dry-bush-jan2017

Today, Jan 6, is the Feast of Epiphany.

In our household growing up, it marked the day when my mother thought it time to take down the Christmas decorations. It felt like an appropriate day. Christmas, after all, had occurred almost two weeks before. It had long come and gone, or so it seemed. Besides, the initial excitement of putting up the tree was beginning to feel old.  We’d read through all the cards two or three times and were ready to toss them into the recycling bin. It wasn’t until years later when I thought to ask Mum why we shut down Christmas on the 6th that she explained that’s when the Magi were supposed to have reached Bethlehem.

As I was re-reading that familiar story this morning, I was struck by the image of these wise men journeying from distant lands, mapping their movements to a place they weren’t sure of, by following a star. I was struck by the fact that they had been on the lookout for that star; otherwise they might not have seen it. In fact, if they hadn’t been on alert, the star would have appeared and they would have missed it. That would have ultimately meant they would have missed the defining event of history up to that time. They would have not seen Jesus, and Mary and Joseph. They would have forfeited the joy and worship this experience brought them. They would have not had the opportunity to travel home by a different route, guided this time by wisdom given through a dream. Their lives would not have been transformed as surely they must’ve been.

As this new year begins, I’m contemplating what the stars in my life might be and where they are to be found. Am I on alert? Am I looking for them? Am I looking in the “right” places? Am I willing to wait until they are revealed? Am I anticipating finding them? And am I ready to act once I recognize them? Am I ready to leave what feels safe and known to take risks to unfamiliar places in the hopes of being changed?

The story of the Magi suggests that signs and wonders do appear, but in the least likely of and places, and probably in ways we don’t expect.

An epiphany (or two) awaits.

I pray I’ll recognize the signs, in amongst the ordinary, and have the courage to venture into the unknown –with joy and expectation.

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ocean grove jan2013 #3January 6th, is called the Day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. It is marked by the visit of the magi in search of the baby Jesus. Matthew tells us that magi came from the east to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews. They had seen his star and had come to worship him. The star was a sign which led them first to Herod and subsequently to Jesus himself. They saw something unusual and different and it provoked them to take action, to go on a lengthy journey, not knowing where it would lead them or what it would mean for them. But nonetheless, upon recognizing the sign, they took off.

The Shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Jesus on a dark night that probably seemed no different than any other. When angels lit up the sky and shared news of the birth of the Savior of the world, they too were given a sign: They would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Despite being terrified, they went to see if what the angels had told them was in deed true.

God frequently gives us signs which prompt and nudge us out of our current situations and into experiences and deeper understandings of who he is and what he’s calling us to do. If you are anything like me, you are usually too distracted to notice the signs, to recognize them as such, to pay attention to what they might signify, or to act on them. It’s like when I get the flu: my throat begins to tickle, my nose runs more than usual, fatigue begins to creep in – all indications that my body’s immune system is becoming compromised – but usually, I don’t pay too much attention or make any significant changes to the rhythm of my days, until my throat is raging, my sinuses rebel in earnest and my body weakens further, demanding rest (and perhaps flu medicine). The signs were there all along but I ignored them until I couldn’t do so any more. And then I was knocked flat on my back.

As the start of this new year, I wonder what sign(s) God might be inviting you to see in your life right now. Are you strung out and weary from a holiday season that was too full of busy-ness with little time to slow down and reflect on it’s true meaning and implications? Do you need to make a significant change –let go of an unhealthy relationship, release a deeply buried grudge or hurt, transition out of a job that is violating your soul, build margins into your schedule that allow you to have moments of quiet and rest, take up something new that breathes life into you and stirs your passions? Or perhaps you’re already aware of the sign(s) but what to do about the fears and paralysis that interfere with you taking action?

Let the life-changing journey of the Magi encourage you. They didn’t travel alone. They weren’t in a hurry. They asked for help along the way. They kept following the star. And when they found the baby, they were overjoyed.  Open your eyes, look for the sign(s), start moving, take others with you, be willing to go slowly, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and wait for the joy!

 

 

At the end of May, I had the opportunity to travel to southern Spain for a conference with a missions organization I was once a part of.  The venue was a swanky resort on the edge of a small town called Huelva  on the Atlantic coast. Since Huelva is an hour from Faro in Portugal, me and my friend P decided to take in a little of  Portugal as well. So we flew into Lisboa, spent the night there, took a train down to Faro, spent the night there, and made our way to Huelva by bus.

