Sunday, January 7, 2018



We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.
Matthew 2:1

One of the most enduring literary forms is the “quest” or the “hero’s journey.” The object of a “quest” requires great exertion on the part of the hero, the overcoming of many obstacles, typically including much travel into the land of adventures and tests. The hero normally aims to obtain something with the goal of returning home. The object of the journey can be a new insight, something that fulfills a lack in life, or something or someone who was stolen or abducted.

Examples from history include Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus whom the gods cursed to wander and suffer for many years until Athena persuaded the Olympians to allow him to return. Recovering the Golden Fleece is the object of the travels of Jason and the Argonauts in Argonautica. Surely, most of us are familiar with quest for the Holy Grail and the adventures of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Then there is the mock quest of Don Quixote, who nonetheless remains a hero of chivalry. Who has not been to a high school graduation without having been challenged by “To Dream the Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha?” Then there is the Wizard of Oz. where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion go on a quest for the way back to Kansas, for brains, for a heart and for courage.

The “quest” theme in literature continues into our own day. One of my favorite quest stories is “The Never Ending Story” about Bastian being pulled into the heroic adventures of Atreyu on his heroic trip to Fantasia. Most of you young people have grown up with the quest of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a tale of friendship, inner struggle with temptation, against a background of epic and supernatural warfare.

The story of the Magi has all the qualities of a traditional “quest” story. There is risk, adventure, determination, long distance travel, tests, diversions and finally a trip home. The Magi were priest-teachers to the kings of Persia (modern day Iraq). (By the way we don’t know how many there were even though three gifts are mentioned.) These men were not seeking their fortunes – seeking gold or pearls or even oil! They were on a search for God. They were on a “spiritual quest.” As priest-teachers from that part of the world, their job was to watch the heavens for any unusual activity.

For them, unusual activity among the stars was a sign that God was up to something new. Unusual celestial activity drove them to check it out. Astrologers today even know the name of the star they followed. It was called ‘The Birth of a Prince Star.” They left everything that was comfortable and familiar to them and set out to new lands, seeking new insights and new understanding. Their search led them to Jesus.

What has all this to do with us? Surely, we are not here to admire other people’s adventures from history, literature or Scripture! We are here to be challenged by these biblical figures to go on our own spiritual quests! In fact, that is one of the weaknesses of today’s culture. We would rather watch sports than play them; listen to music than learn to play an instrument or sing ourselves; play video games with imaginary heroes than try to become heroes ourselves!

The template for a hero’s journey, anyone on a quest to become someone new or to fulfill his or her dreams, is the Old Testament story of the Exodus. The People of God are in slavery in Egypt, symbolic of a life that is not working. They get an opportunity to begin an adventure of transformation and so set out in great enthusiasm. Thinking that they could go through a transformation without any pain or inconvenience, they are shocked by the wear and tear of the desert. Underestimating how much work real change involves, some wanted to back out of the process and return to Egypt – their old way of life. A few tough it out and finally move into the new life they had imagined, before the trials and tests of the desert. This template is true whether you want to lose weight, leave a dysfunctional relationship or even graduate from college!

I have adopted this template for my retirement. My worst nightmare was to go into retirement accepting the popular belief that it was a time to slow down, take care of myself or let myself be pampered by others. The rocking chair is a symbol of retirement in our country. I say “to hell with rocking chairs! Get them out of my sight!” I want, rather,  to reinvent myself, I want a new adventure and I want to see how far I can push myself. I just returned from my 8th trip to the island country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, right off the coast of Venezuela! Here I am at 74, doing foreign missionary work, volunteering in a foreign country, meeting people I could never have imagined. I am a bit amazed at myself going through foreign airports by myself with a backpack and putting myself in some pretty scary situations. It is not easy, but it certainly beats playing golf all week, rocking on the front porch and counting my pills!

Fellow spiritual seekers, when it comes to real change, there are a couple of slogans to remember. “No pain. No gain.” “No cross, no crown.” "There is always a big breakdown before the big breakthrough.” “One cannot discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” Or as Bilbo put it in “the Fellowship of the Rings,” “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.” If you don’t believe me, just ask my heroes, the Magi. Whatever you do, or your circumstances allow, for God's sake don't be like that old woman from Eastern Kentucky who had never been more than two miles from the spot where she was born! When asked why she had never her whole life left the area where she was born, she answered, "I just don't believe in goin' places!"  

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