I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
“Mercy triumphs over judgement,” says James. This is not to say that mercy eliminates judgement, or that which is to be judged is no longer worthy of judgement, but that after judgement comes mercy.
Judge. Judge rightly, and with justice. Know the difference between right and wrong — righteousness and disregard. Dig a deep hole, and pour that judgement into it. Dig it deep enough to fill it to the brim! Once you’ve poured it all out, look at that pool of judgement and admire the rightness of it. Feel confident in it.
Then cover it with mercy.
Spread the mercy on thick. If you don’t have any of your own to put on there, pray for it. It should come from the same place your judgement does, or else your judgement isn’t righteous; it’s self-righteous. Keep adding mercy until the judgement stops seeping through. Keep tending it until something new starts to grow from its fertile soil.
In the end, the judgement is still there, but all anyone should see is mercy.
Put in another way, “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
Almost a year ago, it was announced at Cornerstone Wesleyan Church that my position, Pastor of Youth and Worship, was being terminated, and I was not being moved into the newly created position of Pastor of Servant Life and Community development. There was some fallout. Not as much as there likely would be if a senior pastor left, but there were a lot of opinions in the ring after the announcement. It wasn’t a surprise to me—it had been an ongoing discussion at the leadership level for quite a while, and I was given plenty of opportunity for input. I was left in an odd position, though. I still loved the church, I had nowhere else to go, and I felt called to write for a while instead of going straight into the brutality of the pastoral search process.
After a bunch of praying and thinking and talking with my wife, we decided (with approval of the leadership) to continue attending Cornerstone. I’m not sure what I would have done if they had said no… it was a bit awkward all-round. I’m not sure anyone in leadership ever considered saying no. They’re awesome, supportive people. If it was me in their place, though, I would have been hesitant and worried about issues of transition and disturbance, and wondering if I could trust me in the background of the congregation. In the end, I’m glad we did. I think I may have grown more in the year of transition, out of “active” ministry, than I did in the three years before.
These are some things that I learned in the transition:
1. There are people more upset about it than you are.
“I can’t believe how the church treated you…” … “It’s just not right…” … “This is ridiculous…” … “What are they thinking?”
As hard as it is to step away from the role you’ve poured yourself into for years, there’s a certain peace in it. Let’s face it, if you’re in a place spiritually and emotionally that you can continue to attend a church after they’ve
fired you not renewed your contract, you’ve probably left on fairly decent terms. There will be people in the church, though—your advocates, your friends, and sometimes people completely unexpected—that will take greater offense than you. One of the biggest challenges you face immediately after the announcement is dealing with people who want to badmouth the church you love, or vent anger you don’t feel, or vote with their feet and leave.* It’s hard, when you are dealing with some measure of hurt, to be put in the awkward position of defending the church that’s terminating you. Even worse, the angriest people—the ones most likely to leave—are your closest friends, and you can be left feeling even more alone attending church without them.
*I want to make it clear that not everyone who left CWC at this point left because of feelings about me. For some it was directional over removing the youth specialty. For others it was the culmination of feelings that had been building for quite a while. I don’t want to misrepresent them as leaving in a fit of pique.
2. There are people less upset about it than you are.
Sure, you expect that there are some people happy to see you go. There are always going to be people that you’ve butted heads with; personally, ministerially, or theologically. Some of them might have even been working behind the scenes to get rid of you. It can be hard to see those people week in and week out, wondering if under their smile and handshake lies smug satisfaction at a job well done. I’m not talking about those people, though. I’m talking about the surprising majority of people who really just don’t care that much. These are the people that you shook hands with and exchanged pleasantries after the service. They gave vague compliments on sermons or services and carried on with their lives. They were fans, but not followers. They were the ones who, as Lenny said in season three, episode 24 of The Simpsons, were “well-wishers in that they don’t wish you any specific harm.” The fact is that in any given congregation, most people are more bonded to each other and the church as a whole than they are to you. And that’s healthy for them and hard on your ego. It may also be the part that hurts the most.
