On Emperors and Paper Houses

There’s something about fictional stories that I simply adore.

I think it’s the ability for a story to teach us about ourselves without feeling intentional. We’re far enough separated from that alternate reality that it’s not personal, but it still affects our thinking and feeling.

For example, you can tell a story about a young boy on a desert planet. A boy who farms moisture, and takes care of self-aware robots. A boy whose estranged father is an evil ruler who chokes people to death and cuts them in half, and whose sister is the princess of a planet that gets destroyed. A totally bizarre story!  And yet, we can feel connected to those characters.

I’ve been reading through the Dune series by Frank Herbert over the last couple years. (I highly encourage everyone to check them out.) I just finished the third book: God Emperor of Dune.  It has mazingly fleshed-out characters, but there was one in particular that sticks to my mind… Moneo.

Moneo was the second-hand man to the God-Emperor named Leto. He obeyed Leto without wavering, and invested decades of his life in the service of his master.  But he had one major character flaw that revealed itself time and time again… He was unable to question his beliefs.

It’s not that he was not allowed to question his beliefs in the God-Emperor (the ‘center’ of worship throughout the universe of these tales), but that he simply could not cognitively and emotionally handle his own suppressed doubts. Throughout the story, he encounters moments of dissonance; times when his ideas about the God-Emperor are challenged, and his mind begins to crumble as he scrambles for understanding – that all-too-elusive solid ground upon which his mind can stand.

Several characters in the story surpass Moneo in terms of their personal growth. His own daughter, for example, becomes the choice person for succession for the God-Emperor Leto as time goes on. Even the character who is expected to attempt an assassination of God-Emperor Leto is shown more favor as Moneo sinks into the background.

Many times, and especially towards the end of this entry of the series, God-Emperor Leto becomes frustrated with Moneo and his lack of mental/(spiritual?) flexibility. Moneo is so set in his thinking that he is unable to grasp the significance of his place, and his lackluster future is lamented by his ruler.

What is striking, however, is that Leto eventually reveals how much potential Moneo had; the intended purpose of his life, all the grandness that was laid out for him, and the majestic nature of Leto’s leadership.  And yet, he was so stuck in his rigid thinking that it wasn’t until his dying breath that he finally broke through his naïve shelter of paper walls and saw with clarity the true nature of his life and that of his master Leto.

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I find that Moneo is a good example of many believers. I, myself, remember living in paper houses. Following a rigid system of beliefs and a worldview that I neither understood nor cared to explore. I feared leaving those places – afraid that my life would crumble at the mere presence of an idea juxtaposed to what I believed to be true.

One of my greatest joys is seeing people leave paper houses. I remember those shining moments when someone is able to actually ask a real question; is able to truly reflect on their own notions of reality and challenge what they have thought to be true for so long. They take their first steps into a beautiful new world, full of danger – yes – but full of potential as well.

 

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ imagery in The Great Divorce. The ghost-like people are new to the world of reality, and even their own feet cannot bend the blades of grass in this strange place. They walk on what feels like needles; they cannot lift even a single apple in this land. Strength comes with time, however, as they learn how to walk and their bodies become more solid.  So many visitors, however, abandon this world of reality as cruel and inhumane. They opt, instead, to return to the world of grey, where empty houses cannot even keep out the rain.

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On Bricks and Sermons

I’ve always been into Legos. Ever since I can remember, I loved getting Lego sets for my birthday and Christmas. I had so much fun following the directions and constructing a new toy to play with. My imagination ran wild with all the adventures I could have with it. But, inevitably, I would deconstruct whatever I built and throw the pieces into a large bin with all the other pieces I’d accumulated.

The vast majority of my time spent with Legos consisted of creating new projects. Whether it was a space ship (I’d say this was 90% of what I built), a house, or a landscape, I was building something new. And this was the process I always went through – and still go through – when building something new:

  1. Dig through my entire Lego collection, setting aside every single piece I might want to use
  2. Build whatever I wanted from the pieces I had set aside
  3. Put the unused pieces in with the rest of my collection.

On any given project, no matter how large or small, I would only end up using – at most – 30% of all the pieces I originally set aside. When collecting those pieces, my imagination would go crazy with all the ideas I had… “I could use this piece if I wanted to make a kitchen-type room,” “What about this piece? Yeah, it could be a wing or something…,” “Every spaceship needs a grate over the mechanical segments,” and so-on.  In the end, however, the majority of my ideas would be scrapped.

I remember one time I was building a single-seater space ship (of course). I spent about an hour or so collecting all the parts I thought I could use. I probably had around 500 pieces in all by the end of it. My original idea kept changing, and the next hour was used for building exactly what I wanted. In fact, every time I think back to that project, I wish I wouldn’t have torn it apart because the set turned out perfectly.

All-in-all, it was only comprised of 100 pieces.  But man…. I loved that ship. It was just right!

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Being trained in ministry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that my focus for being a pastor is more narrow, allowing me to better determine how to best used my time and energy in serving others. It also helped me in structuring sermons (probably my most consistent form of ministering to people).

