Beth Hoffman Faeth, January 5, 2020
Scripture Matthew 2:1–12
Three years ago, in November 2016, on the day before my mother turned 80, my parents moved from their retirement home of 20 years—a lovely place on a little lake in a fairly rural area of eastern Wisconsin—to Hudson, Wis. At the time I was serving both a local church and working as a chaplain on an elder care campus, and it was pure delight to have my parents move into the environment where I worked. I know that many of you have made such a major life change—leaving a well-loved home to transition into something smaller, more manageable, perhaps with options for care and support. My parents’ move highlighted the growing concern regarding my dad’s health and memory issues, and, while they had visited me and my family countless time over the previous decade and a half, making Hudson their home and becoming “Minnesconsin” residents created a plethora of adjustments.
One thing that did not occur to me as we tended the countless details of making such a move was just how unsettling it would be to be plunked down in a place where nothing was familiar. Where is the nearest grocery store? How do I get to the library, the post office, the pharmacy? Doctors’ appointments were often in Saint Paul or its eastern suburbs—so not only did they need to understand what was available in Hudson, they also had to familiarize themselves with Woodbury, Maplewood and White Bear Lake. There was a time when my dad would have loved the challenge, utilizing the newest GPS device or smart phone app. But those days were over, and my mom, who is brilliant in so many ways, is mostly confounded by technology. So the main goal in their first year here, and one we still practice today, is to not get lost.
Time and practice help a variety of life’s issues, including figuring out the best routes for our commute, treks to the store, the fastest way to Grandma’s house. Helping my mom navigate her new surroundings has been an interesting experience, because it has included no Google Maps or other technological help. I rely on my phone for too many things, and I would be completely lost—literally—if it were not for my map apps. Now I write down directions long hand, re-educating myself on confounding obstacles like, “Which way is north?” I notice landmarks in a way I hadn’t, using them as markers along the way. We have developed comfortable boundaries, and, if a destination is outside of them, I make sure I am available to be the driver. Three years later, my mom is much more adept at getting from point A to point B, and we know this is an ever-changing endeavor and we are still learning.
Do you know which direction to go? This is a spiritual question, really. The Magi, whose journey we commemorate this Epiphany Sunday, followed their hearts by noticing a star in the sky and allowing that to guide their way. Given that my mom no longer drives at night, we have not tried the astronomical GPS approach, yet I wonder what it might be like to abandon all logical pathways and instead use a constellation to navigate, trusting more in the possibilities of the destination than in the risk involved in the journey. Like most things in the Bible, there is much conjecture about the mysterious star in the sky supposedly identifying the location of the Christ child. Was it a comet? A supernova? Two planets colliding—Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction? Medieval writers believed the Magi saw a bright angel, which they mistook for a star, and that angel led them directly to the manger. If what matters most is the what and how of the star of Bethlehem, then I would say we are sadly missing the meaning of the Epiphany story, because the star may not have been a celestial event at all, but an ordinary constellation seen through the extraordinary eyes of the Magi. What they saw compelled them to leave their homes and discover something for which they had long been waiting. They had “eyes to see,” while Herod and his scribes did not.
So, the wise ones paid attention to their own yearnings while waiting and wondering just where to go. Presbyterian minister William Arnold offers some insight about these mysterious travelers from whom we might glean our own sense of direction:
“First, these wise people had been studying. They knew their history. They had not merely stumbled onto this momentous event. They trusted in promises recorded by those inspired by the Divine. They had searched their own past and their sacred texts, and the result of their study was a readiness—or at least a willingness—to recognize the sign when it appeared. Second, these scholarly folk did not limit themselves to their study, their noses weren’t always in their books, or only gazing skyward for answers in the constellations. They were observers of the world around them. Without both knowing the prophecies and being observant of their contemporary world, ‘the Epiphany might well have been missed by these figures around whom so much mystery, hymnody, and inventive detail have been created.’”
