Talking about Politics and Sexuality at Church

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

Dear members of Grace,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace to you,

Pastor Chris Duckworth

It’s a Matter of Equality

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (Common English Bible)

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

Saint Paul writes:

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,

but it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

It’s not that we want you to have financial difficulties, BUT …

There’s always a but.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul asks the Christians in Corinth

to continue their commitment to financially support the church in Jerusalem,

which is poor and struggling.

The Church at Corinth, located in a bustling city that was a commercial and cultural crossroads,

was better off than their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem,

and so Paul asks those with more to support those with less.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties …”

Yes, you can hear it in his voice.

Paul knows that what he is asking could put some pressure on the church and its people,

that the Christians in Corinth have had some of their own problems to deal with,

including a congregation that itself was careless in its divisions between rich and poor

(Just read 1 Corinthians to see how Paul blasts the church there

for having some come to the Thanksgiving Meal and eat and drink

until they are full and drunk, while others leave hungry).

Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t let the challenges that the Corinthians face

get in the way of his asking for and expecting

their continued generosity toward those less fortunate.

Paul knows the Corinthians can do more.

And he knows that the Christians in Jerusalem are in such a dire situation.

After all, Paul says,

“it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

A matter of equality between one’s surplus, one’s abundance,

and another’s deficit, another’s need. Equality.

In our country we have a commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom,

to self-reliance and independence,

a libertarian streak that runs strongly through our American blood,

and which fuels, I believe, so much of the innovation that our country is known for.

Yet, frankly, what Saint Paul writes in today’s reading stands somewhat in contrast

to that independent, self-reliant streak we’re so known for in our country.

For Paul writes not of a self-reliant Jerusalem church that can pull itself up by its bootstraps,

or of a self-reliant Corinthian church that keeps what it has to itself,

but instead he writes of the interconnected relationship between the two.

In other words, Paul writes, “You need each other.”

All who are in Christ are of one body, he writes elsewhere,

and if one part of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

Any of you who have ever had a bad ankle, or a bad back, know this.

A hurt in one part of the body makes the rest feel pretty miserable.

And so, Paul here is drawing attention to the fact that

there is a part of the body, over in Jerusalem, that is suffering right now.

The present surplus of the Corinthians, he writes, can alleviate the present deficit of others.

The other day I was talking with a homeless woman,

and she asked why God let all this happen to her – losing her job,

losing her house, medical problems, and so forth.

I responded simply that God is not doing this to her,

but like Christ on the cross, God is suffering alongside of her,

and that it is human sin that has created a situation in which she finds herself.

Because, let’s be honest friends, there is plenty of abundance in this world right now,

here, there, and down the street,

there’s abundance that can alleviate the needs of others.

If the people of Saint Paul, the people of Ramsey County, of Minnesota, of this country,

if we all wanted more homeless shelter beds,

or if we wanted more affordable housing, we could do it.

We found half a billion dollars for a 65,000 seat football stadium,

but we can’t find money for additional homeless shelter beds?

It’s because we don’t want to.

In 2005, former Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern wrote a book together called,

Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith.

In this book these two former Senators – a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat –

said that we don’t have a food shortage in the world.

We don’t have a food problem at all. Instead, what we have is a distribution problem.

Yet the truth is, we don’t have a distribution problem, either.

You can purchase a Coca-Cola in nearly every corner of the world.

We’ve got distribution down just fine.

So what we really have is a problem of the will. We just don’t want to do it.

Because making sure that food was available for all people in the world

might make certain costs rise, might cut into the profits of some merchants

or into the tariff-protected markets of some industry groups,

and might make things more difficult for those of us who live in relative abundance.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,” Paul writes,

“but … but it’s a matter of equality..”

We have the resources in the wealthiest darn country in the world.

We have the abundance. We have the surplus.

But do we have the will to seek, to create, some sort of greater equality?

Paul the Apostle calls us, in faith, to find the will to seek such an equality.

 

Shifting from Paul the Apostle to Paul the Pastor, for a moment,

let me say this: few people in my life have I known

who are as committed to the needs of others,

who are as committed to this sense of quality, as is Pastor Paul Hesterberg.

In my first year here at Grace, I have seen him work tirelessly with and for those who have so little.

From making sure that we have food and gas cards to distribute,

to driving people to doctor’s appointments and court hearings,

to sharing articles with me and with others about matters of concern

for the poor and hungry, to helping folks out in many different ways,

Pastor Paul is committed to this equality about which Saint Paul writes,

to sharing some of his own abundance with those in need.

Pastor Paul has been a role model for us, a caregiver,

a living commitment to those things to which our Lord himself is committed –

feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising up the lowly, caring for the lonely.

His commitment is one that leaves a legacy among us,

a legacy that we will do well to carry on through existing efforts of care –

such as the food collection for Merrick Food Shelf

that the Social Ministry Committee is coordinating –

and even the creation of new ministries of care and love and outreach

that will help us live into Saint Paul’s calling for us to work for a greater equality

between our abundance and our neighbor’s need.

