Years ago, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s extended meditation on being present to the world you’re in—not the one you’d like to be in, or the one you think you deserve to be in.
Pirsig had some interesting observations about the act of walking up a mountain, not as a personal test, but as a pilgrimage. One of the things that’s stuck with me all these years has to do with the fact that we tend to view the top of the mountain as the destination—which means that once we reach the top, we’ve accomplished our goal … but it’s never enough, because we immediately start looking for the next mountain to climb.
In other words, Pirsig says what we all know at come deep place in our hearts—that we’re almost never satisfied as long as we’re convinced that the most important part of the journey is the destination … when in fact, the most important part of the journey is … the journey.
Pirsig writes: “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”
It’s January 6th—Epiphany, the observance of the coming of the Magi, the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God.
And I’m back. It feels good.
We decided not to take any trips over the holidays—what with all the annoying sickness. I usually look forward to taking trips. I love to travel.
As a matter of fact, I went over my calendar the other day, trying to figure out where I’m going in 2019. I look forward to traveling. If things get bad—the sink gets stopped up, the car needs work, my calendar looks like a Rorschach test, I console myself with the thought that soon I’ll get to head out.
Are you like that? The big events stick out on your calendar? I remember being a kid back in the 70s and thinking to myself, “In the year two thousand, I’ll be 35 years old . . . and almost dead.” Now, it’s 2019.
For one of my D. Min. papers, one time, I had to draw a time-line of my life, marking the significant events from birth to the present. Obviously, I marked things like graduations and my wedding. I didn’t mark days like March 3rd, 1984, a day in which I went no place special, and apparently did nothing worth remembering.
It’s the big things we remember. Most of our lives are spent in the down times between big events. Going to take a trip, going to get married, going to have a baby, going to meet the Pope, going to see the relatives at the family reunion.
That stuff happens, and, God knows we’re delighted that it happens. But most of the time we spend in the in-between times, the laundry and dishes times, the punch-the-clock and see-what’s-on-TV-times. Most of our time is spent on the side of the mountain, and rarely at the top.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a memoir about the experience of the stillbirth of her first son, was interviewed, along with her husband and author, Edward Carey, on NPR the one time. After the sonogram that failed to show a heartbeat, McCracken was told she would still have to deliver the baby.
However, the doctor couldn’t induce until the next day. So for 36 hours she and her husband had to live with the painful knowledge of the death of their dreams, the death of their new life as parents, the death of their child. Edward Carey said that those 36 hours were surreal. They couldn’t embark on the life they’d planned with their son, and yet they couldn’t begin the process of living their lives without that son. They were stuck in the middle, neither here nor there. In between.
Frederick Buechner writes: “Think about what it means to be starting out on a journey, about what is really involved in being on our way. Of course, to begin with, we just put one foot ahead of the other foot, leg over leg, and our steps make a little thud as they carry us farther and farther down the road. Then we probably climb into a car or a train or a plane, and then the miles begin to go by a lot faster, and soon we look around, and the place that we have left has disappeared entirely, and the place where we are going still lies off in the distance somewhere, and there we are somewhere in between. It is really a strange sort of state to be in, not quite like anything else.”
So much of our lives are spent recovering from something that’s just happened, or preparing for something that’s yet to happen.
I tend to be so certain that what’s really important happens when I arrive at the destination: the marriage license, the diploma, the birth certificate, the job promotion, the stamp on the passport. And all the time spent in between is excruciating, just another journey through the mundane, another trip through the meaningless string of days.
Maybe that’s why I like this story about the wise ones from the East. They see Jesus’ star rise, and immediately they turn to one another and say, “Road trip.”
Oh, heading out again gives such meaning and purpose to their lives, gives them something important to do. What should I bring? Should I pack my overcoat?
No, it’ll be too warm for that.
Well, remember to bring sun screen and the new John Grisham novel. Got to bring a gift. What do you get for a baby shower? What can a baby use?
Diapers? Too common.
Baby clothes? Don’t know what size.
Stuffed animals? Done to death.
I don’t know. Wait a minute. I know. What does every nursery need?
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Boom!
They’re going to take a trip to see the baby Jesus, whom, they’re certain is someone special. When they get there, they imagine that something important will happen. They’re not quite sure what, but they know something significant surely will take place. Big event. Big deal.
But, along the way they run into Herod, who’s not quite as enthusiastic about bringing a micro-fleece blanket or a hooded towel to the baby shower.
