‘Spiritual, not Religious’ Kings Meet Jesus at Epiphany

Three Kings at NativityIn Latin American tradition, yesterday was Three Kings Day. The kings finally reach the manger in the family nativity set, after long days traversing shelf and mantel, table and ottoman. Community parties, parades, and gift giving mark a major festival.

This is the day we celebrate the first recognition of Jesus as King by people outside the Jewish community. Others of us know the day as Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. Through most of Christian history, this day has been a more important celebration than the Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas. It represents the beginning of the fulfillment of an important prophecy: that Israel’s King would be honored by and ultimately rule over the entire world.

The “three kings” were Eastern astrologers who studied prophetic literature from every tradition. They came to Israel because they had seen a configuration in the heavens that they understood designated the birth of a new King for the Jews and they felt a need to see him.

On their way, they stopped in on Herod, who was then ruling over the region. This would be a typical courtesy, a state visit by important citizens entering a new kingdom. Herod tried to enlist their help in locating this potential threat to his own reign. But these mystics, who were not Jews, were warned by God in a dream to stay away from Herod. After visiting the stable, they returned home without giving Herod the information he wanted.

They left the new King’s family some of their gold, frankincense, and myrrh — valuable items that they would have carried with them at all times, as currency and for mystical or healing properties. If you’ve ever enjoyed Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, you remember Caspar singing about the box he always carried, full of semiprecious stones for healing and even licorice to share with friends.

Three Kings Day marks the beginning of the fulfillment of an important prophecy: that the King of Israel would become a light to all nations.

This year, let’s remember that the first people from “outside” to recognize Jesus were astrologers and mystics — essentially people who might identify themselves as “spiritual, not religious” today. If they are drawn to Jesus by signs we know better than to follow, let’s welcome them to the stable and allow the Light of the World to illumine them with truth and warn them from danger, just as He did so many centuries ago.

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They Saw An Angel and Were Afraid …

When I think about an angel of the Lord, my mind almost always goes first to a memory of someone’s child in a Christmas pageant. Tinsel halos and wings askew, they speak of holiday joy and innocence.

These angels appeared in the pageant at Maplewood UMC, Maplewood, MO.

These angels appeared in the pageant at Maplewood UMC, Maplewood, MO.

Then maybe I think of the angels in a nativity set, perhaps the classic Italian set by Fontanini that so many people collect. Depending on when you started your collection, you could own any of a number of Fontanini angels that perch above the stable to celebrate the birth of the child, Jesus.










Then there are stained glass angel pictures …










Angel sculptures


angel-cross-sculpture Angel-laurel-sculpture


and popular angel pictures from this century and those past …










What these have in common for me is that I can’t imagine anyone meeting any of these angels and needing to be told “Don’t be afraid!” But that’s what happens every time we read an account in the Bible of a person meeting one of these messengers from God. The person cowers in terror and the angel has to tell them, “Don’t be afraid!”

Angels must be very different from how we imagine them. Madeline l’Engle allows the character of a child in A Wrinkle in Time to describe the cherubim — a specific kind of angel — that he encounters and all he can come up with is:

“A drive of deformed dragons”

That is to say: he saw many wings, many eyes, and no place really solid on which to rest his own eyes. He observed something that looked like the parts of many dragons pasted together incorrectly.

If I ran into something like that in my garden, I might be afraid, too.

Have you encountered angels or other spiritual beings? Was the interaction comforting or frightening? What made you believe the being came from God? How would you know if it was not from God?

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How Bad is Bad? God’s People Shun the ‘Sinner’


We know that ‘a house divided against itself will fall’, still we have no fear of dividing the house of God to isolate those whose sins we think worse than our own.

I’ve been thinking about how women and men I know have suffered as their congregations part around them — not a God-driven parting like the Red Sea but a thunderous rupture as a huge crevasse opens in the congregation during the earthquake of their divorce.

The most painful property division in divorce is the division of friends,” author Christine Benvenuto writes.

People Inevitably Take Sides

It’s almost inevitable that people will take sides. Some already were closer to him or her. Some find it easier to forgive whatever he or she did, or allegedly did, or is rumored to do according to the gossip that church people don’t admit doing.

I heard some “non-gossip” recently from a guy whose wife left him after his second affair. He was only passing along the information that a couple was separating. He wouldn’t relay what he’d heard about why their marriage had come apart — he said the details weren’t the kind of thing that another person needed to hear.

Really? So were the details, by implication, worse than what the hearer already knew about his own marriage? Did that mean that he was hoping he and his listener could cozy up on one side of a chasm and place the guy from “that” marriage on the other side? Does it maybe mean he thought that by suggesting how much more horrible the other guy he could be welcomed onto the “good boys” side of the “no bad boys here!” chasm?

The ladies can perhaps imagine that to the extent I have a “no bad boys” line, the guy who committed adultery two times has been living on the far side of it. Unfortunately, when it comes to the way God expects us to care for others, we don’t have a lot of freedom to draw those kinds of lines.

