Who are you…and why do you do it?
That question…I’ve written about it before. And again, before. And I most assuredly write about it again. Truly, it is a theme through most of what I (well, not just me) do…this idea of our identity, as people of faith, as people who live an incarnated existence, as followers of Jesus. It is a question to which I do not expect to find an answer that endures for long; the answer has always been, for me, a moving target, often changing slightly with each breath that I take.
So, obviously, when I hear the words of John 1:19-28, well, I just cannot help but consider the question again. Where do I stand with my answer this Advent season? How is it different than say, the last time I thought about this passage, most likely an Advent Sunday three years ago?
Right now, the community with whom I worship on Sunday is in my very own neighborhood. I consider myself one of the lucky ones — going to church simply means stepping out my door, turning left and walking for about 20 minutes. I like that, it grants me a few moments of preparation between daily life and worship.
But each Sunday morning, as I stroll through parks and past historic row houses and gardens, I am not alone. I am surrounded by activity — children and parents at the playground, people busy with their brunch eating and coffee drinking on the main commercial street — perfectly normal daily life. And each and every Sunday I think to myself — I am probably the only person in this moment on this street headed to church. And as I look around at all the activity, I realize that, as our seminarian suggested in a recent sermon, by going to church, I am engaged in a most counter-cultural activity.
Its funny, really. At certain times in my life, the answer to our question, “who are you,” has been firmly centered in going to a specific church community in a specific denomination. The answer has been all about my place in that community, the role I have played and occasionally, the things that I have believed. At other times, the answer was all about the thing that I thought that I was supposed to do in the world, the music, or the writing, or the teaching, or…I think you understand.
And now, the only answer that does not rankle is the one I have proclaimed for a while now. If you ask me that question, that “who are you” question, I would answer you this: I am a pilgrim in a state of becoming, becoming I know not what. And that is okay with me, for now. I claim my counter-cultural identity as a seeker, and as one who seeks deeper knowledge of my relationship with my God.
As time has passed, though, I sense that my understanding of that identity has changed, like so many other things. How, you might ask? Well, I now know that the life of a pilgrim is no vacation — pilgrimage is not the act of visiting the top ten destinations on your bucket list. There might have been a small part of me that believed that it was easier to keep moving than to plant my feet, but that part knows better now. And I know that the way of the pilgrim is hard — it is a hard way to live, examining each step, dropping both your wanted and your unwanted baggage along the side of the road as you go.
You see, a pilgrim must travel lightly, but the idea of lightly changes with each step. The process, to me, is like one of those trips when you realize that you have over packed and you have to get rid of something in your suitcase. At first you try to re-arrange. Maybe you were even smart enough to pack an extra folding case for your dirty laundry that you can check through, but that only helps a little. Most likely, you will reach that moment when you have to decide what to abandon. The pilgrim’s life is like that, except, eventually, if you continue on the path you will reach the moment when the thing that no longer fits in the case is something that you really loved. Maybe it is even something that has been so fundamental to your understanding of your self-image that the idea of leaving it behind is unthinkable. And yet, for the sake of the journey, you decide to leave it behind. That kind of choice is a frequent occurrence, the longer you stay on this road.
The biggest change in my quest, however, is a new question that sits alongside the infamous, “Who are you.” And that is this: “Why do you do it?” If the road is hard, and the release painful, why? What purpose does it all serve? The answer to that was also in our reading from the Gospel of John, but in an early verse — we (well, at least I), walk this road as a testimony to life, as the Gospel writer said, “to testify to the light (John 1:6-8).” That is this counter-cultural activity that we pilgrims are called to do, even as we walk the neighborhood streets on a Sunday morning. In our journey, there is hope that we will see the light and call out its presence to the world.
You see, I’m all about the light, the eternal light that changes everything. It is always there, even when we feel in total darkness. It is the light that we wait for in Advent, the light that we embrace when we can and hold in the darkness when we cannot. It is subversive that way, it shines from within until we can finally see it. That’s why we ask, over and over again, “Who are you.” That’s why we struggle along the pilgrim’s road.
Friends, let your light shine, even when the darkness seems to win. You never know who needs to see it.