Morning Prayer Following the Elections

Tomorrow at my congregation, Grace Lutheran on the East Side of Saint Paul, we will gather to pray for our state and nation following the elections. Please join us – in person, or in spirit.

Morning Prayer On the Occasion of Local, State, and National Elections
Wednesday, November 7, 10am
Grace Lutheran Church, Saint Paul, MN

Order of Prayer adapted from the Church of England’s Common Worship materials. Hymns numbers refer to Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Prelude

Gathering Dialogue
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom.

Let us pray.
Silence for reflection
Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of this age that is passing away
may the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect your glory this day
and so be made ready to see your face
in the heavenly city where night shall be no more.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.
Amen.

Hymn #771 God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalmody
Psalm 42

As the deer longs for the water brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God;
when shall I come before the presence of God?
My tears have been my bread day and night,
while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is now your God?’
Now when I think on these things, I pour out my soul:
how I went with the multitude
and led the procession to the house of God,
With the voice of praise and thanksgiving,
among those who kept holy day.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul,
and why are you so disquieted within me?
O put your trust in God;
for I will yet give him thanks,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Prayer
The night has passed, and the day lies open before us;
let us pray with one heart and mind.
Silence is kept.
As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever.
Amen.

A Song of the New Creation
Isaiah 43.15,16,18,19,20c,21

I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.
‘I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.’
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
‘Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert
‘Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
‘I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
‘The people whom I formed for myself,
that they might declare my praise.’
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Message

Hymn #887 This Is My Song

Gospel Canticle
The Benedictus (The Song of Zechariah)

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
who has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Prayers
Let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need. In particular, we pray for our state and nation, asking God’s grace and blessings following yesterday’s elections.

God of the heavens and the earth, you are Lord of all. Give us the strength to resist putting too much hope in any one political party or ideology, for you are the hope of the world. Fix our hearts on you and on those whom you love. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, you raise up leaders and give those in high office great responsibility. Bless those whom we have elected to office, especially (names). Grant them your wisdom and grace in their holy calling of leading this nation. May they use their authority to seek not the narrow interest of small groups, but the interest of all. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of reconciliation, bring together the people of this land to accept, embrace, and pray for our newly elected officials. Give us the eye to see this nation not as a people divided by Red and Blue, Republican and Democrat, but a nation that strives together to live into its greatest hopes of liberty and justice for all. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of healing, unite the people of this state under the banner of your love. Grant your wisdom to the state legislature as it seeks to implement the state constitutional amendment(s) approved in yesterday’s election. May (any) legal challenges or re-counts proceed fairly and justly, and may all who advocated for or against the amendments seek the best for this state, and interpret the actions of their political adversaries in the best possible light. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of the poor and marginalized, you sent prophets to call out on behalf of the poor, and your own Son proclaimed Good News to the poor and captive. Give all who hold positions of authority, and the citizens who elected them, the will to use their power for the good of the poor. Give your wisdom and care to business owners and community activists, to church leaders and to school officials, to managers and to laborers, that we might all contribute to alleviate the plight of all who suffer. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

All these things and whatever else you see that we need, grant us, O God, for the sake of him who died and rose again and now lives and reigns with you in unity with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Amen.

Uniting our prayers with the whole company of heaven,
let us pray with confidence as our Savior has taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymn #888 O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

The Conclusion
May Christ, who has opened the kingdom of heaven,
bring us to reign with him in glory.
Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Postlude

Talking about Politics and Sexuality at Church

This November, Minnesota voters will have the chance to accept or reject a proposed state constitutional amendment that would write a definition of marriage into the state constitution. Understanding the sensitivities that arise when talking in the church about either politics or sexuality – let alone both! – I shared the following letter in my congregation’s August newsletter as a first step to kicking off a formal conversation about these matters.

Dear members of Grace,

We’re about to ramp up to a busy fall election season – every member of the state legislature is up for election; there’s an election for President of the United States, and an election for one of our US Senators; and, there are two state constitutional amendments up for approval in November. It will be busy. The airwaves will be crowded. You’ll hear and read lots of conflicting and diverse messages. As bothersome as all the advertising might be – and yes, it will be – there are important matters before us, and we should take care in preparing to cast our votes.

One of the topics before voters this November will be the issue of same-gender marriage. Same-gender marriage is illegal in Minnesota, and the proposed state constitutional amendment would write a prohibition of such marriages into our state constitution.

