Archive - January, 2015

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #6

 A Test of Love ©  I overheard the conversation; so too did others. In the setting you really couldn’t help it. The puzzled plaintive questioning in the voice was unmistakable and the dialogue surfed the edge of embarrassment.  It involved a young woman talking to a close and obviously treasured boyfriend.  I cannot remember the dialog word for word but it went something like this.

“I don’t understand?  If it meant this much to you why wouldn’t you share it with me?

His response was muffled and awkward.  “I didn’t want you to feel pressured or put you on the spot.”

Her earnest, almost heated, reply came back.  “But if it mean that much to you; you could at least share your convictions.” He mumbled something about being embarrassed and fearful of rejection.  She respond by saying something to the effect of “if you love, as you say you do, how could you not share!?”

Can you guess what the topic was?  It was about her boyfriend’s failure to share his deep convictions of faith in Christ with his girlfriend.  Apparently he had told her that he went to church but never added much more to his low level, low key sharing.  For her, it was a test of love.  If you really love me, you will share.

There is a great love contained in the story of the wise men (Magi) as found in Matthew 2.  Actually there are two great loves.  The overwhelming first love is God’s love for us, for all humans.  God loved us so much that the Lord of the Universe didn’t just sit back and say, “I hope they get it.”  God came down and came to us in the person of a baby named Jesus; the cradle connects to the cross … and beyond!  According to Luther, this is the greatest miracle of all.  This great love is encapsulated in the great doctrine of “incarnation.” God became flesh, human, in Jesus!

The second love is that of the wise men traveling their great distance and kneeling at the Savior’s feet.  It can be simply summarized in the power, majesty, and humble overwhelming love of Matthew 2:11.  “They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The test of love for us is similar to that of both God Almighty and the wise men.  Do we love enough to share?  Do we love enough to risk misunderstanding or rejection?  Do we really love as the Lord loves?

There is much written about attractional theology and attractional church evangelism.  Our churches should exemplify such radical hospitality that people are attracted to them.  They should be so open, welcoming and loving that others want to come!  But by itself attraction is not enough.  It fails to fully reflect the greater love of God in Christ.

Incarnational theology and incarnational evangelism engages, reaches out, to the last, the least, and the lost.  It passes the test of love in its willingness to reach out, initiate an encounter, and, with great graceful intentionality, offer our gifts in sharing that which matters most to us – the very person and love of Christ.

Back in 2010 Rev. Mike Slaughter, the lead pastor for Ginghamsburg UMC, wrote a book entitled Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus.  His first chapter was entitled “Missional vs. Attractional.”  Among other great insights he commented, “The church must make a major paradigm shift from attractional evangelism to mission evangelism.” (p. 7)  The chapter ties the great commandment of love to the great commission of faith sharing and disciple making. Offering the light of Christ in our darkness is a test of love.

Awhile back (2006) Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church wrote an insightful and instructive book entitled Just a Walk Across the Room.  One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “It was insightful to me to see how easy it can be to share my faith with others in a non-threatening and easy manner. The bottom line is to truly care about others, be open and honest, and share the most important thing in my life which is my relationship with Christ.”

Witnessing, faithful sharing, and evangelism comprise together a test of love. Ultimately this concept of love connects with deeper convictions about salvation.  In an age where we have confused salvation with going to heaven, it is useful to remember that salvation is ultimately not about heaven but about a relationship with Christ as Lord both in this life and the next.  Jesus himself put it well.  “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” (John 10:10)

There is an old, once well-known but now almost forgotten poem that expresses this relationship well.  It draws together God’s great love and the test of our sharing.  Written by Myra ‘Brooks’ Welch, it is simply entitled “The Touch of the Masters Hand.”

The Touch of the Masters Hand

T’was battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought

It scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin, but held it up with a smile;

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried, “Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar”; then two!”

“Only two? Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?

Three dollars, once; three dollars twice; going for three.”


But no, from the room, far back, a gray-haired man Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then, wiping the dust from the old violin, and tightening the loose strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet as caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low,

Said; “What am I bid for the old violin?”

And he held it up with the bow.

A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice, and going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,

“We do not quite understand what changed its worth.”

Swift came the reply: “The touch of a master’s hand.”


And many a man with life out of tune,

And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd, much like the old violin,

A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine; a game – and he travels on.

“He is going” once, and “going twice, He’s going and almost gone.”

