Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning

I skipped church on Sunday morning.  It felt strange, for sure.  I'm a pastor, after all.  I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer.  I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.

But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of 09ArmyTenMilerStart meaning.  Quite the contrary.  I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers).  When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness.  Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.

Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go.  But I ran the race anyway.  It had enough meaning to me that I ran.

And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning.  Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time.  Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.

But people were also running as members of teams.  Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth.  Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.

Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas.  And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle.  This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.

The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience.  Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship.  It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.

It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups.  But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning.  It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once).  On the contrary!  Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.

In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls.  This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning.  Not at all!  But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.

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.]

 

—–

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.

Colbert v. Stewart, and brief thoughts on clergy authenticity

There's lots of love out there right now in the religious world – well, in the Comedy Central-watching religious left world, anyway – for Stephen Colbert.  Several outlets have picked up on a Religious News Service (RNS) piece, Behind Colbert's right-wing funnyman, a quiet faith, and it is making its rounds among my friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook.  But count me among the less-than-impressed.

Stephen Colbert is funny and has good hair, and he often makes great and biting commentary through the faux smile of his conservative caricature.  Those who know religion can catch his subtle references to maters of faith and can appreciate that his comfort with matters of faith is rooted, by all accounts, in his own deeply-held personal faith commitments.  Most recently, Colbert went before a congressional subcommittee and, after a testimony offered in persona as the right wing commentator blowhard, he offered what seemed like a heart-felt and authentic plea for the better treatment of migrant workers, who he identified with "the least of these" in Jesus' famous words from Matthew 25:40.

Stephen_colbert-9310 But there's one problem: Colbert is phony.  For someone who is a comedian, authenticity isn't Goal #1 – laughs are.  Phoniness is part of the gig, making him funny … in an exaggerated and contrived way.  There's almost a Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat quality to Colbert when he is in persona.  But, when isn't he in persona?  We don't really get any sense of who Stephen Colbert himself actually is – except, perhaps, when he laughs at his own absurdity, temporarily falling out of character.  We don't know where the line separating his eponymous role from his own self is drawn.  It is this inherent quality of caricature in Stephen Colbert that makes him unsettlingly funny … but which, by contrast, prevents us viewers from having any clue with whom we're actually dealing. 

When an actor portrays a role in a movie or television show, the rules are clear – the actor is acting.  But when Stephen Colbert "acts" in a role named after himself, and when he comments on political and social issues of current interest in that role, we're not sure what we're seeing any longer.  Where does the shtick end and the reality begin?  Again, it's funny.  But – and now in reference to this RNS piece about his faith – it is this inability to trust just who or what we're dealing with when we watch Stephen Colbert that diminishes any impact his unique testimony of faith might have.  For how can we tell if his faith is part of the act or perhaps something authentic?  That too was the problem with his testimony before Congress.  His testimony was an act.  The form in which he offered his testimony detracted from any serious message he may have had to share with our elected leaders.

That's why, in the contest between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I'm on the side of Jon Stewart.  Stewart isn't a caricature.

Jon Stewart is a comic, but he is also more than a comic.  He is either "the smartest funny man or the funniest smart man" on television, as Paul Begala described him on an ill-fated episode of Crossfire six years ago.  But he's even more than a smart social commentator mixed with comedic relief.  Stewart is, dare I say, real, in a world full of fakes.  What is real?  I'll leave that question to the philosophers and to Neo and Morpheus from The Matrix.  But whatever real is, I believe that Jon Stewart is it. 

Six years ago Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's Crossfire, not in any persona, but as himself – a comedian, yes, but also as an American passionately worried about our nation and the state of its political discourse, insisting that shows such as Crossfire are "hurting America."  Whatever you think of him and his views, Stewart that day spoke honestly and earnestly and, almost single-handedly, brought down a show that epitomized the worst of American political discourse.  That's his appeal, and that's why I like him so much.  When on The Daily Show Stewart is blasting FOX News on one hand and is exasperated at the Democrats on the other, we sense that this is not an act but the brilliantly-delivered insights of a left-of-center comic who is one of the few people willing to say that none of the political emperors are wearing any clothes.

Shift to the church.  Who are we ministers when we step into the pulpit?  Are we phony preachers putting on a show, trying to portray a particular persona of faith and piety?  Or are we able to be ourselves in our own skin, trying less to play a role than we are trying to share a message in a compelling yet personal way?  We follow a script, yes, but are we following one that makes room for and gives voice to authenticity in message and in self?  I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from the Bible: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8; italics my emphasis).

In his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger offers a commentary on preachers through the observations of a cynical Holden Caulfield.

If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers. The ones they've had at every school I've gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (New York: Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback edition, 1991), pg. 100.

How often do we who lead churches try to play the role, speaking in our best "Holy Joe voices" (literally or figuratively) when a good ol' "inside voice" without any bravado or vibrato would do just fine?  And how many people in the pews and in our neighborhoods see right through the phoniness of our clergy and our churches and opt instead for the authenticity of other relationships, communities and causes?

May we who lead churches steer clear of Holy Joe voices and leave faux personas behind.  Instead, may we strive to conduct our ministry authentically, honestly, and faithfully, for in so doing we follow the way of our Lord Jesus, the Word of God, who came not with bluster or grandeur or in any "role," but who came to us in the simplicity and down-to-earth authenticity of a crying baby, truth-telling storyteller, and the suffering of one dying unjustly.

Ministering to < 27.5%

Render.php A few weeks ago Dr. Roger Nishioka, professor of practical theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, spoke at our synod assembly's fall session on the topic of young adults in the church.  He had lots of wonderful, challenging, and insightful things to say, many of which were captured in a series of blogposts posted from the floor of the assembly.