If you open your worship book to page 286, you’ll find the Marriage liturgy. Marriage has been part of human society for eons, and has been part of the life of the church for over 1500 years. Marriage is among those rites of the church that are sometimes referred to as “pastoral services,” that is, as non-sacramental services that accompany significant moments in one’s life. The church has been interested in marriage for a long, long time.

Yet the church’s role in weddings is not an uncomplicated matter. Marriage is a legal union of two people that is regulated by the state. The government determines who can marry whom. When pastors preside at weddings they are officiating over a ceremony that is simultaneously civil and religious – enacting the civil marriage in the eyes of the state, while also proclaiming God’s blessings upon the couple. The church’s ministry with marrying couples is indeed intertwined with the government’s policy on marriage.

Rarely do Christians have the opportunity to cast a vote in the public sphere on a matter of such historic significance in the life of the church. Few times, if ever, have ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments been so clearly connected to the life of the church as is this upcoming vote on a state constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to opposite gender couples. This is a unique time for our church and for our state.

Marriage is in our worship books and is among our church’s most cherished traditions. And this November, marriage will also be on the ballot. Clearly, we in the church should be talking about this. We’re not all going to agree, of course, and some of us might be weary of such conversations. But I invite all interested members to share conversation, prayer, deliberation, and study around these matters, in informal conversation and in structured settings. At dates and times to be announced next month, I will convene a series of gatherings for any who wish to explore these matters here at Grace.

In this election season, we pray that God blesses us – and the people of this state – with a spirit of understanding and a desire to seek the greater good.

Peace to you,

Pastor Chris Duckworth

Pastor’s Approach: Weddings

I’ve been writing monthly articles in my church newsletter about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about weddings, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category link.

Marriage is Both Legal and Religious
Marriage is a legal union regulated by the government upon which people of faith have historically asked God’s blessings. The United States is somewhat unique in its practice of allowing clergy to preside at legal wedding ceremonies. In much of the world, including the historically Christian nations of Europe and Latin America, couples first go to a judge to be legally married. Then, if the couple desires the church’s blessing on their marriage, they come to the church at a later date for their church wedding. In fact, in his writings on the wedding service, Martin Luther describes a couple getting married on the step to the church’s front door. Only after making their legal vows to one another does the couple step into the church to seek the blessings of God and the Christian community on their marriage.

Couples are welcome to have the entire wedding ceremony – which includes both the legal marriage and the declaration of God’s blessings – performed at the church. Alternatively, couples are welcome to be married by a judge and then come to the church to ask God’s blessings upon their marriage. I’ve presided at both kinds of weddings, and each are perfectly legitimate.

The Church Wedding Service
The church wedding service is a Christian worship service celebrating God’s love for and commitment to the couple and the world, and the love and commitment God has given them for each other. While many options are available to the couple to make the service rich with meaningful symbols and experiences, a few essentials mark a wedding as a Christian wedding:

  • Gathering in the name of God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit;
  • One or more readings from the Bible;
  • A sermon proclaiming God’s love and grace;
  • Vows the couple makes to each other;
  • Blessing of the couple;
  • Benediction (ie, words of blessing at the end of the service).

The wedding service can be a full, robust church service, too – complete with liturgical music, hymns, prayers of intercession, holy communion, and so forth. This is what Jessicah and I did at our wedding … which lasted about 90 minutes and was a festive time of prayer and worship.

Many other elements may be part of the wedding service in a variety of ways – how the couple enters and leaves the church (Jessicah and I walked in together); the use of other symbols or rituals of marriage (such as the giving of rings; the lighting of a unity candle); the selection and use of music; the reading of non-Biblical texts (such as poetry); the type of clothing or flowers that are used; the role of parents, children, and other family member; the “first kiss,” and so forth. I work with couples to develop a meaningful service that gives praise to God and gives expression to the couple’s love for and commitment to one another.

Wedding Policy
I am currently working with the Worship & Music Committee to revise our congregation’s wedding policy. Please contact the church office if you would like to learn more about weddings at Grace. As with all special church occasions, dates for weddings need to be coordinated with the church to assure the availability of the church space, and of the pastor.

Pastor’s Approach: Praising God, Honoring Country

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. This month, I wrote about the intersection of patriotism and Christian worship. It is a variant on pieces I’ve written on this blog in the past. Below is what appeared in my congregation’s July newsletter.

