Thursday, 1 October 2009

the way is straight, the surface is damaged: God the highways engineer

country lane with damaged tarmac

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.   Isaiah 40.3

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”   Mark 1:2-3

What happens if we lift these texts out of their customary context of the second Sunday in Advent and free them up to speak to us without preconception?  What do we hear when we put to one side the limiting and profoundly strong associations with John the Baptist and with Jesus? Underneath all of that  joyful hermeneutical ‘shouting’ is there a more personal message being whispered to each one of us?

Having listened to the texts in this way let me put it like this: can I really trust that even as I write these words, God is busily engineering a way ahead for me? Is it going into the realms of fantasy to believe that the immanent providential presence of the Holy Spirit is constantly seeking to construct a straight road between me and a life lived lovingly and utterly for God? (that destination which is always over the horizon and just around the next corner, but at which we never seem to arrive). And is God calling me to construct this way of love and encounter for others too?

So just whose way is being prepared here? Elsewhere in the Isaiah tradition there is a real sense that we are called to prepare the way for each other. This journey into God is a collective and collaborative one. So we read: “It shall be said, ‘Build up, build up, prepare the way,  remove every obstruction from my people’s way.’” (Isaiah 57.14); and a little later on,  “Go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway,  clear it of stones”  (Isaiah 62.10). God’s highway is a road we are meant to travel, and the destination is God. So I think it is true to say that we are called to prepare this way of liberation and transformation for each other. This is the understanding of the Kingdom of God with which Jesus engineers the way of discipleship for his followers. To love God is to love our neighbour as ourselves; it is to be good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed. A prayer attributed by many to St Teresa of Avila captures this beautifully:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

With each decision we take and choice we make we are in effect making someone else’s way that bit straighter or that bit more tortuous. In the photo you can see how the surface of the road is damaged and breaking up. There are areas of weakness and failure which seem to have been repeatedly patched up, to little lasting effect. A deeper and more permanent repair is needed. Left as is this bit of road is a worsening hazard. One day someone could be badly hurt because of it. This is what our lives, our damage, our hurt places can do to the way of those around us.

In and through all of this I believe that God calls us to live our lives in such a way that we make straighter the way of others, just as they are called to do the same for our benefit too. And God longs to repair the damage in us which is a hazard to others. God engineers this through grace and truth, using the tools of mercy, justice and kindness. When God whispers to someone the promise that their way is being prepared, God uses us to deliver the reality. And in this very moment God is at work, in and through others, engineering the grace you and I need.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________ See Sally’s poemFaith’s journey (sometimes)” which is based on this image

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