Lawn Decor and Lucky Charms

I recently stumbled upon Christian symbols in places where I wasn't expected to find them.

Exhibit A

The other day we bought a box of Lucky Charms cereal for our children.  We rarely buy sugary cereal for the kids, but this day we did.  I was fascinated to notice all the charms and symbols in the cereal … including an ichthus.  Of course, the ichthus is an ancient Christian symbol.  From wikipedia:

Lucky charms Ichthys can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It compiles to "Jesus Christ, God's son, savior," in ancient Greek "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ", Iēsous Christos, Theou Huios, Sōtēr.

  • Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for "Jesus".
  • Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστὸς), Greek for "anointed".
  • Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for "God's", the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos, Greek for "God".
  • Upsilon (u) is the first letter of uios (Υἱὸς), Greek for "Son".
  • Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for "Savior".

This ancient symbol representing an early confession of faith in Jesus Christ has ended up, nearly 2000 years later, alongside horseshoes, arrowheads and shooting stars as a "Lucky Charm."

Halloween lawn cross

Exhibit B

Several houses in our neighborhood have crosses on their lawns – and no, they are not celebrating their faith.  Clearly the hot item at the Halloween store this year is a gray and black, worn-looking faux grave marker in the shape of a cross.  What better way to scare people and celebrate ghoulishness than to place a cross on your lawn!

[Of course, there is a clear connection between Halloween and the cross, for our current practice of Halloween is rooted in an older practice of All Hallows Eve and the commemoration of the faithfully departed on All Saints Day.  Yet that connection has all but been severed, resulting in a festival of sorts celebrating all things scary and ghoulish … and the cross, somehow, is seen as fit for fright.  Of course, the cross and all it represents is terrifying – the sin and brokenness of the world on full display in the murder of God's own son – but that meaning is hardly captured in the triviality of a Halloween lawn ornament.]

 

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So the main symbols of our faith have become cereal shapes and cheap Halloween lawn ornaments.  Sigh.  I guess this is what happens when our religion, once established for centuries as the central cultural, political, and social force in Western society, wanes in relevance.  Its symbols get caricatured to the point of meaninglessness, tossed among other trinkets in a cultural grab bag. 

I find these "uses" of our religious symbols regrettable, but I'm not necessarily complaining or pointing fingers.  It is what it is – a sign of the times in which we live … times in which our symbols are reduced to lawn decor and lucky charms, and our faith struggles to be more than a spiritual trinket.

Praying at the Foot of the Flag

I recently received a brochure encouraging me to attend or organize a See You at the Pole event in my area.  See You at the Pole is a national movement organizing Christian prayer events on school campuses, usually at a flagpole, prior to the start of classes.  This year the event is on September 22.

Though I pray for our schools and our nation frequently, I have serious misgivings, both theological and social, about organized public Christian prayer events to take place on school campuses at the foot of the American flag.  In short, I worry that See You at the Pole risks turning the discipline of Christian prayer into a segregated rally that can unnecessarily divide the school community.

First, let me be clear that my critiques are about the event itself, and not the youth who participate.  The youth who participate likely do so for a variety of reasons, including the urging of their pastors or youth leaders, and many genuinely find it to be an exciting, faithful event bringing diverse Christians together to pray.  What Christian kid, when invited by their friend to a prayer rally, would say no?  And what Christian pastor or parent would say "no" to a child who wants to pray with other kids?  But despite the enthusiasm and faith that might be cultivated by See You at the Pole, and the great intentions that might be held by those who organize these events, I fear that See You at the Pole is so rife with problems that we should caution our youth before they participate.

See You at the Pole almost can't help but become a platform public posturing.  After all, it seeks to gather Christian kids in front of the school to pray, allowing fellow students, teachers, and passerby's to see and hear them pray in the name of Jesus.  Yet when teaching his disciples how to pray, our Lord Jesus instructs them to pray in private, so that the one who prays isn't tempted to turn an act of faith into an opportunity for "look at me" pious grandstanding (see Matthew 6:1-18).  And note that this event is not called Pray at the Pole, but See You at the Pole.  Clearly, seeing and being seen is central to this event.  (The See You at the Pole FAQ page responds to the Matthew 6 critique, with an argument based on one's motive for public prayer rather than the act of public prayer itself.)

But I also question the wisdom of praying at the foot of the American flag.  Our faith is a universal faith, not tied to or identified by any national or ethnic identity.  When Christians pray, we are addressing the Lord of all nations.  Thus, prayer should not be done in a way that conflates our Lord with our nation; but praying at the foot of a flag does just that.  National symbols are not appropriate gathering places for Christian prayer (see past post, Praising God, Honoring Country).  (The See You at the Pole FAQ page explains that the flagpole is a meeting place simply because nearly every school campus has a flagpole.  Some See You at the Pole events meet at other locations on campus.)

