The folks who meet John the Baptist in the wilderness are a courageous, scrappy lot. They could have stayed home. They could have shut their ears to his stunning, difficult cries. They could have circled the wagons against change and his impertinent challenge of the status quo. But when John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” instead of ducking, they turn their heads to listen. I’m not sure who was more surprised! When John says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” they drop what they are doing and cross the Jordan River to meet him. When John says, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” every person within ear shot says “What then should we do?” It’s a question that will change their lives, an invitation to rise up from death to life. Their query “What then should we do” belies their discomfort with the way things are and their consciousness of the need to change. Crippled by destructive choices and the selfishness that can bring death to any one of us, they long to walk in the light of a new day.
We live again in a dark and dangerous time, and I wonder if we have the consciousness and the courage to kindle some essential light? Do we still believe that God is bending the universe toward that which is right and good, toward the weak and the wounded and the truly wise? And what are we willing to give up, to make a way for those who have no way?
Ten years ago I preached at the memorial service for a neighbor who struggled with his own set of demons, including depression, and what I learned from him, I think, can apply to each of us. In his ups and down, Francis’ life is a parable. For each of us is transformed through dying and rising, probably many times over a lifetime—little deaths and small resurrections punctuate our days and years, if we have eyes to see them—and surely this was the case with Francis. This pattern seems to be the only way we really ever grow—death to life, Good Friday to Easter, over and over again.
And “We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there.” (Richard Rohr) So most of us have to be taught the language of the spirit, which is all about descending into the crucible of life’s struggle, where wise ones discover meaning not in answers but in better, more focused questions. If we will listen, the dark periods of life are good teachers. And as Francis discovered in his sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful journey, God works in the darkness. In fact, God works especially there, where we are most lost and alone. Novelist William Styron writes in his record of depression that the hard won light of wisdom, gift of God, can make even the darkness visible.
What can you do? Go into the wilderness, your own private darkness of selfishness or greed, of violence or anxiety, of anger or fear. Take inventory and separate the wheat from the chaff. And then let the light of Christ burn up everything that’s getting in between you and your changing the world. Let yourself see what the darkness makes visible, and then make a way for those who have no way.