Rev. Ann Fontaine writes a beautiful piece about the Magi for Episcopal Cafe
“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”
Kenny Rogers sang these lyrics about a gambler but in this season of Epiphany they seem to apply as well to Joseph. Joseph held ‘em when he listened to the angel in his dream and kept Mary from disgrace and death, giving space in time for Jesus’ birth. He knew when to run when he heard the angel’s warning about Herod. He walked away from the danger to the child and took his family to Egypt and safety.
The lyrics also apply to the Magi, the stargazing strangers from the East who held 'em as they followed a star to find a gift beyond their imagining - a gift that made their gold, incense and myrrh pale in comparison. They walked away, seeking something worth holding and protecting it from the evil of empire as they took “another way” home from their journey.
The whole world seems to be wondering, is now the time to hold ‘em or fold ‘em, stay, walk or run? Most of our fears revolve around how to make a future for ourselves and our children. From the war in the Holy Land where each side is trying to make space for its children to live and thrive to a local family who could not keep their 3-year-old alive with all the privileges of money and medical care - the world wonders. Since the stars are unclear in their message to me, I just want to pull the covers over my head and go back to dreaming.
The theme of the recent US election was hope. The candidate who won capitalized most on this theme. In some parts of the world, coups have taken place, with each winner offering hope of a different life for people. In other places wars are being fought with the promise of new life out of the death and destruction necessary to make it happen. Will any of these really bring the life about which we dream? Are any of them a star worth following? Can we really know when it is time to hold ‘em or time to fold ‘em?
The Magi and Joseph had angels and dreams and stars for guidance. We see that they made the right choices as we read their stories. We don’t usually have these angels and dreams and stars for guidance as we journey. Sometimes we don’t even have any choice in much of life. When we do have the power to decide, we later see where choices we thought were correct turned out to be the worst things we could choose. We can see some things that seemed iffy that turned out for the best. Life is funny that way.
There is the story of the priest who always wanted to be a chaplain to an Episcopal school. He took all the right courses in his training. He interned with school programs. He received excellent recommendations. He applied for position after position, but never attained his desire. He went to work as an assistant in a large parish and worked with success in various ministries. One day he received two letters – one was an offer to become a chaplain, and the other was an offer to become the rector of a larger parish. He was torn; by this time, he wanted to be a rector as much as he wanted to be a chaplain. He lay down in front of the altar and prayed for a sign to show him which position he should accept. He prayed and prayed. Suddenly it came to him, in a dream or a voice or who knows: it does not matter which you choose – just be faithful.
Faithfulness is what is required. Life will prove the correctness of our decisions and, if we go off the rails, repentance will put us back on the right track. That is the cycle of redemption. Paul, in Romans 5 and 6, struggles with this idea of sin and grace. He does not seem to resolve it very satisfactorily. For me Thomas Merton says it best:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your Will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death. I will not fear,
for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.
When we hear about Joseph and the Magi now, they seem so sure. I think they too wondered if they really heard the voice of an angel or were following the right star. A gambler always believes he will know when to hold his cards or when to fold and walk away. Our lives, however, are not a gamble. They are a sure thing for as long or short as they may be. Hopefully our stories will prove that we made the right choices in our journey with God, but if not we are assured that God promises to be with us. Immanuel.
The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives in Wyoming and keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.