One of the last things I did in 2015 was to unsubscribe from every move-on dot org, political action group, political candidate or social justice organization that sends me emails. I simply couldn’t take it any more, receiving 50 or more emails a day of doom and gloom requesting just a $1, maybe $3 to help out. No doubt I will still support the causes and candidates I believe in, and as soon as I sign another online letter of support or protest, I’ll be back on all the list-serves, but for now I can enjoy a respite from the constant ping of emails arriving in my inbox.
I’ve also made an effort to stop watching the nightly news. I simply can’t take the first twenty minutes of reports on who killed who. I mean, is that really what news stations think is new-worthy?
And, what about devoting the last three minutes of a thirty minute news report to a charming story about someone making a difference? Does that closing effort, in some way, balance how the news began?
Like the story about a woman who is seen walking the beach with a paper bag in her hands. Every so often she stoops and puts something in her bag then keeps on walking. People who see her think she is picking up sea shells. But when one person stops and asks her what she is doing she says that she is picking up glass. And, not the beautiful sea glass that has been rubbed smooth by waves and sand, she is picking up the sharp shards of glass that can cut bare feet. She says she does this so that surfers and others walking barefoot on the beach won’t cut their feet and have their day ruined. A simple act of kindness, making a small difference in the world.
I started watching the news, and reading the news, in order to become informed about the evil that is lurking about and doing harm. This was when I was in my twenties and I yearned to know my purpose in life and how I could make a difference. Back then I was what one would call spiritual but not religious.
Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher and mathematician was imprisoned for opposing World War I. There's a story about his arrival that reportedly goes this way:
"When I reported to the warden," Russell said, "he asked me the customary questions - name, age, place of residence. Then he inquired, "Religious affiliation?"
Russell replied, "Agnostic."
The poor man looked up. "How do you spell that?"
He spelled it for him. The warden wrote the word carefully on the admission form, then sighed, "Oh, well; there are a great many faith traditions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.”
The magi were astrologers or pagans or maybe agnostics? People throughout the ages have speculated on who they were, but no one really knows. Regardless they felt called to find Jesus and bring him gifts. But the best gift was what they did, going home by another way, and thus protecting Jesus and his parents from the jealous rage of Herod.
Russel is claimed to have said that at various times in his life he was a liberal, a socialist, and or a pacifist, although never in any profound sense. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his literary writings that supported humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought. He did what he thought was right even though he was not motivated by religious principles.
There exist many spiritual paths that follow a wide variety of spiritual thought. Sometimes these differences are used as a weapons to separate one group of humanity from another. Sometimes these different thoughts and beliefs are used to bring people together. Regardless the difference always lies with us - Am I working to build up others or to build up myself at the expense of others? One might ask, am I a magi or a Herod?
No doubt people who have no faith, or people who are spiritual but not religious, can be good people, working to right the evils of the world and bring forth justice. Like Russell, the woman at the beach, or the magi one does not need to be a person of faith to do good work in the world.
However, when I was not part of a church I experienced a kind of “any thing goes” spirituality and I felt untethered as I tried to make sense of life and live a meaningful life. Becoming a member of a church community frames what one does in a particular way. As a member of a faith community, of a Christian church, I want to participate in preventing the Herod’s of the world from acquiring a stranglehold on societies and nations. Christianity anchors me in a community of faithful people shaping who I am and supporting me. Being part of a Christian community affords me the communal wisdom of experience that comes from a long tradition of people who have and are wrestling with keeping faith relevant in the world; and it connects me to a living history, the body of Christ alive in the world today.
In a few minutes we are going to baptize Kaitlyn into the body of Christ. Almost eight years old Kaitlyn was able to participate in her baptismal preparation yesterday, answering questions and joining in the discussion about sin and evil and good. Today Kaitlyn takes on her identity as a Christian and begins her journey, living life as a follower of Jesus, learning to love as God loves.
The Epiphany story challenges us to embrace a larger vision of the world, what it might look like if we remove the shards that wait to cut people open. What the world might be like if we are willing to do our part to help heal a perpetually wounded world; picking up the broken pieces, striving for wholeness, and uniting all of us as a people of God.