The 4th of July is a wonderful holiday, celebrating our nation’s independence and calling all who live in this land to reflect on the freedoms we are privileged to enjoy in this land. There will be flags waving outside of houses – including my house – and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products. Yet at church we don’t make patriotic celebrations a centerpiece of our worship or fellowship. This is intentional.

When Christians gather for worship on Sunday mornings, we gather around the Risen Christ, the Living Word of God. Worship is a time to give praise to the God of our ancestors for the grace and mercy He has shown to us, most clearly through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God. Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music. Yet if a hymn’s theme is secular, and cannot be reasonably understood as giving praise to God, it is not appropriate for Christian Worship.

Our worship services include – and our tradition demands – that we pray for our government and nation, and especially for those in positions of leadership. This we do every Sunday, and on occasions of national holidays those prayers are carefully crafted.

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance. But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers, but such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God’s Word.

Outside of those times that are set aside for worship, Christians are called to active engagement in the civic life of our country and our community. Christians should enthusiastically and patriotically attend civic celebrations, memorials and ceremonies. Though waving the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not appropriate for Christian worship, let us wave the flag in the local parade and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the town square. “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” is a beautiful anthem, and appropriately sung underneath the beautiful sun-lit or firework-streaked sky at a civic gathering.

There is a time and a place for everything – and though we pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism. As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples. We don’t cease being Americans when we come to worship, but neither do we come to worship to celebrate our American heritage. We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from God.

May you have a safe and wonderful Independence Day holiday.

—–
Our worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes several prayers appropriate for national holidays in a section called Civil Life, Government, Nations (pages 76-78). Below are two prayers you might consider using at a time of family prayer on July 4th or on any other national holiday.

Holy Trinity, one God, you show us the splendor of diversity and the beauty of unity in your own divine life. Make us, who came from many nations with many languages, a united people that delights in our different gifts. Defend our liberties, and give those whom we have entrusted with authority the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our sovereign and Savior. Amen.

Almighty god, our heavenly Father, bless the public servants in the government of this country/state/county/town, especially (insert name of elected leaders), that they may do their work in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice. Help them use their authority to serve faithfully and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Provision of Health Insurance by Religious Employers

I'm a big advocate of the separation of church and state. Knowing this, the other day someone asked me how I felt about the controvery surrounding health care, contraception, and religious employers. Here's my line of thought:

  1. The government has an interest in guaranteeing non-discriminatory access to health care coverage.
  2. Medical contraception is part of health care, not only for legitimate pregnancy prevention purposes, but also for a range of medical reasons related to the regulation of hormones. "The pill" is not used only for contraceptive purposes, but for other legitimate medical reasons, as well.
  3. Medical contraception is used only for women. Denying such coverage affects only women. Thus, denying access to medical contraception violates the government's interests in ensuring non-discriminatory access to health care.
  4. In this country we have an odd, informal but long-held, "grand bargain" between employers and the government that employers provide health insurance to their employees. It is a benefit that employers offer, but is not required by law. 
  5. Employers could opt not to offer health insurance, especially if they find regulations too burdensome (morally, financially, etc.), and instead offer other benefits – such as increased salary – to attract employees. Such employees could then purchase health insurance on the open market.
  6. The Hosanna-Tabor case recently decided by the Supreme Court distinguishes between the staff of religious institutions hired for "ministerial" roles and those hired for non-ministerial roles. In that case, it was ruled that the government could not protect an employee hired for a "ministerial" role who accused her employer of unlawful termination. The government, simply put, does not interfere with how religious organizations employ or terminate employment of people serving in ministerial roles. However, the government continues to have an interest and role in protecting the rights of employees of religious institutions who serve in non-ministerial roles.
  7. If the government has an interest in ensuring equal, non-discriminatory access to health insurance (#1, above) and has a role in protecting the rights of staff serving in non-ministerial roles of religious institutions, it has a role and duty to ensure that such staff receive equal, non-discriminatory access to health insurance.
  8. The government has granted that organizations whose primary purpose is the propogation of the faith, and whose staff overwhelmingly comes from the faith, and whose organizations primarily serve people of that faith (ie, houses of worship) may offer health insurance to their employees that does not cover medical contraception, so as to adhere to religious teaching.
  9. Other church-sponsored organizations, whose employees and whose clientele do not necessarily come from the faith (social service organizations, colleges, etc.) and whose mission has a broad social reach, are treated just like other employers when it comes to the provision of health insurance. 

