Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Vincible Ignorance," Irresistible Kindness

In thinking last week about acorns, new beginnings, and the way faith can grow and bear fruit, I also found myself thinking about the way the process is sometimes thwarted, or reversed: acorns rot underground, are swept away by spring rains. Young trees are nibbled down by hungry animals, or are planted in so much shade they fail to thrive.

The same is true with faith: young faith sometimes disappears. Lives started in one direction shift and move in another. Even adults who have been active in a life of faith can find themselves walking away.

A friend who has encouraged me much in this blog sent me a link a few weeks ago: “Based on your recent blog posts, I thought you might like this:”


 I was drawn in immediately: 
I've shaken my fist in anger at stalled cars, storm clouds, and incompetent meterologists. I've even, on one terrible day that included a dead alternator, a blaring tornado-warning siren, and a horrifically wrong weather forecast, cursed all three at once. I've fumed at furniture, cussed at crossing guards, and held a grudge against Gun Barrel City, Texas. I've been mad at just about anything you can imagine.
Except unicorns. I've never been angry at unicorns.
Joe Carter, online editor for First Things and contributor to the Gospel Coalition, explores the anger atheists and agnostics sometimes express towards God:
As C.S. Lewis once testified, "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world." Lewis' experience is not uncommon among atheists. Many claim to believe that God does not exist and yet, according to empirical studies, they tend to be the people most angry at him.
Carter’s discussion is well worth reading, wherever you fall on the belief/disbelief spectrum. He offers some interesting statistical studies, digs into the implications:
I've argued elsewhere that, according to the Christian tradition, atheism is a form of self-imposed intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or — to borrow a term from the Catholic tradition — a case of vincible ignorance.
Vincible ignorance is intentional suppression of knowledge that is within an individual's control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."
I'm a little uneasy at the accusation of "self-imposed intellectual dysfunction," or "lack of epistemic virtue," yet I’m intrigued by the idea of vincible ignorance, and certain I've seen it at work.

In a recent conversation, I listened as friends who have had strong experience of God’s grace argued against their own belief. Part of their discussion focused on ways they feel God has let them down.

Part focused on their frustration that faithful reading of scripture offers clear opposition to lifestyle directions they’ve chosen to embrace.

As they swirled into illogical justifications and accusations, it was helpful to have a term that describes what I’ve seen so often.

A dictionary from Catholic Culture.org offers an expanded definition for “vincible ignorance": 
Lack of knowledge for which a person is morally responsible. It is culpable ignorance because it could be cleared up if the person used sufficient diligence. One is said to be simply (but culpably) ignorant if one fails to make enough effort to learn what should be known; guilt then depends on one's lack of effort to clear up the ignorance. That person is crassly ignorant when the lack of knowledge is not directly willed but rather due to neglect or laziness; as a result the guilt is somewhat lessened, but in grave matters a person would still be gravely responsible. A person has affected ignorance when one deliberately fosters it in order not to be inhibited in what one wants to do; such ignorance is gravely wrong when it concerns serious matters.
This definition reminds me of Wendell Berry’s exploration of ignorance in his valuable essay “The Way of Ignorance,” what I termed “the taxonomy of ignorance” in an earlier blog post.

As I said then, and am even more sure now, we all have areas of ignorance, and work hard to maintain our ignorance for a wide range of reasons. Atheists and agnostics have no exclusive claim to illogic. Neither do Christians.

Carter concludes:
I'm beginning to suspect that emotional atheism is far more common than many Christians realize. We need a new apologetic approach that takes into account that the ordinary pain and sufferings of life leads more people away from God than a library full of anti-theist books.
I believe Carter is right about “emotional atheism.” When I think and pray about friends who have walked away from the Christian faith, the reasons are unequivocally personal: an ugly divorce that shook their foundations, hypocrisy and lack of compassion on the part of Christian elders, inner dissonance when desire and discipline came sharply into conflict, unexplained suffering, unresolved pain.

I’m not sure, though, that he’s right about “a new apologetic approach.”

There is a point where words no longer work, where all words, any words, just fuel more anger, make the walls thicker, prompt a deeper withdrawal.

I’ve been reading in Romans (with Scripture Union’s Encounter with God: I highly recommend it).

Romans 2 says:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
As usual with any passage in Romans, there’s so much going on in that it would take pages to explicate, but there are two things I feel sure of:

First, it’s not up to me to judge. We all have times of struggle and defeat, and the obstacles to my own faith and growth may not be the same as yours. So it’s not my job to hound you into agreeing with my theology, or to demand you explain why you think what you think, or to point out the illogic of your anger with God. I'm happy to talk if that's helpful, but no one owes me an explanation, and I have no need to prove I'm "right."

