Although churches all over the world celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, today is the actual day of Epiphany. So I invite you to pause for a few moments today and celebrate Epiphany with me. Epiphany, also known as Theophany in the east, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate that came to us in the form of the infant Christ.
In Western Christianity, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Epiphany always includes the story of the star that appeared in the dark sky to guide the Magi to the infant Christ. Epiphany also reminds us to “see” and to open our hearts to the coming of God to us in the form of an infant.
So having decided to sit quietly and contemplate the light of Epiphany, I am suddenly disturbed by terrible sounds coming from the television in the next room. What sort of chaos can so forcefully disrupt my sacred pause on this day? Crowds are storming the United States Capitol, breaching the doors, pushing past the Capitol police, violent confrontations, breaking windows, persons shot, members of Congress made to shelter of place in the building, protesters engaged in an armed standoff in front of the House of Representatives’ chamber. In this very moment — on the day of Epiphany — this is what I am hearing. I feel sad, frightened, disappointed, ashamed— tears come and I ask why the light of Epiphany seems so dim.
Why this darkness? Why this danger? Why, on the day of Epiphany?
Then I suddenly have my own personal Epiphany and it is this: God is present. In some way, by some miracle, in the mystical wind of Spirit, God is present. With me! With our nation! With the melee! With the confused crowds that have gathered!
“Celebrate through this!” the Spirit is saying to me. “Celebrate the Epiphany — keep listening for God’s voice, pray, praise, worship, sing — because the Magi followed the star in the darkness and found the Prince of Peace!”
As I celebrate Epiphany today, I am surprised by my personal epiphany — a sudden, striking realization that indeed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
God of light and of darkness,
My epiphany came today when I realized anew that your divine power is working in my life. When I still know that your divine power is working, even in anarchy, even in the intentions of the violent, chaotic crowds that now gather. I know, God, that your divine power brings light in the midst of darkness, as it always has. I know that your divine power brings sudden, transcendent moments, even in the shadow of chaos.
I have encountered you, God, in these troubling moments. I weep and I grieve. Yet you, God, have given me a transcendent moment of awe that will forever change how I experience this violent world that has always been violent. And so, God, I am lifting my eyes to the dark sky and I am seeing the gleaming Epiphany star in the darkness. I pray to you, God, and I worship you. My heart is filled with gratitude for your constant presence. I praise you and I sing, because singing in the darkness is the way I always get to the light.
Grant us your peace, God. Send your Spirit of peace to hover over us in this moment of violence in our nation’s Capitol. Send your Spirit of peace for this day of darkness, for the strife of disunity, for the hate and chaos. Send us your Spirit of peace to remain with us forever.
Help us, God, to keep our eyes on Epiphany’s star. Help us to never choose violence and hate. Help us to persist in faith. Help us to proclaim abiding hope as we lift our voices. As we sing! Amen.
And now, friends, I invite you to lift your voice with the Aeolians of Oakwood University, as they sing of the kind of hope we need, their interpretation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” arranged by Roland M. Carter.
Songwriters: R.M. Carter / J.R. Johnson / J.W. Johnson. Lyrics are below.
Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chast’ning rod, Felt in the day that hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet, Come to the place on which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, Least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee, Shadowed beneath the hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.
On this Epiphany Sunday, I want to give you a gift — a star.Not just any ordinary star. My gift to you is a Star Word that I randomly select, eyes closed, from a large bowl. You might be wondering what a Star Word is and what it is for. What is its meaning, if it has any meaning at all?
The use of Star Words, also called “star gifts,” is a prayer practice connected to Epiphany and the new year. The idea is that a list of intention words, or guiding words, are written or printed on paper stars. These paper stars are then arranged face down on a table or in a bowl or large basket. You are invited to draw a word and to use that word as a guiding word for you throughout the year.
