Fresh Starts in the Wilderness
It happened when it was the furthest thing from my mind.
I had claimed my traditional table At Sara’s Table, a local Duluth restaurant that I often haunt after all the kids have been delivered to their respective schools. It’s got farm-to-table goodness, a view of the Big Lake, a wonderful server, and coffee that makes me glad to be alive—not to mention remind me that I am alive.
I go there, or Amazing Grace, or the Cedar Coffee Company, so that that I can work on work and not on laundry and dishes and bills, and so that I can force this introvert soul of mine into the world (gosh my fires and hounds are cozy, and are like sirens calling me to sit in front of and with, especially in the deep winter).
So there I was at this breakfast haven, my iPad open, my papers sprawled in front of me, but not as in front of me as my gorgeous salmon omelette with pesto adorning the entire creation, when I got The Call.
It was the Lake County Health Inspector, asking if he could pop over that afternoon for his 18-month review of The Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center.
Technically I could have said ‘no,’ but…a person can’t really say ‘no’ to the County Health Inspector, right?
So I said the only thing I could, which was, “Well…of course you may. I’ll be back after my next errand [I’d busted my glasses, because of course I had] by 1:00.”
I hailed my server, thanked her much, threw everything in my bag (except my salmon omlette of course, but you can bet that, even mildly freaking out though I was, I boxed it), and buzzed back home earlier than planned to prepare for his annual-and-a-half drop-in visit.
(I confess that as I was driving, I thought of that joke: “Quick! Jesus is coming! Look busy!” It’s funny because deep down a person knows when the time unexpectedly comes, Jesus will probably be on to the sly trick.)
Thanks to my marvelous help in a woman named Dode, the Spent Dandelion studio was already in pristine perfection.
Again and again I say unto you, Thank God for Dode.
But here’s the thing: my son with the TBI needs to be dressed and fed and rolled out the door and onto his bus at 6:50 a.m., and my daughter, and our foreign exchange student, and I also need to be dressed and fed and out an hour and a quarter later, and our two hounds also appreciate being fed and out the door every time they smell a squirrel.
We have a lot of squirrels.
That’s all to say that by the time we have crawled into the car and are on our way to Duluth, the house isn’t exactly…pristine.
So I had a few things to tidy up (reference said laundry and dishes and bills above), all the more so because we didn’t have Spent Dandelion guests at that time, and, like I said, a pop-in visit from him was the furthest thing from my mind (which, of course and appropriately, is how they like it), so our home was…let’s call it homey.
Upshot is, 1:30 came around, and so did he.
An hour later, and my second round in my two years in service with two certificates with absolutely perfect scores, the gentleman left, and I plopped into my chair, looked around, and figured those previous few hours were definitely reason for a mid-winter, mid-afternoon akvavit.
The Gospel text for this Second Week of Advent is this:
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every 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;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Here’s a fun geeky grammatical thing: we don’t exactly know where a person should put a comma in verse 4.
That is, should it be “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’”?
Or should it be as Isaiah, from whom Luke quotes, seemed to think it should be, namely “The voice of one crying out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…”?
(Cue: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” “Let’s eat Grandma!”)
It changes everything, of course: Is the point referring to John, who did have a habit of spending time in the wilderness, or is the point referring to the place where those who were hearing John were (or should be) namely ‘in the wilderness?’
Theologically, textually, and grammatically, a person can make a case for both renderings.
For all sorts of reasons, I tend to gravitate toward the latter, which, to be honest, is helpful for the point I want to make in this blog.
I think a good share of us feel as if we are in, or at least in range of, the wilderness.
Like, we don’t need to point to John the Baptist as if he’s some oddball.
Although most of us don’t tend to eat locusts (even as an appetizer at some trendy joint—for example, they don’t serve them At Sara’s Table), most of us can appreciate what it’s like to be in some sort of wilderness.
While I literally live in the wilderness, and happen to love it (John seems to have not minded it either, and in retrospect had he stayed there he may well have made out a lot better than he did when he went out of it, which is yet another reason that I am tempted to stay in my cozy woods and by my cozy fires), that’s not what we’re talking about.
We’re talking rock-your-soul wilderness, feeling-abandoned wilderness, desperate-wilderness, not-sure-where-or-even-what-one’s-bearings-are wilderness.
We all know something of that kind of wilderness, and nobody wants to do a vacay there.