Mother Teresa: Be the living expression of God's kindness."
Second, it’s kindness, not logic, that leads us to repentance. It’s kindness more than philosophy, or reason, or archeological evidence, or grand cognitive structures, that has nourished my own fragile growth, protected me from predation, opened avenues of sunlight that gave me space to grow. 

It's God’s kindness that has persuaded me, sometimes miraculous and personal, but far more often mediated through human kindness. People who accepted me as I was, offered hospitality beyond reason, prayed for me, encouraged me, modeled a life of grace and mercy when I was gagging on judgment, anger, and pain.

As the ranks of “once I was a Christian, now I’m definitely not” appears to grow, I find myself wondering:

Whose hardness of heart will God be judging? 

Those who turn to disbelief as a response to unaddressed pain?

Or those who respond with argument and accusation, rather than greater kindness and mercy?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Acorns, King, Beloved Community

On the eve of Tu Bishvat, Hebrew New Year of the Trees, I found myself planting pin oak acorns I Jerusalem as a mark of new beginnings.
collected last fall from a healthy wetland forest. I had been waiting for a good wet day to drop them into the muck in the less healthy wetland where I do my Weed Warrior work, a fitting activity to mark the date when trees are planted in

As I squashed each acorn into the mud, I found myself thinking about new beginnings, this month’s Synchroblog topic: “Starting something new. Dreaming about the future. Second chances. Change/Transformation.”

Every acorn planted is a dream for the future. The start of something new. An occasion of change or transformation.

But the topic of new beginnings goes far beyond acorns, or trees. New beginnings are the heart of the Christian faith: new life from old, grace breaking through the tight confines of the past. Read any of the gospels and there they are, stories of new beginnings: Jesus reaching out to heal the blind, retrieve the outcast, offering new sight, new starts, new standing.

Interesting, as I think about it, how insistent the scriptures are on individual stories: names named, locations given. The point seems very personal. Interventions of grace, new beginnings, happen one person at a time. Blind Bartimaeus on the road outside of Jericho. Greedy Zaccheus. Mary Magdalene.

The book of Acts continues the pattern: Saul interrupted on the way to persecute the new Christians, and given a new name, a new mission, a new beginning. Lydia of Thyratira, dealer in purple cloth, first convert in Europe.

Yet Jesus was explicit that faith in him also marked a new beginning for the Hebrew tradition he was born to. When Nicodemus, Pharisee and member of the rabbinic ruling counsel, saw in Jesus something startling and new, he came in secret to ask more.

“No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 
I have heard the term  “born again” since I was small, but it never occurred to me that Nicodemus might have heard the term in a different way. Apparently, to a rabbinic Jew of Yeshua’s time, there were already at least six ways of being “born again.” Born of water was commonly understood as physical birth, while “born again” could refer to someone converting to Judaism, experiencing circumcision, getting married, becoming a rabbi, becoming a king, or becoming a leader of a yeshiva, a rabbinic academy.

All those “born agains” are new beginnings in some way under human control. The new beginning Jesus offers is something different, and in fact is a play on words. gennatha anothen, translated in John 3:3 and 7 as “born again” could also mean “born from above” or “from a higher place,” or “of things which come from heaven or God.

There was much discussion, in Jesus day and after, about the relationship between law and faith, between Jew and Christian. Can a Jew be a Christian? Does faith in Christ null obedience to law? Nicodemus walked away from Jesus puzzled, but appeared again in John 7, urging his fellow Pharisees to take more time to understand what Jesus is doing. In John 19, he came to help take Jesus body from the cross, to wrap it and prepare it for burial.

Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Rattling acorns in my hand, it occurs to me that in some strange way, the relationship between law and new life is a bit like that between acorn and oak tree. The acorn is manageable, graspable. It has defined boundaries, protective shell. But the acorn isn’t really the point. It’s what comes after.

Sprouting Acorn, Wikimedia Commons
At what point does acorn become tree? Is the new beginning the moment of planting, or the moment when the shell splits, and roots begin to sink deeper? The moment when the first shoots surface?

I love stumbling across stories of conversion: Augustine, in his garden hearing a voice saying “pick up and read.” Francis, struggling with illness and depression, confronted by a strange question: "Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?" Brother Yun, awestruck at the miraculous healing of his father, listening as his parents explained what they had learned of Jesus from missionaries banished 25 years before.  T. S. Eliot, embarrassing his companions as he knelt before Michelangelo’s Pieta.