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought

By the touch of the Master’s hand.

A Wow, and a Well-done, and an On the Road Again

Wow!  A huge congratulations goes out to all the faithful saints and servants for our Connectional Mission Giving (commonly called “Apportionments”) in 2014.  David Stinson, CTC Treasurer, notes that “2014’s payout rate of 95.95% is actually the second highest percent since 2006 and third highest in the last fourteen years.  A job well done!”  I agree!  He goes on to add, “In addition to the excellent CMG giving, our Conference churches also gave $177, 302 to Special Day Offerings, a 20% increase over the year before.”

Under Dr. Randy Wild’s and Dr. John McKellar’s leadership, the CTC Council of Finance and Administration is able to report that we have paid our General Church and Jurisdictional Conference Connectional Mission Giving in full for 2014!  Wow!  Well done, thou good and faithful servants!  To the churches of the Central Texas Conference who faithfully paid in full I offer a heartfelt word of thanks!

We continue into the new year as we have the past year with a focused intense effort at “energizing and equipping local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I have written before about the key role that HCI (the Healthy Church Initiative) and SCI (the Small Church Initiative) are playing in this great ministry.  This fall I received a fascinating report from Rev. Carol Woods, the West District Superintendent, about the highly positive impact that HCI and SCI are having in her District.  I pass it on with a heart “Well done!” to emphasize its importance.

“In the Fall of 2010, 19 churches in the West District began participating in HCI or SCI.  Five of those churches went on to do the HCI consultation in the Spring of 2012, and are just now completing the two year process of following up on their prescriptions.  All five of these churches have experienced worship attendance increases from 12% to 66% with a 28% average increase.  These increases greatly increased the viability of three of the churches, which had been rapidly declining prior to doing HCI.  In contrast, three healthy 126+ churches in the West District that did very little or no HCI chose not do a HCI consultation.  They decreased in worship attendance in a similar period of time.  Their worship attendance decreased 7%, 9%, and 21% respectively for an average decrease of 12.3%.” (Rev. Carol Woods, West District CTC)

Monday afternoon (January 26th) I hit the road again.  Rev. Gary Lindley, Executive Director for Evangelism and Church Growth, and I are visiting seminaries in the east.

By way of background, we routinely have connections with Perkins School of Theology and Brite Divinity School.  With the SCJ College of Bishops, we have quadrennial meetings at St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City.  As we look ahead to a wave of retirements, we are trying to consciously extend our reach.  Two years ago (along with Kyland Dobbins and Joseph Nader who accompanied me on different parts of the trip) I visited Boston University School of Theology, Harvard Divinity School, Duke Divinity School, Gammon School of Theology, Chandler School of Theology, and Asbury Theological Seminary.  Just this past December I had an outstanding visit with officials at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor in Waco.

On this trip, we hope to visit with those who are a part of special ministry training programs in new church development and campus ministry at Asbury.  We will spend time at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  It is our hope to open a relationship with folks at United in a way that might lead to a mutually fruitful future.

We’ll be back home Thursday and Friday.  Sunday I am back on the road with a South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) College of Bishops meeting at Perkins School of Theology, S.M.U.

Meanwhile I am having a blast teaching on Calvin vs Wesley using Professor Don Thorsen’s book.  The class is a joy and the subject matter is fascinating.  We’ve been meeting at Lou’s Place on the campus of Texas Wesleyan University.  Next week’s focus is on chapter 3: “Humanity: More Freedom Than Predestination.”

As the Super Bowl comes upon us (with the tribulation of Deflategate – if you don’t understand ask a sports fan), Dr. Art Torpy, a participant in the Calvin vs Wesley class passed on the following:  “Is the Super Bowl divinely rigged? One in four Americans say yes, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Service. Twenty-six percent of Americans and 27 percent of self-described sports fans believe God plays a role in determining which team will win a sporting event. Even more — 53 percent of Americans and 56 percent of sports fans — say God rewards faithful athletes with good health and success.”  Dr. Torpy couldn’t help but facetiously add, “Calvin lives on!”  To which I answer, LOL! [Hmmm…. I can’t help but wonder; does God have something against my beloved Chicago Cubs?]