Which Side is God On?

I’m in awe of people who are able to look at people with God’s eyes and love all the people who are thrown apart by the chasms sin opens among us. I’ve known several prison chaplains; some victim advocates; specialists in mediation and conflict resolution. But the most remarkable I can recall is the pastor of a small church whose congregation was threatened with a soul-deep rift after a family crisis.

From the congregation’s point of view, it started as everyone was arriving for Wednesday night services. There wasn’t anything exceptional about that Wednesday night. There was no special event planned; no guest speaker; no large banquet that might require police to protect the parking lot in what was a not entirely nice neighborhood.

But police were there. They took one hard-working father aside before he entered the wide, double doors of the sanctuary. He didn’t make it to church that night.

When Incest Destroyed a ‘Strong’ Family

To anyone who knew them until that moment, the family looked strong. Mom and Dad both had jobs. The three children were all busy with church, academic and athletic programs after school. It had been just a few months since their first-time-homeowner mortgage was approved, and the family of five had moved into a new home in a moderate-income neighborhood.

And now Dad was being taken to jail for raping his 11-year-old daughter.

The pastor would have to serve God’s love to an incest survivor; her betrayed and outraged mother; her two younger brothers, who had discovered a very bad role model for being a man; and a father-rapist. The family would also face a move back to the old neighborhood because they were going to lose their new home. Without two incomes, there was no paying the mortgage.

Pastor’s Call to Serve All: Victims and Jailed ‘Perp’

I have never known a pastor who walked a more challenging path with more of God’s grace.

Those of us who can’t find it in ourselves to love him and her in a divorce need to ask ourselves: Am I letting God love through us? Or am I trying to use my own feelings about a particular kind of sin to shame and punish this person?

The problem is that there’s only one chasm between the bad kids and the good. It’s the chasm that divides all us boys and girls from God. We crack it open ourselves with every kind of badness we manage to come up with. So he comes up with adultery and she comes up with anger and he comes up with gossip and she comes up with overeating …

Whose Sin is Worse?

Our doctrines, whether Catholic or Reformed, almost always tell us that one kind of sin is worse than another. But in our Bibles, God tosses all our sins at us in great buckets full of every stinky variety of wrongdoing, large and small, daring us to call ourselves good. In one passage, God calls out those who are “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:1-4). In another, God  challenges us over our “discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder … impurity, sexual sin and debauchery” (2 Cor 12: 20-21). 

Which ones of those does God think is worst?

As far as I can tell, the worst kind of sin is the kind of sin that God doesn’t like. That would be … great baskets full of stinky stuff, much of which I’m still struggling with, several decades into my journey.

So how can I dare to throw you across the chasm to the “bad boys” side just because I don’t like your particular kind of sin?

And … oops … forgot … I don’t get to do the throwing anyhow. All I can do is move away from you on the “bad boys and girls” side of the chasm where we all live. I can put you at arm’s length … or I can get even further away. That’s all the choice I have. I can choose to isolate from you so we are isolated from each other. But I can’t place you or me any closer or further from God.


A blogger from India presents this bumper sticker image to describe how he believes order is maintained in his country. Our Enemy can do the same among us.

Who Deserves the ‘Bad Kids’ Corner?

God knows that you and I both belong in the “bad kids” corner. And God is willing to forgive us both, if we ask. Even forgiven, we’re still farther from God’s goodness than the Milky Way is from earth. But we’re very close to each other. We’re close to each other in our weakness. We’re close to each other in our failure. We’re close to each other in our need of God.

And God reaches toward us with long arms of love. Then God expects us to use our arms of love to reach each other.

Dare to love another sinner today. Do unto to them as God has done unto you.

Posted in body of Christ, Carlene Byron, christianity, church, grace, leadership, love, love one another, marriage, sin, unity | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin Williams Comes Back to Life in Last Movie


TV commercials featuring the late Robin Williams are running for the “Night at the Museum” movie that opens this Dec. 19.

I suspect I won’t be the only person who tears up when the Teddy Roosevelt statue comes to life in the last “Night at the Museum” film, scheduled for release later this month.

Critics said the late Robin Williams turned the rough-riding president into an on-screen “father figure” for the rowdy crew of cave men, dinosaurs, cowboys, and gladiators who rode rough through the series of crazy comedy films. The role was Williams’ last; he committed suicide by hanging in his home on August 11 this year.

Williams “neither confirmed nor denied” having bipolar disorder. I can’t imagine that anyone who knows bipolar was uncertain that Robin Williams depended on bipolar for the verbal velocity that fueled his comedy.

We’ll Never Know Why Williams Committed Suicide

I doubt we’ll ever understand what happened to Robin Williams. We know he committed suicide. We don’t understand why. We know that he used alcohol and cocaine at various times in his life the way people do who need to manage bipolar symptoms but aren’t willing to be held back by the mind-numbing side-effects of most meds. We heard that he’d been diagnosed about three years before with Parkinson’s and had started a new medication in May.

