At the center of Epiphany is a mystery of looking. Who looks at whom?
In the hospital emergency room, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan, and urine sloshes onto the floor. After several hours of waiting, my mother is finally admitted. I pay for TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons on the remote. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night she was taken down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why someone left a black Scottish terrier in the corner of her room.
Last fall a friend of mine attended a lecture at the University of Mississippi delivered by Stanley Hauerwas. His talk was followed by an invigorating, hour-long question-and-answer dialogue. My friend reported that afterward he and some students, another minister and several laypeople went to someone’s house and talked about God for another hour or so. How novel.
What do you get for the bride who has everything? It’s unusual these days for a couple not to have all they need before they marry. They don’t need dishes or kitchenware—unless they hope to upgrade. Their grandparents may have started out in a small apartment with a used stove and an icebox, but the 21st-century couple already owns a Viking stove and Sub-Zero refrigerator.
He was not the young man they had known before. They were sizing him up, as people in small towns will do, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah. He read a fantastic and otherworldly passage, plainly not about Nazareth, but about some other place. And then he startled them all: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Was he talking about them? Or himself? And what did he mean by proclaiming right there, in his hometown, “the acceptable year of the Lord”?
When I run across texts like these from Jeremiah and Luke, I’m always asking, “What kind of community does it take to raise prophets like Jeremiah and even Jesus?” Being a Baptist, I have few doubts about God calling prophets, preachers, missionaries and everyday Christians. The call of God tends to be very personal, but it is not private and does not come in a vacuum.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? asks Isaiah. Those with ears to hear, let them hear, says Jesus. Day to day pours forth speech, says the psalmist, but God’s speech is pitched in such a register that many cannot distinguish it from silence.
They both were angry, and they had a right to be angry. Judy’s mother was chronically ill, and would be for the rest of her life. As an only child Judy felt responsible, and she did her duty, caring for her mother without assistance. She counted the cost all the way, exhausting people around her by eliciting sympathy from them, and then moving on to others. Judy talked often about what kind of help she needed, but she never actually looked for help. She had decided that God had willed her a difficult life, and that nothing would be good again until after her mother died and Judy was relieved of her burden.
Several decades ago, when I was filling out my application for seminary admission, I came to a question that asked me to provide biblical justification for my calling. I knew I wanted to attend seminary, but found it difficult to state why. Then I remembered my Wesley Foundation pastor preaching on 1 Corinthians 9:16b, and I wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” The text expressed the urgency I felt and even a tinge of divine necessity—although I think I knew even then that I was going a bit too far.
In the days before every district superintendent carried a cell phone, driving the charge conference circuit was a great opportunity to listen to the radio. My favorite station was NPR. More than once I found myself totally enthralled by a broadcast story. Sometimes I would pull into my own driveway but be unable to get out of the car because I was a prisoner of a story. I sat on the edge of my seat, my hand ready to turn the car key, unable to move. Maybe it was the story about the little boy caught in a moral dilemma: he needed to tell his mother the truth about a neighborhood crime, but could not betray a confidence. What would he do?
From where does Nathanael's confession, his insight, come?