I truly believe that God is building a new great church in our midst even as the old world of Christendom is passing from the scene.  In the chaos of our modern world, it is important to remember a great biblical truth.  “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #5

 Evangelism as Mission © 

One of my treasured books is an old copy of D. T. Niles classic That They May Have Life (copyright 1951).  D. T. Niles was a great evangelist, pastor, leader of the World Student Christian Federation, President of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Methodist Conference, and President of the World Council of Churches in the middle part of the 20th century.  He opens his book with the following assertion.  “Evangelism is the call of the hour, as it has been the call of every hour when Jesus has been taken seriously” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 11).

Better remembered and often misquoted is his famous statement found in that classic.  “Evangelism is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96). Rev. Niles continues in the same paragraph: “The Christian does not offer out of his bounty.  He has no bounty.  He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too.  The evangelistic relation is to be ‘alongside of’ not ‘over-against.’”

We have long and rightly understood that there is an intimate and inseparably intertwined connection between evangelism and missions.  (By missions, I will employ a short-hand definition – the deeds of love, justice and mercy.)  Living the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor (see Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 22:34-40) engages us in activities of social justice as straightforward as feeding the hungry and as controversial as welcoming the stranger (think of debates about immigration and gender preference) and providing adequate medical care for all; the commandment impels us forward to bring relief to victims in Haiti, water wells to Kenya, and help to the homeless in Fort Worth.  This is a central part of the light of Christ being brought in the darkness of our currently twisted world society.  It is an offering of love in the name of Jesus, who is with us always.

Evangelism can be understood as one vital aspect of missions.  If we truly love people, we will share with them what we understand to be the source of life at its fullest (see John 10:10).  Failure to share new life in its fullness under the Lordship of Christ is a negation of love in its fullness.  To truly love the neighbor is to evangelistically share in graceful, appropriate ways.  (Please read carefully!!!! note the qualifier: “in graceful, appropriate ways.”)

The title phrasing is important.  The light of Christ comes in our darkness as a part of mission as evangelism.  It does not say that mission is evangelism nor even evangelism is mission.  Evangelism is one important, critically important, aspect of the larger mission we are engaged in. Simply engaging in missions or what is seen as missional activity is not necessarily engaging in evangelism.  It may or may not bring the light of Christ into our darkness.

Evangelism cannot be collapsed into engaging in more ministries of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, engaging in medical ministry/missions in a different setting (whether in one’s home city or on another continent), etc.  All this and more is needed – desperately needed.  All this and more, the great missional expanse of ministries of sanctification through love, justice and mercy, is worthy of our time, talent, and energy in the name of Christ.  Missions – what I would like to summarize by the phrase “the deeds of love, justice and mercy” – is a companion of evangelism.  Indeed the case can be made that evangelism is a subset of the wider ministry of missions.  However good and godly (“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8), Jesus felt it necessary and vital to add the great commission – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

When we conflate evangelism and missions (or missional activity of love, justice and mercy), we do an injustice to both and truncate the full biblical witness offered by the Risen Savior and Lord.  It is significant that Jesus instructs His followers to specifically “name the name.”   Disciples are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity.

In an instinctive and nascent way, the wise men understood this truth.  It is this great epiphany truth to which they point in offering their gifts.  The light of Christ enters our darkness offering a way out into the light of grace-filled love for a battered and bruised world.  Sharing that light is its own deep act of love and a fulfillment of the holy (and holistic) mission Christ as Lord and Savior calls us to engage in.

“Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12).  He said, “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness” (John 12:46).

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #4

 First Steps at Recovering a Personal Witness© 

I have had the joy of serving a number of wonderful churches.  On one occasion at Asbury United Methodist Church, we consciously geared up to teach evangelism and faith sharing.  This was a congregation with a history of conversion growth.  There were a number of years in which adult professions of faith exceeded the number of people who joined on transfer from another congregation.

The Associate Pastor taught a course designed to help people discover their personal best style of evangelism  She used material from Willow Creek Community Church entitled Becoming a Contagious Christian: Communicating Your Faith in a Style that Fits You (written by Mark Mittleberg, Lee Strobel & Bill Hybels). As the class started participation was high.  People were eager to discover how to share their faith.  Slowly the class built on the learning until the time when people would actually share their faith with a non- or nominal Christian friend.

As the time for faith sharing came closer attendance steadily decreased!  Anxiety palpably rose.  Excuses for not being able to complete the course grew with creative reasons.  It became obvious that many in class (most of us!) were afraid.  Fear of faith sharing, rejection, and ridicule was a mind killer and a spirit drainer.  Assisting the Associate Pastor in teaching, she and I over and over tried to address the fears present (both those articulated and those that remained unspoken).  