For some, new beginnings are dramatic and immediate: my grandmother on a street corner in a rural Oklahoma town. My friend reading the gospel of John in a lonely prison cell. Other times, new beginnings are less easy to date, or track.

Martin Luther King couldn’t point to a precise moment of conversion, but instead spoke of moments when abstract theology shifted into personal conviction. In “Stride toward Freedom”, he wrote of a January night in Montgomery, Alabama when as a 27 year old pastor, new husband and father, the accumulation of abusive, threatening phone calls prompted by the Montgomery bus boycott brought him to a point of near defeat:   
It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. . . Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee.
 I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. . . With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak right now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. . .  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’ . . . At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
 
A few years later, in 1960, King wrote: 
In past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.

What was King’s point of new beginning? Does it matter?

Will anyone remember when I planted these acorn? Will anyone note the date new life springs up out of the muck, and reaches toward the sky?

One oak tree can feed over 500 species ofbutterflies and moths, more than 100 species of vertebrate animals. One oak tree can change an ecosystem, a landscape. Not just for now, but for centuries to come, just as one courageous follower of Christ, or a small handful, growing together, can change a culture, a continent.

At the beginning of his time of public ministry, Jesus read from the prophecy of Isaiah 61:   
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,    because the Lord has anointed me    to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,    to proclaim freedom for the captives    and release from darkness for the prisoners,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  
The Isaiah prophecy goes on to describe the result of this work of new beginnings: a community of joy instead of mourning, of praise instead of despair:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,    a planting of the Lord    for the display of his splendor. 

Pin Oak, George Thomas, 2013
Martin Luther King described this prophetic vision as “the beloved community” – a planting of the Lord providing shelter and restoration for all seeking freedom from captivity or release from darkness.

In this time of new beginnings, I pray for all the seeds I’ve planted across the years. For the seeds still dormant in dark places. The seeds struggling toward light.

I pray for the fruit of new beginnings: for mercy, wisdom, justice, love. Food for the hungry. Joy for those in despair.

I pray for oaks of righteousness – towering trees that change the world around them. A beloved community of restoration and redemption.

For branches that reach far beyond their roots, offering shelter and nourishment in ways I can only imagine. 



Synchroblog had a record number of postings this month, with lots of thoughts on all kinds of new beginnings. Take some time to check some out:

Jen Bradbury - Enough
Abbie Watters - New Beginnings
Cara Strickland - Bursting
Done With Religion – A New Year, A New Beginning
Kelly Stanley - A Blank Canvas
Dave Criddle - Get Some New Thinking
David Derbyshire - Changed Priorities Ahead
K W Leslie - Atonement
Michelle Moseley - Ends and Beginnings
Matthew Bryant - A New Creation
Edwin Pastor Fedex Aldrich - Foreclosed: The beginning of a new dream
Jennifer Clark Tinker - Starting a New Year Presently
Loveday Anyim - New Year New Resolutions
Amy Hetland - New Beginnings
Phil Lancaster – New Beginnings
Mallory Pickering – Something Old, Something New

Margaret Boelman – The Other Side of Grief

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Jungle Gym Epiphany

Someone told me not too long ago, “There are people who believe, and people who don’t.”

Maybe.

I’ve certainly heard from people who consider religion unnecessary, object strongly to the Christian faith, or are offended at the very thought of God.

Or who believe firmly that anything outside the limits of everyday experience is superstition, myth, or fraud.

Balaam and His Ass, Rembrandt van Rjin,
Amsterdam, 1626  
Epiphany, as in moment of insight, is fine.

Epiphany, as in “manifestation of God among us” (celebrated last Sunday), is nonsense.

Yet, from what I’ve seen, we all believe in something.

In love, or goodness.

In reason, or science.

In family, or nature.

In beauty, or power.

In matter.

Or money.

We pretend we have logical reasons for our own grid of assumptions, but from what I can tell, what we believe is more often shaped by experiences – some we acknowledge, some we don’t.

A church that treated us badly.

A parent that loved rigid doctrine more than us.

A community that made us feel welcome.

A failure escaped by turning away from the whole social construct surrounding it.

Looking at the epiphany story I wrote of last week, I find myself wondering: why do some dismiss, without pause, the story of Balaam’s donkey, or the work of angels, or the Magis’ star?

Or, maybe a better question: why do I embrace them?