There is also a significant social aspect to this event.  The event's name – See You at the Pole – makes it clear that this event is about being seen in prayer, just before the start of the school day.  But what about those kids who will not be seen at the pole?  Essentially, See You at the Pole gathers Christian kids at the flag pole to pray, to the exclusion of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Christians who don't believe in praying outside of their fellowship, and others.  And what about Christian kids who don't participate?  Will they risk being accused by some participants of not being true Christians?  I fear that drawing faith lines so dramatically and so publicly at this age,
over and against the diversity of the public school environment, is harmful to the school community.  The last thing we need is for Christian prayer to become an opportunity for division in our school communities.

And more.  By gathering at the foot of the flag to pray in a Christian manner, these kids are identifying the American flag as a gathering place for Christian prayer, thus alienating Americans of other faiths from their own flag.  It's a way (however unintentional, perhaps) of claiming the flag as a Christian symbol, rather than lifting it up as a national banner that flies over Americans of all faiths and traditions.

The organizers of See You at the Pole could faithfully and wonderfully encourage prayer in many other ways, without running afoul of the problems outlined above. 

  • They could invite children and families to pray at home, behind closed doors, in accordance with our Lord's teaching.  An organized, at-home prayer event joining millions of households in prayer would be quite powerful.
  • Or, if they really want to gather people for prayer, they could hold events behind the closed doors of a local church one morning before school. 
  • But if they insist on holding an event on a school campus, they could do so on a weekend, when they are less likely to start a school day by dividing the student body according to religion. 
  • But if they truly insist on holding these events on a school day and on campus, they could at least pick a different spot, a more modest spot, away from the main doors to the school building where the flag is usually located, and away from the bus lanes or other very visible locations.

From what I can tell, See You at the Pole is a well-intentioned but flawed event that has the potential to sow division in our school communities, and which seems to be just as much about being seen as it is about prayer.  I hope and pray that I am wrong, and that those who participate find it to be a powerful experience of Christian unity and prayer that leads them closer to God, and that through God they draw closer to their neighbor.

Knick-Knack Jesus OK in VA

I just read Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's opinion regarding the constitutionality of religious displays on public ground during the holidays, including displays of Jesus (pdf document of opinion; Washington Post blogpost on the matter). The sad thing is this: displays of Jesus are allowed on public ground so long as such displays are "not making a religious statement."

Translation: As long as Jesus remains a knick-knack (and not, you know, the Son of God who destroys death, raises up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and inaugurates the Kingdom of God, among other things) He can be displayed on public ground in Virginia, according to the Attorney General.

Truth be told, I'm not picking on Cuccinelli. I just get really annoyed when Jesus is turned into a knick-knack, whether by politicians, marketers, or by fellow Christians who somehow think that a taxpayer-funded "Court House Jesus" is a good idea.

Question: Why would anyone who respects religion want to rob its symbols of meaning just so they could be set on a court house lawn?

After all, the Supreme Court has already ruled that the phrase "In God We Trust" is essentially devoid of religious content and thus perfectly suitable as a national motto.  How sad it is that we are glad to render God language meaningless so that it can be fit for a coin.

Dear Government: Please keep your hands off of religious symbols. Religious communities and individuals can practice their religion just fine without your help.  Thank you.

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Church/State issues are a favorite of mine.

Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Worship

In speeches over the past few months, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both used
the phrase "freedom of worship," rather than the more common phrase "freedom of religion," found in the First Amendment.  Some religious conservatives are raising concerns about what this change in terminology could mean for domestic and foreign policy.

Short a much broader analysis of administration speeches and reports,
I have no way of knowing if this language change is widespread or is
simply a quote from a few speeches cherry-picked by administration
critics to make a political point. Nonetheless, the phrase has found its way into speeches, and could reflect a significant change in perspective for the Obama administration.

From Ms. Samelson's piece:

Any person of faith knows that religious exercise
is about a lot more than freedom of worship. It’s about the right to
dress according to one’s religious dictates, to preach openly, to
evangelize, to engage in the public square. Everyone knows that
religious Jews keep kosher, religious Quakers don’t go to war, and
religious Muslim women wear headscarves—yet “freedom of worship” would
protect none of these acts of faith.

