Epiphany: Wise Women Also Came

Today is Epiphany, or Día de los Reyes, the day we remember the magi’s visit to Jesus. I came across this poem yesterday by Jan Richardson, whose work I love (see her Ash Wednesday poem “Blessing the Dust” or her “Blessing for Waiting“, which I used during Advent).

Wise women also came.
The fire burned in their wombs long before they saw the flaming star in the sky.
They walked in shadows, trusting the path would open under the light of the moon.

Wise women also came, seeking no directions, no permission from any king.
They came by their own authority, their own desire, their own longing.
They came in quiet, spreading no rumours, sparking no fears to lead to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s inconsolable lamentations.

Wise women also came, and they brought useful gifts:
water for labour’s washing, fire for warm illumination, a blanket for swaddling.

Wise women also came, at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labour,
crying out with her in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings into her ear.

Wise women also came, and they went, as wise women always do, home a different way.

The art piece above was also done by Jan Richardson, and you can order the print (and see more of her work) by clicking on it.

What is the Church’s task today?

Kaj Munk was a Danish playwright and Lutheran pastor, martyred during the German occupation of Denmark. He was killed by the Gestapo on this day in 1944. His words ring true for us today as they did seven decades ago:

What is, therefore, our task today?
Shall I answer: “Faith, hope, and love”?
That sounds beautiful.
But I would say—courage.
No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth.

Our task today is recklessness.
For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature,
we lack a holy rage.
The recklessness that comes
from the knowledge of God and humanity.
The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets …
and when the lie rages across the face of the earth—
a holy anger about things that are wrong in the world.

To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth,
and the destruction of God’s world.

To rage when little children must die of hunger,
when the tables of the rich are sagging with food.

To rage at the senseless killing of so many,
and against the madness of militaries.

To rage at the lie that calls
the threat of death and the strategy of destruction
“peace”.

To rage against complacency.

To restlessly seek that recklessness
that will challenge and seek to change human history
until it conforms with the norms
of the Kingdom of God.

And remember the signs of the Christian Church have always been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish …

But never the chameleon.

Hoping and Wishing

At the end of a long and full year, reflecting on what has been and looking forward to what will undoubtedly be another long and full year, these words from Eugene Peterson have been framing my thoughts:

It is essential to distinguish between hoping and wishing. They are not the same thing.

Wishing is something all of us do. It projects what we want or think we need into the future. Just because we wish for something good or holy we think it qualifies as hope. it does not. Wishing extends our egos into the future; hope desires what God is going to do—and we don’t yet know what that is.

Wishing grows out of our egos; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing. Wishing has to do with what I want in things or people or God; hope has to do with what God wants in me and the world of things and people beyond me.

Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future. Picture it in your mind: wishing is a line that comes out of me, with an arrow pointing into the future. Hoping is a line that comes out of God from the future , with an arrow pointing toward me.

Hope means being surprised, because we don’t know what is best for us or how our lives are going to be completed. To cultivate hope is to suppress wishing—to refuse to fantasize about what we want but live in anticipation of what God is going to do next.

Hope affects the Christian life by making us expectant and alive. People with minimal hope live in drudgery and boredom because they think they know what’s going to happen next. They’ve made their assessment of God, the people around them, and themselves, and they know what’s coming.

People who hope never know what’s coming next. They expect it is going to be good, because God is good. Even when disasters occur, people of hope look for how God will use evil for good.

A person with hope is alive to God. Hope is powerful. It is stimulating. It keeps us on tiptoe, looking for the unexpected.

Forgiveness

Last week, on a friend’s recommendation, Carolyn and I started listening to the podcast “Dirty John.” It’s a six-episode true-crime story, reported and edited by Christopher Goffard of the LA Times. Worth a listen.

Anyway, the fourth episode is called “Forgiveness,” and, as we were listening, I found myself thinking, I don’t think I agree with that understanding of forgiveness. What was being presented as forgiveness (by one person — I won’t name who, so I don’t spoil anything) seemed like a brushing-over, a non-acknowledgment of reality; it seemed more like willful ignorance, choosing to pretend that some very real and important actions weren’t actually real or important.

Eugene Peterson writes (Living the Message, April 28):

The word forgiveness has been watered down by journalistic cant and careless practice. It frequently means no more than, “I’ll let it go this time — I won’t let it bother me — but don’t do it again.” It is the verbal equivalent to a shoulder shrug. So there needs to be repeated return to the New Testament to renovate the word, to discover its vitality, its strength, its power, its versatility; to realize that it is the most creative act anyone can engage in; to know that more new life springs from acts of forgiveness than anything else; and to believe that the parent who is called on to engage in an act of forgiveness is in a literally god-like position.

Another friend recently pointed me to Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our Worldco-authored with his daughter Mpho. My friend said it was tremendously helpful for his own processing and thought it might be good for me too; he was right.

