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What About the War on Christmas?

What About the War on Christmas?

A war on Christmas
Image components from Openclipart.org

Each year I’m saddened and yes, annoyed, by the supposed war on Christmas and responses to it. Every time someone can’t set up a manger scene on public land, or is even forced to share the public space with other groups, there’s an outcry. It’s a war on Christmas! Never mind that there are, in almost every case, plenty of churches nearby, where such a scene could be placed with at least as much visibility.

Or someone is wished “Happy Holidays!” at the store, and is offended that it’s not “Merry Christmas!” Oh the agony! And yes, it’s quite possible that the checkout person at your grocery store was instructed by management to say “Happy Holidays!” Having worked in retail, I know that I was constantly instructed in what I was to say when answering the phone, greeting customers, and most especially when taking their money following the sale. Some of the stuff I had to say was really annoying, too.

But businessmen make these rules for their employees based on their perception of customer service. They are not religious decisions, and they are not actually doing you harm. You can say Merry Christmas all you want, but “he who has the gold makes the rules,” so if you work for the company, you follow the rules.

If I owned a retail outlet, I would instruct my employees that unless they know who they’re talking to, Happy Holidays would be the appropriate greeting, and I would ask—and expect—them to be sensitive to each customer. This is not because I don’t believe in public witnessing or prayer. Just yesterday I encountered a lady in Walmart who needed my help getting a large back of cat food off the shelf. We chatted for a few minutes, and then we prayed together right there in the aisle. Nobody stopped us, because we were the customers. I knew before I suggested it that she would be open to prayer simply because I listened to her first. So we prayed in the aisle beside the cat food.

Shoving a Merry Christmas in someone’s face is not likely to do much for witnessing. Here in the United States people already know this is a majority Christian nation. The form of your holiday greeting doesn’t make you special. If, on the other hand, you make a scene about what sort of greeting you receive at the store, you provide a very bad witness.

When you take on the title “Christian,” you bear the name of Jesus, the anointed one. You are to be Christ, the presence of God, in the world. When you make a scene over not getting your way, you do not provide a good witness to the anointed One. Rather, you make Him seem small, selfish, petty, and rude. You may, in fact, be taking God’s name in vain. Rather than making someone more interested in the Jesus you serve, you may well be driving them away. The clerk in that store may herself be a Christian who is merely following the rules of her job as she should. And you’re going to make her life more difficult because of that? Really? Do you think the one who was led as a lamb to the slaughter yet didn’t open his mouth is pleased with that?

The problem is that there is a difference between witnessing to Christ and witnessing to our own importance. What is the one thing that having a creche on the grounds of city hall does that having one in front of our church does not? It demonstrates our power. They would both witness to the story, always assuming that the right message is conveyed. But the one on the grounds of city hall tells people that we’re in charge and can do things the way we want to.

There is a way in which Christians should be involved in the culture war. That is by living in a Christlike manner and bearing the name of Jesus as we do it. That is a gospel proclamation, by word, deed, and sign. Our importance, our position, and our pleasures would take a back seat to loving each person and making sure that’s evident.

The original story of Christmas was one of giving, giving up rank and privileges, giving up power, becoming subject to the worst of the worst, and then loving, loving, and loving some more. I’m afraid there has been a real war on Christmas, but it’s all over.

Here in the United States, we lost.

Toward a Strategy of Worship

Toward a Strategy of Worship

Credit: Openclipart.com
Credit: Openclipart.com

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about strategy in connection with Christian living. It started when I was invited to preach the Sunday after Veterans Day, which was also the Sunday after the election. I used the first chapter of Colossians to talk about our identity and the means that we, as Christians, have to impact our culture. We have an identity in Christ, an authority in Christ, and a mission in Christ. The key is “in Christ.”

There are some keys to thinking strategically about anything. First, you have to know what it is you are trying to accomplish. Second, you need to know what resources are available. Third, you have to know what limitations there are in how those resources are applied. Use of resources without reference to purpose is largely waste. Anything accomplished is random.

I’ve noted over the years that one can tell whether a church is alive and active by asking a couple of members what the mission of the church is. This can apply both generally (the Christian mission of the Gospel Commission), and specifically (what is the mission of this church). Tactics is more specific and local. Individual tactics can be successful in a strategic failure. This usually results from improperly planned overall strategy. To see some excellent application of tactics in a mission that was a strategic failure, watch the movie A Bridge Too Far. In my sermon I quoted Gen. Robert H. Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps from 1979-1983 who said, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

Here’s some tactical thinking about worship:

  • We had good attendance today for our special service. We should do that more often.
  • Lots of people complimented me on my sermon after the service. I must have done something right.
  • Some people walked out. We need to fix it.
  • If you didn’t like the service, it’s probably your attitude.
  • Worship’s about God, not about you. Forget about your desires.
  • I realize that nobody remembers what I say in my sermons even until next week, but I’m still preparing for the same sort of sermon next week.