I don't share the Orwellian fears held by Chuck Colson (in a disturbing, anti-homosexual, leaping-to-conclusions video here) and others that this change of terminology reflects a clear intent by a liberal government to quash religious freedom and eradicate religion from the public square.  But I do believe that words are important, and that if this change is more than mere semantics, it could have a significant impact in how our government, through both foreign and domestic policy, engages matters related to the personal and corporate religious practices of people worldwide. 

As someone who believes that the practice of religion extends far beyond the act of worship, I'd be concerned if the administration is making a policy change in favor of "freedom of worship" rather than the broader, Constitutional, and much more comprehensive "freedom of religion."

Christian Worship on the 4th of July

This newsletter article, a reworking of a past blogpost, appeared in my congregation's July newsletter.  My sermon for the 4th of July also touches on church/state issues.

The 4th of July this year falls on a Sunday.  Though there will be flags waving outside of houses, and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products, at church there will be no flag on display or any patriotic celebration.  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 of 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, it is not appropriate for Sunday morning 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 considered. 

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance, such as we did here at Resurrection at the inauguration of President Obama on January 20, 2009.  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 might guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers.  However, 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 county 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 can and should 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 we don't 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 the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

May we start our Independence Day holiday this year at church, honoring the day of the resurrection by praising God, receiving our Lord in Word and Sacrament, and offering prayers for our church, nation, and world.  And then let us go out into the streets and give honor to our country by celebrating with neighbors and friends the freedoms we share.

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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.

Sending out the Seventy: What Do They See?

Please contribute to my Sunday sermon.  Keep reading … thanks!

I've returned home to the Philadelphia area for my longest stay in the area since moving to Virginia three years ago.  And I'm amazed, and saddened, at the situation of the local economy.  Living inside the Beltway, where government creates jobs even (and especially?) during depressed economies, I'm a bit insulated to the economic realities of the rest of the country.  As I've driven around the Philadelphia suburbs and exurbs, I've passed more boarded up gas stations and restaurants, and seen more Dollar Stores, than I can remember seeing when I lived here three years ago.  The situation isn't dire, for sure, but it is surely isn't that great.

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"The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go." – Luke 10:1 (from this Sunday's Gospel reading).

I wonder what these seventy other followers of our Lord saw on their journeys.  What was the condition of the people and the towns?  How were the local economies?  Did people have jobs?  Was the harvest good?  How were relations with the ruling Roman colonial leaders?

We don't know what the seventy saw on their missions, but we know that they reported with joy that "even the demons submit to us!" (Luke 10:17).  We can assume that they healed the sick, as instructed by Jesus (Luke 10:9), and perhaps performed other miraculous acts.

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What would seventy disciples see if they were sent into towns throughout our country?  What kind of demons would they drive out of these towns, and of the people who live in them?  Could this Sunday's Gospel text be read as a call to mission, to go out and cast out demons of economic depression and hopelessness?  That's the direction I'm heading, I think.

Sunday is July 4, Independence Day, a fact that no preacher should ignore in preparing their Sunday sermon (but something that we needn't inappropriately embrace, either!).  Can we preachers can use this text, on this national holiday and in these difficult economic times, as a call to serve our nation and our neighbors, to commit ourselves to working for jobs and opportunity, and to helping those who have neither.

Can you help with with my sermon?  Please share with me stories of the local economy in your area.  How are jobs?  Are people optimistic about the future?  What about high school and college graduates – how are they doing?  Are there jobs for those new to the job market?  What are the signs of hope in your neighborhood?

And what about your church?  Is your church making efforts to help the poor or serve the newly unemployed?  Is your church suffering decreased giving, and as a result being forced to change its ministries?

Please post comments here, on my Facebook page, or email me directly.  Thank you very much.

“An attack upon our religious freedoms [by] an athiest in Wisconsin”

Shirley Dobson, Chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, is calling for praying Americans to sign a petition in support of the National Day of Prayer.  But in so doing, she takes an unnecessary swipe at a federal judge and fans flames of a fire that need not burn.

On April 15, 2010, United States District Court Judge Barbara Crabb, for the Western District of Wisconsin, struck down the National Day of Prayer statute, 36 U.S.C. § 119, as violating the Establishment Clause. Judge Crabb ruled that the statute serves no secular purpose, but rather calls the nation to engage in a religious exercise – prayer.

The National Day of Prayer belongs to Americans. It is a tradition that dates back to 1775 and it is not for a Judge to take away. We the people called for the day of prayer and for 59 years we have practiced our freedom to gather and pray.

This is an attack upon our religious freedoms and it is a sad day in America when an atheist in Wisconsin can undermine this tradition for millions of others who simply wish to join their fellow citizens in praying for their country.

