Stranger at the Gate

The second time I saw the aged gentleman was at the gate where my wife and I were waiting to board our flight back east. He had been pushed there in a wheelchair by a muscular sheriff, equipped in full gear and accompanied by a social worker. I could understand the social worker’s presence, but a sheriff’s? Law enforcement did not fit the scene I had witnessed the first time I saw the fragile but well-dressed figure, an hour earlier, standing unsteadily in the queue at the airline’s check-in counter, just ahead of me and my wife.

He was alone and should not have been. Shrunk down with age, he was standing alongside a rolling walker as if he were balancing on thin ice. He would inch a tentative step or two closer to the walker and then slightly stoop to grab support from one of its handle grips. The walker sometimes wiggled on its small wheels as he moved like this. Then as if having second thoughts, he would release his grip and stand as straight as his frail frame allowed, for as long as possible – never for long.

He wore the pained expression of a helpless person deeply disturbed about something. But what? He regularly alternated his gaze toward the check-in counter and then to the nearby, large plate glass windows and sliding doors that offered a view of the drop-off area at the curb. He seemed to be searching for an explanation to come from either counter or curb. But none came.

Although it was 9:30 in the morning, there was hardly a soul in the small airport on California’s central coast. Four ticket holders had arrived before me and my wife, and we had all arrived too early to check in; there were no airline personnel at the counter. The third in the queue was the elderly gentleman. One of the ticket holders talked briefly with him from time to time, but he spoke softly and I couldn’t catch what he was saying. When I mentioned this to my wife later, she explained that he was agitated and kept whispering, Where is she? Why did she leave me here? When is she coming back?

Around 10am, he seemed to give up expecting any help to arrive from the counter or the curb. I was a mere two arm-lengths distant, but by the time I had quit arguing with myself about whether to assist him in the effort, he had labored himself down upon the rolling walker’s padded seat. As if on cue the check-in crew appeared. My wife rushed to assist him and to ensure that a flight attendant got the picture.

In a matter of minutes we had been checked in for our flight to Dallas and ushered uneventfully through the TSA scanners. In the waiting lounge near our gate–an hour to fill, and eager to finish an engaging book–I promptly forgot about the man I would soon know as “David,” whom I had last seen talking with a flight attendant at the check-in counter. A half-hour passed and suddenly there he was. The sheriff had left him with the social worker at a convenient spot near the gate. The two were sitting next to each other but not talking. I had a good view of his downcast face. When we made eye contact, he looked sorrowful.

They boarded him first. My wife and I were among the last. A ticketing issue and a full plane prevented us from sitting together. Never mind. We had been given window seats. As we boarded I followed her profile up the narrow aisle with my eyes until she found her seat, then I looked for mine. And there he was again, in a bulkhead seat on the aisle, the window seat next to him empty, no social worker in sight. He was clutching a wad of papers and a prepackaged sandwich in his right hand. He looked preoccupied and I hated to interrupt him.

Excuse me, I said. He looked up and turned sideways as best he could to make room as I bent to squeeze past him–banging my head sharply on the low overhead compartment–to occupy the seat next to him for the three hour flight. On planes I often argue with myself about whether to engage the person next to me, or to pretend invisibility and disappear into a book. This time I favored the book I hadn’t finished in the lounge. (Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, if you’d like to know.) I pulled it out of my carry-on bag and made sure my seatmate knew what I had planned. I wondered about the sheriff, but felt it wasn’t my place to pry.

Before I could get back into issues of prose structure and style, however, the joke I made about banging my head had brought a smile to his face. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. He carried a gracious, almost dignified, manner, and seemed keen to tell me something. But I wasn’t getting it. At times he spoke in complete thoughts and was easy to follow. Sometimes he fell silent, leaving a thought uncompleted. Other times he jumped from topic to topic sans any segues that I could detect. Even when I leaned in, it was hard to hear his softly spoken words above the engines. I thought I caught the words “her daughter,” “kidnapping,” and “two women,” but I wasn’t sure, so I let it go.

