For the last 31 years, Dawn Mayer and I have co-hosted a radio program that has come to be known as Horizons. The theme song that we have used these many years is Searchin' So Long by Chicago. One of the lines of the song sings about "searchin' for an answer." We thought the words of that secular song captured the essence of faith. With faith we do not have scientific knowledge. Rather faith largely deals with mystery. Mystery invites us to an ongoing, ever deepening search. On this feast of the Epiphany, I think it is appropriate to think and pray about whom or what many of us who believe are searching for.
Let us look for a moment at the story of the first Epiphany. Three men from the East - presumably Persia, Syria, or Arabia, journey in search of the newborn King of the Jews. They first go to a place of power, Jerusalem, and speak to the current king of the Jews, Herod - causing him to become quite intimidated that someone may be attempting to usurp his role. They go on to a more humble city, Bethlehem. There they find Jesus. These three wise men have come to be known as Casper, Balthasar, and Melchior. The common understanding now is that they were some kind of astrologists. At the time, astrologists took special note of new stars appearing. It was thought that a newly appearing star possibly indicated the birth of a great person. It is debated by Scripture scholars whether this star is a literary development of Numbers 24:17, which refers to a star advancing from Jacob, a reference to the coming Messiah. If it was an actual historical occurrence, some suggest the star was a supernova, or a comet. The motif of the story is that the three men were searching for, seeking out Jesus. When they found him, they gave himgold, signifying he was a king. They gave him incense, which pointed to his divinity. They also presented him with myrrh, a substance used for burial, prefiguring his death. The three wise men were seekers.
For a number of years I lived and worked in geographical proximity to Willow Creek Church, a non-denominational, evangelical church in South Barrington, Illinois. It is part of this church's evangelical strategy to see all people as spiritual seekers. Everyone is hungry and thirsty for God. The congregation is encouraged to always be in a posture of inviting unchurched friends and family members to weekend services. These services are in fact called "seeker services," oriented toward people just awakening to their spiritual needs and the influence that God can and should have in our daily lives. Each week, tens of thousands of people attend services and educational opportunities at Willow Creek. Willow Creek has contributed to the birth of the "seeker friendly/purpose driven congregation." Seeker friendly churches believe that all people are seeking for and searching for God, incarnated in Jesus. Many people are not yet conscious that they are seekers. A huge number of people attending these churches are former Roman Catholics.
If we are seekers, what are we seeking? There are three Viennese schools of psychotherapy. Sigmund Freud's approach was that we are all in pursuit of pleasure, with aggression thrown in. Alfred Adler's approach was that what motivates us is social interest; we want to be connected to our fellow person, though we allow mistaken notions to keep us from that connection. Victor Frankl's school is known as Logotherapy. This theory says that what we are most in pursuit of is meaning. With meaning in our lives we can endure anything, even great suffering. Meaning refers to purpose, happiness, fulfillment, connection with others, connection with a power that we perceive to be ultimate. Frankl believed that there were three forces that keep people from finding meaning: affluence, hedonism, and materialism.
For me, that is what this feast of the Epiphany is all about. Epiphany reminds us that we are all spiritual seekers in pursuit of meaning for our lives. It is our conviction that we find this meaning in a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ. There are some people like the geneticist Dean Hamer who postulate that there is in our brain, a God gene or genes that hardwires the need for God into us. If we do not attend to our genuine spiritual needs, there will be some felt experience of deprivation.
How does Jesus bring meaning into our lives? Jesus reveals the ideals of what it means to be a person, a human being: the way he is, we should strive to become. Jesus has given us a vision and strategy for living; it is called the Reign of God. Jesus reveals to us the way God is; he is the human face of God. Jesus has also revealed to us the Paschal Mystery, which teaches us that struggle and suffering can lead to growth and transformation here on Earth, and death can lead us to eternal life on the other side of death. Jesus is the embodiment of meaning for life. What we most need and want can be found in a relationship with Jesus.
Wade Clark Roof is a professor of religion and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Among his interesting books are two: A Generation of Seekers and Spiritual Marketplace. Roof's research has largely focused on the religious practices of baby boomers. He has found that people in this age group are profoundly spiritual and indeed are seekers. The generations younger than baby boomers have followed a similar pattern of seeking. People in America, indeed around the world, are spiritual seekers. Some have stayed with Catholicism and other forms of organized religion. But many people today are seeking God, seeking Jesus in ways not affiliated with traditional religious institutions.
It has been my experience that whatever the denomination or theological underpinnings of a church, what attracts people to a church is the following: worship that more often than not is religious experience, preaching that offers people livable spirituality, warm and welcoming congregations, and ministries that address real-life needs.
Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany New York produced an article entitled Failings of the Church in Origins, November 17, 2011. The Bishop analyzes why one in ten American Catholics have left the Catholic Church, the second largest congregation in the country behind the Catholic Church. These statistics are from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He offers the following issues: the sex abuse scandal in the priesthood and its cover-up by the bishops and other Catholic leaders; insensitivity in parish closures and mergers; anemic parish life, lacking in inclusivity and hospitality; pastoral insensitivity on the part of members of parish staffs to parishioners; poor liturgies and homilies; inattention to youth and young adults; and the screening out of certain subgroups of people in parishes.
Realizing that we are all seekers, let us strive to become seeker friendly, purpose driven faith communities. I am reminded by today's feast of the passage from the first chapter of John. Two disciples are physically following Jesus. He turns to them and asks, "What are you looking for?" They answer: "Where do you stay?" He answers: "Come and see." We are told by John that they then went and stayed with him. Jesus asks us today: "What are you looking for?" He knows that we are seekers. He says to us also: "Come and See."