I wish I could choose a Star Word for every one of you reading this blog post. Since I can’t do that, I will choose one word from a beautiful set of 150 cards entitled, “Those Who Dream.” My prayer is that this Star Word will become for you whatever it needs to be — a word to contemplate, a word to emulate, a word that becomes an intention for you, a word that guides you in new ways to new places on your spiritual journeymand into the year 2021. More about your Star Word later. First let us think a bit about Epiphany.
Epiphany, you know, is all about the special, more brilliant star that caught the eye and the imagination of three Magi (or Wise Men or scholars or astrologers) or more widely known throughout the world as The Three Kings. Nations and cultures near and far celebrate them in various ways and are amazed by their story. As the story goes, a brightly shining star in the East appeared suddenly in the dark sky and these three saw it and followed it. Each of them bearing gifts for the “King” they had looked for and hoped for.
As scholarly as these three might have been, they had no idea when this new King would appear, where they would find him or how far they might have to travel. So their journey would have to be a faith journey. And once they saw this sight in the inky black sky, this one star that had serendipitously appeared to them, they knew this would be a journey of trust. Their maps could no longer lead them because something significant about the universe had changed. I imagine that this single star had never before been a part of the constellations they studied.
This star was just unexpectedly up there, in the vast expanse of night sky, sparkling all by itself — among the constellations, but in no way a part of them. “The universe has changed,” the three Magi might have thought. And then their thoughts likely went something like this:
We cannot travel with our old maps, our long held assumptions about the ways the stars align in the sky,
our logic and reasoning about where the new King might be found,
our deductions about when he might appear to us,
our intricate, detailed drawings of constellation patterns and webs,
our studies of the prophecies that foretold the King’s coming.
No, these things we have pondered and studied over the decades can no longer lead us to the King foretold! We must follow that one surprising, unforeseen, unpredicted, astonishing, dazzling, breathtaking, bewildering star!
“Star of wonder,” we sing each year. And so it was — a star of wonder, yet a bewildering star, that called to them and beckoned them to follow. They left their old maps behind, I think, and took with them trust. Just trust. And, of course, their gifts, presumably gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gifts fit for a real live King foretold, if not for an infant born in a stable.
Trust may well be the one single, simple gift we can take to the Christ child in these days. For when our normals are no longer in place, trust is the only real and needful thing we have left. We trust even beyond pandemics and wildfires and earthquakes and storms, even beyond upheaval and confusion and uncertainty and isolation and loss and grief and death. We trust still, maybe because when we look up into the dark expanse we call sky, we still see the dazzling glow of starlight! The stars are still up there aligned in their patterns even if patterns on earth are in disarray.
I think I probably use these lines from a poem** written by Sarah Williams every single Epiphany because I so love its message. At the end of 2020 — knowing that we will still face many of the same challenges in 2021 — I am now, more than ever, comforted by these words that have passed through so many minds and lips before mine.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
The words call us to trust, even through fear, even when our soul is in the dark. Trust is a compelling and timely message for me for the new year. Perhaps the message of trust will also guide you forward on your journey — through pleasant places along the way, but also through fearful, dark passages. May trust be your guide and lead you well, and may you know that behind trust is a God that never leaves our side.
I am at this moment looking at the bowl of Star Words. I wanted you to see the bowl and the cards inside it. I will turn them over before selecting one.
The card below is the Star Word I have drawn out of the bowl for you, in hopes that it might offer you some extra insight for your journey.
Place your Star Word somewhere where you will see it regularly, and consistently reflect on how God moves in you, through you and around you as you contemplate your Star Word. And may the blessings of God be upon you in the coming year.
** This poem by Sarah Williams was published in Twilight Hours in 1868, the same year the poet died. These lines from the poem became the tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, John and Phoebe Brashear, and is located under the Keeler Memorial Reflecting Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a tiny basement room decorated in luminous mosaic tiles. The crypt contains the mortal remains of Brashear and his wife, Phoebe. The epitaph on their tomb, an excerpt from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” still speaks to all those who have looked upward in awe.
The last line of the poem also offers comfort: “God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.”
