Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

(Painting: "The Adoration of the Shepherds," by Abraham Hondius, 1663)

I'm taking a break this week from blogging to spend a few days celebrating the holidays with my extended family. New posts will resume on Sunday, January 1. Have a blessed and merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Saturday Synaxis

Almighty and everlasting God, who has made known the incarnation of your Son by the bright shining of a star, which, when the wise men beheld, they presented costly gifts and adored your majesty; grant that the star of your righteousness may always shine into our hearts; and that, as our treasure, we may give ourselves and all we possess to your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- Gelasian Sacramentary

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Should We Say "Merry Christmas"?

(See the bottom of the post for image credits)

We live in an interesting age, don't we? (Perhaps not quite as interesting as the patristic age, but that's a topic for another day.) This time of year, we break out the holly and the mistletoe, we listen to brazenly theological songs being played on public radio stations, and we vex our troubled minds about the horrors of the "War on Christmas" (not to be confused with the war on Christians currently ongoing in the Middle East, which is not only real but legitimately horrifying). The explosive fulcrum of this dicey debate is the issue of whether one ought to say "Merry Christmas!" to strangers and passersby at this time of year (as opposed to other traditionally festive salutations like "Happy Holidays!" or "Bah! Humbug!").

As wars go, the War on Christmas has the peculiar attribute of inflaming passions while causing almost no casualties, and so it's probably among the most respectable wars ever fought. Why does it inflame passions so? Well, many of my fellow Christians are under the impression that being forbidden to say "Merry Christmas!" is a not-too-subtle attempt by our wider society to forcibly remove the glorified Lord of heaven and earth from the holiday celebrating his birth. And the truth is, they may be right. One of the two main reasons given for the removal of "Christmas" from our seasonal vocabularies is that it is too religious for a widely-celebrated civic holiday, and that it might give offense to the many in our society who are not Christians. (The other main reason--that we live in a pluralistic society, and so saying "Merry Christmas!" instead of "Happy Holidays!" implicitly denies a right of place to other contemporaneous holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, and Festivus, thus constituting a form of religious prejudice--is dealt with in this companion post.)

Christmas is, of course, a religious holiday, and perhaps the most wildly religious holiday imaginable, in that it celebrates the astonishing story of the God of the universe becoming a helpless human baby. (A couple days ago my sons, five and six years old, were playing with a nativity set and singing a hip-hop Christmas carol of their own design, which all centered around the various things that they were making the figure of Jesus--whom they called "Baby God"--do: dancing, riding on a donkey, etc. But what struck me in their play was the mind-blowing, ridiculous-but-true nature of the Christmas story, fully present in the simple name "Baby God.") 

So, all that to say, of course Christmas is religious. One can't, and one ought not to, pretend that it isn't. That would be rather like the rest of the world all deciding to adopt the 4th of July as their own holiday, but to keep all references to the USA out of the event, and reserve it simply for barbecue, fireworks, and idle lounging beside bodies of water. (Or, I suppose, nearly as absurd as celebrating Saint Patrick's Day by paying homage to an odd syzygy of beer, clover, and the color green, while never casting a thought to the saint himself.)

One point of contention from the other side of the debate is that some poor, hapless non-Christian might be wished a "Merry Christmas," and be so offended by the mention of the God they have chosen not to worship, that their emotions simply would not be able to bear the strain of all that festive goodwill. Thus, (so we're told), one shouldn't wish people a "Merry Christmas," unless one knows for certain that they actually celebrate Christmas. This position seems to assume that the message itself might prove offensive. But that's a rather large assumption. One would be hard pressed to find any offense in celebrating a story about how God, motivated by unimaginable love, reached out to humanity in a breathtakingly beautiful way. Perhaps, then, the contention is that some people are offended simply by being confronted with the reality that other people hold different theological ideas than they themselves do. If so, such people are probably not emotionally fit to be roaming about freely in any society, since differences of belief are a simple fact of human life. Or perhaps some intellectually-sheltered secularists are under the impression that every single sin ever committed by anyone claiming to be a Christian is implicit in the very mention of Christmas. For such people, a good dose of reading is usually a reliable cure, particularly in the fields of reputable history, the philosophy of human nature, the doctrine of hamartiology, and basic logic. Or perhaps the assumption is that the mere phrase "Merry Christmas" is intended to imply a forceful theological imperative: that the hearer should immediately bow the knees of his impious life at the altar of the Baby-God of Bethlehem. 

