On Christmas and Church

Maybe Trump’s election caused more of a mental disturbance than I thought. The “Safe Spaces,” therapy dogs, free counseling sessions, and petitions to have the Electorate change their votes were certainly not what I was expecting following November 8. (Just to be clear, I am not endorsing nor condemning the President Elect). But now, we are having to have discussions around whether or not to gather for worship on a major Church holiday?

For those who may not have heard the buzz flying around the interwebs this season, there is a conversation/debate going around Christian circles over whether or not to have an organized gathering on Christmas. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, and thus many churches are deciding not to have a service.

I simply don’t get it. Why is this even a conversation? Have we run out of things to discuss?

In all seriousness, let’s have a chat about this. Christmas is less than 2 weeks away, and although this post is, no doubt, late to the party, I still think there is a lot we need to talk about when it comes to this particular topic.

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I will be blunt: I think it’s a poor choice to cancel church on Christmas. I will try to be brief, so here is my reasoning:

1. Most Americans are closet Gnostics, already. American Christianity struggles with understanding the value of creation and the material world (Thank you, Plato). The Incarnation is an incredible opportunity to teach this – and a necessary one. God becoming flesh – literally occupying physical space – carries profound density that could take a lifetime to explore, but how often do we wrestle with this idea? I cannot think of the last time I was at a Christmas service where the Crucifixion/Resurrection was not the climax of the Christmas Story. If we cannot appreciate the significance of the Incarnation without burying it under the Cross, then we have a problem.

By cancelling church on Christmas, we communicate a theological message about the value of the Incarnation whether we mean to or not.

2. It’s not just another Sunday. I don’t know why many pastor’s I’ve heard from use this as a justification for cancelling services: it’s just another Sunday. Truth is, it’s a major Christian holiday. What better place to celebrate a Church holiday than on a Sunday? We should be excited that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year – the day that the Lord meets with his Holy Church Universal! Think of what it would be like to cancel church during Easter because it falls on a Sunday.

I know the reasoning behind this, which brings me to the third point:

3. Family is not more important than Church. The number 1 reason I have heard for cancelling church revolves around: “This is time I can spend with my family. I’m not going to neglect my family for the sake of a service.” Here’s the problem I have with this thinking: it assumes a false dichotomy. Family is not at odds with Church. Family time and Church time are not mutually exclusive. See one of my latest posts for more on this subject.

I understand that family is important, but we are treading dangerously close to making family an idol by assuming that families are somehow being damaged by worshipping together. If we can’t worship with our families for an hour on a Sunday morning without suffering damage, then I suggest counseling rather than sleeping-in and opening presents. Are we such bad family members that we can’t take advantage of the other 364 days in the year and spend adequate time with our family? We only have this one day to show our families what they mean to us?

Now, I get the pressures of being a pastor, and that it isn’t “just an hour” you have to put into a Sunday morning service. But here’s the awesome thing: You’re the pastor! You don’t have to plan an hour-long service. Personally, I’m planning a simple Christmas morning service that, at most, will go for about 45 minutes with Scripture readings and no worship team. Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean we have to go full-throttle on the choirs, songs, videos, and all that jazz. But, gathering as the community of faith is an important thing to do.

4. It’s one Sunday out of the year. I understand we want to spend time with our families. Again, I am not against family time because I don’t believe the lie that Church time and Family time can’t go together. But, if we truly need that time together as a family on a Sunday morning and can’t survive without it, then why not take off the following Sunday? Or the Sunday before? Christmas is not just “another Sunday.” Have we truly forgotten what a holiday is? What’s more – it’s one of the most significant holidays of the year! (and I’m counting the Church calendar, not just the Hallmark calendar)

Another major argument I’ve heard for churches closing is that “it’s only one Sunday out of the year. No big deal!” My point exactly: it’s only one Sunday out of the year. Why not make a small sacrifice and worship?

5. Mixed messages. I will never be able to count how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” If that is true, then why can’t we acknowledge that on Christmas, of all days, by actually observing that message?

By preaching, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and turning around and saying, “No church on Christmas,” we mark ourselves as hypocrites and preach a different message. More often than not, as far as I’ve heard/read, the message is: “Family is the Reason for the Season.” As Christians, we are called to be set apart; to follow a different way of living. Where Secular Culture decides to treat Christmas as a time to worship family, we should be setting an example by taking that time to worship Christ.

I have heard it argued that canceling church is not a problem because church is not the same as Jesus. I get it. But we have to be careful in that thinking because Christ himself saw the regular gathering of the community as important. And, he also established the Church and set her up to be his bride. Perhaps this is over-spiritualizing things a tad, but I would argue that by gathering consistently, especially on holidays, we honor Christ’s bride and thereby Christ himself.

