Despising the Birthright: Esau’s Lesson

Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. — Genesis 25:34 (RSV)

Here’s one of those Scriptures you’ll never see quoted out of context on a t-shirt or refrigerator magnet. I like those. I’ve never been a fan of the practice of picking inspirational Scriptures and applying them to whatever little thing we have going on, as if Paul was really thinking about high school football when he dictated Philippians 4:13. UGH. But I digress.

Esau has been on my heart and mind a lot recently, particularly after a conversation with my priest, during which the slim odds of my success in the ordination process were made known (or at least implied). I have always recognized this as a possibility. My dismissal from my first and only pastoral position was bound to have far-reaching consequences, and it seems that my being honest about it still won’t do me any favors. While I knew in my head it was a possibility that this was something to which I may never be able to return, the reality of it didn’t hit my heart until after that conversation. I very well may have despised my birthright and lost my blessing, all for something immeasurably inferior.

Esau is the firstborn child of Isaac and Rebekah, and therefore, according to ancient near eastern custom, he is entitled to the blessing of the firstborn, endowing him with the promise made to Abraham. Further, he would be the one to inherit his father’s house. God, however, predicts that Esau will be supplanted by Jacob, and (surprise!) the Lord was right. Esau stupidly expresses willingness to trade all of that blessing and honor for a bowl of soup. Later on, his brother takes advantage and steals that blessing, leaving Esau to weep and pick up the pieces.

I think we are all, at one time or another, Esau. We all have moments in our lives in which we trade our holy calling as children of God for something unremarkable that seems worth it at the time. Sometimes, we are just too dull to see that this is what we are doing.

At this point, I know I have motivated you enough (sarcasm). In all seriousness, though, there is good news. Esau still receives a blessing, though not the primary one, which means there is hope for you and I as well. We are not Esau, at least not entirely, and so we are free to look at this story and learn from it before we stumble headlong and lose it all. What we must do is both simple and difficult. Namely, we must start allowing God to touch every aspect of our lives.

Are we sexually unhealthy and dependent? We need to invite God into that uncomfortable space. Do our politics reflect our fears and selfishness more than our faith? We need to let God into the voting booth with us. Do we blame those who suffer rather than offer them our hand? We need to start making offerings to God by giving of our abundance, and asking him for the compassion of Christ. Do we harbor feelings of guilt, shame, or resentment? We need to allow God’s forgiveness to prompt our own, whether toward ourselves or others. As in my case, do our plans seem to lead us back to the same place of despair? We need to seek the will of God for our lives and keep our eyes open for the blessing he yearns to give us.

The truth is that we are children of God (Ephesians 1:5), co-heirs of the promise in Christ Jesus. We are promised salvation, not just in the future, but here and now. Take it from us (me and Esau), and don’t let the pull of worldly (read “temporary”) success, prosperity, comfort, and desire lure you from the Kingdom of God. Bring this teaching with you into every interaction, and ask yourself whether or not what you are about to say or do will bring you closer to the footsteps of Christ.

I wish I had known to do this sooner, but then again, perhaps it was meant to be this way. Perhaps I am meant to warn and encourage you this day. I hope I have done just that.

Peace be with you!

On Guns, Defense, and Faith

I can already hear some of you (assuming you even wanted to click on this article and read it).

“Here we go. Just stick to the matters of church and God and let everyone do what they want with this sort of stuff.” Nope. Not this time. I have already talked about the issues with discussing guns (or anything else for that matter) in a previous post, essentially exhorting everyone (especially those of faith) to keep a cool, compassionate mind. This is hard, but it is exactly what is needed in such a knee-jerk, reactionary time as ours. However, what I am discussing today is more specific, yet still applicable to many overlapping issues regarding violence and the Christian person.

First off, I don’t blame guns. I lament their existence, but in the end, we cannot blame a tool for what it is used for. Do I believe everyone should have access to whatever weapon they want with little to no restriction? Absolutely not. However, if you were hoping for a discussion of the evils of weaponry, you will be slightly (but not entirely) disappointed.

