A Destination Worth Our Trip

highway hearse 2014

Years ago now, I read a lovely short story. I don’t remember the author or the title. But I remember it was about a quite elderly, widowed man who had finally decided the time had come to move into a nursing home. He moves in, and downsizes. One of the things he is about to lose is his car. He has decided to give his beloved old Cadillac to his granddaughter since he won’t need it anymore and doesn’t feel he’s as safe a driver as he used to be. The nursing home, this man, and his children all agree: giving up the car is the best thing to do.

The day before he is supposed to hand over the Cadillac, the man takes the keys, and walks out from his little room to the parking lot to see it one last time. He thinks about the car….how he’d been to Florida with that car, how that car had taken them on family vacations and in recent years, how it had been his constant ally as he drove to more and more funerals – and he opens the door and gets behind the wheel one last time. Then, in a surprise even to himself, he puts the keys into the ignition, starts it up, and drives away from the nursing home.

As the story progresses, you don’t really know why he’s doing this, or what’s going to happen. At the home, it takes a while for them to discover he’s gone. But once they do, they think he’s skipped town, or maybe showing dementia, and there’s a panic over what might have happened. His children don’t know what to do, and wonder if he’s changed his mind about staying at the home.

Meanwhile, the man drives west. He listens to the radio awhile, rolls down the window, notices the prairie grass, smiles at the sunshine and the big, big sky. The miles tick away as he rolls westward.

At the nursing home they hesitate and hesitate, waiting to see if the man will be back for dinner. When that doesn’t happen finally they all the police. The family are in a state. Everybody is consulting with everybody about the state of emergency. Is the old man suicidal? Is he lost? What’s happened?

The man stops at a truck-stop diner where he has a wonderful warm conversation with a little child and a good heart-to-heart with a waitress. But soon he’s right back behind the wheel. He’s intent on driving. He stops at a roadside hotel for a few hours of sleep. But then, with the sun, he’s awake and back driving. Prairie towns and cities fly by as he keeps the big Caddie’s nose pointed west.

At the time of King Herod the Great, it says, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, having traveled a great distance to see him.

So what happened, exactly, that made the Magi travel so long, and such a distance, to follow that star?

They weren’t running away from anything, the Magi. They were traveling TOWARD something special.

It seems a bit trite to say that life is a journey, but it is. It’s a journey we start on before we can remember, before we even realize fully, that we’re traveling. Sometimes the journey is exciting, and often it’s just a day-by-day slog. We walk through green valleys, and sometimes across high mountains that are difficult but rewarding. And there are, inevitably, in every life, hard, difficult and painful paths, paths we’d rather not go down, but have to. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow…., like it says.

Sometimes it takes faith to keep going in life, and it would take faith, in the ancient world, to travel across the East as the Magi are supposed to have done. I’ve been watching a Netflix TV series called Marco Polo. It’s not starting off all that well – the plot is hard to follow, the Chinese and Mongolians all speak English, and there’s lot of violence that has nothing to do with the plot. Apparently, according to the reviews, the story line gets better.

The basics of the show are really good, however. How can it not be? It’s about Marco Polo – the great adventurer. The vistas and costumes and settings are magnificent. And historically, Marco Polo brought back to the west tales of a wonderful, exotic, foreign, and strange and terrible and beautiful world. One of the things that caught me about the show was that in it, Polo looks to the stars called the “Three Sisters” and tells himself that that will always be the way home.

Epiphany means, “the light shines” – in our case, and in the case of the Magi, the light of the Christmas star. It too was a guiding star. The Messiah star is a light that’s supposed to guide us, to cheer us on when all else fails. When we don’t know what else to expect, there will always be that star, that one point of faith we can hang on to. In other words, like the Magi, our journeys do not have to be random, and our way does not have to be without hope.

We don’t know for sure, but the Gospel of Matthew was probably written by a Jewish-Christian to a small and struggling group of other Jewish-Christians. It’s natural they’d be wondering about enlightenment. Why did THEY, this small group, follow Jesus as Messiah when the vast majority of Jews didn’t? Why did they believe what others rejected? Probably, the way they worked out their loneliness and disappointment was by deciding that they happened to be the only ones who had seen the star, metaphorically speaking, and knew what it meant.

