life.

We’ve become slaves in so many ways, and the worst kind of slaves – slaves that actually WANT to be where we are. We’re like the ancient Hebrews who told Moses: “why did you bring us out here into the desert where there’s no food? Weren’t we happier to be well-fed – even if we were in bondage”?

Today’s lessons, each in their own way, are about EXODUS, which is a word that doesn’t mean all that much in our world right now. But liberation, which is what Exodus leads to, DOES mean something. Or it should.

Advent is about preparing for liberation. And however much we decorate the church or our houses, Advent is ultimately about how well we prepare ourselves and our communities for justice, and truth, for incarnation and for the risk of being out there, maybe a bit lost, preparing for a new way in the world.

This last week some of us at the university got free passes for the movie “The Exodus”. It was a big Hollywood production, with absolutely fantastic costumes and sets and 3-D effects. It must have cost millions, maybe tens of millions, to make.

But the point, for all that, was simple: there is captivity, and there is freedom. And sometimes we make ourselves captives even while we think that we’re free. Where does liberation await us? Almost always, the movie seemed to imply, it’s off the beaten track. In the “wilderness”, wherever that is.

Our churches are failing. Not all of them, but many. We’re closing buildings, shutting down congregations, bemoaning the fact that there is so much grey hair in the pews.

In one sense, that’s sad. But I wonder if what’s really happening is that we Jesus-believers are being forced out to where it all began: in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness of NOT knowing what a building should be, in the wilderness of NOT knowing who should be part of our group, and in the wilderness of NOT having big budgets and buildings and programs that we can do what the prophet says we should be doing:

Cry out, says God. Cry out that the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice – and how are we supposed to lift it up? – Lift it up, without fear, and say“Behold! The advent of your God!”

It starts, I believe, with allowing ourselves, every day, in our homes and work, to be less safe, and more spontaneous. It means forgiving ourselves, and others, for failure, because only by doing that can we learn to try again to succeed. It means relying on others, for only in community can a person survive the wilderness.

And it also starts by seeking justice, however imperfectly, and by keeping our eyes open. By so doing, says the prophet, we will be preparing our hearts for the Christ child. And if we don’t spend some time in the wilderness, it won’t matter how many lights we’ve hung or how Christmassy our houses look, we won’t be ready for Jesus no matter what.

If it sounds unsafe, it should. Can you imagine a crazier-looking character than John the Baptist? But every year he is our model of preparing a way for the Lord.

Lift up your voice with strength O Judah. Do not fear. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all people will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

At one point in our wilderness way to the Church of the Nativity, we stumbled into an open square. It was a market. Spices, meats, nuts, dates….everything seemed to be there. There were lots and lots of people. But as far as I could see, not a single other face that looked like mine. They were all locals.

We went left. No exit. Right. Again, no exit. Down a stair…dead end.

Eventually, we found our way to another street, and from there to another street, and emerged, eventually, via a series of lanes and stairs, back onto the main thoroughfare that we had left behind.

Was it a bit frightening? Yes, at least to me. Was it interesting? A thousand times more than the other way.

Prepare the way of the Lord. How? By being less afraid, by being more human, by being willing to act a bit crazy and look a bit lost. By loving, seeking justice, and by embracing the life we’ve been given and not worrying quite so much about the opinions of others. Maybe it was a risk going off-road on the way to the Nativity. But five years later, that’s the only street I remember. May we each, in our own ways, hear God’s call to go “off road”, and learn what it is to be out there, preparing a way through our homes and through our lives.


The Fourth Question

map in a cup

Last fall, when I was at the pilgrimage conference in Virginia, one presentation in particular caught my eye. The title of the paper was: The Fourth Question. It was a perfect hook. Of course I immediately wanted to go to hear that paper. I didn’t even know what the first three questions were. That didn’t matter. All I REALLY wanted to know was what the “fourth” question might be.

When we got to the session, the presenter turned out to be a scholar who had walked to Santiago in Spain back in 1979, when there were not as many people walking it as today. She’d walked it again recently, so she is a Camino veteran. And she said that in her experience, when you’re a pilgrim walking the trail, and you meet someone new, there are, almost inevitably, three questions that come up quickly in conversation, and one question you try to avoid.

The three questions that automatically come up are …… (want to guess?!)

The first question: where are you from?

That makes sense, I guess. It helps situate you. It establishes relations. “Oh, you’re from Canada. I have a sister in law who moved to Toronto….maybe you know her?” That kind of thing.

