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Epiphanies & other things I question


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Shared with permission from Philip Gulley:

One of the things I admire about Joan, besides her intelligence, kindness, and beauty, is her uncanny knack for remembering dates. Sometimes, out of the blue, she’ll mention, “Today is so-and-so’s birthday,” and it will be someone we knew 30 years ago who we haven’t seen in years. But Joan remembers. She’s that way about faces, too. She has 600 students a year in her library, and we’ll run into a college kid who’ll ask, “Mrs. Gulley, do you remember me?” and she always does. And remembers their brothers and sisters too.

For years, I could never remember my sibling’s birthdays. I wake up, and Joan says, “Don’t forget to call your sister. Today’s her birthday.” I say, “What, you think I’m an idiot? I knew that,” even though I didn’t. I always forget my sibling’s birthdays, except my brother Doug’s. I’ve not forgotten his birthday ever since he turned 42 on September 11, 2001. It’s a shame it takes a national tragedy for me to remember my brother’s birthday. There are other dates that have taken on fresh meaning for me. Growing up Catholic, I was accustomed to celebrating Epiphany, the visit of the three wise men to honor the infant Jesus, on January 6th. But now whenever I hear the date January 6th, my mind goes immediately, not to Epiphany, but to the violent insurrection at our nation’s capital, aided and abetted by our former president.

The word “epiphany” means “appearance,” specifically the appearance or manifestation of a deity. But “epiphany” has another meaning―a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. I’ll use that in a sentence. Last June, when I forgot our wedding anniversary, Joan had the epiphany that she should have chosen a smarter husband.

The story of the wise men, coincidentally, illustrates both definitions. It is first a story about the appearance of a deity, and secondly a story about understanding something in a new way, illustrated by that curious tale in Matthew’s gospel of the magi’s visit, how afterward, in a dream, God warned the three not to return to Herod, who was scheming to murder the infant, but to go back to their homeland by a different route. They understood something in a new and very clear way. We might say that after the Epiphany, the wise men had an epiphany, causing them to go home by another way.

This morning I want to talk about epiphanies, which in our Jewish/Christian/Quaker tradition is one way God leads us. In the Bible, every time you turn a corner, someone was having an epiphany, whether it was a burning bush speaking to Moses, or the Apostle Paul being knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, or the apostles meeting the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus. When George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, had a vision on Pendle Hill of a great people to be gathered, we could say that was an epiphany.

We read about these instantaneous, transformative moments of people understanding something in a new way, these Aha! moments. Our tendency is to believe this is how God usually works, in an immediate, miraculous manner, intervening in space and time to either reveal something to us or perhaps even do something for us. I know a woman in her mid-30s who desperately wants to be married and have a family, but never dates, because she believes God will reveal the perfect mate to her with no effort on her part. When her friends say, “I know someone you should meet,” she says, “No thank you. I’m trusting God to bless me with a husband.” There’s a word for people like that. The word is single.

Some people spend their whole lives waiting for epiphanies, for God to tell them who to marry, for God to tell them what kind of work to do, for God to tell them which house to buy, or whether to have children. They wait for God to tell them where to attend church, for God to bring them friends or wealth or mental well-being or physical health. Their entire lives rely upon spiritual bolts of lightning that will magically transform their lives, which is the worst sort of spiritual laziness, asking God to assume responsibility for their choices and lives so they do not have to.

I know pastors who never prepare a sermon, believing God will tell them what to say as they’re standing in the pulpit.

I know Quakers who will not prepare for meeting for worship beforehand, so they can be blank and empty slates for God to speak through, which God seldom seems to do.

I know people who persist in dreadful, damaging marriages, believing God ordained their marriage and will therefore miraculously improve it.

I know folks who languish in soul-numbing jobs, believing God has better things in store for them in some mysterious, elusive future.

I know people who neglect their health and abuse their bodies, believing God will one day heal them and make them whole.

I know people who will happily follow a tyrant, believing God is accomplishing divine purposes through an imperfect vessel. (Trust me when I tell you things like that never end well. Remember January 6th. Not the Epiphany January 6th, but the other January 6th.)

I know people so willing for God to rule and control every aspect of their lives, they will abandon personal responsibility and call it faith.

To be honest, I am amazed God had to warn the three wise men to avoid Herod, when it was clear to anyone with half a brain that Herod was a scheming, evil, narcissistic bully. Wise men? One has to wonder.

I once had an epiphany. Do you want to know what it was? I once had an epiphany that I should not ask God to do something for me that I was not willing to do for myself. Nor should I ask God to guide my decisions unless I was willing to study, learn, reflect and glow, in order to make better decisions myself and save God the trouble.

Do I believe in epiphanies? Do I believe in rare instances God might grant someone transformational insight? Yes, I do. But I don’t bank on it, just as I don’t bank on winning the lottery to provide my retirement. What I do bank on is my capacity to think, my ability to work, my willingness to make difficult and disciplined decisions based on the evidence at hand. This is not hubris. This is what it means to be a responsible adult.

Friends, we should not require God to warn us in dreams about that which is clearly observable in our waking hours. Don’t spend your life waiting for an epiphany, for a magical moment to resolve all your difficulties or satisfy your deepest longings.

I read a wonderful thought this week from Ralph Waldo Emerson, so fitting as we begin this new year:

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

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