What Are We Looking For?

What Are We Looking For?

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Matthew 2:1-3

As a bishop I try not to have favorites, but I confess that Epiphany is my favorite season in the Christian calendar.

The word “epiphany” is one of the most useful religious words around. It describes those moments of insight, like the proverbial “lightbulb” going off in your head, when something is revealed to you, or clarified. Sometimes what comes to you is simply a moment that causes you to smile or marvel quietly to yourself. Other times it’s significant enough to turn your life around, set you on a new path, or resolve a tension that you’ve struggled with for years. To call something an “epiphany” is to acknowledge the gift of it, and its power to amaze you.

In the church calendar, the season of Epiphany, which follows Christmas, focuses on the revelation of Jesus—who he is, what his life tells us about the nature of God, and where we might find Jesus, should we be inclined to look.

Here’s something important to remember:

What we see in Jesus, depends, at least in part, on what we’re looking for.

Where we see him depends in large measure on where we look.

The Scripture readings appointed for Sundays in Epiphany, which take us all the way to Lent, are among the most beautiful in the Bible. When I served a congregation in Minnesota, I used to say that if people could bring themselves to leave their warm houses and come to church on a cold January morning, they would be richly rewarded with stories of guiding stars, life-changing encounters, miracles of healing, and the voice of God speaking to us all.

In a moment I’ll turn to the inaugural Epiphany story of wise men from a far away land drawn by a star to seek the child king born in Bethlehem. But first I ask you to consider your own epiphanies, the moments in your life that had the power to amaze you, stop you in your tracks, and enabled you to see, if but for a moment, as God sees.

Falling in love can be an epiphany. Coming to accept ourselves for who we are can be an epiphany, particularly if we’ve struggled with self-acceptance for a long time. Sometimes an epiphany occurs in response to a circumstance, either tragic or joyful. Other times, the epiphany is a new idea that had never occurred to you before or didn’t realize was possible.

I read a story recently about a woman who had been deeply wounded as a child by what I would be so bold as to describe as bad religious teaching. Her image of God was of a punitive, judgmental authority figure. As a result she abandoned religion entirely. In her 40s, she stumbled into a faith community that spoke to her of a loving God. It wasn’t a perfect church—no churches are. But the message was decidedly different—one of welcome, acceptance, and forgiveness. One day, in the context of a Bible study or other small group setting, she had an epiphany—one of those aha moments—in which she actually experienced God’s love for her. “Why didn’t I know this before?” she marveled, with both grief for her past pain and gratitude for a new, life-changing insight.

Now if you haven’t had an epiphany experience in a long time, or if none comes to your mind right now, rest assured that as spiritual experiences go, the big, life-changing epiphany moments are relatively rare. And the smaller ones are such that we can overlook or even miss them entirely if we aren’t paying attention.

There’s a radio program that I listen to sometimes called, “Science Friday.” Once the program was dedicated to something called “Citizen Science,” the many opportunities for people who aren’t professional scientists to engage in scientific exploration and inquiry. The program warned those listening, however, that while there are occasional breakthroughs in scientific research, those eureka moments of discovery are rare. Most scientists spend their days doing the hard work of observation and data collecting with no dramatic breakthroughs.

In a similar way, dramatic spiritual revelations are not the norm. When they are given to us, they usually follow long stretches of simply going about our lives, doing our daily work.

Then again, a lot can depend on our receptivity and awareness. Two people can be standing next to each other looking at the exact same things. One may not notice anything at all, while the other may see something that changes them forever. For how many people, do you suppose, was the star in the sky that led the wise men to Jesus just a star, no different from any other?

What we see depends, at least in part, on what we’re looking for.

My husband Paul is an avid bird watcher. Like most birders, as they’re called, he keeps multiple lists of the varied species he has seen—one list for the birds in Maryland, for example; and another for the District of Columbia, a larger list for the different species he’s seen in the United States, and others for the species he has to travel to other countries to see. He will gladly travel long distances and spend hours, if not days, looking for one bird.

One thing I didn’t know about Paul until recently is that he also lists all the birds he sees in one year. So it was that on New Year’s Day, 2024, as we were taking a walk in Minnesota (where we were visiting family), he was watching for birds. On that day, it didn’t matter how commonplace the species were, how often he had seen them in the past and would see them again in the coming days and weeks. On January first, it was as if he was seeing them all for the first time. When we gathered for dinner that evening and he told us that he had seen 34 species, we were in awe. We went through the entire day missing them all. Our daughter-in-law said that her New Year’s resolution was to see with a birdwatcher’s first-day-of-the-year eyes, marveling in amazement at the world around her.

Let’s turn now to the story of the ones our Scriptures call “the wise men from the East.” We don’t know much about them, except that they were sages of some sort, from another land and another faith who saw a star that beckoned them. Presumably, they were astrologists, trained to look for signs from God in the skies. They were also mystics, comfortable with receiving divine guidance in their dreams.