But ministry training is also a curse. Probably the worst thing for a preacher to go through is listening to another preacher, because we have been trained in message preparation; Biblical hermeneutics, public speaking, presentation structure, ancient culture and language, and Christian theology. To be perfectly frank, one of my greatest struggles is attending other churches. It’s almost inevitable that something the preacher/speaker says is going to put me off; an anachronism, proof-texting, misappropriation of a text, exegetical fallacies, or something as silly as “the gain on his mic is set way too high.”  All of that is stuff I can look past, to a point, but I’ve noticed a larger issue that is happening in a lot of churches….

I typically develop a message the same way that I build with Legos: I start with a general idea, and then gather up all the pieces that I feel fit the best. I’ll jot down a story idea, point to other parts of the Bible, maybe a piece of philosophy or language, add in some backstory, a rabbit trail or two if it doesn’t distract from the message, and anything else that pops in my head.  Once that’s done, I strip everything down to what’s necessary to convey the truth of that Sunday’s Scripture reading.  Overall, I’d say that my weekly sermon is about 30% of what I’ve played with during preparation.

I can only imagine what my sermons would be like if I tried to add every “great idea” I had in preparation. I would have so many anecdotes, fluff information, and side-notes that the message would be way too long and convoluted, and ultimately people would leave thinking, “wait… what was the message?”  That’s what I see happening in a lot of churches, and even in people’s personal lives.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but there’s a growing atmosphere that consists of “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are nice; but what else?” Perhaps we’ve stumbled into it, or maybe it’s a response to people who don’t think the Gospel is dense enough, or it could be that we keep trying to outdo ourselves in our presentation. Whatever it is, I rarely meet people (outside of my local community, because our pastors are pretty awesome) who confront the Word on a regular basis. They confront exciting, emotional music; they watch a well-produced movie or a sketch at church; but the Word must have been left in the Pastor’s study.

It’s sad to admit that when I read a ‘Christian’ book, watch a Christian movie, or see a televangelist, I resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to encounter the Word; I’m going to encounter an abstract painting – just enough color and texture to be interesting, but contorted to the point of being indistinguishable.

There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the Gospel, because it’s been buried beneath a lot of “great ideas.” We dress it up, do some color correction, add cool effects, inject a bunch of memes to make it ‘relevant,’ and before too long Christ is left on the periphery of the real focus: a variety show.

Now, I’m not shouting “Heresy!” toward preachers, teachers, or speakers. If people are coming to know the Lord, I’m not going to heavily discount the work of a lot of churches out there. My point is this: Is the forgiveness of sins enough for us?  Is sanctification satisfying? Is resurrection, and life eternal, worthy of reflection?

Or do we even know what those mean anymore?

Maybe we threw them back into the bin, in favor of something else we want the Gospel to be.

On Death and Glass

I once cleaned windows for a dead man.

I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when it happened. And it still grips me, even today…

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Several years ago, I was working for Brad’s Window Cleaning out of Rockford (best company I’ve ever worked for, so I am unashamedly promoting them!).  One day, we had a cleaning job for a cottage by a lake. Nothing unusual about this job; a quick exterior power washing and in/out window cleaning. Since I was the crew leader for window cleaning, I headed inside the house to begin my work.

I was greeted by a kind woman, probably in her late 60s, and later met her husband who was sitting in a recliner in front of their television. I don’t remember their names, but the impression of their personalities is engraved on my memory.

It was a lovely cottage. A brightly toned, open living room facing the lake to the East, with large peak windows that needed a ladder to reach. There was a set of French doors that led to a deck, so the whole room filled with natural light.

As with most homes by a lake, most of the window cleaning was done in one or two rooms that face the scenery. So, as I was expecting, I spent the vast majority of my time in that living room – moving my ladder around, handing screens, and moving furniture.

I got to know their family quite well, even though I don’t remember all the details. They had a recently married son who did business somewhere in the South. I believe they also had a daughter who was rather successful in her field. This couple were proud parents, and they expressed interest in getting to know me as I cleaned the dust off their sills.

The television was on most of the time, and the sound was a dull white noise to us. I recall it being Fox News, and the story of the hour was a natural disaster or political upheaval in a foreign country. Something like that.

The main thing I remember was that the conversation between us was cordial and inviting.  I actually missed them as I went to other parts of the house to finish my work.

The following year, I pulled up to their cottage in our work van, and felt excitement at doing this job once again (we had some customers who were… less than exciting to work for. But some customers were a blast to have!).  I was by myself this time, as it was a small enough job that didn’t justify more than one cleaner. I will never forget being invited in and walking into that living room; that sacred space.

This time, however, the recliner was empty. I asked, “Where is your husband?”

“He passed away.”

I remember just standing there, staring at the chair. I so clearly remembered our conversation a year earlier while he sat there, and I was dumbstruck that he would never be there again.

I don’t think I ever paid so much attention to detail as I spent that afternoon working quietly around her house. I even cleaned up the dead spiders and bug carcasses that fell on the ground as I cleaned the garage windows (If you’ve never had to clean a garage window, consider yourself blessed by God. They’re the worst!).

