Think Outside Your Jail
By Charles Rush
January 6, 2008
Matthew 2: 1-12 and Epiphany, 2008
(mp3, 6.5Mb) ]
st after we were married, Kate and I were listening to this text being read at a service at the Chapel in Divinity school. She leans over to me and whispers, "Why do you think they called them wise men?" I'm supposed to know the answer to every question about the bible but I nodded back "no idea"… She taps my shoulder and says, "Maybe because they stopped to ask for directions?" Maybe… That would be wisdom, the female kind.
But I also
think of one our hunting guides in Montana, an Indian from the Crow Nation. He
and I are riding in the pick up truck. I pull a bag out of my coat. He looks at
it like he is interested. I reach in the bag and pull out a wind catcher and
hold it up for him to see. I say, "I got it… for my wife". He nods,
looks at me, nods again, looks at me and says, "Good trade"… Probably
been asked to stop for directions one time too many… Wisdom,
the male kind.
In our story,
the Wise men weren't exactly wise. They were astrologers. This was the widely
accepted theological interpretation of the world at the time. Don't think about
the fruity zodiac predictions that are delivered with the comics in most papers
across the country like "decisions you make today are subject to change in
the short term but will prove to be important in the long term" whatever
the hell that means.
In the ancient
world, religion combined the best of our knowledge of the heavens with our
spirituality and it was certainly a reasonable presumption to float. We all believed
that the astral movements of the heavens reflected our paths on this earth. I
used to dismiss this until I actually read their writings and went to see some
of their worship spaces in Rome, Greece and what is today Turkey. They were
very sophisticated in their study of the skies and could predict complex astral
movements remarkably well considering the limited scope of scientific knowledge
of the day. Whatever you may think about them, you have to admire the way that
they blended math, science and religion trying to figure out the significance
of the astral movements of the heavens.
that every person had a star that came into being with their birth and that
certain stars predicted the birth of significant leaders. The explosion of a
supernova or the creation of a new galaxy in deep space created special
speculation. So you have the beginning of the Aeneid with
astral phenomenon that portends the birth of Julius Caesar and the point of the
Aeneid is to give praise for the rise of the house of
Julii that eventually gave us the wonderful Caesar,
who just happens to be the Emperor right now, that gave us the marvelous "Pax Romana" with all of our
economic prosperity and military security.
these very same Magi, come to tell of the birth, not of great earthly power and
political might, but the birth of spiritual integrity and authentic existence.
They find it not on the Palatine Hill in Rome, where all of the aristocrats are
born, but in a simple manger near the very edge of the Empire. This would be a
birth in Uganda, the upper Amazon in Brazil, or a mountain village in Turkmenistan. These are peasants, not patricians.
This is not
what we should expect. This is outside the box. It is so… so… creative. And
this is a fundamental message of God in the bible. God creates.
think of creation in terms of the awesome wonder of the natural world and it is
stunning. I was recently watching a documentary of guys climbing Mt. Everest and they shot some footage from like
20,000 ft. from above the clouds, looking out and down on this ethereal
landscape. I remember diving at Ras Muhammed the first time. It is a coral reef on a cliff that
drops several hundred feet straight down in the Red Sea. You fall in the water and like a
Disney movie on steroids, you are quickly swimming in
the middle of a school of 5,000 tiny red fish all around you and not touching
you. Clouds of blue fish, yellow fish, this panoply of color, teeming with
live. It is such an astonishing wonder. And I suspect that centuries from now,
people will be saying the same things about deep space, like those incredible
shots from the Hubble space craft that show the color of stars and galaxies,
this unbelievably beautiful variation that is our cosmos.
beauty, awe, wonder. God does these new things and they are often revolutions
from the ground up. God takes a cast away child in the Nile river and uses that child to start a
revolutionary Exodus that leads a people from the bondage of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.
God takes this child born to Peasant parents to lead all of us toward the
freedom of Spiritual authenticity, the salvation that Jesus embodied and lived
in love. It is revolutionary, from the edges of civilization and power, not
what you would expect. Creation is like that isn't it? Really creative things
are novel, different. They are not quite what you expect.
And from time
to time, you will reach a point in your life, when all of a sudden… "the New" comes at us. Often it begins with a vague
discomfort with the present. Often, you have this moment when it settles over
you that you've been tracking down this path for the last chapter of your life
and you realize that this chapter is now closed. What next?
These can be
very disorienting spaces. This has been who you are and what you are about.
This was your routine, your goals, your direction. All of a sudden, this very
routine, this very direction, feels hollow. It is not fulfilling. You need
something more. You need something different. Things just aren't clicking in
their old familiar ways. It makes you anxious and in moments of reflection, if
you allow your imagination to open, this same anxiety can also be exhilarating.