3. You’re less important than you think you are.
When you’re going strong (or weak) in church ministry, it’s easy to take the weight of the world on your shoulders. You fret over every message or song or service or event. You comb through numbers and struggle with what you can do differently to improve them. When things are going well, you rejoice and take credit. When they go pear-shaped, you take the blame on yourself. It’s hard not to, because that’s what everyone around you seems to be saying. You pour yourself to the people you minister to, and you pour yourself into the programs you have responsibility for, because what happens with them is on you. And then it’s not. And life goes on. You watch programs go on with out you, and people keep meeting, and growing, and learning about God without you. And the service doesn’t fall apart without your guidance. You start to wonder why you were even there at all.
4. Letting go is harder than you expect.
When leadership changes hands, whether between two paid pastors, or to a volunteer, things change. It’s inevitable. People have different visions and different skill sets. One of the worst things about staying at a church you used to work at is watching things be done differently. It’s one thing to think about not being in charge anymore, it’s another to have to see the reality of it. Programs you set up are dismantled. People make mistakes that you wouldn’t have. New leaders make decisions that you disagree with, and you can’t stop them. You have to learn all over again how to be a follower—a servant. Continuing to serve as a volunteer in a ministry you used to run means swallowing a lot of pride. It’s hard on the digestive system, but good for the soul.
5. Your legacy is not what you think it is.
When you know a transition is coming, you work hard to make sure you’re leaving things healthy and running as smoothly as possible. You may work on polishing tech and leaving a great setup that will serve the church well. You may work to develop the volunteers you had to carry on after you. You may set up program structures and guidelines designed to keep going well after you’re gone. You may do all those things, and find that they’re turned around in weeks. The things that you thought would endure, don’t. At the same time, though, some of the things that you thought wouldn’t, do. Turns of phrase you used, or little bits of lessons you taught will stay in people’s hearts and on their lips. Moments you spent together turn into foundational building blocks of a growing faith. More than that, though, you see that how you deal with leaving becomes your legacy. People remember your actions more than your words. How you leave may have more of a lasting impact that anything you did before.
It’s easy to give lip-service to the idea that it’s God’s church (or program, or ministry), but seeing the truth of it brings a new perspective. It really isn’t about us. Life really does go on. The biggest thing you learn through it though, the secret #6, is that it’s an opportunity to grow in grace. If you can do it, if you can reign in your pride and learn to serve again—if you can stand to be seen by your people as less than you were before, you can be more. I know that I’ve matured more through this process than I ever thought possible, and the church God gives us to next will be blessed through it. They’ll find a pastor that’s less attached to himself and more attached to them. They’ll find a pastor who knows that being humbled isn’t the worst thing in the world. They’ll find a pastor who knows himself better, and knows better the God whose shoulders everything really rests on. He’ll become more because I’ve become less.
Right now I’m in class (Shhh). I graduated a while back, but as part of joining the “Wesleyan” church, I need to be instructed in the Wesleyan “Doctrine of Holiness”. That really has nothing to do with this post, but for some reason I feel the need to provide context. It’s given me the chance to get together with other people “in the ministry” and talk about things that matter, from the things we face in our chosen ministries, to the questions we have but can’t ask because we’re the people who are supposed to have the answers.
I had the chance to talk to other worship leaders and youth leaders, and we got to talking about hymns. We talked about updating hymns. We talked about changing lyrics to fit theology or to make them more singable, or to make them more understandable to contemporary listeners. We talked about how a lot of the people today didn’t understand what the poets were really saying when they wrote. The meaning is lost in archaic language, and sometimes trying to update it doesn’t help that much because it still has to fit the tune, rhyme scheme and meter (limiting our ability to be precise in adaptation). We also talked about how most of the best of the hymns were musical prayers.
I thought I’d take a crack at rewriting them, or translating them, as modern prayers. I’m throwing out the music, I’m throwing out the meter. Maybe then we can come back and sing the lyrics as the writers intended. I hope I’ll do more than just one.
Here’s the first:
1. Dear God, the source and provider of every good thing,
work in me so that the first inclination of my heart is to honour you for your grace;
You never stop forgiving, never stop offering mercy…
How can I not be constantly praising you at the top of my lungs?
I need a better song, God! Teach me to praise as the angels do!
Your love is like a mountain, Lord, rising above everything in my sight,
and I want to spend my life travelling towards it.
2. With your help, God, I’ve come a long way;
I can look back at my life and say that it’s only by your grace I’ve gotten here.
