Sermon. A Journey Towards and Away

In Response To: Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago was a time of great transition in my life. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure that time is done yet.

In 2012 I was working at a job that I felt was my calling. I was running a drop in community office for survivors of domestic violence and training new survivor advocates. It was more than a full time job and full of both the expected and unexpected stressors. But still I felt like I was in my element. I’d worked for the agency for about 5 years and felt proud to be part of a community working to transform violence.

However, as is too often the case in non-profits, ideological differences and lack of resources lead to conflict and severe burnout. In 2012 I was unexpectedly laid off, which brought with it a landslide of other changes. All of a sudden I couldn’t afford my rent, my most important relationships ruptured, I had no income, and I was separated from what I thought to be my calling.

This brought many questions, the first and most pressing being where would I live?

One night during that time I dreamt that my Great Grandmother visited me. She was the matriarch of my family and had died a few years before. In the dream she was comforting me about all the loss that had come and I confided in her about how very lost I felt, and asked her what she would want for me.

Time, she said. I want time for you. I want a chance for you to choose your life, your love, a place to root. She spoke about time to wander. To wonder what my life might be. What I might want of it. And she asked me to remember that wondering is a luxury and one that was never afforded to her. A working class woman raising 7 kids, she did what she needed to survive. She didn’t have the opportunities I did. I heard her ask that I not take them for granted.

The next morning I woke up and the dream stayed with me. I felt a comfort and a call that I’d been searching for. For several years I had toyed with leaving the Bay Area, it had become too much for me. I thought about moving back home to Ohio to be with my family, or maybe moving somewhere new like Montana or North Carolina, both places I had small love affairs with. After sitting with the dream for a few days I decided to take it up on it’s challenge and try to give myself a bit of time.

I started working full time when I was 15 and worked full time or more from that point on. I prided myself on being a good worker just as much as I prided myself on being independent. Work helped to give me a sense of worth, a purpose, and a feeling of belonging.

By my mid twenties I’d worked myself up to a prominent position in an agency and expected that would be my career for the rest of my life. I was proud of that. But at the end of my job I found myself with a whole lot of time and only a little bit of severance money. So after doing some math I realized that it would be cheaper to travel cross country examining new places to live then it would be to stay and pay rent in Oakland, which is a whole other sermon all together. So I gathered up my courage and the comfort of my Great Grandmother and decided I would do it. I would travel and try to turn this loss into an opportunity.

During the final few weeks at my job I sublet my room, charted a tentative route, and touched base with some people I’d hoped to stay with along the way. Two days after my job ended, I left. I expected I’d be gone for about a month and was gone for three.

That trip, for me, was an epiphany. Like the wise men in today’s story I set out on a journey that I didn’t expect would change my life. I followed a whispering and a wisdom beyond myself. Like the wise men, a dream guided me away from oppressive forces that would kill me and towards life.

For those 3 months I drove across the country, I stopped to visit friends and family for chunks of time but most of my time was spent alone. I saw Mount Rushmore alone, the Grand Ole Opry alone, Cadillac Ranch alone. I got to see and do thing that I’d never imagined were possible and that I would never have been able to do if I hadn’t taken my Great Grandmother’s advice. Before my trip I had never really struggled with being alone, but I did struggle with silence. I always filled it with tasks. I thought about my next steps in life or what I needed to do the next day. Big, small, fantastic, or mundane, I was always planning. Always. But on the road all of that faded away. There was nothing that needed to get done tomorrow, nowhere I needed to be. So I tried to settle into it.

I figured that part of what my Grandmother was trying to tell me was to allow myself the joy of uncertainty and exploration. So except for rare occasions I didn’t plan how long I was going to stay in a certain place, what I was going to do there, or where I would go next. Often I didn’t even plan where I was going to sleep that night. Which, for a planner like me, was terrifying. But it was also liberating.

Growing up in a family that navigated violence, addiction, and poverty my inclination to plan was an attempt to feel safe and secure as much as anything else. It was an illusion of control. This new way asked me to let go of that illusion. It asked me to trust and to wonder. I existed on a very little money as I traveled and was forced to face old fears. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at rest stops and convinced myself that seeing the outside of some monument or museum was just as good as being inside it. I used old skills in a new way.