The National Day of Prayer provides an opportunity for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith – it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

There is so much to say about this hateful statement and about the other horrible errors on the National Day of Prayer Task Force website.  Most notably, a law calling for a National Day of Prayer does not "[provide] an opportunity for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith."  That opportunity and right comes from the US Constitution, particularly the First Amendment, and not by any law passed by Congress.  Christians and Jews and Muslims and people of all kinds of faith are free to assemble and pray whenever they so choose, thanks to the freedoms guaranteed by our nation's Constitution.  Getting rid of the National Day of Prayer would not be "an attack upon our religious freedoms," but instead would be an effort to get the government out of the business of telling Americans when and how they should pray.

So much more to say.  Dobson's violent language above seems interested in doing little more than to incite anger and manipulate people into thinking that their religious liberties are under attack by atheists … which is so far from the truth as to be laughable.  We continue to be a nation of freedoms guaranteed by the oldest written constitution in the world.  Shame on us if we let fearmongerers such as Shirley Dobson let us believe otherwise.

_____

I've written previously about the National Day of Prayer.  National Day of Prayer, or Ascension Day? was written when I noticed that a local Episcopal church was holding services for the National Day of Prayer but not Ascension Day, a principal festival of the Christian Church, when the two days happened to coincide in 2008.  As a follow-up to that post, I wrote Why I Don't Like the National Day of Prayer.

I've written on church/state topics many times.  Click here for a listing of all my entries related to church/state issues.

Religious Groups on Campus: Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard arguments in Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez, testing whether a school's nondiscrimination policy can result in barring a student religious group – which, by definition, is limited to people who share that faith – from receiving official campus recognition.  The case involved a student organization at Hastings College of the Law, the Christian Legal Society (CLS), being denied official status because it bars from membership homosexuals and those who practice or support premarital sex.  NPR has a nice review of the issues involved in this case here

In Sunday's Washington Post, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley writes that "[a] campus offers a cradle of free speech where students can form organizations that foster the exchange of ideas and values.  Supporting such groups should not be viewed as endorsing their beliefs but rather as encouraging associations."  Encouraging associations is a public good, yes, and should be a priority of any school's student affairs office.  But is it required of public universities, even in violation of other school policies? 

For the internal workings of the student groups, enforcing a nondiscrimination policy could wreak havoc on the group's identity.  Professor Turley wonders what would happen if schools enforced nondiscrimination policies on the internal workings of Orthodox Jewish or Wahabi Muslim groups.  The NPR piece asks what would happen if an environmental student group were forced to admit into membership students who denied global warming.

This case seems to be less about the free exercise of religion, and more about how public universities govern and provide material support for student life activities.  The Christians who formed the CLS continue to enjoy their Constitutional rights to free association and free exercise of religion, even though their group was denied official standing at Hastings.  Members of the CLS continue to be free to associate and organize and worship.  Nobody is prohibiting these students from practicing their faith.  Rather, the question is whether a school must extend the benefits of official recognition – including subsidies, priority use of campus facilities, and access to the school's email network – to groups that violate the school's nondiscrimination policies.

I'm ambivalent about this issue.  I don't think it is a bad idea at all for schools to support student groups, both those that are religious and non-religious, those that are open and those that have restrictions to membership.  However, I tend to believe it is a bad idea for Christian groups to seek official support or subsidy.  Religious groups are best when they are operated independent of governmental or other funding sources that don't share in its mission.

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Post Script:

From Turley's piece:

These conflicts are forcing courts to confront the reality that most religions are based on exclusivity principles and, to some extent, discrimination. Whether it is the chosen and the unchosen or the faithful and the infidel, religions define their members in part by the adherence to a set of moral strictures. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus says, in reference to the Old Testament, that "every word . . . comes from the mouth of God." That does not allow much wiggle room for many in tailoring their views to meet societal demands.

Professor Turley oddly interprets Matthew 4:4, supposing that Jesus' quote of Deuteronomy 8:3 – "one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" – is a reference to the Old Testament as a whole, and thus an example of how religious groups couldn't be expected to "[tailor] their views to meet societal demands."  Jesus' words in Matthew 4 are not about the immutability of the Old Testament – and neither is the original text from Deuteronomy – but rather about the call of the faithful to depend ultimately not on material goodies but on the promise, Word, and will of God.  Turley's attempt to shoehorn this passage into some argument about the restricted membership and practices of religious groups is just odd.

UPDATE:

Howard Friedman of Religion Clause offers great links to briefs filed, opinion pieces, and background pieces about this case, here.