The only trouble is, that's not what 99% of people who say "Merry Christmas" are intending. It's a popular phrase which is intended, almost invariably, as a sentiment of goodwill. It functions in much the same way as that classically Christian statement of farewell, "Goodbye," (derived from "God be with ye"), which sparks almost no protests nowadays because everybody understands that its meaning does not usually involve a significant theological subtext. Merry Christmas, likewise, is usually just a sentiment of simple goodwill. (Now, there may be a few renegade culture-warriors out there who go out of their way to launch volleys of Merry Christmases at vulnerable passersby in the bowels of secular entrenchments out of playful spite, but my experience has told me that the use of "Merry Christmas" as a form of theological artillery is relatively rare.) Since it is intended, far and away, as a statement of goodwill, then simple courtesy would bear upon the recipient to do one of three things: (1) to say "Merry Christmas to you, too," (2) to say "Thank you," or even simply nod and smile, or (3) to say, "Thank you for your kind holiday greetings. I don't celebrate Christmas myself, but I hope you and your family have a wonderful time this year." I myself have lived in a Muslim area where I was offered a customary friendly greeting on the occasion of an Islamic holiday, and I found that it was not too hard to smile and say "Thank you" (Shukran!), rather than to make it a forum for doctrinal polemicism or to file a report of religious persecution. So, to all my secular friends, the wisest course (as is almost always the case) is courtesy. You don't have to say "Merry Christmas," but you shouldn't revile anyone else for saying it to you. Using someone's holiday well-wishes as an opportunity for the display of your own poor manners will probably not make our society any more keen on your position. 

Also, it should probably be noted here that resorting to "Happy Holidays" as your standard greeting suffers from the fact that you are tacitly accepting the idea of "holy days," and also that the common excision of Christ from Christmas by writing it as "Xmas" suffers on two points, (1) in that the abbreviation was originally a Christian invention, an honest-to-goodness Christogram in which the X represents the first Greek letter of the name of Christ, and (2) in that it still retains the reference to a "mass"--that is, a church service--which is proper to the observation of the day. And, while we're at it, if you're really shooting for a secular observance of the holiday, you can't use Santa Claus, because his historical roots are just about as Christian as it gets. Just to be safe, you should probably also avoid holly, wreaths, evergreen roping, candles, Christmas trees, bells, stars, and gifts, since all of those have roots in the Christian tradition of Christmas symbolism. But, on the bright side, you can keep the flying reindeer.

So that's my advice to my secular friends. Now here's my advice to my Christian friends: Don't be jerks. It's pretty simple. The vast majority of people in our country do celebrate Christmas, and will be happy to receive and return your greeting of "Merry Christmas!" But if you happen to greet someone who you think might celebrate a different holiday at this time, or who might be from among the sort who take offense at such things, then it's not too much to ask to simply say "Happy Holidays!" (you are, after all, still sneaking in a little bit of "holy" in there), or to revert back to the common-time courtesy of saying "Have a nice day." For instance, I have some Roman Catholics in my family, a very kind and thoughtful group of people, and they've had the courtesy never once to wish me a "Happy Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Day" (Aug. 15). Likewise, I've only once, in jest, wished them a "Happy Reformation Day" (Oct. 31).

But on a more serious note: let's move our focus from the "Christmas" part to the "Merry" part for just a moment. Christmas may not be a particularly merry time for a great many people, even if they're Christians. Many people actually do have serious emotional difficulties with this holiday--not because they're offended at the idea of Christmas' religious nature, but because their own experience of this holiday may be painful, tragic, or lonely. Many people suffer from deep depression at this time of year, or from wrestling with very hard memories, or from the loneliness of missing loved ones that are gone. So we Christians need to remember that we can't just stop at throwing out a simple "Merry Christmas!" as an expression of goodwill. It's our calling not just to bear witness to the light of the world, but to actually shine that light into the lives of those around us. Let's do everything we can to make Christmas merry, not just for ourselves and our own families, but for everybody else too.

Bottom line: You're not betraying your beliefs by the mere act of being thoughtful to the sensitivities of another person; if anything, you are living out your faith as it was meant to be lived out--in kindness and humility.

(Images - Illustration, top: "Merry Christmas," published by Currier & Ives, New York, c.1876; Painting, inset left: "Christmas Prayers," by Henry A. Bacon, late 19th or early 20th cent.; Illustration, inset right: "May Christmas-tide Bring Joy to Thee," by J. Beagles & Co., New Zealand, 1890s; Illustration, inset left: "I Bring You a Merry Xmas," postcard, 1910; Painting, inset right: "Children by the Christmas Tree," by Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth, early 20th cent.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Seven Baptist Sacraments

To those who may not know, "sacrament" is a theological term that denotes an object or ritual which, in and of itself, bears or symbolizes or mediates the grace of God in a special way. It's not a word Baptists use at all, so there's a certain irony here. But I've always liked the idea of sacraments, and so I decided to jot down a list of the things that Baptists might regard as sacramental in their life, if they were so inclined to that form of categorization. The poem below isn't meant to be taken as a criticism of any other denomination's theology or enumeration of sacraments. In fact, the idea framed here has as much to do with Eastern Orthodox ideas of sacramentality as it does with Baptist ideas--particularly the final stanza. I don't really consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool denominationalist (and I'll probably post some reflections on that topic in a few weeks), but the poem below does show some of the things that I truly treasure about my Baptist heritage of faith.

