Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away; your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. - Isaiah 60
... There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. - Matthew 2
This past week, a friend and colleague posted a note on Facebook. It was a photo of someone floating solo on a calm pond, with a caption saying:
"Religion is a person sitting in church thinking about kayaking. Spirituality is a person sitting in a kayak thinking about God."
I think my friend wasn't stating a position on this question; he asked "What do you think?"
I don't know whether I can make a useful - for others - distinction between religion and spirituality. But the experience of the Christmas season and story, and the approaching end of this season, tells me something powerful. Many, many people who normally prefer kayaking - or reading the Sunday paper - gather in churches during this season to live in the joy, mystery, and beauty of this story of God coming to be among us as a vulnerable child. And they don't come just for memory and sentiment; they come because a deep question lingers in the human spirit: Are we alone and lost in an indifferent - some would say cruel - universe, or does God, or whatever we might call this Being-that-is-greater-than-ourselves, truly come to us and stay with us and show us the way?
In my humble view, this question is far bigger than can be answered in the brief season of Advent, Christmas, and Christmastide. It's a larger question than can be answered in church on Sunday morning, or, frankly, in a kayak on Sunday afternoon. Often, this question leaves us feeling lost.
Three elusive "wise men" close our well-known story of Christmas. They arrive in Jerusalem and inquire, "Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?" When nobody seems to know, they answer a summons from Herod, the tinhorn king and puppet of the Roman Empire. Herod is the one person who would be most terrified of a king coming to take his place; he tries to enlist their help in tracking down the infant troublemaker.
But it was the star, the mystical omen that spoke a language the wise men understood, that led them to the child Jesus. And when they found him, they knew Herod to be the scheming demon he was.
Someone once asked Daniel Boone, famous for his wilderness skills, if he had ever been lost. He answered, "No, but I've been mighty confused many times for a few days." I think the wise men might well have said much the same thing. "We don't know where we are or where we're going, but we're not lost."
Like the wise men, we know we're looking for something profoundly important. We might catch a glimpse of it wandering around on a camel, or kayaking on a blissfully serene waterway. Or in a warm sanctuary on Sunday morning, in the company of other searchers who are at once uncertain and confident that they have seen it before, if only fleetingly. In this search, we are looking to restore and renew our wonder, joy, hope, and kindness; we are refusing to surrender to resentfulness and fear - the coin of Herod.
Christmas comes, with its promise of perfect peace. Then the season ends, and we see that humankind hasn't yet read or understood the memo. The ugliness, confusion, and brokenness of the human struggle makes itself known again. And these broken things do not live exclusively outside us; we harbor their seeds within.
But there still is that star. It shimmers over the kayak-lake. It glows in the Sunday sanctuary, where we re-tell and re-imagine the ancient story of peace. It lights up the home of the newborn child, at whose bedside we arrive bearing gifts. Incredibly precious gifts. We all have them to bring and share.
Let's share them with each other, as well as with the long-sought child. Isaiah speaks the invitation this way: "They all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away; your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms." How sweet a picture is that?
We can go kayaking in the afternoon. Or maybe snowshoeing. The child-God will be there too. As always.