Big And Small

In Uncategorized on January 8, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Good morning. Sometimes, the unpredictability of life can be funny, or serious, or both. Because my psychotherapy income is seasonal, I have worked, for the past three years, a small part time job delivering magazines to local stores. The income from this work helps level out the financial ups and downs of my profession. I set my own hours, and overall it is not a bad little job.

It was not a bad little job, that is, until about a month ago. Corporate, in an effort to cut expenses and increase profits, decided to significantly cut our mileage reimbursement. For a number of reasons this didn’t pass my smell test, so I wrote a nice little letter to our local General Manager, telling him that we have always received a generous mileage reimbursement, and that if we local employees could just stick together, maybe we could convince corporate to cut costs elsewhere.

KABOOM!!!! Talk about unpredictability! For some reason this letter was passed up to corporate, and literally, across the country, everything exploded. The previous General Manager, who now works in Sacramento, was massively chewed out because he answered a few questions I had about previous mileage policy, and I was told that supervisors would now follow me around, to find mistakes so I could be fired. I smelled a rat.

So I wrote a second letter to Human Resources, telling them if I lost my mileage reimbursement, I was going to file an arbitration claim for breach of contract. That got people’s attention. The GM in Sacramento got called on the carpet again, so he resigned. The president of the company called me personally from Virginia, promising to take care of this mess, and my Denver GM suddenly got very, very quiet. He was now in trouble too. Everybody was running for cover. My two little letters caused a ten thousand employee national corporation to shake like a leaf. That was the funny part.

The serious part is that a good guy resigned. And in Denver, in a move just short of retaliatory, work for all drivers was immediately cut back by a third. For some drivers this delivery job is their only source of income. Others are working to help support older parents. This cutback seriously affects them. That isn’t funny at all.

When I wrote those two letters I had no idea what kind of a journey I was about to begin with Dominion Enterprises. The unpredictability of how this story played out is both very funny, and very serious. When a journey begins, we have no way of knowing how it will play out.

Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany, and contrary to popular Christmas mythology, I believe the journey of the Magi was filled with great unpredictability. I am sure this made their long journey to find the newborn King at times very funny, and at other times quite serious. Just like our journeys with God, we never know what is going to happen next.

Instead of the We Three Kings of Orient Are version of the Magi’s journey, imagine with me this morning what their journey might really have been like:

One night astronomers from what is now eastern Iraq, or Iran, or maybe even India, were studying the heavens, and they saw a new star. Their astrological and astronomical charts told them that a new star in this part of the sky meant a new King would soon be born. As they talked about this new star over the next few days, one of them probably said, “hey, maybe we should try to find this new King.” They all agreed, and their journey was born.

I believe that right from the beginning two unpredictable elements must have hit their plans. First, I’m sure the Magi expected their families and friends to be excited about their decision to find the new King. How could they not be? And I’m sure those around them found their quest very amusing. For example, if I told my wife that Phil and I and Bill Newbloom had seen a new star, and decided to take a few years to follow it, I promise you, Andrea would find that very amusing. I can’t tell you how amused she would be. The families and friends of the Magi must have felt the same way. Nice idea guys. Ha Ha. Funny and serious.

As it became clear that the Magi were serious about going, however, a second unpredictable issue must have troubled their minds. The quest to find the new king was big, and mythical. But for the families left behind, this journey was certainly not big and mythical. The Magi’s big adventure was not their friend. Why is life like this? Why do we sometimes have to decide between the quest, and home? Why do the things that inspire me seem hostile to someone else?

I am reminded of Homer’s classic The Odyssey. Odysseus has had many amazing experiences during the Trojan War, and now he is trying to find his way home. He is still having incredible adventures. But for Telemachos, his son, and Penelope, his wife, things at home are very different. Is Odysseus dead, or alive? Should Penelope marry one of her numerous suitors, or preserve Odysseus’ treasures, hoping that one day he will return? Penelope and Telemachos’ experience doesn’t feel mythical at all. Their experience is full of sorrow and uncertainty.

The big and the small often don’t seem to fit together. We feel bad for Penelope and Telemachos. But we in Western Civilization need Odysseus to experience and complete his journey. If Odysseus and Achilles had not gone on their noble adventure, even mythically, then Homer would not have written The Iliad and the Odyssey, there would have been no Trojan Horse, and, perhaps most important of all, we would never have seen Brad Pitt all bulked up in the movie Troy. That would have been an incredible loss!

