Sunday, December 12, 2010

A voice in the wilderness...

"A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight." (Isaiah 40:3) For those of us who have grown up in or around Christianity, these words are familiar at this advent time of year that leads us to Christmas. We are called upon to prepare for the Coming.

As I reflect on this, a story comes to mind. All of my life I have been very shy, though it may be less evident now than it was when I was a young child. I recall when I was in the third grade, the teacher engaged the class in a small activity where each of us was to take a turn speaking into a tape recorder. Of course, I was very anxious at the thought of doing this but did what I was told to do. When the tape was replayed, an even more terrible thing happened. When the recording of my voice was played, this deep, dull, croaking sound emanated into the room and everyone laughed! I was sure there was some mistake and was horrified to think that this was how I sounded to others. I had never thought much about my voice before that but suddenly, in that moment, I came to think of myself as a person with an unpleasant voice, one that certainly should not be overused, muchless recorded or amplified. Certainly the laughter of my classmates had made that clear.

After that year, I was probably more shy and quiet than ever. By eighth grade, I was one of two voted "most quiet" in my class. (The boy who was voted in as my male counterpart, had a soft, high pitched voice and was often made fun of.) However, as I evolved through my adolescence, I found that I had ideas, things that I really wanted to say. This need to speak pushed me beyond much of my shyness. I became more able to talk to strangers because I needed to, if I wanted to offer help. I spoke up more in groups because I felt that somehow I could not hold in the ideas that came into my mind. I even ventured into becoming a lector (reading the scripture readings) in my church because it felt so important to me to do. But I still thought I had this awful, odd sounding voice. Without knowing it, I had allowed a giggly group of third graders to define a part of me and years later I was still believing them.

A funny thing happened. As I became a more experienced lector, people sometimes came up to me after church and commented on how they loved listening to me read and found my voice so easy to listen to. This was really quite startling to me. I had worked at learning good technique for reading, but my voice? As I pursued my graduate studies and career in psychology, I started making relaxation tapes for my patients because so often people requested help in practicing the techniques that helped them relax in my office. Again, this strange thing happened. People started telling me how they found my voice so soothing, so calming. Sometimes people have told me that they just felt better hearing my voice. Despite all of this feedback, this still seemed strange to me. It still seemed that my third grade classmates were the ones who knew what I really sounded like and all of these other people were just being kind.

As I have walked the way of growth with so many patients over the years, I too have grown. I can see now that my shy and sensitive child-self had taken a message from my peers and blown it way out of proportion, leaving me thinking something about myself that was a distortion. (I am not claiming to have a great voice, but I do know now that I don't sound like a bull frog.) Perhaps even more important though is that I have learned that so much of my focus on me was completely unnecessary... all of the worrying and wondering about the approval of others, the fear of their judgment. I am not here for myself. And neither is my voice.

Going back to the words of the prophet, we find often ourselves, like the wandering people of Israel, in a "wilderness". While the biblical stories tell us of the forty year journey of this ancient people through the desert, the desert was not just a dry, arid place without enough food and water. It was also a state of their souls, their spirits. They were (as we often are) a people "bewildered", straying, lost, wandering and not knowing what direction to go in. A wilderness is a place where there are no paths, no roads. A wilderness can be a frightening place to be.

I am far from being a biblical scholar, but it is interesting to see what comes next in the instructions to the prophet, "Make a straight highway for our God." So here we are in the wilderness, the place without paths, lost, not knowing the direction to go in - and we're to build a highway? If you are at all like me, you may be thinking: how can I build a highway, especially a highway for God, if I don't have any direction, if I don't even know if there is a God or where he might be found? If God really is coming, can't he build his own highway? Certainly we might assume that God knows how to get here more than I know how to get there.

As I look out my window, I see snow starting to accumulate with predictions of more to come. Oddly, I think of snow shoveling, the creating of a path. While people coming to see me might be able, with great exertion, to walk through a foot of snow to my door, a path lets them know they are welcome, that I want them to come and find me here. So perhaps if One is coming, I can make a little path. I can make a space that says "I want you to find me. I am lost. I have no direction. Come. Show me what to do and where to go."

It strikes me that perhaps making the path is what prayer is about. I have often wondered about prayer. God, if there is a God, certainly knows what I need and how I feel. God, if God is good, doesn't need me to tell him or persuade him to do the good thing instead of the bad. I cannot imagine that God really needs me to say words at all. But perhaps I need to say them. Perhaps the saying of them is the way I clear the path, the way I make a "highway" for the One to come and find me in the wilderness. To let him know he is welcome and I want to be found. Perhaps when we say prayers together or when we pray for one another, we become connected. As people spiritually connected, the wilderness feels a little less scary and the making of a path a little less overwhelming. Hearing the voice of another as we wander through the wasteland helps us to feel not quite so alone.

If you'd like to, join me. I will use my voice. (If you don't feel ready for prayer, it is OK to not listen in - you'll still be connected because I'll pray for you. If you aren't sure what you believe but would like to hear my voice in your wilderness, you are welcome to listen and just let my words wash over you. There are no obligations or expectations here.)

(Since I do not know how to build highways, I will use the tool provided by the One who comes; I may use slightly different words than you are used to, but we will still be spiritually connected, since the words aren't the important part.)