Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas 2: What star is this?

The story is told of a Christmas pageant in a small church. It was so small that one child – a girl – represented all three magi. She proudly carried all three gifts on a pillow to the manger, and when she arrived, she announced, “Lo, I bring rich gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, circumstance, and mud.”

Most of us would be very glad to have the kind of supernatural guidance that the magi were given. Matthew’s account of the magi tells us that they were guided by a star. “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”. And later the star that led them to Jerusalem also led them to Bethlehem. “Ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

There are few stars to guide us in the world in which we live. What guides you?

All of us are sometimes guided by the star of self-interest, and some people are guided by nothing else.

The Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, famously remarked that self-interest is “the invisible hand” that guides a free market to produce goods and services beneficial to all. Generally, I think Adam Smith was right, but I believe that we should be guided by more than self-interest.

It would be wrong for a business owner to neglect her bottom line. She has employees to pay, and a publicly-held business must also produce dividends for its stockholders. However, there is a time and place for business to consider the well-being of the community, as well as the bottom line.

Several years ago I taught an introductory ethics course for a group of so-called “mature students”. These were students who worked all day and could attend courses only in the evening. I decided that I would ask them to make brief presentations to the class on ethical dilemmas they encountered at work. This was the year that the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ came out, and one of my students worked for a chain of movie theatres. She did a report on whether or not her company should show this film and concluded that it would be OK to screen the film if it made money for the theatre chain. Other class members challenged her, saying that the theatre chain had a responsibility to the community not to present obscene and sacrilegious films.

Another class member worked for the largest electrical utility in the state of Alabama, and she talked to the class about the ethical dilemma posed by those who could not afford to pay their power bills during the coldest months of the year. She concluded that Alabama Power had a responsibility to its shareholders to produce a profit and so should cut off power when people could not pay. The class generally agreed with her. So, I said, “What is the difference between the theatre chain’s responsibility to the community not to show objectionable movies and the power company’s responsibility to the community not to leave the poor without electricity during cold weather?” And the class was silent. They saw that self-interest is not always a good guide for behavior.

Some claim to be guided by the voice of God speaking within their hearts.

Several years ago The New Yorker ran a story about a prominent journalist named John McCandlish Phillips, Jr. It seems that Phillips got his start in journalism when he was traveling by train from Baltimore to Boston. Phillips says that when the train stopped at New York’s Penn Station God spoke to him, saying, “Get off the train.” In New York, Phillips saw an ad for an editorial trainee at the New York Times and God spoke to him again saying that it was his mission to get a job at the Times.

I don’t want to disparage this man’s experience, but God doesn’t speak to me in that way. I think that such experiences of direct divine communication are few and far between. However, I do believe that God guides us.

Most of the time God guides us by the light of reason. Seventeenth century English theologians were fond of quoting this verse from the Book of Proverbs: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” (Prov. 20.27) Those theologians identified the “candle of the Lord” as human reason.

Many times God guides me by opening or closing doors. It seems an inefficient way of providing guidance, and running into those closed doors is often terribly painful! However, this has been the way I have often experienced God’s guidance.

But God also guides us subtly and indirectly through prayer. I believe that if we are silent and open ourselves to God in prayer, then a star will arise in the skies and guide us on our journeys just as surely as the magi were guided on theirs. However, note this important fact: the stars are unimaginably far away and we receive only a tiny amount of light from them. In other words, the traveled in the darkness and received only the faintest of lights to show them the way. We, too, travel in the darkness, and the guidance we receive is seldom brighter than a star.

You and I are on the same journey as the magi, the most important journey of all – the journey to God. It is in that quest above all that we should be looking for God’s star to guide us. And God never fails to guide faithful seekers.