There are all kinds of epiphanies in our lives, right? Revelations of beauty and wonder on a mountain path. Realizations of gratitude and peace in the company of friends. These are the epiphanies that awaken your human spirit and open again the eyes of your soul. I had one of these earlier this week, watching my fifteen-year-old daughter cooking dinner. How happy she was, how engaged she was in what she was doing, creating. And how blessed I am—to be fed like that, to be nourished by that kind of love. There are all kinds of epiphanies, right?
There are, as well, the epiphanies that shake us to the core, that rattle our bones to their very roots, and change us forever. They may not even seem like epiphanies at first, seeming more like tsunamis of the spirit, flipping everything we know upside down. They may seem at first to be disasters.
And that leads me to this recommendation, my first of the new year.
If you do nothing else this week, you’ve got watch an eighteen minute TED talk on line, given by neuroscientist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor of Harvard University. I know you can find it at Huffington Post; I imagine it’s on You Tube too. You know what? I’m going to post it on FCC’s Facebook page. Make it easy for you to find. This TED talk is Jill Taylor’s own story of the stroke she suffered at the age of 37—a vivid, detailed account of the morning that changed her life forever. It turns out to be one of those epiphanies that felt at first like a disaster, like a tsunami. But one that gifts a gifted scientist with unexpected and life-changing insight. I have a hunch this eighteen minute TED talk will rock your world. It sure did mine.
Jill Taylor was a brilliant Harvard neuroscientist, at the height of her career, at the height of her intellectual acumen, when a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain. That morning she couldn’t walk, talk, read, write or recall anything about her life. She says, “I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.” She describes going to a phone to call for help—but forgetting how to use a phone and what the numbers there were for. She describes—dramatically describes—how the left and right hemispheres of her brain worked that morning. And how they didn’t work.
You really have to see this story to believe it. But Jill Taylor describes how the left hemisphere of her brain—with its language center, its individuating function—how the left hemisphere just shut down for periods of time. And how she looked at her arms and legs, and couldn’t begin to tell where the edges were. Where her arm started and where it ended. Where the boundary between her body and the rest of the room really was. “I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me,” she says. “And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.” She goes on to describe what it was like to live exclusively in the right hemisphere of her brain—for periods of time. What it was like to feel at one with all the energy in the world. And how beautiful it was there.
You’re going to have to watch this TED talk to really feel its impact. But, in the end, Jill Taylor recovers from her stroke, gradually, and finds that she has new choices about how she lives her life and how she experiences her world. For too long, she says, we’ve depended on the left hemisphere of our brains without really using or appreciating the creative capacities of the right. She wonders aloud if choosing to feel connected to the planet, if choosing to sense the deep relatedness of all humanity, if choosing to see the beauty we share in cosmic community—she wonders if THIS might liberate us for the challenges of the 21st century. Challenges like climate change and global warming. Challenges like reducing violence and taking care of seniors. And feeding the hungry.
And in the end, Jill Taylor entitles her book, her book about this experience, “My Stroke of Insight.” Here’s how she sums it up:
“I trust,” she writes, “we can create an age where we stop relating to the world through our left-brain values as individuals focused on profit, personal gain, power, prestige, authority, advantage, and the material goods money can buy. Instead, it’s time to shift our approach to the planet and our relationships to it, as we explore the most important question of our time. How do we each, as individuals of a collective whole called humanity, bring our gifts to the table to be part of the solution?” That’s Jill Bolte Taylor—and you’ll find the TED talk on FCC’s Facebook Page this afternoon. How do we bring our gifts—our unique, blessed gifts—to the table?
I want to pivot, just for a minute, back to this morning’s gospel story: this strange little tale of wise men from the east, traveling to Bethlehem, defying the maniacal king, and choosing another route home, a new route home.
It seems to me now that the whole point of the story is hidden in those last couple of verses. The wise men are changed somehow by their encounter with the Christ child. Something about their lives will never be the same, can never be the same. And so they make a significant choice: to defy Herod, to openly disobey the requirements of empire, and to work out another route.
Christmas doesn’t end, you see, when the last present’s unwrapped or when the tree’s recycled or when the fruitcake’s finished off. Christmas is just beginning. Just beginning for Jesus. Just beginning for Mary and Joseph. Just beginning for the wise men on their way home. And just beginning for us.
You’re going to watch Jill Taylor’s video and you're going to see someone who’s seen holiness face to face. She doesn’t name that holiness ‘God,’ and the language isn’t the most important thing. But it shows in her face. It shines in her arms, lifted high in gratitude and surrender. It weeps in her tears. She’s seen holiness and grace and wonder—face to face. Up close.
And for her, too, that epiphany was just the beginning. Just the beginning of a life in which the planet earth is the only truly important temple. Just the beginning of a life in which the human community is one big, magnificent, weird and precious family. Just the beginning of a commitment to working out a new route home, another path to justice and peace.
I love Epiphany, today, because it stretches Christmas out. Reminds me that Christmas isn’t a frantic dash through the mall. It’s not a crazy frenzy of activity that begins at midnight on Thanksgiving and ends when the guests leave on Christmas Day. Instead, it’s about a Christ child come to open our minds, come to open our hearts, and come to show us another way home. Amen.