These days, when organized faith is less and less fashionable in our society, we’re again in a bit of a position like that. How can it be that we see this star, when everyone else dismisses it so easily? Why are we traveling in this particular direction, when other paths seem so much more common?

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. And then, opening their treasure chests, it says, the Magi offered the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

It’s nice to look at Wise Men in our creches. But the Gospel doesn’t even tell us if there really were three, or whether their names were Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar. So more important is to consider what the Magi DID: they were willing to go on a difficult journey to discover truth. They were pilgrims. And they left gifts.

For me, the most important verse in the whole Epiphany story is the last verse. After everything that they did, Matthew says, the Magi did one last thing: they went home by another way. My understanding of a true Epiphany is that even after a small one, you can never go home by the same way. Once our God reveals something to us about love or grace, about justice or the truth or perhaps about ourselves, there’s no going back. We will always be changed.

In the story of the man and his Cadillac, it tells how he finally reached Calgary. You think maybe he’s going to stop there but he doesn’t. He keeps going, straight through the city, driving west, always west.

Now, you all know what’s west of Calgary……

Right. The Rocky Mountains. And there’s where the story ends.

It says that the man drives his Cadillac into the foothills, and right up to a viewpoint lookout on the side of the highway. And there he parks, gets out of his car with the cool high altitude air in his lungs, leans back against the hood, and looks up at the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The ancient granite walls rising majestically from the foothills. Only for a few minutes.

Then finally, he calls his children, who are worried sick. “I just needed to see the mountains with my own eyes,” he tells them. “One last time.” And then he gets in the Cadillac, turns it around, and heads home. “Now I am ready,” he says.

You and I are on a journey. Many journeys, of course, some we hardly even recognize we are traveling. But the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Is the epiphany we have felt, the spiritual vision we have witnessed, going to sustain us?”

May we too, like that elderly man, and like the Magi, be given guidance for the easy and the not-so-easy roads ahead. May we find joy in our destinations. And by this world and the miracle, the Word and the Spirit, may we also be granted a vision – the equivalent of the mountains, or of the Magi’s star – to guide us through all our coming years.

Seeing Again for the First Time

Italian appies

My Christmas day dinner this year was perhaps the worst I’ve ever made. I like to insist that actually, I’m a pretty good cook. But Christmas dinner wouldn’t have convinced you. I ran out of tin foil and the turkey was dry to the point of parts of it being inedible. Definitely no gravy. The mashed potatoes would have been good – if they hadn’t been cold as ice by the time we sat to eat. And the green beans. Well, I was lucky I didn’t start the house on fire.

It all started out well enough. I’d prepped the meal by putting out the steaming pots for the vegetables and chopping and washing the beans for the meal earlier in the day. So when the time came, because I was distracted by phone calls, and in a bit of a press between one child arriving and another who had to leave for work, I was happy that everything was already ready to go. In between checking potatoes I just took the beans, put them in the steamer pot, and turned on the burner. It seemed that ten minutes should be about right.

However, when the turkey came out of the oven, the beans weren’t even close to done. In fact, strangely, they still looked hard. Hmmm. A watched pot never boils, I guess. Anyway there was the turkey to cut, the potatoes and rutabagas to mash, the lack of gravy to explain, and more phone calls coming in from far away family. I guess it’s just taking a long time for the water to get going, I thought, and went on to something else.

Finally, with dinner almost ready and on the table, I glanced over one last time. Still no steam. What is the matter with those beans?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying: ‘where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising.’

Epiphany has SO many messages for us that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the fact that, like the Magi, God brings strangers into our lives. That’s a good learning all by itself, and one we’ll come back to. Who were the strangers that God brought into your life this past year, and what unusual and meaningful gifts did they leave you?