But it was one simple fact, I'm ashamed to say, that just shocked me.  Only 27.5% of young adults have a college degree, yet we Lutherans often conduct our ministries in ways that assume that the people in the pews will have at least a college education, and an interest in the theological and Biblical scholarship of the church.  Lutherans, he said, easily appeal to the head with their approach to ministry, concerned with good theology and good liturgical practice.  (As a Presbyterian, he also included in this assesment his tradition, many of whose ministers use an academc style gown when preaching and presiding at worship.)  And not only are we concerned with such things, but we often lead with such things, preaching and teaching and holding conferences about the importance of theology and preaching and liturgy while, perhaps, giving less attention to the life-giving Lord himself, who is the sole purpose and foundation of any good theology or liturgical practice in the first place.  As I confessed in these pixels two weeks ago, I have often attempted to preach in a way that would appease the intellectual gods that I fancy seminary professors and Christian Century editors to be, at the expense of the people who are actually – or who potentially could be – in the pews.

And more.  As our Lutheran pietist sisters and brothers have often highlighted, to what extent does an emphasis on orthodoxy often fail to warm the heart in the way that our Lord's presence warmed the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus?  Orthodoxy and heart-felt faith are not polar opposites – such an opposition would be a false dichotomy – but we who value good order and right doctrine must remember that human beings are whole bodied beings, able and yearning to experience God in all facets of our being, not just through intellectual assent.  For the Word became flesh, took on the entirety of human experience, and lived among us.

But back to the 27.5%.  According to data from the 2000 census, young adults have obtained college degrees at a higher rate than the rest of the population.  That is, the proportion of Americans who have college degrees drops when we factor in older Americans (and by "older," I mean people as young as their late 30s, and older).

For the sake of discussion, let's pretend that this 27.5% is stands for the whole population (which it doesn't).  If in the way we conduct our ministry we're appealing to 27.5% of the population (represented by the green area in the pie chart, above), what about the other 72.5% of the population (represented by the blue area in the chart)?  By the way we conduct our ministry, are we essentially narrowing our proclamation of the Lord of all peoples to only 27.5% of the people, excluding – intentionally or not – the other 72.5% of God's people?  Classism and educational elitism comes into view …

Though I'm suspicioius of Paul's claim to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – that's a pretty darned hard thing to do if we're honest with ourselves – I like what he says in these verses nonetheless.  "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews," that is, in order to speak and teach and minister in ways that make sense to Jews.  Same thing "to those under the law," "to those outside the law," and "to the weak" – Paul became as one of them, "that I might by all means save some."  He knows that he cannot "win" any – that is, that he cannot proclaim the Gospel in ways that draw people to Christ – simply by staying within his own worldview.  He is willing to change the manner in which he conducts his ministry, "for the sake of the gospel."

Are we willing to try and follow Paul's lead?  Are we willing, for the sake of the gospel, to change the manner in which we conduct our ministry?  Are we able going to become weak for the weak, under the law for those under the law, outside the law for those outside the law?  Are we willing to view the world from the perspective of 72.5% of the population who does not have a college education, and conduct our ministry in a way that might speak to even some of them?  Are we willing to believe that God might care less about the framed degrees on our office walls than He does the people who never had the ability, opportunity, or luxury to accumulate such learning?  And if so, how does that belief shape the way we conduct our ministry?

As this last paragraph attests, I have more questions than answers.  I'm more convicted of my own failure than I am convinced about what to do.  I'm humbled by Paul and all the saints who have gone before me in genuine service to all God's people.  I'm awed by the God who chooses weakness and foolishness as his way in the world.  I'm weighed down by the sin of my own pride, the storing up of academic treasures framed on my wall and stacking up on my bookshelf, and I ask God to change my heart and my ways, so that I might more faithfully serve all his people.

When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.

The Kingdom of God is Like a 10K Race

The following is a parable that was revealed to me while watching runners – including my dear wife, Jessicah – finish a 10K race on Saturday.  I'm pretty sure it was one of those parables that either got lost in translation or didn't make the final cut for the synoptic gospels, perhaps due to its high hokeyness quotient  😉

Then he said to his disciples, "The Kingdom of God is like a 10 kilometer race. Not one of those big charity races with thousands of runners in a big town or city, but a grassroots run in a county park with only a few hundred racers.  It's a race with many participants but few spectators, and when the fastest runners finish, there is nobody to cheer them on.  But when the slowest among them cross the finish line, there are scores cheering them on, for the faster runners had already finished, and were standing nearby the finish line, welcoming their fellow runners home."

Then the disciples asked him, "What does this mean?"  And he answered them, "Do you not yet understand? In a race the first receive the least amount of praise, since nobody but the race staff are there to cheer him on.  And what joy is there when a 21 year-old stud cruises to a first place finish in a community run?  We all expect young studs to win the race!

"But the last runner receives the greatest praise.  For when an overweight 54 year-old with achy joints sweats through the race, crossing the finish line in last place after running 6.2 miles without stopping to walk even once, the whole gathered crowd of racers who had already finished the race, cooled down, stretched, and begun replenishing their system with sponsor-provided food and drink, will put down their Gatorades and bananas to cheer on this last place finisher.  The cheers will be much louder, and words of encouragement much more plentiful, and admiration much greater for this last runner than they were for the first.  For they all know that the last place runner spent more time suffering on the course, and overcame more challenges, than any other runner in the race.

"And so it is in the Kingdom of God.  The angels and heavenly hosts will hoot and holler more loudly for those who stumble and straggle into the Kingdom than for those who sprint in hardly breaking a sweat.  For this world honors with heaps of praise the best and fastest among you; yet in the Kingdom of God, it is the least among you who are celebrated the most."

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.

—–

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."