One of the first steps at recovering a personal witness is to honestly face the fear of doing so.  The fears we have are often (almost always!) far greater than reality.  Amazingly, if shared respectfully in a gracious natural way with attentive listening, most people are eager and hungry to talk about their deepest beliefs, highest yearnings, and soul gnawing spiritual hunger.  We need to appropriate the advice of I Peter 3:13-16.  “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them.  Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 1Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.”

A second key element in recovering personal witness is a willingness to share your own experience of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in your life.  People want to know how you experience the Lord Christ in your life far more than they want to know about God in the abstract.  Share your story!  It doesn’t need embellishment.  In fact, dressing it up weakens the beauty and greatness of God’s presence.  Have you had a “God-sighting” this past week?  Share the story!

A third basic part of first steps for a congregation recovering personal witness and faith sharing is that the pastor has to practice what he or she is preaching.  Put differently, the pastor must, absolutely must! be a player coach.  At a minimum this involves spending time and making friendships with non-Christians and not just residing in a church ghetto.  Friendships and relationships have to be real and not just done to get a conversion.  One of our deeper struggles is that many Christian people don’t know many non-Christian people.  Make some friends and be a friend without expectation of reward.  God will offer the opportunity for sharing.  (Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, & Kay Kotan have written an excellent basic book titled Get Their Name that can help.)

A fourth basic step at recovering personal witness is to engage in recommending.  Jim Ozier (Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church) notes that we are “hardwired to recommend.” We recommend all kinds of things – restaurants, stores, people, hairstyles, doctors, etc.  American culture is geared more to recommending than inviting.  A crucial first step in faith sharing is simply to learn to recommend Christ and your church to others.

There is more to say here, much, much more.  But, at first step:

  1. Face your fears
  2. Share your story of Christ active in your life
  3. Practice what your preach, make friends
  4. Recommend Christ and your church

Epiphany is real.  The light of Christ shines in our darkness.  Take some basic first steps to share the light and so live the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20).  Next week, “evangelism as mission.”

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #3 The Challenge of Why Bother ©

This is the third in a series of “Epiphany” related blogs which deal with the foundational issue of faith sharing and evangelism.  They spring from the understanding that among the very first to greet the new born Savior were a group of wise men who were probably adherents of another religion (Zoroastrianism).

As we struggle with the “Dilemma we face” (see my previous blog) I am convinced that, at its heart, this is a theological crisis.  With pointed insight Ross Douthat (see Bad Religion) and many others have delineated how much the old “mainline” churches have theologically descended into a vague unitarianism.  The challenge presented by much of an indifferent America is, “why bother being Christian?”

Stories abound.  Martha Grace Reese in Unbinding the Gospel viscerally catches my attention with the following tale:

The idea for the Mainline Evangelism Project can probably be dated to one conversation I had with some of my favorite people. I was leading a retreat for eight smart, loving pastors of growing mainline churches. Off the cuff, I asked, “Hey, what difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?”

Silence. Loud silence stretched on. And on. I stared around the circle in disbelief. Finally one volunteered hesitantly, “Because it makes me a better person???”

That question hadn’t been intended as a pop final. I was not raised in the church, so I have a very clear sense of having made a choice to become a Christian that went against the culture in which I had always lived. I have a good sense of what it is like to be Christian and what it is like not to be Christian. Most Christians and most pastors grew up in the church. They did not change cultures to get there. (From Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese, pg. 14)

Clearly we have some theological work before us.  I would argue that this necessitates at a minimum a re-appropriation of doctrines of salvation and sin.  How real is sin in our life and times?  Surely ISIS and Ferguson challenge us with larger sins of violence and racism but the litany does not end there.  Honest personal reflection clamors for a self-application that in our comfortable middle class existence we wish to explain away.

Likewise our allergy to any talk of hell and damnation leads to a fuzzy notion of what we are saved from (if anything!).  The answer of course is sin and death.  Yet, the full implications of such in our time are often lost on us.  Let’s face it.  The biggest sin confronting most of us, the sin we really need to be saved from, is a massive dose of hedonism which hides in the guise of personal pleasure as long as we don’t harm anyone else.  It begs all kinds of larger questions.  Worship of the self and our own pleasure in any form is an idolatry, and the wages of sin still are death.  We need salvation.  We need a Lord – ruler – Master who can deliver us from our bondage.