National Day of Prayer declared unconstitutional

Yesterday the United States District Court in the Western District of Wisconsin declared that the National Day of Prayer is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.  Though I'm generally a big fan of keeping church and state separate, I'll reserve comment on the particulars of this case until I read the ruling (found here, as a pdf).  Until then, here are some links to articles I found helpful:

Howard Friedman's Religion Clause blog: National Day of Prayer Declared Unconstitutional

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom blog: Judge Rules National Day of Prayer Law Unconstitutional

The Christian Science Monitor: Federal Judge: National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional

Also, I wrote about the National Day of Prayer a few years ago, here: Why I don't like the National Day of Prayer

Choosing Church … or Vacation, or Soccer, or Work, or Family Time, or …

One of the most subtle yet significant learnings I picked up at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network's Extravaganza was a simple little law filled with love: Don't complain about parents who take their kids to (insert activity) instead of church. They are doing so out of love.  Indeed, the importance of this little law didn't strike me at the time, and didn't appear in the three blogposts I wrote during the Extravaganza (here, here and here).  But of all that I heard and learned at the Extravaganza, I've been reflecting more on that insight than any other, perhaps because it is so counter-intuitive to our attendance and event-driven models of youth ministry.

This month's newsletter article is, in part, a product of those reflections (together with some reflections on the scheduling of public school Spring Break during Holy Week, about which I wrote here).  More reflections to come …

Holy Week, Vacation, and the Secularization of Sundays
March 2010

Families and teachers alike have March 26 circled on their calendars.  Barring any more days canceled due to snow, Arlington Public Schools will close on Friday afternoon, March 26, and not reopen again until Monday, April 5.  It is the school's annual week-long Spring Break, a time for teachers and learners alike to get some much deserved rest in the middle of the long winter/spring school term. 

Spring Break is the only scheduled week-long break from January through June, and many families understandably use this time to travel for late-season ski trips, visits to Grandma's house, a vacation in Florida, or a chance to make a few college visits.  As a youth I traveled many times with my family to ski resorts in New England and Colorado during Spring Break.  The snow was a bit slushy at the bottom of the mountains, but up top it was great!  As a teenager I found these vacations to be wonderful breaks in my increasingly busy school schedule, and to this day I value my memories of time spent with family on those trips.

Yet Spring Break is scheduled to coincide with Holy Week, meaning that many families find themselves traveling during the most sacred observances of our church year.  I emailed Arlington Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Patrick Murphy asking why APS chooses to schedule Spring Break during Holy Week.  His response – "APS schedules its break to coincide with that of neighboring jurisdictions."  I haven't contacted other area school systems, but I can only assume that the scheduling of Spring Break during Holy Week began some time ago out of deference to the churches, granting churches a week when students and families wouldn't be occupied with schoolwork, sporting events, or other school-related activities.

However, what may have originated out of deference to the churches has become a challenge for their ministry.  Families wishing to make use of their only week of vacation between January and June struggle with how to balance families needs and religious observances.  Churches predictably see a lower attendance at Holy Week observances and events due to the number of families who are traveling.

Of course, it is not only during Holy Week that people face decisions about how best to use their family's time.  Sunday morning has become a popular time for youth sports, and weekends are for some families the only opportunity to share quality, sustained time together.  And of course, a significant proportion of the population works on Sunday mornings (how else would you get your coffee or donuts on the way to church?).

It is too easy for the church to wag its finger and tell people they should "make the right choice," insisting that kids attend Sunday School rather than soccer.  When we make that simplistic claim we fail to recognize that when Christian families make the difficult choice to spend Sunday mornings somewhere other than church, they are often doing so out of love.  In a world where families have less time together, who can blame them for making the decision in love to spend time together on Sundays rather than run off to church?  In a world where kids are worried about college applications even in middle school, it is love that propels a mother to send her child to soccer, hoping that this athletic skill might help her son compete in the cut throat, competitive world of high school and college.  In a world where jobs are hard to come by, who can blame someone for taking a job on Sunday mornings so that he can provide for himself and the family he loves?

What the church is called to do in these situations is to respond in love, support families in their God-given vocation of caring for each other, and explore ways to extend its ministry to people whose lives are governed by hectic and oppressive schedules.  And yes, there is a time and a place for discussing the choices that we Christians are called to make … but that place is not from the blunt end of a wagging finger.  Instead, it might be at the sideline of a soccer game, on a church-sponsored family retreat, or at the end of an eight hour shift on Sunday afternoons.  The church and its members can only benefit by going into the world and meeting people where they're at, following the example of our Lord who loved the world so much that he entered into it, walked with his people in love, and shared in the joys and sorrows of their humanity.