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.

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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.

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.

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.

Moment of Silence in Virginia Schools

According to Virginia law, a school pupil's free exercise of religion within the schools is guaranteed by one minute of silence in the school day.  I'm no lawyer, but I am a pastor and a person of at least ordinary intelligence.  I have a hard time seeing how a minute of silence provides such a guarantee. 

Here's the code:

§ 22.1-203. Daily observance of one minute of silence.

In order that the right of every pupil to the free exercise of religion be guaranteed within the schools and that the freedom of each individual pupil be subject to the least possible pressure from the Commonwealth either to engage in, or to refrain from, religious observation on school grounds, the school board of each school division shall establish the daily observance of one minute of silence in each classroom of the division.

During such one-minute period of silence, the teacher responsible for each classroom shall take care that all pupils remain seated and silent and make no distracting display to the end that each pupil may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract, or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice.

The Office of the Attorney General shall intervene and shall provide legal defense of this law.

[See also § 22.1-203.1. Student-initiated prayer; § 22.1-203.2. Guidelines for constitutional compliance for student prayer; and § 22.1-203.3. Religious viewpoint expression; student expression.  Also note that the minute of silence went from being "authorized" to being mandated in 2000.]

Notwithstanding the legal language above, a moment of silence guarantees nothing but silence.  I fail to see how the free exercise of one's religion is enhanced by the existence of this provision, or how it would be harmed if this provision did not exist.  And absent any reference to a pedagogical, social, or psychological purpose for this silence, it seems that this code is nothing more than an attempt to institutionalize a prayer-like form in the public schools.

But there's something more troubling than simply the state requiring a prayer-like exercise in schools every morning.  Indeed, whenever the state dabbles in religion it is often religion that (inadvertently, perhaps) gets the short end of the stick (see my post yesterday about how the scheduling of public school Spring Break during Holy Week limits participation in Holy Week observances).  The code claims that this one minute of silence guarantees the free exercise of religion in schools by pupils.  Surely a guarantee of the free exercise of religion is not anything that the state can cram into or limit to a minute of silence!  The code's enshrinement of a minute of silence as a guarantee of religious exercise actually does harm to religion by suggesting – in legal code – that the free exercise of religion is something that can be protected and "guaranteed" by (and perhaps limited to?) sixty silent seconds.

Religion is not practiced only through brief silent prayers or devotional activities, as important as these are.  The Christian religion, anyway, can be practiced during the school day in so many ways, including through acts of justice, a humble lifestyle showing respect for those in authority and the lowly alike, faithful service to neighbor, and dedication to one's studies.  These are practices of faith that we teach in our churches.  But the school, which has much more contact time with children than do most churches, perpetuates a narrow understanding of what it means to exercise one's religion through its mandated minute of silence.

I don't see why the schools need this minute of silence anyway.  Surely children and families can take a moment of silence to pray or meditate at home in the mornings or on the car drive to school, in the evenings or on weekends.  Why must this "need" be provided by the school system?  If the free exercise of religion is not really guaranteed by this moment of silence (as noted above), and if perhaps religion is harmed by this provision (as suggested above), why have it at all?

I wish the government would stay away from prayer and prayer-like practices, recognizing that private citizens can and will engage in religious and spiritual activities in their own manner, according to their own faith, and in community with others of their choosing.  We do not need the government forcing our children to observe a prayer-like activity in our public schools.

The Unfortunate Scheduling of Spring Break Over Holy Week

Spring Break in the Arlington Public Schools, and in many school districts around the country, coincides with Holy Week, the week stretching from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday which includes the observances of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter.  Though Holy Week moves from year to year depending on the dating of Easter, and thus is rarely a true mid-term break between January and June, the schools continue to peg their Spring Break to Holy Week, for what I assume originated out of an institutional respect for the religious observances of many of their families.

But really … does the scheduling of Spring Break during Holy Week encourage religious observance?  No, it doesn't.  In fact, I would contend that it actually does harm to Holy Week observances.

Most churches that observe Holy Week do so with services on Palm Sunday, an evening service on Holy Thursday, an evening service on Good Friday (with, perhaps, a prayer vigil or some other solemn liturgy on Friday mid-day), perhaps an Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, and Sunday morning services.  With the possible exception of the mid-day liturgies on Good Friday, there is no Holy Week observance that is better facilitated by the cancellation of schools or that would be harmed if schools were in session.  Just as with Ash Wednesday services, kids can go to school in the morning and go to church in the evening (or attend morning services before school, as is the practice in some churches).

The truth is that many families use Spring Break, the only week-long stretch when schools are closed from January through June, for travel – ski trips, college visitations, or a trek to Grandma's house.  And who can blame them?  For nearly six months children and families have little opportunity for extended travel, and it is more than understandable that they would make use of that week to get away and do things they otherwise cannot do.

However, because Spring Break is scheduled over Holy Week, churches see diminished attendance at Palm Sunday services and Sunday School programs, and at Holy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies.  This scheduling mechanism, which I'm assuming originated out of a sense of respect for the Christian observance of Holy Week, has had the (unintended) consequence of harming that observance.  Because public schools schedule Spring Break during Holy Week, fewer people participate in Holy Week liturgies and activities.

I would like to see Spring Break scheduled as a true mid-point in the winter/spring calendar, giving teachers and students alike a week off halfway through the term.  I understand that schools need to recognize certain religious observances in their scheduling – Christmas, for example – for if a significant number of students are missing school due to a religious observance, the school's educational mission is harmed.  Perhaps schools could close for Good Friday in recognition of the religious observance, as some school districts with significant Jewish populations close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  But I'd be glad if schools remained open on Good Friday, too (truly, how many families would keep their kids home from school for a religious observance on Good Friday?  Very few, it seems to me.). 

Christians don't need the schools to insulate and protect their religious practice.  Members of minority religious groups don't have the luxury of scheduled days off for their holidays, and I don't think that we Christians need that "luxury" either.  For as I noted above, the state's insulation of religious observances with scheduled days off from school actually does harm to those observances.