Fr. Jude Siciliano writes that: “Epiphany is the Feast of those called by God’s grace to leave behind the familiar and accustomed and go searching for Christ, in what seems to be the most unlikely places.” Sometimes we don’t have to travel far to find those unlikely places – an illness, conflict at work, working on seemingly intractable social problems, amidst conflicts of those with differing theological opinions in our church, struggling with an addiction, negotiating clashes of cultures in school or the workplace. There are a myriad of circumstances that take us into a foreign land where we are not comfortable. We bumble along our journey and then suddenly there are moments of grace where we see the sacred burst forth in our life.
Sometime around 1974, when Charlie and I were parents of 4 young children we said yes to being foster parents to a young woman named Roxanne who was a few months away from turning 18. She had been in the foster care system a while and had recently been asked to leave her last foster home. We put a lot of energy into welcoming her into our home. A cherished belief was spelled out on a handmade banner over our fireplace. “An act of love can tip the balance.” Looking back, I realize I was quite naïve about what this would involve.
When Roxanne turned 18 she ran away. And we were told there was nothing we could do about it. Even if we found her we couldn’t make her come back. I felt like a complete failure. A little later I decided to go back to school to study counseling psychology, because I felt that love only took me so far – I needed to have some knowledge too. A year or so later, Roxanne came back to live with us after she became pregnant. And she and some of her children have lived with us at various other times in their lives. We have stayed connected for 43 years even though she was officially our foster daughter for two months. At times it has been heartbreaking as I have watched patterns of pain being passed on from generation to generation and I have felt helpless to change any of that. But at other times Roxanne and her family have brought me to moments of Epiphany – moments of manifestation of our personal God in the messy human condition. Let me share just a few of those moments with you that have happened around this time of the year.
The first happened on a December 24th. I was sitting at breakfast contemplating the lovely relaxed day I was going to have wrapping presents and making lasagna for our family dinner. What a joy not to have to be rushing around. I had just enough to do so I could savor the day with Christmas music and my preferred slow pace. The phone rang. It was Roxanne.
She was calling from the hospital. She had gone in when she felt her labor contractions. Now the nurses were telling her she had to go home because her contractions weren’t strong enough. She was frantic because she felt they were. She didn’t want to go home. Her current husband, Mike, was getting frustrated and wasn’t supporting her. Could I come and be with her? They would meet me back at their home.
When I arrived Roxanne was sitting at the bottom of the stairway to their second floor flat. Mike was insisting that she keep climbing the steep steps, because he thought she would feel better upstairs. I said, with a voice that surprised me in its calmness– “It’s all right Mike she can climb in between contractions. It won’t be long.”
When we got upstairs, Brian and Rachel, Roxanne’s teen-aged children, scurried around trying to be helpful. Mike yelled at them for not doing things right. Roxanne and I sat on the floor and I timed her contractions while massaging her back. The dog was jumping on me, the toddler Mickie was crawling on Roxanne. How I stayed calm in the commotion was beyond me.
The contractions were five minutes apart. “You need to be in the hospital. I will vouch for that,” I told Roxanne, with the assurance that comes from being privileged.
When I let Mike know we needed to go back to the hospital, Mike said, “Our tire went flat and I don’t have any money to get it fixed.” “Come in my car,” I suggested. “No”, he said, “I need to get the tire fixed to bring Roxanne and the baby home.” I gave him some money for the tire wondering whether he would really show up at the hospital like he said he would. I hoped he would. I hoped my coming in response to Roxanne’s call hadn’t made him feel so anxious or inadequate that he wouldn’t show up at all.
At the hospital everything went smoothly. No one challenged her right to be there. Labor proceeded quickly, was strenuous but except for worrying about whether Mike could get there, Roxanne did fine. I wasn’t a bad labor coach, but I was not her husband. Mike did arrive in time to be with her as she gave birth. I faded into the background but the staff let me stay and watch.
At the moment of birth, father and mother were joyful beyond words. Then Roxanne turned to me and said, “His name is Gabriel.” Tears came to my eyes. Gabriel had indeed been “God’s messenger” to me that day as his name signified. I was gifted to be present at the miracle of birth and watch it transform all involved. It wasn’t the mellow gift wrapping day I had planned, but the real thing.
The second Christmas-time Epiphany involved Roxanne’s mother, Harriet, who is now deceased. It was a few weeks before Christmas. I was finishing papers for classes in graduate school and trying to get in my Christmas preparation for my family. Harriet called and wanted to know if I could take her to visit Roxanne, who now lived in Wisconsin. I told her I would but I needed to wait until the school semester was over with exams and papers handed in. I would call her back when I could schedule it in. Well Harriet was persistent. She called twice more before the end of the semester and wore me down. When I picked her up my heart wasn’t exactly in the right place. I was a tad crabby. A few miles out of St. Paul she said, “Do you think she’ll have time to read the book?” “What book?” I asked. “I have been writing the story of my life so that Roxanne would understand why I needed to send her to foster care.” She said she had been writing it long hand and someone at her church typed it for her. It had taken a long time to finish. The title of the book was, “The Girl Who Never Gave Up.” My heart opened and I felt reverence for the Christ-life in Harriet. Here was a mother who was still working hard to do the best she could for her daughter. She gave me a copy of her book too. And I marveled at the hope that permeated her life, given what she had lived through. God didn’t give up on her and she didn’t give up on God.
These are only two of the Christ moments Roxanne’s family has brought me to, as they have been a witness to enduring hope through very trying circumstances and a legacy of mental health and abuse issues. Roxanne and her family, which now includes grandchildren, have taken me places I wouldn’t have gone by myself. I have sometimes felt like a failure because I couldn’t make everything come out OK for them. I couldn’t be a savior. But I could be a witness to the Savior’s presence in their life. Somehow in our relationship, the Christ life in each of us has grown. As I talked with Roxanne when I first wrote up these memories in 2008 and asked her permission to share these stories in my preaching, she said that Charlie and I have been a source of acceptance and stability in her life. When she experienced my calm (the calm that I experience as gift from God) she knows she has the strength to do what she needs to do next. I realized that Jesus never promised a smooth ride. But he did promise that he would be with us.
Fast forward again to Advent 2016. Roxanne called to let me know that she was now experiencing her own moments of Epiphany. She has been supported in her community over the years by a program for women coming out of abusive relationships and by a Recovery Church in the Lutheran Tradition. She had been moved by what I wrote in 2008 and saved it and felt she now had moments of experiencing God’s presence and feels she has something to give. (I had completely forgotten what I had written and shared with her!) When we met for our Christmas lunch she seemed to glow with a new zest for life despite having been ill in the last couple of weeks. I realized that my acts of love mattered, not in themselves, but as a part of the body of Christ.
We don’t have a literal star. We do have the scriptures and the interior movement of grace to point the way. We have memories of moments of true community to guide us as we navigate the inevitable struggles in today’s relationships. We have the vision of the kingdom. Maybe that banner over my fireplace wasn’t just a naïve platitude, as I have often thought during the years of difficulties. Maybe it was the star that guided me to the places where I could see God’s grace shining brilliantly in the midst of messiness.
As we are called out of our comfort zones to face new conflicts and challenges in our families, our communities, and beyond – let us give thanks for the stars we have been given to guide us and the God who has chosen to join us in our messy human condition.
~ Barbara Keffer