Eulogy for a Tiny, Bright-Eyed Bird

Purple FinchOn Thursday, November 10, I got word that a 15-year-old girl in the church’s youth group had taken her own life.  I jumped in my car and went to the hospital where I found her mother in the waiting room.  I hugged her and hugged her, not knowing what to say and thinking it might be best not to say anything.  But on Tuesday, November 15, we held a memorial service for her daughter in a sanctuary full of grieving friends and family members and a few hundred tearful teenagers, wondering how such a thing could happen to one of their own. This is what I said:

Last Friday morning I went running with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Richmond, and as we ran I told him what had happened the day before, Thursday, when I got the news about Kat.  I told him the whole sad story and he was a good pastor to me.  He listened, and consoled me, and promised to pray for me today, because he knows how hard it can be to try to find just the right words in times like these.  But when we finished our run he asked, “What was her name again?”  “Fink,” I said.  “Kat Fink.  I’m sure it means something beautiful in German.”  “It does!” he said.  “I had a friend in college named Fink.  It means ‘finch,’ you know, like the bird.”  And I did know the bird.  Finches are some of my favorites.  They are tiny birds with bright eyes and beautiful voices.  I thought, “How perfect for Kat, who seemed so fragile, so vulnerable—like a little bird—and yet who had those bright eyes and that beautiful voice.”  And then yesterday I looked again at the verse I read at her baptism, the one Bart read earlier from Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Look at the birds of the air; are you not of more value than they?”

Kat was of so much more value than they.  I think about the words of Psalm 139 and how they describe her.  The psalmist says, “It was you, Lord, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  And so was Kat, fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet here we are at her memorial service, and many of us are wondering why.  Why did this have to happen, and what could we have done to prevent it?  I’m reminded of that story from John 11, where Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and Jesus goes to the funeral.  It was there, John tells us, that “Jesus wept,” because he loved Lazarus so much.  Lazarus’ sister, Martha, comes out to meet him and says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  A little later her sister Mary comes out and says the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Can you imagine how that must have hurt?  And yet it’s something we all do at a time like this; we all begin to say, “If only.”  “If only I had been there.”  “If only I had called her.”  “If only I had been a better friend.”  But I want you to notice what Jesus does in John 11: he says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  And she says, “I know he will, on the Resurrection, at the last day.”  But Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection, and the life.  Those who believe in me, even if they die, will live.  And everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”  What Jesus is saying to Martha is that he is not responsible for Lazarus’ death; he is responsible for his life.  And I say to you—all of you who are thinking “if only”—you are not responsible for Kat’s death.  Kat was responsible for her death.  But Jesus Christ is responsible for her everlasting life.

He is the Resurrection.

“So, why did she do it?” you ask.  “Why did she take her own life?”  We may never know, but our best guess is that Kat suffered from an illness we call “depression.”  If she had died of cancer we would still be sad, but at least we would understand, wouldn’t we?  We know how cancer works.  But depression is different.  We don’t understand it all that well, but we do know that there are different kinds and different levels, from feeling depressed because you got a bad grade on a math test to feeling unending, unbearable mental anguish for no reason at all.  I don’t understand it all that well, but I understand it better after more than a year of counseling a woman in our church who suffers from severe depression, and sometimes contemplates suicide.  She’s been very honest with me about it, and she’s asked all the right questions.

When she asked, “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” I said, “No.  According to Jesus the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”  When she asked, “Is suicide ever an option? I said, “No.  Matters of life and death belong in God’s hands, and Gods hands only.”  When she asked, “What should I do when I’m tempted to commit suicide?”  I said, “When you feel your hand reaching out to do harm to yourself, use it instead to pick up the phone and call me, and if I don’t answer call 911 and say, ‘I need help.'”   Not long ago I got that call from her, and I was able to help, and I was so proud of her for calling.  But still she talks about pain that won’t go away.  She talks about wanting to do whatever it will take to make the pain stop.  But mostly she talks about this feeling of being down in a hole, a deep, dark hole, with no way out.