A Prayer for Memorial Day

I noticed that in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the worship book of my church, there are no specific prayers for Memorial Day or the occasion of remembering those who died in service to our country. There are prayers for the armed forces and for our nation's leaders and other related topics, but nothing that quited seemed to me to fit for Memorial Day. So, I crafted a prayer for Memorial Day. Feel free to use, adapt, edit, or ignore. 

Almighty God, you are our strength and our shield. We give you thanks for the men and women of our armed forces, past and present, and especially for those who have died while serving. May their sacrifices serve the cause of peace, and may our nation be ever grateful for their service. With your wisdom and strength guide our military's leaders, and give to all people a desire for justice and peace. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

A good and safe Memorial Day weekend to you all!

Bustin’ Unions, or Bustin’ Faith? Why Diana Butler Bass is wrong about Scott Walker

I'm a bit shocked that Diana Butler Bass makes an unfair and unwarranted attack on Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, assulting the supposed role of his faith in his confrontation with state Senate Democrats and the government employee unions. If she wants to write a piece critiquing his policies and politics, that's fine … but his faith? 

Read: God in Wisconsin: Scott Walker's "Obedience"

Dr. Bass, who earned her Ph.D. from Duke University and has taught at the college and seminary level, makes some terribly inaccurate conclusions, ones that would earn any undergraduate student points off of a term paper.

First, she cites the many religious groups – Roman Catholic and main line Protestant – who have been speaking out on behalf of the unions and their collective bargaining rights. Then, noting that Governor Walker is a member of an independent, evangelical congregation, she claims that

Scott Walker does not give a rip about pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, any Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist bishop, or the Protestant social justice pastors. These religious authorities, steeped in centuries of theology and Christian ethics mean absolutely nothing in Scott Walker's world.

Really? It is terribly tenuous to suggest that, simply because of his church membership, Governor Walker "does not give a rip" about what Roman Catholic or Mainline Protestant church leaders say. Just because someone belongs to one group or adheres to one creed does not mean that they do not "give a rip" about other creeds or perspectives. He need not agree with them, but to suggest that he does not "give a rip" goes too far in recklessly slandering a man who hasn't actually said anything akin to "I don't give a rip about what Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal or Methodist leaders say." Dr. Bass assumes that Governor Walker has little respect for the Catholic or Mainline churches and their leaders, simply because of where he chooses to worship on Sunday morning.

(In fact, in a speech that Scott Walker gave to a group of Christian businessmen in 2009 – a speech which Dr. Bass critiques later in her piece – Walker speaks graciously about the different adolescent rites of passage within Christian churches, notably the believer's baptism of his church, and the first communion practices of other churches. That doesn't sound like someone who doesn't "give a rip" about other beliefs.)

Furthermore, by dredging up his congregation's statement of faith (which she dismisses as "boilerplate") and assigning to him the beliefs outlined therein, Dr. Bass once again makes a false assumption. Should we assume that everyone who attends a particular church adheres, completely, to that church's statement of faith? The Lutherans accept the Athanasian Creed as a "true declaration of the faith of this church" (ELCA Constitution, 2.04). Will Dr. Bass next start assigning to all Lutherans an unwavering belief in the eternal damnation of those who have done evil, or a belief that only those who believe this creed "firmly and faithfully" will be saved? Of course she won't, but that's exactly the leap she makes with Governor Walker – assigning the stated beliefs of his congregation to him, without nuance.

After attacking the governor because of what his church website states, Dr. Bass goes after his own words of faith. Governor Walker shared a testimony before a group of Christian businessmen in which he said that he sought to trust and obey Christ in his life. From his stated desire to trust and obey Christ, Dr. Bass infers that Governor Walker has an overly confident evangelical spirituality in which doubt is not allowed and confidence in God's leading is absolute.

She then claims that Governor Walker shares this dangerous spirituality with George W. Bush, the favorite boogeyman of the left. This spirituality, Dr. Bass suggests, led the former president to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, critiquing this spirituality (which she assumes guides Governor Walker's every decision), Dr. Bass claims that "in this theological universe, hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the Devil, and anything that works to accompish God's plan is considered ethically justifiable." Suddenly, the man who gave a faithful testimoney to a small group of businessmen is now part of a divine plan to invade countries and plow ahead with a politically conservative holy mission dictated by God on high. This is the kind of exaggeration, guilty by faux association, and horrendous leaping to conclusions that the left routinely critiques when performed by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other right wing luminaries.