That year I rang in the New Year in Durham, North Carolina. A good friend was letting me stay with her and in her guest bedroom I wrote some intentions for the following year. They’ve stuck with me and I just recently re-read them in preparation for this new year.  They included things like:

  • Know that perfection is impossible.
  • Respect yourself enough to have boundaries and articulate them.
  • Let go when it’s time to let go. Do it sweetly. Do it all the way. Detachment and abandonment don’t have to be the same things.
  • Ask more questions. Make fewer statements.
  • Remember simplicity is not the same as scarcity.
  • Let yourself cry every time your eyes sting or well up. Stop blinking back tears. This just might be your revolution.
  • Love yourself like you want others to love you. That means: taking time to understand where you are coming from, listening to your feelings, treating your stories with reverence, going on dates, laughing at your jokes, saying you’re proud when you do well, challenging old behaviors that hurt you, creating rituals, showing up, being excited, saying thank you.

These became a few of my guidelines for the year, ideals that I tried to live up to. It was no small task and I failed often. It meant unlearning years of trauma and approaching my life very differently. It meant being willing to embrace grace and accept help from others. It meant challenging my notions of work and independence. It meant reexamining where I thought my worth came from.

When I think about all the learning I did on that trip I am reminded of one particular day. I was in New Orleans and my money was running out. I could no longer afford the cheap hotels or hostels I was sleeping in so I slept in the back of a camp van with a friend who happened to be in town the same time as me. I’d been waiting for my first unemployment check for two months and was down to about $500, which needed to get me all the way back to the Bay Area.

I was driving out of town towards Austin that day when my radiator exploded. Smoke billowed out from under the hood and I was forced to drive my car into a shop. The guys that worked there were kind and sympathetic. After they’d assessed the damage they told me they would give me a discount but that it would still come out to about $480 dollars. And against the intention I’d just set I tried to hide my tears and told them to go ahead and replace the radiator. I didn’t know what else to do. I wondered if I’d just moved to New Orleans. Afterall I would be down to $20 in my account and the emergency $20 I’d hid in my car.

My mind began to race. I wondered if my friend had left that day like she’d planned or if I could still sleep in her van. I wondered where in New Orleans I could get hired on short notice. I wondered how long it would take me to earn the money I’d need to get back home.

And just as the tears were about to start rolling my phone rang. Earlier in the day I’d posted something vague about having car trouble on Facebook. When I looked down I saw the name of a friend that I hadn’t talked to in quite some time. I picked up the phone trying to mask my tears but I’m not sure it did much good.

She told me that she had seen my post on Facebook and that she didn’t know what was going on but she wanted to check in and make sure I was ok. She told me she cared about me and she wanted to help. She explained that she’d recently come into a great deal of money and wondered to gift me some. She’d also grown up working class and she knew what it was to have to support yourself from a young age. She acknowledged the awkwardness of accepting a gift like this but told me she would like to give me some money if I would let her. Before I could say anything she offered me $500.

I sat down on the curb outside of the mechanics and cried those gut wrenching kind of tears. I’d never told her that my car was in the shop or how much the repairs would be. I’d never said how much money I had or how much I needed. We weren’t that close and did not talk often. I had no reason to ask this of her and she had no real reason to offer. It was a sort of grace that I’d not experienced before. It was my moment of epiphany.

It was a moment when I felt the love and light of a new way of living. A way that was interdependent and liberatory. A way that asked me to believe I was worth something without having to constantly earn it. It was grace. It was god.

When I read this week’s scripture I was reminded of how ancient these sorts of journeys are. The three wise men were sent to find Jesus by King Herod. This is the same King Herod who ordered the murder John the Baptist and the killing of the first born. His ways were death dealing. Yet after the wise men found Jesus they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They knew that Herod was death dealing and something in them knew that the light they’d just found was life giving. Their dreams and their heart asked them to choose another way and they did.

What way will we choose? At the start of this new year will we choose the epiphany of light? Or will we choose to return to the forces in our life that we know are death dealing? Will we find a new way? Can we listen to the whispers of our ancestors and the divine? Can we trust our own worthiness and our own power? Can we be brave enough to lay our gifts at the feet of a new world?

 

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