One day I asked her to describe that hole and she said, “It’s deep.”  “How deep?” I asked.  “So deep you can’t see any light at the top,” she said.  “How wide is it?” I asked.  “About wide enough to stretch out your arms,” she said.  “What are the walls made of?” I asked.  “Dirt,” she said.  “Do they go straight up or do they angle?” I asked.  “They go straight up.”  “And what’s the floor like?”  “It’s dirt, too,” she said, “And some gravel.”  Her answers were very specific.  They made me believe she had spent a lot of time in that hole.  But then I remembered something I did once when I was a boy and I told her about it.  My mother had plucked a chicken (some of you may know what that means), and she asked me to bury the grocery bag full of feathers in an unused part of the garden.  So, I went out there with a shovel and began to dig.  The dirt was so soft that I soon had a nice sized hole, but it was also so soft that I kept on digging until I had dug a proper grave for those chicken feathers.  I buried them, but then I moved over a few feet and began to dig again.  I dug most of the rest of that day, until I had a circular hole about six feet across and about six feet deep.  When I stood at the bottom I could stretch my arms out and almost touch the walls on each side.

The next day I dug a tunnel out of the hole and up to the surface, and then I covered the hole with some old boards and a tarp, and shoveled loose dirt on top of it until you could hardly tell it was there.  I dragged a bale of straw in there from the barn and scattered it on the floor of my hole until it was warm and dry and sweet smelling.  I cut a niche in the wall, put a candle in a quart jar, lit the candle, and put it in the niche.  And then I took my sleeping bag down there, and a pillow, and a good book, and a snack, and I wish you could have seen me, lying on that sleeping bag, my head propped up on a pillow, surrounded by sweet smelling straw, eating a snack and reading a book by the light of that candle.

When I finished telling that story this woman was smiling at the very thought of turning a hole into such a happy place.  I said, “Maybe you could do the same.  Maybe, the next time you find yourself in that hole, you could get comfortable, find a good book, light a candle, and have a snack.  And maybe you could let that candle be a symbol of God’s presence.”  And then I told her, “That’s why we light the candles in the sanctuary.  Every time we have a service in there we light the candles to remind us that God is present.  And God is present.  There isn’t anywhere we can go that God isn’t present.  Psalm 139 says: “If I make my bed in Sheol (which is really nothing more than a hole in the ground), you are there.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  As it says in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.”  And in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for God is with me.”

God is with us.

And Kat…is with God.

–Jim Somerville

Is There a God?

justinRecently I preached a series of sermons on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion.”  This was Question #2–“Is There a God?”–and I preached it (as I did all these questions) with the help of a “conversation partner,” sitting at a table in the same place where the pulpit usually stands, having a conversation about one of the most important things of all.  I hope you will enjoy it and learn from it.

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Jim:           Welcome back to this series on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion,” and again I have asked a member of the Millennial Generation to join me as a conversation partner as I understand that it is these young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who are doing most of the Googling.  Today I have with me Justin Williams, a brilliant musician who teaches orchestra at Clover Hill High School, and who played the violin for us here just a few weeks ago.  Justin is married to the former Roxanne O’Brien, who is also a gifted musician and a member of this church.  Welcome, Justin!

Justin:      Thank you.

Jim:           Justin the question we are asking today—“Is there a God?”—has been a real question for you, hasn’t it?  Tell us a little about that.

Justin:      Yes, I was a very devout Christian in college: maybe a bit too legalistic, but I considered myself a true believer, a lover of God, and a witness for Jesus.  But some of the questions I ran into like the problem of evil and the accuracy of the Bible were hard to answer.  I began to read books like Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, and Evidence, by Josh McDowell, but realized that unless you assume the Bible to be true, many of their arguments are unconvincing.  So, I read on.  I read a book by William Craig called Is God Real?  I read Francis Collins’ book, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.    I even read the Richard Swinburne trilogy, Is There a God? etc.  But in each case I found their answers relied on poor reasoning or creative but misleading analogies.   There were too many questions and I wasn’t finding good answers for even the best resources.  I ended up doubting and finally disbelieving most of what I had been taught.

