Rejoice in Wisdom

God’s wisdom is all around us. Are we paying attention? The lesson of the magi and their journey to Bethlehem is one we revisit year after year. In our collective memories, they’re there that Christmas night in that crowded stable alongside the shepherds, the animals, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The truth is that we don’t actually know when exactly it happened; our church calendar has it coming twelve days after Christmas. Some people put it closer to two years following the birth of Christ, which would help explain why Herod’s murderous rage would send him after every child under the age of two. Whenever it happens, the point is that it stands on its own, separate from the Christmas celebration, as its own kind of rejoicing in the birth of Christ.

The magi have traveled from that mysterious place known so vaguely as “The East”; based on the clues available, they are likely Nabateans from just over the Jordan River or Persians from even further. In either case, they are outsiders who know more than most of their era about the mysterious stars – enough to recognize when an unfamiliar object is in the sky. It is the star and their own beliefs about the heavens that send them traveling to seek a newborn king.

When they come to Judah, they do what foreign dignitaries on such a mission should: they go and seek the counsel of the king of Judah. Herod, on his throne in Jerusalem, clearly has little interest in religious matters. His passions are politics and power. At first glimpse, it seems surprising that he would want to be helpful to these folks; but given that they are talking about a potential threat to his royal power, he brings the religious scholars into the mix. They’re the ones who know the Hebrew Scriptures well – well enough to send the magi to Bethlehem to find this new king.

When they reach their destination, and bestow their gifts on the infant Jesus, they spend a night resting before returning to Herod to give him a full report. However, a dream infects them all, warning them to skip the return visit to Jerusalem and head for home.

A star…a king…a prophecy…a dream…each one of these holds wisdom for the magi on their quest to honor, gift, and protect young Jesus. The star gets their journey going. The king leads them to the holy ones, who interpret their foreign holy texts. The dream sends them back East. In other words, God’s wisdom was all around them. They simply knew enough to pay attention.

Are we paying attention?

It’s a new year. Some of us will be making resolutions to carry us through the next few weeks. My own resolution is to open a gym that caters only to people who buy gym memberships in January. And while there is nothing magical about the flipping of the calendar, there is something to those moments where we try to get our life back on track. Where new year’s resolutions miss the mark for me is that we so often start off the year with the best of intentions, and maybe even make good on them for a while. But when we lose our drive, it tends to deflate us so that we give up until the next year starts again and the cycle repeats itself.

This past August, as I prepared to wrap up my summer in Chicago and return to Atlanta and to Oglethorpe, it struck me as a golden opportunity to chart a new, healthier, more balanced course for my life. I’m not there yet, but I’m still keeping it in my sights. And there were a couple of things that I did that made it more realistic and achievable than any previous attempt. I share those with you today in hopes that they will be helpful to some of you.

First, I gave myself thirty days before even beginning to make the plan. I knew that returning to work from a three-month break would have its own jolts and surprises. There were moments I was thrilled to be back, and others…well, let’s just pretend that “unthrilled” is a word. And so, when those latter times arose, I had given myself permission to take a deep breath and say to myself, “Just wait until October.”

Once October came, I gave myself time and space to come up with new aims, expecting five minutes a day or so to map it out. Through that process, I was able to come up with a daily, weekly, and monthly plan. Each item on that list had an amount of time attached to it, most of them five, ten, or fifteen minutes long.

Once that was in place, I gave it a test run. What I started with several months back looks very different today; it was only through practice that I could figure out what actually worked, what didn’t, and then adjust accordingly. On a good week, I probably hit 80%. When I’m sick or when urgencies intervene, those days are write-offs. But here’s where the gift of grace comes in: I can always start again tomorrow. And that’s what I’ve done, again and again.

If any of this sounds helpful to you and you’d like to know more, just let me know. I’d be happy to share what little gained wisdom I have. As a friend of mine often says, I share this with you not as someone who has figured it all out, but as a fellow struggler.

Whatever the case, it all began with three months of time away, time that shouted wisdom at me, but from surprising, unexpected corners. And that’s the key: I know that a three-month Sabbatical is a luxury, a once in a lifetime event for which I will always be grateful to you. And so, I constantly ask myself: are there ways I can build smaller, bite-size experiences into my routine that would open me up to those magical moments of wisdom? Could it be that each of us would build our schedules accordingly, creating the possibility that we might learn to pay attention to the signs of God’s wisdom all around us?

With 2014 in our rear view mirrors and 2015 lying out before us, I’d like to suggest that we take our cue from the magi, looking for that divine wisdom surrounding us. Perhaps you would find it in daily prayer, where you allow enough silence for that still, small voice to speak to you. Or maybe it would open you up through daily Bible study, turning to those same holy texts that Herod’s advisers looked. Or perhaps it’ll come in dreams, as it did to the magi and so many others in Scripture. Or maybe it’s on a daily walk, letting the noise of the world around call out to you or leave you lost in thought where God can speak. Just pick one – that’s enough to start. Make it doable: five minutes a day will get you going. If you’re building on something you’re already doing, consider adding a few minutes or maybe the practice of journaling what you notice in words or sketches. This could also give you the chance to look back once a week or once a month to see what patterns might be emerging for you.

In all of this, the goal is quite simple: as we notice God’s wisdom, we draw closer and closer to God. Or to be more accurate, we are more likely to notice how close at hand God already is. You see, here’s the thing: What we celebrate at Epiphany – indeed, what we celebrate year-round – is God coming in that infant Christ, making what seems unknowable immediate, making what is mysterious tangible, making what is infinite real. That wisdom of God might seem far so far beyond us as to be unreachable; and yet, if what we say we believe has any credence whatsoever, it’s that God is present, among us, through us, and with us, even now!

The closer we are to God, the more we are paying attention to those signs of wisdom all around us, the more likely we are to draw closer to those around us. And when we do that, we will rejoice in the gifts God has given us and further seek out those opportunities to love and serve those whom God loves.

Do we dare to dream? Do we dare to follow where it leads?