Do you live in Dallas? I asked. I’m going to Connecticut, he said. Oh, you must have been visiting someone in California, I said, wondering why anyone had allowed this fragile figure to travel across the country on his own. No, he said, I’ve been living in California with my wife.

helping handA hostess locked her cart next to us at the bulkhead and handed out pretzels and drinks. I accepted a cranberry drink and took a protein bar from my carry-on. Papers and sandwich still clutched in his hand, David folded the papers out of the way and began slow work on the sandwich.

Man, you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I said after he’d finished eating what he could of his sandwich. You’re probably not going to get to Connecticut until midnight. My children are in Connecticut, he said. They want me and my wife to live with them there. I’m going to make arrangements. Then I clearly heard “her daughter” and “kidnapping,” and also “two women” and “one-year-old boy,” but for no apparent reason. I wanted to ask why he said this but decided not to.

My wife had a stroke in Florida last year, he said, emerging from silence. She can’t walk. Her daughter got her to move to California. Said she would take care of her. So we moved. But I’m done with her now. Who does he mean? I wondered, now more curious. [Unclear] we never should have done that, he added. [Unclear] worst decision we ever made. We lost everything.

As we flew on, I learned that he was eighty-six and that for thirty-two years he had been an assistant to the headmaster of a large boys’ school in the Midwest, and that afterward he had retired to Florida. That long career accounted for his gracious, disciplined deportment, but it could not hide his distress whenever he returned to “the kidnapping.”

This put me in a dilemma. The journalist in me wanted to probe, question, conduct an interview, get the story. The Christian in me wanted to be a listening ear, to befriend the stranger, to reach out somehow with grace.

I carefully slid from my seat and walked the long aisle to the toilet. Earlier in the flight, David and I had talked about our churches, and discovered we were brothers in Christ. When I got back to my seat, I said I was sorry to hear about his wife and that I would pray for her and the move to Connecticut. Thank you. I’ll say a prayer for you, too, he said. We had a nice house in Florida, he added after a pause. We should have stayed there.

I was learning something. But what? Even though he occasionally repeated himself, I was still missing many of his words. Whatever story he was telling, I wasn’t getting it. Afterward, it reminded me of trying to understand a movie you had walked in on in the middle of. I did catch that the kidnapping had taken place in California. It clearly pained him to talk about it, but talk about it he did.

When he asked if I’d seen the Amber Alert on the news in California, I explained that I’d been on vacation and tried not to listen to the news. They kidnapped a one-year-old boy, he said. Can you believe it? A one-year-old. It was on the news for days. When? I asked. A few days ago, he said. The boy was in protective custody. But they caught them. Her daughter put a knife to the social worker’s throat. Told her she’d kill her if she didn’t let them take her son. That’s terrible, I said, words failing me. They kidnapped him, a one-year-old boy, he said again. Can you believe that? That’s so terrible, I said again. David fell silent, and I wondered who he was talking about.

Will you have to fly back to California to bring your wife to Connecticut, I asked? No, he said. The social worker is arranging that. We’ve lost everything. After my wife had her stroke, her daughter convinced her to move to California so she could look after my wife. So we moved there from Florida. But we found out that she only wanted my wife’s money. Her daughter spent it on herself and her daughter. The social worker told me that after they caught them. Caught who? I blurted out.

My wife’s daughter and her daughter, he said. They caught them in Los Angeles. The social worker told me they think they were headed for Mexico. Kidnaping, attempted murder. Can you believe it? They’ll go to jail for a long time, won’t they? I guess so, I said. My wife is heartbroken, he said. When I told her about her daughter she cried. But the little boy is safe now. But can you imagine him growing up with them?

I could not.

But I could reflect on our conversation, and I had plenty of time for doing that during the four-hour layover after my wife and I deplaned in Dallas, before our flight home to Knoxville. As we said our goodbyes, David warmly shook my hand, said Thank you, and added: Say a prayer for my wife. He was wheelchaired to the gate where he would connect with a flight to LaGuardia. There, his family would pick him up for the drive to Connecticut. I kicked myself for not having asked him for his number so I could follow up. Many times I almost asked, but it never seemed appropriate.

I found a comfortable chair in a quiet area of the large terminal, where I pulled a pen and a small spiral notebook from my shirt pocket and scribbled pages of notes about the last three hours. Who would’ve thought this likable person was suffering so much? I spent days afterward thinking about him, and whether I’d been the right kind of seatmate.