So what exactly am I going to be putting under the microscope here? That would be us, the worshipers of violence.

Think this is harsh? Sorry, but let’s just be honest. We devalue life. Specifically, we devalue life that does not conform to our sense of what is right, and we call this “justice.” Where I am from, for example, lives are most valuable when they are free of certain mistakes. If you break into someone’s house, you should be shot with no remorse. If you talk about shooting someone with no remorse, you are somehow a more moral being. If you murder someone, you should be murdered back. If you talk about murdering those you deem deserving of it, you are simply being just (even though it is likely the same logic was applied by the murderer). Do you see the odd cycle?

The issues around gun control are the most frustrating of these cycles. For example, when enough white kids are killed in school, we want to take action. When young people of color are killing each other daily in our forsaken “bad parts of town,” that’s just a sad but acceptable part of life, it would seem.

Too often, what we mean by wanting justice is really the desire to have our biases validated in a court of law, whilst we dare to hope for forgiveness for our transgressions. Oddly enough, I think Jesus actually talked about this somewhere in Matthew…

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

In chapter 6, verses 14 and 15, Jesus lays down a truth that we love to use for small infractions and the hope of our wrongs being overlooked. When bigger transgressions are committed, however, we tell Jesus to shut up and let us handle this situation as we see fit.

Sounds crazy when you put it like that, yes? That is what we do. Nowhere does Jesus say, “Forgive unless they murder someone or break in or are trapped in the cycle of gang life and violence.” I checked. Everywhere. However, this is how our collective mind seems to interpret the words of Matthew’s Gospel.

My point is that while the tools of violence are not dangerous in and of themselves, the attitudes and biases we all carry (combined with the haphazardly regulated availability of efficient weapons) are exceedingly dangerous, especially for those of us who hold these positions while displaying crosses all over our house. Luckily, though, those crosses hold the key to doing something different.

What I am about to say may seem impractical and scary, but it is honestly, as I see it, the only Biblical way to approach the issues of self-defense, weapons, and violence as people of faith (and, I submit, as people in general).

We own three pistols. Part of this is due to inheritance, part of it for the cathartic hobby of shooting targets. A fun fact, though, is that we keep none of them in our night stands, but in our safe. Why? Nothing that we own is worth the life of someone else. Also, if someone were to break in during the day (which is when that usually happens), I do not want my very efficient pistol out there doing damage to others. This is why we keep our weapons properly stored and why I personally choose not to carry weapons with me.

As the 49th Psalm admonishes, “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.” The first step to preserving life is realizing there is nothing worth more than life. This isn’t because criminals are utilizing life well, but because God gave that life, and only God can rightfully take it back. If we ignore this truth and decide that there is no shame in killing those we feel deserve it, we share the same mental space as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hitler, Charles Manson, and the like.  The fact is that if we continue down the path of selective devaluing, we are no better than those we condemn. We must learn to think, speak, and act in ways that show an inherent, immovable valuing of life.

We cannot underestimate the impact of our collective attitudes regarding the value of all life. As long as we walk about devaluing that which God has given (whether we feel justified or not), nothing will change. As long as we (by word, thought, and deed) dismiss the cross of Christ, where God declared sinners to be worth dying for, we cannot expect a brighter future. 

Now, if you know me, you know I practice martial arts, specifically Goju-Ryu Karate Do. To many this seems like a preparation to do violence, and it was when the style originally developed. Things change, however, and what I have found is that practicing martial arts has helped me learn to keep a level head and an open heart. Does this mean I will allow someone to strike me if I can prevent it? No. Does this mean I am going to puff out my chest, pick fights, inflict as much damage as possible, and think in terms of violence in my daily life? Also no. Martial arts is a tool that should be used responsibly and actually promote communal well-being.

