“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Isaiah 40:3; TNIV)
Last year, as I wrote this column, I was glorying in the daily sight of Table Mountain, and reflected on a passage - also from Isaiah - that spoke of feasting and abundance and joy and fulfillment. As I write today, it is the wilderness, the desert, which catches my attention. I still awake with awe to the sight of the Mountain, I toast the evening with a glass of the Cape's finest, and occassionally see out the day with a drop of God's gift to humankind. However, in the year that has passed I have - even in this paradise - been aware of the desert encroaching on God's beauty that is Southern Africa. Perhaps this has been highlighted (darkened?) by the raft of recent load-shedding, a reminder of the levels of incompetence that mark leadership in our national arena; and the challenge of burying a newborn baby in the coming week that marks something of the deep sorrow we each carry in our own unique way.
The above passage from Isaiah 40 is a poignant reminder of the challenge we face as God's people in this beautiful land, especially in the light of Advent and our preparations for Christmas where we remind ourselves so powerfully through this season that God seeks our lives to be the road of holiness, of life, of hope. It is easy to get caught up by the despair and encroaching darkness and, therefore, we need to actively find ways to recognise, but not identify with, the actions, attitudes and thought patterns that lead us into these dark places. Anthony de Mello, Catholic Jesuit priest and one of the spiritual masters of the 20th century, tells a story in his book "Awareness" that highlights this need for transformation:
There's a famous story about a lion who came upon a flock of sheep and to his amazement found a lion among the sheep. It was a lion who had been brought up by the sheep ever since he was a cub. It would bleat like a sheep and run around like a sheep. The Lion went straight for him, and when the sheep-lion stood in front of the real one, he trembled in every limb. And the Lion said to him, "What are you doing among those sheep?" And the sheep-lion said, "I am a sheep." And the Lion said, "Oh no you're not. You're coming with me." So he took the sheep-lion to a pool and said, "Look!" And when the sheep-lion looked at his reflection in the water, he let out a mighty roar, and in that moment he was transformed. He was never the same again.
We need to be aware if we are to be transformed and transforming agents of God in the communities and society we serve, if we are to truly prepare the way of the LORD. What will it take to wake us up, to truly awaken us, that like the sheep-lion we may recognise our misidentification and awaken to who we fully are as human beings made in the image of God, as children of God, as builders of straight highways in the desert of our lives and relationships, both personal and corporate? This surely is the challenge of incarnation, of a faith environment in which we claim belief in a God who is not only Spirit and Love, but also human like us? The Christian faith is paradoxically both spiritual and material, and focuses us on a God who is both indeterminable and yet definable in human form.
And so what is your "pool"? And what do you see when you look into it? What is the image that transforms you? What is it about this Advent, this Christmas Season that transforms you, that means you will never be the same again?
de Mello goes on to say that, "The three most difficult things for a human being are not physical feats or intellectual achievments. They are, first, returning love for hate; second, including the excluded; third, admitting that you are wrong." And perhaps this is what the incarnation, the Christmas story, is all about: God with us, loving us, embracing us, and forgiving us. That is truly a wonderful gift, is it not? And it is enfolded in the story of the Messiah's birth, visible in Jesus' life and ministry, tangible in our transforming lives. But if we do not ask the question; if we do not listen for God's "word" (as Bishop Geoff has encouraged us to do in his last two sermons to us); if we seek to remain unaware, misidentified, fearful, anxious, depressed and scared; how can we be the builders of straight highways in the desert of our context and environment, be it personal, family, friendship, or community based? We can't, obviously. So, are we sufficiently courageous to stare into the "pool" which is God, and be transformed? And thereby becoming, more fully, God's transforming agents in our world?
May God bless us as we journey through this Christmas-tide towards all that 2015 will bless and challenge us with. As we take this break from work, from school and are enfolded in family and faith, may we discover anew God's strength and vision in our lives. May the peace, joy and hope embodied in the Messiah's birth so transform us that we will never be the same again!
Christmas blessings and love from Dawn and myself.
31 December 2014