The Seven Baptist Sacraments

The Book--in reverent hands,
     With study guides and  pastors' words
           And lines laid down in memory
               From childhood class in Sunday School.
The Water--immersing, baptizing,
     In rivers, lakes, or backyard pools,
          Or glass-rimmed tubs as altarpieces,
               Where, born again, we pledge Him our discipleship.
The Communion--enacted and cherished, in memory of Him,
     Whose blood and body, torn for us,
          Restore what has been torn in us,
             We who too are blessed, and broken, and sent out.
The Prayer--spoken words, broken words,
     Stumblingly reaching out to Him who's never out of reach;
          To be, with him, though simple words,
               A partner in his many works. 
The Fellowship--hands clasped, smiles and laughs,
     And potluck suppers served with joy;
          Friends who listen, friends who cry--
               So we love, for He first loved us.
The Mission--bearing grace to neighbors, family, friends;
     The light of the world shines in our streets,
          And beyond: missionaries, preachers, charities,
               So that the ends of the earth may hear.
The Service--where we worship, pray, and learn;
     For weekly growth, and celebrating
          Marriage and ministry, life and death;
               There we have our family time with God.
These are the sacraments of the Baptist church,
     Seven numbered here, but many more besides,
          Because the one true Sacrament, which makes all these things sacred,
               Is Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Photo of the Week

Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Savior of the world was born;
Rise to adore the mystery of love,
Which hosts of angels chanted from above;
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the Virgin's Son.

- Verse 1 of the hymn "Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn," by John Byrom (18th cent.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Quote of the Week

"If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me."

- Robert Murray M'Cheyne, 19th-century Scottish pastor

(See Romans 8:34 and  Hebrews 7:25)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Saturday Synaxis

O God, who did look on humanity when they had fallen down into death and resolve to redeem them by the advent of your only-begotten Son, grant, we ask you, that they who confess his glorious incarnation may also be admitted to the fellowship of Him their Redeemer; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- Ambrose, 4th-century church father

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: John G. Stackhouse's "Church"

