Contemplating epiphany in the busy season of Lent
March 1, 2023 by Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn
Is there still an Epiphany?
After the budget has been settled and the inevitable trade-offs in ministry and staffing are made? After the officers have been trained and the new calendar year launched? After the first unexpected, unbudgeted building repair has come up?
Is there still an Epiphany as we track post-Pandemic worship attendance and ask, “Is this the new normal?” Is there still an Epiphany as we scramble, again, to recruit the volunteers required to bring our ministries to life? As we watch our best-laid plans fall short?
Is there still an Epiphany as we tally the numbers for the annual statistical report — how many baptisms and how many deaths? Where our mission dollars went? How little diversity our congregations reflect in comparison to our neighborhoods and nation. What unwelcome truths do our data reveal, if we dare tell the truth?
Is there still an Epiphany? As we take up our Lenten journey to the tomb and dig deep, one more time, to proclaim what lies beyond it, hoping we can speak with something like the conviction we had the first time we told the wondrous outcome?
I entered ordained ministry after 25 years in the private sector and will never forget that first year of learning the distinct rhythms of church life. Having grown accustomed to the business world, I fooled myself in my rookie year into thinking that I would catch my breath in January after giving Advent and Christmas my all. A pastor with any experience knows how January’s wave of organization and administrative tasks all but drowns the memory of the candles we held high in hope on Christmas Eve.
An awful lot has changed for the church and for our nation in the 15 years since I made that rookie mistake. In numerous congregations, there may not be many more cycles of Easter egg hunts and summer picnics, of rally days, annual retreats, stewardship campaigns and Christmas pageants.
What was it the Lord told Isaiah to preach? “Behold, I am doing a new thing ….”
“Yes, Lord,” we might respond, “but this new thing – with all of its novelty, discomfort and uncertainty?”
Frederick Buechner wryly offered, “Faith can’t prove a damned thing. Or a blessed thing.” “Faith,” he wrote, “is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway.”
So we need Epiphany, especially in the muck and mire of daily church work. Every-day Epiphany teaches us to confess the limits of our agency, our power. We count on the every-day epiphany — God’s manifestation in the routine and the ordinary, to speak hope whatever the data seem to suggest.
In it all, we are reminded as Reformed folk that God is the subject of every sentence and we come somewhere after the verb. In that, there is liberation to meet each day, to see how God is manifest to us as those who are called simply to respond as best we can.
Lord of all, grant us eyes to see you manifested in the glory and the messiness of ministry. Remind us of what we so often say to our congregation members — that Your most oft-repeated words in scripture are “fear not.”
Rev. John Cleghorn is pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, N.C. His first book, Resurrecting Church: Where Justice and Diversity Meet Radical Welcome and Healing Hope, was published in 2021. His next book focuses on how churches are building affordable housing on their properties.