The following story is rated PG-13 for language. --In the insular religious world in which I was raised, morality was defined narrowly and mostly by personal behaviors. It was largely about what you did not do. And what we did not do was smoke or drink or chew, or go with girls or boys who do. And we didn’t swear. Ever.
At my evangelical liberal arts college, we had chapel services three times a week. One day a famous preacher named Tony Campolo came to address us. Campolo is a retired sociology professor and ordained American Baptist minister. And he was known as a very exciting speaker. As a sociologist who was also a Christian, Tony was interested in moving evangelical piety far beyond the prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco and dirty words.
In his chapel sermon that day, Campolo recited a lot of statistics about the daily deaths from hunger and hunger related causes. I don’t know what the numbers were back then, but today 21,000 people will die from hunger. So Campolo regaled us with the grim statistics and then he paused for dramatic effect and announced: “These people died today and most of you don’t give a shit.” There was a stunned silence. And then he continued: “And the really tragic thing is that more of you are offended that I said that word than you are that 21,000 people died from hunger today.” It was as if the room was suddenly electric. You could see people connecting the dots and lights going off in people’s heads. My own take on the Christian faith was never the same.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of Tony Campolo’s influence on my life because there was an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about his son, Bart. Bart Campolo had also been a dynamic Christian speaker like his father, but Bart, unbeknownst to many, struggled with his faith. One day, while riding his bicycle, Bart hit a soft patch of dirt and had a very serious accident. When he woke up in the hospital, he finally admitted what had been true for a while: he really didn’t believe in God anymore. The article detailed his journey from being an evangelical preacher to a humanist chaplain at USC.
I read the article with great interest, not only because his father had been such a significant influence on me, but also because I am fascinated why some people believe and others don’t. Like Bart, I was raised by an evangelical preacher. So what is the difference between us, I wondered? Why do I still believe, especially having experienced first hand the damage that the church can do to the most vulnerable.
I do actually believe, you know. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have agnostic days and atheist flashes of anger and despair. But unlike some who see those impulses as the enemy of faith, I see doubt and struggle as part and parcel of faith. If you have no doubts you probably don’t take any of this as seriously as you should.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the East to Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. Traditional says there were three, but that is only based on the number of gifts they brought. And we don’t know their names, although tradition named them Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. And we don’t know what exactly, if anything, that they saw in the sky, although some scholars have suggested that it was a comet or a supernova. All we really know about them is that whatever they saw in the sky was enough to get them to take the first steps of a very long journey.
Popular imagination suggests that this star was impossible to miss. We sing: “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright!” But that is not what Matthew records. In fact, in Matthew’s account, the light of the star is so dim that the Wise Ones end up in the wrong place at first. They went to Jerusalem, about 5 ½ miles from Bethlehem, where Jesus actually was. They had enough light to get to the general vicinity, but not enough to dispel all the shadows and lead them to their final destination. And so they had to stop and ask for directions, and from a most unlikely source. Wicked old King Herod was not devout and had no idea where the Messiah was to be born, so he called in the clergy and asked them. “In Bethlehem,” they said, “for so the prophets foretold.” And so Herod sent the Wise Ones to Bethlehem. And just before they left, he whispered: “When you find this child, be sure to come right back here and tell me where he is so that I can also pay him homage.” Herod’s so-called homage would be the edge of a sword for every baby boy under the age of two.
And so the Wise Ones set off to Bethlehem, but in the dark. Matthew says that as they set out, the star appeared before them. In other words, their revelation was given only as they put one foot in front of the other.
This is a very subversive tale for all kinds of reasons. First of all, the heroes, the Wise Ones were foreigners and pagans. And yet it was to them that the Christ was revealed. And they got that revelation, not through the established channel of Judaism, but through their own religion, which was probably Zoroastrianism. Further, they literally found God in and through the natural world; through a star. Second, news of the Messiah’s exact whereabouts were delivered through the mouth of a duplicitous politician, proving once again that God can speak through anyone, not just someone in a fancy robe. These details are Matthew’s way of proclaiming that in Christ God was doing a brand new, out-of-the-box, expansive thing. But more than that, and more germane to us today, Matthew’s story strongly implies that the way to the truth is not illuminated by a blaze of glory, but is instead hinted at in the faint twinkling of a star. And that makes the story of the Wise Ones our story. It is the story of humanity’s spiritual quest. It is the story of how we find truth and meaning while groping in darkness and looking for whatever light we can find.
Which brings me back to Bart and me. I suspect the only reason I still believe is the star. The star of light and illumination and understanding appears from time to time against the black expanse of space. Just when I am convinced that this is all hogwash, that star flashes and twinkles and beckons me forward.
In an essay about her decision to adopt out of the foster care system, Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader writes of the illusive twinkle of faith. She says: “God did not lead us to adopt in any big and dramatic way. There was no voice from heaven, no angelic visions, not even a series of inexplicable coincidences. Just a dim gleam on the horizon, a slow but steady wind blowing in a certain direction, an accumulation of prayers and conversations that seemed to nudge us down this one blessed and treacherous path.”
Just a dim gleam on the horizon - but it’s enough to get me to put one foot in front of the other. And I keep going. And every now and again, I stumble upon the Christ, almost as if by accident. I turn a corner and there he is, receiving my gifts. His light blazes in the darkness of my world. And then it is gone. But it’s enough. Somehow it’s enough