Kirche von Moret, by Alfred Sisley, 1893

John G. Stackhouse’s book Church is a wise and winsome collection of short essays and thoughts about the church, especially as it is manifested in the United States and Canada. As such, the book doesn’t follow a consistent line of argumentation, but rather brings up points here and there, in a warm and conversational manner. Therefore, this review will only highlight certain aspects of Stackhouse’s thought that appear to be central to his understanding of the church, while of necessity ignoring other aspects covered in his book.
First of all, Stackhouse’s perception of the church is profoundly relational. All of his reflections come back to solid, common-sense wisdom on the proper ordering of relationships. One of the basic tenets of relationship is the importance of good communication. Stackhouse comes back to this over and over again. In chapter 5, “Are There Any Questions?” he urges preachers to open their sermons up for questions and to actively solicit feedback from the congregation. This theme is picked up again in chapters 10 and 11, in which he exhorts church leaders to actively poll the congregation, to find out their concerns and solicit their advice. This is no easy task, he tells us, since it’s always hard to stomach criticism (which inevitably comes when you open yourself up to feedback), but it is essential—the laity are the heart of the church, after all, and their opinions and concerns ought to be heard.
Another basic tenet of relationship is commitment, and Stackhouse touches on this element in chapter 18, “Are You a Member?” Here he encourages us to commit to a local church body, bemused by the postmodern tendency to shy away from definitive commitments. He puts it plainly (and, I think, rightly): “Our membership in the body of Christ is always expressed in the concrete, particular instance of membership in a particular congregation. There are no free-floating members, committed only to a vague, ideal, universal church.” For Stackhouse, the essence of church is in its fellowship—a group of believers, committed to Christ and to one another.
A second aspect of Stackhouse’s thinking is simply that—thinking. He emphasizes the need to return to a stronger focus on argumentation, on critical thinking, on common sense, and on reading. In chapter 19, “We Need More Arguments,” he advocates the return of hearty debate to North American churches—not argument in the sense of divisive conflict, but of ordered, respectful, logical thinking. When we are able to think clearly and to speak the pattern of that logical thought to others, we open the door for our community to be shaped by the mutual pursuit of truth. In this sense, Stackhouse’s emphasis on thinking returns to his emphasis on relationship. Speaking of argument, he says, “This is teamwork. This is taking each other seriously as thinking human beings. This is speaking the truth in love."
In chapter 12, he laments what he calls “the pastoral brain drain.” Traditionally, the pastorate was a position of high education, of great knowledge and wisdom. Now, cluttered as it is by all the expectations of administration, counseling, planning, leading meetings, and so on, the best and brightest young Christians are opting for different callings. Stackhouse also laments what appears to be a growing trend of subtle anti-intellectualism in the laity and urges pastors to “throw the book at them.” He writes: “Without disciplined, regular reading of thoughtful journals and books, we will have to defer to others who do understand and do know how to act effectively.” Throughout his book, Stackhouse’s essays are infused with a subtle note of lament that Christians don’t know how to think better, that we so often fall into traps of pride and conflict when a simple dose of common sense, rightly regarded and employed, would solve our problem.
This brings us to a third major theme of Church: the importance of humility, which ties in with both of the previous themes. In chapter 15, “Beams First, Motes Later,” Stackhouse accuses the church of focusing too much on the big, shocking sins, like homosexuality, while ignoring the subtle and pervasive poison of pride in our pulpits. This is, he claims, a problem that is desperately in need of address by the evangelical churches. “Is it a bad thing to ordain practicing homosexuals to church leadership? Let’s instead answer a more immediately relevant question that cuts to the heart of evangelical church after evangelical church across this continent. Is it a bad thing to ordain and maintain a practicing egomaniac?” In such intentionally provocative language, he forces us to take a hard look at the extent to which we’ve turned a blind eye to the sin of pride.
The essence of humility is in learning to walk in someone else’s shoes, in seeing an issue from someone else’s perspective rather than your own. Stackhouse talks about this in chapter 21, in which he exhorts us to remember that for every theological or social position we oppose, there is a real person behind that position, a person whom God loves and who is worthy, no matter what their error, of our respect. We don’t have to agree with them, but we need to learn to disagree in a way that communicates the love of Christ. This theme comes up again in chapter 40, a quasi-satirical piece called “Feminism Fatigue.” The point, in short, is that the issues we view as unimportant are important to somebody, and for that reason alone we ought to be careful not to brush them aside. Humility is invariably linked to good community, and so this theme ties back in with the first. Those who are humble will be able to learn how to live in a loving community, setting the needs of others ahead of their own. Those who are prideful, however, will carry selfishness wherever they go, and thus they will always be a force that tears churches apart rather than bringing them together.
The danger of a book like Stackhouse’s, though infused with wisdom, is that it is inherently a critique of the way church is currently being done. And, as with any critique (and especially those that favor brevity over comprehensiveness), it can at times seem unfairly critical. For instance, in chapter 14 he criticizes the normal routine of Christian activities and programs as being mediocre or boring, and that the fault lies with ourselves. This is true, but it’s not the gentlest way to say it. The fact of the matter is that mediocrity is part of being human, and not everything we do can possibly excel all the standards all the time.
Along a similar vein, in chapter 38 Stackhouse criticizes the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement. Granted, it could stand some criticism—any attempt to water down the essence of the Christian life to a single question is inherently flawed. But the imitation of Christ is a great and venerable tradition of spirituality, and I don’t think that most people fall into the error of assuming that they can do Messianic miracles simply because that’s what Jesus would do. I think Stackhouse has given the WWJD movement the short shrift, not realizing that for most people, the answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” comes out with some brilliant results, such as “Avoid sin,” and “Pursue holiness.” We shouldn’t be too quick to brush aside movements or teachings that might well have been powerfully inspiring to a great many sincere Christians.
Critique, as Stackhouse himself points out so well elsewhere in the book, must be united with love. Only because Stackhouse so obviously loves the church are most of his critiques credible. In the end, though, it comes down to this: critique isn’t necessarily valuable unless paired with suggestions on how to become better. Usually Stackhouse provides such suggestions, but not always.
           After reading Stackhouse’s Church, I’ve come away with a few helpful reminders to shape the way I think about the church. First, chapter 4, “Temptation in the Glory,” was particularly helpful for me. Fond as I am of church history and the noble characters found there, it’s far too easy for me to become attached to the incipient Gnosticism that Stackhouse describes—“to commune with noble and sensitive heroes who have in fact been abstracted and idealized from church history….to flee the churches around us for the Ideal Church.” Having seen and known so much of the church’s triumphs throughout history, it is tempting to hold my own local congregation up against that idealized scale. But Stackhouse reminds us that we need to learn to love the church in all its flaws—that the church is about people, not ideas, and that people are imperfect. The real task is to see and appreciate the beauty behind those imperfections.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The First Snowfall

Here's a re-post of an old poem of mine. This week brought the first significant snow of the winter here in Maine, so I thought I'd share this poem I wrote back in my seminary days, reflecting on the first snowfall of a Colorado winter several years ago.