In fact, I’m raising a monument to testify to that.
By that same strength, I pray you keep me going the rest of the way,
to arrive at the destination you’ve laid before me.
Even when I was a complete stranger from Jesus,
living a life far outside of the life you made me for,
close to falling away from you completely, forever,
Jesus offered his holy blood to save me.
3. Every day I find myself in debt to your grace,
I’m constantly being made more and more aware of how dependant I am on it!
I’m sick of being in such need of it, though… Focus me on you.
Let me love your goodness so much that it keeps me from straying.
God, I love you, but I’m tempted away.
I feel my tendency to let my focus wander onto the things of this world.
I keep drifting away from where I wish I was staying.
I’ve had enough, God. Take my heart. Keep it.
Make my heart’s residence in heaven, make my heart ready for eternity now.
Can you name that tune?
As a pastor, I sometimes have trouble in “the ministry” because I don’t look like a pastor. There’s something in my demeanour that doesn’t scream “pastoral”. Despite being 32, people often place me at 24 and treat me younger. I blame my complete inability to grow decent facial hair. Also, my hair is kind of green right now, but that doesn’t count because it was dyed for a youth retreat last weekend. I lack a certain gravitas and probably always will. Such is my lot in life. I get some cred as a youth pastor though, and have been told that I’d fit in well leading one of those young churches… maybe a university church. I might be able to play it off in a specialized role at a mega-church. Young people would like me.
As a youth pastor, I’ve been concerned with young people. I work with them, I love them, and to some extent, I love their culture. I spend time focusing on how to relate to them, how to relate God to them, and how to get them to relate to God. As someone who’s still pretty young myself, I also have my own young person preferences and desires for worship. Sometimes that means I look at the way things are being done on Sunday morning and say “that’s not cool,” with the assumption that we need to make things cool, so that young people will come. Maybe that’s the music. Maybe it’s the volume. Maybe it’s the appearance of the stage (sorry, “platform,” I was recently crapped on by a church member for calling it a “stage.” [Also, I just said “crapped on,” which isn’t very pastoral]). Maybe it’s how the message is communicated. It’s been drilled into me, and into most of the evangelical church world, that “young people are the future of the church,” and if we don’t get them, the church is going to die. So now, many churches are doing their best to make our sanctuaries look like this:
I like that. It’s cool. It inspires me. I want to be on that stage. I want to be in that crowd. I can also pretty much guarantee that there is more green hair in that crowd than grey. This is what church looks like to this generation, and you’d better get on board, because this generation has to be reached for the Lord. We look at most of the “big” churches that show up in church media circles, and we see this as a functional model, because they’re growing. Younger people are flooding through the front doors and experiencing God in new and fresh ways.
Unfortunately, it seems that older people are quietly finding the back door.
There are times when I love watching YouTube videos of Hillsong live recordings, or Elevation Worship, or a giant event that Chris Tomlin is leading. But once I get past how awesome it looks to have so many hands raised to the sky, and so many people moved to tears by God’s grace and glory, it starts to bother me that the camera tends to linger on the same few middle aged people. Maybe it keeps returning to the one grandparent in the crowd. It pans over a thousand 20-somethings and rests on the exception to give the impression that this is for everyone – or at least everyone who can “get with what God is doing now.”
I’ve heard people (to be honest, I’ve been people) who have almost rejoiced at older people leaving the church, because it gave more freedom to do something new. We’ve embraced the immortal words of Barney Stinson: “New is ALWAYS better.” We feel the need to leave behind the old so that we can reach out to the new. It’s more important for us to reach the new than minister to the old because… because. Because new is always better. Maybe because the old are “already saved” and getting people “saved” is the end all and be all of our purpose, so once they’re “saved” we can forget about them and go save someone else. Why aren’t we worried about “saving” anyone over 50? And is anyone other than me concerned that in 20 years, we’ll be the ones shown the back door?
Yeah, I’m a young looking 32, but I’m ageing. The things that I like and the things that I liked when growing up aren’t the things that capture the imagination of the newest breed. My pop-culture references are taking work to stay relevant. Quoting Friends is met with blank stares. Some of the kids I work with have never even heard of Friends! So observe, and tremble. We have our vision of what church should look like, and in the future we cool ones are going to be fighting just as hard for our archaic modes of worship as those we mock today. Culture is changing so fast that we can’t even conceive of what that’s going to look like.