Maybe you need
to do something new? Maybe you need to drop a lot of the things you were
invested in the previous chapter and do something completely different? And
what is really important about your life? What is it that you need to
accomplish? The question is never what is the meaning of life
in general, but what is the meaning of your life? This is the one you
are responsible for…
You get to
these moments when you can finally say to yourself, and you really mean it, I'm
willing to go of some of the past… let some of these things go… I was this
person, and perhaps you were very fulfilled and no
longer have that sense of fulfillment, or perhaps you have labored with a sense
of constriction and duty and ennui for way, way too long. But there is
something else? What exactly is it?
divine, creative junctures. In the bible, there is a lovely line often used.
God says, "Behold, see I am doing a
new thing". What is it? It is hard to know isn't it because it is new
and it is going to bring out a whole different dimension in you.
So it is anxious, exhilarating, uncertain, pregnant
I wish I could
make your life easy and give you a simple script to follow that would lead you
unambiguously towards bliss but why? The point is for you to find out for
yourself. It is time to think outside of the Jail that you have created for
yourself. Despite all of the well meaning practical wisdom that you inherited,
your life is a spiritual adventure. You know that the clock is ticking. The
time for something new might be just now.
I think of Paul
Farmer, the subject of Summit community book read. He grew up, one of six kids in a
very poor family, in Florida. He managed to get into Duke where
they taught him to think, went to Medical school at Harvard, got a Ph.D. in
Anthropology. He could have gotten trapped by the suffocating sense of
self-importance that keeps so many brilliant people in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the rest of their lives but he didn't.
Instead he took
the simple concern for the poor that he learned in his Catholic Church growing
up, got involved in a health clinic in Haiti, figured out a meaningful way to
make the best of Western medicine available to the poorest sectors of the third
world by developing co-operatives with local people and empowering them to
eradicate diseases like tuberculosis once and for all. He started asking what
they could do for themselves with their very limited resources. He duplicated
that in Peru and Russia and formed the Partners in Health
that is replicating this model around the world.
Farmer is an extraordinary guy. It is easy to be intimidated by these people
that seem to get more done in a day than you and I get done in a week. But that
is not the point. You don't have to save the world or unlock the cure for
cancer in order to be open to the new and find a meaningful life.
But when you
hear him interviewed, he is so full of life because spiritually he has found
the creative path that he needed to follow. He has that passion and spiritual
intensity because he is actualizing what he has to offer and people around him
are being healed. They are being empowered.
give us a lot of moral or spiritual prescriptions to follow because our lives
are not formulaic like that. Most of the interesting things
that we do, most of the profound spiritual insights that we develop, we pick up
on the way… There are certainly qualities that we are called
to express and there are responsibilities that we are called to shoulder but
the precise nature of who you are growing to become is unique to you. And there
is this piece to the spiritual life, the creative piece, being open to growing
into something new, this no one can really answer but
you for yourself. And you know when you are not in that zone and you know when
disconcerting and a little bit dizzying to be in that space when you know that
you need to re-invent yourself. You sense the need for something new, you don't
exactly know what it is and you don't exactly know how you are going to get
there. You are not that different from young Mary or young Joseph who are told
they are about to be parents of a fairly different sort of child. You are not
that different from Elizabeth or Zechariah who find
out they are going to get pregnant in old age when they thought that was not
possible. All of them, have that deer in the
headlights look, wondering, in the words of Mary, "what this might
mean". What is going on here? And it is hard to know.
They had Angels
that came to each one of them with the exact same message. That message is the
same one that Angels would deliver to us. First and foremost, the Angels tell
them, "Do not be afraid". The anxiety you are experiencing in the
face of the new and unprecedented in your life, this is the good kind. You know
what? Those Angels are still around… some of them in the pews next to you right
now. Do not be afraid.
And that lovely
line the Angel says to Mary, "God has found favor with you." We can't
tell you how this is going to turn out because that is largely up to you but it
will be good. Follow your heart. Follow the Spirit of God as it leads you. Drop
the structure and the blinders of yesterday and go with it.
I hope you can
pray the line that Mary spoke to the Angel. "Here am I, the servant of the
Lord; let it be with me according to Your word." Accept
the unknown new of your future. It will be okay and, if God is in it, somehow,
someway it will all work out, though possibly only at the very last minute in a
most improbable way. In the interest of full disclosure, the authentic
spiritual path you are to follow will be neither safe or
I'm genuinely sorry about the lack of
control in the authentic spiritual life. But it is more than made up for by the
coursing sense that you are truly alive.
Open yourself to the new. Fear not
the anxiety. God has found favor with you. Amen.
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