I know the second to the last statement, “worship is about God” is repeatedly stated with great piety. I disagree however. Worship is certainly all about God, but it’s all about the worshipers as well, in that 100%-100% sense that orthodox theology brings. Usually “it’s all about God” is used as an excuse by people who are putting on a worship service (and I use putting on, in the sense of a performance intentionally), and doing so badly. It’s there excuse for leaving the worshipers behind. I don’t like “I have to be fed” or “I need music that I like” any better. All of these are narrowly focused and frequently selfish in orientation. In all cases they’re very much tactical. Did we get what we wanted out of this week’s service?

Our starting point for worship must be to ask what worship is. Let me quote Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World:

… But this [cultic] is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It means an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It means also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. (p. 21, Nook edition)

There is a function of the gathering of the saints in worship, but worship does not occur exclusively in this “worship service.” There is a purpose in our gathering, which is to constitute and reconstitute ourselves as a community ready to be Christ in the world (our identity in Christ), to understand the reality of what Christ has done through his death and resurrection and how we are incorporated in that (our authority in Christ), and the empowering and impetus to carry that result back out into the world. (I highly commend Alexander Schmemann’s work, whether or not you are a fan of Orthodox theology. For the Life of the World is a powerful little book. I may develop some of these ideas further on this blog, but for now I’m just assuming them due to space limitations.)

So at the starting point of our search for a strategy of worship is to realize that it is not a teaching event, or a singing event, nor is it necessarily a ritual event. It may be partly all of those things, but as long as we don’t consider what our real goals are, why we gather for this event, we may carry out every worship service over “a bridge too far.”

Here are some things to consider, I think:

  1. How do we gather the people together? Questions of music, format, buildings, PowerPoint presentations, pews, advertising, and so far can occur at this point, but all must be subordinated to the overall purpose. And we might want to ask a more important question: Have the people who gather in the church experienced becoming the church? Have the experienced the presence of God? Have they sensed the reality of that community? If they experience none of these things, I believe that in time no matter how entertaining you may make the time, it will still be a failure.
  2. What do we do to make people a community? Schmemann works through the meaning of the liturgy, and I find his interpretation powerful. Yet I don’t think what he outlines is the only approach that can be authentic and successful.
  3. What do we do to engage people as a community with God? This would require many words. I’ll just leave the question open.
  4. What do we do that helps us leave empowered to be Christ in the world?

If we aren’t accomplishing these things I question whether we are truly engaged in full Christian worship. We may be taking stabs at it. We may be doing a great job getting across the bridge that’s in front of us, but are we becoming the body of Christ?

I think our general failure is made evident by the way in which we depend on Caesar’s methods to accomplish cultural goals. We sense that our witness to Jesus Christ is not accomplishing what we believe we need to see. Perhaps we need to reconsider whether our witness to Jesus as the Anointed One is genuine and whether our activities on a Sunday morning are more about keeping the church calendar moving than about being Christ in the world.

What do you think?

Dating Biblical Books

Dating Biblical Books

I will be dealing frequently with issues of date and authorship while discussing Paul. The reason for this is that there is a considerable variation in what books scholars believe that Paul wrote, so while giving perspectives, I need to deal with the differences in the books attributed to Paul and what picture emerges of the apostle.

As some background, let me embed two videos I’ve done on dating and authorship. One major problem with this discussion is that for most laypeople the discussion is quite opaque. They don’t really understand how scholars determine date and authorship, so they’re stuck with either a consensus, or with what is presented in their study materials.

The first video is on dating the book of Daniel. In this, I’m not trying to give you the answer, but rather to give you a look at the various considerations:

The video above is from my own YouTube channel. The next one is from the Energion Publications YouTube channel. It’s a dialogue with Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. on this topic. Elgin takes a somewhat more conservative approach than I do, but his approach is also conversation friendly, i.e., you are asked to look at and evaluate evidence.

Elgin is the author of Evidence for the Bible, among other books, and I’m author of When People Speak for God and Learning and Living Scripture, among other books.

