It was my first summer in youth ministry. My wife, Whitney, and I had been volunteering with the youth group for a few years. But I had just joined the church staff in June, and led my first mission trip a few weeks later.
As with everyone who starts a new job, I was figuring it out as I went along. That summer, I did a lot of planning, including scheduling all of the trips and lock-ins for the coming school year. I had written a Handbook of Youth Ministry, which outlined all the elements of our program and the theology underlying all of those elements. And as a kickoff for the year, I decided to have a retreat for youth and their parents, going to Bridgeport Camp and Conference Center the weekend before school began. Whitney suggested that we invite the younger siblings to come along. She even volunteered to entertain them during the various meetings that I had with the youth and their parents.
I want to note here that like all clergy spouses, Whitney is an unsung hero who could never possibly get enough credit for all that she sacrifices and does for the church. Life in the church certainly brings more blessings than not, to be sure. But being married to a pastor presents more challenges than I think most people realize. Sadly, those challenges sometimes come from the pastors themselves. For example…
I thought the retreat was a total success. When we got home Sunday evening, I was feeling good about all the work I had put in that summer. I felt great about the comprehensive schedule that I had laid out. I had received wonderful feedback from the parents about the level of organization I had introduced to the ministry.
But as Whitney and I were processing the weekend, I realized that I had made a terrible rookie mistake. Now, I should probably add here that, although we had been dating for several years, we had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We did not have children yet. We were still figuring out the marriage thing. Clearly, I still had lots to learn.
Whitney was relaxing on the couch, looking over the packet of information that I had presented to the youth and their parents. Remember now, she had been entertaining the younger siblings in a different part of the camp while I was presenting all this material. Which meant she was now seeing it all for the first time. I was watching her look through this comprehensive information, waiting for her to tell me what an awesome job I had done.
Instead, she said, “This is what you handed out?”
I was a little confused by the question, but I confirmed that it was indeed what I had handed out.
“You’re leaving at 5 in the morning on March 5th for Spring Break Retreat?”
“Well, yeah,” I replied. “It takes a while to get to Taos with a bunch of teenagers. I want to be there in time to do some programming that evening. Why?”
“When were you going to tell me?” she asked.
“I guess I was going to tell you…now?”
She said, “March 5th, Chris. Anything ring a bell about that date?”
“It’s the first day of Spring Break?” I asked out loud.
“Chris Dowd!” she said, now completely exasperated. “March 5th is my birthday!”
Now, for all of those who are either newly married or plan to be some day, I want to offer some unsolicited, free advice. Please learn from my very painful experience, an incident that she and I still talk about all these years later. (We laugh about it now. We were not laughing about it then.) Should you find yourself having forgotten a significant date in the life of your spouse, there are a couple of ways you could go.
I recommend profusely and sincerely apologizing, and then asking what you can do to make it right.
Sadly, that’s not what I did. Embarrassed that I had done something to hurt the love of my life…I got defensive.
“Well, a birthday is just a day, Whit,” I foolishly said. “We can celebrate it earlier that week. I can’t reschedule the trip now!”
Definitely not the way to go.
You see, I had overlooked the very important step of reviewing all this information with my wife because of the tyranny of the calendar. I had more to do than time to do it. I was making copies of all that information right up to the moment we left on the retreat, because I had left myself no margin. Not only did I have no margin for error. More to the point, I had no margin for my second most important relationship, after my relationship with God. I had allowed the time crunch I was feeling to determine what I was doing.
The details for you are different, but I’m guessing you can identify with having more to do than time to do it. Because I’ve never met anyone who has not, at some point or another, labored under the tyranny of the calendar. Time is our most valuable and important resource. All too often we let the circumstances of life determine how we spend our time. Which can not only lead to all sorts of problems, but can also negatively impact our most important relationships.
So today, as we begin a new year, during that season when many of us make resolutions and set goals for the coming 12 months, we’re beginning a sermon series called A Simplified Life. The idea is inspired by a book of the same title by Emily Ley. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive, Intern Pastor Abbey Echols and Associate Pastor of Discipleship Samantha Parson are offering a study of the book on Mondays at 10am at Mosaic. And on Wednesdays at noon and 6pm on the main campus, Pastor Sam is offering a study of a different book by Emily Ley, called Grace Not Perfection.