Tutu begins by stating two simple truths:

there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another—whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity—then you will know this to be true.

When you’ve been hurt, that can be hard to hear. It can be hard to want to forgive. It’s much easier when we’ve been wronged to feel justified, to cling to our grievance, to consider ourselves as having the moral high ground, perhaps even to hold on to our right for revenge. At the end of the introduction, there’s a prayer, which begins:

I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready

Too real. And Tutu doesn’t skip over the very real feelings of those who have been wronged, acknowledging the reality and validity of our experiences, while also drawing us forward:

Know that what was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved. You are right to be outraged. And it is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. … Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.

As Tutu lays it out, the fourfold path of forgiveness and healing is this:

  1. Telling the story: sharing the facts — what happened
  2. Naming the hurt: sharing the feelings behind the facts — what was lost
  3. Granting forgiveness: recognizing our shared humanity — learning to tell a new story
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship: stepping into a future unfettered by the past
Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1669).

More often than not, we just do #3, without understanding that each piece is important because forgiveness is not just an act for us as human beings, but rather a process. It takes time to forgive — and not time in the sense that if we wait long enough, we’ll forget about it, but rather time in the sense that we may have to forgive over and over again until we have truly given up any right of revenge, any wish for retribution, any desire for the other’s ill.

With TIME Magazine declaring as their 2017 Person of the Year the Silence Breakers — the women and men who spoke up about sexual harassment and assault — #1 and #2 have broken their way into the public awareness, and that’s important. The journey of forgiveness begins with naming and acknowledging the full extent of what has happened.

But it can’t stop there; if we recognize our shared humanity, that all of us will, at some point (and sometimes the same point), be in a position of being the transgressor and the transgressed against. It is forgiveness that unlocks the cycle of retribution and bitterness, that frees us from our past, and opens the way forward.

For me, learning #4 was the most helpful insight. There can be a sense that forgiveness means we must go back to how things were before, as if nothing ever happened. It was liberating instead to read these two options:

Releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have someone in your life any longer, but you have released the relationship only when you have truly chosen that path without wishing that person ill. Releasing is refusing to let an experience or a person occupy space in your head or heart any longer. It is releasing not only the relationship but your old story of the relationship.

Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened. We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is often stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.

Wherever you may be on your journey of forgiveness, with whatever needs to be addressed — or confessed — and forgiven, I pray you’ll have the strength to keep walking.

The times they are a-changin’

It’s been 10 months since my last blog. To say that a lot has happened in that time would be understating it just a little bit, but honestly, I haven’t really had the words to talk about the last year. I haven’t known what to say or how to say it: there have been too many stories to tell, too much background to fill in, too many threads that would take too long to follow.

I guess the biggest news is that I’m no longer at The District Church any more. This summer, the congregation formerly known as the East Side parish of The District Church (which we planted four years ago) was launched as an independent church, so now I’m the Pastor of Liturgy and Spiritual Formation at Christ City Church, where Matthew Watson and I continue to pastor together. Predictably, the summer was filled with the busyness of setting up a new church: filing articles of incorporation, opening bank accounts, writing bylaws, and such; figuring out new structures (such as an elder board) and new rhythms and responsibilities of work; and the pastoral challenge of walking a community through a pretty massive transition and into a new chapter of congregational life together. As you can imagine, it’s been a lot!

Thankfully, throughout the spiritual, emotional, relational, and even vocational strain of the last few months, God has done what God does — most pertinently, sit with us in our grief and bring life out of death. And God has begun knitting things back together in my own life, through prayer and divine encounter as well as through those with whom I’ve been honored to call friends in this season.The work and the healing and the processing are far from over, but we are far from alone and that in itself is grace.

The other week, I was back in the UK for a few days, and a friend and I arranged to meet for dinner. I hadn’t yet been to his new place, so I stuck the address into my phone and followed the directions. As I was walking, I realized it was taking me on a route I’d walked many times before, fifteen years ago when I was in college and dating A. In fact, it took me past her old house; she doesn’t live there any more. I’m not sure I could name all of the feelings I experienced in that moment — it was a strange mixture of joy and sadness and nostalgia and gratitude and wonderment at what was, at what happened in the intervening years, and at where we are now. In the midst of that, God reminded me of the words of an ancient teacher:

For everything there is a season …

I’ve experienced that in places I’ve called home, in passions and pastimes, in friendships and relationships, and even in churches. Some endings we get to choose; others are chosen for us. Thanks be to the God who can bring life out of all of them … even when it takes longer than we would like or looks different from what we had hoped.


If you’re interested, I talk about these things a little more in a couple of sermons: “New Name, Same Calling”, on Launch Sunday back in August, when Matthew and I co-taught; and “Grief and Lament: Tools for Life”, given just the other week as part of our Psalms series.