The second question has to do more with the trail. “Where did you start?” This is a bit more subtle. But having been on the Camino, many of us there knew what she meant. There’s a kind of pecking order among pilgrims, even if there shouldn’t be. If you started at St Jean Pied de Port, you’re doing the long haul. If you started way back in France somewhere, or up in Germany or the Netherlands, and have walked the whole way, then you’re really hard-core. And if you started out from a taxi that morning five kilometres down the road, well then you’re a beginner. So that’s the second question. It helps establish status, I guess. Although maybe that’s not such a good thing, it’s human nature.

So where are you from, and where did you start? The third question, the one that follows, is a bit like the second: “how far are you going?”

This question, she explained, is a bit exploratory as well. Because now you know where the other person is from and how serious they are, you also want to get an idea of where they’re headed. Given the fact that the trail can take over a month to walk, if the other person is going all the way to Santiago as well, then there’s a good chance you’ll bump into each other again. Maybe that would be nice. Maybe after a few minutes of walking together you already know you don’t really want to share days and days more time. Either way, it’s good to know where they’re headed.

And that, she said, is the list of the USUAL questions one pilgrim will ask of another in the first few minutes of polite conversation.

Of course, by that point all of us in the session are waiting on her every word. So? So? What about that fourth question?

“Now. The fourth question we pilgrims normally try to avoid asking each other…” she said, “begins with the word “why“….”

Jesus never ever asks the word why when he meets the disciples of John. It’s interesting. But I think it’s worth noting that he actually DOES ask almost the same thing in other words. When Andrew and the other young man start walking after Jesus, Jesus DOESN’T ask them where they’re from, or how far they’re going. According to John, he says this: what are you looking for?

In other words, why are you walking, here with me?

The WHY ARE YOU HERE question isn’t one that only pilgrims avoid. Sometimes it feels like it’s the one question that we, as a society, are keeping ourselves away from more than anything. Our too-too-busy lives, our 60-inch flat screens, our constantly being plugged into one form of distraction or another, our fixation on celebrities and sports….all of it adds up to an uncomfortable conclusion. If an alien from outer space, or someone from the distant past, were to walk into our world and look around, they might well ask themselves “well it’s clear that these people are trying to avoid something, but what is it?”

Perhaps at least one of the things we’re trying to avoid is this: things didn’t quite turn out like we expected them to. Most of us have been taught that if we try to be good people, and if we make money – a fair bit of money, we hope, and if we have children and buy a house and get a job and take a couple of vacations every year and do well, we’ll be, if not happy, at least content.

And some of us are. But if that script were generally true, then we wouldn’t be drinking too much, and watching an average of four hours of TV a day, and becoming overweight by eating when we’re not hungry, and taking pills for every twinge of depression and anxiety. We’re an overmedicated, underslept, over-stimulated, under-engaged and under-exercised, apathetic, wilfully ignorant and sick society. And because of where we live and how much we make, we’re suffering all this while actually being the most privileged general population in the history of the planet.

For us, the fourth question crosses the polite social fences we set up to protect ourselves. Why are you here? The fourth question represents the moment of risk, which is scary. But it’s also the moment of promise. Why? Because the fourth question is an invitation to relationship. “Why are you here?” (whether to a pilgrim or a friend or neighbor) means, or at least it should mean “I’m asking you this question because I care enough to hear the response. And I will honour it. And I may challenge it. BUT. Asking it will mean that we will walk away from this encounter, at the very least, having made real, human, community in this moment with each other.”

By asking the question “why”, Jesus invites Andrew and the other to contact. And they pick it up by asking Jesus another question. That’s how conversations go. They ask “where are you staying?” But this time Jesus cuts to the chase. It’s no more polite conversation but as Messiah and Lord, an invitation to community: “Come and see”.

Why are we here? is one of those big, existential questions. Maybe it doesn’t have an easy answer. But if we don’t even ask it, we’re avoiding one of the main reasons for being conscious (what they used to call ‘having a soul’).  We could do worse than to hear the words of Isaiah: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations…”

The fourth question is one that, pilgrims or not, we should be asking ourselves and each other more often. Why are you walking this way, this lifestyle, this dream, this job, this home, this retirement, this path? Is there another way to walk? The Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, has chosen you. As Jesus says, Come and see. May we hear the question, and the invitation, and follow the fourth question to whatever blessed and challenging places it may lead us.