Volunteers are hard at work carefully cutting out this year’s Epiphany stars, to be given out at our Epiphany worship service. Now a popular practice in many congregations, Epiphany stars are paper star cutouts, each displaying a single word, like longing, gratitude, simplicity. Worshippers are invited to draw one star out of basket and to receive their star word for the year as a gift. Like the Wise Men who followed the star in the sky, we allow our words to guide us during the year. We ponder them, wrestle with them, pray about them and, at the end of the year, reflect on where the word has taken us over the past 12 months.
Sometimes the words give us trouble. One woman drew obedience and was not so pleased. A man didn’t know what to think about healing until he was diagnosed with diabetes later in the year. A college student got assurance, which helped her remember God’s love and the love of her congregation during a year where she was far from home and dealing with illness in her family.
Assurance was the word I drew last January, too. The meaning of this word in my life wasn’t immediately clear. Not like the previous year when I got balance. Then, I had just found out I was pregnant. I knew that word would have a physical meaning because eight months later I would have to be careful to keep my balance since I wouldn’t be able to see my feet. And I suspected – which turned out to be more than accurate – that after the baby came, balance in my home life would become a new challenge. With assurance, I didn’t know what to expect.
As the months have passed, I have paid attention to the moments of assurance I’ve experienced. There was my daughter’s baptism in February. At that moment, I was reassured of God’s love for her and for me. I also felt a new sense of assurance that there will always be a community ready to surround her with nurture and the promises of faith, even though those communities will be different than the one that answered “we do” to the question that Sunday morning.
Then, there has been my experience of parenting in general. My journey into motherhood started out pretty shaky. I was very unsure of what I was doing and how I was going to make it through. But as my child grows and changes, I find myself feeling much more sure of things. I am now an advice-giver in my mom’s groups instead of just being on the receiving end. I am now filled with joy much more often than anxiety as I watch my daughter’s squeals of laughter, her attempts to help feed the cat and her love of pretending to write. I feel sure that, even though it is the ultimate challenge, I will also survive and maybe even thrive at this parenting gig.
In my vocational discernment, I have also experienced the assurance of the Spirit. Leaving a wonderful church to start an interim position was a decision I freely made, but one that leaves a more unknown future ahead of me. I wasn’t sure if it would be the right thing for me or my family or either of the churches involved. Six months later, I feel a sense of assurance about the decision. Not that everything about it was easy or clear, but that God offered me a new path to explore and is helping me grow as a pastor.
During the “assurance of pardon” in worship, we know that there is still brokenness in the world, but God’s promises shine through. God assures us that we are forgiven and made whole, even as we still live in a world filled with sin and evil. Assurance is like that. It is a promise received when faith remains shaky. It is feeling like everything’s going to be OK, even when right now it’s not. With the coming of Christ at Christmas, we are assured that God is with us, even when a lot of other things remain uncertain. I will carry the assurance of 2016 with me into the coming year, as I anticipate what word the Spirit might uncover for me this Epiphany.
EMMA NICKEL serves as interim pastor at Beulah Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and keeping her baby’s naps on schedule. She lives in Louisville with her husband, Matt, and their young daughter.