I've listened to the entire speech that Scott Walker gave before that group of businessmen in November 2009, and I have a hard time coming to her same conclusions. In it he talks not about politics but about his childhood, his faith, running for office in college and later in state politics, how he met his wife, and his involvement in church. The theme of "trust and obey" weaves through his wandering comments, which are authentic and honest, and reflective of an evangelical piety. Is his belief that Christians are called to trust and obey God worthy of her vicious political attack? No.

Main line liberal Christians might not use the word "obey" much any longer in our piety, but we certainly use the word "trust," and the call to live a Godly life – no matter what words we use – is prevalent in our beliefs, practices, and rites. In the rite for Holy Baptism, we acknowledge that "living with Christ an in the communion of saints, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God" (Holy Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pg. 227). And more: "Called by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the grace and love fo God, do you desire to have your children baptized into Christ?" (Holy Baptism, ELW, 228). Obedience and trust and the call to live holy lives are all part of the main line Protestant tradition. Yet, dressed up with different words, Dr. Bass trashes this same commitment when coming out of the mouth of an evangelical Christian Republican.

This essay is sloppy work by Dr. Bass, and exemplifies – from the left! – the worst of mixing religion and politics. If Governor Walker were to state, "God has called me to bust the unions," or "All that I do in politics is led by God," then her worry would be justified. If she could cite more direct proof of Governor Walker's co-mingling of faith and partisan politics, perhaps her essay would be stronger. But absent such a direct link of his faith and politics and the current political standoff, her essay is simply irresponsible rubbish that serves only to fan political flames and unnecessarily introduce religion into what is already an ugly political situation.

Is Jesus a liberal Democrat? Really?

"Jesus is a liberal Democrat."

So says Steven Colbert, the wise-cracking comedian who gives a regular dose of God to a generation that is largely absent from the pews, mostly by revealing the hypocrisy of Christian conservatives.  In last evening's show, he takes aim at his favorite target, Bill O'Reilly.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
www.colbertnation.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:368914
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> March to Keep Fear Alive

Of course, Bill O'Reilly is low-hanging fruit.  Picking apart O'Reilly's theology is about as easy as getting a cold by walking through a childcare center in January.  The two lines that Colbert highlights from O'Reilly's piece – about Jesus not advocating any kind of service to the poor that is self-destructive, and the "God helps those who help themselves" quote – could be identified as theologically fraudulent by any Christian who has even a basic grasp of their catechism and Bible.   So I'm not sure that Colbert's rant here is very significant, except perhaps for the rather public smackdown of Bill O'Reilly's odd theology that it represents.

But there is something else that bothers me.  Yes, Colbert rightly highlights that many of those who would claim this country to be Christian seem to give little credence to the social dimensions and demands of the Gospel.  But those who champion Colbert as some sort of political genious and social prophet for our times seem to miss a very important dynamic in this whole equation – what can the government realistically do, and what should it do?  Just because Jesus fed the five thousand and told his followers to give their cloak and go the extra mile, should we expect such actions always to be taken by our government?  I'm not sure that the words of scripture necessary relate in a 1:1 correlation to the mission and tasks of government … do they? 

Jesus is not a liberal Democrat.  But neither is he a conservative Republican.  Any attempts to squeeze him into one of our 21st century political boxes is pure idolotry.

I'm a pastor, and in my line of work the words of scripture do apply in much more of a 1:1 correlation than they do in government.  Yet, in my congregation, how often do we send the poor away, to the government, to find assistance, because we don't think we have the means to help?  We who are committed to the words of scripture and the Way of Christ often feel that we cannot do what our Lord commands us to do, because of limited resources or priorities that might place paying the electric bill or the pastor's salary, or buying the youth group's foosball table, above feeding the hungry or giving money to the poor.  So if our churches, with crosses on our steeples and Gospel words on our lips, cannot do what they are commanded to do in relationship to the poor, why do we expect any more from the government?

Not everything that is good and holy and just can be accomplished by the government, just as the church cannot do everything that it is called to do by God.  So while it is fun to point out the speck of holy hypocrisy in our neighbor's eye, have we figured out what to do with the log that is in ours?  When we're done scratching at – or scratching out – our eyes, perhaps then we can figure out, however imperfectly, how to work together to do to the things our Lord calls us to do.