In the mean-time, we’re losing the idea that church is for everyone. We’re losing the idea that the family of God and the Body of Christ includes people that don’t like what we like. Maybe we’ve already lost it… hey, I’ve been on the other side of the equation (and reacted against it) at a church that refused to make any accommodation at all for the preferences of a new generation. It’s like churches are being forced to make a decision about which generation they are going to minister to (or to be so bland and middle-of-the-road that people will just head off to one of their preference-specific congregations anyway), and so one church loses the vigour, passion, and energy of the young, and another misses out on the wisdom and experience of the old.
I’ve become more and more convinced that the root of this evil is the idea that Sunday morning is for saving people, and that the attraction of the church should be the attraction of worshipping God. We’ve come to expect Sunday morning to be the primary point of contact between people and God. We want a place that people will be drawn to with excitement. We want a place where people will want to be because what is offered there is what they want to see. We want it to say “see, God is for you.”
And God is for you. But God’s also for him. And her. And the crying infant in the back. And the toddler rolling out into the aisle to chase their Hot Wheels car. And the embarrassed mother reigning them in, who should’t be embarrassed because God loves the fact that her kid is growing up in church surrounded by people that he is for. Like the 40-something woman in the other row that’s having trouble worshipping because she secretly envies the embarrassed mother because she can have children. Or the guy in his 50s that is completely tone-deaf and can’t keep rhythm to save his life. And his mother and father who taught him to love God with his whole mind and not his voice. And the elder with the walker that can’t decide whether to turn up his hearing aid to hear the music or turn it off so he can’t.
Sunday morning is about coming together as the family of God and the body of Christ, and joining together to worship and grow. And that’s hard. It’s so much harder than breaking off into little (or large) homogeneous groups worshipping in our own superior ways. And we panic, because coming together as the whole messy old and young body probably isn’t overly attractive to the world.
Man, I’ve gone on for a while here… I’m going to wrap it up soon, I promise. I don’t want to end it on this complaint, though, I want to talk about the solution. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wanting to hear it. By now you’ve forgotten that I’ve got weird hair, and my baby-face doesn’t matter on the other side of a wall of text. TL;DR has no meaning for you. Well done.
So here’s my solution: Forget about saving people. Churches should not be in the business of saving people. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be saved at church. I’m not saying that the Gospel shouldn’t be preached. I’m saying that that’s not the primary purpose of Sunday morning. The primary purpose of Sunday morning should be to equip us to be like Jesus. You know why people flocked to Jesus? Because he was like Jesus. You know who else can be like Jesus? Us. The Bible says so. Do you think a church with a congregation full of people like Jesus would do anything but grow? Who cares what the stage looks like. Who cares what the music is or what volume it’s played at. People would come.
People would come because we would be living lives of love that reached out to the people around us rather than insulating ourselves from them. People would come because we’re living holy lives – a holiness not focused merely on preserving ourselves from corruption but instead focused on setting ourselves apart for God – living as the people God made us to be, for the purpose he made us to have. People would come because they’d want what we have. People would come because they want to be like Jesus too.
We wouldn’t have to worry about front doors or back doors on our churches, because doors wouldn’t hold us.
I know… easier said than done. I know I’m not nearly as good at doing it as I am writing it.
What do you think?
I work at a church. This means that I know a lot of Christians. In fact, despite my best intentions, it seems that most of the people I’m facebook friends with profess the Christian faith. Some of them are youth that I’ve worked with. Some of them are people I’ve gone to church with. Some of them are friends/acquaintances from school. You get the idea. The upshot is this: I get more trite, Christiany pictures and statuses popping up in my feed before 9 am than most people get in a week. Honestly, some of them I appreciate. Some are inspiring. Some are insipid. Some are just wrong, and make us all look really, really dumb. If that offends my Christian friends, I’ll borrow a page from a mom that I know and say this, just as she does when talking to all her kids at the same time: I’m telling this to all of you. If you feel that it applies to you, then take it to heart. If you feel that it doesn’t, then assume that I’m not talking to you.
Just so we’re perfectly clear, this is not on the good side of Christiany posts.
I’m going to come at this from a couple of angles: First, why you really shouldn’t ever say this or post it. Second, how it came to be, and why it’s less stupid than I make it out to be in the first part. Confused yet? Read on.
Jesus is not the reason for the season. He’s not. Take a deep breath. The athiests are right. The festive season around this time of year was around long before Jesus. It spans cultures, not in terms of people trying to steal the Christ from your Christmas, but in terms of completely unrelated religious beliefs. Why would all these other religions–the pagans, the mystics, the tribal spiritists, whatever–want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, you ask? Because it’s not. And most of you know that. It’s one of the worst kept secrets in Christendom, and one of the dumbest myths that we perpetuate to our children. Best guess, Jesus was born in September. Beyond that, even if he was born on December 25th, why would people have been celebrating that before the nativity came to pass?
I know people that have had a “house of cards” faith (refer to the earlier “mom phrase”). They’re not Christians any more. What I mean by “house of cards,” is that as they came up in the church, people fed them certainties. They were taught things, perpetuated in the church, that sounded good but had little theological or historical basis. Like Jesus’ birthday. They then went out into the “real world,” and cards started getting flicked. Things like the Christmas story were called into question as people said to them, “did you know that Christmas is actually the pagan festival of Saturnalia?” and they responded “NO! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!”
They had two choices: bury their head in the sand or find out the truth – that people celebrated this time of year because in agrarian cultures, this was downtime. We approach the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. December 21st. Lacking a good and accurate calendar, the way people knew it had come and gone was that the day started to get longer. YAY!! THE RETURN OF THE SUN! We’ve turned the corner! Spring is coming! And how easy it is to ascribe religious significance to it when you believe the seasons and all aspects of nature are governed by gods. The god of warmth and sun has triumphed again over the god of cold and night!
And what happens to those rational Christians when that card gets removed from the house? What else might be wrong? … How can I give the benefit of the doubt to the unproven, when the things I was taught were certain are OBVIOUSLY wrong? … How can a rational faith teach this?? … We would have been celebrating this season if Jesus had never been born.
And they walk away.
And I have a hard time blaming them.
I blame the sand-head-repeaters, because there is a good reason for it. Just because a teaching has gotten twisted, doesn’t mean that it didn’t start as rational.
You see, the early Christians didn’t have any illusions about this season being their idea. If they were Jewish, they grew up with Hanukkah (what Jesus would have celebrated, by the way); if they were Hellenistic gentiles, they would most likely have been lighting up bonfires against the dark, bringing in evergreen boughs against the winter, giving each other gifts (yeah. Long before St. Nick. Once again, get over it), upsetting social norms, having all sorts of sex, and watching for the victory of the Sun.
Then they decided not to celebrate those things. They thought, hey, what a perfect metaphor for the the coming of the messiah! They figured that the coming of the small new light when everything seemed the darkest was a brilliant parallel for the Light of the World coming as a baby into a spiritually dark world. They said that the rest of the world could celebrate what they wanted to, but they were going to take that time and remember that when all seems the darkest and the quietest, and it seems like the winter will never end, God is moving and is coming to save.
The season was the reason that they celebrated Jesus.
I feel that I need to be clear again: I believe that the nativity is a historical event, just not as it tends to be portrayed by Christians today. We ignore the Bible for a more picturesque, easy to tell story. Sometimes I’m kind of okay with that… there are Wise Men in our nativity creche at the same time as the shepherds*. But let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about why the story of Jesus’ birth and the events of the years surrounding it are celebrated at the Christ Mass just past winter solstice–the way the story comes together is too powerful to ignore. Let’s talk about what an awesome point of dialogue this metaphor is for relating our faith to the world! Let’s not dumb stuff down for our kids in such a way that, when they become old enough to process the metaphor, it sounds like a lie. Let’s not attack the people around us, directly or with passive-aggressive Facebook posts, for celebrating a season that we’ve co-opted for our own. They can take the Christ out of Christmas… we put it in. Without Christ, it’s just a “mass” – a feast, and they were doing that long before us.
Above all, let’s not let the trite overcome the profound. Let’s not build straw men that make our faith look ridiculous. As the world looks toward the hope of the new year, let’s be able to offer the reason for the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
*They weren’t. GASP! *house of cards falling*