As Epiphany approaches, GPPCers offer reflections on the Epiphany star they drew from the basket in worship a year ago. This is our second set of reflections, with the link to the first appearing below.
The Epiphany Star....we’re told to ponder it as we move forward into the New Year. In the past years I have had some that required a good deal of pondering, but this past January I pulled one that I thought would be a pretty easy one to practice. It prodded me to have....wait for it...
Was this a premonition of things to come? I’d have to say that 2020 has provided me an abundance of scenarios which have tested my ability to “just be patient” to the max.
As I was thinking about what I could write, I turned to my source of inspirational quotes that I use with the women with whom I worked at the prison (pre-Covid). These two stood out to me:
“Patience strengthens the spirit, sweetens the temper, stifles anger, extinguishes envy, subdues pride, bridles the tongue, restrains the hand, and tramples upon temptations.” George Horne
“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”
I have generally considered myself to be a pretty even-tempered, patient person. It takes a lot to get me riled. But as I read and watched accounts of the sneering at Covid protocols, of the disregard for racial inequalities, of election controversy, of the total inhumanity of so many people’s actions, I got more and more angry and that anger began eating at me. It was not productive, rather it was harmful. “Be patient!”, I told myself. This, too shall pass.
In the meantime I needed to find positive ways to get through, ones that might help, not hurt. I wrote postcards to voters, I wrote letters to elected officials (local and national), I began volunteering at the St Thomas Food Bank, I watched and cheered as the monuments came down, I looked for ways to be safely in the world, I zoomed with friends far and near, and I prayed, “Give me patience.” Do I still get angry? Of course. But I am able to temper it with patience and hope.
I finish with a verse from the hymn which has become my mantra throughout all the messiness of 2020, “My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout”:
My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.
CONTEMPLATION. That was my epipihany word at the beginning of 2020. Truth be told, I was ecstatic to say goodbye to ‘process’ which had neither inspired nor illuminated much of anything in 2019 for me. But contemplation had possibility.
The dictionary definition of contemplation is to engage in deep reflective thought or to look thoughtfully at something for a long time. In the context of faith, I think it also means to look thoughtfully or deeply into God’s intention for the world, and for me. How do I see God’s activity, or call, or challenge, as I engage in my daily life?
2020 provided me lots of opportunities for contemplation about God’s intention for my life. I reflected on how our retirement income was protecting us from much of the fear and uncertainty that so much of the world was facing. It led Bob and me to think more deeply about how we could engage in the financial support of those suffering while we were, in large measure, not. I reflected on my trust in God – did my anxiety about my hospital worker daughter say that my trust in God was insufficient? How do I give my fears to God and trust God to hold them in the midst of uncertainty? I prayed about that a lot this year and feel like that led to a deeper sense of peace about things that I could not control and could only offer to God. Contemplation – being quiet, trying to be open, listening, thinking about God’s activity in the world and my limited interaction with it – happened a lot this year. But then, something else happened that was different than the stillness I associated with contemplation.
We moved. From speaking about moving to moving the first box took 8 weeks. In the middle of a pandemic.
Three and half years ago, Bob and I left our large home and moved into a 968 sq. ft condo in downtown Richmond. That process of thinking about when to move, what kind of life we wanted when we were both retired, what it would be like to have a home too small to offer the kind of hospitality we had always been able to offer, what ‘things’ were absolutely necessary in our minds to take with us – took us 5 years. We thought long and hard about these questions and felt confident when we moved that God was in these decisions that took so long to make.
This year, In the seventh month of essentially being home all the time, I began contemplating something else. Things began to feel unsettled in our home. It felt confining. It felt dark (we only had 3 windows) and I needed light. I prayed often, asking for the gift of patience and wisdom in how to live in this time. I asked for the ability to be more reflective and less focused on moving and doing. But nothing took away the feeling that I wanted to move. When I finally dared mention this to Bob, I discovered I was not the only person with moving thoughts. With our wishes out in the open, we quit contemplating – and just hit the ground running. The last box is unpacked and now I sit in front of my windows in the early morning with a cup of coffee and watch the sun come up – and contemplate some more.
Now the questions I reflect on are different. Did I misunderstand God’s leading in our first downsizing? Did my own pandemic craziness make it hard for me to hear God’s intention for me this year? Did my own desires drown out God’s desires? How do I understand a decision that seemed so clear and right – and then didn’t? How does one hold on to the belief that God is with us in all these decisions when sometimes the reasons for a particular decision aren’t clear. We have made two completely different decisions in two completely different situations. Was one decision right? Was one wrong? I do not know. But I think, as my friend Alfred’s mother told him: Sometimes you can't be sure you're right, you have to take your best guess and see how it turns out. I am confident that God is in all of my questions, and can use whatever decisions I make to point me to God. I think I’ll still be contemplating all of this long after I have a new Epiphany word in 2021.
DIRECTION. I had to laugh a little when I drew this word for 2020. It felt like a gentle nod to my enthusiasm for all things geography, but also a not-so-gentle acknowledgement of the fact that I was stepping into this year with a lot of new territory to chart. My mom had died just a few weeks earlier; my marriage was ending; I was still wading through my chaplaincy internship and other ordination requirements as well as some changes to my job. 2019 had been personally brutal, and I was glad to never have to live through that year again.
I hung up my green star at home with the previous years': selflessness, which gave me perspective through my mother's illness; simplify, which walked with me in 2018 as I readjusted plans for finishing seminary a little later than I'd originally expected; hope, which felt impossible to cling to in 2017; grace, which was my introduction to the epiphany star tradition, when I really started to worship with Ginter Park regularly in 2016.
I've always treated these words as descriptive rather than prescriptive-- I'm not going to spend the year seeking these words out, but rather, noticing them as they surface amidst the endless whirlwind of my story. Direction seemed apt as I settled into some kind of new normal in 2020. My own grief was accompanied by a global sense of struggle and loss this year. And then, in August, my new normal, whatever it was becoming, took a sharp turn elsewhere, and I found myself in a new job, in a new home, in a new city. This time, the direction was apparently west, to Charlottesville and serving as a chaplain resident at UVA Hospital.
As I've noted with some intentionality how direction has been a theme in my world, I've been led to a lot of unexpected places. There has been a lot of chaos and sorrow along the way. But as I write these words on a cold, rainy New Years Day, exhausted after a 24 hour on-call shift, cozy under a pile of blankets with a purring cat in my lap, I find myself grateful for the adventure. No matter where I go, no matter where I am, I find myself accompanied by a loving family, good friends, an enc