Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

If All Lives Mattered, There Wouldn’t Be #BlackLivesMatter

If All Lives Matter in our society, there wouldn’t be such disparate experiences of violence or of poverty along racial lines. Yet an examination of  crime statistics, of poverty statistics, of education statistics, of employment statistics and so forth, shows that clearly our society does not act as if All Lives Matter … or, at least, do not matter as much as other lives.

“Black Lives Matter” is a necessary mantra, no matter how imperfect those who chant this slogan. Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of violence, of an imbalanced justice system, and of all kinds of social and economic struggles, of a direct and evil legacy of slavery and of Jim Crow and of all the ways that racism has manifested itself in our society.

“Black Lives Matter” shakes us from our resignation to, and tacit acceptance of, a broken society that lets such disproportionate violence and suffering happen to one group of people … for generation upon generation.

“Black Lives Matter” reminds us that we cannot accept a society where one class, one group of people struggle so. much. more. than others. blacklivesmatter1

“Black Lives Matter” calls us on the fact that, as a society, we have conducted our affairs as if Black Lives Do Not Matter … or at least, do not matter as much as other lives (3/5ths, perhaps?).

Black Lives – lives which our society has too often disregarded and devalued – Matter. Why is such a statement so divisive? Perhaps because we don’t want to face our own racism, past and present.

“Blacks Lives Matter” says just that. Black lives matter. It does not say that other lives do not matter. It does not say that Black Lives Matter more. No. It just says that Black Lives Matter. Period. And this is a truth that our society seems to have forgotten … or perhaps never quite knew in the first place.

“Black Lives Matter” may be an imperfect movement (show me a “perfect” movement,
please). But it is an important truth. If we are to be a society of liberty and justice, a society that some claim is Christian, we will embrace a slogan that lifts up the value and dignity of those that our society has historically devalued, and we will demand liberty and justice for those to whom it has been delayed and denied.

“Black Lives Matter.” It needs to be said in a society that too often has conducted its affairs as if Black Lives Do Not Matter. Even if Especially because it is hard to hear. 

“Joining God in the Neighborhood”

I was very excited to see Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan J. Roxburgh arrive from Amazon. Please know that I didn't order the book and wasn't anticipating its arrival. My wife, a seminary professor, ordered it. However, upon reading the second paragraph on the back of the book, I knew I had to read it:

Missional calls you to reenter your neighborhood and community to discover what the Spirit is doing there – to start with God's mission – and join in, shaping your local church around that mission. With inspiring true stories and a solid biblical base, this is a book that will change lives and communities as its message is lived out.

It was a few years ago, when I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers, that I first began to think of God having a mission in the world. Up until that point, I had always associated mission with the church – that the church is on a mission. I had never really thought of God having a mission. But Kelly Fryer wrote an excellent Bible study series called No Experience Necessary – which I, as an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, was charged with selling. One of the themes of No Experience Necessary was, "God is on a mission to love and save the world." I asked myself, "What does it mean for God to be on a mission in the world … and what does it mean for us to join in that mission?"

Then a few years later, while planning for a mission trip to El Salvador, a North American missionary with extensive work in Central America described the work that God was doing through the church in El Salvador. Our job as North American mission partners, he said, was to join in the mission that God was already accomplishing through the Salvadoran church. Too many North American church groups travel to Latin America to "do mission" in Latin America, assuming that there isn't any mission going on unless they bring it. But the truth is that God has been at work in Latin America, through the local churches, long before we even thought about traveling there for our "mission trip." Thus, our calling is to recognize and participate in what God is already doing, to accompany the Latin American church on its mission.

This idea that God is already at work in the world has been an ongoing theme in my preaching, too. I'm convinced that God is at work within the church walls, yes, but also beyond the church walls. God-things are happening at the altar and font, but also at the corner store, the barber shop, the shelter, the county government offices, the public schools, social service organizations, ten mile runs, and more. The church's mission is to carry out its God-given call to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to baptize and to teach, yes. But its mission must also include seeing where God is at work in the world and to joining in that blessed work.

If this book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, examines and extends these themes, I'm sure it will be a worthy read.

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.

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.