At the start of Epiphany season this year, I innocently asked (at least I thought it was an innocent question) for those who had assembled for worship that Sunday to think about epiphanies that they had experienced. The empty looks on the faces staring back at me caught me off guard. I told them that I wasn’t expecting anyone to share their epiphanies, unless they wanted to, but just curious about their experiences. Still, a sea of blank faces.
So, when I reframed the question, I asked if anyone had ever had an epiphany.
Only one woman raised her hand.
She went on to share a lovely experience of a sudden awareness of God as Creator. Even that, didn’t inspire any additional raising of hands.
I was at a loss, not only at the unexpected notion that I was part of a congregation full of people who had never experienced something that they could classify as an epiphany, but also because my interactive sermon that day got, in that moment, a lot more complicated. I was planning on talking about epiphanies, in a group of people where most of the people knew what I was talking about.
I’ve been Pastor and Teacher at Old South for over a dozen years. How could I not know that the people of this congregation—except for one—had never had an epiphany? I couldn’t help the sudden flood of conversations that I’ve had with people over the years regarding epiphanies. But, as the flood became clearer, with each individual taking shape in my memory, it occurred to me that many of those conversations were old ones, that predated my call to Old South, and except for one or two, were among other clergy types or people about my age or younger.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about this and wondering. What does it mean to be in the midst of so many good and well-meaning church folk, but people who are not able to define a moment of epiphany?
For Christians, there is the big E Epiphany, on January 6, when we remember the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, marking their realization of the Incarnation of God, and there are the little “e” epiphanies, moments of sudden, and unexpected, insight and awareness—spiritual “aha” moments, if you will.
When I asked my little congregation about their own experiences of such moments, I wasn’t at all expecting to encounter blankness. I had simply assumed, based on conversations that I’ve had over the years, that almost everyone who attends church on a regular basis has had some sort of epiphany, that it’s the random epiphany or two in life that compels continued participation in a community of faith.
I’m not sure now what to do with this new knowledge—it’s own strange, unwelcome sort of epiphany. There is the hopeful side of me that wants to believe that it’s not so much the absence of the experience of epiphany, but simply that it’s never been called such a thing. But, then there’s the not so hopeful side that wonders about the actual lack of epiphanies, whether they are called such things or not.
This isn’t really the first of these sorts of moments, when I’m confronted by the sense that for most of those who call Old South home, the life of faith is not defined, nor informed, nor dependent on spiritual “aha” moments, when one is blessed with that sudden, wondrous, awareness in one’s soul. Instead, for the good church folk who gather at Old South, the life of faith is about gathering among a certain group of people in a certain building in the midst of a certain routine of worship, tradition and the liturgical year. Faith is not so much about that resonating “still small voice” (or occasional yell), but about habit and routine, friendships and community.
This isn’t to say that one way is good and the other bad, or that one way is correct and the other incorrect. Instead, it is another witness of the changing shape of life and faith. The congregation that I lead is essentially an active, practicing community of what was, of what church used to be.
They are not a community of what will be.
In this, some sadness exists, that even some of the language that I speak is not a common language in my congregation. Yet, I’m also aware of how important it is to not only meet them where they are, but respect them for who and what they are. The ways of Old South may no longer be what a great many people want (or think they want), but for those who gather in community at Old South, they endeavor to live their faith, actively and fervently. They are church and a people of faith, a witness to the love of God and the hope of making the world a better place through the sharing of that love.