Sunday, January 8, 2017

Epiphany: Power and Prayer

In the church calendar, Epiphany is the remembrance of the coming of the magi.
Massacre of the Innocents,
Bertram of Minden, Hamburg, c1400
The giving of strange gifts.

The slaughter of the innocents.

The star shining in the darkness drew inquirers from afar to confront the darkness of Herod’s ruthless power. While Joseph and Mary, warned by an angel, traveled on to Egypt, their sisters were left weeping for their tiny sons sacrificed to Herod's unhinged pride. 

Epiphany reminds us: there are times when the spiritual world leans in.

Times when the course of life is changed.

Times when invisible power is visibly on display.

For me, Epiphany happens most often in church, when I catch a glimpse of God's grace flowing through us. We don't bring it, we don't make it. Yet when we reach out our arms to embrace the weary or wounded, God's grace flows in us, through us, around us, in ways that can leave me fighting back tears, or so shaken I need to kneel in prayer until God steadies me.

But the spiritual world is not just grace and light and angels singing.

Epiphany reminds us. This intervention cuts two ways.

There are darker forces: principalities and powers. Systems of oppression with a spiritual reality so strong it can make your skin crawl.

I've felt it on street corners in Kensington, where I worked with kids whose parents were trapped by addiction and depression and generational anger.

But I've also felt it on the green manicured lawns of a hotel complex in State College. I went there to take part in an early frackingprotest. A natural gas conference was underway inside. I remember watching participants watch us through a hotel window, catching the eye of one of the leaders, a man I later learned was CEO of one of the most flagrant abusers of lax regulation. There was a look in his eyes of such unbridled power, such unfettered greed, such infinite disdain, I had to look away.

That look has haunted me.

What nexus of evil can take a human soul past normal moral restraint?

What whispered lies can convince a loosened conscience that power is all that matters?

What weapons do people of truth hold to ease the grip of systemic oppression, manipulative distortion, unrestrained grasping for privilege, power and gain?

That will be the question for 2017, played out on a global, national, local, personal level.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. 
I grew up in a household where I walked this struggle daily.

The day started with my grandfather's bellowed profanity as he rattled from locked room to locked room, a large, loud man, always angry, often drunk, a powerful force of darkness held hostage by darker forces more powerful than he.

And at the kitchen table, my much smaller grandmother: Bible open, pencil in hand, looking for wisdom and strength for the day ahead. Probing God's promises of provision.

C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia put the story into form I could understand even as a child: Edmund, held hostage by the icy snow queen Jado. Peter and Susan, trying to make sense of things with their own native strength and wisdom. Lucy (that was me) certain the only solution was to wait for Aslan, find Aslan, use whatever tools he gave as bravely and faithfully as a younger sister could.

I'm still Lucy, still watching the battles around me play out.

Still watching and wary when I see that look of power and pride that is certain evidence of alignment with evil.

Still willing and ready to confront the enemy with whatever unexpected tools I'm given.

Like Lucy, wandering through the wardrobe to an unexpected world of drama and intrigue, I've wandered through an open door into a political realm I was  not prepared for.

I've described some of that journey in earlier posts: my slow awakening to systemic injustice, my growing awareness of the need for political engagement.

For several years now I've been trying to sound an alarm: there's a dangerous struggle underway. We need to be on guard.

Like Lucy's dismissive siblings, friends and family have shrugged off my concerns: enjoy your hobby. We have better things to do.

But evil is leaning in around us: grave brokenness in our political structures.  Ridicule of women's voices. Loosening restraint on racist harassment. A gathering storm of wealth and power unmoved by human sorrow.

While children die in Syria, families huddle on makeshift boats in icy Mediterranean waters, strongmen boast of nuclear power, the lovely modernist myth of progress lies trampled in the mud.

We are not the first generations to face times of uncertainty, fear, rising hatred, unprincipled power.

Like generations before us, we have the same choices:

Pretend there's no need for concern.

Retreat and hope for a better day.

Watch in silence as history unfolds.

Or prepare for the challenge and learn to stand firm.

The apostle Paul, writing from prison in Rome to Christians facing danger and division, reminded the believers in Ephesus: 
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.
 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
 There's no way to know where this next year will take us.

We are in uncharted waters.

The largest discrepancy ever between popular vote and elected president.

Wealthiest cabinet ever, with less education, less government experience and less diversity than recent cabinets and unexplored ties to international corporations and white supremacist groups

A public alarmed, aware, on guard.
We all have a place in this next chapter of the story.

More than ever, we will need to arm ourselves with truth.

We will need to grow deeper in discernment, more able to recognize lies.

We will need to talk more honestly with our children, our grandchildren, about our everyday choices: kindness in the face of unkindness. Courage in the face of bullying. Resolute resistance to racist jokes, sexist comments, homophobic language.

More than ever, we will need to use what privilege we have to pry the door open for those closed out.

To be messengers of good news.

Agents of light and love.

Looking forward to the work of the year ahead, I wrap myself in prayer. 

We are not equal to the task, yet we've been told to pray on all occasions, for all requests, all needs, all troubles.

My own work on redistricting reform has led me down paths I would not have imagined. The challenges each day are beyond my experience or wisdom. Unexpected opportunities demand unexplored resources. 

The same is true for all of us. We wrestle with forces far beyond us: powers of this dark world, spiritual forces of evil.

Yet the power at work within us, through prayer, obedience and faith, is greater.

In that same letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote: 
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead. 
I pray that we live in that space this year: in the knowledge of hope, the riches of faith, the great power at work within us, far greater than any power of evil or death.

Please pray for me, as I will pray for you.

Gentile da Fabriano, Flight to Egypt, 1423, Strozzi Altarpiece

Earlier Epiphany posts: 
A Jungle Gym Epiphany, Jan 10, 2016
What I'd Give You, Jan 3, 2016
Epiphany and Filoxenia, Jan4, 2015
Balaam's Oracle, Magis' Star, Jan 5, 2014