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A personal “Aha!” epiphany

Star of Epiphany

The Rev. Glenn Wagner reflects on the history of epiphany, the Christian season of Epiphany, and a personal epiphany that has made a difference in his life.

GLENN M. WAGNER
Retired pastor, Michigan Conference

Epiphany is the ancient Greek word for an experience of sudden realization. An epiphany is an ‘aha’ moment of life-shaping inspiration. The word has been used to describe a scientific breakthrough or a religious or philosophical discovery. But it can also apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows something to be understood in a new way.

History honors the epiphany of Archimedes, a famous Greek mathematician, 287-212 BCE, who discovered a method to determine the volume of an irregular object and invented the word to describe his sudden insight, “Eureka!” Sir Isaac Newton, an English physicist, 1642-1727 CE, had an equally famous epiphany when he realized that a falling apple and the orbiting moon are both pulled by the same gravitational force, an insight now called Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation.

The New Testament remembers multiple epiphanies for Jesus’ disciples when Jesus was identified as God’s son. These epiphany moments include: the visit of the wise men (Magi) in Matthew 2:1-12, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:13-17, and the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-8. The Greek New Testament further uses the word epiphany to refer to the birth of Christ, his post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, and to Jesus’ second coming.

The Christian season of Epiphany begins every January 6th, concluding the 12 days of Christmas and preceding the 40 day season of Lent.  Epiphany can last anywhere from 40 to 63 days determined by the annually shifting date for Easter which is linked to the Jewish celebration of Passover and a much older lunar calendar. 

Here is a memory of a personal epiphany that has made a lasting impression in my life about Jesus’ important teaching concerning conflict resolution and forgiveness.

I have been acquainted from early childhood Sunday school and vacation Bible school lessons with Jesus’ wisdom on the subject of getting along with others. I regularly recite from memory the Lord’s Prayer with its important petition to God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I have also been taught by respected elders from an early age Jesus’ lesson to his followers that we are to forgive others 70 X 7, Matthew 18:21-22. Church was also where Jesus’ lesson from his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:23-24, was taught that if something is wrong in our relationship with our neighbors we should go to them immediately to straighten it out as this is a higher priority than bringing our offering to God.

Christ’s teaching about forgiveness was a concept that I have generally agreed with on an intellectual level, but it wasn’t until a personal epiphany that my understanding of Jesus’ wisdom captured my heart as well as my mind.

I share this personal epiphany to further encourage efforts to heal broken relationships and to prompt your own reflection about moments of holy epiphany.

I was a young associate pastor, serving a well-established congregation. The respected senior pastor was a father figure for me and a valued mentor who offered me a monthly opportunity to preach on Sunday morning.

My seminary preaching class taught that humor, appropriately used, can be a wonderful tool to break the ice with your audience, establish rapport, and solidify an important theological point. What they failed to teach me was this lesson: not everyone finds the same jokes humorous, and some can even be offended by humor that misses the mark.

 I do not remember the sermon text or the main point of the sermon that I delivered that Sunday. I do recall being confident that my sermon was going to “hit a home run for Jesus” and inspire persons to new heights of faithfulness. At the outset of the message, I ad-libbed in an attempt to establish a connection with the congregation and poked gentle fun at the Russian Christians in our church who liked to sit in our balcony and were always “Rushin” in and “Rushin” out of church. The line got a nice laugh, and I proceeded to preach a sermon I thought was one of my best.

Monday morning in the staff meeting, the congregation’s long-time secretary said, “I hear you had quite a sermon yesterday.” 

I was pleased and responded, “Thank you. How did you hear?”

The secretary continued: “I got a very angry phone call this morning from Mildred who indicated that she won’t be into the office today to help with the newsletter because she was never so offended by anyone in the church as she was by your message yesterday. Mildred wanted us all to know she is quitting this church and never coming back.” Mildred and her husband were local farmers, fifty-year members of the church, faithful attenders, and generous financial supporters of the ministry. They were regulars in the church balcony.