Epiphany is also about the importance of giving, and maybe even more, of receiving, gifts. It teaches us a new relation with others, instead of just feeling we have to earn or bill or always be on a tally sheet somehow, plus or minus. Then, also, Epiphany is about the ways in which our lives really are a pilgrimage, because what the Magi were doing was definitely that. Like the Magi, our pilgrimage extends out to the worldwide family of our Creator, including people who at first seem different to us, or strange, or even dangerous. All of these are important parts of today.

But there’s something even more basic about Epiphany, something that lies behind and beneath all these other learnings. That is, Epiphany is about a way of SEEING. It is about a way of being conscious in a world that seeks to keep us stupid and unconscious.

I know stupid is a hard word. But it’s accurate. Many forces in our world want us to be, or to become, stupid. That’s no accident.

You can’t hide a star in the heavens. And yet only the Magi came looking for Jesus. Everyone has eyes, but among the sighted, at least, not everyone sees equally. Moreover, neither do WE see, equally well, at all moments of our lives. Like with me and the beans.

Jesus is reported to have said “those who have ears, let them hear.” Maybe we can rephrase that for Epiphany: those who have eyes, let them see.

We tend to think of seeing as something we do automatically, by virtue of just being alive. What we don’t realize is that, more than we think, what we see is a matter of choice. Likewise, what we DON’T see is a matter of choice.

The truth is, for most of us, life can be threateningly dull much of the time. We get up. We shovel some food in our mouths, worry about getting fat or getting old, or getting out of shape or getting redundant at work, worry about our children or our grandchildren or our parents or our health or our career;  and then we do our job, or watch our TV, or talk on the phone or surf the internet or do whatever it is we do for most of our waking hours. And then we go to sleep again, knowing we will repeat more or less that same pattern, again and again.

That’s what life has given many of us. And to face – or maybe NOT to face – that routine, the problem is that we tend to turn off the very ability to see that might save us.

Of course there’s more than one suggested way to open our eyes. Lots of folks – especially advertisers – want us to believe that the way out of the daily grind is through desire. New clothes will change you. The more things in your closet the safer you are from loneliness, or death.

You have the power to be great, the most subtle of the advertisers even tell us, mimicking the serpent in the garden. And they’re right. But the problem is, the ways they suggest usually mean buying something, and usually make us focus on ourselves even more than we already do. If we open our eyes and only see ourselves, then it’s just a mirror game. We’ve missed a whole big wide, wonderful world, including the stars.

Not the Magi. They’re pictured as powerful figures. Rich. Kings, maybe. Wise. Respected. And yet what do they do? They travel, despite hardship. At the end of their journey they worship someone other than themselves. Theology might call that a revelation of the spirit. Others call it enlightenment.

It takes incredible discipline, and constant reminders, to pull ourselves again and again out of our ruts of not-seeing. It takes mindfulness to take the time and make the effort to open ourselves, consciously, to see the beauty of the world and wonder at it. To see the strangers and the outsiders who are always there, but rarely noticed. To see the small uncertainties in another’s hands as they fidget, or to care for the revealed fears in another person’s facial tics, or how beautiful are the details of almost every other human being, God’s gifts to us.

Which brings me back to strangers. Today is a day for remembering those who were once strangers, and came into our lives bearing gifts. It’s a day for pulling our eyes out of auto-focus and seeing the very real pleasure and pain and tragedy and beauty and joy – better than any Hollywood movie –  that are given to us in almost every moment. It’s a day for really seeing the beans.

When, at the very end of all my preparations for Christmas Dinner, I actually really looked at the beans, instead of seeing them through the fog of my schedule and my distraction and my family plans and my worries, I realized what most of you have probably known all along. There was a simple reason the beans weren’t cooking: I had forgotten to put any water in the pot!

I grabbed it and pulled it off the stove. Good thing I have good pots. Even so, the bottom was becoming more and more bronzed from the heat. It steamed and sizzled as it went into the dishwater. I cooked the beans another way.

Today may we be moved to open our eyes and see what is really in front of us. May we take our place among modern-day Magi, those who spend the time and effort to really live and not just BE, to voyage, in some way. And may we be blessed by others, strangers or not, who can take our hands, hold us carefully, and gently but firmly, help us to look up and see the promise that is there shining for us, and for all of creation.