Hands of the Strong: Epiphany Day

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Snow on Snow

Snow came.  As it was supposed to come.  Today is Epiphany — Twelfth Night.  In Colonial Days this was the day of parties and celebration.  Christmas Day was more somber among the early settlers – a time to go to church and stay at home with the family.  Epiphany is when we remember the visit of the Magi, when we look to the light that is coming into our world — and share our joy in being able to share this LIGHT.

I can see the corn stalks from harvest from my window.  They rise tall above the white blanket.  They remind me of those young, frozen columns of French soldiers in the winter of 1812 on Napoleon’s futile march to Moscow.  Or, more positively and nearer home, I remember the rag tag collection of farmers and shop keepers, the Colonial Army who appeared to be in full retreat from the British.  Icy, freezing, apparently snowbound, they make that amazing push across the Delaware River and give the Hessians that “Christmas Surprise” in 1776, capturing Trenton.  It was a time of turning to a new reality.   

The bluebird house at the edge of the field stands empty, hungry for spring and new life.  In the wood beyond, a doe and her young find refuge.  I wonder.  What might they understand of the death of the father, that 14 point buck “harvested” along with the corn in November?  A trophy for a young neighbor.

Our lives follow patterns.  Harvest, snow, anticipation of spring.  Some of us head south.  Surprise in these routines is possible, precisely because we have certain expectations of the world.  Epiphany is a time when we are invited to exchange our lives of expectation for lives of expectancy.  This, for me, has become one of the great signs of a people of faith.  Do we believe change is possible?  Do we still have the capacity to be surprised?

I mentioned in an earlier post that two movies premiered this fall about the work of pastors: Calvary and The Overnighters.  There have been a number of movies in recent years about faith, God and the church.  The list includes: Heaven Can Wait, The Apostle, Sister Act, Oh God!, Bruce Almighty, The Preacher’s Wife, Higher Ground.

There are many more — some of these are silly and embody magical thinking more that any actual faith experience.  Some are more substantial demonstrating the complex realities of the life of faith — a life lived within the bounds of a paradigm while still remaining open to surprise.

Where can one explore the realities of parish life without resorting to magic or hero worship?  Where are the everyday foibles and hopes of a people of faith presented?  The movies Calvary and The Overnighters are a rare gift to us this year.  Real life here.  Calvary is a drama written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.  The role of Father James is played masterfully by Brendan Gleeson (who also provided an extraordinary performance this year in The Grand Seduction).  The Overnighters is a documentary and so is filled with the contradictions and challenges of real life.

I do not remember movies that capture parish ministry better than these.  (One exception to this that does come to mind is the wonderful BBC comedy Ballykissangel broadcast in the late 1990’s.  It exposed many of the dilemmas contemporary parish ministry — especially in a small Irish town.) 

I find myself wanting to sit down with lay people and/or young pastors or seminarians (or older pastors for that matter) and discuss the dimensions of community and life that are portrayed in Calvary and The Overnighters.  Perhaps this summer we will invite a few persons to the farm to watch these or other movies and spend time reflecting on Paradigms and Paradoxes.

Please don’t think I am in sympathy with the decisions made by either of the central characters.  They were flawed — as we all are.  And that is a part of the point I wish to make.  Within 15 minutes of the start of The Overnighters I was deeply troubled by Pastor Jay Reinke’s actions and theology.  More on that in future blogs.  For now, let me just say that if you want to be challenged to think about congregation, faith and God this winter, I highly recommend these two movies.


The snow has now stopped and the sun is shining.  The roads have been plowed.  Our neighbor Greg has cleared the long drive way and I have powered up that new snow blower to clear the walks and the path to the barn.  Time to get in the car and drive SOUTH!

Elaine and I are off on what we are calling our Winter of 2015 Southern Tour!   Georgia, Texas and Arizona await.  Along the route we will be visiting the Presidential Libraries of six former presidents.  Next posting?  Somewhere warmer!

Happy Epiphany

Phil Amerson 1/6/2015