Start Choppin'

It can be hard to know what to leave behind. I was a Boy Scout for less than a year. I made it to the rank of Tenderfoot only because they gave it to you automatically once your check cleared. If there had been a merit badge for “not good at scouting”, it would’ve been my only merit badge. In short, it was not an illustrious career. I will not be asked to do public service announcements for scouting any time soon.

In my defense, I didn’t have a lot of help in that regard. I was ten years old. No offense to my parents, but it’s not like camping was in their wheelhouse, either. My Dad had been a Boy Scout, but he liked to say that his version of roughing it was a black and white TV.

On my first (and only) Boy Scout camping trip, I was well-stocked. I had my bright orange pup tent, my duffel bag full of clothes, my canteen and aluminum pots and pans, my sleeping bag and air mattress, my igloo cooler filled with ice packs, canned drinks, a couple of potatoes for baking, a few eggs for frying…you get the picture.

We arrived at our camp site. Before we could unpack, our scout leader announced the first activity: an orienteering exercise. All of the Tenderfoots would be driven, blind-folded, a few miles away. We would be given a map, but wouldn’t be told where we were, and had to find our way back to camp. And: we would be carrying all of our supplies with us.

I still remember the chaperones’ attempt to hide their look of horror at what I had brought. I didn’t even own a backpack. One of them came up with the clever idea to put as many supplies in my air mattress as possible, roll it up, tie it at both ends, and then drape it around my neck like a cobra. I then carried my tent in one hand and my sleeping bag in the other. The cooler stayed at the camp site. Apparently even scouting has its limits.

Everything else from the trip is a blur. I remember crying a lot, needing help to get my tent pitched, unable to catch my breath to inflate the air mattress, failing to get my fire started. It was not an auspicious start. And, probably not too surprisingly, I ended up quitting scouts before the next meeting.

In short, I was ill-prepared; which, it turns out, is not the Boy Scout motto.

In retrospect, it’s so clear to see where we went wrong. One look at the others’ supplies made that obvious. There was only one air mattress and one cooler among us: mine. Powdered drinks and powdered eggs were the norm. My family’s frame of reference for what was “needed” was clearly way off. But we didn’t know any other way…

Part of the purpose of Advent is an effort to shift our frames of reference. As a church, we set aside the four weeks leading up to Christmas. And in doing so, hopefully we root ourselves and each other in the ultimate purpose of this season. It is so easy to get caught up in what we think we need to do. But how can we strip away all that is unnecessary, all that distracts, all that tempts us, all that leads us away from what God desires for us and for all of creation?

It’s a similar challenge that confronted John the Baptist. By the time he arrives on the scene, Messianic expectations had been built up from Isaiah’s prophecy. Someone was coming to cry out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord! Move those mountains! Fill those valleys! Straighten out the curves! Once that highway is built, ya’ll, that’s it. The Lord is coming! In power! Ready to repay enemies and reward allies!

A few centuries pass, and John comes along, doing his best to get the people’s attention. He dresses funny. He eats funny. He probably smells pretty funny, too. And there he is, calling out to anyone who would listen: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Get to work on that highway! We need to clear this place! Start choppin’!”

The people are ready for the Messiah. They know the prophecies well – or at least, they think they know what they mean. After all, they’ve been taught what they mean. And that’s the paradox. Part of John’s message is to tell them that, among everything else they need to clear away, their expectations are part of what needs to go. But it is by virtue of his preaching that those old expectations are re-kindled, re-invigorated, re-calcified. And John will ultimately pay the cost with his own life.

We paint ourselves into these corners by thinking that we know how things ought to be when we often put the focus on what we have known rather than whom we have worshiped.

In her popular book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert relates the story of an Indian guru who had a beloved cat. The problem was that when the people were called to meditation, the cat was so affectionate that it would enter the temple, too, rubbing up against the worshipers, driving them to distraction. So the guru ruled that when it was time for meditation, the cat would be tied to a pole outside the temple so as leave the worshipers free to focus.

Years passed. The cat outlived the guru. And one day, the cat died, too. The first thing the community did was to search for another cat to tie to the pole. The cat had become part of the ritual - a necessary part, so they now thought. They had become so wrapped up in the practice that they had forgotten the purpose.

Friends, what about us? What are our cats? What are the things we do because we are so used to it, but really aren’t necessary? What are our igloo coolers? What are the things we have packed in good conscience, but are ultimately going to weigh us down for the journey ahead?

Yesterday marked the six years since I was installed as your pastor here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And like many of us do when such occasions arise, I have spent the better part of this past week reflecting on what has happened over those six years.

There are three traditional markers of church that are intriguing to note. In membership, we’ve had slight growth. In worship attendance, we’ve dropped slightly. In financial contributions, we have seen virtually no change. I’ll refrain from quoting Mark Twain on statistics, but you can take these numbers for whatever you think they’re worth.

I have my own take, of course. But my concern ultimately is that, if we focus so tightly on what’s happening here at OPC, we miss the bigger picture of a world that is shifting dramatically all around us. The question we ought to be asking is: because the world is different, how do we live out a faith that calls us to incarnate God’s desires? How do we stay faithful to what is really important while we necessarily adapt to the new realities that confront us in the 21st century?

Like many, I’m convinced that what is happening worldwide is no less historic than what gave way to the Protestant Reformation several centuries ago. Just as movable type and circumnavigation changed science and politics and religion in ways that still resonate out today, the internet and extra-terrestrial exploration are doing the same thing in this day and age. And we will not know the result for years to come.

The great church Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, wrestled mightily with their own cats tied to poles and igloos filled with ice packs. They made some bold decisions, like translating Scripture and liturgy into the languages that people spoke, or putting hymnals and Bibles in the pews. From where we stand now, these seem like no-brainers. But at the time, they were literally declarations of war.

What are the choices we face? What keeps us from preparing the way of the Lord? What distracts us, tempts us, weighs us down, ties us up in knots and ends up binding us to the pole outside the temple?

Friends, today is just the beginning of the conversation. So let’s be honest: there is work to do. Are we ready?