by Craig Mueller
former Associate Director of Spiritual Formation
It must feel like you’ve nearly reached the end of the road. It will feel good to have the semester behind you and move on to the more relaxed pace of …. Christmas preparations! It is an odd juxtaposition of Advent with the end of the semester. Advent talk of waiting and making space for the coming One seems distant from the demands, pressures and stresses of these latter days.
Many of you will soon be on another road to your Christmas destination. Imagining your gathering with family or friends may stir up all kinds of emotion: longing or dread, curiosity or resignation.
And since it is hard to really get settled in this place, you’ll soon be thinking ahead to the next set of preparations. What kinds of hopes and dreams, what kind of restrictions and limitations, what kind of fears and worries await you on the road before you. This call to ministry. This so-called spiritual path. This road less traveled.
John the Baptist seems pretty clear of his calling as a preacher. He is preparing the way. And the road ahead will include a lot of leveling. Mountains and hills will be brought low. Rough places made smooth. The crooked made straight. His fiercely honest preaching calls us from complacency to commitment, from repentance to a radical re-direction.
Luke seems to be saying that the road will bypass the political, economic and religious powers. Not to the list of powerful rulers in the first verses of the gospel, but to John in the wilderness does the word of God come. The appearing of the coming One threatens the powers that be. Those who hang on to the status quo. The way things have always been.
This great road construction project, this awesome divine stimulus package is accomplishing what Mary proclaims in the Magnificat: the mighty are cast down, the rich sent away, the lowly raised up and the hungry filled with good things. John prepares the way. But Jesus will walk the road and bring salvation, shalom, and healing to those in need. To those whose hearts are broken. To those sick, poor, marginalized, hungry.
Through baptism we are on that same road. That same path. But where is it taking us? How do we get there in one piece? Advent preparation is one thing. But how to plan for the future while living in the moment? How to be prepared for anything, while be open to everything? How to have your hopes set on one place but knowing there are a lot of Lutherans in North and South Dakota? How to imagine a future while being open to things you may not have expected? It’s hard to hold all those things gently! It’s doubly hard to not be in control and to trust that there will be plenty of roadside assistance when the path is bumpy.
Sometimes I wish that I had a GPS installed in me. Not just to keep me from getting lost and to give me a better sense of direction when I’m on the road. But to make it simpler. To tell me when to turn left or right. To warn me of traffic ahead. For some religious people, God seems to whisper clear directions in their ear, but not so much for me.
My brother is the proud owner of a small, portable, very cool GPS gadget he recently bought. He’s always years ahead of me in the techno-world. He said he could never imagine going anywhere unfamiliar again without the GPS. It makes travel so much less stressful. Especially if you don’t where you’re going. Imagine a voice crying out in your car: in one hundred yards, turn left at Francis Street …. arriving at destination at left. Or my favorite: if you take a different street or make a mistake, the GPS voice will say: recalculating… recalculating. Isn’t the road of life like that? A lot of recalculating!
My brother is a pastor but I don’t think he was intentionally giving me material saturated with spiritual wisdom. But this phrase stuck with me: You can be traveling along the road, and not know where you are. Following the GPS directions but not aware of your current location! That’s not just the great understatement for seminary life, but for the way it is in our complicated, complex, post-modern, stress-filled, busy, multi-tasking-all-the-time lives. Half the time we don’t know where we are. We may have a vague sense of destination. Sometimes we may be on a path to get there. But we can’t see the road right ahead of us.
It’s a cliché, I know. But sometimes the journey is the destination. Spiritual formation at LSTC is so much more than preparing for a ministry profession. There is so much more than book learning to absorb in this place! Passionate people, inspiring worship, four earth seasons (currently winter, if you haven’t noticed!), and a city of great depth and diversity.
And come to think of it, what is the destination? John is so intent to prepare the way. But where is it taking us?
+ The always-Sunday School answer is: Jesus.
+ Luke and the other gospels will take us to cross and resurrection.
+ The Lutheran spin would be all those g words: gospel, grace, gift, good news.
+ Maybe a pastoral care destination would simply be: presence.
+ And a spiritual place to land would be our deepest self.
+ Advent leads to Christmas, or the second coming, or for some, Christ born anew in your heart.
= But the today’s gospel, gives us God’s dream of all flesh knowing the salvation of God. There can be no true destination until justice dawns on all the earth.
It can seem like we’re traveling in circles. During these darkening Advent days it can seem there is not enough light to even see the road. There can be delays and road construction that slow us down and test our patience.
Yet the road brings us back here. Or in the profound words by T.S. Eliot: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And to know the place for the first time.
The road brings us again to the assembly gathered around the water and word and table. We prepare the way for Christ to come again. And then welcome him: here! Among us. In the means of grace. In our families and communities. In our daily lives. In the strangers we meet along the way.
It happens time after time. Season after season. It seems like it’s the end of the road. But it’s really another beginning. Prepare the way!