The First Snowfall

I wander wearily out of class today
And am greeted by gentle joy
That floats down, soft and white,
From the heavens.
I cannot stay too long
In the warmth of my apartment;
The wildness of the day calls me out
To embrace it,
To laugh in the wonder of its beauty.
I don my red hooded sweatshirt
And venture out into the cold.
My nose and cheeks begin to numb
Almost instantly,
But I stop and fill my exultant lungs.
I love the biting freshness of the air
And the gentle fury of the snow.
I am the only one on the trails today,
So I wander alone,
Hands tucked in my sweatshirt pouch,
Like a vermillion monk from a bygone age.
An otherworldly mist hangs over the pond
And over the rushing creek,
Swirling in the chill breezes
Where the water meets the wind.
Four geese fly overhead in formation,
Then break off, two to the east and two to the west,
Opening the curtain of the world’s stage before me.
The stolid heron regards me strangely
As I greet him at the water’s edge,
His long neck pulled back
Against the warmth of his breast.
But he wants no visitors today,
So I wander on, into the little wooded strip
That graces the banks of the stream.
And there I pause,
And watch as the busy, raucous world
Is blanketed in the quiet peace
Of the winter’s first snow.
There is laughter in each snowflake,
A silent delight in the turning of the days,
As God welcomes me home again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Photo of the Week

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
- Matthew 6:26-27

Monday, December 12, 2016

Quote of the Week

Yet in the maddening maze of things,
     And tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
     I know that God is good!

- John Greenleaf Whittier, from his poem "The Eternal Goodness" 

(Painting: "Allegory of Divine Providence," by Pietro da Cortona, fresco in the Palazzo Barberini, c.1635)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday Scripture

Mark 13:32-37

13:32 – This verse is a stern warning to anyone who would seek to put a specific date to the events of the future. Jesus here proclaims that no one but the Father knows such things—not the angels, and not even the Son! If this is true, then we absolutely must maintain enough humility to resist the temptation to play the fortune-teller. Too many good Christian leaders have attempted to play that role, and every single one of them has seen their system of predictions fall into ruin. Besides the warning to maintain humility, however, another concern arises: if we believe that Christ shares the same nature as God the Father, that they are members of the same Godhead, “very God of very God”—then how can there be things that God knows, but which Christ, the Son of God, does not know. Doesn’t this imply a differentiation, a subordination in the Godhead that Christian theology has overlooked? No—the traditional answer, upheld by the Scriptures of the New Testament, is that in this instance Christ was speaking of his present knowledge. That is to say, he did not know the dates of times of the events he foretold while he was incarnate as a man. Scripture teaches clearly that the pre-existent Christ “emptied himself” (Phil. 2) of some of his divine prerogatives in order to be fashioned according to our nature; likewise, the evangelist Luke tells us that the young Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), which implies that Jesus Christ, while certainly possessing knowledge far beyond human capacities, nonetheless emptied himself of the timeless aspect of divine omniscience while he entered our temporal realm, so that he could be made like us. This verse, then, is a reflection of the humility of Christ rather than of any eternal subordination in the Godhead.

13:33-37 – The repeated exhortations at the end of this chapter are clear and firm. Only the most obtuse could fail to see the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching on this point: our ultimate response to the future, and particularly to the future return of Christ, is simply to be ready. It’s not to figure out all the times and dates, nor to waste time speculating which political figures or nations might presage the rise of Antichrist, nor even to worry about the tribulations to come. It’s simply to be ready. How do we do this? Jesus is very clear. Be alert. Watch. Essentially, this is a command to be living our daily lives in such exemplary fashion that we would be ready on any given day for the return of the Lord, just like a faithful servant awaiting the return of his master. Be ready for Christ’s return, and the way to be ready is to be watchful over one’s own life, to be tending to one’s duties, just like a faithful servant. That means not that we are watching the world, tracking prophecy schematics along with the evening news, but rather that we are watching ourselves, making ourselves ready for that final day. It’s instructive that many ancient manuscripts inserted “Be alert and pray” into verse 33—our attention is not to be on the world, but on Christ himself, and making sure that we are ready to receive him.