Thursday, January 06, 2011
Following a star and a story
Christmas is a great celebration of the Incarnation, but The Epiphany is the way in which that Incarnation is lived out in our lives of faith.
It's the on-going revelation of the miracle of the Incarnation in continually surprising and unexpected - and, dare I say it, unorthodox - ways.
Three wise men - Kings, we are told - reportedly came from the East, following only a star and a story. It was an ancient story - a rumor of a story, really - that was so amazing it brought a hope that burned so bright it formed its own light. They came, the Scriptural story tells us, to visit a newborn babe who was, at the very least, "in humble estate".
In so doing, they gave us a gift of another story that helps to guide us on our own spiritual paths so that we may live out our own stories of faith.
I think that's the real message of The Epiphany. It's about the surprising ways God is revealed to us when we journey in faith to find Jesus - no matter where that light or story leads us.
One of my favorite stories comes from a priest friend who has been in solid recovery for over 25 years. He still, after all these years, calls himself a "drunk". He says it keeps him humble and reminds him to be grateful for the gift of his sobriety.
His journey began with an epiphany.
Yes, this is one of my stories. Gather round, children, and listen.
"Once upon a time . . ." there lived a priest who thought he knew the Risen Christ. He had studied Him and His life. He had taught about Him and the marvelous, miraculous things He had done. His whole life was about preaching and teaching and living the Good News. It wasn't until he followed a story that he met Him, lying in humble estate, and found that His star burns brightly in his own life.
My friend thought he "might have a problem" with alcohol but was able to convince himself that maybe, once in a while, he "drank a little too much."
It bothered him that he kept his empty beer cans and whiskey bottles locked in the back pantry and took them, himself, to the recycling place, rather than out on the curb in front of the rectory. He had convinced himself, however, that he was just "protecting his parishioners" from the opportunity to gossip.
One night, in the deep midwinter, sometime after midnight, there came a loud banging on the rectory door. He sighed wearily as he roused himself from bed, put on some clothes, and wondered what he might be asked to do. Now. Again.
Might it be a parishioner in some sort of difficulty? Or, was it one of the many street people who lived in his urban neighborhood, come looking to "make a confession" before asking for some money "for a little something to eat, Father," which they both knew would be spent on booze.
He thought about taking a quick swig from the left over whiskey at his bedside table, but decided against it, just in case it was, in fact, a parishioner. He would save it for after the visit. Just a little something to help him get back to sleep.
As he opened the door, the mixture of sweat, cigarettes and alcohol conspired together to make such an offensive odor that it slapped him in the face. Slapped him hard. It burned his eyes and made them water and for a few seconds so that he could only make out the blur of a man's shape standing on the steps of the rectory.
Through the haze, he heard the man say, "Father, please, can you give me shelter tonight? I have nothing left to drink. If I could just have a cup of coffee and a place to lay my head for a few hours, I won't have to sleep out here where I might freeze to death. I promise I'll be gone in the morning."
It was cold. Freezing, in fact. Something in the priest's heart stirred. It was something like compassion, but it was so mingled with disgust as to be barely recognizable.
Still, he recognized something in the man. What was it about this pathetic, disheveled, stench of humanity in front of him? Was it the terrible predicament he had gotten himself into? Was it just the bare, raw, vulnerable human need that stood before him?
Against his better judgment, he opened the door and heard himself say, "Come in, son."
He sat him at his kitchen table and prepared a pot of coffee before he went about setting up a cot in the corner of the kitchen where the man could sleep. He passed the locked pantry door where his "empties" were stored and sighed with relief that the bottles that were full were upstairs in his bedroom.
The bottles and his secrets.
As the warmth and kindness in the rectory kitchen began to surround and envelope the man, it seemed to potentiate the anesthetic effect of the enormous amounts of alcohol he had consumed. His head began to nod and he had difficulty keeping himself sitting upright in the chair.
The priest poured him a cup of hot, black coffee and helped him take a few large gulps. The small amounts of caffeine in the coffee were no match for the alcohol, however, and the priest helped the man over to the cot.
As the man flopped into his cot, he looked at the priest and said, over and over again, "Father, forgive me, please forgive me."
"Shhh," said the priest. "Quiet now. Get some rest. You'll feel better in the morning."
"No, no I won't," said the man. "I'll feel worse. I always do. And then, I'll start drinking again."
"Okay, then," said the priest. "Sleep now. We'll get you some help in the morning."
"No," said the man. "I need some help now. Father, please forgive me."
"Do you want me to hear your confession?" he asked. "I'm a priest. I can hear your confession, you know. But, we can do that in the morning."
"Yes," said the man. "Yes, I know you're a priest."
And then he looked at him, square in the eye, beyond his eyes and looked straight into his soul. And then he said, "You see, I am a priest, too."
My friend said that, in that moment, in that man - that fellow priest's story - a light began to shine in the darkness of the lies he had been telling himself.
In that new light, he could see the possibility of the story of his own life becoming one with the story of the priest in front of him.
And, he wept and wept and wept as he kept vigil with the man through the night.
The next morning, as my friend says, began "the first day of the rest of his life."
Yes, this is one of my stories. It will never be part of scriptural canon. Perhaps that's because there are so many stories like them. Unique. Individual. And yet, stories of amazing grace, having once been lost and now am found.
You won't hear them in Church, but you will hear them if you linger about the Parish Halls and Undercrofts of churches where many 12-Step Programs meet.
They are Epiphany stories - sure and true. They are stories of the continual manifestations of how God's glory is revealed in human weakness and vulnerability.
It begins with telling the secrets we keep that, as Buechner says, "we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is, of all our secrets, the most telling and the most precious we have to tell."
In that moment, a light is revealed and begins to shine.
Sometimes, we have to reach way, down deep in order to touch a star.