On a similar note, I have no problem with gun ownership… as long as we are held accountable. Do we all have safes and keep them locked up at appropriate times? Do we have a record of assault/domestic abuse? Do we ensure that we are properly trained in marksmanship, safety, and maintenance of firearms? Too often, these are issues that are overlooked for the sake of convenience and pleasing lobbyists.

On the broader scale, are we holding ourselves accountable for our words and attitudes? Did I just talk about killing someone if they ever try to rob me or break in? Did I just rejoice that a death row inmate met his end? Do I really feel no remorse about someone dying? Is my convenience really the most important thing in this conversation? Remember, Proverbs 24:17-18 teaches us, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the LORD will see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from them.”

My final point is geared toward the criticism this post may very well receive (which I welcome). I will undoubtedly provoke the question, “So I should just let myself be a victim then? Do nothing? Is that the Christian way?” My answer is, “Well…”

It is here that I appeal to Scripture. In Matthew 26:47-56, Jesus is being arrested and a disciple tries to defend him by drawing his sword and cutting off a slave’s ear. Jesus’ response?

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

It would appear Jesus could have resisted, utilizing heavenly violence to prevent his own innocent suffering. However, thankfully, that is not the example Jesus sets for us, yet we pretend that it is. Either that, or Jesus doesn’t affect our conscience regarding justice and violence at all. I am not sure which is worse.

I understand our natural impulse to seek peace by eliminating all threats, but I have to say that it is impossible that all threats disappear. Eventually, we have to live life, and we have to choose whether we will live in acceptance of fear and violence or strive for something else. The only way to achieve peace is through this “something else.” Jesus encourages us time and time again to live as if the Kingdom of God is at hand, even if the world around us doesn’t reflect that. The implication, for me, is that the world will begin to look this way if we actually treat God’s world as if it were a reality now and not just a post-death escape.

If we want peace, we must think, speak, and behave peacefully. If we want forgiveness, we must think, speak, and behave with grace. If we want to be loved, we must think, speak, and behave lovingly. What’s more, if we want to be followers of Christ, we must actually follow Him into those places of discomfort and danger, walking as He walked.

On the surface, I seem to have taken a middle-of-the-road approach. In truth, I just took an exit and headed a different direction. Banning guns will not cleanse us of the plague of violence that is so commonplace in our country. Nor, however, will the refusal to do anything. Most pressing to me is the issue of our attitudes regarding death, defense, and the use of force as a means of justice. If we devalue the lives of anyone, we fail at our task as disciples. When our attitudes change, our practices will. Perhaps open carry will cease to be a source of pride and bluster. Perhaps carrying at all will be reduced. Perhaps a nation can come together and find useful and effective ways to curb and reduce tragedy, not just in the schools and communities that we care about, but the places we try to forget exist. Perhaps we stop neglecting communities at all and start behaving as if we are, in fact, our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers. Perhaps the future could be filled with faithful people who decided to choose the cross.

Once can only hope.

Peace be with you!

Atheism: A Help for the Faithful

“Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, NRSV

I got asked to write on the following topic, which I think is actually quite a helpful one. Here is the exact wording I received when I reached out for topics:

“Apathy, Atheism. How the scripture addresses these topics, and your perspective on what we as Christians can do against the rising tide.”

I’m going to tie apathy under the umbrella of atheism in this piece, not because atheists have no passion or some other ridiculous claim, but because if one is religiously apathetic, they may as well not believe in God. Further, dealing well with either group requires the same essential tools. So let’s take a look!

If there is one thing the Scriptures teach us, it is that we are not called to spend our lives pointing at the beliefs (or lack thereof) of others. Instead, we are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). How we Christians live our lives does have an impact on whether or not people decide to embrace the Gospel of Jesus. If we live lives of light, life, compassion, and humility, the Gospel shines through us in a way that is more attractive. Conversely, if we live lives that are small-minded, proud, and unkind, we put a basket over that light and push others away from the Gospel.