There is a custom, rooted in ireland, of celebrating Epiphany as Women’s Christmas. On January 6, Epiphany brings the Christmas season to a close. Called Nollaig na mBan in irish, Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.
Whether your domestic commitments are many or few, Women’s Christmas offers a timely opportunity to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months. As the Christmas season ends, this is an occasion both to celebrate with friends and also to spend time in reflection before diving into the responsibilities of the new year.
Epiphany might be for you an invitation to rest, to reflect, to contemplate where you are on your journey. Epiphany reminds us of the wise persons who traveled to welcome the Christ Child and who returned home by another way. Perhaps we might consider turning our attention toward questions about our own journey. Epiphany brings us The Wise Men, The Three Kings. But did others also make the journey, following a brilliant star? Were there other travelers whose names we don’t know?
Jan Richardson tells about an experience she had years ago when she was beginning to find her artist soul. She sat down to create a collage to use for Epiphany. She began to imagine who else might have made the journey to welcome Jesus. In her soul, a trio of women began to take shape, carrying their treasures to offer the Child. She named the piece Wise Women Also Came.
I love the idea that three wise women made that journey and saw the Christ Child. There are so many accounts in the Scriptures about women having no rights, no protection, no ability to speak. Many of their names are not even recorded. Even in this day — 2020 — we have been socialized to keep silence in meetings or gatherings. We may even believe that our opinions are not important enough to speak out loud. We shrink back into what is determined to be “our place.” Maybe not all the time, but we have to admit we’ve done it sometimes. It’s all about how much we value ourselves and how much we believe others value us.
But shrinking back behind the scenes and quashing our voice has significant consequences — that our vision will not be given, our inspiration will fail to inspire, our dreams will be lost, our influence will not flourish, our wisdom will not be spoken. And our world will suffer for it, losing our passion for a world that needs passion.
Imagine with me that three wise women made the incredible journey to see the Child. Imagine the gifts they might have brought. Imagine what social constraints they might have broken to go on this journey of a lifetime, and the courage that motivated them. Imagine whether or not you could take such a journey, forbidden by your society, yet moving ahead on the path. Imagine your bravery and your resolve, your your sense of adventure, your hopes and your dreams.
So let’s accept two challenges in the days to come:
To celebrate Women’s Christmas with our friends and also to spend time in personal reflection before diving into the responsibilities of the new year.
To find our voices and our wisdom. To claim our courage, our strength and our passion. And even if others scoff at us, to follow our dreams.
I met this kind person through a group of clergywomen called RevGalBlogPals. She is a spiritual director from British Columbia. Through the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group, she happened upon parts of my transplant journey in my blog posts. She began praying for me. Then she offered me the gift of spiritual direction as I pass through this complicated time in my life.
It has been several years since I worked with a spiritual director, so I was very humbled and thankful to hear from her. These were the words of lovingkindness she wrote to me in our first session.
May you feel the gentle touch of Spirit in this session.
May you know that I am holding you in healing Love.
May you be reminded of your worth and strength…
As you rest.
~ This is spiritual direction when pain does not allow for words.
On the day I received her message, it was so true that pain did not allow for words. The assault on my body was unspeakable on that day. I remember when many years ago my husband’s cardiologist came into his hospital room a few days after his heart surgery. The cardiologist said this: “Let’s look at this terrible thing we’ve done to you.”
His words resonated with me post transplant when, in the throes of struggle and pain, I definitely was looking at the terrible thing they had done to me. I could not quite see a brighter, pain-free future. I could only focus on the physical systems that were in complete disarray after the transplant. It did not help when medical staff told me it was all normal. The way I was experiencing it all was far from normal.
I wondered if I would ever live “normal” again. Or if perhaps I would live into a new normal of life after receiving a transplanted organ. I was not sure, and definitely not confident, that all systems would levelize into something I could tolerate. My spiritual director’s wisdom knows that to have physical normalcy, I must also seek emotional and spiritual normalcy. That would mean healing wholly — from the outer visible body to the inner invisible one. It would mean transformation. It would mean living my life while watching constantly and diligently for any sign that something was physically wrong.
