For months, I have had this date, January 9th, circled on my calendar. Tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS my absolute favorite show returns, “All Creatures Great and Small.” Other fans?
Even before the opening credits roll, I start feeling happy and excited, anticipating the hour ahead. And then someone with an intriguing message comes on the screen. I usually turn to David and exclaim, “It’s our friend! Torstein Hagen!” On our television, we see the little red cabin surrounded by snowy woods where Torstein grew up in Norway long before becoming founder of Viking River Cruises. Then we listen to him say, “There were three things we were encouraged to be: to be kind, to be honest and to be hardworking… Over time, I’ve come to add a fourth: Be curious. Be curious about the world around us, about the history and cultures of places we have yet to go and then go! Go with an open heart and a curious mind and you will find inspiration anew.”
Be curious. A message for us to take to heart at the beginning of a new year; and a message exemplified by the Magi.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Leaving behind the familiar, leaving behind their homes, the wise men set out not only curious about the world, but curious about God. Scholars believe that they were most likely from Mesopotamia or Persia, and would have been highly educated “priest-sages,” perhaps “specialists in medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, and divination,” interested in dreams and magic. They were people known to inquire after truth, whose studies included the world beyond them (the world of nature) and the world within themselves (the world of dreams and intuition).
Pope Francis, in his book, “Let us Dream: The Path to a Better Future” writes, (The attitudes of the Magi) “urged them to read the signs of the times and to venture into the unknown. They humbly believed there was more wisdom in the world than they had yet discovered. These travelers, unafraid to seek knowledge from afar, … set off in a caravan that became the first Christian pilgrimage.”
And although Torstein Hagen would love it if we booked a Viking River Cruise, the truth of the matter is that we don’t need to leave where we are to bring a spirit of curiosity to our lives. We can discover the path to a deeply fulfilling 2022 – even with our own present day Herods stirring up trouble and in the midst of the twin pandemics of disease and distrust – through a spirituality of curiosity.
Shortly after we celebrated New Year’s Day, I realized that I had spent much of the holidays in a funk. Like many of you, I was disappointed by changes to holiday plans, worried about the virus, worried about people with the virus, unhappy about the weather, and generally feeling out of sorts. I can’t say that I know anyone who is feeling really happy and vital right now – although yesterday’s sunny skies helped some. I only began to snap out of my malaise when I remembered how a spirit of inquiry could make a difference. Once I became curious about my own inner state and sought the presence of grace, the presence of God- something inside me begin to shift.
What might happen if each of us, beginning right now, surrendered to God whatever emotional and spiritual detritus we might be carrying and, instead, approached the year ahead as a sacred pilgrimage? Let’s just take a moment, if you feel comfortable doing so, to take a deep breath and prayerfully surrender whatever is weighing on you to God…
Now, let’s take another deep breath to welcome this new year with a spirit of curiosity and to begin this year as a sacred pilgrimage. Now imagine what might happen if, like the Magi, we joined with others, to deeply pay attention to what is happening in the world around us and to the world within us, seeking God? Isn’t that a primary purpose of church?
One of the wise men in my life, a former seminary colleague, David Wallace, used to begin every new academic year with the same guidance to our students: “Notice and inquire.” I learned from him over time that this posture – which was the posture of the magi – is particularly helpful when something feels amiss, as it has felt for many of us this winter.
So how do we do this? In those moments when we feel triggered, rather than simply giving in to our judgments and automatic reactions, we can notice what is happening inside ourselves and inquire about why we are feeling a certain way. By simply pausing, we interrupt what may be less than useful thoughts and feelings and create an opportunity to respond differently, to respond consciously, to respond with kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others.
As Annie Mascelli writes, “The way to change your reactive habits is to intervene in between the stimulus (whatever is pushing your buttons) and your reaction.” Diane Berke, the founder of One Spirit Seminary, one of the wise women in my life, often said that if all any of us ever did was learn to work with our reactivity, our spiritual growth would be limitless.
A spirit of curiosity can also be the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. How many couples or friendships fail because in the midst of conflict and tough times, rather than inquiring about why the other person said what they said or did what they did, we presume we know why – and our presumption is based on harsh judgment? How many fights escalate because we think we know why the other person failed to do or be what we wanted? By simply pausing to notice our own inner reactions in the midst of discord and then inquiring about why the other person feels or thinks or acts the way they do, we can de-escalate conflict and create the conditions for understanding and even stronger connection.
Earlier in the week David and I celebrated the 16th anniversary of our first date. It just so happened to be on Epiphany. I like to say that David was my Epiphany on Epiphany. One of the ways we celebrate each year is to look through this binder of saved emails from the early weeks of our relationship. Each page tells the story of two people curious about one another.
One of the qualities of the early days of new love relationships is the spirit of inquiry that naturally occurs. I can remember how excited I felt each time we would speak on the phone in the early morning hours or exchange emails, asking each other questions about our likes and dislikes, our families and experiences, our favorite movies, music and food… and so much more. We reveled in all we had in common and were intrigued by our different paths and interests.
Can you imagine what it might be like to bring that spirit of inquiry to your relationship with God? Can you imagine how your life might unfold if you had a few questions for God to explore in the year ahead?
Central to the spirituality of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, is something called the Queries, which have been used for much of their history. Queries – a set of themed questions – are applied in a variety of ways: at the beginning and end of worship services, in annual meetings, and in what is called a “Clearness Committee” which helps individuals struggling with a particular challenge to better understand themselves and to discern the way forward.
The idea is that these questions help individuals and communities develop their relationship with God – just like what naturally happens when we meet an intriguing person. The purpose of the queries is to discern how to live a life more completely aligned with the Spirit, with God.
Listen to these examples of Quaker queries:
Do you allow the Inward Teacher to work in you? Are you teachable?
Is every aspect of your life open to the transforming power of God? What stands in the way?
Are you open to the many ways Spirit may speak to you?
What does Jesus’ life and ministry mean to you?
Do you listen for the Spirit even when the words are foreign to you?
What does love require of you?
These are incredible questions! And, perhaps, exploring just one of them might help you move into this year in a way that will help you strengthen your relationship with God, to make this year a sacred pilgrimage. But, perhaps, there are other questions unique to where you are in your life at this moment that might be even more powerful, more useful at this time in your spiritual journey.
If anything, the roller coaster of 2021 was a reminder, a revelation, an epiphany, that our faith and our hope can not rest in what happens in the world. A new President did not fix the country. A new vaccination did not fix the pandemic. The verdict for George Floyd’s murder did not fix racism. A worldwide conference did not fix the climate emergency. We have got to look deeper and ground our actions in divinely inspired hope. What questions can inspire you to engage the year ahead as a sacred pilgrimage?
Torstein Hagen is right, “Go with an open heart and a curious mind and you will find inspiration anew.” Something we all need as we begin 2022. Amen.