Their purpose in the story of Jesus’ birth is to demonstrate that Jesus was born for all people, regardless of culture or religion or nationality or race. And also, I believe, to remind us that where we find Jesus depends, at least in part, on our willingness to seek him out in unexpected places.

I’ve been a bishop now for over 12 years, and before that a priest for over 20 years—so like the wise ones in our story, I’ve been trained to look for God. Following Jesus is my job. I confess to you that there are times when I wonder if I’ve heard—and yes, preached and taught the stories about Jesus—so many times that I’m no longer amazed by them. There’s a part of me that wonders if I’ve become so caught up in the job of being a Christian, or so comfortable in the role, that I’ve somehow contained him, or better stated, I have limited what I allow myself to see.

I wonder what it would take for Jesus to break through to me with a new epiphany, such that the words that we all will soon recite as part of our core commitments to follow him aren’t rote, but have profound and deep, transformative meaning for me again. That’s what I’m praying for this Epiphany.

I pray the same for those of whose commitment to follow Jesus could use a new epiphany, a deeper revelation. I pray the same for all in our diocese, so that when we say the words of faith written on the page, they speak to us of experiences that infuse our daily lives with amazement.

May God give us all the spiritual eyes of a bird watcher on New Year’s Day, to see Jesus in our daily life and unexpected places. But remember, what we see in him depends, at least in part, on what we’re looking for. And where we see him depends, in large measure, on where we look.

This week, you might ask yourself what it would take for God to break through to you in new ways. What are you looking for, and where?

When the Wilderness Comes Early

When the Wilderness Comes Early

A forked path in the wilderness

“Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness”

For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 810.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus… Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Luke 4:14-21

In the name of God, Amen.

On the day that I am here because of a painful parting and resulting confusion and grief at the center of your congregation, the appointed Scripture texts remind us why people of faith gather in community at all. Each in their distinct contexts describe the powerful faith experiences that can occur in a communal setting and, in the case of St. Paul’s image of a body made up of dependent parts, why we need each other. We’re connected to each other, he writes, whether we realize it or not. When one suffers, we all suffer.

While this is only the third Sunday in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a time when the Scripture readings in church invite us to consider the ways Jesus makes himself known to us as light for the world, it seems that the next liturgical season, that of Lent, has come early for St. Paul’s, Rock Creek.

Lent, you may recall, is patterned on Jesus’ forty days of trial and testing in the wilderness and the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering their promised land. To be sure, due to the pandemic, the entire world has been in a prolonged season of trial and testing. Now, as a congregation, you have been thrust into your own particular wilderness time, for some of you with seemingly little or no warning. For others, however, it’s been a wilderness at St. Paul’s for quite a while.

One of the defining characteristics of a wilderness experience is not knowing how or when it will end. Forty in Scripture is a symbolic number, signifying a long, uncertain time. While there will be guideposts and processes to guide you, the journey ahead is full of unknowns, including how long it will last. On the other hand, thankfully, wilderness experiences, however long, are not meant to last forever, even though it may seem that way while we’re in one. We’re actually heading somewhere else.

When we find ourselves in a wilderness that we did not choose to enter, the first thing we have to decide is if we can accept that we’re there. Acceptance is not easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once, or at the same time for everyone. That’s okay. You may never agree as to how and why St. Paul’s landed in this wilderness, and that’s understandable. But you are here now, and if it’s any comfort, so am I. I’m here with you.

Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness. One way is to get through it as fast as we can, which is what we all would prefer. Choosing to move quickly has the advantage of being here for as short a time as possible, presuming everything goes well. With a bit of luck, we make it through the wilderness and arrive safely on the other side, not much changed by the experience. What’s difficult about this approach is the emotional impact that can occur when things don’t go according to plan. Then this get-through-it-as-fast-as possible mindset can lead to added frustration, anger, and despair.

Another way to travel through a wilderness is to turn around and leave the way we came in. This is only an option in the wilderness experiences that we enter by choice, when it’s still possible to change our minds. I think about this a lot in terms of lifestyle choices. We can enter the wilderness of making uncomfortable changes in advance of a crisis–adjusting our health practices, or investing in our relationships, or facing an inevitable change sooner rather than later so as to have more options. But in those instances, having entered the wilderness by choice, we can also choose to turn around. Perhaps we underestimated the cost, and the changes were way harder than we realized. Maybe we got scared. Making the choice to enter the wilderness before it is thrust upon us is a good idea, but it’s really hard to do. If we don’t, however, invariably the wilderness will come to us–in the form of a medical crisis, or a permanently ruptured relationship, or a forced change.

Of course this is easier to see in other people’s lives than it is in our own. For over five years my sister and I begged our mother to make changes in her life as she aged. She would dabble in the possibility of selling her nearly 200-year old house on 7 acres of land, find a less remote place to live, and tend more carefully to her health. But she couldn’t bring herself to follow through on any of those changes. Then she got really sick and almost died, and my sister and I had to move in and make all those changes for her, which she hated and I don’t blame her.