 

Dear friends, as we celebrate Independence Day this week,

let us not revel in our own individual liberty,

for soldiers didn’t die at Lexington and Concord,

at Brandywine or Germantown, or in the cold winter at Valley Forge,

they didn’t die for individual liberty …

but they died for a nation, for a people to live in freedom, together.

They died to create “a more perfect union.”

Freedom is not just personal or political,

but rightfully – and faithfully – understood,

freedom includes not just freedom from overseas royal tyrants,

but freedom from want, freedom from suffering, freedom from abject poverty,

and freedom for the chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Together we live into this freedom. Together we share in the abundance of this land and,

as Christians, together we live into the freedom we have in Christ Jesus,

free to give of ourselves as Christ himself gave,

free to give out of what we have, to provide for the needs of our sisters and brothers,

so that there might be greater equality, and greater freedom, for all.

Amen.

Onomia, Oh My!

Today I visited Camp Onomia, one of the outdoor ministries of the ELCA, located just two hours northwest of Saint Paul in the Mille Lacs area. And I am so glad I did!

Camp Onomia is set on beautiful Shakopee Lake, and is surrounded by state park land. As you look across the lake, you don’t see other camp grounds or resorts or anything … just lakewater and trees. Standing in the middle of the camp, all you hear are children playing and exploring, and birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying. It is truly a beautiful getaway.

The center of the camp is a fire pit with a large concrete cross, where morning and evening gatherings can take place, and where the all-important camp fire burns at night. Surrounding the fire pit is a wonderfully shaded grove area with picnic tables and space for children to run and play. Lining this area are several camp buildings, including a chapel, a mess hall, dormitories, and the retreat center. Uniquely, this camp doesn’t have traditional camp cabins, but instead offers dormitory-style housing … something that family campers with young children, and those not accustomed to “more rustic” camping experiences, might really appreciate!

Amenities aside, I’m thrilled at what this camp can offer as a place of holy encounter – with God, with God’s creation, and with God’s people. Getting folks together for a weekend church retreat, or kids for a week of summer camp, can truly build relationships and nurture the gift of faith through intentional experiences of Bible study, prayer, and divine encounter in community and creation.

Camp Onomia, along with many of our Lutheran camps, has experienced some level of decline in recent years. Parenting styles have changed over the years, and fewer families are sending their children to “sleep-away” camp today than a generation or two ago. If parents are sending their children to camp, it is often for a specific skill – to help their children with soccer or music or art. Also, church finances are changing, and the ability of congregations and synods to fund camps, or for congregations to subsidize campers, has declined.

While our outdoor ministries may not see the enrollment numbers return to their heyday of a few generations ago, I know that I am eager to have my own children participate in summer camp at Onomia, and to see my congregation renew a relationship with this camp. Indeed, in talking with a few parents at my church, I know there is interest in this kind of ministry. There is incredible value in a fun, faith-filled experience of camp that is not skill-based or achievement-oriented, but focused on fostering a unique experience of Christian community and encounter with God.

Years ago my congregation sent youth to Confirmation Camp and other programs at Onomia, and I can see a new partnership with Onomia as a “back to the future” kind of thing … returning again to an experience that once nurtured the faith of our youth and church.

But this is not just “doing again” something we’ve tried before. Times have changed. More than even a generation ago, we live in an era when the formative experience of regular Sunday morning church is diluted by the many family, work, educational, and recreational experiences and responsibilities that demand the attention of our church members. In recent decades the definition of “regular attendance” at church has changed – from three times per month to once per month. Thus, the opportunity to establish strong church-based relationships and nurture faith through special experiences is one that all congregations should seize.

Many thanks to Camp Onomia Executive Director Jim Schmidt for showing me around the camp today. I look forward to more visits to Camp Onomia in the months and years to come … with my family and with my church, to draw closer to God and to each other in a setting that truly inspires awe of God’s creation.

“That was fun. Are we doing it again next week?”

This past Sunday the children of our congregation gathered toward the end of the worship service to bless the Sunday School teachers, who were being installed as part of our Rally Day celebrations. After the blessing, we gave the kids tambourines, shakers, and maracas, and they led us out of the church as the whole congregation sang, "We Are Marching in the Light of God." It was very nice way to start the Sunday School year, and a great way to celebrate the ministry of children in our congregation.

Later that evening, my 5 year-old daughter said to me, "Daddy, that was fun, playing with the maracas in church. Are we doing it again next week?" We were not planning on doing it again, of course, but her question got me thinking about consistency in worship. Kids get routine. In fact, they need routine. Preschool and elementary school teachers know that routine is essential in creating a learning and nurturing environment for children.

