It is a risky thing, and limiting, I know, to look for parallels between us and the natural world, for I expect the human mind and heart and soul tend to be a whole lot more complex than what can be observed outside my kitchen window. And yet, every time this happens, it reminds me of myself.
For you see, there is a crack under the door to my breezeway. And from time to time, especially now as the weather grows colder, a small bird or a squirrel will find its way in that way, but then cannot seem to easily find its way out. It happened again not that long ago that I looked up to see a squirrel scrambling madly at the opposite end of the breezeway. I went outside to prop open the door so it could eventually find its way to freedom and it got even more anxious, as you can see here.
In my experience, it does no good to try to call a bird or a squirrel to move towards the most obvious way to freedom. In fact, I have learned to quietly prop the door open and walk away. After a time, something draws their attention in that direction and before the hour, or the morning, or the day is up, they have found their own way back out into the world they call home.
It always strikes me though that their first instinct seems to be to make their escape on the opposite end of the breezeway from where they entered. Without a doubt, the view is better from that vantage point and it must seem so close to them there, but the screen which allows them to see and hear and smell what is so familiar stands in their way.
And yes, truth be told, I know I am a lot like them, turning my back on freedom, clambering for it from a source or in a direction where it is never, ever going to be mine. Not really. And yes, perhaps for obvious reasons, I have come face to face with this propensity in me at whole new levels in this ‘age of pandemic.’
- For yes, I look for freedom in working that much harder, believing somehow that I can, in fact, earn my worth in the sight of colleagues, the people and community I serve, I suppose even in God’s eyes. Only in these last months my ‘best gifts’ have not seemed as essential as they once were and I find I am often in over my head, realizing that I have little skill or even that much desire to learn better some of that which would make sharing God’s gifts easier in a time when we need to be apart. (Fill in the blank here: anything related to technology!) And still, I work and work and work, wondering when or if it will ever be enough…
- And it is true that I have looked for a way out of that which is holding me in by keeping up with the latest research on the virus, what safety precautions work best especially when gathering in groups large or small, and in simply keeping track of the percentage of those infected in the community in which I live and serve. And while it is so that knowledge does give us a kind of power and can be a way towards one kind of freedom, at the same time, and yet in the midst of it, I can just feel my anxiety building as I try to assimilate it all. Apparently knowledge alone is not going to do it. Indeed, in the end, standing alone it very often doesn’t feel like freedom at all.
- And yes, it is also so that from time to time I have found myself looking for a way back into a more familiar world by slipping into a kind of denial about the seriousness of that which threatens. It starts in my head, yes, and takes up residence in my heart which yearns for a time not so long ago when one did not have to think twice about sitting down with a family to plan a funeral, about stopping in for a quick visit on an ailing parishioner, or even the more mundane tasks which make up an ordinary life like making one more quick trip to the grocery store. I set all that I know aside sometimes and while I am keeping my distance and wearing my mask, I am doing all I can to ‘be’ as I once was. Only the world is not as it once was and there is, it seems, no way to go back to any semblance of what was without seriously and carefully navigating what now is.
And so we listen to John again today — this ancient voice in the wilderness — calling to us, to me, to turn around. To recognize that freedom, a way out from all which has entrapped us, a way towards the life of wholeness which God intends, is not over there, but over here:
- Not in working harder, but in resting in the life giving work of God, especially now in the One whose coming we await once more;
- No, not in our seeking to understand only with our minds, but with our hearts turned towards what God intends for us and for this world;
- And no, not in pretending that what the particular threats we now face have just gone away or will suddenly disappear, but in embracing the truth that Jesus walked into and through this and worse, and with him accompanying us, we can and we will, too.
This is where the parallel with the squirrels and birds on my breezeway breaks down of course.
For John is not content to just leave the door open for us to find our own way to this freedom.
Rather, John is vigorously urging us to wake up, to pay attention, to do all that we are able to get ready.
For freedom, for release, for wholeness, for hope is on the way in Christ Jesus.
And we hear in John’s voice again this December that it is time. It is long past time for us to turn back, to turn aside, to turn towards the One who is ours to receive once more.
Again this Advent.
And yes, this has been such a wilderness, hasn’t it, this time which is not nearly over yet, where the tools I always relied upon in the world I knew so well? If they have not entirely failed me, they also have not been nearly enough to bring me back to where I yearn to go, to how I so want to be again. And certainly nowhere near the place that God intends.
Which brings me back to the occasional bird or squirrel which find their way into my breezeway and how they eventually find their way out again.
The senses of these creatures are especially acute, as I’m sure you know. They can see and hear and smell in ways no human ever will. No doubt, once they still themselves (and once the pesky human who has done what she can to lead them to freedom has gone away) they rely on the best gifts they have and they find their way. In the very essence of what makes them squirrels and birds, God has given them what they need to make their way to that open door and freedom once more.
And so I wonder now if it is not the same for you and me in this particular wilderness in which we find ourselves.
Oh, I do wonder if we can just ‘still ourselves’ long enough or deeply enough if we will recognize that at the urging of the prophet this Advent, if we would simply turn our heads, our hearts around, if we would not see that Jesus is already here. Propping the door open for us and leading us to a more full expression of life and living than we imagined even before this last hard time. I wonder if what we have needed has already been given to us:
In hearts which maybe used to know or need to learn to know or at least to learn to know more deeply that the only thing we can rely on is the love of God poured into us and through us for the sake of the world.
- A love which sees the world as it is but is not paralyzed by fear or uncertainty or doubt.
- A love which recognizes that God always gives us more than what we can possibly need and that we are called to give it away.
- A love which simply calls us to turn around and in the turning, to prepare for what is yet to arrive in the coming of Jesus once more.
At least this is how I hear the prophet John as he meets me in the wilderness this Advent.
How about you?
- Perhaps it is a silly image, that of a bird or a squirrel trapped in my breezeway, but it helps me think more deeply about John’s urging now. What captures your imagination today and helps you to hear John’s call to repent, to turn around?
- In these last months, where have you been tempted to turn to experience a kind of freedom or hope you once knew or never completely knew but yearn to know more fully? Have you ever, like me, (or like that squirrel) found yourself looking in the wrong direction?
- How has this recent time been ‘wilderness’ to you? What gifts has God given you to help you navigate it?