Jesus Grieves: The Cross at Half Staff

I drove past a church today that has two flag poles on its property – one for the American Flag, and one for the Christian Flag. They were both flying at half staff in an act of public mourning for the victims of the Chattanooga shooting.

Now, I find the Christian Flag to be somewhere between silly and heretical. Flags are emblems of nation states, signs of a government’s authority over territory and people. Christianity is not a nation state and it needs no flag. Our Lord Jesus rejected efforts to give him the kind of authority that a flag represents. Christianity’s symbol is a cross on which our Lord found victory through death (not conquest), and power through weakness (not might). On that cross, our Lord bid us to do the same. To that end, I find the impulse to slap a cross on a political symbol to be odd, at the least.

Nonetheless, the Christian Flag gave me a different kind of pause today, as it flew at half staff. I am accustomed to seeing the American flag flown in such a manner, a sign that calls us to public mourning. But to see the cross similarly flown, well, that struck me. It reminded me that Jesus grieves.

Our Lord grieves at the senseless death of any of his children. Our Lord grieves at the sin that grips our nation and world. Our Lord grieves when the demons of anger or sickness or passion or evil possess any of his children and lead them to take the life of another.

Yes, our Lord grieves at the brokenness of our world – a world that produces enough food to feed all people, but does not have the will to do so. Our Lord grieves at all the -isms which, coupled with the power of majority rule or government mandate or social acceptance, keeps people from realizing the fullness of their promise in God. Our Lord grieves, because our Lord loves.

I’m no fan of the Christian Flag, but on this day I am grateful for its humble flight at half staff that recalled for me the grieving Lord of love who is present with us in our sorrows and sufferings, and who shows us a better way.

What I Wear to Work

There's a great old Dilbert comic strip where the boss threatens to institute a "casual Friday" policy, requiring fashion-challenged engineers to wear something other than a white shirt, tie, and pocket protector to work.

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When it comes to traditional "business" or "business casual" attire, I feel much like Dilbert and Wally feel about dressing casually, because I can't match a shirt to a tie to save my life.  Though I am not technically color blind, I do poorly on those color dot tests.  When I worked in fundraising and in sales, I would memorize which ties went with which shirts, and apart from the blue shirt with the red or blue tie – and khakis, of course – I was pretty bad.  When shopping for shirts and ties, I would ask the sales associate to find shirt and tie combos, and I would buy whatever he or she put in front of me.

Productgroup_365h But now as a pastor I wear the "uniform" – a black clergy shirt every day.  On Sundays and on visitations, I usually wear the "all blacks" – black clergy shirt and black pants.  On most other days I'll wear the black clergy shirt and blue jeans.  But either way I go with the black clergy shirt.  It's just so easy for me.  Nothing to match or coordinate.  (The photo at right is not of yours truly, though I hope one day to be as thin as that guy.  I grabbed this image from the Augsburg Fortress website.)

I do accesorize – if you want to call it that.  I wear a beautiful black and silver crucifix given to me by my internship supervisor and friend, Pastor Mike Magwire.  I wear it both as a symbol of my faith and as a reminder of my friendship with Mike and the formation I experienced as I worked with and learned from him.

Yet I'm also a "company man," so to speak.  When I go to Phillies games I wear a Phillies hat and jersey – I wear the "uniform" of a fan.  In high school I suffered from a high rate of school pride, wearing to school my letter jacket and school colors – the uniform – on homecoming, days of big track meets, and other days of school pride. 

So too in my work as a pastor.  I wear the "uniform," even though the whole notion of a uniform for Lutheran pastors is on the decline.  For many valid reasons fewer and fewer pastors wear clerics.  Some associate the clerical collar with authority, a two edged sword for sure, used for good or for ill.  Some feel it is too "traditional," a vestige of a church era that has long since waned, and thus has no place in the contemporary church.  Some just don't like the way it looks, parkticularly women clergy, whose options for comfortable and attractive clerical shirts are few and far between.  And in our culture where non-liturgical forms of Christianity dominate, the collar is something that only a few "brands" of Christianity embrace, anyway.

Recognizing all this, I continue to wear the clerics … and not only because of my stunted fashion sense and the challenge I have with coordinating colors (though this is significant!).  For better or for worse the collar is a sign of the office of ministry.  I wear the collar as a sign of my office, a symbol – however broken – of the work to which I have been called, the ministry with which I have been entrusted.  I wear it for me. 

I've heard some say that we who wear clerics do so for the attention and perks we receive.  Perks?  Really?  More often than not, when I'm wearing my clerics out and around town I get odd looks and awkward glances … and the ocassional lengthy conversation about God, faith, and the meaning of life (which make those odd looks and awkward glances seem worth it).  But no perks.  Sorry.

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For the few of you who have made it to the end of this post … what think you?  If you are a pastor, do you wear the collar?  If you are a layperson, what do you think about the collar?

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.]

 

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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.