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The Road Less Traveled

As we headed north out of Austin early on that Friday after Thanksgiving seven years ago, there was a lot of traffic zipping by on both sides of I35 even before 6 a.m. Then I remembered—it was black Friday. Lots of people were rushing to get to the malls and box stores for the “Early Bird” specials. Stores were opening at 6 a.m. Some had even opened at 4 a.m. It was still dark.

I couldn’t tell if all those people in all those speeding cars were sipping on their thermal mugs of steaming coffee with a wonderful sense of anticipation, or gulping down their coffee with an anxious tightness in their chests and the pumping of adrenaline through their hearts as they began the annual Advent mad rush toward Christmas.

Then the march of the shoppers and the endless parade of stampeding cars were abruptly interrupted—at least in my mind. Picture those huge signs that are placed above the interstates—often at exits. In big bright blinking white letters they proclaim things like: “Caution, icy roads ahead”, or “Detour ahead. Reduce speed.” The same message is repeated over and over at every sign across the highway. On that early morning the signs all over Texas read: Elderly Missing, Blue Mercedes, Call Police

That message disappeared and another flashed up. We were going very fast just so we wouldn’t be rear-ended; the words flashed by too quickly. I could hardly read the second part of the message. Everyone on that highway was locked in a frantic parade. And the signs continued to flash at regular intervals: Elderly Missing, Blue Mercedes, Call Police

The highway was apparently smooth and appeared to be so straight. I was almost lulled to sleep as time slipped by and the miles to Eureka Springs became less than the miles back to Austin. And yet I could not dismiss these words from my mind: Elderly Missing, Blue Mercedes, Call Police

I thought of all those people almost flying on that smooth, straight highway rushing to the malls and one missing elderly person following all those others—perhaps going he knew not where. We will leave them now but not for long … - click to continue reading

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

It isn’t very comfortable or convenient to have John the Baptizer come marching into our Advent reverie. In addition to a beard that’s probably sticky with honey and tangled with locusts, he uses anxiety-causing words and phrases like “Repentance and “Prepare” and “Make his paths straight.” Have you ever seen a likeness of John the Baptist on a Christmas card? Or as part of a nativity set—even the baby John?

But perhaps if we can get beyond our image of the messenger, we can imagine new possibilities. Perhaps if we can refrain from thinking of repentance as punishment, we can receive the message even from a messenger who scares us. Perhaps, if we can think of repentance and preparation and straightening out our hearts as voluntary acts, we can free ourselves to begin life as new men and women.

Those changes don’t happen in the twinkling of an eye nor in one Advent season nor not always in a long lifetime. We don’t repeat our baptismal vows only once. In fact, we repeated them just recently when five of our members were confirmed. It’s not like getting our permanent teeth. It doesn’t happen once and then it’s all taken care of. We need to return again and again. But the hope and the good news is that our Lord never gives up on us. I believe He rejoices at every single effort we make to live into our baptismal promises; to straighten our paths ands take different paths that are not always comfortable and predictable.

Now I want to tell you a bit more about what happened in Texas. When we returned from Austin, I began searching the Internet trying to find out how this story ended. I seemed to be searching in vain. Isn’t it interesting how something hits the front page and then it’s gone and forgotten—even something as important as a human life? Finally, finally, I found a brief news article. Here’s what it said:

Missing DeSoto Man Found; ‘Silver Alert” Canceled

Jim Parker (not his real name) was last seen Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) at Methodist Charlton Medical Center in south Dallas. The 88-year-old was at the hospital visiting his wife.
According to officials, Parker was apparently having a difficult time locating his vehicle when a security guard assisted him. Around 5 p.m. the guard helped him find his car ad sent him on his way, but Parker never made it home to DeSoto.
Police say Parker was located Friday morning. DeSoto Police say he is fine and has returned home.

It leaves a lot unsaid, doesn’t it! I can’t help but wonder, “Where was Jim Parker from 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day until Friday morning? What did he do all night? Did someone report him missing? How was he found? Who found him?

Perhaps it’s good that the details were left out of the tiny news clip, because then I can choose the way I want it all to have happened …

Here’s my version.

Jim was so grateful to the security guard who helped him find his car. The guard seemed to understand how stressful it was to have his wife in the hospital. Jim couldn’t manage without her but he wouldn’t think about that now. He just wanted to get home before dark …

He awoke sometime later—not sure what time it was or where he was. He was parked on a dark unfamiliar street but could see the flashing headlights of cars not far off. He started the car and drove slowly toward the light.

It was 5:45 a.m. Why hadn’t she gotten up fifteen minutes earlier? She was going to miss the biggest bargains—“the must-have toys” and the “gifts that will wow them!”. She already had a headache and the coffee churned in her stomach. She noticed the sign on the interstate but it really didn’t sink in. “Elderly missing, blue Mercedes, call police” Skillfully weaving in and out of traffic, she did her best to recapture a few minutes. A blue Mercedes in the right lane was going impossibly slow. A blue Mercedes She tried to ignore it, pretend she didn’t see it; she just wanted to head straight for the mall, but she couldn’t do it. She grabbed her cell phone; it was dead; she had forgotten to plug it in last night. Surely someone else would call the police. But, in spite of herself, she stuck close to him. It wasn’t the quick path straight to the mall that she had intended to take. Cars whizzed by, impatiently passing her.

He drove past the next exit and the next. Finally, he got off at the third exit onto the rough and crooked frontage road and so did she. He pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot and so did she. He went inside and so did she. He got his sausage biscuit and coffee and sat down; so did she at his table for two. She never made it to the mall that day.

Sometimes when we choose the slower road, the path with bumps, the trail seldom taken, something in our heart shifts and we begin to prepare the way of the Lord. Sometimes we take one little step to make His path a little straighter into our hearts.

As we continue our Advent journey, may we take the road less traveled. May we open our hearts to prepare him room. - hide text

The Rev. Betsy Porter
St. James’ Episcopal Church
Eureka Springs, Arkansas

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