God and AdamThen the penny dropped. He was heartbroken and needed to talk with someone other than with social workers, the police, or even his family about what had just happened to him and his wife. Talking with them, as necessary as that had been, had not been a means to the emotional distance he needed from so much anguish. Perhaps our long, off-and-on conversation had been that means of grace. David had seemed seem calmer, more at peace, when we said our goodbyes.

In a gentle, beautiful book, The Shape of Living, David Ford notes that people who suffer from severe evil and injustice are overwhelmed by it; they suffer alone and need to be held in non-physical ways that bring divine grace. But how do you hold a stranger that way in the middle of an airplane—on a flight across the country?

As I reflect on my hours alongside this kindly African-American gentleman, I remember one of the many things I learned from reading Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a line from God in Search of Man: “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” As a Christian, I’ve come to interpret this to mean that when I come into the presence of another human being, especially a suffering one, I can enter into the presence of Christ and it’s no longer about what I want, it’s about what Christ wants.

If I could talk to David again I would of course ask how life was going now for him and his wife, but I would also ask him if he was checking me out early on in our conversation to determine how much he could say to this stranger at the gate. Then I was glad that, by God’s grace, I’d leaned away from the journalistic me and instead leaned in as a listening ear.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons: Richard Lehoux; Mandajuice; Waiting for God

This essay as first published on Foundling House, Sept. 2,2019.

Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem

It’s no surprise to Christians that the star of Bethlehem and the wise men who followed it occupy a prominent place in the Nativity. My childhood memory is typical of many. Our family Christmas tree was topped off every year by a large star. Below it on the carpeted floor near the tree was our nativity scene, peopled by Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds holding their staffs, and several winged angels and tiny white sheep. And of course three colorfully dressed wise men stood at a respectful distance gazing toward the newborn child.

But this might surprise. Around Christmastime every year, the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christian. Every December you will find them reading magazine articles or listening to current affairs stories purporting to explain the true meaning of the mysterious star. These explanations, however, typically lean heavily on naturalistic interpretations, particularly from the field of astronomy, ignoring important details from the narrative provided by Matthew’s Gospel. The net effect is the de-enchantment of the mysterious star. This approach may sit well within the larger cultural zeitgeist of secularism but it does not square with Christian belief.

A solely naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of the star ignores its revelatory nature. This is a serious matter, much more so than the historical inaccuracies commonly depicted in nativity scenes. A careful reading of Matthew 2 with Luke 2, for instance, suggests that the wise men, or magi, were not present at the birth manger. Apparently they arrived many months, if not a year or more, after the birth, and at a house in Bethlehem where Jesus was then staying with Mary and Joseph. Also, there is no biblical reason to limit the magi to three in number, despite their gifts being three (gold, frankincense, myrrh). And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Such historical conjectures are small change when compared to accepting purely naturalist or materialist conclusions, which bankrupt the Nativity of its divine otherness. The star of Bethlehem is then robbed of its mystery, the magi are reduced to being clever astrologers, and Christ’s birth loses its revelatory meaning. Here’s how that occurs and why we don’t have Christmas when it does.

The problem with naturalistic explanations of the star
Solely naturalistic or materialistic views of the starry visitor that led the magi are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, or the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these stellar occurrences, any one of which could have produced a bright phenomenon in the night sky to set the ancient world abuzz. A new nova, for example, was discovered about 125 years before the birth of Christ by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds (see Luke’s account, chapter 2:8-15) must have mistaken the bright nova for the angelic visitation that appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Daft, lonely shepherds. Spending so much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!

Another natural phenomenon was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets of our solar system, around the time most scholars place Christ’s birth (4 BC). There is a consensus among astronomers since Kepler that this planetary conjunction occurred around 7–4 BC. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers typically assume that the magi interpreted this planetary conjunction as an astrological sign indicating the birth of such a significant person that it warranted their arduous trip from the East to Jerusalem.