We can simply appreciate the story of the Epiphany as a way to explain our Nativity scenes, or we can use the example of the Wise Ones, the Magi, the Astronomers to guide us on our spiritual path. Let me introduce you to Star Words. (Star Words, not Star Wars.) A spiritual practice introduced by Reformed Worship magazine a decade ago, which was most likely developed years before that, Star Words (or Star Gifts as they are sometimes called) are exactly what they sound like. As the Wise Ones discerned their journey by the celestial light in the sky, Star Words offer us a possibility for direction. With some generous help from my daughters, I have cut out over 450 paper stars and written on them words to coax your spirit. In a few moments, bags of these stars will be distributed and you will be invited to reach inside (without peeking!) and select a star. Your Star Word can help ground you in prayer; it might lead you to insight; it becomes your spiritual companion for the year. There are many possibilities for Star Words, and, if you are feeling a bit lost, adrift, out of focus or in need of direction, your Star Word can become your rudder, a word to lead and lift you on your journey. If you are already feeling centered and are assured of where God is beckoning you, your Star Word can provide an opportunity to stretch your understanding or explore new territory.
I began the practice of Star Words on Epiphany Sunday in 2017. Following a year of anguish over a fractured marriage that legally ended two days before the New Year, I was depleted and worried about what the future would hold. And I was terribly, terribly sad. I pulled the word “renewal.” That was a sign of hope. Only days later, I was offered the opportunity to come to Plymouth in a transitional role, and I felt possibilities blossom in my heart. It was not an easy year, 2017, for before I was even accustomed to admitting I was divorced, my former husband died as a result of his addiction only two weeks after my coming to Plymouth—and my children and I were catapulted into unchartered territory. I taped my star with the word renewal to my bathroom mirror so I could see it many times each day. It was a powerful reminder that even out of the direst situations, something new and life-giving can be born. That same star is taped to my computer in my church office, because it is not only a star of renewal but a symbol of resilience. It joins my other Star Words.
In 2018 I brought the practice to Plymouth and offered Star Words at the First Service. That year, I pulled the word “endurance.” As I moved from transitional to settled ministry at Plymouth, during a season filled with change, I prayed over that word often as it pertained to my work and calling here. That was also the year I turned 50 and watched my oldest daughter graduate from high school. Endurance is a word of strength and constancy . . . and necessary for this single mother and only parent.
Last year, I pulled the word “self-control.” Really. I was a bit disgruntled by my Star Word, thinking that perhaps the message was to curtail my intake of chocolate. But that word became a leading factor in shaping some necessary boundaries and helping me realize when I would make decisions not in my best interest. While not a particularly fun word, self-control has become an important message of discernment for my own spiritual practice.
So, now it is your turn. [At this time, Beth offered to the congregation bags full of stars from which to pull one.]
Don’t look in the bag, reach in and take a star. I believe firmly that we do not choose the Star Word, the word chooses us. Some folks feel initially disappointed by their word. Take two weeks and come see me if you want a new word. Consider your word in prayer or meditation. What is God inviting you to through your word? How does your word show up in your life? How many ways can this word be interpreted? Consider how this meaning can evolve and change over the year. A good way to start is with the dictionary. We may think we know what the word means, but perhaps we need to expand our understanding. I know that some of you will crumple your star and not think about it again after today, but for some of you this may be exactly the centering you are looking for. You determine the energy you want the Star Word to return to you.
This new year brings with it the threat of war. It promises to be an agonizing political season, with much rhetoric to sift through. Climate change is real, and the consequences of our inaction are frightening. At Plymouth, we are still in recovery mode following an exhausting year of difficult conversations regarding the embroideries and our racial justice understandings. And that work is far from over, and our congregational healing also has a ways to go.
At the same time, we are in the midst of a search for a new Lead Minister and look forward with both hope and some trepidation. Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence breaking through to shine as a light in the darkness and acknowledging the brave travelers who risked much to find that exquisite light. We need a way to center ourselves in that Light, to open our hearts to the love, peace and ultimate push that can come only from God.
Consider your Star Word your spiritual GPS. Perhaps you will see something in your word that others may not . . . like the Magi who determined the Bethlehem Star marked their destiny. What might we learn from one word? What new ideas might evolve? What treasured wisdom might surface? This year, may your spiritual quest and your sacred work include possibilities from a star.
Dale Allison, Studies in Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005).
William Arnold in Feasting On the Word, Year B, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 214.