Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 5, 2021
Sometimes when we’re confused, we say “let me just get my bearings, here.” I may have just woken up from a nap. Or I may have stumbled on a walk. Maybe I’ve hit my head on a rafter in the basement and that’s left me woozy. Everything seems odd; I’m disoriented or muddled. So I say, “Let me just get my bearings, here.”
Once I woke up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room. I’d been traveling a good deal, changing time zones, and sleeping in unfamiliar hotels. When I work in the dark that night I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. But even worse, I couldn’t quite think who I was. That was confusing and more than a little frightening.
In those moments when I’m confused, I search for something fixed and clear that tells us who we are or what we’re doing or where we’re going. It might be a familiar landmark that helps me get my bearings. It might be any number of things, but it’s something I can grasp hold of that helps us get our bearings. It needs to be something fixed, something sturdy – hopefully so fixed its permanent.
That awful night in a strange hotel room, it was only when I tripped over my briefcase that I’d left on the floor of the room that it all came back to me. I got my bearings. Suddenly it all came back to me. Once again I knew who I was and what I was doing there. The briefcase wasn’t particularly fixed. I kicked it a few feet when I tripped over it, but there was a familiar object filled with familiar things that put me right again in the world and in my mind. But often, familiar things aren’t where we should look to find our bearings.
“Let me just get my bearings, here.” It’s an unusual phrase. It comes from navigation, especially from navigating at sea when there were no landmarks in view and before there was GPS or anything like it. It comes from using the stars or a compass to find your way. Hopefully you have a map (or something like a map) that shows where you’re going, and the map shows which way is north. You use a compass to help you know which compass direction to steer to take you where you want to go. That direction is your bearing. It’s the number of degrees away from due north you want to head. If a wave (or something) knocks you off course, you use the compass to get back on your bearings.
This phrase, this idea, is on my mind because we’re living in crazy-making times. Every morning there is a fresh load of things on the news that sound crazy to me. They sound like people have lost their way.
Most obviously, there’s a pandemic that’s killing millions. We have a vaccine that protects against it and is almost sure to prevent serious illness. But some people won’t take it. That seems crazy to me. I can only imagine those people have lost their bearings.
Talk of conspiracies abound. I’m not eager to wander into politics here today, but if you read the news at all, I think you know what I mean.
It feels like a lot of people have lost their bearings. They’re confused, or muddled – or afraid, and they’re looking for something that helps them get their bearings back. They’re looking for something to grab hold of, something sturdy and solid, that helps them get their bearings.
Where do they look for something to get their bearings? That’s really what I want to talk about today.
Some people try to find their bearings at work. Their work has meaning for them and they try to do it well. When they can’t find work, or when their work seems pointless or degrading, it can feel like they’ve lost their bearings. Other people try to find their bearings in their family – in the relationships that connect people to one another. When those relationships don’t work or break down, or when they take a shape they hadn’t expected – had never imagined – that, too can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.
And some people try to find their bearings in traditions. They want things to be just like they were when they were growing up, or the way they were for their parents or their grandparents. Change is hard. And when comes, as it always does, people feel like they’ve lost their bearings. Maybe they are looking for their bearings in the wrong place.
Jesus’s parents lived in crazy-making times. The Romans had conquered Judea in 63 BC, not long before they were born. Suddenly the Jews were no longer an independent people. Their king was not really their king. Jesus was born into a world at a time and in a place where many people had lost their bearings.
Where should we look for our bearings? That’s really what I want to talk about today.
Think about the “three wise men” who have a starring role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Who were these “wise men?” Who were these men who felt compelled to follow a star – something that itself seems a little crazy. But it felt right to them – and it was right. Who were these guys?
We generally call them Kings, or the Magi. (“Magi” is from the same root as the word “magic.”) It’s a word from the Persian language and that’s where we think these Magi came from. I’ve been reading a new translation of the Gospels, this one by Sarah Ruden, a Classics scholar who has been drawn to worship among Friends. Here’s how she translates the verses in Matthew 2:
When Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, diviners from where the sun rises appeared at Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the King of the Jews who has been born? We did see his star at its rising and have come to prostrate ourselves before him.”
“Diviners” is how she translates the word. What makes these men “wise” is that they took their bearings from the stars. They took them from something much more fixed and solid than work or family or tradition. These three were skilled at reading the stars, and they saw in the stars the signs of divine things.
“Diviners.” They were not Jews and of course they were not Christians (Jesus was just about to be born). They were probably Zoroastrian priests, but they took their bearings from the stars and that led them – compelled them – to come a long distance to worship a baby they’d never me – whose parents they’d never met. They took their bearings from the stars – from divine things. And the Ruden translation says:
“When they saw the star there, their joy was heaped on joy, in great abundance.”
It wasn’t dizziness they felt. It wasn’t confusion. It’s because they took their bearings from divine things, not from earthly things, that this strange long journey they took filled them with joy.
It’s easy to get caught up in earthly things. It’s easy to try to find our bearings in those earthly things. But those earthly things – work and family and tradition – are unlikely to give us a long-lasting and joy-filling sense of who we are and what’s right to do.
Those Diviners followed a star. They followed it to Jesus at the point of his birth. And his birth can point us towards a way of finding our bearings.
That’s why we celebrate Christmas. That’s why we find an abundance of joy in Christmas.
How do we find our bearings in divine things? That’s why Christmas is only the beginning of the story. There’s a long road to travel to find our bearings, but we have to look to divine things to travel that road.
Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website