But that is the mystery of the big and the small. We want big corporations to make money, but we don’t want them to treat their employees indifferently or with hostility. We want churches and denominations to grow, and build, and reach out, but we don’t want them to forget the everyday parishioner. We want our nation to be strong and successful, but we don’t want it to forget the sick, the poor, and the homeless. We want wise men and women to dream dreams and follow stars, but we don’t want other people to feel unimportant or left out. We want it all. Sometimes it works, but many times it doesn’t. That is the funny, and serious, and unpredictable mystery that must have weighed heavily on the minds of the Magi as they waved goodbye to all that was familiar, and set their sights to the West.

In my imagination the Magi’s journey to Israel must have had many unpredictable aspects, some of which were funny, and some of which were serious. Big trips like this never go as planned. Somebody always forgets their underwear, somebody always gets sick, somebody never asks for directions, and though the Pax Romana, or peace of Rome, made travel much easier and safer at this time, there was still the threat of robbers or murderers. And, of course, when you are traveling with a bunch of people for a long period of time, certain individuals don’t get along. That is unavoidable.

But balancing the funny and the serious, I think this part of the Magi’s trip was probably more fun than hardship. Whenever you go on a long trip, a special sense of camaraderie and community is always built. I remember a mission trip to the Grand Canyon I took in college. Everybody who went had a special and fun time, and we really got to know each other. I can still remember the song one of the students wrote, called “The Mole Skin Blues”, because all of us had blister and toe problems after hiking twelve miles to the Colorado River. I will never forget that trip.

I noticed this same dynamic with the people I work with at my delivery job. Until a month ago I really didn’t know any of the other drivers. I would pick up my stuff in the morning, and leave. But when things started rocking and rolling after the cutbacks and my letters, many of us would hang out for a while, discuss the labor issues, and just chat. We gained a sense of community that only a journey of labor versus corporate can provide.

In the life of any church, there are difficult seasons when people aren’t getting along, church life is boring, leadership is questioned, and the congregation lacks purpose and direction. Do you know what the best cure for this season is? A godly journey. Let me phrase this another way. The level of unhappiness and complaining in a church is directly proportional to the lack of a sense of mission and journey among its members. A happy and healthy church is a church that is going somewhere together. Because the Magi were going somewhere together, all the unpredictable parts of their journey didn’t trip them up.

So, finally the Magi arrived in Israel. If the journey itself was tilted towards the fun side of the balance, I believe that arriving in Jerusalem was definitely tilted towards the serious. For the first time the presence and power of Rome was clearly felt. I’m sure the Magi felt Rome as they traveled across the eastern side of the Empire, but upon entering Israel the visibility of Roman power very much increased. This gave the whole journey a much more serious feel.

And almost immediately the Magi made what could have been a fatal mistake. They started asking about a new King. Not a good idea, considering that the Roman Herod called himself a king. Maybe the Magi were naive, but it did get Herod’s attention. They were lucky; Herod didn’t kill them, he granted them an audience. I’m sure not many travelers got a personal audience with Herod, but they did.

This reminds me of my experience with corporate. When I was just complaining about cutbacks nobody listened. But when I said the magic word “arbitration”, the president of the company gave me a call. When the Magi said the magic word “new King”, they were quickly informed that Herod would see them. Their journey was seriously on Herod’s radar now.

Upon meeting Herod, I believe the Magi’s first impression must have been quite humorous. This guy is a King? From all we know about Herod from history, he was not a physically or personally impressive person. But it didn’t matter. This small person had the entire power of the Roman Empire behind him. Their life and journey was in the hands of this unimpressive man. And Herod said he wanted to worship the new king too. Yeah, right. Herod was unimpressive, and deceitful.

Then Herod seemingly made a big mistake. After talking with the Magi, he told them to check back with him if they found the new King. Bad idea. If you were Herod, what you should have done was send some spies to follow the Magi, and when they found the new king, to kill both them and Jesus. But for some reason Herod let the Magi go. I’m sure he heard a lot about new kings and new messiahs, and he must have thought he could wait and see. Herod was powerful, but he wasn’t necessarily smart.

We know from history that Herod was also unstable and unpredictable. When the Magi didn’t check back with Herod before they went home, this made Herod nervous. After a month or so he thought, “you know, I probably should have done more when those guys were here looking for a new King. I think I’ll just kill all boys two years or under in that area and I won’t have to worry about it.” So he went off his rocker, and ordered the murder of hundreds of children. Herod was a crazy man with the power of Rome behind him, a bad combination. The Magi were lucky to escape with their lives.

