During my recent winter break, which was just wonderful with two weeks in Cincinnati and one week in New York, an old friend asked me, “What is it like to go back and forth between this world and that world?” That is a fair question, although I think the sameness of the two worlds would probably astound some people—I neither live in a war zone nor do I go without western television much. This high school friend asked, “We enjoy your company, but in between your visits, we just go about regular life in the meantime.” I don’t even entirely understand what the observation means, and I don’t know why that last phrase stuck in my head—that in the meantime… But as I have enjoyed essentially three New Years’ (the actual one in Cincinnati celebrating at dear Sylvia’s house, the one in New York with all the artistic and theatrical revelry that I enjoy, and then another “New Year” when I returned to Jordan to teach for my 8th New Year at KA) I keep coming back to that phrase lolling about in my head. But back to the newness of the new year!! My, how we love a new year—isn’t that ‘blank slate’ thing just wonderful and intoxicating? Ah, but sadly it doesn’t take long for the blankness to go away, for the events of real life to mar the shiny newness of a new year. Last year it didn’t take long for the troops in Ukraine to surprise the world and ruin the perfection of a new year or the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, among other events. This year the tragic events in Paris have ended the revelry of the blankness, the newness of 2015. I am also awaiting news of a tragic car accident in North Carolina where a niece of a dear, dear friend lies between life and death. And “we just go about regular life in the meantime.”
I go home for “events”—for Christmas, Easter once, Thanksgiving once, summer always, even my birthday once, but when I go home it is in a way an event; however, most of our lives is indeed that period of time between exciting things, or unexpected things, the time when the stuff of life generally happens, the quotidian events, the in the meantime.
Last week on January 6th, I thought of those ancient wise men following a star, and while I know the story so well, the profundity and audacity of what they did struck me again. As many faithful believe, on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, those Magi saw a star rise, and there must have been something different enough about that star to follow it and to journey and see where it led.
As I was sitting in church on January 4th, hearing the familiar story of the Magi, I noticed a woman in front of me making a list. At first I thought she was jotting down notes or insights from the sermon. But instead, I noticed she was working on a list of resolutions for the new year. Oh, yeah…that impulse too. Her list looked like most people’s list probably look. Can you guess what she had on her list? She noted that in 2015 she would (1) lose weight (2) exercise more and (3) save money. She hit all the targets of what the majority of us resolve to do in the new year! It seemed strange to me—why even make that list? Everyone makes that list—it is beyond clichéd! I was thinking of the Magi again, and somehow, and I do not know why, but the image of Ellen DeGeneres taking her “selfie” at the Oscars telecast with all those A-list celebs popped into my head. I even wondered if the Magi had had the technology would they have taken “selfies” as they followed the star?
While the sermon was good, I had another parallel track going, wondering about selfies, and what we have become with the selfie, the flattering, casual pictures of ourselves that include that odd puckered-mouth pose. Is the selfie what we have become???
I made it back to the sermon, and the stargazers, and thought about what those Magi would think of us and our selfie-obsessed culture. The Magi and their quest reminds us of the bright star focused on something else, something besides ourselves. The star guides us beyond ourselves and we should follow where it leads and believe. I was thinking earlier about my decision to come to Jordan, made almost 8 years ago, and how terrified I was to look beyond my ken, my NYC and Cincinnati worlds. I scoured the Bible then for examples, of Abraham as he left his comfortable surroundings and picked up and moved, of those Magi who travelled in search of, did they have any idea??? The Magi had to look up and out, away from themselves, towards something different.
But then that phrase comes back in my mind, “Yeah, but what about in the meantime?” What do we do in the meantime? What if we don’t see a star?
I think that is one of the great things of a new year, a reminder to look out, to look up, to look for unexpected things in the meantime. The star might guide you in unexpected ways, but we must look outward and find that star and believe. On my final day in New York I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my “art diner” and gazed upon Washington Crossing the Delaware, the largest canvas in the mighty Met. I have looked on this work dozens of times, but I thought I might teach it soon, and so I thought I would look at it again, and look for something unexpected. It is a great work, and a contentious work because it has so many inaccuracies in it that many in the Art World Establishment have utter disdain for it. But it is not the inaccuracies that make it interesting (or uninteresting) but for me, this painting went on tour during the Civil War, hoping for a miracle that Americans would see this art work, band together once again, as they had during the Revolutionary War days, and find guidance and progress. As I looked at this painting that children just adore, lo and behold, who would have thought, but there was something new for me. I had never noticed that up in the upper left, as the soldiers crossed the Delaware, there appeared in the dawn a morning star. I had never noticed this little detail before. I had always been more attentive to who each person was in the boat, and snarkily joked about the things that were inaccurate in the painting from the reality of the crossing. But there was a star!
And back to the Magi…God chose stargazers to find Jesus, our God incarnate in our midst, to urge us to move out and upward from ourselves. Why did God turn to stargazers? Left to ourselves…well, we really are selfie people, but the stargazers remind us to look for that light. The apostle John says the darkness will not overcome the light...the light shines in the darkness and will not be overcome. There is always a star, but we need the reminder of the Magi, of the new year, of tragedies, and even in the meantime to look for it. I wish I could go back to Sunday, lean forward and whisper in the ear of the woman writing her resolution list, “Pssst, in the meantime, why don’t you look for the star?”