Star words: A spiritual practice for Epiphany

On the Sunday we celebrate Epiphany at the church I serve, it has become a tradition to pass out “star words.” Perhaps you’ve heard of them. This practice of passing out star words has grown in popularity recently. On the day that we remember the star that led the magi to Jesus, we pass out pieces of paper cut into star shapes with a printed word. I first heard of this practice from a fellow Presbyterian minister Marci Glass on her blog. What I didn’t realize three years ago when we first passed out these stars was the impact they would have on my life and my church.

My first word was RESTRAINT. I wanted to throw it back. What was that supposed to mean? RESTRAINT made me think about being held back or being bound. These words were supposed to be a gift, but this did not feel like one to me. And yet, over time the word continued to work on my heart and mind. I started practicing RESTRAINT at church coffee hours by forgoing doughnuts. I used RESTRAINT to stop myself from getting second helpings at potlucks. RESTRAINT gave me permission to look at how unhealthy I had become and do something about it. When I began to see RESTRAINT as a gift instead of a curse, it freed me to change my eating habits without apology, to leave work earlier to exercise and to focus not just on my spiritual health but my physical health.

In my year of RESTRAINT I lost 90 pounds and, for the first time I could remember, achieved a healthy weight. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions because – let’s be honest ­– they always seem to fail. Instead, these star words have become my practice for the New Year. Instead of making a resolution that I’ll feel guilty about a week later, I take a star word as a gift and keep my eyes open. The stars have allowed me to see God in unexpected ways and places. They’ve been challenging, life-giving and transformative.

One woman in my congregation received JOY last year. Her middle name is JOY. She admits, though, that she had lost her JOY, forgotten how to live with JOY. The star word reminded her throughout the year about the gift of JOY in all circumstances of life; a JOY that comes from the simple affirmation that we belong to God. Another member received COURAGE. She was in the midst of cancer treatments when this word was given to her. She took that paper star with her to every doctor appointment. She kept the word by her side as she entered hospice care and as she passed from this life to the next.

After worship this Epiphany Sunday, we had coffee hour. I stood in the corner and listened to some of the conversations. Almost every table was talking about the star words – how their word influenced their previous year and what new word they had just received. I stood there and marveled at God’s spirit working through paper stars. Like the magi, these words allow us all to go home by another road, our eyes opened to God’s presence in and around us.

And as for this year, my new word is PATIENCE. God only knows what’s in store for me with this one!

Editor’s note: You can find a star word list to get you started on the Reformed Worship website.