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.

God with us, in darkness and death

Lectionary 18 (10th Sunday after Pentecost)
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Sunday, August 1, 2010

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

Let me tell you …. Pastor Scott [the Senior Pastor at my church] sure knows how to pick his Sundays off!
    These readings today … wow.
In our first reading we hear from Ecclesiastes,
    the only time in the church’s three-year calendar of readings
    that we read from this book.
And perhaps this is why –
    the author of Ecclesiastes considers pretty much everything
    to be an absurd, futile vanity, a “chasing after the wind.”
    And in an adjacent verse omitted from today’s reading,
        the writer admits that he “hated life” (vs. 17).
As if to confirm this pessimism, we read in vs. 13 that
    “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.”
The Gospel for today is equally pessimistic.
Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose land produced an abundant crop.
Not sure what to do with all his bounty,
    the man decides to tear down his small barn and build a larger barn,
    so that he can store his crops and ease into retirement,
        a plan not unlike the 401(K) plans many of us hold …
But God calls such a man “a fool.”

Read More

Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Worship

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

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

From Ms. Samelson's piece:

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

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

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

Christian Worship on the 4th of July

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

The 4th of July this year falls on a Sunday.  Though there will be flags waving outside of houses, and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products, at church there will be no flag on display or any patriotic celebration.  This is intentional.

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

Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God.  Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music.  Yet if a hymn's theme is secular, it is not appropriate for Sunday morning Christian Worship.

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

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance, such as we did here at Resurrection at the inauguration of President Obama on January 20, 2009.  But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns might guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers.  However, such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God's Word.

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

There is a time and a place for everything – and though we can and should pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism.  As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples.  We don't cease being Americans when we come to worship, but we don't come to worship to celebrate our American heritage.  We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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


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.

We look for the resurrection of the dead

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.
– Nicene Creed

Yes, Jesus was raised from the dead.  The stone was rolled away, and our risen Jesus appeared, variously, to the women, to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, and to his disciples.  To a doubting Thomas, Jesus revealed his wounds.  Jesus ate fish to prove he wasn’t a ghost, yet he also appeared among his disciples, even though the doors of their room were locked.  The resurrection of Jesus.  This is what we celebrate in the season of Easter.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

But it is more than an amazing act of God.  Jesus’ resurrection is a conquest of sin and death to reveal the awesome and life-giving power of God.  Indeed, the resurrection of Christ shows us God’s intention for all of creation.  The resurrection of Jesus is not a one-time thing, an isolated anomaly in the spiritual fabric time and space.  No!  The resurrection of Jesus is not a once-and-done event, but a debut, a first-of-many.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at this coming those who belong to Christ.

Christ is the first fruits, his resurrection is the first act in a holy drama that has yet to end.  But this much we know – what has come to Jesus in the resurrection is promised to us.  For at St Paul writes in Romans 6:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

What is so great about Easter is that it its story of our Lord’s resurrection we see a reflection, a telling of another story – the story of what God promises to do in and for us.  Just as the stone was rolled away from Jesus tomb, so too will God’s angels roll the stones away from our tombs, breath new life into us, and make all things new.  Death will be no more.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Indeed, the hope of early Christians was not a hope for a spiritual heaven, a disembodied world of ghostly apparitions floating in the clouds. The hope of the early church, of the first generations of Christians, was a hope in a new flesh-and-blood life, a life like Jesus’ resurrected life, a life of death defeated and sin conquered, a life where that which breaks us down is itself broken down, and a New Creation springs forth in joy, love, and peace.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

And since our hope is set on a renewed flesh-and-blood reality, our Lord sends us, not looking to the heavens, but looking to the world, for it is in the world where God’s promises will be fulfilled.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

So may we be Easter people in these days –
People who look for the dead to be raised. 
People who look for the new world to come to this world. 
People who look for God to live and dwell among us. 
People who look for our Lord to appear to us in the breaking of bread. 
People who, with doubting Thomas, proclaim the presence of God in the midst of wounds and deathly scars. 
People who look to the cross and all its misery … and see hope.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[Reposted from my column in the April 2010 edition of my congregation's newsletter]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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