Mark Ralls: Father of lights

Epiphany reminds us that amid change and uncertainty, we can rely on God, who set the stars in the heavens.

Astrologers were among the greatest minds and most influential persons of the ancient Near East. Discerning both divine will and human fate from the movement of the stars, ancient astrologers carried their speculations to the highest seats of power. Kingdoms were won and lost based on their cryptic counsel.

While ancient astrologers may seem utterly foreign to us, they share something fundamental with the most influential strategists of our day. Like their ancient tomes, popular books on leadership often mix science and superstition -- one part patient observation, two parts bold speculation.

Personally, I don’t equate speculation with either carelessness or irresponsibility. It is the logical byproduct of an assumption that, oddly enough, is shared by ancient astrologers and contemporary leadership theorists. Both groups assume that motion -- change -- is our fundamental reality.

Ancient astrologers derived their counsel from the movementof the stars. Contemporary leadership theorists assemble their advice from the premise that culture is always on the move -- always in flux. Assuming the inevitability of change, both groups prize becoming over being, that which could be over that which is.

For the past year, my conversations with colleagues in ministry -- those of us who strive to lead Christian communities -- have been anxious. Each of us in our own way has parroted an insight we have gleaned from corporate management.

We have described a “white-water” world that has replaced tranquil seas. The calm, predictable environment of the past has, it seems, given way to wild, unpredictable currents. The old rowboats of the staid and stable congregations of Christendom have been replaced with the rubber rafts of diverse faith communities all attempting at once to reinvent ourselves.

What I hear from my colleagues, and sense in myself, is not so much fear but uncertainty. If you ask a minister or denominational leader to forecast where the North American church will be 10 years from now, we are unanimous in consternation. “Who knows?” we say in unison.

Understandable. But where is the voice of faith?

A theology of Epiphany can instruct us in this regard. In the book of James, God is called “the Father of lights.” In the ancient world, “lights” were synonymous with stars -- those ever-changing mysteries that render the night sky luminous. What James wanted us to see is that while everything on earth and heaven changes -- even celestial bodies of stars -- there is one thing that never changes: God’s love and care.

This is our one constant. God set the stars in the heavens. God’s love never flags or fails. God always reaches out to us with grace. From this, James can make the bold statement that “every good and perfect thing” is a gift from God.

This is part of the message of Epiphany, the season of light. Behind all that changes, there is the constancy of God, the Father of lights.

How might my conversations with fellow Christian leaders change in view of this? For one, we would be less absorbed by the changing nature of change -- once slow and measured, now fast and furious. We would be less anxious about the future, at peace in the assurance that despite all the changes in the church today, there is a constant that will forever join past, present and future.

God is the Father of lights. Whatever is to come will not be outside the providential care that placed the stars in the sky.