One of the interesting trends I see among Christians is the tendency to lose all sense of compassion and humility when engaging with atheists. Granted, many atheists I’ve had conversations with had a similar pompous disregard for the faithful, but many also were just curious about why I believed. As a Christian, I  feel I should only address how the faithful handle difficult conversations, as our performance can either make room for or choke out the Gospel. That said, everyone (regardless of belief) can benefit from a dose of humility, which I have found to be the biggest help in representing one’s self and beliefs well.

Humility is the foundation of God and the Christian faith. As we read in Philippians 2:6-7, Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” If God is so humble, how can we not be?

The truth is, atheism as a position has much to teach us Christians. That’s right. The faithless can teach the faithful, particularly when it comes to humbly acknowledging that we don’t have all of the answers. We can also learn what it means to do what is right just because it is right, and not because we are afraid of hell or desire heaven. There is also still much that we can learn about our world and about our relationships with God, but all of these things hinge on our openness to them. Whether one is atheist or Christian, they should never just accept things because an authority said it, and they should also never walk through this world convinced that they possess the entirety of life’s truths. This is Paul’s exhortation in the Scripture that kicked off this post.

We are encouraged to “test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Once again, it is up to us to shun evil behavior (in this case, the sheer hubris of pretending to have everything figured out) and embrace the good (the humility to listen graciously and seriously, addressing the concerns and questions of our brothers and sisters with hearts of love, and not condescension or false piety). Further, we should “test everything” by taking seriously the claims made by others, showing that we are humble at heart and willing to learn (which is only helpful if we actually learn to be humble at heart and willing to learn).

When we embrace humility and show it through our interactions with others, ESPECIALLY those with whom we disagree, we leave the door open for further conversation that could lead to the acceptance of the Gospel. It is important to note, however, that people can tell when we just want to convert them to our way of thinking, so this humility must be sincere, and the conversation must be rooted in love, and nothing else. Now, are we always going to have these conversations with humble and gracious people? No, of course not, but we are only responsible for how we live in this world, and if we forget that, WE are to blame for the hindrance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, I know there is some concern that too much humility and openness can lead to a loss of faith, and I get that. It’s important to note that humbleness, and open ear, and an open heart are not just characteristics for dialogue, but characteristics that were exemplified by Christ. Our faithfulness should be the driving force behind our living in a way that welcomes others, and if that is the case, we cannot lose that faith by practicing it. Living as Christ lived is the cornerstone of Christian faith and practice. Therefore, if you find a religious  doctrine of yours being challenged and you change your mind about it (i.e. the role of God in suffering or evolution), don’t feel like you have shunned your faith. As long as Christ’s humility and love are deliberately evident in you, and as long as you still confess that God’s nature was revealed in the flesh of Christ, you are in the “Christian clear,” so to speak.

I know there may have been an expectation that I was going to give some broad, missionary advice for how to deal with atheists, but the truth is that no technique that comes across as evangelism as we know it today is going to help. Christians have a lot of issues we need to address within ourselves before we go trying to change others, and atheism (not to mention other philosophical stances, worldviews, and religions) can serve to teach us what good witnessing is and is not. Listen to the stories of an atheist friend or colleague. How has the Church treated them? How have you treated them? Until we get that figured out on the level of every individual believer, there is no way to globally stop the shift away from a Church that has gotten it wrong far too often. There is hope, but we will all have to work to realize it!

Peace be with you!

 

An Old Idea We Have Yet to Master

“For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” — 1 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV

“My body is a temple.”

We have heard, said, or disliked someone who said that phrase at one point or another. It is a spiritual idea that comes from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, yet we somehow have taken it to mean that one shouldn’t enjoy Pringle’s every once in a while. Jerks…

Anyway, I have been reading 1 Corinthians (First Corinthians, not “One Corinthians,” Mr. President) for my New Testament devotional text, and I felt compelled to use this section from chapter 3 to talk about the purpose of the Christian faith and provide some encouragement for all of us to take it seriously. So let’s dive right in.