Comets, too, were not unknown in ancient times. The famous Halley’s comet, originally discovered in 240 BC by Chinese astronomers, was also visible in 12–11 BC. Another comet appeared around 4 BC. If the star in Matthew was a comet, as the early church theologian Origen assumed, its dramatic appearance in the night sky would have quite the attention-getter. And its linear movement across the heavens would more closely approximate the account of the star in Matthew than would the movement of a planetary conjunction. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to any purely naturalistic interpretations; nor can the way the magi followed the star to the Christ child be justified astrologically.

The star has a mind of its own
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy. Fair enough. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain any phenomenon to complete satisfaction. That attitude is not being questioned here. At issue is the naturalism that explains away the divine otherness and meaning of the star of Bethlehem as silly religious nonsense or superstitious belief.

Also at issue is the occult method that astrologers claim the magi used as a kind of road map to follow the star from the East to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. As someone who once practiced astrology, I have some sympathy for what astrologers are trying to achieve by this. Like many sensitive people they refuse to allow themselves to be suffocated within the metaphysical box of naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism. Their way out, when it comes to the star of Bethlehem, is to accept astronomical evidence for the conjunction but then to claim the magi among their number by introducing a tincture of occult otherness to the nativity narrative.

Mindful of potential audiences likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments on radio or television will combine elements astronomy and astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. A close reading of Matthew chapter two, however, tells a different story. Here are the essentials.

The phenomenon that is called the star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and intention of its own. According to the text – and as Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, “Stick with the text” – the star “appeared” at a particular time and it “went ahead of them [the magi]” … “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” In other words, the star is not governed only by the laws of nature any more than a human being is. This “star” apparently has some sort of personal intention in its nature. As such, its meaning cannot be reduced to the laws of nature, whether by those of a nova, a planetary conjunction, or a comet.

If we set aside the bias of “silly religious nonsense,” the text of Matthew 2:1-12 seems to be revealing some sort of presence to the magi that is as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (see Luke’s account). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account lends itself to this view. The word translated with our English word “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and is occasionally used to describe the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared” to his followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14). It is a term, therefore, that can denote forms of luminous bodies other than literal heavenly astral phenomena, including stars.

The verb phrase “went ahead … until it stopped” is another case in point. The word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have chosen to “stand still” (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). The verb “went ahead” is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for “to lead” or “precede.” So the crowds are leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) and Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Curiously, the construction is used once about prophecies being fulfilled (1 Timothy 1:18).

The text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as the shepherds heard the angels). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects (comets, planets) obeying natural laws only.

The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the magi, to their careers and to the actual way they got their leading to Bethlehem and the child, and to the revelatory message and meaning of the Nativity.

The word “magi” (singular: “magus”) originated centuries before the time of Christ to describe a caste of very learned priests and scholars among the ancient Medes and Persians. Like Her Majesty’s Privy Council today, magi were the go-to advisors for kings of the time, for taking decisions domestic and international. They were educated in the literature and languages of surrounding nations and in the equivalent of a world religions curriculum that included studies in divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices, dream interpretation, and the zodiac (astronomy and astrology for them a single discipline).

In the Bible they are first mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called “Rabmag” (AV), or “chief of the Magi.” In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish young men Daniel and his three friends were put through an education in Babylon similar to that of the magi before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors (Daniel, chapter one) . The Greek word in Matthew 2:1, often rendered “wise men,” is magoi (magi), and “Simon the magician” (Acts 8:5-25) is known traditionally as Simon Magus.

The magi of the Nativity, however, do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric art or method to make the long trip to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures and took their cues for the journey from that source. So, upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers about the coming Messiah, which was prophesied hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17). This verse was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. Taking their cue from Scripture, the magi head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to seek further instruction.

In Jerusalem, the magi’s determination to learn the whereabouts of this new king of the Jews raises havoc throughout the city and enrages King Herod, who interrogates the city’s rabbis. They crack the books and tell Herod that any fool knows where this ruler will he born: Bethlehem; and they show him a prophecy in Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth to rule Israel for Me – one whose origin is from old, from ancient times” (5:1; The Jewish Study Bible). With murder in his heart, Herod secretly questions the magi and sends them off to Bethlehem, several miles south of Jerusalem. Again, the magi are following Scripture not astrology.