Jim:           Wow, that’s quite a journey, Justin.  Thank you for being so honest with us.

Justin:      Well, that’s just where I am.  I am still open to discovering truth and changing my mind but I’m not still searching for an answer to the “God question.”  I don’t need the concept of “God” to explain the way things are in the world, and even if I were convinced that God was real and the Bible was true, I would have a hard time serving a God who does some of the things recorded in Scripture.  I mean, really, have you read some of the Old Testament? 

Jim:           I have!

Justin:      That said, I love First Baptist Church!  Roxanne and I tithe to the church each week and I love what you’re doing here.  I’d like to be a part of it when and where I can fit in. 

Jim:           Well, thank you.  I love this church, too, and one of the things I love about it is that it is a safe place to ask questions like this one: “Is there a God?”

Justin:      Wait, Dr. Somerville…

Jim:           Yes ?

Justin:      I don’t think you heard me.  I’m not asking that question any more.

Jim:           Right, but there may be some people here who are, and if you can believe it the journey you just described is a journey that many thoughtful Christians have taken.  It’s just that their journey didn’t end there.

Justin:      OK…tell me more.

Jim:           Do you see this beautiful visual aid I’ve brought?

Justin:      Yes, it’s gorgeous.

Jim:           Thank you!  I made it myself.  These are Tinkertoys, and when I was a kid we had a huge set of Tinkertoys.  I used to get up on Saturday mornings and make structures taller than I was (of course, I wasn’t very tall back then).  But for our purposes today I’d like to let this little structure represent our “framework of understanding.”  You see, I grew up in a Christian home, too.  Mine may not have been as conservative as yours but when I asked my mother, “Who made the world?” she would say, “God made the world.”  She may not have known it, but in those early days she and my dad were helping me build my framework of understanding, and, back in the 1960’s, most of the people I encountered shared the same understanding.  If I asked my neighbors or my Sunday school teachers who made the world they would say the same thing: “God made it.”  So, when I went off to school for the first time, I took my framework of understanding with me, and I was fine, until somebody said, “God didn’t make the world,” and that didn’t make sense.

Justin:      Right!

Jim:           I talk about it like this sometimes: if I go outside and a bird flies by I say, “Right.  Birds fly.”  I have a place to hang that experience on my framework of understanding.  But if I go outside and a cat flies by I either have to say, “I didn’t really see that,” or I have to re-build my framework of understanding to include the experience of flying cats.  And we really don’t like to re-build our frameworks.  We’re very protective of them.  It’s easier to justify our old understanding than to accept a new one.  So I might say, “That cat didn’t really fly; someone just threw it across my field of vision.”  Does that make sense?

Justin:      Yes.

Jim:           So, when we go off to school with the framework of understanding our parents helped us build in our conservative Christian home (what some people would call our “Christian worldview”) it shouldn’t surprise us that not everybody will share our understanding.  It often happens for young people when they go off to college: they encounter different views, different understandings.  Their pastor always told them that the world was made in six days but their science professor tells them it evolved over billions and billions of years, and maybe for the first time in their lives they are presented with conflicting voices of authority.  They have to decide: “Which voice will I listen to?”  And if they choose to listen to the science professor it can be very empowering.  It can make them feel that they have finally grown up.  The only problem is that they have to decide what to do with their old framework of understanding.  Can they just rearrange their Tinkertoys to accommodate this new concept?  Or will they have to take the whole thing apart and start from scratch?

Justin:      Yep.  That’s where I was in college.