In the face of the challenge of “why bother” there is reason for great hope.  A light really does shine in our darkness. The light has a name.  It is Christ.

I close with a perceptive insight offered by Ross Douthant:

The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilizations as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age  (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

I think the Apostle Paul has it right. “The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)  More in the next blog on “the first steps at recovering a personal witness.”

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #2  The Dilemma We Face ©

Come journey with me towards an unknown future.  Do what the poem bids: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” (“The Gate of the Year,” or “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins)   Follow the star to a Bethlehem stable … and beyond.

Since moving to the Boston area approximately a decade year ago our son Nathan has been actively involved in a local church. (For the record, it is not United Methodist but for the purposes of this blog could just as easily have been so.)  He has served on their version of the Administrative Council and been church treasurer for two terms.  He’s sung in the choir and engaged in education, stewardship and missions.  He loves his local church but on marrying about a 1 ½ years ago, Nathan and Abigail (our daughter-in-law, who likewise was active in her local church) decided to find a new church home together that was closer to their new home.

As my son was finishing his term of leadership, the church’s beloved pastor of many years announced that he was leaving to accept a new assignment in Florida.  Additionally the church was hit with news of some potentially devastating financial consequences (structural damage on the building).  Over the years the endowment had gradually been spent down as the congregation slowly declined in membership.  Financially, the viability of the congregation has now been called into question.  Their beloved church is now facing the real possibility of closure.

For decades they have declined to engage in evangelism.  Concepts of witness, conversion and faith-sharing simply weren’t a part of the church theology or culture.  They were built as a congregation for Christendom.  The general church culture of their area was expected to provide for the next generation.  But, as we well know, in our post Christendom age, this simply is not happing.

The unattractive dilemma they face is simple and straightforward:

  1. They have declined to the point where brining in new members is a matter of survival.
  2. Evangelism, sharing the good news of salvation in Christ and bringing in the next generation, is critical if all the good missional activities of love, justice and mercy are to continue.
  3. Their theology, while technically believing in evangelism and witness, doesn’t really encourage such activities and/or in principle doesn’t believe in evangelism, the need for conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, membership in His body, the church, and salvation.
  4. The Pastor, so excellent, wonderful and faithful in pastoral care, worship spiritual formation and mission outreach, does not know how to engage in evangelism and is allergic to even learning how to do so. [In fairness to the pastor, who really is a wonderful faithful Christian, he comes out of a Christian faith tradition that does not know how to share evangelism and is also allergic to doing so.]
  5. The laity share the same allergic response to evangelism.
  6. Questions abound about when persuasion becomes manipulation to such an extreme degree that any kind of persuasion is view as manipulation (however light and gentle!) and results in a conviction that attempts at conversion are unethical.
  7. Yet this church will not survive without strong evangelistic engagement! It either gets in the conversion business or dies (and their great good works of love, justice and mercy die with them)!

Here is the punch line.  The same can be said for a host of Central Texas Conference churches, pastors, and laity!!  WE FACE THE SAME DILEMMA!

We are here – active, present, saved, blessed and empowered as Christ followers – because the Epiphany story of light in our darkness did not die with the wise men.  We are here because the great commission given by the risen Lord Jesus in Matthew 28 (“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Matthew 28:19-20) did not end with a group of befuddled Christ followers debating definitions of evangelism and arguing that they did not want to share their faith for fear that persuasion might be seen as manipulation.  We are here present and active as Christ followers, those saved by grace, for two towering reasons.

  1. Because of what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has done to redeem us;
  2. And, because others cared enough to share the good news and lead us (persuade us!) in the way of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

The light shines in our darkness and we can blow it out or share it.  The choice is up to us.  Like those of old, may we be numbered among the wise.


EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness 1

Happy New Year! And greetings in the name of the Lord whose birth we celebrate.  With this first blog of 2015, I quite realize that Christmas is over and yet, based on hard biblical evidence, want to assert that it is not at all over!  The Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrates Christmas with the arrival of the magi (wise men) on January.  In Western Christian tradition January 6th is also historically celebrated as Epiphany Day.

