“The journey must have begun after sunset. When you follow a star, you can only walk at night, when the world is not so busy, so noisy. When you travel at the rate of a star, too, you move very, very slowly. Since stars pass across the heavens over a period of months, there is no need to hurry. And, when you have plenty of time, mountains do not seem as steep, nor valleys and deserts so wide. It is all a matter of perspective, patience, and persistence. (The Magi aren’t called ‘wise men’ for nothing.) Sure, the trek is long and difficult at times, but there is something about that star.”—Robin White
Wing + Prayer
By The Reverend Robin White
LAKE HARTWELL South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—January 2020—We don’t know who the Magi were, how many of them traveled to Bethlehem, or where they came from. We really don’t even know about the famous star. What we do know is that the story was somehow important to Matthew.
Matthew, who was himself Jewish and wrote somewhere between AD 70 and 110, seems to make an extra special effort to appeal to Jewish readers. His report of the Magi incident highlights an important theme in his Gospel—the shifting of God’s singular favor of Israel to a more inclusive relationship, specifically including the Gentiles.
The connection between Matthew’s version of the Magi’s visitation with the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers cannot be overlooked. The parallels between Balak, King of Moab, who tried to hinder Israel’s flight and inheritance of the promised land (Num. 22: 1-6) and Matthew’s story of Herod’s desire to kill the Messiah who would bring redemption to Israel are striking. Just as Balaam was Balak’s intended instrument of destruction for Israel (Num. 22: 7-21), so Herod tries to use the Magi as instruments of wrath against Jesus.
I have come to believe that it is not the facts themselves here that are significant—though other facts, elsewhere, certainly are—but, rather, the truth undergirding the story. The account of the journey of the Magi is true because it continues to come to life inside people, inside us, over and over again—even now.
If the Magi were star gazers, experts in the field of astrology, perhaps they had pinpointed the rising of a new or known star in a new or unknown quadrant as a sign, as “sign”-ificant in the arrival of a new ruler of Israel. They saw it, there on the horizon, mysterious, distant, not of this world. Not of Herod’s world. And, as they focused on the star, perhaps they began to focus less on the circumstances around them, the anxieties, the horrors of life in that time and place. As they watched that star, they became transfixed by the only certain glimmer of light in the vast, overwhelming and deep, darkness.
As they studied that star, it began calling to them . . . and something stirred. This was what they had been waiting for, perhaps for their entire lives, perhaps longer. Each of them, in his own country, felt drawn to follow.
Imagine explaining such a phenomenon to families and friends: “Well you see, Honey, there’s this star, moving across the heavens, and I just have to go after it . . . . Well, no, I don’t know where it is going, and I don’t know where or when it will stop. I just know I need to look for, find, something, and that the star is the way.”
Certainly, the Magi were not motivated by logic or practicality, but by a hope for something new, something newborn. It was never a question of what people would think or who might be offended, or of what might happen if they failed. They let go of their reputations, their systems of belief, their politics, even their own science. They picked up, packed up, and began a long journey, on an impulse, to follow . . . a star in the night sky.
The journey must have begun after sunset. When you follow a star, you can only walk at night, when the world is not so busy, so noisy. When you travel at the rate of a star, too, you move very, very slowly. Since stars pass across the heavens over a period of months, there is no need to hurry. And, when you have plenty of time, mountains do not seem as steep, nor valleys and deserts so wide. It is all a matter of perspective, patience, and persistence. (The Magi aren’t called “wise men” for nothing.) Sure, the trek is long and difficult at times, but there is something about that star . . . .
Robyn Davidson, in recounting her solo odyssey across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback, writes: “I had simply not allowed myself to think of the consequences, but had closed my eyes, jumped in, and, before I knew where I was, it was impossible to renege.”
All passion, no sense, no order, no instinct for self-preservation.
Davidson continues: “There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Day-glo and realized this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds.”
In her book, Tracks, she tells the story of her amazing and life changing expedition through desert wilderness with only four camels and her dog as companions. She recounts the hardship and the beauty of walking through the desert’s sweltering days and frigid nights. She describes dangerous encounters with rogue bull Camels. She shares her psychological and emotional challenges; the wrestling with her personal demons.
In her candid account of an extraordinary trek, she claims to have experienced cowardice firsthand. Instead, we as readers come to view her as remarkably courageous, facing the unknown, day after night after day, with a fearless willingness to transform and discover new ways of being.
