Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make Straight a Path Throught the Desert

Today is the day in the church year on which we read about John that Baptist, that seemingly deranged cousin of Jesus, he of the animal skin attire and the crunchy locust meals, out in the desert crying for the path of the Lord to be made straight, for valleys to be filled and mountains leveled.

I have always been mystified by John's obsession with the destruction of some of the most beautiful of our planet's geographical features. Year after year I have listened to this text and wondered: What would you do away with? The Pacific Crest Trail? The valleys in which the lochs of Scotland lie? The Tetons? What kind of a proclamation is this?

This year, I think, I am starting to get it, for the first time ever. I wonder whether I would ever have had a glimpse of what it means had I not been stumbling around in another dimension for the past fifteen months.

I have used so many geographical and geological metaphors to describe this journey, a journey that I would run from as fast as possible if that option were open to me. Relentless tsumani. Insurmountable mountain. Rock-strewn trail. Impenetrable wilderness. And, of course, desert. Endless, dry, empty, lonely desert.

None of them is a road back to the light. None of them is a road to hope.

It seems that they must all be navigated. There is no other sound option; we have to swim, climb, and walk through the terrain of grief, inhospitable as it is, or we will not reach that juncture at which it becomes not merely agonizing but transformative. We don't get to dispense with the wild craziness that makes the aftermath of loss so intolerable; we don't get to pretend that we're all right or that it never happened.

But ~ and this is what I think John the Baptist is talking about ~ we do have to find the way out. We have to reach, with our eyes open, the place where the swells of water become gentler, where the density of the forest begins to recede, where the desert seems to offer something other than parched wasteland.

I don't think God wants us to level the Alps. In fact, Jesus always found God in places like mountaintops, deserts, and valleys ~ the story is quite clear on that point. But what he found there is a transparency of vision that we so often lack. That most of us, I think, lack completely when we are plunged into the darkness that follows the death of a child.

And so the invitation, perhaps, is to go to the places he went but also to see as he did, with clarity and gratitude, rather than with eyes clouded by tears and a mind crumbling under a weight almost too great to bear.

I have, of course, no idea at all what I am talking about. I was moved to write this post by the words of this father, who lost his nine-year-old son to a malignant tumor several years ago, and who I found via my friend and fellow traveler Karen, mother of beautiful Katie. He is much farther along the road to gratitude than I am. But as I skimmed his essay again, I couldn't help but notice how many allusions he makes to things which have appeared in my own thoughts and writings: the suffering of other parents, the Holocaust, the omnipotence or lack thereof of God, the compassion ~ or not ~ of God, what prayer is and isn't. And even the Wizard of Oz.

Oh, for that elusive pair of ruby slippers.

We have to find clarity without them.

And so: Advent.



(Cross-Posted from Advent blog.)