When someone’s power is threatened, they can act unpredictably. My General Manager is usually a nice guy. But when I sent my second letter to HR, he lost it. In his best Rambo voice he screamed at me, “I don’t get paid to drive home, why should you?” A perceived challenge to power can make a good guy say bizarre things. A perceived challenge to power made Herod go insane.

As Christians, we all know about power. We have seen churches use power both constructively, and destructively. But, when it comes to real strength, I think Christians have one interesting thing in common with Herod; we are personally small, but backed by a very great power.

I heard a story once that illustrates this reality. In the past, in Mexico City, certain giant intersections were controlled not by traffic lights, but by a person who climbed a large platform, and started and stopped traffic with his hand. One day, when one of these traffic controllers wasn’t watching, a small child climbed the platform and put up his hand. Instantly, all the cars stopped. On his own, there is no way this little child had any power to stop a car. But when this child was on that platform, he had all the power and authority of the Mexican government behind him. He could stop any car he wanted to.

We are like that little child. On our own, we are small and unimpressive. We have no real power. But because we have all the power of the Kingdom of God behind us, we can accomplish anything. We have power over the demonic, we have the power to overcome sin, we have the power of the gifts of the spirit, and we have the power to share the gospel to the ends of the world. With God, all things are possible.

Now we move to the final act. An historical note here: The Magi didn’t appear right as Jesus was born. The shepherds came immediately and saw Jesus in swadling clothes, but the Magi came about two years later. We know this because Matthew tells us they came to Mary’s house, not a stable. Also, Herod asked the Magi to tell him exactly when they first saw the star. When the Magi didn’t return to Herod, he killed all boys two years old and younger. So the Magi must have told Herod that they had seen the star, and begun their journey, two years earlier.

After the Magi left Herod, I imagine they kept asking questions, and finally zeroed in on Bethlehem, then an area of the city, and then a house. After a talk with Mary and Joseph, they were introduced to Jesus. Their first response was probably laughter; we traveled all this way, and this is the King? No palaces, no servants, no guards, nothing at all like Herod. How could this boy be a king?

And yet….and yet. Something big was here. The more time they spent with Jesus, the bigger He became, and the more powerful He seemed. But not a power like Roman power, which made others small and scared. This power made them larger, and courageous. And what was this other feeling? Belonging, happiness, community. Experiencing this bigness in Jesus made the Magi, and Mary and Joseph, a new community. They were all related to each other in a new way now, because they had been with the King. They were all on a new journey together. How could something so new, so big, be coming from this small child?

The only way to describe this mystery of something so big being in someone so small is through poetry. One of my favorite saints, St. Ephrem the Syrian, wrote these words about the big and the small, about Mary and Jesus, in the second century. They could easily be the words of the Magi:

“Your mother is a cause for wonder. The Lord entered her/and became a servant. He who is the Word entered/and became silent within her. Thunder entered her/and made no sound. There entered the Shepherd of all/and in her He became the Lamb, bleating as He came forth.

Your mother’s womb has reversed the roles. The Establisher of all entered in His richness/but came forth poor. The Exalted One entered her/but came forth meek. The Splendorous One entered her/but came forth having put on a lowly hue. The Mighty One entered/and put on insecurity from her womb. The Provisioner of all entered/and experienced hunger. He who gives drink to all entered/and experienced thirst. Naked and stripped/there came forth from her He who clothes all.”

That says it all. The Magi found everything they were looking for. And much more. They gave their gifts to the new King, and after a few days went home. The new King had changed them forever.

My journey with corporate America is not over. Every time I go in, I hear rumors of more changes and more firings. And though I have poked fun at this whole journey, I have to be honest and say that this has been a stressful experience. It isn’t easy to know when to speak up, and when to be silent. And, I am well aware that what I do has an impact on the jobs and careers of others. So I try to do what is right, and live by this principle: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.

I believe this principle is what the Magi learned. Their lives, just like ours, continued to be unpredictable. But they had met the Lord of the unpredictable. They had met the King. And that King held their lives, and their futures, in his hand. In 2008, may we all experience the peace that passes all understanding, knowing that the Lord of the unpredictable holds our futures in His hand.



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