She writes: “The two things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”
Fifteen years ago, after nearly 20 years of pastoral service, I made the wrenching decision to leave the church I loved. I had spent too many years striving to feel at home in an institution that barred “out” LGBTQ folks from ordination and installation.
The dark and tight corners of the back of the closet were lonely and stifling. Withholding part of my heart took a huge toll on my emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Feeling battered after decades of colliding not only with the stained-glass ceiling, but with the PCUSA-sanctioned Great Wall that excluded LGBTQ people from service, I hung up my stole and walked away.
I moved to the mountains of West Virginia, where I lived for the next 13 years. I tried, in vain, to find a church home in that rural community. I continued to grieve my loss. I felt little hope of ever finding my place at the table prepared for me . . . for us all, much less a place back in the pulpit where my words might resonate with like-minded, like-spirited people.
After years of caring for my terminally ill father, the time finally came for me to refocus. The 2016 election had left me feeling disheartened and depressed. I knew what I had to do, though, and so I made the decision to strike out.
I put the house on the market and opened a map to search for a new home. With my mother in Florida, it made sense to move south. I wanted mountains and water. I wanted a progressive church community. I also searched the list of More Light Presbyterian churches.
At that time, I had just completed my term as Co-Moderator of the National More Light Presbyterians’ board of directors; the organization formed in 1978 as a result of the Presbyterian ruling that openly LGBTQ people could join and participate in Presbyterian churches, but not serve in official leadership of the church. Several Presbyterian churches took issue with this ruling and declared themselves to be “More Light” churches, because there was “yet more light to shine forth on the scriptures”; and, at the time, on homosexuality, as well.
As I searched the More Light list, I found North Anderson Community Church—the only More Light congregation in South Carolina.
As I looked at the map, I found Lake Hartwell, with the mountains just up the road. On paper, it was all just what I was looking for. I made a slight detour on my way home from a trip to Florida and literally drove my little RV towards “More Light.”
When I pulled into the parking lot, I discovered people filing out of the woods and learned I was too late for the early worship service which had been held at the church Labyrinth. It was Easter Sunday, so I suppose I should not have been surprised to feel the ground tremble as I spoke with church members over breakfast.
I confess I was transfixed by the message—the sign—posted outside the 1970s-style church building: Ephphatha, or “Be opened.” The stone had indeed been rolled away, and I began to envision myself in the role of pastor. I felt exhilarated at the prospect of resurrecting the vocation to which I had felt called, so many years before.
As Robyn Davidson writes of her experiences in Australia, she quotes Renata Adler from that writer’s unconventional novel, Speedboat, which is now on my reading list.
Adler’s words resonate with Davidson and me, both. She writes: “I believe when you’re stuck in one spot for too long, it’s best to throw a grenade where you stand, and jump . . . and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”
In my case, the grenade had finally been tossed. I had prayed, then jumped, and it absolutely felt like the momentum of last resort. Friends and family thought I was crazy as I packed up my belongings and set off on an impulse. (All passion, no sense, no order!) But, little by little, step by step, I began to find my way, and to see the stars burning through the sheets of cloud. Eighteen months later . . . my trek has brought me here to this table . . . and even to this pulpit. And there’s the star.
New Testament scholar Ray Brown observes about the Magi’s journey that the geography they traverse echoes Israel’s history, and anticipates the movement in Matthew’s gospel. Scholar and Biblical preacher Tom Long writes: “Matthew is emphasizing the truth that Jesus is the embodiment and fulfillment of the mission and identity of Israel. Everything that God called Israel to be, Jesus is.”
I love the idea that this fulfillment reaches into time, both ways—into the past of Israel’s history and also into the future, even into our lives today. The Wise Men’s Journey is the fulfillment of our purpose—our “phylogeny”—and Christ is the model for what it means to be human and the guide for the trek of our lives.
Dear Friends, now we, together, are about to embark together on a new adventure, a new journey. I’m excited, wonder-filled, and have a stomach full of butterflies. Yet, I know I am not alone.
Those of us who choose to follow a star, more often than not, find ourselves in good company. Those of us who are searching, seeking, gazing at, and trekking after a star have a way of bumping into one another.
I am reminded of a prayer that comes from the Lutheran Book of Common Worship: “Eternal God, you call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give me faith to go out with courage, not knowing where I go, but only that your hand is leading me and your love supporting me.”
The very last sentence of Robyn Davidson’s book makes me smile, because I know it to be so deeply true: “Camel trips, as I suspected all along, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end: they merely change form.”
We must be so, so grateful that, while we follow a star in darkness . . . we shall not be required, I feel almost certain, to travel by camel!