When my spiritual director suddenly appeared, I knew that she would help me explore my spiritual state, entering into community with me and pointing to the healing I could not yet see.
Thanks be to God for the beloved community she has offered me, community that forms in unexpected places, in unexpected times, just when I needed community the most.
In years past, I would often hear talk of spiritual awakening. From pulpits around the world, there were proclamations of real and true spiritual awakening. But spiritual awakening never seemed to happen in my church. Yet some group somewhere in the world, or even some person, was always having one. To my great disappointment, I didn’t seem to be able to. I prayed. I studied the Bible. I listened to sacred music. I studied spiritual awakenings in history. I went to church a lot. I looked for a sunrise in my soul. I longed for the dawn to break in on my life with the brilliance of the rising sun.
But my spiritual awakening never came. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting to happen so that I would know I had experienced a spiritual awakening. Would it fall upon me? Would it happen inside me? Would it be grand and glorious or quiet and holy? I really wasn’t as naive a Christian as it seems, but spiritual awakening was truly a religious mystery to me. And then I stumbled upon a very weird offer on the internet.
Click here to get your free MP3. In the first time in over 4 years, it [the spiritual awakening] is happening again (it’s even bigger this time around) and you can participate in this (click here now!) special quantum energy experiment too. Registration for this experiment includes a complimentary MP3 gift, called the Bliss Bath™ that is designed to start dissolving low vibrations (like worry, fear, and doubt) and start unblocking miracles in your life in just 7 minutes! This gift could open the doorway to miraculous shifts in your life and bathe you in the same energy of the quantum field.
Who knew that a real spiritual awakening could happen after just 7 short minutes of watching a video of low vibrations! I read more and learned that 4 years ago, experts carried out what they claimed to be “one of the largest global spiritual awakening experiments in the world.” Their experiment included a faculty of teachers, healers, scientists, inventors, and energy healing pioneers. They used ‘quantum energy’ on tens of thousands of people and included breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises to heighten the volunteer’s awareness; both spiritually and physically. After several weeks of daily consciousness work, thousands of people reported many ‘common’ and often ‘strange’ signs of a personal spiritual awakening!
An astonishing 94.2% of them claimed that their lives had been made better. In fact, respondents reported a wide variety of effects, from turning on psychic powers to even “feeling surrounded by miracles.” And then the respondents compiled a list of the top ten positive outcomes they experienced:
You have increased empathy and intuition.
You feel drawn to nature.
You have an aversion to negative people or behaviors.
You desire a united community.
You believe that all life is sacred.
Your consciousness feels renewed.
You begin living in “The Moment.“
Your inner peace is increased
Compassion and positivity surges through you.
You feel enhanced authenticity.
Enough of that! Far too much information on something that actually happens in secret, in the soul, in sacred moments spent alone with God. That’s about the best description I know of “spiritual awakening.” Truth is, in those days I was searching for something real, an anointing from God, a transfiguration. I wanted my life to be transformed.
In the years since my first quest for spiritual awakening, I have learned some important things. One is that spiritual awakenings have come to me many times, in moments of glorious splendor and in moments of gentle transformation I hardly noticed. The important part is not striving for a personal awakening; the important part is waiting for it expectantly and desiring it deeply.