6. Christmas without a cost. I don’t know, maybe this is a cheap shot, but I have a sneaking suspicion that one major reason for our lackluster approach to Christmas this year is that we want to treat ourselves. We don’t want to have to work. We want some time off. We want a holiday that doesn’t cost us anything (well, anything beyond the $500 we spent on Christmas presents). Our time spent shopping was enough time away from home.

But Christmas is about giving, not getting. Am I seriously having to say this to a mostly adult audience? So why not give some ti—…….       you know what… I think I’ve made my point by now.

 

There are other reasons for why I will have church on Christmas morning, but these are the highlights. And, honestly, I still can’t believe we have to have this conversation. It’s not like this is the first time Christmas fell on a Sunday. It happened 5 years ago, and I’m pretty sure we were all good with it back then. So what happened?

And, frankly, if we can’t take an hour or two out of one day of the year to worship as a family because “that’s the only time we have together,” then maybe we’re too busy with filling our lives with things that don’t matter.

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On Ministers and Patience (Part 4)

I was in the sanctuary not long ago reading the Scripture passages for this coming Sunday. I use the Lectionary, so those of you who are more liturgical will know what I was reading.

The Old Testament passage was from Genesis 15, where God is speaking to Abraham, and Abraham is aggravated with his being told promises that he has yet to see fulfilled.  The Gospel passage was from Luke 13 detailing a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees who wanted him to leave Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus told them that he would stay and goes on to lament Jerusalem’s continued actions against prophets and expresses his desire to “gather [their] children together,” and ends with him telling Jerusalem that he will return again and they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The last passage, the New Testament passage, is from Philippians 3. Here, Paul is telling the church in Philippi to remain diligent in their focus, and tells them that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I couldn’t help but notice the common theme of “waiting” in these passages. Abraham had to wait on the promise God had given him, Jerusalem had to wait for Christ to fulfill his purpose, and Paul was telling the church that, as Christians, it is in our nature to be waiting in anticipation for Christ’s return.

What was also surprising to me was the Lectionary passage from last Sunday… The Gospel reading (and the focus of many a sermon) was on Jesus’ temptation in the dessert after his baptism. Here, and I am sure many of us are familiar with the story, Jesus is tempted by the Devil with three things: Food for his stomach, the authority to rule over all kingdoms, and the chance to showcase his power and authority as God’s Son. Now, none of these things are all that bad. In fact, they all satisfy a need for Jesus. He was fasting for 40 days, so he needed to eat (no harm in that – his time of fasting had ended anyway!). He came to proclaim His kingdom and his reclamation of all peoples from Sin, so taking ownership would have immediately accomplished that goal. And he struggled to show some people that he was, in fact, the son of God, so throwing himself from the top of the Temple to be rescued by angels would have proven once and for all who he truly is.

However, he did not give in to any of those temptations. Instead, he resisted. And, he waited.  In fact, you could argue that because he did not give in to two of those temptations we are still waiting for him to accomplish the tasks that could have been accomplished 2,000 years ago!

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As I was meditating on these passages, I couldn’t help but think back on my time spent in the ‘waiting room.’  In some respects, I am still there. I am currently an associate pastor, but I am also still searching for work because I am a pastor on a volunteer basis. So I’ve been transferred to the ’employment waiting room.’

It is so incredibly easy to lose patience while waiting for a ministry position to open up. You spend years of your life dedicated to the study of God’s word, the practice of ministry, and have invested so much of your time and resources to the Call that it feels almost criminal to not be serving in the capacity of a pastor immediately following graduation. And, unless you have developed other vocational skills, you would be hard-pressed to find a job doing anything else.

And yet, the Christian life is not spent running from one idea to the next. Yes, other people may seem so fortunate. They got the ideal internship that developed into the ideal placement, making the ideal amount of money, and met the ideal spouse, and are raising the ideal family. Those things happen, but I am encouraged by the fact that God does not allow us to sit any longer than what we can bear (and if my history has taught me anything, my behind is 100% grade A sit-able!).

Similar to Jesus’ temptation, rather than to become impatient and jump at the first open opportunity that comes our way, we would do well to wait patiently on the Lord for him to guide us to the right opportunity. In a world so full of “make yourself” career paths, it is increasingly difficult for young ministers to rely on a power they cannot control or even predict. As such, we need to be reminding ourselves frequently that our task is not to open doors, but to wait patiently for God to do his work.  For myself, I have to continually remind myself of this truth daily. I am not sure if that will ever change.

The one who has called you is faithful, and he will do it.