But on the outskirts of Bethlehem the magi get stuck. “Where do we go now?” I can hear them saying. “We’ve got the right town but now we need Jesus’ address.” Here, the otherness of the star may again be noticed. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Thrilled to bits with this personal guidance from the “star”, the magi, “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:9-11).

Finally it’s time for the arduous trek back to their own land. But earlier in Jerusalem, Herod had lied to the magi. He had told them to report back to him from Bethlehem so that he, too, could go and worship the child. But he wanted to know the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. The magi, unaware of Herod’s plot, are warned by God in a dream to return to their country by “another way.” Which they do.

This little phrase – “another way” – is for me a key to the revelatory nature and meaning of the Nativity. It speaks a phenomenon (the “star”) that cuts across the grain whatever esoteric knowledge and learning the magi may typically have relied on, whether for their personal guidance or their counsel to kings. In this sense, the Matthew narrative of the star carries a message for us that is, in fact, like that of the Genesis 1 narrative, where we learn of God’s creation of all things. In that narrative, God’s creation of the stars is mentioned but, as important as stars are, the text merely states that God “also made the stars.”

In the context of reading the entire detailed account of creation, this brief mention of stars appears almost as an afterthought. There is no mention that stars, or any other part of God’s creation, is to be used as a system of esoteric knowledge and learning. Yet that is precisely how neighboring cultures (of the ancient Hebrews) such as Babylon and Egypt used the stars (the sun and moon, too). And there is a consensus among Bible scholars that the afterthought mention of stars in Genesis 1 is an implicit warning to those ancient cultures, and to any today, not to employ the stars as a means of esoteric or occult knowledge, but to instead rely on God for guidance. Which brings us full circle back to the star of Bethlehem and the message of the magi.

To conclude, conjectures may be made, and many people have made them, about the nature of the astēr (the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2), but it is not possible to make a solid conclusion about its nature. If you were standing in my backyard on a clear night, I could point out to you any number of planets or stars by name. “There’s Venus, there’s Mars, there’s Vega, there’s Sirius.” No such solid conclusion can be made about the astēr of Bethlehem.

I don’t doubt that there may have been a conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova during the period of Jesus’ birth. I just don’t think that the astēr of Bethlehem refers to any of them. Instead, it seems meant to indicate a miraculous star. And the appearance of that, my friends, would certainly have gotten the profound attention of the magi, who were well-skilled in knowing what the appearance of the night sky should look like to them. This astēr was something other than that. And they knew it. This is why I say that it cut across the grain of their esotericism.

Any meaning of the Nativity that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism ends up with a God whose greatest claim to glory is being able to time historic events, like the birth of Jesus, to coincide with natural phenomena. This may be Immanuel Velikovsky’s god, who cleverly times the Exodus to occur during an earthquake that parted the Red Sea. It may be Curt Vonnegut’s god, who presumes that there was a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touched it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural current affairs stories and magazine articles about the Nativity. But it is not the God of Creation, who by his mighty power can and does use all sorts of natural and supernatural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

(A shorter version of this article appeared at Premier Christianity, 14 December 2018.)

Images: courtesy of Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Dave Morrow photography respectively

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

Prophetic Wisdom?

From 40 years ago:

“Without the self-restraint derived from a common moral ideal, a nation becomes ungovernable except by tyranny. Unless our nation has a spiritual awakening soon, we will probably have little freedom at all to debate Christian attitudes. The trouble is, there isn’t that much time. Revival doesn’t guarantee results that fulfil all its possibilities. An expanding church might still fuss about a few obvious moral problems in society but be unable to relate its faith to the basic problems. Indeed, it might not even be able to handle its own problems. If God’s people propagate a Christian faith without proliferating a Christian mind—a Christian philosophy of life, or way of looking at the world – then there may follow a vengeful reaction from a society deprived of truly Christian insight into its problems; a society driven by spiritual ignorance into despair, despotism, and persecution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about those words lately. They are from the late John Peck, Christian theologian and philosopher, writing in 1978 about his country, England. Quoted in: Uncommon Sense; God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, John Peck & Charles Strohmer; The Wise Press, 2000; SPCK, 2001; p 10.

