There is something about the new year that makes us take stock and try to figure out where we are in life. Who we are. What we have gained or lost, and how those losses and gains define us. Mostly we want to have taken some steps forward in the world, have a little more money, closer relationships, a deeper sense of self and of place, more exciting experiences that we can post on facebook to show how much cooler we are than everyone else we know.
And we forget that we are supposed to be losing our life every day rather than gaining it. To let every single thing fall to the ground or be taken from us, to decrease rather than increase (cf. Lk 14:33, Jn 3:30, Jn 12:24, Mk 8:34-5, Gal 2:20, Phil 3:8). A dear friend of mine who lives in a dear city and attends a dear church said that on New Year’s Day some people in the church gave testimonies, and one of the testimonies was about 2011 as the year that things didn’t work out. The year that things were broken and lost and not fixed. A year of decrease. Amazing.
A few years ago my professor in a course on the doctrine of creation had us read Barth’s volume on the subject, and I remember coming to one little sentence that floored me completely:
“Yet [Christianity] does not understand the history of Israel as a reality which is self-enclosed but as one which from the very outset is open to the front, pointing to a goal beyond itself” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 1, 275).
That openness looks like being wounded, being lost. In another place Barth says it’s better if we don’t know too firmly who we are, better if we let God tell us, and tell us something new every day. Better if we keep on being strangers and exiles.
And so, as much as I have been joking (sort of) about being a displaced southerner, it should come as no surprise to me that God is constantly bringing me to places where I am a stranger. I meant to write a little series a few months ago about lessons from moving, and this is one of them. Being a stranger. Picking up and leaving places. Leaving country, kindred, and family (Gen. 12:1). Parting with the most cherished things.
As my other theology professor used to say, in Christianity we become ecstatic. Not the happy kind: ec-static, literally out of a fixed or stationary position. Out of a condition showing little or no change. Out of a condition lacking movement, development or vitality. Out of a condition of social life bound by tradition.
The wise men were startled out of their stasis by a star, and as epiphany approaches most of us have have been thrown back into our jobs, our semesters, our schedules, leaving the manger behind, lost in the trash bags full of wrapping paper and the recycled cardboard boxes. Back to the status quo. But there were three men who traveled from the east, who knew that to meet Jesus meant to leave home.
And Jesus has been the most ec-static of all. He who was rich for our sakes became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). He who was Light came into darkness (Jn 1:5). He who lived in splendor and joy from all eternity died in unbearable pain and abandonment. He who was clothed in unsurpassed glory, stripped bare. He, the center of all things, the one in the closest-knit Inner Ring, went to the place outside the camp, outside the city, and we are supposed to continually go out there to him (Hebrews 13:13).
And the funny thing is, as we leave our homes and the comforts of a particular identity, as things get stripped away, as we decrease, as we count all the pretty and pious things loss for His sake, we approach the homeless one who is Home, the broken one who is Health and Happiness, the naked one who offers us himself as our Glorious Dress, the wandering one who is Deepest Rest (cf., Ps. 90:1, Jn 14:2, Is. 53, Matt 11:28). As we lose the things we couldn’t keep anyway, we gain what we will never lose, to paraphrase the famous Jim Elliot quotation.
So maybe I will stop acting surprised that I live in the North, as if I am surprised that I should be a stranger, a person not really from here, and not intending to stay. Surprised that this is not my home. Maybe this year I will welcome the little wrinkles around my eyes rather than hate them, because it’s one step closer to glory (2. Cor. 4:16-18). Maybe I can welcome the loss of all things with JOY (Heb. 10:34), let the things which seem like treasures but are really shackles fall away, let the idea of self be stripped bare. And maybe I can live with my eyes trained toward the night sky, expecting a Star, expecting to be sent on a journey, carrying treasure to lay at His feet.