Though it is in serious need of revision to add some disciplines/tools in biblical criticism, the pamphlet What Is Biblical Criticism? can be helpful.


 

 

 

I’d Like to See an End to Christian Politics

I’d Like to See an End to Christian Politics

christian-flag-over-usWhen I first set out to join a United Methodist congregation, I asked the pastor for definitive information on United Methodist beliefs. With much trepidation, he provided me with a United Methodist Discipline. I read the first hundred or so pages, not being too interested in the details of the church’s committee structures, including the statements of belief and the social principles. On returning the book I asked him whether I was expected to affirm the social principles. He said, “No.” Good answer!

I don’t mean that Christians should have no political involvement. I both comment on issues and vote. I vote in every election for which I’m eligible, even if there’s only one or two items on the ballot. What I mean is I’d like to see an end to a specific set of political principles that someone, anyone, claims form “Christian politics.” Sorry, UMC, I have never warmed to the social principles, even the ones I agree with. I would only truly like social principles that said how I should behave toward my neighbor, not ones that say how I should carry that behavior into the political sphere.

I’d like to suggest that Christians argue for political positions they believe to be right, moral, appropriate, effective, or whatever other good adjective you find, because the policies are all those good things, not because they are the right thing for Christians to propose.

Here are some of my reasons:

  1. In the United States we live in a secular society. I think it’s appropriate to make political arguments that can be understood by my neighbors of any faith, and those who profess no faith at all.
  2. Politics leads us to careless and even intentional falsehoods (for the greater good, of course). When we attach the word “Christian” to that behavior, we blaspheme Christ.
  3. Politics leads us to violate the golden rule, treating others as traitors, scum, demonic, evil, or otherwise corrupt, simply on the basis of their affiliation. That’s sinful.
  4. Politics leads us to take God’s name in vain and engage in false prophecy, as when we preface our own opinions with a “thus saith the Lord.” Ezekiel 22:28 applies.
  5. Politics, especially partisan politics, leads us to carelessness.
  6. Politics leads us to fear, panic, and unwise actions.
  7. When we try to express modern political positions as somehow scriptural, we tend to look amateur in our exegesis, in our theology, and in our political theory.
  8. Politics leads us to depend on human authority and power rather than on God’s power and the Gospel.

The last one is one I regard as a great danger, one into which I believe most of the American church has already fallen.

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Sacrifice
Credit: Adobe Stock 46272514

I’m preparing to teach tomorrow, and the main text is Hebrews 4:14-5:10. The quarterly is kind enough to stop just before the author tells his readers/hearers that the topic is difficult and they’re not very bright!

Nonetheless, the idea of priesthood brings up the idea of “sacrifice” and “sacrifices,” and these are two concepts that I don’t believe modern audiences are prepared for. We tend to get locked into one of two unhelpful modes.

On the one hand, we may believe sacrifice is critical, and its primary, or even only purpose is to atone for sin. This feeds into the penal substitutionary atonement theory (or I prefer metaphor), in which the sacrifice of Jesus is specifically as a substitutionary death taking the punishment for our sins. The reason I prefer metaphor to theory here is that a theory should be an explanation that deals with the relationship between various facts. A good theory is a singular thing because it is the best explanation of the data. A metaphor, on the other hand, is one of many ways of looking at a set of events. In this sense I reject a substitutionary atonement as a theory, but accept it as a valid metaphor.

On the other hand, because the whole idea of substitutionary atonement, sometimes even referred to as “cosmic child abuse,” is so foreign to our way of thinking about things, that we reject everything that relates to it. But there is a least one really good thing about substitutionary atonement (and I believe there are others): A person convinced that Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifices for his or her sins will be convinced that wrath and punishment have been averted.

This is not the place to cover this in detail, but I am doing so in my video series on perspectives on Paul. I started in Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel, then went on to part 2, and this coming Thursday night I will be doing part 3. I’m thinking there may be yet more parts, because I’m looking verse by verse at some defining statements about the gospel in various Pauline and disputed epistles.

I think there’s a better background against which to think about sacrifice, and that is communication within a relationship. The priesthood and sacrifices were part of the way in which ancient people carried on communion within an ongoing relationship with their god(s). The Israelites had specific ways of offering various sacrifices, ways of representing their God, and expectations.

I like to think of gifts that I give my wife. One of the traditional gifts for someone with whom we are romantically involved is roses, often a dozen, maybe two dozen. I have only done that once in our relationship. I mean the dozen. There have been a scattered number of times on which a gift has included roses, but that is much less frequent than in other relationships.