“Contemplative Monk,” a group focusing on intentional spirituality, offers a Facebook community that encourages one another on a spiritual journey toward a more contemplative life. The group posts daily thoughts designed to help create spiritual focus. Interestingly, today Contemplative Monk offered a piece entitled “Twelve Symptoms of Spiritual Awakening.” They are infinitely instructive, so I include them here:
1. An increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen.
2. Frequent attacks of smiling.
3. Feelings of being connected with other and nature.
4. Frequent overwhelming episodes of appreciation.
5. Acting spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience.
6. An unmistakable ability to enjoy every moment.
7. A loss of ability to worry
8. A loss of interest in conflict.
9. A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.
10. A lost of interest in judging others.
11. A loss of interest in judging self.
12. Gaining the ability to love without expecting anything in return.
When I look at these twelve symptoms, I can’t help but measure myself by each one. I find that I am profoundly grateful when I discover that I have even one of these symptoms, that I notice even a small inching towards smiling or enjoying every moment or finding myself free of worry. I know so much more about spiritual awakening than I did in years past because I know I have experienced it many times in ways big and small. What I have learned most assuredly about spiritual awakening is that it comes from God as a gift of grace to God’s children.
I recall the time in Scripture when the Apostle Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and instructed the Athenians on the true meaning of spiritual awakening as opposed to religious idolatry.
I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being” . . .
— Acts 17:22-28 (NRSV)
Therein lies the secret, the mystery of a spiritual awakening so real and true in us that we can say “in God we live and move and have our being.”
May God make it so.
On another note, please pray for me as I look toward my kidney transplant on November 15th. I am grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often felt so frightening. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. If you would like to read the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:
A “Go Fund Me” page is set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link:
Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it. ― L.R. Knost
These words of LR. Knost are so very true.
During the weeks of Lent, I helped lead a writing group at my church. What a rich experience it was for me — watching each group member spending quiet moments meditating and contemplating the ripples of his/her life. Then witnessing one person after another begin to write as if they were expecting transformation, telling their stories, writing down the highs and lows. It was almost magical.
It seemed as if I saw the throes of stress leave their spirits. It seemed as if I watched their expressions of pain ease as pen flowed across paper. It seemed at times as if a weight was lifted, an emotion discovered, a community created, a sense of understanding settled in.
I know this: no one left the room with a broken spirit or a weight they could not carry. Instead, they left the room in covenant with one another, knowing that someone cared deeply about their story. They left the room knowing that, in this intimate space, they could spew out whatever they needed to release or they could be silent in a peaceful sanctuary of acceptance.
That Sunday School room in the tall-steepled church at the top of a street in Macon, Georgia known as High Place became a sacred space for just a brief time. It became a place almost magical, a place of rest, a place of comfort, a place where each person could feel that they were not alone and that they would never feel alone again. Truly, that was magical.
I end today’s blog post with these words written by L.R. Knost:
Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
Some won’t understand it.
Some will outright reject it.
But many will
thank you for it.
And then the most
magical thing will happen.
One by one, voices will start
whispering, ‘Me, too.’
And your tribe will gather.
And you will never
feel alone again.
For Christians around the world, the end of the Christmas holiday occurs on Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas. It commemorates how a star led the Magi, or the three kings or wise men, to the baby Jesus. Epiphany is about finding Jesus — again — in a fresh new way, looking into the light that has the power to change our lives.
In his homily on Friday before Epiphany, Pope Francis called on the faithful to be like the Magi, who, he said, continued to look at the sky, took risks and set out bearing gifts for Christ.
If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a child. Those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.
Looking into the sky and taking risks is a way of life for women. We have found the need to look up, above the hurts of our lives. We have looked into the sky to escape misogyny, discrimination, disrespect and abuse. We have looked into the sky to search the heavens for hope when we have felt only despair.
It has not been for us just a flighty inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through fantasy. Instead our sky gazing has been a way to pour our souls into the kind of change that makes life worth living. We have dreamed improbable dreams. We have been wise. We have been brave and persistent. We have taken risks and defied whatever was holding us hostage. We have been determined emboldened and empowered. We have been inspired and ennobled. We have changed our world.
Like the three Wise Men, we journeyed, wise women in search of the child that would more fully empower us. Our desire and longing led us, like a fire burning within, until we found the flaming star in the night sky. And there we found Jesus — again. So we celebrated. We rejoiced, because Jesus wanted for us a new day, a new life of respect and well-being and inspiration and hope. That is epiphany. Amen.