Jim            If it’s any comfort to you, some of the most brilliant people I know have been in that same place.  A scholar named Marcus Borg, whose writings I have appreciated, grew up in a comfortably conservative Christian home, but struggled with doubts in early adolescence.[i]  Those doubts turned to disbelief in college and by his mid-twenties he would have described himself as an atheist.  Only later did he realize that he didn’t have to replace his Christian worldview with a secular worldview, but he did have to replace it with a different kind of Christianity, and it started with his concept of God.  His old concept was something he calls “Supernatural Theism,” (which sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  “It’s super, it’s natural, it’s supernatural!”).  It’s the concept we find in much of the Bible: God is a supernatural being who made the world and everything in it and who is now “up there” somewhere, above us.  Borg says that if you had asked him in childhood what God looked like he would have pictured his old Lutheran pastor, Pastor Thorson, standing in the pulpit shaking his finger (and apparently he was a finger-shaker).  Or maybe someone like Santa Claus, who “sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake; who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”  The message Borg got, even in childhood, was that if you are good, then, when you die you get to go to heaven, but if you are bad, well, “you better watch out”!

In biblical times that concept of God worked pretty well.  People who lived back then didn’t know what we know now.  They believed the world was mostly flat, and that the sky was a hard dome over it, like some of the big sports arenas today.  The stars were like little lights fixed to the underside of the dome and the sun and moon moved on tracks from one side to the other.  All the human action was going on down here, on the floor, but God was up there somewhere, in the skybox, watching.  And that was mostly comforting.  God wasn’t very far away.  But during the Enlightenment we learned that the world wasn’t flat, it was round, and there wasn’t a hard dome over it, there was a universe!  If God was up there somewhere he wasn’t anywhere we could see with our telescopes.  He must be very, very far away.  Some theologians solved the problem by saying God was transcendent, he was “radically other,” you couldn’t get near him if you wanted to, while others suggested that God was immanent, that he was very near, but only through your experience of him, only “in your heart.”

Neither of those answers was very satisfying to Borg.  He kept looking, and found that before the Enlightenment some Christians were comfortable talking about a God who was transcendent as well as immanent; one who was not only “up there,” but also “right here.”  Borg uses the word panentheism to describe this view, and that’s going to take a little explaining.  If you look at the Greek roots pan means “everything,” en means, well, “in,” and theos is the word for God.  Panentheism means, literally, “everything is in God.”  It’s different from pantheism, which means everything is God, and which has been denounced as a heresy.  No, panentheism simply means that everything—including the universe—is in God.  And that’s a pretty big idea.  Are you still with me, Justin?

Justin:      Sure!  Nothing I love more than Greek words.

Jim:           Me too!  So, one of my favorite theologians has described panentheism by talking about the way a baby exists inside its mother’s womb.[ii]  In there it may be aware of its mother’s heartbeat, the distant murmur of her voice, the fact that it is surrounded by warmth and love and sustained by the nourishment she provides, but it may not be aware of much more than that.  The mother, on the other hand, is texting on her smartphone while picking out paint swatches for the nursery.  She’s out there in the world, and fully aware of everything.  Now, suppose that we are like that baby, reaching out with both hands to get a better understanding of who God is and what God is like, but not doing a very good job.  We are limited by our ability to apprehend and our capacity to understand.  God is bigger than we are.  And yet we cannot deny the reality of our experience.  There’s something there, something all the world religions attest to, something William James once identified as “The More.”[iii]

Justin:      OK, but now you’re raising one of my questions: what is the evidence for God?  How do we know we are “in” God and not just in the solar system or in the universe? 

Jim:           Good question.  A lot of people point to the universe itself as evidence.  They say that it couldn’t exist as it does if there were not some intelligent mind behind it.  That may be true, but I don’t think it has to be.  The universe is big enough, and complex enough, that we could actually be the product of random chance.  It’s possible.  And then there’s the Bible.  Our call to worship from Psalm 19 insisted that “the heavens are telling the glory of God!”  But if you don’t believe the Bible, if you don’t think it’s true, then that’s not very compelling evidence, is it?  Some people might say, “Well, you can’t know these things, you just have to accept them on faith,” but that often seems to be only another way of saying, “In order to be a good Christian you have to believe unbelievable things.”  So, we end up with experience, and experience is admittedly subjective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Look at love for example.  I’m assuming that at some point in your life you’ve had an experience of something you would call love.  You might even say that you love your wife (and if you’re smart, you will, because she’s sitting right there).  It’s hard to come up with evidence of your love.  You might have said at one point, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think of anything but Roxanne,” but that hardly qualifies as evidence.  Someone who had never been in love might think you had insomnia, or an upset stomach, or a weird obsession with people who play the French horn.  But someone who had been in love would read your experience in a different way.  She would say, “Oh, that’s easy.  You’re in love.”  And there are thousands, probably millions, maybe even billions of people who would agree with her diagnosis.