The conference – a retreat for 350+ weary missionaries serving all over the world – was designed to be a time of rest, renewal, re-connection and rejuvenation. And it was! We heard provocative teaching, engaged in lively and joyful worship, spent every afternoon praying for each team, and had many rich conversations, often while eating delicious food (lots of it!) and drinking unlimited wine.

The following week I stopped in London to visit my family, which allowed me to extend my time of much-needed rest and renewal. And unlike the wet weather we’re having in New York, the days were bright and dry.

In the two plus weeks I was away, I limited my intake of media: news, social and otherwise. This wasn’t something I planned but being in Spain and Portugal, I was either on the road or absorbed in what someone at the conference described as a “love fest”. There was absolutely no need for additional stimulation; this meant the flat screen TV in our room was barely noticed and never touched.

I’m a great lover of the radio and in London, my mother had left a small radio in my bedroom. For some reason, I wasn’t tempted to indulge. I think after the intensity of the conference, my mind craved space and quiet just to think and absorb.

I so enjoyed my unintended “‘media fast” that I’m going to extend it for the summer.  Now that I’m back in NYC, while I’ll still catch the news in the morning, in the evenings I won’t be turning on my radio. (I gave up TV a few years ago). Instead I’m going to savor the silence and give my mind the opportunity to slow down and contemplate in this more laid-back season.

Perhaps I’ll even get some reading done.

Yesterday I awoke before 6, rested and energized. So I took myself off to my local park, Ft Tryon, for a very modest jog. I was out of the house by 6.30 and back by 7.00. It was a glorious morning and at that time of the day, because of a storm that blew through the previous night, it actually felt crisp and cool. If it had been late September, I would’ve been fooled into thinking that fall was on its way.

The trees and grass in the park have been especially lush and green this year, perhaps due to the mild winter and wet spring we’ve had. At certain points in my excursion, if I stretched my imagination enough, I could’ve pretended that I was on the edge of a tropical rain forest. As I made my way toward the Cloisters and around them, I smelled a skunk but fortunately didn’t see one, but encountered more dog walkers and other joggers than usual starting their day with a similar sense of expectancy and enthusiasm.

When I got back to my apartment, I felt like a different person. Why? Because I’d received the start of the day as gift and chose to open and enjoy it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts lately and realizing how many gifts I’m given that I don’t receive as such.  The park is a prime example. I’d lived in my neighborhood for many years before I made going to the park a priority and a regular part of my urban life. In fact, it wasn’t until I lived in a remote but breathtakingly beautiful corner of Uganda that I realized the importance of being around beauty in nature. So when I returned to New York, I knew I needed to continue to feed the part of my soul that craved that kind of beauty. I was really faithful at the start, like a child who just can’t get enough of a new toy. I walked in the park every weekday morning. Eventually I settled into a more realistic routine.  Now, I can’t manage to get there every day but try to make a point of going 2 to 3 times a week and when I don’t get there I crave it, almost as if I’m neglecting one of my loves. And when I notice subtle changes in the seasons, I feel like I’m being let into a secret.

It’s incredible how alive this rhythm of regular exposure to beauty in nature makes me feel. Somehow that sense of living life fully spills into the rest of my day. The challenge that the subway can be or the mid-town throngs at lunch time don’t affect me as much as they might because I have encountered and am learning to savor being in the midst of a landscape that is more alive than I am.

Along with the park, I’ve also discovered the delight of being out in the fresh air in the early morning. What a gift it is to be outside in this city of 8 million when you and just a handful of folks in your neighborhood are out of your apartments and moving around. That’s become an unexpected present too – and one I was unable to receive and enjoy despite it coming every day – because for years I was living a life with no margins which didn’t give me the space or time to awake early enough to savor the morning. I was rushing off to work in the a.m. and collapsing on my bed in the p.m. It was  awful.

My latent discovery of these gifts that were there for the taking years before I learned to value them has left me wondering what other gifts (people, places, talents, rhythms) I’ve been given that I fail to recognize, receive, open and enjoy.

Might you be wondering the same thing perhaps?