(Photo of the new US 63 bypass in Kirksville from the dashboard of my truck)
(This post originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, December 5, 2011)
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Not long ago, one of the most exciting things for me in my rather sleepy rural northeast Missouri lifestyle was the opening of the new US Highway 63 bypass near Kirksville. As a child, one of my secret pleasures was getting to ride on a new road the day it was opened. It always seemed futuristic, full of opportunity and promise. New roads almost always cut through a rather sparsely inhabited area, and with no billboards up yet, it always had a rather pristine quality to it. It was like seeing an unlimited future of potential sprawled in front of me.
So it should not surprise anyone I thought about the new bypass a lot. Really, it was overdue for decades. Making a left turn on US 63 had become impossible in Kirksville at certain times of the day, and many stoplights on the road could easily be filled from traffic light to traffic light.
Unfortunately, it only took me about a day to get around how this new road was going to change things that had become my routine for eleven years. Every day, for eleven years, I drove to work by getting on US 63 and driving for about six miles, turned right on Potter St., turned left on Osteopathy St., and taking Osteopathy to the hospital complex. Every afternoon was the reverse--Osteopathy to Potter, to 63. Suddenly my routine was changed to US 63, including the new bypass, turn right at Route P, continuing on Route P (which changes names to Northtown Road,) and then turning left on Osteopathy.
I had no trouble making these changes going TO work--it was coming home FROM work that was the trouble. Every day, for weeks, instead of crossing Potter St. to get to Northtown Road, I would instinctively turn right onto Potter and then left on what is now the "old" 63, and without fail I would forget to turn right at Route P. I would get past the P turnoff, and invariably forget, and be heading north on "old" 63. Unfortunately, the northernmost access point to the bypass is not finished, and the "old" 63 temporarily dead-ends. So day after day I would realize I had gone too far, turned around, and headed back to get on the bypass the way I was supposed to. I was always thinking about some leftover from work, and miss my turn flat. I would then spend the rest of my trip home berating myself over my stupidity.
The Revised Common Lectionary readings for the second week in Advent often have the theme of "repentance." In Biblical Hebrew, the words used for repentance literally mean "to change" and "to feel sorrow"--in Biblical Greek, "to change one's consciousness." My nightly error became a regularly repeating reminder that changing one's consciousness is not as easy as one would expect.
Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly adaptable and flexible person, and quite frankly, a bit smarter than average. My chosen career rewards me for solving puzzles accurately and quickly (although not fast enough by some surgeons' standards, at times.) So this nightly gaffe became my latest exercise in sheer frustration. I would find myself cursing a blue streak at myself the moment I passed the P turnoff. Normally, my fifteen-to-twenty minute drive home is the treat of my day. It's a time I generally unwind and leave my work behind me and switch from the business of being the busy professional to the quirky hermit. Instead, I was ruining my evenings by fuming all the way home.
Then, one day, I remembered a frustration in my residency twenty years ago--learning to cut a frozen section. For the uninitiated, a frozen section is when the surgeon sends out a piece of fresh tissue from a surgical case and asks the pathologist, "What is it?" We freeze the tissue in a device called a cryostat, then cut the tissue in the cryostat on a device called a microtome, stain it, and render a diagnosis. The patient is asleep, and time matters. The answer may change the course of the surgery. In my residency, I remember how for ages I couldn't cut a slide to save my soul. I felt the weight of all the pressure of doing this in a timely fashion. Then one day, miraculously, I walked in and cut a frozen section like I had been doing it for decades. I simply had done it enough times that I could do it without thinking.
So, in like fashion, I quit putting pressure on myself. I decided that I'd simply laugh at my gaffe, turn around, and go home. Within a couple of days, my brain and body had made the switch. I was driving home the "new" way.
The problem with repentance is we have this tendency to think it's a one-time process, and that at the end of that one time we should have it all figured out, and we can move on. That's almost never the case. Our intent and our will is for it to be over and done with, and instead we find ourselves repeating the same misguided act or mentally dredging up what led us to repent in the first place...over and over...and over and over some more. We berate ourselves for our stupidity. We curse the darkness. We begin to place more and more pressure on ourselves to be "good," or tack an insanely short time frame goal for it to happen. Only until we accept our own humanity do we actually begin to repent, and only over time do we begin to take the new way home without thinking.
If only our Gospel accounts of John the Baptist had been written down--just once--with John saying, "Repent!...again...and again...and again some more...and don't plan on getting it right the first time." How much turmoil would we have saved from being schooled in this simple fact of the process of change?
Eucharistic Prayer C tells us that again and again God calls us to return. It only stands to reason that if we generally don't hear it the first time, we should not be surprised if we don't "get" it the first time when we respond to what we've heard--and the first part of "getting" it is being able to forgive ourselves and leave enough room to do it. If we do it enough times, something is bound to change. After all, we humans are creatures of habit.
When we prepare a highway for the Lord, we need to remember it wasn't built in a day--nor will we get used to it in a day.