And yes, as if you couldn't tell from this post, I'm still trying to figure out a satisfying political philosophy …

The Longstanding American Ambivalence about Christ at Christmas

Originally titled “My ‘War on Christmas’ Snark”

Yesterday I posted The War on Christmas, a snarky account of the commercialization of Christmas and sarcastic commentary on the supposed “war on Christmas” that some Christians fear is being waged in America by anti-Christian forces.  My snark was provoked by my experience of being asked about the “war on Christmas” and the “assault on faith” that is happening these days … all while I was being examined for an upper respiratory infection.  When my shirt is half off and the doctor is using a stethoscope to listen for junk in my lungs, I’m not really eager to tell my doctor that I think her concern is misplaced … at least, not until after she has written my prescription.

It is entirely true that our culture has changed.  Fewer and fewer explicitly Christian celebrations and slogans are shared in the public square.  Taxpayer-funded nativity scenes are less likely to be placed on courthouse or county grounds, and the town Christmas festival might now be called a “winter festival.”  Retailers, recognizing that they can appeal to a larger number of shoppers by focusing on”winter” and “holidays” rather than the explicitly religious “Christmas” have adjusted, perhaps only slightly, their marketing campaigns.

The specifics of Christmas in America are complicated.  The early Puritans did not oldchristmas2celebrate Christmas.  The first Congress famously met on Christmas Day in 1789, and Christmas itself was not declared a federal holiday until 1870.  Much of the way we imagine Christmas in this country is based on early 19th century poetry and stories, particularly the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke More, which represented New World adaptations of Old World Saint Nicholas traditions.  As early as 1841 a Philadelphia merchant had a man dress-up in a Kris Kringle costume and climb the chimney of his store in a publicity effort.

And so by the mid-to-late 19th century Christmas was widely celebrated in America, with a growing emphasis on gift-giving and elves, a large man in a red suit and reindeer.  Washington Irving’s popular writings made celebration of the home and hearth central to our understanding of Christmas.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, widely read in America by the 1860s, further sentimentalized Christmas as a holiday of kindness and compassion.

This is not all bad, but it ain’t Baby Jesus, either.  The imperative to care for the poor and to share gifts surely has roots in Christian tradition and teachings, and Christians should be glad that the wider culture promotes works of charity at this time of year.  But it is hard to deny that in the 19th century Christmas – the Christ Mass – was branded by a variety of cultural traditions and emphases that had less to do with explicitly religious celebrations of the birth of Christ and more to do with good cheer, generosity, and the comfort of the hearth.

tree-in-town-square-by-steven-dohanosOf course, alongside these widely-held cultural celebrations of Christmas, committed Christians have maintained an emphasis on Christ and the Nativity, even as they have also adopted much of the trappings of the cultural celebration of Christmas.  They have had access to the town square for caroling and religious displays, and have stood by proudly as town fathers read official Christmas proclamations.  For many years explicitly religious commemorations of Christmas received the imprimatur of civic officials, standing alongside the less explicitly religious, cultural celebrations of Christmas.  But it would be a mistake to confuse the proximity of the Baby Jesus to Santa Claus in the town square display as a widespread embrace of the religious nature of the holiday.

Thus cries to “put Christ back into Christmas” ring somewhat hollow, for Christ has had an uncertain relationship with public Christmas celebrations from the very start of our American Christmas traditions.  In the late 20th and early 21st centuries Americans began to make less frequent use of the word “Christmas” in the public square, and instead decided to speak of “holidays” and the “season.”  Perhaps this shift in language is simply a long-awaited acknowledgment that many people in our society do not celebrate Christmas, and that many who do celebrate Christmas do so more as a cultural celebration of generosity and gift-giving than an explicitly religious reflection on the birth of Christ.  Even for we who strive to mark Christmas as a religious holy day, the gift-giving and holiday customs often overshadow the nativity scene that rests on our windowsill.

