Today many Christians observe Epiphany, commemorating the coming of wise men to see the infant Jesus, following the star until they found him in Bethlehem. Epiphany concludes the traditional twelve days of Christmas, and what it adds to our Christmas celebration is the Good News that God’s presence is a Gospel meant for all the world. The star shines for the redemption of all of humanity. The wise men who sought out the infant Christ came from beyond the family lineage of Israel, and together they symbolize the longing for life and love, hope and peace, that every member of the human community shares. As the Gospel of John’s opening lines declare, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” On Epiphany we celebrate that the imperative of the prophet Isaiah is an invitation for the whole world: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Epiphany may be a specifically Christian holy day, but in our celebration we the Church are simply what theologian Karl Barth once called the “provisional representation of all humanity.” In our Epiphany celebration, we foreshadow a hope for all people, the light of life, Emmanuel, God with us!
Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
In the most racially divisive moment in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, we are discovering that we are not “one nation under God,” but two Americas, living in the same national space. One America recognizes that we are becoming increasingly diverse as a nation, with experts projecting that people of color will outnumber white citizens in less than a generation. This America welcomes diversity and celebrates how rich and interesting our country becomes with the embrace of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sex/gender difference. This America accepts the truth that to live up to our moniker as the “city on a hill,” we must embrace our tradition as a nation of immigrants and establish border policies that are both disciplined and gracious. This America acknowledges that our national history is built on injuries to people of different races, cultures, and countries, but it seeks to remedy that legacy by the confession of sins and commitment to a future of fairness and mutual respect.
But there also is a second America, gripped by fear and simmering with resentment, inhabited by groups used to occupying the majority and serving as the measure of what is normal, but who now are in danger of losing their country to an element that feels foreign and alien.
Like many of you, I have been struggling with the news coming out of New Zealand a week or so ago. Fifty people were killed in an act of terror on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The victims’ only crime was gathering as Muslims for prayer. The attack was perpetrated by a man who identifies as a white nationalist, a resister to the alleged global effort to exterminate white people. His manifesto, meant to inspire others in the cause, was itself inspired by (among other influences) white nationalist rhetoric, efforts, and validations here in the United States. For a week the entire nation of New Zealand has been mourning fifty people killed in the name of hate.
I’ve been preoccupied with this news this week, and with the unimpeded rise in dangerous racist sentiment here and around the world. As a Christian, I also am underwhelmed by the response of the Church to moments like these. To be sure, many Christian denominations came out immediately with thoughtful and earnest denunciations of the violence and expressions of genuine sympathy and concern for the victims of this tragedy, and for New Zealand as a national community. But many of those statements strike my ear as somewhat innocuous, expressing genuine sorrow but not quite capturing the anger I have in moments like these. Our hearts go out to our Muslim sisters and brothers.… We must put an end to the violence…. Is this all that Christians can say?
This week many Methodists in the United States are struggling with their denomination’s latest reaffirmation of opposition to same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy. For many this will feel like the last straw, the final push to leave the Methodist fold. Whether to stay and fight the good fight or seek a church community that more closely shares our convictions is a complicated and difficult decision. But the decision to stay and persist in the struggle for inclusion and equality can be seen as a virtuous one, consistent with both Christian forbearance and the righteous struggle for justice. In Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, I wrote this about persistence as an expression of Christian patience:
“The war to end war” or “the war to end all wars”—Woodrow Wilson’s borrow from H.G. Wells to justify World War I was met with cynicism even during the First World War, and since then has become a sardonic lament. Here, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, we know it ended nothing. The culmination of that conflict directly contributed to the rise of the Second World War, the end of which fed the conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia, which motivated interventions in the Middle East, and on and on and on…. World War I ended nothing; instead it contributed to the bloodiest century in human history.
The persistence of war in our world prompts the question for Christians: should we even expect the end of war? Is war a scourge to eliminate, or is it a necessary evil that we sometimes endure or even actively utilize? Should Christians be opposed to war, even when undertaken in the name of justice and peace?
Convention suggests that what makes a miracle a miracle is its magical quality—something that is otherwise inexplicable, that bends the logic of time, space, or causality. That’s literally the definition of a miracle: “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” I know, because I Googled it. There are plenty of accounts in the Scriptures that follow this definition, and there are plenty of people today who believe in these kinds of miracles and wait on them in their lives. But if you struggle with the idea that God regularly works by suspending the laws of nature, then these miraculous stories may become less compelling to you. We may be tempted to ignore or dismiss them because they seem so fantastical, because they run counter to the way we understand the world to work. No less a thinker than Thomas Jefferson famously rejected the biblical miracle stories for just this reason, literally cutting them out of his Bible. And if we find the stories themselves unbelievable, then we may not be persuaded that the point they’re trying to make with tales of wonder is compelling either.
Truth be told, after thirteen years of fatherhood, I have to admit that I still am not used to thinking about myself in the context of Father’s Day. Father’s Day doesn’t feel like it’s about me, at least not intuitively. On Father’s Day I reflect on my own father. I remember the very good moments with my dad, moments that in some ways get more poignant as he and I get older and the relationship roles reverse just a bit. I think about the ways in which I am shaped by being the son of an Appalachian coal miner, influences that go down to my core, accidental on his part, but molding who I am as a person and as a professional. These days I spend a little of Father’s Day telling myself I’ll be more faithful this year in calling home and visiting. On Father’s Day, I think like a son. It continues to catch me a bit by surprise that this day could also be about me.
And yet, being a father is who I am, and with every passing year it becomes as formative to my character as being a son. My sense of self and my responsibilities in this life are defined in large part from the duties of parenthood; my calendar certainly reflects that I have two jobs now. I think as a father now, too. In the classroom, I approach many of the ethical issues I teach with different eyes. In the airport, my heart beats faster when I hear a small voice crying. I know more about circumstances we broadly refer to as “special needs” than I ever did before. I am more invested and interested in a place and culture on the other side of the world (where my sons were born) than I ever was before. I watch baseball and NASCAR now; as it turns out, there are sports other than football played in this country! I am father now.
Can you be a Christian misanthrope? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a misanthrope as “a person who hates or distrusts humankind.” Precisely used, the term refers to someone who retreats from human interaction out of a rejection of human community. Understood as such, it should be pretty clear that you can’t be a Christian misanthrope, for that’s a contradiction in terms. Christianity’s emphases on love and community make our faith tradition obviously incompatible with someone who would declare that he is done with humanity.
So I will admit that the phrase “Christian misanthrope” is a bit of intentional literary exaggeration, an oxymoron meant to grab attention. But I also use the term because I have been called a misanthrope from time to time—kiddingly, I hope, by friends who know my strong preference for alone time and independence. Even to call it a “strong preference” seems an understatement. I often tell people that when I underwent my psychological evaluation for ordination to ministry, my tests concluded that if I were any more introverted, I would quite simply be dead. My default is to be alone; it requires intention for me to seek out the company of other people. I like quiet; I often prefer time to talk to myself over talking with others. A good weekend to me is spent walking in the woods behind my house, sitting on my porch staring at the deer in the field across the way, or tinkering with a project in my garage.