Thursday, 1 December 2016

Preparing the way

As a bagger of Wainwrights’s summits and occasional gully-scrambler I’ve always been faintly depressed by the vision in Isaiah 40 of every valley being raised up and every mountain lowered: perhaps it’s living in Lincolnshire which makes mountains something to be longed for rather than obliterated as the mind’s eye conjures up a landscape rather like Salisbury Plain (but without the archæology) spray-painted beige and with a café every half mile or so. Some years ago, coming down off a snow-covered Lakeland ridge, we met a group who wanted to know where the path went and whether they’d find a tea room at the end of it: we couldn’t help but feel that they were missing something.

There is a fascinating dialogue to be encountered between those passages where God prepares the way for returning exiles and those where the pathway is prepared for God himself to come — rich soil for the exegete and the poet. But it was a recent study day which changed my own take on the taming of the wilderness, as it became apparent that the clearing of the ground was not about making the journey easy and effortless. It was about making the journey possible.

This fed my understanding of what it is to be (in any sense) a spiritual accompanier. We know that we can’t make the journey for another person, for that would be hubristic and inauthentic. All we can try and do is to clear enough obstructions out of the path to make undertaking the journey feasible.

It’s essential, though, that ‘spiritual accompanier’ shouldn’t be cramped into the space marked ‘spirituality’: the Gospel of our accompanying of someone also touches the emotional and the material. When John urges people to clear the way, we may note how he tells the soldier, for example, not to place obstacles in the way of other people through extortion. And this is where the Advent preparation of the way touches on our own society and its treatment of the vulnerable and the marginalised.

An acquaintance with ‘inside knowledge’ told me of the way in which those working with the unemployed and other vulnerable groups are pressured to place as many obstacles in their path as possible to deny them their legal entitlements. Perhaps in order to provide the tabloids with red meat for the readership, the safety net has been removed to provided edifyingly hard landings for those feckless enough to lose job or health or home. Far from clearing the way, every effort is being made to ensure that, for vulnerable groups, the journey is impossible, the demands superhuman.

In the interplay between the two Advent themes of restoring homeless and of making the path straight for God we may find a mirror-image of the scapegoating and the deliberate impeding of the vulnerable which seems to play so well in Europe and the US. A faith which takes the Advent message seriously may have hard questions to ask of a society which keeps its exiles at a distance, which makes the rough places rougher and the crooked more bewildering, which ensures that the route home is as harsh and as daunting as it possibly can.

David Rowett is a priest in the diocese of Lincoln

We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page Thank you.

Posted by David Rowett on Thursday, 1 December 2016 at 11:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

As ever with David Rowett, makes a lot of sense and is an insightful way to draw on the tradition.

Posted by: Pluralist on Thursday, 1 December 2016 at 3:44pm GMT

Amen. Well said.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Thursday, 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm GMT

Unlike David Rowett, I live in a place where, if I walk out my front door, I am confronted by a hilly landscape. And there are significant mountains not too far away. This article was delightful to read, even though the message is a sombre one. Restoring those who are homeless, whether individuals or families close by, or refugees in a far-flung part of the world is a challenge and a privilege. We are all on a journey and watching out for our fellow travellers somehow makes the journey less fraught.

Posted by: Pam on Thursday, 1 December 2016 at 8:58pm GMT

I am very proud to have a priest of David's thoughtfulness in my diocese,
+Christopher Lincoln:

Posted by: Bishop of Lincoln on Friday, 2 December 2016 at 10:40am GMT

Love that post, Pam, the article itself, and this thread.

Jesus stepped aside and wouldn't pass by the outsider.

We need to watch out for each other.

I'm reminded of a guy who was homeless, who I sometimes talked to on the street. I'd previously mentioned I was a nurse. One day, just after dark , he shouts out 'Susie' from across the road, and virtually gets mown down by oncoming traffic as he rushes over to me.

I make a move to my pocket to give him something, but the whole thing is turned on its head. He is carrying a huge bag of buns, pain au raisin, cakes that some bakery has just given him at closing time.

"Give these to your patients. They need them more than me!"

Yes, we need to watch out for each other. That day he was watching out for me.

Posted by: Susannah Clark on Friday, 2 December 2016 at 11:05am GMT

"I’ve always been faintly depressed by the vision in Isaiah 40 of every valley being raised up and every mountain lowered."
A couple of years in an infantry battalion is a sure cure for that problem.

Posted by: Steve Lusk on Saturday, 3 December 2016 at 12:50am GMT
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