Verse 16 of the text says that we “are God’s temple” and “God’s Spirit dwells in” us. It should be noticed (as the footnote tells us) that the “you” in this text is intended to be plural, which serves several purposes, the first of which being that the entire Church (the body of believers in Christ) is considered the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells. When we gather and act together (in accordance with our faith), the Spirit of God is powerfully present, revealing the love of God to the world through us. As Jesus says in Matthew, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The “you” in this text can also refer to the body of individual believers, because each believer is said to have the gift of the Holy Spirit (see the entire Book of Acts). Both our personal and communal lives, therefore, should bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Whether we are gathered in a church, Bible study, service event, or individually at work, school, or home, the Spirit of God and our connection to it should guide our thoughts, words, and actions.

Too often, however, we are not so intentional with who we are. We react based on how we feel, our instincts, or what will seemingly benefit us the most. Our personal, political, economic, and social lives too often fail to reflect that which we claim to be when we gather on Sundays (or Saturdays or Wednesdays, depending on your denomination). In fact, we have developed a system where this is accepted, known as the confession and pardon of sin.

Not every denomination has this as a formal moment in worship (which also contributes to the problem), but for those of us that do, the ritual actually reinforces the idea that wrongdoing is just a part of who we are. If we say the words with the correct measure of guilt, everything will be okay for US, which is hardly the intended point. Similarly, those churches that don’t talk about sin and the need for forgiveness contribute to the problem by failing to acknowledge that we do harm to others. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it needs to be acknowledged and fixed.

So what does this have to do with the whole “you are that temple” talk? I’m glad you asked. Step into my office.

A self-centered life does not witness well to the love of God with which we claim to be connected. I shall repeat that in bold. A self-centered life does not witness well to the love of God with which we claim to be connected. This holds true for when we gather as the Church and when we are in the midst of our daily individual lives.

Do I go to church for me? Do I go to church for my friends or so I can go to heaven? Do I go to church so I can act how I want during the week? Do I leave my faith in my private life? Do I treat others how I want, knowing I can ask forgiveness from God later? Do I keep my faith strictly personal and make my political, economic, and social decisions based on other things?

These are all good questions to ask, and more than likely, we are all begrudgingly nodding our heads in response to some of them. After all, it is how we were all raised to see church: as a service industry. What’s worse? The institutional church plays right into this role. Church is for us. It is so we can get what we need. It is also for when we have the time to do things for others, but mostly it is for us. It’s okay to admit this, because that is how our culture views almost everything. How is it useful? What does it do for me?

Unfortunately, this is hardly how the faith was designed to work. Our intentions do matter when it comes to what we do. If we gather because we are supposed to or because we are getting what we feel we need, we are not gathering in the name of Christ. We are gathering in our own name, and the Spirit of God is silenced. We unknowingly place an idol that looks like us on the altar of Christ and defile ourselves, the collective temple of God.

When we leave our faith at the church or in our hearts, making decisions based on what will make us the most friends, money, or success, we do the same thing. If we treat our neighbors based on stereotypes, prejudice, or ignorance, we defile the temple of God within us. When we poison our earth because we feel it is there for our uses only, we defile the temple of God within us. The same happens if we believe the lies of our culture and what they have to say about us, our bodies, and our value. Whether collectively or individually, we defile the temple of God when we fail to realize our value and the value of all others. 

So what do we do? We go back to square one. We hit the basics again.

We must re-accept the teachings of Christ daily, resolving to live in a way that honors the Spirit of God within us and within each other. When we gather, it must be in order to connect with God. When we go out into the world, it must be to live in light of that connection. We must be willing to change when we are in the wrong, and to stand firm in the love of Christ when we find ourselves tempted to act in self-interest.

In short, we must daily resolve to seek to both experience the love of God AND reflect it. This takes practice and grace, both for yourself and for others. It is about building daily habits of mindfulness and compassion. It is a journey that will last as long as we are on this earth, but it is one that is worth every twist, turn, and disruption.

