by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found that I was in a dusky wood; for the right path, whence I had strayed, was lost.” Many will immediately recognize this opening line of Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Perhaps many will also resonate with its pathos: suddenly to discover in the course of life that you are not on the path you intended; to awaken to the realization that, in fact, you are lost with no greater desire than to find a home.
I had a college philosophy professor who taught that such epiphanies represented the universal human narrative. All great literature, art, philosophy, and religion, he argued, were an attempt to articulate and make sense of this story. From the best classic literature to the finest contemporary films, the narrative is usually the same: having taken a wrong turn or accidentally being cut-off, finding ourselves lost and yearning to get home. Of course, this storyline is present from the early pages of the Bible when Adam and Eve make a prideful, fatal mistake resulting in their expulsion from the garden. One could say that the rest of Holy Scripture is the narrative of humanity’s long journey home, a return to wholeness of life and relationship with God.
The arrival of Advent represents the beginning of a new Christian year, a kind of going back to the beginning of who we are and what our faith is all about. Advent always invites a fresh reexamination of the story are we living. Is it the materialist story of prosperity and success? The post-modern story of personal liberation and self-expression? The contemporary ideology that history is merely the story of the oppressed and oppressors? Whatever merits these narratives may hold, my view is that we variously live inside all these stories depending on our circumstances or attention. And that is a recipe for divided selves and a world without peace.
Advent is a reset season reminding the church to represent within the world that our true story is one of being lost in sin but redeemed in Christ. The herald of the season is the figure of John the Baptist. There is a poignant episode where he is in prison. Surely John the Baptist must ponder how his life’s story led him there, especially following an enormously successful ministry as the populist prophet along the River Jordan. John sends a question to Jesus through messengers: “Are you the one?” (Matthew 11.3) That seems to be a way of asking, “Jesus, is yours the story that governs my life? Otherwise, why has my life’s story led me here, to prison and a death sentence?”
Figuratively speaking, we are meant to read ourselves into John the Baptist’s story. We too ask, “Are you the one?” as we confess how we have gone off track in life, have lost our way, slipped up, stumbled into trouble and misadventure, wandered off from those whose love matters most, failed to love our neighbors as ourselves, neglected to serve the less fortunate and share the gospel story with those who do not know it.
However, the good news is that the stories we end up creating for ourselves do not ultimately determine our destiny. The governing story for our lives, as well as for all, is the story to which this season points us: the coming into the world of Jesus the Christ.
The theme for this bi-monthly reflection is urgent consideration of new ways that St. John the Divine may be a bright light within this large, sprawling, diverse, and dynamic city of Houston. I believe the beginning of that consideration may be found in the beginning of a new Christian year: the Advent season’s invitation to trust again that the central story of reality is God coming to us in Jesus because when we continually pursue our own stories, we keep getting lost. Given our physical location in the city and given our resources, what if the most powerful witness we can offer those around us is the confession that, despite appearances, we know what it is to be lost on the journey of life. Yet we also know what it is to have been confronted and changed by the One coming as the Light of the World and by whose light we see what the real story really is.
"So what do I mean by religion in the public square? I mean simply religion as a consecration of the bonds that connect us. . . Religion can be a minority, but it can be a huge influence. It doesn’t seek power; it seeks influence. It’s engaged with the world; it’s not retreat from the world. If we can do that, we might just bring those two cars closer together. We might just find that we can have our feet in society and our head in Heaven and we can bring light that will vanquish the darkness. That is the kind of religion the world needs right now."
—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, July 2017, from talk at The Chautauqua Institute
For those wanting to start off the New Year well with renewed disciplines of daily Scripture reading, I recommend this volume from one of my very favorite Christian writers, Eugene Peterson. The book is organized around a short daily reading from a psalm followed by a very brief meditation and prayer. By day 365 the reader has read through the entirety of the Psalter, an easy but highly rewarding spiritual exercise for your calendar year 2022. Born of years in pastoral ministry and deep contemplation of the Christian life, Peterson’s Praying with the Psalms is a small gem I can commend to all.