By Joy French
I still find myself surprised every January by the promise of the New Year stretching out before us, as yet undefiled, heavy with hopes, plans and anticipation of what lies ahead.
The feast of Epiphany (6th January) traditionally celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and their realisation of his divinity. An epiphany is also a new realisation, something that we see with fresh eyes, for the first time. I like the idea that the New Year brings with it the capacity to see anew, to embrace new rhythms and try something different. In our family, we’ve developed a tradition that we celebrate around Epiphany (6 January). We call it our “Review of the year”, (because that’s what it IS – Miranda moment) and we use this time to sit with our boys over a great meal (M&S curry is the dish of choice). We take the time to talk through our highs and lows of the year, and to think about our hopes for the year ahead. We listen to music that has been significant for us in the year gone by, and we look at a montage of photos of our time together. I am always surprised by the powerful memories that these pictures evoke, even of those times when we felt that we were just plodding through life and getting by.
When the meal is cleared away, and the memories have been shared, everyone else leaves the room, and I create our family “word of the year” on the table in tealights. The boys come back in, and get to read the illuminated word for the first time, and I explain how we’ve discerned that this is the word that we will reflect on, be challenged by, come back to and lean into in the days, weeks and months that lie ahead.
We’re in our sixth year of this tradition now. We began with “Love” – isn’t this where it must begin and end for all of us?
“Hope” carried us through the next year during a time when our faith needed the promise of sustenance beyond what we could muster.
“Life” took us into a year that would see new life extend and reshape our little family dynamic. We knew that year that we were embarked on a white-knuckle adventure ride that would enliven us all. The end of that year saw the beginning of our “Messy Church”, albeit a different kind of new birth.
“Grow” was the imperative for the following year, because children, parents and churches all need to follow the natural order of things to stay alive.
“Shape” defined last year, because it’s great to grow, but who and what are we becoming?
This year, feeling the nagging pressures of a year spent living at and sometimes beyond our capacity in so many different areas, I was wondering about the word “Rhythm” – I knew that we sorely needed new rhythms in our family life, that we needed to inhabit the discipline of rest in a new way, but there was something missing from the frame, rhythm was a fragment that didn’t encapsulate the whole. I felt myself being drawn into territory that was at once so familiar and yet foreign, into words that I know and understand – can recite by heart, but still have to learn how to live:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11: 28-30
I have a strong emotional reaction to these verses, which I think is why up until recently, I have loved them from afar but not truly given them permission to sink into my soul and remake me from the core of my being out. My emotional reaction is based upon disbelief. Somewhere in my psyche, deep in my inner locked-away recovering-conservative-evangelical mindset is a notion that these promises from Jesus are a bit too good to be true. What Jesus really meant when he said these words wasn’t “Come away with me and rest”, but rather “Work harder, do more, focus, get it right first time, all by yourself.”
You see the news is I am tired. I am worn out. I am burned out on religion, and what I think I need is not what I need at all. My own solutions to my predicament would oscillate wildly between indulgence and punitive discipline: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Go shopping! Have a Latte! Watch TV! Buy a dress! And then this flits to Work harder! Discipline yourself! Be Stronger!
It’s no wonder that my soul has encountered some resistance to these verses. I’m like a parched desert traveller stumbling around with a divining rod when I’m right next to a well full of fresh water that I haven’t noticed yet: All I have to do is drink, but I insist on crashing around with all my hope set on my best made plan.
I have longed to understand how I might develop a ten-step programme that will enable me to live in the “unforced rhythms of grace”. These distant drumbeats have been like a holy grail for this parched traveller, tantalising me with their promise and yet unattainable despite my efforts. I’ve got myself stuck over and over again in thinking that it’s all about me and what I can bring to the table. Jesus is really clear that this is not the case:
“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
The thing about grace is it can never be forced. It is always just given, and we are always recipients first and foremost. It’s free, unearned, offered to us, held out when we’re stubborn or blind or set on a wild and crazy course of our own.
I think I had got stuck in thinking that the rhythms of grace were set by God like some sort of master conductor, leading his orchestra in a complex and elaborate piece, hard to keep up with, demanding, requiring the best of the players. The music would be beautiful to hear, but taxing to play, maybe impossible for an amateur like me…
But I am retraining my ear, because I think I’m beginning to hear a new rhythm, hushed, rising from the silence of a quieted soul: It is the simple sound of footsteps falling in a gentle walk. And I can see the dust rising where the footsteps fall, and there is talking and laughing…it’s natural, it’s UNFORCED. It’s where I know I will find what I am looking for.
Perhaps the rhythms of grace are best heard in a footstep, in a heartbeat, in a relationship.
I laid the word “Grace” out on the table and lit the candles. It felt a bit like a “borrowed” word, like trying on someone else’s clothes. We have known all about grace for a long time, but have we worn it? Felt it’s weight on our backs?
This year our family is clothed and shod in grace and determined to learn how to walk again. We have two left feet, and we’re not cut out for complicated symphonies, so we’re just going to walk with our master, and see the dust rise, and feel the sun on our backs.
It feels good to shake off the heavy burden of my own expectations, and walk into the freedom of his.