“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
It was supposed to be a lesson on Advent.
It was supposed to be about the sacred act of waiting for God’s presence to come into the world.
It was supposed to be about the wilderness of uncertainty in our lives, preparing for a future we cannot yet envision.
But that’s not what happened.
In trying to express the idea of emotional wilderness, a time of fear, vulnerability, pain and confusion, I mentioned the shootings in San Bernardino and Paris. The Confirmation class veered decidedly off the rails.
Three of my 13-year-olds began spouting a very far right stance; two others resorted to dismissively ridiculing what they perceived as their classmates’ lack of understanding of social justice.
“We should bomb them all. Just bomb them.”
“You’re an absolute idiot.”
“My mother says that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.”
“Then your mother is as stupid as you are.”
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Our children live in the real world and are not oblivious to all that is happening. They witness and learn from adults how we engage one another. My class hurled accusations and platitudes that were as shallow, vitriolic, and insulting as what is exchanged every day in our media.
In the split second in which I struggled to regain control of the class, I knew I had a choice to make. If I were a secular teacher, I would hesitate to impose my personal views on impressionable young people; yet as a confirmation teacher it is my responsibility to present a Christian perspective. But I knew an appropriate balance would be challenging, especially when there is so much disagreement even among Christians. Even among parishioners.
I could have just shut down the discussion and steered us back to the safety of Advent in theory. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried to do what seems impossible in our current climate of politicized discourse – introduce some civility and compassion into the wilderness of the conversation, and make Advent relevant in our confusing and messy lives. I figured I had to try.
In moderating the discussion, I demanded the following.
Once again, we must consider the reading assigned to that day. Luke recalled Isaiah. Both writers heard a voice crying out in the wilderness, every bit as relevant now as it was back then. We are called to walk a difficult path through the wilderness of the world today, hoping that the path will one day be made smooth. And we are reminded that all flesh, all people, shall see the salvation of God in the form of Jesus, the Christ. It’s not an easy conversation to have with young people, or with those whose opinions we abhor, but it’s one we must.
Perhaps it was a lesson for Advent after all.