Sometimes we can choose to enter a wilderness; sometimes it comes to us. I daresay one of the dynamics at St. Paul’s, and in The Episcopal Church writ large, is coming to terms now with issues we ought to have dealt years ago, but didn’t. Now we have to face them because we have no choice.

A third way to travel through the wilderness is to make our peace with where we are. We don’t often begin the wilderness journey with this attitude; it comes to us when we realize that we’ve gone too far to turn back, the horizon is still beyond our sight, and we are going to be where we are for a while. It’s a sober realization, but it allows us to relax into the experience, and learn from it what we need to learn. This is when the wilderness can change us, so that when we leave, we are different people. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll never leave, but we learn to make our peace with that prospect, too. A yoga teacher once described this to me as “finding peace in a difficult position.”

In both the passage from Nehemiah and the Gospel of Luke, it strikes me that the people gathered are hearing sacred words read to them that they’ve heard many times before. But they are hearing them now with new ears, as if for the first time, because of their circumstances. In the case of the people of Israel, the words of Torah had been lost to them through the trauma of exile and return, the loss of their mother tongue, and the lack of consistent spiritual leadership. Now as Ezra stood before them, reading the old familiar words, the people wept. They wept for joy and for grief, for all that they had lost and all that lay before them. In the midst of their tears, Ezra said to them. “The joy of the Lord,” he said, “will be your strength.”

Similarly, the people gathered in the synagogue the morning Jesus got up to read had heard the words of Isaiah before, but they heard them differently because he was reading them. More than that, he embodied them in a way they had never experienced before. The words were fulfilled in their hearing, and even before Jesus said it, they knew it was true. Now, as you will hear next week if you come to church, the people didn’t like what Jesus had to say after that and they kicked him out. It turns out that we’re all slow learners when it comes to following Jesus. There’s room for humility all around.

In the weeks ahead, should you remain faithful in worship at St. Paul’s, you will hear words you’ve heard before, because there will be a new person speaking them. You will hear yourself recite familiar words in a new way because of where you are now as a church. And it won’t be just the words in church, but everywhere. You do well to pay attention to the familiar things now, because in the wilderness they are all new.

After all, what does one do in a wilderness time? What is the work?

The first task is to pay attention, not necessarily to do anything differently right away, but to listen and observe the world, and ourselves in it, from this new vantage point.

About 12 years ago, my husband gave me a book of poetry by Mary Oliver for Christmas, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I already owned a copy. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t looked at the book since I bought it several years before, and that maybe it had something new to say to me. I had been through a lot in the year before that Christmas, including a really big disappointment in my vocation. (This is when I came in second in the bishop’s election in Minnesota, where I had served as a rector for 15 years.)

I opened the book of poetry to read it from this new vantage point in my life. The first line of the first poem took my breath away: “My work is loving the world.” She goes on: “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”1 There’s something about the wilderness that stops normal life in its tracks, and that’s a good thing. It enables us to see the world around us, and to hear familiar words, as if for the first time.

Another wilderness task is to take stock of our lives, and in this instance, your life as a community of faith. Taking stock is an excellent way to keep our focus where we can actually do something productive, rather than wallowing in self-pity or blaming others for our lot. The Benedictine author Joan Chittister puts it this way: “Courage, character, self-reliance, and faith are forged in the fire of affliction. We wish it were otherwise. But if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”2 As we learn these things, we can face almost anything. And that, by the way, is the hallmark of coming out of a wilderness: you are stronger, more resilient for having lived through it, so that you can face the future without fear.

One last wilderness task that I’ll mention for today: tend to the most important things. There’s little time for trivia in the wilderness–this is a time to remember why you are here. I realize that the range of emotion and interpretation of what has happened is broad among you, and it would be tempting to walk away from your community. I pray that you won’t, and that you retreat to corner tables of observation and critique. I pray that you tend to the priceless, and at times costly gift of Christian community and what, at its best, it offers you and through you can offer others: a path to walk and a light to go by; a different reference point from what the world teaches about success and failure and self-worth; and most especially, the invitation to draw closer to Jesus as your Savior and friend.

In closing, let me assure you that there is no one right way to experience the wilderness. As you face what lies ahead, it’s good to remember that there is always more than one right answer, always more than one possibility before you, and always a chance to start again. That’s especially comforting when things don’t go as we hoped or planned. There’s always a Plan B.

The author Anne Lamott once offered these words as her Plan B at a time when she was at a loss for what to do next. They strike me as a good Plan A in a wilderness time:

Remember God is in charge.
Do your inner work.
Be of service.
Breathe again.
Give thanks.3

Gracious God, I hold before you the people of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek and ask that you would make yourself known to each one in a powerful way. Guide them through this wilderness time; assure them of your presence with them through Jesus, and give them a glimpse of the preferred future you have in mind for them. Help them to breathe, remember that you are in charge, do their inner work, breathe again, and give thanks. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


1“Messengers,” by Mary Oliver, in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 1.
2Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 33.
3Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (San Francisco: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 314.