Sometimes, while I’m cleaning windows, I still remember those moments. I learned, then, that even minuscule tasks can be significant. Ever since that day, window cleaning was no longer my job. Window cleaning became my ministry.

On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

On Writing and Not Writing

A while ago, I noticed that there was a subtle shift in my life. It happened shortly after I moved to Gagetown to begin pastoring the Nazarene church here.  I didn’t expect for this change to occur. In fact, I expected my life to shift in the opposite direction. Regardless of what I expected or didn’t expect, the reality of this change is still something that shocks me…

I stopped writing.

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I do write Bible studies for our Sunday Night study time and the Youth Groups studies, and I write sermons.  But, I stopped writing here; on my blog.  That strikes me as unusual, especially given that I see many pastors regularly publish their thoughts and reflections (many times, this is done by people I know who never seemed too interested in writing before).  Of all the ways that I, as a pastor, can reflect and play with ideas, I thought that my blog would be the perfect place to do so.

I was wrong.

As I was thinking about this last night, I realized why I haven’t written on here in over a year: it’s because I’m a pastor.  I don’t say that as an excuse, nor am I saying it to make anyone in my church feel guilty.  I say it because it’s a matter of fact.

When I write things on here, they are the result of personal study and reflection. I write the things that are going on in my head and heart. Honestly, over the last few months I have really wanted to write about what I’m learning through studying Job, Genesis, and the study of eschatology in scripture.  However, when I sit down to put my thoughts into words, I simply can’t go through with it.

I have found that much of my thoughts revolve around conversations. In talking with people in my church, I tap into new areas of exploration.  I learn more about myself, those around me, and what it means to be a pastor and a Christian. Through these conversations, I ask questions I haven’t asked before, I confront doubts I’ve never faced, and I come to realizations that I’ve never expected.  And that is the heart of why I don’t write.

Almost everything I have thought of writing about are products of personal interactions. They are the result of someone opening their heart to me in the foyer after church, or an ongoing conversation that develops a new chapter every week, or they stem from a discussion that grew out of grief or personal struggles.

What would it be, then, if I took those moments and reduced them to tools in order to publish something? Could I be trusted to maintain confidentiality if anyone I talk with could have their private thoughts put on display just so I could make a point? Certainly, as we all know, I rarely use names or reference specific instances that we could point to and say, “I know exactly what/who Ben is talking about!”  But the person whose conversation is critiqued, or analyzed, or – at the very least – mentioned, would know.

How would I feel if I were reading someone’s blog and ran across a reference to an interaction the author and I had? I’m not so sure I could trust the author anymore, knowing that anything I share with him/her could be used as a writing device for others to see. There would be the constant threat that our private conversations could be reduced to public tools.

I have tried to explore ways of writing that separate me from my pastoral context.  Perhaps if I wrote in a more mechanical manner, it would be easier to avoid bringing my church into the conversation and causing unnecessary collateral damage.  Maybe I could simply quote authors and develop a synthetic framework within which I could explore the applications of my own thinking.

I have tried that, actually. But, I can’t do that. I cannot separate myself from my context. Every time I sit down to write, I impulsively seek out ways of how what I’m thinking/learning/studying could be applied in a pastoral way; “How can these ideas help the people in my church to grow in their relationship with the Lord?” And when I ask those questions, I inevitably bring in specific instances. Suddenly, the writing becomes far less mechanical, and far more intimate.

I begin writing about so-and-so’s personal loss or struggle. I type up the victories that what’s-his-face has experienced. In the blink of an eye (rather, the click of a keyboard), those personal interactions becomes mechanisms for writing. They are no longer the personal complexities, full of emotion and intricacies. They are reduced to a single instance, and the individual behind them is reduced to a 1-dimensional character – created to serve a purpose in a parasitic dialogue; having all of their uniqueness sucked out of them so I can write a conclusion.

Even if I were to remove those personal conversations, I cannot help but wrestle against one of the greatest challenges in writing: “It’s rarely what you say that should concern you, but what people hear.” It’s possible that my conclusions on interpreting Daniel’s visions or interpreting Genesis 1-3 could cause unnecessary chaffing between myself and my people.

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not against conflict. Conflict, in and of itself, is amoral. I enjoy conflict of ideas and perspectives, because it helps bring to light things we may have not noticed before. It forces us to confront our own weaknesses and brings us to new levels of understanding. However, my concern with the impersonal medium of writing is that I could unintentionally push someone away.  For those in my church, or connected to my church, my writing could cause alarm and even make them uncomfortable to be around me. In that case, it would be better to have not written at all.

I know that may sound incredibly overdramatic.  Maybe it’s even a horrible way to think about writing as a pastor. But that’s how it is when I [try to] write. I truly would like to write on this blog again like I used to, but I’m not convinced that is the most pastoral thing I could do. More than not, I actually see it working against my role as a pastor.

Before I became a pastor, it never occurred to me that such would be the case.

 

Maybe I’ll start writing more regularly again. Maybe I’ll find a niche way of writing that avoids the potential pitfalls that I’m concerned about. Or maybe I’ll just say, “Screw it!” and write whatever comes to mind. Time will tell.

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.

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.