Around the bend in the road.
My six month dental appointment rolled around, and I was sitting in the chair, my mouth wide open and my eyes looking at ceiling tiles, while Pam, my efficient dental hygienist was picking at the accumulation of plaque in the crevices of my teeth. Bing Crosby was singing White Christmas to us from the speaker on the wall, and I kept wondering what Pam was thinking about my teeth, whether she was silently judging me for all the fillings, the crooked paths a few teeth have taken, my inadequate flossing. She took some X rays, covering me first with a blanket of what I supposed was lead, and I asked her if it protected me from kryptonite as well. Besides revealing hidden cavities, I wondered if the X-ray machine could be configured to peer into the darkness of my soul to reveal any spiritual decay or shadows I was trying to keep secret from everyone, including God—the very stuff we are supposed to be working to be free of in Advent.
Like all good dentists and assistants, she spoke to me while she was working, to which I could only respond with an open-mouthed acknowledgment, ummmm hmmmm. She talked at length about her daughter. During a rinse-out moment, I asked her if she had any other children. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “We have a son. We almost lost him.” I wasn’t expecting that, and I hesitated at how to respond. “He is 19,” she said. “His name is James.” I could sense that she wanted to say something more, so I found my voice. “Is he OK now?” Her eyes were filling up, and she just stood there for a moment. “I’m sorry,”she said. “No, it’s all right, really,” I said. And she went on to say that it was like a terrible roller coaster ride, but she thinks that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.
Her face brightened a bit and this flood of words about her son came out. “When he was a little boy everyone loved him, he always had a smile on his face. He was one of those kids that brightened up the room.” He was an altar boy, was good at school, loved to play soccer, always had animals that he cared for. He loved exploring in the woods, wanted to go to Mars some day. He was loyal to his friends. He had a great laugh. He was sensitive to the feelings of other people, and always wanted to give money to the homeless. He loved Christmas.
As she sketched out this picture, a real boy began to appear in my mind. The kind of kid that you would be proud of, who gives a sense of purpose to your life. And as she spoke, Pam was no longer my dental hygienist. She was just James’ mom.
Her voice trailed off. Outside the window, the sun had set and winter darkness had fallen. The dental suite had grown quiet, and I guessed we were the last ones in the office. Pam apologized again, feeling that she had imposed on me. But I was grateful. It was a gift to hear about James. I found my courage to ask, “Can you tell me what happened to him?”.
It started in junior high school. He grew quieter, less free in sharing his emotions. She attributed it to puberty, advancing adolescence. As he entered high school, he began to show some rebelliousness, refusing to participate in some family things, including church. He acquired new friends who were from very different backgrounds than his own, and Pam and her husband were not thrilled. His schoolwork declined, he seemed uninterested in anything other than video games and hanging out with his few friends, and he grew argumentative with everyone in the family. One day he was acting very strangely, his eyes were blank-looking, and they feared the worst, that he was on some kind of drug. When they confronted him, he denied it angrily. But that was the beginning of the real hell for all of them. Repeated instances of being high, angry outbursts, denials, lies, growing absences from home, missing money. They couldn’t trust him or anything he said, and he was becoming a stranger to his whole family. Pam and her husband got into arguments about how to handle him. Both felt accused and guilty that they had done something wrong in the way they raised him.
After acting irrationally and having another blowup one night, he stormed out of the house, and took a family car. It had started to snow, and his parents were worried. They called a bunch of his friends, and then finally went out to look for him. It started to snow heavily. His mother told me that she was praying so hard that he would be OK and that they would find him.
Shortly after leaving his house, James lost control of the car on curve of the remote country road. It smashed through a stone wall, and the car went down a hill and turned on its side. James was conscious but he was injured and couldn’t get out of the car. He could see the road above, and every so often when approaching car lights were visible through the snow, he would honk on the horn, but the wind and the snow seemed to swallow up the sound. A few hours went by, there were fewer and fewer cars, and James was freezing. He thought he might die. For the first time in a long time he prayed. He prayed that God would help him, that someone would see him and save him. Maybe the next car would be the one? Maybe the next light that came around the bend would bring help?