The idea that we’ll be talking about throughout January is that, in the midst of the complexities of our lives, there are steps we can take to simplify things. Both for greater peace of mind, to be sure. But also to make room for the things that really matter. In particular, our relationship with God, and our relationships with our family.
With all that by way of introduction, let’s turn to our text for this morning…
[Read Isaiah 60:1-6]
The historical setting for this text is after the return from Exile, anticipating a rebuilt Temple and looking ahead to the some-time-in-the-future ushering in of God’s Kingdom. The last line that we read, verse six, the earliest Christian Church interpreted as foreshadowing the gifts that the magi brought to Christ. So in what we call the Revised Common Lectionary, both this passage from Isaiah and the magi text from the Gospel of Matthew are recommended readings for today.
You may know that Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. December 25th is the first day of Christmas. January 5th is the twelfth day of Christmas. Epiphany is January 6th. And the first Sunday in January on or after Epiphany is celebrated as Epiphany Sunday. What you may not know is that Epiphany is actually a more ancient celebration than Christmas itself.
Before the church added Christmas to its calendar, it was actually Epiphany that celebrated the birth of Christ. Over the centuries, the Church narrowed the focus of Epiphany to a remembrance of the visit of the magi. That historical event gives us the opportunity to explore the theology of how God makes Godself known in the world. Or to put it another way, today is a day to celebrate the appearance or manifestation of God in the world. That’s what “Epiphany” means in Greek.
The prophet Isaiah foretold a time when the entire world would be redeemed, recognizing and worshipping only the one true God. Isaiah says: “Arise, shine; for your light has come…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:1, 3). We Christians believe that this prophecy would be at least partially fulfilled centuries later, when the magi would read the stars and journey to Bethlehem to see the manifestation of God in the world. The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the capital “E” Epiphany for which this day is named.
But there’s another sense of the word “epiphany,” of course. Each of us is blessed with little “e” epiphanies from time to time. What Merriam-Webster defines as “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; a revealing scene or moment.” It is often in these moments that God offers us clarity about who we are and about who we’re called to be.
But the thing about epiphanies is that we have to be open and aware if we’re going to recognize them. And sometimes, our incredibly complicated and full lives get too busy to realize what God is trying to reveal to us. Which brings us back to the sermon series we’re beginning today.
In her book A Simplified Life, Emily Ley recommends sitting down and making an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) list of all the things in our lives that require our time. Then, she recommends eliminating or scaling back those things that prevent us from caring for our most important relationships.
She writes, “Take inventory and choose wisely…Without ditching serious, nonnegotiable responsibilities, ruthlessly declutter your list.” I love the word “ruthlessly” there, because that’s what it takes sometimes. She offers some very practical, specific examples in the book, which if you’re interested in you can study with Abbey and Sam on Monday mornings. The specific examples will vary for each of us, of course.
For our purposes this morning, I’m not so much interested in how we declutter our list of commitments so much as I’m interested in what we’re making room for. For all of us as followers of Christ, God must be at the top of the list of our priorities. For me, as I’m sure for most of you, family is second. And everything else must fit in around those two priorities. Of course we must make a living, and do God’s work in the world in whatever unique way God has called us. But as I painfully learned my first few months in ministry, that should never come at the expense of our most important relationships.
I had to learn to be intentional about how ministry and family life were related. There is time for everything that’s important. But there’s not unlimited time. Whitney and I, in the years since, have worked hard to be on the same page with regard to the calendar, lest we fall under its tyranny. And we learned the crucial lesson that we simply can not do it all, even if it’s all worthwhile.
So as each of us looks with excitement and anticipation to the new year before us, let us make a comprehensive list of all the things that currently demand our time. Are we overcommitted? And if so, what nonessentials can go?
Since time is our most precious resource, how much do we allocate each day to God? How much do we allocate each day to our most important relationships? Do we make ourselves available to God every day through prayer, or meditation, or Bible study? Are we able to be 100 percent present with our families? Or do other commitments crowd our brain space when we’re with our spouse, kids, grandkids?
Friends, as the new year begins, may we be intentional about the possibilities offered by a simplified life. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 A Simplified Life, p. 72-73.