I don’t know where you are on your faith walk, but I can tell you that all of us need this reminder every once in a while. Remember that you house the Spirit of God within you, and every decision you make either honors that or… does not. If we can all be more conscious of that, we will all get the chance to experience the love of God on a greater level. It is my hope that you will join me in this re-evaluation, so that we can all be the temple we are designed to be.

Peace be with you!

Blessed Foolishness: A Comment on Church Status

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. — 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, NRSV

Alright, so get excited, everyone. This is a rant I have been just waiting to go on, but don’t worry. It is rooted in Scripture and a love for the faith that continues to strengthen and change me. This post was prompted by President Trump’s Christmas speech. Actually, it was prompted more by the response to said Christmas speech, piled on top of the comments I have heard over and over again about the supposed, rightful Christianity of the United States. 

First, I must issue a disclaimer. I am not attacking or denying the Christian faith of the majority of Americans dating back to our nation’s founding. I am not going to be dumping on the president. I am not going to be dumping on the United States. I am also not going to be dumping on Christianity. I am, however, going to take issue with a tendency that has plagued the Christian Church throughout history. As a matter of fact, this is a tendency that has always plagued humanity, namely the tendency to seek out power and protect however much power we manage to get our hands on. 

What do I mean by “power?” I mean social, political, military, and economic influence. I mean that which makes Christians the primary beneficiaries of policy, the chiefly expressed and practiced religion, and the religion that is adopted by the nation to suit the purposes of the nation. It is my contention that for us as Christians to seek out or possess such influence is to undermine the entire faith. 

Christianity was never supposed to be a faith of worldly power. Jesus himself addresses the lack of popularity to be expected by Christians in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The quote at the start of this post comes from a bigger section of the First Letter to the Corinthians in which Paul address the fact that Christian beliefs alone are counter to the world’s logic, much less the way they live their lives in pursuit of “nothing… except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

My point is that Christians believe God Incarnate, Jesus, the King of kings, did not come with the might of an army, the wealth of a king, or the privilege of the elite. He was a son of a carpenter, wandering from place to place, living off of the kindness of others, and spreading a message that challenged the powerful, lifted up the poor, and ended with his own crucifixion. Jesus never pursued worldly power or wealth, and he never encouraged his followers to do so. He actually warned against it multiple times, saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

So what is my point? After President Trump’s speech, so many extoled the virtues of our Christian country. On top of that, we have a habit of talking about our troops as if they were Christ, potentially sacrificed on the altar of freedom for our salvation. Even more, we equate being a good American with being a good Christian, and  the American values of wealth and privilege seep into our churches and teachings, causing us to mistake riches for blessing, status for righteousness.

This is not the first time. Whether in Rome, the Crusades, colonization, or modernity, any time the Church has sought or achieved worldly power, it became decadent, corrupt, and idolatrous. Forced conversions, wars for land, wars for power, slavery, and the blending of Christian and civil religion all resulted from the Church’s pursuit of that which is counter to Christ… and I worry it’s happening again.

When we as Christians become concerned with our status or endorsement by the government, when we emphasize numbers, when we seek after wealth, power, and security above all else, we start down that wide road that “leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13).

It is my prayer that you will join me in praying for the Church, that she may recover her purpose and identity. It is my prayer that you will find strength not in riches or status, but in the humble cross of Christ. Remember that the love of God is not found in material abundance or social privilege, but in the humble, daily pursuit of justice, service, and kindness for all people. If we can remember that, we  could have a bright new year ahead.

Peace be with you!

The Season of Giving and Why God Probably Doesn’t Like Christmas

“Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” — Isaiah 1:14

Now THAT is a Scripture full of holiday cheer! Okay, so between the title and Scripture, you may think this is going to be harsh, but it really isn’t. I don’t hate Christmas, and neither does God, I’m sure. There are, however, some issues for the faithful, and anybody else, when it comes to seasons, rituals, and holidays. So let’s talk. 