So, if there are billions of people in the world who say, “There is a God,” you would want to take them as seriously as you would want them to take you.  Their experiences may be different, they may not talk about them in the same way, or in the same language, or in the same religious tradition, but if billions of people are saying, “Yes, there is something More than we can see and hear and touch; there is a spiritual reality just as surely as there is a physical reality,” that would at least serve as a good starting point.

So, Justin: I know I haven’t answered all your questions.  You had a great question about communication, for instance.  You said, “If God is God why doesn’t he do a better job communicating?  I mean, I’ve got my cell phone right here!”  I loved that, and I’m going to get to it in a later sermon, but for today I’d like to leave you with this thought: maybe your old way of thinking about God needed to be dismantled.  Maybe you were exactly right to pull those Tinkertoys apart.  But maybe, someday—when you’re ready—you can add to your framework of understanding a new understanding of God: not so much as a supernatural being who is “up there” somewhere, but as the loving Presence who is both “up there” and “right here,” the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.[iv]

—Jim Somerville and Justin Williams, ©2016

 

[i] All of this is from The God We Never Knew (HarperCollins, 1997).
[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, according to Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, pp. 156-7.
[iii] In the last chapter of his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
[iv] Quoting from Paul’s speech in Acts 17.

A Poem

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To My Atheist Friends (while looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope)

Look at these:
Aren’t they amazing?
These are pictures of deep space,
the far reaches of the universe
and what can be seen in every dark corner
is light.

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Towering nebulae,
whirling galaxies,
clusters of stars so dense
they dazzle the eyes.

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There is an ancient text that claims:
“God is light.”

Work with me for a minute:
Imagine that it’s true,
that all the brilliant beauty in those images—
is God.
That He, or She, or It, is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Presence
That fills the universe,
and touches every dark corner
with light.

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And then imagine that here—
on this tiny blue-green planet—
among humans who have evolved slowly
over millions of years
some humans
have been especially sensitive to that
Presence,
in love with the light,
listening for its low vibrations,
and that they have tried to put into words
what they have heard and seen,
tasted and touched.

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Imagine that other humans—
not so sensitive—
have found meaning in those words,
some sense of connection
to something they cannot name,
so that they have gathered up those words
and written them down
on tablets, scrolls, and in books.

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Suppose that’s what the Bible is,
the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita:
books full of words that bear witness
to some greater presence
by those who have heard the low hum
of the heavens, singing,
by those who have seen the light
and called it by name?

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It doesn’t mean that they got it all right—
this is testimony, not Truth—
but suppose there is a kind of truth there
for those who can hear it
and Good News (if you want to call it that):
The news that we are not alone:
That there is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Presence
Watching over us,
Nurturing our slow growth
and stuttering evolution
over eons,

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Believing in us
Even when we can’t
Believe in ourselves,
And touching every dark corner
with light.

–Jay Green

In Love with the Light

I’ve had some requests for the meditation I shared at the Hanging of the Green service on Sunday night.  Here it is, and if I say so myself it probably reads better than it “preaches.” 