My ego deflated like a stomach hit by a full swing of a baseball bat. I felt sick with regret. I had not intended to hurt anyone. I certainly did not mean to offend Mildred. I immediately got in my car and drove the five miles to the Jones’ farm, all the while praying to God for the right words to say that could make amends.

Mildred, a tiny but formidable farm wife, answered my knock. She did not wait for me to finish my apology. She said with bitterness and anger in her voice, “You hurt me deeply yesterday, and I want you to leave right now, and get off my property, and don’t come back.” She slammed the door in my face.

Emotionally, I was devastated by her reaction. I was not yet experienced enough to know that an intense reaction like Mildred’s may also have been triggered by a build-up of other issues in her life that remained hidden behind her closed door. I went back to the church and spent time alone in prayer. I wept with feelings of deep guilt that words of mine offered during the sacred time of preaching could actually drive a faithful person away from the church. I lacked the courage and listening skills to try again and trusted that Mildred and her husband had made up their minds about me.

A knot formed in my stomach every time I thought of this fractured relationship that never went away. I distracted myself by keeping busy, resigned to the fact that I had been taught a difficult life lesson, and committed myself to be more careful about my use of humor. I resolved to work harder to be a better witness for Christ. 

Mildred and her husband Ed did not return to church. Not a Sunday passed that I was not painfully aware of their absence. For weeks the front and center balcony pew, where they had been fixtures for 50 years, was noticeably empty. I felt the pain of a broken relationship, the internal call of Christ to reconcile, and the sense of helplessness frozen in my pride that convinced me that I could not force Mildred to change her heart.

Four years passed. It was the beginning of summer. I was engaged in my free time washing, scraping, and putting a fresh coat of white paint on the wood slat siding of our circa 1913 home. After an afternoon of painting the heights of the house, as I began to dismount, my scaffolding got out of balance with me on it, and I fell from the top of the house nearly three stories to an ungraceful landing on my back. In the few seconds of the fall, my life flashed before my eyes. I suffered two compression fractures in my spine. The pain was excruciating. 

The rescue workers, concerned about the potential for paralysis, carefully strapped me to a bodyboard and moved me by ambulance to the hospital emergency room. Another ambulance followed us into the parking lot and unloaded its passenger on a similar gurney. With an equal sense of urgency, the other crew wheeled their charge through the doors alongside the crew that was pushing me. Mildred held her husband’s hand as she walked alongside his gurney; Ed had suffered a heart attack and was being rushed to surgery. Mildred could not help but notice me. Our eyes met in that crisis, brought together in pain, for the first time since being sent home from their door to a place of immediate recognition.  

The timing of our mutual and separate life-threatening crises did not feel random or accidental to either of us. Suddenly, without a sermon, or coaching, or prodding, our calcified pride melted away.  Mildred and I both knew that the single most important thing in that moment was to be reconciled. “Mildred, I’m so sorry,” I said through my pain. 

Mildred melted, “I’m sorry, too.  We’ll talk later.”

Mildred and Ed returned to faithful attendance at church. After many painful days, my fractures healed, and I did, too. The toxic, spiritual, and emotional waste that lingered for four years over an unresolved conflict was washed completely away. In my remembered moment of life-changing epiphany, I learned a powerful lesson: reconciliation is far better than the alternative. God is not only at work in creation and miracles; God is also there working through our pain to teach us important lessons.

At the conclusion of another of his extended lessons about the hard and necessary work to reconcile with our neighbors in Matthew 18.20, Jesus shared, “Wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there I will be in the midst of you.” Lying on a gurney in physical pain on my way to X-ray with uncertainty ahead, while being passed by another gurney carrying a man having a heart issue on his way to surgery, his hand held by his wife, we both, in our moment of reconciliation, experienced the presence of Christ with us.

I learned the truth that healthy relationships with conflicts that have been addressed feel far better than nursing a painful grudge and enduring the toxic separation caused by unresolved anger. When God’s people come together for the purpose of forgiveness and reconciliation, I learned that Jesus is with us as scripture promises. 

It was for me an ‘aha’ epiphany of great peace that has never been forgotten.

~ This account is an excerpt from a chapter in God Incidents: Real life Stories to Strengthen and Restore Your Faith, written by Glenn M. Wagner.