King Herod, not unlike most kings, is insecure about his position. And so he tells the wise men to send word when they’ve found the child he finds so threatening.
Here we are once again, in church, unable to run away from politics. One of the powerful feels threatened, and does what those with power too often do—he seeks to stamp it out. Then, the text says, “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was” (2:9).
It’s the next part of the story, though, that also I find so interesting. They get to the house; Mary lets them in. They leave their shoes on the mat by the front door. She hands them a cup of coffee, and leads them back to the nursery to see the baby.
Now, remember, this is the event they’ve been looking forward to since they left their homes, lo these many months ago. This is the landmark experience they’ve been planning and anticipating. All those long nights out on the dusty trail, chasing a star had led them … finally … to this moment.
So naturally, they’re expecting something big, some significant way of recognizing this milestone in their lives. But what does the text say they do upon reaching their long awaited destination?
The text says they knelt down and paid him homage, then they passed out presents, ate a bite of cake. And after all that was done, they turned around and “left for their own country by another road.”
We don’t know how long they stayed; Matthew doesn’t say.
It could have been fifteen minutes or fifteen days. We don’t know.
Matthew doesn’t seem to be interested in how long they stayed. As a matter of fact, it seems that Matthew wants to focus our attention less on the event than on the journey.
We thought, I suspect, many of us, that the most important thing was to get there, to find the baby, but Matthew doesn’t allow us to spend any time there before he boots us out with the wise ones, and we struggle to find another way home.
It’s so tempting to yearn, with the magi, to get to the destination, to get to the big event. But when we arrive we find that what we thought was the top of the mountain is just another step along the side of the mountain.
I remember my first Sunday at this church. It was a wonderful day. The service went tolerably well. I didn’t goof up the sermon. Everyone came to me and told me how happy they were that I’d come.
One of the true highlights of my life. I went home feeling wonderful. I called my parents and friends, reliving all the joy of that special day.
About 9:00 that night, however, I began to feel a little blue. I figured I was tired, it’d been a long day. But by 11:00, when Susan and the kids were in bed asleep, I was sitting by myself, and depression fell on me like a professional wrestler.
I couldn’t figure out why, after a fantastic day I was assailed by such an appallingly dismal mood. Then it struck me: I didn’t want the day to end. I wanted it to go on, and on, and on. Because I knew that when it ended, I’d have to go to bed, get up, and go back to the salt-mines of everyday life.
I knew somehow that one of the big moments wasn’t just a moment at all. I thought I’d reached a destination, only to discover that it was just another step along journey. (And let me say, parenthetically, it’s been quite a journey so far, and I can’t for the life of me think of a journey I’d rather have taken, or people with whom I’d rather travel).
It’s so easy to believe that our lives are defined by those events we call significant. The truth of the matter is … we live most of our lives in the in-between times.
Most of our lives are spent returning to our “own country by another road.” The problem with living from milestone to milestone, however, is that we’re always in grave danger of missing God on the way.
The magi looked up, saw a star, and launched their boats in the desert. They had their eyes focused on Bethlehem, on meeting the special child.
But part of the beauty of this Epiphany story is that the birth of Jesus inspires resistance in the magi. Rather than give in to the pressure of the powerful, the magi take a stand on behalf of the one with no power—a baby.
They could have taken the easy way out. They could have run back to Herod and dropped dime on Jesus and his family. Lord knows they were vulnerable.
The magi, balanced the scales by taking another way home. They struck a blow for the kind of new world this baby would grow up to proclaim—a world where the powerful no longer have the means to impose their will on the weak and the destitute, but must look on as a new order of things displaces the old order—and little babies topple kings.
Once the magi finally reached their destination, they were almost immediately sent again on their way. Because, you see, for them, as well as for us, Bethlehem is not the end of the journey, but the beginning—not home, but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. Bethlehem is the beginning of the revolution Jesus will announce thirty years later.
And if we’re careful to look around us, to notice the lives we’re called to live in the in-between times, we might spot a new world being born.
The question for those of us committed to following in the steps of the magi, ultimately in the steps of Jesus is: When we spot the old world trying to stamp out the new, the powerful trying to subdue the powerless, will we take the easy way and acquiesce to the whims of a tyrant, or will we resist?
Bethlehem—and the gospel toward which it points—is the focal point of the politics of empire. Don't kid yourself.
But I have it on good authority that if we pass through Bethlehem and head home by another road, we might just meet God on the way.
And that, my friends, makes the whole trip worth the effort.