There was a time in my life when all I wanted to be was a photographer for National Geographic magazine.  Maybe everybody has that dream at some time.  But I took it further than most: I traveled from Charleston, West Virginia, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus when I was nineteen years old and spent a month studying photography with my great aunt Caroline.  I learned a lot.  I learned that the word photography means “to write with light.”  I spent a month trying to do that, trying to coax the light into the lens of my camera and onto the film in such a way that my great aunt would say, “You got it.  That’s it!”  She did say that—once—but by the time I took the bus back to West Virginia I had pretty well given up on my dream.  That month in New Mexico did make a lasting impression on me, however: I fell in love with the light.  I began to see it everywhere, all the time, began to see how it fell on the landscape, how it changed from early morning to the middle of the day, how precious it was in those last moments before twilight.  In fact, this afternoon I spent an hour driving my brother Billy around Richmond and everywhere we went I pointed out the beautiful light, and the way it was falling on the buildings or reflecting off the water.

In a book called, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith spends a whole chapter talking about light.  He begins by saying that light is a universal metaphor for God.  And then, borrowing the language of quantum physics, he talks about the way light transcends time and space, the way it shares the properties of energy and matter, the way it can make something out of nothing through the process of photosynthesis.  He doesn’t say that light is God but he comes close, so close that I began to think about the similarities, about the way light is everywhere in the universe, how just a little bit of it can drive back a world of darkness, how it warms, and cheers, and brightens.

I read that book in the days just after September 11, 2001, when I was living and working in Washington, DC, and it was a huge help to me.  Those were days when I didn’t get on the Metro in the morning without thinking that something terrible could happen, and as I rode the escalator up from the Dupont Circle station I would pray, “Lord, if this is my day to die let me do it with courage and strength.”  Everybody seemed shaky in those days.  We all needed to be reassured.  And so here I was, reading a chapter in Huston Smith’s book in which he was talking about how much light and God had in common, and on that day, as I came up the escalator praying my little prayer, I looked up and saw the light just falling all over the buildings on 19th Street.  It was that beautiful, golden, early morning sunlight.  It was dazzling, and fairly dripping down the sides of the buildings, puddling in the streets.  I don’t know that I had ever seen it so perfect and pure.  I found myself thinking, “God is here, right here, pouring out his blessing on the city.”

Huston Smith may stop just short of saying light is God, but 2000 years ago the author of 1 John said God is light.  Do you remember that?  “God is light,” he said, “and in him is no darkness at all.”  It may have been the same author who said, “the true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, and yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him, but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God” (John 1). 

Not long ago I read a blog post by a Canadian named James Loney who lives in Baghdad.  He talked about the violence in the city, about bombs exploding so close to his house he could feel the sound in his chest, about friends who witnessed the aftermath of a bombing, who saw the blood-sprayed wall, and body parts, and people carrying away the victims.  But somewhere in the middle of that horrifying report he wrote this:

I have fallen in love with the light in Baghdad. How can I catch, hold, describe it in words, except to say there is just something about it. In the mornings, when I go onto the roof of our apartment building to hang my laundry or greet the day, the light rushes about me, kisses me everywhere. It is fine and simple and gracious, cheerful and embracing and flowing, a pouring swimming breathing medley of lemons and yellow roses and honey.  More than this I cannot say: you must come see for yourself.

I think about that light falling on the bombed-out city of Baghdad, about the writer of 1 John, maybe looking out through the bars of his prison cell as he writes, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  I think about the golden, late-afternoon sunshine that washed over Richmond today and I fall in love with the light all over again.  I think of God, embracing the city with these radiant beams, blessing it before moving on to the west to bless the cities of Chicago, and Dallas, Los Angeles, and yes, in due time, the city of Baghdad, where little children feel the morning sunlight fall across their faces, kissing their beautiful brown cheeks, waking them up with a strange and wonderful sense of hopefulness that today will be a better day.

So may it be.

Epiphany 101

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Jeannie Dortch photo

It’s true.  I probably should have done a better job of getting the church ready for the celebration of Epiphany on Sunday, January 4.  But with all the hoopla surrounding our celebration of Christmas and the subsequent hurrah of New Year’s, there wasn’t a lot of time to explain.  Some people showed up on Sunday morning thinking that it was going to be just another day in worship, albeit the first one of the new year.  So when I started preaching about the celebration of Epiphany they looked puzzled, like people who hadn’t gotten their invitations in the mail. 

