Besides the cake, the best part of the birthday parties I attended as a child was the “tray game.” Before the party the mother or father of the birthday girl placed numerous objects on a big tray and covered it with a tea towel or large cloth napkin. During the game part of the party an adult brought the tray out and placed it on the floor in the center of a circle of chiffon-clad, giggling partygoers. With the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the covering was removed and we had 90 seconds to memorize the contents of the tray. Giggles turned to silence and smiles to serious lip-biting and furrowed brows as we catalogued the tray’s twenty or so items in our minds: red pencil, penny, sugar cube, barrette, paper clip, comb, toothpick, bubblegum, spool of green thread,….This memorization was serious work and for the person who could recall the most objects, there was a prize at stake.
We must had been at least six or seven when we played the game because I remember writing a list of the tray’s contents when it exited the room. I was pretty good at the game and tried to get my friends to play it on a regular basis, not just for parties.
As a high school and college student I carried the idea of the tray game into the way I studied and took notes. Instead of writing on the lines, I often wrote at odd angles or in blobs.. The unusual pattern on the page stuck in my brain and helped me to remember facts, words, and formulas better. It was as if the page was a party-game tray full of ideas and images.
If this way of learning was supposed to fade as an adult, it hasn’t for me. Notes from lectures and conferences are still in blobs and odd configurations on the pages of my notebooks and journals. Colored highlighters and pencils emphasize and underline important words and thoughts. Praying in color is one of the main ways I pray because it engages my body, my eyes, and my mind, but also because the colorful and visual display helps me to remember my prayer list better.
It is January 15, Martin Luther King Day, the ninth day after the Feast of the Epiphany. Every year I mourn the passing of Epiphany as just a single day on January 6. Epiphany deserves more attention than it gets, so some of us think of it as a whole season lasting until Lent. It means “shining forth” and is really the “So what?” after Christmas. It is the story of strangers following a star to a babe in the manger, of Jesus’s baptism, and of his first miracle. Epiphany is about how this story spreads like wildfire beyond the boundaries of a small town in the Middle East and scatters the Gospel in faraway places to faraway people. Martin Luther King was an Epiphany man. He spread the not-always-comfortable good news of the Gospel in his preaching and his activism.
There are so many juicy words, ideas, and names associated with Epiphany that I want to put them on a tray and commit them to memory. So I made an Epiphany Word Tree and taped it on the wall. It will stay there until Lent. My prize for memorizing the words will be a rich vocabulary and the Gospel story that strings them all together.
You, too, may have words and stories you associate with Epiphany. Find a way to keep them in your sight and your thoughts during these next few weeks before Lent.