The night before he died, he stuffed several watches into a sock and carried them to a friend for safekeeping. Paranoia? His death showed signs of agitation and impulsiveness: he cut himself with a pocket knife before fastening a canvas belt in place to hang himself. We were left to wonder if he despaired because of the diagnosis he’d been living with, or if the new medication turned out to be one of those that deserves a “black box” warning. When the autopsy reports came out in November, we learned that Williams had been taking two antidepressants (Mirtazapene and Seroquel) as well as the Parkinson’s medication. Taking antidepressants without mood stabilizers generally precipitates mania in people with bipolar disorder.

Suicide: A Top 10 Cause of Death in US

Suicide has been a top 10 cause of death in the U.S. since 2008. More people die from suicide than from:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Prostate cancer
  • Homicide

More than 20 active duty military or US military veterans die from suicide every day. The number of Americans who die by suicide is within 10 people of the number who die from breast cancer each year. Suicide should be treated as the public health crisis it is. Preventing suicide deserves the same investment in engineering that has reduced auto accidents (in that case, airbags; in this case, higher railings on some bridges). It deserves the same medical research, public education and anti-stigma drives that have dramatically reduced the death rate from HIV/AIDS.

Christians Aren’t Immune from Suicide

People in Christian churches are not immune from overwhelming despair. One of our great hymnodists, William Cowper, made three suicide attempts and spent time in what his age knew as an “insane asylum.” The people I’ve known who have made attempts or killed themselves by suicide include a church sexton, a member of a church pastored by friends, and a member of a church planting team.

If you know someone who is feeling hopeless, or if you are feeling hopeless, the national suicide prevention lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. You can learn more at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

LA Times: Tell the Whole Truth About Robin Williams’ Death

Hollywood Reporter: Autopsy Confirms Suicide

Huffington Post: Officially a Suicide

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Are We Really to ‘Trust and Obey’ Abusive Husbands?

abusive_husbandsHere’s my Wesleyan confession: I read the long version of the Westminster Confession (all 190-plus Q&A) for the first time a few weeks ago. I found some surprises. The biggest was that one of the sins considered forbidden by the first commandment is “making men the lords of our faith and conscience.”

Now, we all know that the writers meant “men” to be “humans.” But in our churches and homes, very often we make “humans” be “men.” That is to say, men are given charge of the faith and conscience of their wives, their daughters, the women in Bible studies and small groups and entire congregations.

At the same time, I have been reading some very painful discussion online among Christian women with abusive husbands.

Is it God or Church Shame that Rules Abused Wives?

I ask myself: Is it God who is ruling these women’s faith and conscience, making it so difficult for them to even separate from a man who mistreats them and their children? Or are they ruled by the need to appear proper (and to avoid being shunned) in the Christian church? Are they standing by their man, their vow to God, or their vow before other Christians? And what is the meaning of that vow when one party chooses not to engage in any of its responsibilities? Are these kinds of men supposed to be ruling their wives’ faith and consciences? Are these the kinds of men God intends to have leadership in homes?

Shut Out from Church, Abused Woman Shelters at Bus Station

Then again, I remember an elderly friend who grew up in an abusive home. Her mother was a lay street preacher who had met her husband in The Salvation Army, where they had belonged until her husband’s behavior got them both kicked out. When my friend’s father came home drunk, her mother would gather up the children and get them out of the house before he could begin beating any of them. They would spend the night in a nearby bus station, where they became so well known that the porter would wake them in the morning:

“It’s okay. He’s gone to work now. You can go home.”

My friend asked her mother once why she didn’t leave that violent, dangerous drunk. Her mother answered with tears in her eyes: “I could never leave him not knowing that he will be with Jesus when he dies.”

The mother was long gone to the Lord before the drunk finally became a Christian, with (in their old-fashioned language) “evidence of a changed life.”

That woman’s concern for her alcoholic husband was something quite different from what I heard reported from a Christian women’s conference at a well-known conservative church.

Retired Missionary: ‘Trust and Obey God and Husband’

The speaker, a retired missionary who has outlived two husbands so far (the first killed on the mission field), received questions in writing only. One asked what a wife should do if her husband was abusive.

“Abuse? I don’t understand these accusations of abuse,” she is reported to have said. “We are to trust and obey God, trust and obey our husbands.”

This is so radically different from the answer given by my friend’s mother. What would have happened to the mother and children if she had “trusted and obeyed” her drunk husband? Did the missionary really believe that God’s purposes would best be served by having the woman and children physically battered and broken in the hope of shaming the husband into repenting sooner? Is this what God asks of women married to dangerous men? Or should they run and stay safe as needed, but remain in the marriage and pray? Should they “turn him over to Satan” by leaving him on his own?

I truly don’t know the right answer. But I know that we are wrong when we make any man, including our husbands, to be “the lords of our faith and conscience.”

Posted in Carlene Byron, discipleship, God, love God, obeying God, sin, women | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments