Following a Guiding Star

We’re approaching Epiphany on January 6—the twelfth day of Christmas, or “old Christmas” to some. I hear the word epiphany used mostly in the context of literature, probably because real-life epiphanies are rare. It means a flash of insight, a sudden revelation about the true nature of things. Something happens that triggers a new way of seeing things, a new level of understanding. A perspective that was previously unattainable suddenly becomes the new reality.

Photograph from the Hubble Telescope

 

Epiphany as a holiday, or holy day, recalls the story of the Magi from the East who, in seeing a new star at its rising, discerned that a very special child was born. The child’s star was such a powerful sign it moved them to set out on a long journey, following the star as it led them to see for themselves the hope that had come into the world. When the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw him with his mother, Mary, then knelt before him. Their appearance honored his singular fate as they offered him precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Who couldn’t use an epiphany? We stand in need of a higher mind, a broader perspective. Or at least an idea we haven’t thought of before. Both individually and collectively, we live with conflict that seems irresolvable. One worthwhile goal can undermine another. Resources are limited but needs go on and on. The realities of life don’t fit together in a way that makes sense. How can a king be born in a stable? How can one who dies on a cross be a savior?

Carl Jung taught that learning to live in the dualities that life deals us is how we grow. We’re pressed to develop a broader view that somehow encompasses both. But there’s nothing comfortable about it. When we can acknowledge the individual value of those things that exist in tension, rather than rejecting one or the other out of hand, there are no simple answers. But in living with that complexity, rather than forcing an artificial simplicity, we become better, deeper, more thoughtful, more compassionate people.

As we move toward Epiphany, and into the new year, what kind of guiding star are we following? What is the vision that calls us to lift our gaze upward, above the daily routines, to cross the desert and move toward hope? What do we need to see for ourselves that will give life meaning? These questions aren’t easy, either. But in asking them perhaps we invite the possibility of Epiphany.

As Summer Ends

We had a cool snap here in Central Kentucky this weekend. Combine that with the start of school coming up and we’re on notice that here in the fullness of summer, fall will be upon us soon. Not that it comes as a surprise, but every year it takes more than store mannequins dressed in wool for the reality to sink in.

 

 

Another summer is slipping away, but I’m holding onto the fragrance of rosemary under the afternoon sun for as long as I can. Time passes but when it’s infused in red wine vinegar, thyme can linger a while.

How was your summer? It’s a natural enough question to ask during a season of transition. But there’s another question behind that one. What was your summer? Did it bring what you hoped for? Did you plant a garden—literally or figuratively? Did it thrive? What did it yield? Did you learn something, do something, enjoy something? Did you fight weeds, endure drought, manage to keep something alive?

For those who preserve their garden’s abundance, rows of canning jars or packet-laden freezers mark the summer’s accomplishments in a tangible way. I’m making herb vinegars this year, but summer’s end is more a matter of stocking the psyche’s pantry for the months ahead. It’s been good to spend time with those I love, pursue creative work, and clear out some clutter. I hope to keep those fruits of the season with me, and I hope you have a harvest to enjoy as well.

Is there anything else to do before summer ends? What shall we take on this fall?

Making Room for Joy

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for Joy. This is the meditation I wrote to read in worship this morning.

At the hour before sunrise, in the subtle turn from night to day, the world that was cloaked in darkness  gradually comes into view. Forms in the distance are hardly recognizable, then silhouettes gain definition: a mountain, a tree, a ship on the horizon. The stars begin to fade in that gray light—a loss, yes, though necessary if we’re to greet a new day. Soon even the brightest planets give way, but in the half-light of early dawn we keep watching, waiting, for something more. Then the sky begins to warm, the rosy color rising from the East until it brings life to everything it touches, from the dome of the heavens above to the glow of our own skin. Morning. The golden sun. Joy.

Joy is not ours to command. We watch for it, make room for it, and feel gratitude when it arrives—a heart-opening presence, a gift from God. It can color the world like the sky at sunrise, or condense to the flame of a single candle that sees us through the night. Joy can feel like the most natural thing in the world, or the most elusive. Its light shines out in a shared laugh or a thoughtful gesture. We know joy in the experience of beauty, or when we offer our best and find that it pulls us into the flow of life.

The angels heralding Christ’s birth bring to us, even now, tidings of great joy. They have amazing news of how much we matter, how near God is, and how blessed life can be. May we turn toward those glad tidings, asking that God prepare our hearts and our lives to receive God’s life-giving joy.

Susan Christerson Brown

 

The Upheaval of Early Spring

It’s been a volatile early Spring this year. Every time I relax into believing the growing warmth has arrived for good, chill winds argue otherwise. It’s a changeable, unsettling season. Daffodils wilt in the cold, pansies wither in the heat, followed by days of cold rain and dreariness. Meanwhile, storms are tearing across the country—150 tornadoes just in the past three days. The transition from Winter toward Summer is wrenching, unpredictable, as transitions can often be.

Spring brings more than a season’s worth of change, it seems. A couple of calendars I’ve come across lay out the year in six seasons, rather than four, which makes a lot of sense to me.

J.R.R. Tolkien gave the elves in his Lord of the Rings trilogy six seasons. He added a season called Ending of Summer, and one in early Spring called Stirring, which I think is a perfect name.

Naturalists studying the Melbourne, Australia area propose six or even seven seasons. They’re represented here on a beautifully drawn wheel. Some divide what we call Spring into Pre-spring or Early Spring and True Spring, and divide Summer into High Summer and Late Summer. Others retain Summer and divide winter into Early Winter and Deep Winter.

The Hindu calendar also includes six seasons—Monsoon comes after Summer, and Prewinter follows Autumn.

Dividing the year into sixths feels quite different from our usual division into quarters. Four is solid and stable—the four sides of a square, four points of a compass, four legs of a table. It feels complete and unmoving.

Representations of six have a different sense—a pie cut in six wedges, a six-pointed star, a wheel with six spokes. These are images that suggest motion. The eye continually travels around them, which is appropriate for representing the cyclical nature of the earth and the seasons.

The continuing cycle represents our own growth as we persevere through our lives, gathering energy for many buds and blooms, yielding multiple harvests, and accepting the end of countless growing seasons.

As regular as the seasons are, they are ever fluid, moving toward the next thing. They never rest in the sense of having arrived. What appears to us as the fullness of any season is simply the momentary place that the continual motion has brought about.

Early Spring is a reminder of this. There is always this much going on; upheaval is always happening. This time of year it’s just easier to see.

What kind of transition is Spring bringing for you this year?

It’s Not Too Late to Enter Lent

We’re a week into Lent, but it’s not too late to think about a Lenten observance if you haven’t already. At the service I attended on the evening of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, the thing I heard that struck me most was, “At the end of Lent we will be different.”

It’s true. When we take up some kind of spiritual discipline for Lent, we will be changed. We can be sure that in knocking on that door, it will be opened to us. That’s the reason to enter into these forty days of spiritual focus—a period of time long enough to foster real growth yet limited enough keep from being too daunting.

Even a simple observance over the period of these weeks leading to Easter can make a difference. I’ve written about some ideas for that in the post, “Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent.”

I’m exploring different kinds of prayer this Lenten season. This week I’m immersed in the psalms. Simply reading a psalm every day, slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, can be a rich Lenten observance. Especially if you understand the enemies and foes mentioned there as being your own personal demons.

At my church we’re exploring the subject of prayer during Lent, in classes and in worship.  Our senior minister is talking about prayer during his sermons over the next few weeks; his first in the series is about the power of simple prayers and how there is no “right way” to pray. He mentions Anne Lamott’s writing about the two best prayers she knows: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  You can listen to his March 13 sermon, “Prayer: What’s the Point?” here.

Finding a way to pray, or perhaps even a new way to pray, over these weeks of Lent seems to me like a way of inviting transformation. But whatever we choose, taking on a Lenten discipline is not so much a matter of buckling down as a way of opening up.

It’s not too late. What would you like to find on this journey?

Breakfast Stirrings

Most mornings this winter I’ve enjoyed oatmeal for breakfast. The kind that cooks on the stove is worth the effort for me, even though it means an extra pot to wash. Served warm with dried cranberries and a little brown sugar, a few chopped walnuts stirred in, it’s a healthy and comforting brace against a cold morning.

But with the welcome respite we’re having from winter in Central Kentucky right now, I can hardly bear the thought of another bowl of oatmeal. All winter I’ve loved it; now I’m sick of it. Maybe it’s really cold weather I’m weary of, but the guilt by association persists.

Poor oatmeal. A steady companion all these bleak months and now I don’t want it in my sight. Don’t need that remnant of the winter doldrums. It’s hardly fair. I just opened a tall new cylindrical box and it may be next winter before I finish it.

Fresh fruit! Whole wheat toast! Even cold cereal sounds better. Yogurt! Or smoothies! So many possibilities on a sunny spring-like morning. It’s spring fever at the breakfast table.

If the pangs over ignoring my faithful oats grow unbearable, I’ll make them into cookies.

What kind of change are you looking for?

The Red River Gorge at Nightfall

I had a chance to visit the Red River Gorge over the holidays—a brief but beautiful drive with my family on the return trip from a Christmas visit.

We arrived at dusk, knowing our time was limited but wanting to see all we could before dark. The main road was snow-covered and a new snow had fallen, softening the landscape and offering up each bare tree and dark evergreen in clear contrast against the field of white.

It was immensely quiet there. The trees closed overhead and the light faded as we wound down to the river. As night began to fall, the snow reflected what little light remained. It held off the darkness, creating the sense of a moment outside of time in an otherworldly place.

Robert Frost’s words kept echoing through my mind: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Gazing into awe, I was humbled by the power and mystery of this life.

The Gorge, a place of dramatic beauty, sits right off the highway. We usually drive by it on our way to somewhere else. But stopping by those woods on that snowy evening was a memory, and perhaps even a glimpse of eternity, to hold for a long time.

Have you had a glimpse of the eternal?

How to Welcome the New Year

I love the fresh start of the New Year. It’s usually a time of introspection for me, a chance to look back at events and changes in the previous year, and to dream and plan for the new one.

Lots of people are doing a great job of sharing their approach to that work this year. Christine Kane lays out a promising technique for using a single word as a beacon for the year. You can find the link to her free download describing the process here. Bradley J. Moore at Shrinking the Camel has a great post on setting goals that spur growth here. If you’re interested in specific, entirely do-able actions to take now to help in reaching goals for the year, Marelisa Fabrega has a wealth of ideas here.

This year I find myself less able to dwell in the dreaming and visioning space that I associate with year’s end. I miss it, but what I’m drawn to instead is the physical task of clearing out all kinds of work spaces throughout the house.

I’ve filed months of papers and notes accumulated from the year’s various projects, tossed old files, taken bags of donations to Goodwill, and I’m about to get to the bottom of a very old pile of ironing. Yes, it’s tedious and exhausting. But it needs to be done and it’s satisfying enough that I keep going.

I do have in mind work I want to accomplish in the coming year. At the very least I’m clearing space to do that work. On another level, I’m purging the clutter that encroaches not only on my house but on my self. Clear space, perhaps, will help with clear thinking. Room to work, perhaps, will make room for action.

So this is another way—a workmanlike way—of preparing to welcome the New Year. Not with resolutions, but with a certain kind of resolve.

Happy New Year!

How is the spirit moving you to greet this New Year?

Winter Solstice and Rebirth

We’ve reached the Winter Solstice, shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, bookended by the longest nights. Oh my. Last night brought a lunar eclipse as well, though the heavy cloud cover discouraged me from getting up in the middle of the night to watch.

I’ve observed other eclipses of the moon, fascinated to see the shining orb slowly overtaken by shadow. In spite of understanding the phenomenon, it’s an emotional experience to see it happen. There is a kind of visceral drama in its disappearance and the wait for that first sliver of its return.

The eclipse is similar to the drama of the winter solstice, but in condensed form. The light slowly disappears and we anxiously await its return. As with every kind of darkness, we need the gift of faith and the reassurance of ritual to make it through.

The sun at its farthest point from us, the winter just beginning, we have a long way to go. For the most part we accept the rhythm of the seasons, adjust to the routines shaped by shorter days and longer nights. And in celebrating the completion of these longest nights we know that this, too, shall pass.

The light returns incrementally, but the cumulative effect of those small changes transforms the seasons. Tomorrow the earth and sun begin their course toward summer—a marvelously hopeful thought, however long the journey may be.

It has me thinking of the power of committing to steady movement in a particular direction over time. Apparently it’s natural to remember that this time of year. The rebirth of the sun through the Winter Solstice, the rebirth of divinely inspired possibilities for human life through Christmas, the rebirth of the year and all that it contains through New Year’s—the idea of renewal is a thread weaving through all these holidays. Here in the dark of winter is energy toward rebirth. Hallelujah!

What kinds of new possibilities might be germinating in the dark?

Reflecting the Season’s Light

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

The most recent place I heard this question asked was in a department store, appropriately enough. It’s a conversation opener this time of year, a December version of “How are you doing?” Behind the question looms a checklist of things to accomplish for the celebration to be complete.

A friend with three children looked at her calendar a few days ago and realized that her family had so many scheduled activities there were only two nights free between now and Christmas. She wasn’t complaining, just gearing up for the pace set by the intersection of family and holidays.

Here in the Northern hemisphere the days have grown short, night falls early, and we try to keep too busy to notice. We lean into our Christmas celebrations like plants growing toward the sun. We’re drawn to outdoor displays of light, Christmas trees twinkling, and candles glowing. Ornaments and wrappings made to reflect the light shine out from every corner.

Of course we’re drawn toward warmth, light, and joy. We look forward to the gatherings, performances, and rituals of the season. They dispel the dark. We follow the star this time of year, keenly aware of our need for the Light of the World.

The liturgical year sets aside these weeks leading up to Christmas and gives the season its own name—Advent. It is a season of anticipation.

Advent is not about creating Christmas, it’s a time of preparing for something beyond our ability to bring about. In the darkest time of the year comes a new birth, the renewal of life and of light. We honor it with our celebrations, but that spirit of new beginnings is more powerful than anything we can make. It’s the gift of life and growth, which begins in the depths beneath the surface of the earth, or of our lives.

Our celebrations are like the ornaments reflecting light. We can make the world brighter, better, even more merry. But it’s not up to us to generate the light. It’s good to remember that we only have to reflect Christmas; it’s not our job to create it. Knowing that makes it easier to lighten up.

What brings the season’s light to you?