They seemed a little less puzzled by the end of the sermon, but for the benefit of those people and any of you who may be new to the Christian calendar, let me tell you everything I’ve learned about Epiphany in the 22 years that I’ve been a pastor.  And since I’m doing this from memory, and not in any particular order, feel free to click on the word “comments” at the bottom of this post to let me know where I got it wrong.

  • Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphainein, which means, literally, “to shine upon.”  It is sometimes translated as “manifestation,” and celebrates the revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.
  • Typically, Epiphany is associated with the visit of the wise men recorded in Matthew 2:1-2, who followed a star until they found it “shining upon” the house where the baby Jesus was (although, by the time they got there from ancient Persia, Jesus would have been a toddler.  It’s a long trip!).
  • Epiphany is always associated with light.  Some Orthodox Christians refer to it as “the Feast of Lights.”  Feel free to bring your sunglasses to church next year.
  • Epiphany falls on January 6 every year, just the way Christmas falls on December 25 every year, but sometimes we celebrate it in church on the Sunday closest to January 6 (like we did this time).
  • The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany comprise the “season” of Christmas, and it is perfectly acceptable to celebrate the birth of Jesus, sing carols, and even exchange gifts throughout the season (think of the money you could save if you bought Christmas gifts after December 25).
  • Some people drag their Christmas trees out of the house on the evening of January 5th, build a big bonfire in the village square, and have a “Twelfth Night” celebration.  I don’t know who those people are, but it sounds like fun, doesn’t it? 

And now for some other interesting celebrations of Epiphany, gleaned from my research:

  • In some countries, Epiphany is celebrated with more vigor than Christmas. For example, Ireland celebrates Epiphany or Little Christmas by giving wives and mothers a day off from their jobs on the 6th of January. This is particularly popular in Cork, where women often leave the home for the day, while husbands take a turn at caring for the children and doing the housework.
  • In many Latin American households, children leave out their shoes with bits of hay for the camels ridden by the kings. They often receive gifts on Epiphany, or the Day of the Kings, and it is thought that the gifts are better if one leaves hay for the Kings’ mounts.
  • The French often celebrate Epiphany by eating King’s cake or gâteau des Rois. Often a bean or a small toy is placed in the cake. The person who gets the slice with the hidden item is said to enjoy good luck for the year.
  • Eastern Orthodox Churches find Epiphany particularly relevant as the revelation of Christ. A church celebration may include the blessing of the waters. The nearest body of water is visited, prayed over, and a crucifix is thrown into the water. If weather conditions permit, swimmers may try to retrieve the cross.
  • Epiphany is also associated with the appearance of Christ to St. Paul. In this way, epiphany is used in the sense of one having a revelation from the Greek root. Christ’s appearance to Paul radically altered Paul’s life and turned him into a notably avid Christian who worked very hard to convert his brethren.
  • Some Christians find that Epiphany is the last vestige of the non-commercialized holiday. They prefer to enjoy a Christian celebration that is truly based in religion, and not in retail stores. Many choose to celebrate Epiphany with a special gathering of family that does not include gifts, to separate serving “God and Mammon.” Christ explains in his teaching that serving wealth, Mammon, means one cannot devote oneself to God. Thus a day spent reflecting on Christ with little influence on money is a good one to many Christians, and marks Epiphany as special.

There you go, that’s all I know and a good bit more.  Hope your Tuesday is a good one, and that your celebration of Epiphany includes eating cake, taking the day off, diving for a crucifix, or putting hay in someone’s shoes (preferably not your own).  And beyond all that, some time for reflecting on the miracle of God’s manifestation in a baby boy named Jesus.

Blessed Epiphany!

p.s. Chaplain Travis Moger, a fellow Baptist, has posted some wonderful thoughts about Epiphany on his blog.  Click here to read.