The book was written to both English and American Christians. We included those words in Uncommon Sense because as we were writing the book (it took 4+ years) we felt their relevance also to America. The book is not a polemic. It actually offers a way ahead. Just saying.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while. See if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

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The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

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With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

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I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Christ’s Passion and God’s Grace for You

Christ on the CrossEaster weekend is a good time to take a sabbath from chocolate bunnies and colored eggs to remind ourselves of how harshly the weekend began for Jesus 2,000 years ago. The following reflection is from one of my first books, edited here. It appears in the book in a discussion about pride, humility, and the amazing grace of God.

The sin of pride may not be the most basic sin, but it is probably way ahead of whatever is running in second place. The great American preacher Jonathan Edwards, in his typically vivid imagery, put it this way: “[p]ride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out” (Advice to Young Converts). Powerful words.

Pride is the all-too-human condition that makes “self” the center of my life, so that all others, including God, become subservient to me. The sin of pride is not the pride you may take in winning a scholarship to Juilliard, or by making an impossible catch in deep center field, or by the good feelings that arise when your child comes home from school with an “A+.” It is the kind of pride that says, however subtly, and in many diverse ways, “My will be done” (Isaiah 14:13–14 depicts the gravest expression of this).

Pride is the enemy of humility. Humility is about turning one’s attention away from self to God and to others. When we consider the purposes of God and the welfare of others as greater than ourselves, that is humility. “Self-forgetfulness” is the way C. S. Lewis put it.

Strange and annoying thoughts break in on our personal peace and security when our regard for God’s will and others’ welfare replace our attention to ourselves. A humility, or lowliness of mind, heart, or circumstance, then develops in us. This may occur with the discovery that I am inferior to God and must do what God says. It may come with the acceptance that I am powerless to do anything about the kind of hardship or suffering that is suddenly upon me. It may occur with the recognition of a barrier between myself and Jesus that must be terminated – a chosen career, a proposed marriage, an immoral relationship. There is, then, a shifting of priorities in the move from self to humility.

It may seem unlikely at the time, but in the process that spoils our own desires, hopes, pleasures, ambitions, or longings we receive more of God’s amazing grace to enable us to do what God is requiring of us. “Clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5).

As we approach the reality of deeper obedience, our imaginations clarify as never before. For what we are about to lose or suffer appears on the path in a last-ditch effort to try to turn aside a heart moving into tender obedience. It is a pivotal moment. Might we not turn the wrong way? We may not want to, but still . . . .

The “self-forgetfulness” of our Lord is our model for humility, as he is in all things. One of the most concentrated expressions of the clarification process comes into sharp relief when our Lord is praying in the Garden of Gethesmane, as it is described in Mark 14:32–34:

“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Pete, James and John along with him, and he began to he deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. Stay here and keep watch.”

Just hours before his death by crucifixion, Jesus has walked to the Garden of Gethsemane, which in the Aramaic language means “oil press.” He has gone there to pray about what lay ahead for him, and that imminent future is being clarified to him through the agony he endures there.

Christ’s passion begins. The unbelievable cost of Calvary is being clarified to the Suffering Servant. In Mark’s description, three Greek words in the original New Testament reveal what was taking place in our Lord’s mind. A more accurate rendering of “deeply distressed,” “troubled,” and “overwhelmed” are the words “aghast,” “depressed,” and “grief-stricken.”

That Jesus did not like what he saw is also evident from the long time he took in prayer to ask the Father if “the cup” could pass from him. Drops of his bloody sweat stained the ground while he endured that racking oil press of lowliness. We know that he could have called on his Father to send legions of angels to fight for him (Matthew 26:53).

But Jesus chose to drink the cup, to place the importance of others as greater than himself. This comes ringing home in that climactic outburst before he walks from the garden, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Thus strengthened by God’s grace, the Suffering Servant declares, “Rise! Let us go” (Mark 14:42).

Jesus exemplifies both the height and depth of realistic self-understanding before God, who has promised grace to the humble. If God had enough grace for Jesus in his passion, God will have more than enough grace for you in your humility. As the infinite depths of Christ’s descent mount up to the fullness of grace in Him, the humble have a share in both.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: Christ being raised of the cross, by Reubens

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.