One of the town’s snowplows came down the road, a big truck that cleared the road and simultaneously spread a load of salt and sand. The driver happened to notice the break in the stone wall because he was getting a little too close to the side of the road. He eased up on the gas pedal, and thought he saw something through the falling snow. He paused, and was about to move on but then he heard a noise. It was James, hitting the horn on his car. It was the snowplow guy who found him, and who got help to get him out of there. His physical injuries took a few months to heal. He lost his spleen, broke part of his back. There were lots of stitches all over his body. He lived, but there were other things that needed to heal as well.
Pam said that night was the beginning of a long journey to sobriety. There have been therapists, addiction counseling. Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Lots of money and heartbreak. It hasn’t been easy for James or any of them. He has had his ups and downs since then. He’s not entirely out of the woods. But Pam thinks that her prayers were answered. God sent someone to save her son that night, and she believes that He will be with himso that he can make it in the long run.
Like James in his wrecked car, John the Baptist was sitting in his dark dungeon cell, expecting that his death was imminent. There was a party going on upstairs, and a gift was going to be offered pretty soon—his severed head on a platter. He peered out of the darkness, seeking an answer to his prayer. Not for his own rescue, but for something much more wonderful. All his life he had been waiting for a savior, someone who could liberate the sorry world from its sadness, its violence, its brokenness. All his life, he had been wondering if his own humble cousin could be the one who was promised since the beginning of time. Sitting in his cell, moments before his death, the light finally came round the bend. Excited friends brought him the news he had been seeking for so long:
“We saw a blind man cry at the sight of his wife, we saw him smile at a field of flowers.” “ A man with a terrible disease suddenly was healthy as an ox!”. “A little girl who couldn’t walk was dancing with her father!” “A deaf grandfather heard his grandson sing a song to him.” “ A husband who died got up from his deathbed and kissed his wife!” “Some beggars gave all their money to a poor widow!”. It was a different kind of emancipator than John had envisioned, one who promised to rule with the power of unimaginable love.
The prisoner told his friends: “Tell Jesus that I find no stumbling block in him.”, and a few moments later, John was rescued from his own addiction to the search, and was offered up as a lamb to slaughter. The party-goers were delighted.
When Pam had finished telling me her story about James, we both fell into silence for a moment. Then she said: “I prayed that Jesus would lead someone to my boy that night. And he really did.” Yes, I said. And at that very moment I prayed that someone would continue to lead her son—and all of us---to Jesus. We may not all be on the same road as James, but many of us are lost in the snowstorm of our lives, looking for the light to lead us home to love.
John still prepares the way for us to the One who has (and is yet to) come.
Around the bend in the road, guided by the light that shines out from the crib in the darkness and loneliness of a snowy night, we make our way to where he lays, and we bring with us all our hopes and dreams of our lives: that someone loves us enough to find us when we are wandering alone in the dark and bitter nights of our lives. Like John, we can find no stumbling block in Jesus, because we have heard the good news—sometimes in the most unlikely of places, with dental floss and tooth X-rays, from people like Pam and her son James: the eyes of the blind have been opened, and the ears of the deaf have been cleared, the lame leap like stags and the tongues of the dumb sing, and dead men and women are raised to new life, and the poor have the good news preached to them. And here’s the thing: He comes, in the darkness, through us, all of us sitting here in this room. Our Advent is really born when we set out to find someone lost on the road. It is in that act of rescue that God can bless us and save us too. We’ve still got a few weeks of Advent left. Perhaps this is the time to put aside our trips to the Mall, and instead set out on the road to help one another. Pam did that for me the other night, even though she thought she was supposed to be cleaning my teeth. I am deeply grateful for the light she brought me as well.