Grace in Unexpected Places
Well, the new year has begun. The magi have arrived in Bethlehem after their long journey.
What will this year hold for us, individually, as a community, as a global family, as we journey through it?
Every new year David and I sit down and write out goals for ourselves for the year ahead, under the categories of family, work, hobbies, vacations, spirituality, lifestyle and so on. We identify three or four specific goals for each category on our own, then we share them with each other, and maybe adjust them to fit with each other. And we also look back over the previous year’s goals and see how we did.
(Last year we did very well in the categories of exercise and vacations, with the pilgrimage and sabbatical, but not so well in reducing our carbon footprint, with several long distance flights that year.)
I’m always reminded as we look back to the previous year that it inevitably held surprises, and things that didn’t go according to plan. In our case, yes, we planned the pilgrimage and carried it out, but had no idea that because of David’s knee injury early on, and our feet developing painful blisters, it would be such a physical and emotional challenge.
On a larger scale, events in the world take place every year that catch us by surprise and dismay us: things that with hindsight we often should have seen coming, and might have acted to prevent, but failed to – environmental disasters, political crises, humanitarian catastrophes.
And in our personal lives things happen that we didn’t plan or choose, and we can feel lost, let down, confused, hurt.
Where will the journey of this year take us?
The question for us as people of faith is this: can we expect to see God’s presence and grace revealed no matter what happens? Even in unlikely situations? Even in dark times? Can we expect to see the glorious light of God’s love revealed in Jesus?
To return to the magi, their journey led to a totally unexpected endpoint: not a royal palace for the baby king of the Jews, but a humble village with a young peasant family staying in a borrowed room, anonymous and unnoticed. It’s the classic story of the royal child hidden in plain sight as a commoner.
The magi might have said to themselves, “Well this can’t be right! Let’s keep looking for the baby king.” But they didn’t: the story has them kneeling before the child and presenting their treasured gifts. They trusted that they had been led there, and that right there in the unexpected place was their goal. And they were overwhelmed with joy.
This season of Epiphany that we’re in from now till the end of February, when Lent begins, is all about seeing God’s presence and grace revealed. It’s what St Paul in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus calls “the mystery of Christ… the news of the boundless riches of Christ” which we are to make known to everyone [Eph. 3:4,9].
So how do we do that? How do we see God’s glorious presence and light when times are hard and dark, when our journey goes off the rails?
I’m convinced that it’s not by trying to control the circumstances around us (we can’t), but by seeking to live more and more by the internal guiding star of faith. The externals of life will always be changing and challenging us, but our faith life, our spiritual centre, is where God gives us vision and strength and guidance. It’s Christ dwelling in us who enables us to see and reveal God’s amazing presence with us. It’s the daily practice of coming back to Christ at the centre of our hearts, that still point of peace.
In the toughest part of our pilgrimage, when David was depressed and questioning daily why we were doing this, and I wasn’t sure whether we should just quit, I was driven to pray the simplest prayer that I just repeated over and over silently, as we walked:
Every step, every pace, Every step, every pace,
in your love, by your grace. in your love, by your grace.
It wasn’t complicated theology, but just a prayer from the heart that I could say in step to my walking. And it saved me. It opened the doors of my heart to trust and persevere and even find joy. And David found his path to joy, too, in his own way.
The journey through life is always unpredictable. We can set goals, but we have to underpin them with the knowledge that they will change and have to be flexible. And underpinning that there has to be trust that God is our guide, our support, our joy.
This year we’ll see the renovation work on this building begin. We’ll have drawn up detailed plans and wrestled to get the design right for our mission and ministry into the decades ahead. But I can guarantee that there’ll be glitches and obstacles and surprises along the way before we’re all done.
The same with the personal goals that David and I set each year for ourselves: they’ll shift and change; some will be attainable, others won’t; new factors will come into play that we didn’t see coming.
But in it all, day by day, can we trust in God’s guidance through the Christ who dwells in us, and can we find that rich grace even in the unexpected places?
I pray that we can. And I pray that we may support each other in learning how, in practicing trust, in deepening our faith.
God is good, and we won’t ever be walking alone. Amen.