Now, this isn’t going to be a rant about the pagan roots of modern-day Christmas decor and traditions. Yes, it’s true. No, it isn’t a bad thing because those symbols are re-interpreted faithfully. All in all, if it bothers you, don’t get a tree. It’s not a requirement and your faith is more important. So there. Done. 

That said, the reason I picked the Scripture I did for this conversation is because I’ve gotten sick of hearing the phrase “Season of Giving” applied to Christmas time. Why? Because giving, kindness, and familial love are not to be restricted to particular times and places. This attitude actually typifies one of the worst issues facing us as Christians (and as people in general).

What issue? The issue of compartmentalized living. You know what I’m talking about. “Religious me” is private and for church time. “Work me” is for work. “School me” is for school, and so on. Similarly, we have “Holiday me,” the alter ego that goes all “best behavior” for the span of about a month or so, and I am just about sick of all of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have been just as guilty of this as everyone else. It’s a problem we all have in this world where it is frowned upon to be utterly devoted to a way of being that doesn’t match the values of the powers that be. That’s why we have holidays, designated times for kindness and familial celebration so that, when they end, we can ease back into life as it should be lived: in pursuit of other things. 

This practice is as bad as it sounds, especially within the Christian world. When Christmas became the “Season of Giving” and our holy days/worship meetings became THE time and place to devoutly practice our faith, a major battle was lost in the war for our souls. It became much easier to have our cake and eat it. We can worship at the designated moments while dedicating the remainder of our time to getting what we want, achieving what we desire to achieve. Why is this a problem?

Nothing changes, including our hypocrisy. To us, it seems like balance. To the rest of the world, it’s the proof that what we believe is self-serving B.S. 

So what is the solution? Abandon holidays?

Don’t be dramatic

While we are on the subject, though, it’s time worship and holidays (from the Old English word meaning, “Holy Day”) were re-understood as what they were really intended to be: reminders. The practice of faith and goodness is not found in the sanctuary, worship center, or the temporary toleration of difficult people in the “spirit of Christmas.” Worship, holy days, and other such themed seasons are supposed to be reminders, means of getting in the habit so we can function like human beings were intended in the other aspects of our lives.  

Now, you’ve no doubt heard or been this person before. “I don’t celebrate commercial holidays because we should be that way all the time.” Well, we aren’t, ding-bat, that’s the problem. However, instead of treating these holy days and weekly reminders as instances in which we can learn how to habitually love, we treat them like the timed trials in which we are to get all of that distracting affection, adoration, and discipleship out of the way so that we can get back to living life in the usual self-serving, poor-ignoring, tension-avoiding way. 

This is why God says what he does in the Scripture at the start of this post from the prophet Isaiah. Our holidays and designated times/places for worshiping and following God “have become a burden to [God], [He] is weary of bearing them,” precisely because their point is being missed entirely. These seasons and holy days are designed to teach and remind us to “cease evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). These are actions that make up a lifestyle of faith, the intended lifestyle of Christians (it’s even a great way to live as a non-Christian, I might add). This is not a lifestyle that allows for our preferred, compartmentalized lifestyle. We are to be “faithful me” at work, at school, at home, in the voting booth, in the mall, yes, in our places of worship. 

As you go about the holidays, worship, and rituals of your life (whether they be Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, family dinners, new moons, weekly worship, Lent, Ramadan, etc.), remember that these are times to develop habits, not to hastily exercise all of your kindness. What habits? The habits that will allow you to live a faithful, kind, generous, just, and full life all day, every day. If we can begin to take even a tiny step in this direction, perhaps we will see a “Season of Giving” that never ends, and that Kingdom of God will move just a tad bit closer.

Peace be with you!

 


“I don’t need church.”

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” — Acts 2:44-47, NRSV

So this has been an interesting topic for me. So many people simultaneously proclaim belief in Christ, but indifference, even loathing with regard to the Church. They understandably believe that organized religion breeds division and hatred, and there are too many rules/regulations that surely Jesus wouldn’t care about. This is all aside from the politics, greed, violence, and poor pastoral care in abusive situations that formal Christian churches have been marred by throughout history. 