Personally or politically or culturally or all of the above, the sense of wilderness—an area that spreads out an expanse of vulnerability, angst, regret, loneliness, uncertainty, potential threat, self-doubt, and scavenging for survival—it’s more than a metaphor, when we’re honest with ourselves (and sometimes texts like these make it impossible not to be).
Wilderness can be a way of life.
And in the midst of that, we’re supposed to find a way to prepare, to make ready for the one who is coming, even when you least expect it?
What does that even mean?
Well, in part, I think it means owning up to what you’ve got going on that’s right, and what you’ve got going on that…could use a tweak, oooooorrrrrrrrrr a complete and total re-calibration.
I can’t help but think about how I felt when I got the call from the health inspector announcing his visit.
Some of my world was exactly in order, was prepared in advance for his coming, like the studio.
But some of it, like the sprawled breakfast dishes in the sink, and the loaf of bread from a frenzied lunch-making, and the pajamas on the bathroom floor…not so much.
There was some preparation, shall we say, that was necessary before I was ready—and, in fact, before my home looked like I’d prefer that it looked all the time.
Instead, it’s generally fairly wilderness-y.
I can cut myself enormous slack for all sorts of reasons, true, but still…I know how I’d like it, and I know how it is.
This next thought is borderline kitschy, I think, but I’m aiming to tilt it to thought-provoking instead:
Advent is the beginning of new liturgical year in the life of the Church: first Advent, then Christmas, then Epiphany, and so on and so forth until we wrap up the year with the Umpteenth Sunday of Pentecost, and then Christ the King Sunday, and then we begin again with Advent.
We hear all the time about New Year’s Resolutions, of course, and ‘tis the season to be jolly, fine, but ‘tis also the season to be reflective.
And ‘reflective’ is often somewhere between ‘regretful’ and ‘resolute.’
There are some things I feel quite good about—proud, even—in my 2018; but there are some things that were how I’d like them to have been, and some things that were…how they instead were.
Held up to any number of metrics, I’m somewhere between reflective and regretful, including whom I hope to be as a person of faith.
I can find any sorts of reasons why certain circumstances happened, of course, but upon reflection, I can see how if I’d been better prepared (in any number of ways), I could have avoided any number of decisions, engagements, and circumstances that I wish had gone down otherwise.
I wouldn’t, in other words, be giving myself a 100.
Advent doesn’t really let me get away with avoiding these sorts of personal reckonings, because Advent’s texts are not into euphemism.
They are fairly bald and bold about who we are called to be, and about who is calling us to be these things, if a person is paying attention, and sometimes you wish you weren’t.
But as doomsy as they can sound, the texts are actually and indeed filled with hope.
They say, and certainly this passage from Luke says, that things don’t need to be as they have been.
It is possible to begin anew.
I was reminded, thanks to this blog, that the word translated as ‘forgiveness’ in verse 3 (“He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…”) is maybe even better rendered ‘fresh start.’
Gosh, I like that.
Advent is the season of fresh starts.
Perhaps this second week of Advent invites us to reflect on where and when we weren’t prepared, on where we could use some repentance, and in what ways are we being beckoned to fresh starts.
That means that Advent might be an opportunity to consider some New Church Year’s Resolutions: What will it look like in 2019 to live a life of faith?
Where are your wildernesses, and where do you hear a voice calling to you to prepare, to repent, to discover a fresh start?
That’s what a New Year’s Resolution is anyway, right? A discovery of the possibility of a fresh start, and then a resolve to see what a person can do to tweak/completely re-calibrate oneself to the new way of being.
Jesus is coming.
We could be working as always, enjoying a salmon omelette, sub-consciously or consciously avoiding the chaos in our lives when suddenly, we get The Call, and instantly we see things as we hadn’t really noticed them, or chosen not to notice them.
But in that moment, they become gosh-darn clear.
John’s call helps us see things before that moment—or, better, helps us see that every moment is that Moment.
We are always called to be prepared, to live according to the faith we claim to have, a faith that embraces us and, as John says, everyone else too.
Sometimes, though, well, those jammies on the floor—real and metaphorical—they just happen.
So for those of us (*cough* all of us *cough*) in the wilderness (which is really just Real Life), John calls from his wilderness into ours: prepare, not least of all by having hope.
This Advent, start fresh.