Christians can and will continue to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, with or without stores wishing us a “Merry Christmas,” with or without the town sponsoring a Christmas festival, with or without the courthouse lawn being adorned with a light-up nativity scene.  We certainly don’t need retailers or government officials to help us celebrate the Holy Day of Christ’s birth.  And from what I can tell, they surely aren’t at war with our religious celebrations, either.  No retailer or government official is coming into my house requiring me to wish my daughter “happy holidays” instead of a “merry Christmas.”  Nobody is getting in the way of our church holding services on Christmas Eve.  We even get a federal holiday and a day or two off from work for Christmas, thanks to the government which is supposedly at war with our holiday.  Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths are not so lucky.  No matter what the broader culture does in regards to Christmas, we can continue to celebrate in our homes and in our churches however we see fit.

What is lost somewhat diminished, perhaps, is the widespread use of Christian language (“Christmas”) and expressions (nativity scenes, religous carols) in the public square alongside “Jingle Bells” and inflatable Santas.  But this is not to be mourned.  If the name of Christ is used less frequently in efforts to peddle shoddy merchandise, that’s fine with me.

The War on Christmas

For many years Christians have waged a persistent and spirited war on Christmas.  They have struggled, with significant success, to transform a holy day for people of faith into a secular holiday for all citizens of our nation to observe.  However, there are signs that the Christians are in retreat, recognizing that their efforts to establish Christmas as a universal holiday observed by all Americans have been unsuccessful.

These Christians have willingly presided over the transformation of the sacred celebration of their Lord’s birth into a festival of free-market consumerism.  By joining their faith with consumerist impulses and market forces, they sought to place Christ at the center of the American experience.  It was seen as a victory for the faith that retailers would look forward to Christmas and promote Christmas shopping to make or break their year, making Christmas the most important part of their business cycle – and thus, of the American economy.  No longer would Christmas be just a holy day for the faithful to celebrate in homes and in churches, but now it would be promoted for weeks and months on Main Street and in shopping malls, on the radio and the television, spreading the word about Christmas sales and gift ideas.

Even though the Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus brings good news to the poor and sends the rich away empty, to fully participate in Christmas America-style, an upper-middle class income or higher is really necessary, because Christmas in America is about the gifts.  (Frankincense, gold and myrrh didn’t come cheap, bucko.)  And so Christians established Christmas as a holiday that can truly be shared in its ideal form only by those who are well-off, further thrusting Christ into the center of the American yearning for wealth and material goods.  Associating Christmas with the spending of money was a particular coup d’etat since Christians had already succeeded in the unlikely feat of making millions believe that wealth itself is a sign of God’s blessing on the faithful.

Despite all these historical successes at inserting the Baby Jesus into the center of America’s consumerist culture – and thus at the heart of American life – these days many Christians note with great lament that America’s annual mid-winter gift-giving ritual increasingly has little to do with the Baby Jesus.  Fewer and fewer stores display traditional Christmas scenes in their Main Street windows, angering many Christians that images of their Lord and Savior are no longer used as marketing gimmicks to get people to buy useless junk made with child labor in China.  So too with signs and jingles.  “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” takes Christ right out of the center of this consumerist blitz, where so many Christians think He belongs.

Christians shouldn’t be too sullen, however.  They can still look at the various successes they have had at establishing Christmas as a centerpiece to American culture:

  • Christmas is a national holiday, which usually involves several pretty good basketball games on TV.
  • There is no junk mail on Christmas, because there is no mail delivery at all on that day!
  • You can park at a parking meter on Christmas and not have to insert a quarter.
  • For six weeks the radio won’t stop playing that [insert expletive] Christmas music.
  • Very few businesses are open on Christmas, making that day particularly stink for non-Christians and Christians alike who really need to get a gallon of milk or some diapers at the store.
  • Most people still call that pagan-derived tradition of killing a tree, putting it up in your house, and decorating it with plastic balls a “Christmas” tree.
  • Christmas shops, selling all kinds of red and green and snow-covered junkola, are a growing segment of the retail market.
  • Schools are closed for a week or more around Christmas, even if they don’t use that word much any longer.

Weary from generations of battle, fewer Christians wage war on Christmas these days, though skirmishes do break out from time to time, most notably around what to call the dead evergreen tree in the town square, or what songs public school kids can sing at a taxpayer-funded concert.  Many are retreating from this war, no longer insisting that Big Box Retailer send Christmas Greetings to shoppers.  Instead, these Christians are increasingly choosing to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at home and in their churches.

Imagine that.

UPDATE: I posted a follow-up, My “War on Christmas” Snark, offering a brief look at the origins of Christmas in America, and highlighting the ambiguity we’ve had about Christ and Christmas over the years.