Yes, I’ve heard that anyone who believes in miracles is ignorant, uneducated, naive, misguided, foolish . . . The list goes on.

I have a PhD from an ivy league grad school (Penn) where those who embraced the Christian faith were sometimes treated as mentally deficient, mentally unwell, or, most likely, both.

But I realized then, as I’ve seen often enough before and since: assumption of superiority does not in itself constitute a convincing rationale.

And many of the most gifted scholars, authors, artists, philosophers I’ve followed have been deeply persuaded of the truth of the Christian faith.

Convincing apologetics aren’t hard to find if you have any interest in finding them.

Yet even as a kid, I knew that a pro or con list would most likely be shaped more by the inner predisposition of the person making the list than by demands of logic or reason.

The moment of turning, for those who come to faith later in life, is far more often a sudden awareness of God’s intervention than result of careful study or logical argument.

So back to my question: why do I believe in miracles?

I’m fairly sure there are many answers, none sufficient in themselves.

But I go back to an episode when I was nine or ten.

I was at our school playground – several blocks from my home – playing with friends with no adults nearby.

I was climbing on the metal jungle gym – a square grid of pipes, set in a concrete floor.

At the highest point, I hung upside down, feet in the air, head down, hands holding the highest pipe. Dangling upside down, I lost my grip, plummeting head first toward solid concrete.

And landed on my feet.

I remember standing there, heart pounding, looking up through the grid of metal.

Eight feet?

Ten?

Somehow I had turned completely, in a two foot square of pipes, without hitting metal.

Without landing on my head.

With no harm at all.

It’s not really possible.

By rights, I should have had a cracked skull. Or broken neck. At least a severe concussion.

So choose:

It didn’t happen.

I’m a gymnastic wonder and righted myself without knowing it.

Or – God intervened.

That jungle gym is long gone, but while it stood, while I still lived nearby, I sometimes went and stood inside it – in the place where I landed – and tried to reason it out.

I can still picture myself hanging, feel my sweaty, not-so-strong hands slipping. 

I can still feel myself landing, sneakers slamming hard on hard concrete.


And there’s still no explanation except one:


I’m not alone in this world.

There’s a God who knows and loves me.

There’s more going on around me than I’ll ever fully know.

I could offer lots more stories like that.

Accidents that didn’t happen.

Or that happened and loved ones emerged unscathed.

Strange encounters that completely changed my direction.

Words of direction spoken when I least expected to hear them.

Unexpected, unexplainable gifts of insight, or patience, or strength, or skill.

Reassurance in times of staggering need.

If you believe it’s all coincidence, hallucination, wishful thinking, then hold fast to that belief, and see where it leads you.

You can sweep any story away with a shrug, a strategically raised eyebrow.

And yet -

We all believe something.

We all see what we choose to or are able to see.

We all marshal our explanations, dismiss things that don’t quite fit.

CS Lewis, professor and scholar who narrated his journey from agnosticism to strong belief in the Christian faith, found himself musing on this in The Abolition of Man
The kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on `explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see. (p.91)
To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.

I choose to see, even when what I see is hard to understand, doesn't quite add up, is way beyond my own control.

I’m not saying my Christian faith is based on some unexplained stunt on a long-gone climber half a century ago.

I’m saying that incident shook me, and taught me to watch for signs I otherwise might have missed.

Signs of love surrounding me.

Moments of grace embracing me.

Light shining in all around me.

Magi and Star, anonymous etching, 1885

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Balaam's Oracle, Magis' Star

The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of the man whose eye is clear…
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near--
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.
      Numbers 24:15-17  
So here’s the question this Epiphany Sunday: 
How did the Magi, from somewhere east of Jerusalem, know the prophecy about a star heralding a new king in Israel?
 And why, knowing that, did they NOT know the prediction that he’d come from Bethlehem?
 And why did the prophetic experts in Jerusalem share what they knew of Bethlehem, with no interest at all in the star the magi saw?
 And what does all that have to do with Balaam, that strange prophet for hire of the early days of Israel
Balaam on his talking donkey, Basilica di San Zeno
 Maggiore, Verona, Italy, 12th century 
If you think the whole thing is myth, these questions are obviously not worth pursuing.

But if you read it as part of the most intriguing historic narrative ever constructed, then those questions are worth a journey of their own.

Balaam, son of Beor, apparently a free-lance Aramaic seer, was hired by King Balak of Moab to pronounce curses on the people of Israel, sometime in the late Bronze Age, around the 13th century BC.  After some misgivings and dialogue back and forth with Balak, Balaam agreed to travel with the Moabite officials toward the place where the Israelites were camped along the Jordan.