Perhaps we know the story too well.  It begins, as Matthew tells us, in a straightforward fashion.  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  christmas starFor we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

Older translations call them “wise men,” which Raymond Brown (the great Catholic biblical scholar) thinks is too charitable a designation, if not downright misleading.  They are called, in the original, “magi” (which is how the Common English Bible – CEB renders the translations).  A little note at the bottom of one of those older translations says they were “a learned class in ancient Persia,” (Revised Standard Versions – RSV) which doesn’t tell the whole story.

Brown reminds us that “magi” covers a conglomeration of astronomers, fortune tellers, arguers, and magicians of varying degrees of plausibility and quackery.  Bishop Willimon comments that Matthew is probably thinking of astrologers or stargazers – a ridiculous, absurdly frivolous, specifically condemned pastime by Jewish standards.  The magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious quackery, dabblers in stars or chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future.  They were not so much “wise men” or “we three kings of Orient are” but your average, credulous, naïve, gentile horoscope devotee – sincere perhaps, learned, earnest – but utterly ignorant about religious matters (William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pp. 48-49). And yet, Matthew, in his own way, commends them to us. Why is that?  What lesson can these stargazers teach us?

With an economy of words, Matthew tells of their unrelenting search for Jesus.  They come to Herod for help, and the religious scholars of the day carefully check things out in Scripture.  “They told him, in Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…then Herod…sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him” (Matthew 2:5-8).

The religiously learned sat while these untutored ignorant stargazers searched.  Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “wise men (and women) still follow Him.”  This is true, good, and holy advice, but it misses the first and most vital point of the lesson.  Wise people still seek Him.  These wise men, these stargazers, these seekers, would instruct us of faith’s journey.  The new year begins best for us when we seek Him.

Again Bishop Willimon perceptively comments, “Do you see?  The Chosen people (read, church) pour over our Scriptures, debate fine points of theology, doing it all so decently and in order, checking one another out on correct doctrine, keeping our religion middle-of-the-road, balanced, respectable.  In our wait, we miss the whole thing” (William Willimon, IBID, p. 49).

Ironic isn’t it, God uses searching, seeking unbelievers (probably from Iraq or Iran) as a lesson for us.  In one sense, the search for the real spirit of Christmas reaches its culmination on December 25th with the child found in a Bethlehem manger.  In another, just as assuredly true sense, the search for the real spirit of Christmas, the Holy Spirit of God, continues into the New Year.

Lessons abound for us but not the least of which is our danger in missing the warning given by God deliberately to those who are believers.  Don’t get so lost in pouring over the scriptures and debating theology that you fail to enter the new year seeking Christ.

I think there is a great further lesson that we must take to heart.  We are afloat on a sea of seeking people.  Assumptions of a Christian America are wildly mistaken.  In our post-Christendom world, the recovery of Epiphany: The Light in Our Darkness, is a central issue for the church.

I intend to begin the New Year of our Lord 2015 writing a series of blogs on the recovery of a witnessing, sharing, evangelizing faith.  It is the primal lesson of the magi and actually (though often forget) the intended focus for the season of Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.” Check a good dictionary, and it goes on to say that an “epiphany” is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something … an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking … an illuminating discovery” (Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary).

The shock of this passage to the first century reader lies in just who finds the Savior.  It is not the great King or learned scholars.  Those who we call wise were truly unbelievers, those thought by all to lie outside God’s grace and care.  The “ah-ha!” moment, the “epiphany”, comes in the realization of where their arduous searching journey leads them.  Notice carefully that they are led by God (remember the star) to the newborn Lord.  If star-gazing, chicken-gizzard dappling interlopers from Iraq (Persia) are led to the Lord, why then this God is for all!  The Savior is not the property of one race, clan, or nation.

The second shock comes when it dawns on us that we should have been there helping the magi find the way.  Those believers who stayed in the Palace with Herod pouring over the scriptures but failing to put their teaching into active use miss the greatest event in history.  Surely this is an epiphany – a striking new insight – that we need to be reminded of.  We are not only to seek Christ ourselves but just as importantly, we are to engage others in their seeking.  This God, the very one who comes to us in the baby Jesus, is for all.  No one is outside God’s grace, not even strangers from the East.  The implications for us as we engage in ongoing conflicts in the ancient area of Persia (think ISIS) or even in the cultural wars of our own society are astounding.  They call us to reach out evangelistically to everyone and commend our care of those most perceived outside God’s love and care.  Epiphany: The Light in Our Darkness is about the great Wesleyan imperatives of evangelism and sanctification (holiness of heart and life).

More to come.  Happy New Year!