Many years ago I wrote about the importance of routine in worship, with a blogpost entited "Variable (or Vagarious?) Liturgical Texts." I do believe that we are formed in life and faith through repeated action. This is especially true for children. How can we offer a consistent, patterned, and participatory environment for children in worship? Children's sermons are good, but are often a passive experience for children. Assisting with communion might be appropriate for one or two children, as would be serving as a lay reader, but these are not ways to include most of the kids most of the time.

However it is done, I believe that weekly worship should include a regular element that actively includes children in doing something they are capable of doing, and which engages them in some sort of repeated, ritual action. It might be a song that is sung weekly, becoming familiar and allowing even non-reading children to fully participate. It might be a liturgical gesture or action, such as the procession we did this past Sunday, that kids can perform week after week. Whatever it is, a repeated action gives our kids something familiar to do, a chance to develop comfort and even expertise at performing an act of worship, and thus allows them to feel more "at home" and at ease with the worship life of the church.

Short-term commitment to church? I can relate.

The other day I wrote about my struggle to keep running after completing my first marathon, an effort that was itself a capstone to an amazing year of running after 17 years of inactivity and poor eating habits. You see, for a year – and particularly for the few months leading up to the marathon – I somehow got up the gumption to change my life, to commit to running, and to run a race I never thought I would be able to run. But I did it. And I felt great. 

And then I stopped. Goal achieved. Box checked. Motivation, it seems, left somewhere out on 26.2 miles of asphalt in the District of Columbia.

My experience with running is not unlike many people's experience with church.

I've seen people get really involved in church for a while, as if to complete a project – a very tangible "project" such as the Confirmation of their teenager, or a more "spiritual" project of healing following a personal trauma. But once the project is complete, they drift away, having "achieved" what they first came to church seeking, but not having made the patterns of church or faith routine enough to be part of everyday life.

I can relate.

My project was to run a marathon. Since the physically and emotionally rewarding experience of running the marathon, however, my commitment to running has dropped off. Likewise, many people experience a period of intensive involvement in church, but then later drop off.

I don't begrudge folks who slip into the church for a time and then find themselves away, and not only because I can relate with this experience within the realm of running. Rather, part of what we're called to do in the church is to walk with people where they're at, and in that moment strive to be a welcoming community of Christ for them. Our doors are open.

Some come and sit for years on end. Others just wander through and take a look. Others hang out for a while but then move on. That's OK with me. Life-long membership is not the goal. Meeting people in their spiritual need and awakening them to the saving presence of the Triune God in their life – through shared practices of faith, including worship & praise, Bible study, prayer, service, fellowship, and giving – is what we're about, it seems to me.

In my own struggle to make running a daily and on-going routine rather than a time-limited project, perhaps I'm learning a little about those who come to church for a good, long stretch, and then who are absent for an even longer stretch.

As I try yet again to re-re-commit myself to running, I am grateful for friends who know the joy of running and who make running a part of their everyday life. They share their joy with me, and they encourage me despite my inconsistent commitment to running.

May I be as good a pastor, and our church as welcoming a community of faith, as these running friends are to this on-again, off-again, on-again wannabe runner.

Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Shiny Jesus, and His Shiny Happy Kingdom

Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
Matthew 17:1-9
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

In preparation for today’s Transfiguration Sunday sermon
    I couldn’t help but think of the peppy 1991 song Shiny Happy People
    by the great alternative rock band of my generation, REM.
This song is quite peppy – nauseatingly so, perhaps – but as you watch the video,
    you can’t help but smile as you see smiling, happy people
    sing and dance and come together in a celebration of happiness.
Lead singer Michael Stipe sings the repeated refrain,
    “Shiny happy people holding hands, shiny happy people laughing”
    while dancing in circles with a silly hat on his head.
It is pure, unadulterated – and terribly cheesy – happiness.
And so I think of this song today, on Transfiguration Sunday,
    as we read of Jesus standing atop the mountain alongside Moses and Elijah,
    with his face shining bright like the sun.
Shiny happy people, shiny happy Jesus, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving our enemies – and our youth – for the sake of the Gospel

Lectionary 7 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lectionary 7 Year A 2011

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Last week’s Confirmation Class began with a thud.  I told the class,
“Alright, open up your Bibles to the book of Ruth. It might be hard to find –
    it’s a small book, buried in the Old Testament somewhere.
    Use the table of contents if you like.”
“Pastor Chris,” one of them said, “We know where it is. We read from Ruth last week.”
Oh, crud, I thought to myself.
I had prepared the wrong lesson, the one that Randy Correll,
    one of our wonderful Confirmation Ministry teachers, had taught the week before.
So, while my brain was spinning about what to do,
    I showed the class a video on YouTube of a Doritos commercial from the Super Bowl,
    something I had planned to do anyway. 
The commercial dealt with Doritos, yes, but also with resurrection,
    and I thought it would be a good way to start our class.

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The War on Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine that.

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