Three times, in narrow passes, Balaam’s donkey refused to move forward, despite abuse and beatings from its owner. Ironically, the donkey was afraid to move past the angel of the Lord blocking its way, while Balaam, the “seer,” was unable to see the angel.
Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”  Numbers 22:28-33
Again – if miracle disqualifies historical account, don’t bother. Just as Balaam couldn’t see the angel without God opening his eyes, those needing verification for anything unusual might as well stop reading now. 

Balaam's inscription, Deir Alla
Although, I confess, that’s part of the marvel of this story. Dismissed as myth, Balaam showed up unannounced in an archeological dig in 1967. Workers on an expedition in Deir Alla, in Jordan, uncovered traces of lettering in fragments of plaster. International scholars who gathered to examine the fragments found that one said, in bold letters, “the prophet, Balaam son of Beor.” Other text detailed a time of coming judgment, in prophetic language that mirrors the oracles of Balaam reported in Numbers. The pieces of writing are dated to somewhere between 6 and 800 BC, with general agreement that they provide a record of prophecy passed orally across centuries.

That’s not the only evidence pointing back to Balaam. The Babylonian Talmud offers discussion of his lineage, his influence, the meaning of his prophecies. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank between 1946 and 1956, discuss Balaam repeatedly, with varying interpretations of his prophecies and their meanings.

And somehow, apparently, his prophecy of a star and scepter was passed down in the regions where he had traveled, resurfacing with the Magi in search of the king they believed the star would signal.

Which leads me back to the questions I began with:
How did the Magi, from somewhere east of Jerusalem, know the prophecy of the star heralding a new king in Israel?
 And why, knowing that, did they NOT know the prediction that he’d come from Bethlehem?
 And why did the prophetic experts in Jerusalem share what they knew of Bethlehem, with no interest at all in the star the magi saw? 
Three Wise Men detail, master of Sant'Apollinare,
Ravenna, Italy ,526 AD
Questions one and two: if Balaam’s oracles were passed on orally, and recorded in writing centuries later, they would have passed into the historic record, at least in the region of Jordan, if not in areas beyond. If the Magi had only those oracles to go on, then they had mention of a star and king, words of blessing for the people of Israel, and warning of disaster for anyone who opposed the God of Israel and those he promised to protect.

Other more overtly messianic prophecies, recorded by Israelites in subsequent centuries, would be unknown to them.

Question three is a little harder: If the magi brought news of a star, why were they the only ones to see if?
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he  had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
  for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
      Matthew 2:1-6
Here’s what I’ve concluded, digging back through Jewish writing about Balaam and his star: no one believed him. He wasn’t Jewish, wasn’t a proper prophet, had questionable motives. What he had to say was dismissed. Along with any mention of a star.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), 
“it is significant that in rabbinical literature the epithet "rasha" (the wicked one) is often attached to the name of Balaam (Ber. l.c.; Ta'anit 20a; Num. R. xx. 14). He is pictured as blind of one eye and lame in one foot.” 
As for the donkey, “The tale of the talking ass must be regarded as a bit of primitive folk-lore, introduced into the narrative as a literary embellishment.” 

I find myself back to the question of what we see and don’t see.

Balaam couldn’t see the angel until his eyes were opened.

The teachers of the law couldn’t see the star, or the meaning of the star, because they discounted Balaam and all he had to say.

And we, looking back: so often we dismiss donkey, prophet, star, Magi, angels, story of Christ’s birth. 

As myth? Primitive folk-lore? Literary embellishment? 

We chuckle at the thought of a talking donkey, argue over the physics involved in the description of the star, miss the greater miracle: that God chose to intervene through the birth of a child whose mission of mercy still rattles prison doors and rebuilds broken lives.

Are we really wiser than those early wise men?

Or are we so intent on going where we choose to go we refuse to see what’s standing right before us?

One last thought I take from this story that spans so many centuries:

Truth will bubble up when we least expect it. The story of the Magi’s star draws breath from a donkey, a mercenary prophet-for-hire, an earnest brigade of journeying wise men, disinterested scholars, ancient fragments of plaster.

On this Epiphany Sunday, I pray for myself, for you, for pilgrims near and far: 
That this may this be a year when the truth becomes clearer. 
That the eternal story, strange and wonderful, will seize our hearts and quiet our doubts. 
That the light of Christ, in all its unexpected forms, will shine ever brighter.
That we will know the joy of true epiphany.
The Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, France, 1902,