So am I neglecting my wife and being unromantic by not giving her the traditional gift? I don’t think so, and she’ll surely read this post and let you know if I’m wrong. We’ve established a different tradition that fits her personality and mine. That tradition has to do with surprise and variety. I look at various places where I can buy flowers. The grocery store even works out frequently. I look for flowers of a different color or a different type than she has had recently. I often buy enough for a couple of arrangements in vases. More importantly, I try to bring the flowers into the house when she is not expecting them.

It is true that flowers are frequently a way of expressing regret for a wrong action, but that wouldn’t work all that well in our relationship. In fact, the only thing that does work is sincere regret, directly expressed (no weasely political apologies), and a discussion of how we can improve as we move forward. Flowers as a sacrifice for sin are not functional in our relationship, yet they are given.

I’d like to suggest thinking of the reason why you might do something for another person, or have something done for you and the various reasons you might give or receive a gift. Then start looking at the sacrificial system again. There are still many things that will not connect. For example, in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the killing of the human victim—the ideal one being a firstborn son—was seen as giving that child to God. So also with the animal sacrifices.

If you think of the sacrifices in this way I think it will be easier to follow how sacrifice was replaced by the “mitzvah” (good deed) in Judaism, and by a combination of giving and symbolic acts in Christianity. You might even start to think about the Sunday liturgy at your church and what it says about what God would like to see happening in your relationship to him. Is it possible God might prefer a “mitzvah” of some sort?

I’m going to build on this, but I think this is a good foundational metaphor to use in looking at sacrifice. Then we can adjust for the people involved and how they viewed what was good and bad in a relationship.

Faith Made Active through Love

Faith Made Active through Love

despicableWhat groups of people do you think it’s alright to look down on?

Because in Christ neither circumcision or uncircumcision matters any more, but instead faith made active through love. – Galatians 5:6

Which, in turn, reminds me of:

Thus faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself. – James 2:17

It is possible that the conflict between James and Paul has been overstated.

But my key reason for pulling this text out of my morning reading, as I prepare for my online study tonight which I’ll post about later, is that it represents a broader principle. Sometimes we’re afraid to read between the lines, or better, to discover principles which apply in other circumstances.

These days, circumcision or not is a medical discussion for most people. Yes, it is still a mark of Judaism, but many are circumcised who are not Jews. So what is Paul talking about here? I believe he’s referring to the distinction in God’s favor between Jews and Gentiles. That was the church conflict of his time. Did one have to become a Jew first in order to be a follower of Jesus? Was entry to the family through circumcision?

In the prior four chapters of Galatians Paul has argued that this is not the case. Grace is open to all and is the way one becomes part of the family. Christians have read these four chapters and then either failed to continue reading, or treated chapter five as though it was some sort of advice tacked on to an otherwise theological letter.

That is not the case. The final chapters are a clear continuation of the intent of the earlier ones. My seminary class in Galatians only made it to chapter 4. We were supposed to read the rest, but we never discussed the latter part of the book in class. I don’t know if it was just time or if the professor intended it that way. But Paul wrote it as one document. For him, there was more than becoming part of the family, though that was important, demonstrated by four very heated chapters dedicated to talking about it.

Paul’s concern continued with living as part of God’s family. How do we live now that we’re “in”? That’s where we get to this verse.

Historical understanding is important. Historically this verse was about the distinction between Gentiles and Jews before God, i.e., as part of the family. (Don’t come to conclusions about other aspects of the relationship without reading Romans 1-3 & 9-11.) But it also expresses a principle.

We humans are good at creating distinctions and barriers. In fact, such distinctions are necessary to life. I hate “labeling” yet I must do it in order to talk. This post is filled with labels. If I label someone as “poor” so that I can despise that person and distinguish him from his betters, I’m creating a barrier. I might use the same label, however, to set that person aside as the one who should receive my help. The distinction between Jew and Gentile does still exist, as Paul would acknowledge. It just doesn’t mean that God loves Jews (circumcised) and hates or ignores Gentiles (uncircumcised). The distinction was necessary (and is necessary) for certain purposes (“God’s messages were entrusted to them” [Romans 3:2]), but is not to be used to distinguish those God loves and those God does not love.

Now what distinctions might you and I be using to divide people into acceptable and unacceptable groups? People loved by God and those who can be despised?

Here’s how Eugene Petersen renders Galatians 5:6 in The Message:

For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.*

Can I hear “ouch” instead of “amen”?



*Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ga 5:6). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Elements of the illustration I used were taken from OpenClipart.org.