On the one hand, I get it. Churches are filled with many, many negative things that can distract from the experience of God they are supposed to facilitate. Churches (across the board) have poorly handled politics, sexuality, gender, science, and abuse. They have sent abused women and children back to their abuses, utilized scare tactics to maintain control, and twisted Scripture to allow for prejudice. At least, many have. Many people in the churches have. Many people have. See where I’m going? People have flaws, and these affect churches. 

It is astounding to me how quick people are to abandon “church” because they don’t like something about it while failing to realize what God’s Church truly is: a people. So if all the people who have a problem with practices or attitudes in the various individual representations of God’s Church leave, only those who are indifferent to or fed by those negative aspects remain… And nothing changes. 

Now, are you going to reform the whole Catholic Church? Unlikely. Is the United Methodist Church going to be shaken up by me? Not necessarily. However, if we just bail on gathering with other believers just because there are things we don’t like or are hurt by, we actually run the risk of enabling that pain to befall others. 

We also have this bad habit of saying, “My relationship with God is between me and God, so I don’t need church.” 

Wrong. 

That’s American individualism and privatized (ineffective?) religion getting to you. Christianity was designed for community. Every bad theological idea (think Jones, Koresh, etc.) came from some guy reading his Bible alone with no guidance or community. 

On top of that, Christian faith is supposed to be shared and mobilized to help and spread to others. It really doesn’t matter if one believes in their heart if their hands and mouth do nothing with it. It may very well be a ticket to heaven, but if that’s all one is after, I have to wonder if that’s actually what they are getting…

NOW. 

Are formal churches the only way to do this? No. They are the most convenient, but no. 

The trick is still being in community. Look at the passage at the start of this post from Acts. Believers met “day by day,” and they “broke bread… praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (verses 46-47). It is vital to the life of faith to gather with others who share that faith for the purposes of growing in that faith. 

Further, it is beneficial to gather and participate together in practices as old as the faith itself, like Communion, singing hymns, and studying Scripture. Churches are, by and large, the best places to do this. 

Does that mean you blindly accept that body or denomination? Hell no. Never. As I said, churches are rife with problems that need to be addressed. The important thing is recognizing and living into our membership of God’s spiritual Church that transcends time and space. Let the churches be a tool to do that, but that doesn’t mean you have to love everything about them, same as everything else. 

What’s more, if we get involved and invested, we have a higher chance of influencing the Church (and the world!) for the better. 

I hated church when I perceived my call to ministry. I was sick of anti-intellectualism, false hopes, and fruitless beliefs. However, as I pursued my call and got involved, God did some cool stuff. I had young people struggling with science and religion coming to me and leaving at peace, knowing it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” scenario. I had people concerned about their sexuality leaving empowered and encouraged, feeling loved as opposed to ashamed. I had people coming to me who made terrible mistakes, expecting shame but receiving corrective grace because they had a pastor who (Lord knows) has made many, many mistakes himself. 

This isn’t a boast about me or my ministry, but it is a statement about what God can do through all of us if we decide to reclaim faith and the Church for ourselves. Things can change in beautiful and powerful ways through you and your faith. 

Is it leading or serving in missions? Is it teaching a Sunday School class? Is it chaperoning youth events? Is it helping serve Communion or greeting in worship? Is it money handling and behind the scenes leadership? 

What calls to you? Where would you like to see changes in the church? Pursue it! Don’t abandon it so others can share your pain. Don’t hold up one of those anti-church, pro-Jesus banners that make no sense! 

We can’t, as a nation, stay in the habit of simply discarding that which contains flaws. We would have nothing left. The proper response is to recognize what is important, what is good, what is pure, what is just, and to pursue and nurture those things TOGETHER. 

Just a thought. 

Peace be with you!