Underlying Principles for Christian Education and Discipleship

Underlying Principles for Christian Education and Discipleship

Chalk rubbed out on blackboard

… and with that pretentious title.

Actually, last night I talked on the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout (I’ll embed the video at the end as well) about Christian education and how one might go about choosing curriculum.

My sister, Betty Rae, asked me a question via e-mail this morning, and I thought it was so on point that I would post her comments and my response here. What am I actually up to at Energion Publications? For those who wonder, yes, my sister and I communicate like this quite a bit.

From her comments:

I have been trying to understand what is the purpose or goal you have in what you are doing.  I think I may have glimpsed something tonight.  Please tell me if I am right.

The early NT church consisted of home gatherings.  They had no center of worship, like the Jerusalem Temple.  So All that was Christian centered in these small groups.  Luther calls them “small companies;”  Ellen White, “little companies.”  So if there is a difficulty with the church at large, the church may be preserved in the “small study groups,” as you are calling them.  I saw in your presentation that you are encouraging the preservation of the individuality of individuals and groups.  Your presentation tonight holds great significance as I see it.  By leaving the groups free, even to making them free not to use your materials, room is left for the working of the Holy Spirit.  Hopefully, the small groups will follow that example, and also leave the individuals in their groups free.

The time will come, however, if there is religious oppression, that small groups will be suppressed; as an example, “The Conventicle Act” in England, for disobeying of which John Bunyan spent 12 years in prison.  During times of religious revival and opposition, believers were forced to meet in small groups, even outdoors in forests and mountains, for which they were severely punished if they were caught. John Wesley was forced, even to preach out of doors, when denied access to the churches.  The Advent Movement believers met in small groups after they were thrown out of the churches, coming together in camp meetings.

On an individual basis, churches in this country have already persecuted and tried to suppress small groups, calling them “cults.” (The devil will always mix his counterfeit in with the true.  Fear of being called a “cult” has discouraged the “small group.”)  One thing that drew disapproval was the groups’ using of materials “unauthorized” by the denomination, which you addressed tonight in your presentation.  Your work may be small, but who hath despised the day of small things!

Here’s my response:

One of my fundamental beliefs is that spiritual choices made through duress, emotional manipulation, or spinning data are of no positive benefit and are indeed destructive. Thomas Aquinas and I are not even playing on the same ball field on this one!

I carry this so far as to say that if I were helping to bring a Jew into Christian fellowship (no human “converts” anyone), I would want to make sure that person understood Judaism as well as Christianity to be sure he or she is making a choice that is as informed and as free as possible. Similarly, if a person is kept in the church because he or she was prevented from getting outside information, that brings no glory to God. While it may build up the church organization, the Kingdom of God is not built.

I could summarize this by saying that God’s kingdom cannot be built by deception, and trying to deny people information from another perspective is deception. That’s the reason leaders do it. The leadership is afraid that if we, the followers, have information other than what they approve, we might decide differently than we have.

This is often done for the best of motives. In the church, the idea is to prevent people who are less informed from being led astray. So information is restricted in pursuit of truth. But just because an approach is intended to accomplish something does not mean it will accomplish that. We often give credit to people for being well-intentioned, but the universe does not. The laws of physics don’t care about your intention. You may intend to fly when you jump off the cliff, but gravity (and the rocks below) does not say, “I’ll give him/her credit for having good intentions.” It’s just plain splat!

Similarly in politics we have a desire to limit information to what is accurate and unbiased. I agree that the internet provides a huge reservoir of material that ranges from misleading in presentation to flat out wrong. But those who would like to clean that up somehow, other than by countering false with true, are playing with fire. Whether it’s by controlling political spending or trying to narrowly define a “real” journalist, it’s going to head toward control, and control will lead to mass falsehood and delusion. The universe will not regard the supposedly truth-loving intentions of the censors.

So I do advocate freedom in ideas, and I follow that belief in the small (very small) world of my publishing business. I restrict what I publish not because I think the other stuff is bad, but simply to define a reasonable audience for me to try to address.

At the same time I personally advocate a program of education in churches, however carried out, that makes sure people are aware of the full range of ideas that are out there. Carrying this out will involve reading books that are written by people who disagree with and disapprove the church’s views as well as hopefully hearing directly from them. There’s nothing like hearing an idea from an advocate. I may be ever so careful to present my adversaries position, but hearing me is not as good as hearing them.

Those are the beliefs that underlie what I said about curriculum last night.

And for those who might need context, the actual presentation: