Betrayed

I’m still trying to come to terms the prospect of a Trump Presidency.

It’s not really the fact that he won the election. People are allowed their political opinions and I totally understand the perspective of much of the Midwest whose jobs and job prospects vanished a long time ago and were faced with a man promising to bring them back.

No, it’s the fact that self-confessed evangelical Christians voted for him and supported (and support) him in such overwhelming numbers that is giving me such difficulty.

If you want the truth, I feel betrayed.

Betrayed by a Church that I expected to show more discernment, betrayed by a Church that has been talking for a generation and a half about how much character matters in politics and then sold themselves to elect one of the vilest-charactered individuals ever to enter the Oval Office.

Betrayed by a community of which I still basically consider myself a part, whose central defining characteristic I believed to be a desire to take the Bible seriously as revealed truth and to live lives in accordance with that.

Betrayed that the Church – my people – who are so earnest about establishing modesty and purity of lifestyle could stoop to elect a man who owns a strip club, brags about his adulteries against his multiple wives and talks about committing sexual assault as if it’s “just something men do”.

Betrayed that a community who say they believe that it’s what’s inside that counts, that “man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart”, could so perjure themselves by electing a man who treats women as numerical values based entirely on their outward physical attractiveness and has contempt for anyone he considers less than a “7”.

This is not something you can shrug off with your “Trump’s not a perfect candidate” whitewash. There’s a difference between “not perfect” and actually actively vile, and Trump is on the wrong side of that line. How can you claim to follow Christ and actively support someone who brags about “grabbing women by the p*ssy” as some sort of godly choice?

This is not something you can paper over with your “don’t vote character, vote the platform” whitewash. We the Church have been the ones waving the flags about how important character is to leadership, and now we give the lie to all of that by voting for this arrogant sexual predator?

This is not something you can weasel out of with your “But Hillary” smokescreen. This is not about her. I don’t care that you didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton – goodness knows her stance on abortion is problematic for Bible-believing Christians – what troubles me is that you voted for, whitewashed and somehow sanctified Donald Trump as if he’s some Christlike leader who will save the nation. The Bible has a lot to say about the sanctity of life; we agree on that much. But the sanctity of life means ALL life, both sides of the birth canal. Donald Trump’s willingness to use nuclear weapons has to give us pause, particularly given his what’s the point of having them if we aren’t going to use them?” rhetoric. This is like “what’s the point of having a gun if you aren’t going to shoot someone?” and does not sit well with respect for the sanctity of life. Abortion is a big issue, but please stop making an idol of it to the exclusion of everything else.

Now, Donald Trump is the President-elect. He will be the President, whether we like the idea or not. And the evangelical church put him there, may God have mercy on us. We’re alienating our mission field, driving away those we should be seeking to win. That doesn’t mean we need to all become liberals. But it does mean that we ought to have a big problem supporting a vile individual who says evil inflammatory things, lies like a rug, changes his story to fit his audience, boasts about sexual assault, owns a strip club, sexualises his own daughter, etc, etc, like Donald Trump has shown himself to be.

I forgive you as an act of the will, evangelical church in America, but I’m seriously put out with you right now.

Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.

We’re All Broken

“Brokenness” language seems to have become common among followers of Jesus today to describe the human condition. “We’re all broken”, numerous songs declare, or “I was broken, but Jesus made me whole”, or similar.

As an attempt to move beyond Christianese and find a new way to communicate the Biblical truth that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, I’ll grant that something needed to happen. “Broken” may be a more accessible image than “sinful” for people who don’t really understand the word “sin” at all (and often think it means “sex”. Or only “big” things like murder).

If saying “everyone has sinned” has become meaningless to our listeners, then certainly we need to find another way of getting that idea across.

And the modern generation seems to have settled on “broken” as the primary metaphor.

It’s got a lot of things to recommend it, but it’s got some problems as well, and while I’m not suggesting we axe it from our vocabulary, I am suggesting that maybe making it our sole way of describing human sinfulness is not as helpful as all that.

Firstly, though, the good.

“We’re all broken” is, as I’ve said, often more easily understood than “we’re all sinners”. “Sinners” is a church word that people in general don’t understand or have a meaning for. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various answers according to whatever the current Christian social bugbears are. Homosexual people. Abortionists. Liberals. People having sex. It’s a word of condemnation and the way some people claiming the name of Christ have thrown it around as an all-purpose accusation for anyone who disagrees with them has shorn it of its actual meaning.

“Broken” is better than this. It comes with a meaningful image – we’re flawed, imperfect, in need of repair. The fact that it conjures up an image does aid in communication.

Saying “we’re all broken” may also be perceived as less hostile than “we’re all sinners”. A common complaint of people who are not part of a church is that “Christains are always hostile and telling me I’m a sinner”. And we want to reach people and be heard, not rejected outright. There are ways to communicate the idea that we’ve all done wrong things and failed to do right ones without saying “You miserable sinner!”. If “We’re all broken” communicates this to the person you’re talking with, without getting you dismissed out of hand as another Christian hypocrite, you should by all means use that language.

Then, too, “We’re all broken” places us all on the same side. Christians have often given the impression that “we are the good guys, you people out there are the bad guys”. Us against them. You need salvation, you horrible sinners, but we Christians are just fine as we are.

This hasn’t ever been true, and “We’re all broken” is, paradoxically, an attempt to fix this. We’re aware that we all need rescuing from the desire we all have to do the wrong and not do the right. We’re all in need of forgiveness, restored relationships with God and other people, power to beat our addictions, an end to our habit of using other people for what we can get out of them.

“We’re all broken” is an attempt to find an image that communicates the idea that Christians are no different from anyone else in our need of the rescuing and restoration that only God can do.

But when we use imagery, we do need to be careful that the image produced in people’s minds is the one we want. That’s the power and the danger of metaphorical and image-rich language. It can communicate powerfully, but may have unintended connotations.

In this case, part of the problem is that we are no longer a society that repairs very much. If something is broken, we’re apt to throw it away and get a new one rather than repair it. And while technically this is sort of like what God does (“I will take away your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh” etc), the idea that God is going to throw us away because of our sin is not the one we want to be communicating.

Second, because of our societal habit of throwing away broken things, we tend to associate “broken” with “worthless”. Even if we’re talking about a valuable antique, the fact that it’s broken makes it worth less than an intact one. Depending on the extent of the damage, it may be worth considerably less. And this is a huge problem with this language.

“We’re all worthless, but God loves us anyway” is a lie from hell. It’s a seductive one, in a perverse sort of way, because a lot of us are already at least half-convinced it’s true.

We know the darkness within. We’ve all experienced rejection, whether from parents or authority figures or our peers. So much of our social skills are learning to camouflage our weaknesses and pretend that we’re cool; an endless quest for acceptance and worth. We deny it because we know with our minds that it’s self-destructive and unhealthy, but deep down we still half believe the lie that we have little or no value.

But it is a lie, and maybe we need to stop feeding it with our “broken” language.

I have intrinsic value, because I’m a human being made by a good, powerful and loving God in His own image. I have infinite worth and eternal significance – valuable enough and important enough that God couldn’t live without me. Literally.

And we can all put “I” in all of that.

The Bible itself uses a number of different ways to communicate the idea that everyone is in need of the salvation, the rescue that He has provided. The idea of righteous life (“There is not a righteous man alive who does what is right and never sins”). The idea of falling short, of missing the target. The idea of needing to be washed from our dirt, of needing cleansing as from an infectious disease. The idea that we were dead and in need of a resurrection. The idea of a second birth.

“Broken” can be a useful metaphor, but we should be aware of its limitations. Sometimes we may not be saying what we think we are, and we may well need to use a different image.

And that’s the point. There is no one-size-fits-all word we can use to communicate the idea of human sinfulness and need for rescue to everyone. For some people, it may be as simple as saying “we’ve all screwed up in some measure”. For others, the key truth may be that we’re each responsible for our own crap; for still others, that we don’t have to remain a helpless victim of what other people have done to us.

As communicators of the Good News, we need to listen – really listen without condemning, dismissing their concerns, passing judgment or trying to fix it – to the people around us. They aren’t going to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets straight away; we have to earn the right to hear that. And in earning the right to hear where they’re really coming from, we also earn the right to be heard when we say that Jesus can do something about it.

In some senses it’s not easy. It’s going to take time and focused effort; this is the opposite of the “drive-by witnessing”. We have to have real friendships with actual people based on them as friends, not evangelism targets.

But in another sense it’s the easiest thing in the world. It requires no special training to make friends with people based on shared interests, whether that’s quilting or mechanics or Star Wars or LEGO or fishing or sports. It happens on its own, even for us introverts. And when a deep, “spiritual” conversation happens among friends, it happens naturally in the course of friendship, unforced and without a phony sales agenda.

Some people are gifted at building connections with other people very quickly. I’m not; I’m a typical guarded and reticent introvert; it takes time to get to know me thoroughly (though I’ll tell you what I think on any subject you name. My opinions aren’t quite the same as me). But even I can make friends, though I’m seldom sure how it happened. And I usually have a pretty good idea that perhaps saying X rather than Y will raise my friend’s hackles.

That, and actually following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are all we need to “do evangelism”.

An Apology of Sorts

Firstly I’d like to apologise to anyone in my church who was offended by some of my statements in my last post. I think I went too far in some things, particularly the characterisation of our church’s Fall Festival as an ineffective outreach event. When we first started attending, that’s how I understood the Fall Festival as being billed, and with that understanding, its effectiveness is questionable.

But I’m informed now that it’s more in the nature of a service to the community in providing a safe environment for their kids to come and have fun. This changes things somewhat. So I need to apologise. And since the original post was public, the apology had better be as well. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to let it happen again, but I can mouth off before thinking sometimes, so although I’ll try, I can make no promises.

I do still have the same basic question and doubt, though: is this something any church can and should be providing a safe environment for?

I am absolutely convinced that my church personally mean nothing but good. I’m certain that they are not allowing anything except that which is substantially innocent to happen at their Fall Festival. They wouldn’t be doing it if they thought it was bad. There’s not a doubt in my mind about any of that, but it’s not the source of my discomfort.

My discomfort with the church’s Fall Festival is that I’m unconvinced that it’s not still a participation on some level in Halloween, despite the renaming. Oh, my head can follow the logic of it supposedly being a sort of harvest celebration (and thus nothing to do with Halloween at all), but America already has one of those, on Thanksgiving Day. It would make my life easier to believe it’s “really” a harvest festival, but I just can’t help identifying it as Halloween, still. It’s got the same date. People dress up, go trick-or-treating and get candy. It’s Halloween. Only now they’re doing it in the church, hopefully without all the demented monsters of the official version.

At a bone-deep level, I remain unconvinced that the superhero and princess outfits that are considered normal for American Halloween are anything to do with real Halloween and its witches and ghosts. I see it around me; I’m not blind. But my mind still rebels at the idea that it’s normal to dress up as a ballerina for Halloween. It may be normal for you but it’s unaccountably weird for me.

Every fibre of my background is wailing that it’s not supposed to be like this. They’re supposed to dress up as something scary; wearing an Iron Man costume is doing it wrong. Halloween’s not supposed to be cute and cuddly.

And that’s just the secular Halloween, without the question of whether we can bring this into the church.

When it even existed as an event, the Halloween of my childhood didn’t have cute and innocent bits. Trick or Treat was the legitimised extortion of “Give us treats or we will egg your house”. The dressing-up was resolutely horror-themed, and the decorations likewise. No, we can’t “provide a safe environment” for this junk!

Of course, that was in another country. Things may be different here. But I’m aware that people are people, and if there’s a way to turn something toward the nasty, someone’s going to find it. American Halloween is still Halloween.

I’m quite prepared to be in a minority here. It’s a novel experience for me to be on the side saying “I really have a problem with trying to Christianise this”; normally I’m much more likely to argue the other way. I don’t have may lines in the sand, so it seems like my subconscious has taken all of my willingness to adapt in other areas, inverted it and piled it on for Halloween.

Maybe this is God’s way of teaching me to see things through the other guy’s eyes. I don’t have a problem with a lot of the shibboleths of the American church (and I was the same way in Britain), so it’s sometimes difficult for me to relate to people that really do believe that the drinking of alcohol, for example, is always a strict no-no for followers of Jesus. Perhaps recognising that in this I’m the one with the tender, weak conscience might do me some good.

I’m not going to forbid anyone from celebrating Halloween (except for my own children, and I think I have that right as their parent). I don’t have the authority to do that, and if I did, I hope I wouldn’t use it for something so self-serving.

If you believe that the route of having a Fall Festival on the 31st is a positive alternative to Halloween, go right ahead. If you can celebrate Halloween itself as unto the Lord, I rejoice in your freedom in Him. I can’t. And nor can I shake the idea that calling it Fall Festival isn’t just putting a different name on it.

If the mutual conviction of my church is that the Fall Festival is a thoroughly positive thing and nothing to do with the dark Halloween I remember, I can accept that as the mutual conviction of my church. You go right on having your Fall Festival, and I hope you are all blessed. Absolutely no sarcasm intended. Sincerely, I hope it’s a blessing to you. If you’re doing it unto the Lord I’d expect nothing less.

If you, as a believer, can celebrate Halloween with a clear conscience and a light heart, I rejoice in the freedom you have in Christ.

But please don’t try to press me to join you. This is a settled matter in my heart and I’m genuinely uncomfortable about church Halloweens no matter what you call them.

I’m groping for a way forward to come to terms with this ubiquitous but hated holiday, trying to breathe new life into All Saints, just as I recognise that’s probably what the US church as a whole is trying to do with its Fall Festivals and Trunk or Treats.

I didn’t ask to be leery and uncomfortable with that route, and I don’t really know why All Saints should seem any better. I’m answerable to my conscience more than I’m answerable for it. But this is my personal line in the sand. I recognise the sovereignty of your conscience in this – I’m not demanding that everyone conform to my personal foibles. But I don’t like feeling put under pressure to do something I’m not at peace with, and I’m already facing that pressure to join in from school, TV, neighbours and friends. Last year it felt like my church was just adding to the pressure. Unintentional it may have been, and I have no right to explode at anyone for something they did not mean. But pressure is pressure, so my apologies if, in finally feeling like I might have discovered a safety valve, that rather a lot of hot air may be escaping.

All Hallows

It’s October, which means that stores have been decorating for the horrible mess that is an American Halloween for about a month already, and still have a month to go before they’ll swap jack-o-lanterns and zombies for snowmen and reindeer. If they don’t leer at one another across the aisle.

I’ve complained about the inescapability of American Halloween on this blog before. Last year, in fact.

My kids are bombarded with it from stores, from friends, from school. And in turn, they bombard us with incessant “why won’t you let us celebrate Halloween?” questions.

Um, you know all those skeleton decorations and zombies and stuff? The ones that creep you out and give you nightmares? That’s why.

“But why won’t you let us celebrate?”

Because it’s nasty and disturbed and tries to make darkness and evil look fun and exciting.

“But I don’t want to do that! I want to dress up like a princess ninja and get candy! Why won’t you let us celebrate?”

Because I’ve got too many dark associations with it to be comfortable with the idea.

And on, and on. No evidence that the explanation has penetrated at all.

Even our church does Halloween. Most American churches seem to, though they’ll cosmeticise it by calling it a “Fall Festival” (echoes of “Winter Holiday” instead of Christmas) or a “Trunk or Treat” or whatever, and then do exactly the same as if it were still called Halloween. It’s baffling. Why is the church doing a festival associated with the glorification of everything scary, dark and evil?

They make a big deal out of it, too. One of our church’s big “outreach events”, despite the fact that no-one that I know of in the church ever joined because of the trick-or-treat. So we get bombarded with Halloween even by our church, and pressured to join the whole American world in “celebrating”. As you can probably tell, I’m not comfortable with this.

This is a sample of conversation between Heather and I and some of our church members from about this time last year:

“Are your kids coming to the Fall Festival?”

<politely> “No, we don’t do Halloween.”

“Oh, that’s such a shame you can’t be there! It’s so fun for the kids! Can you come and help us set up, then?”

<slightly more insistently> “No, we don’t do Halloween.”

“It’s really a fun time! Can you buy some of the candy we need for it?”

<Sigh> “No, we don’t do Halloween.”

What part of ‘we don’t do Halloween’ is sailing right past you? For us this is a dark and evil-glorifying festival. What makes you think we’ll be interested in helping the church participate in it? You can go ahead and celebrate it if you like; that’s between your conscience and the Lord. But you’ll do so without my help.

I tried to go into my objections to Halloween in my blog post last year, and I don’t really want to rehash that old ground, but what it comes down to for me is evil associations. It’s my own personal equivalent of idol food; if your conscience is ok with participating in Halloween I’m not going to stop you, but neither will I allow you to bully me into doing something that I’m really not ok with.

This year, however, we may have found a defence. A way to counterattack the nearly omnipresent seasonal assault on our family and our beliefs, and provide a way for our kids to have fun without participating in something that violates our consciences.

It’s quite similar to what a lot of British churches have done when faced with the increasingly high profile of Halloween over there.

We’re going to resurrect All Saints.

All Saints, on November the first (or the day after Halloween for the calendrically challenged) hasn’t had much of a profile in Protestant-majority parts of the world ever since they became Protestant. In some quarters it gets seen as a slightly weird minor holy day associated with all the Catholic excesses of saint-veneration, perceived as tripping across the line into outright worship of people who may be Godly but are by nature not God.

Still, no-one is forcing us to go all the way over there with it. And a day celebrating the martyrs, missionaries and heroes of the faith who have gone on before us, from Paul and Silas to Columba and Boniface to Hudson Taylor and Mary Slessor, is far and away better than what we have right now.

Heroes of Faith Day. Cloud-of-Witnesses Day. A celebration of what God did through all of those wonderful faithful men and women down the ages.

We can do this. We’re still working out the precise details of how, but we can do this. The kids can stay up a bit later than usual and get candy, but instead of the morbid focus on ghouls and witches and unclean dead things, we move the focus to what is true, right, pure, noble, excellent and praiseworthy.

I’ve got no problem with an occasional late night for my kids. I’ve got no problem most of the time with them dressing up: except on the Eve of All Hallows when it has participatory implications, it’s good clean harmless fun. I’ve not even got much problem with the candy, as long as we can avoid the sanctioned extortion and petty thuggery of Trick or Treat. (Or how else would you characterise letting kids wander around demanding sweeties as protection money in exchange for them not playing nasty “tricks” like egging people’s houses? Let’s just not go there, ok?)

But we can maybe have a family dress-up party, with sweets and late nights and lots of lighted decorations that aren’t necessarily made from carved gourds. We can tell the stories of some of these heroes of faith, maybe even play some of the harmless autumnal games that have become ensnared in the American Halloween and don’t necessarily belong there.

The kids will hopefully have fun. We’ll get a break from the incessant badgering to be allowed to celebrate Halloween. No-one’s conscience will be violated. I think we might be on to a winner.

So this year we won’t be not celebrating this season like we did last year. We’ll be celebrating differently, celebrating the Kingdom of God, not the dark and the demented. Putting the focus back where it ought to be. Reclaiming the season, because October 31st, too, is the Lord’s Day, and I’m done with letting the Devil have it without a fight.

The Lord’s Prayer redux (with all the pointy bits)

The Lord’s Prayer is really deep, and quite pointed.  We’re so used to it, though, that we sometimes don’t notice.  The points get worn down with the abrasion of repetition.  So I decided to see if I could reword the prayer a little.  To take it out of its comfortable rhythm and force us to think about what we’re praying.  This isn’t the sum total of its meaning, but it’s a part of it.  With all of the pointy bits:


 

Our Father in Heaven, Source of our life both spiritual and physical.  All-glorious Creator of all things and Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills.

We pray that You would be glorified amongst us now.  We pray that Your Name would be lifted up, in our worship and in our working, in our meeting together and in our going forth to proclaim Your Gospel.  We pray that those who have not yet heard the Good News would be able to hear, and we offer and dedicate ourselves to that task.

We thank You for all Your goodness to us, in bringing us to Yourself and in providing for all of our needs.  We trust in Your power and Your goodness; Your ability and willingness to bless.

We ask Your forgiveness for when we have faltered and fallen of late, for when we have infringed on other people, or hurt them, or offended them, and we ask Your help in forgiving those who have offended and hurt us.  We ask Your blessing on them today.

We ask that You would keep us from the temptation to hold on to our offendedness, to demand our own way and to put our priorities ahead of Yours.  Protect us from the one who sows temptations and discord in the Body and who would devour us if he could.  We trust in Your Almighty power to shield us as we abide in You.

This earth is Yours, O God.  You are the Ruler, not us.  Have Your way among us, we ask.

 

In Jesus’ Name, amen.

The Hanging of the Greens

The church where we worship does an annual “Hanging of the Greens” service on the first Sunday of Advent.

The Hanging of the Greens was never a part of my tradition growing up, so having come at this for the first time last year basically cold, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. The idea of a special service structured around decorating the church building with all the bits of essentially extraneous greenery we’ve stuck onto the celebration of Christmas seemed a little weird.

I mean, from a certain perspective it hardly seems all that relevant to the great events surrounding the birth of the Rescuer. What do holly and mistletoe have to do with Jesus?

Isn’t it just an expression of the same syncretic Mediæval impulse that allowed Father Christmas and his reindeer into the story?

Well, I might be being unfair. Certainly holly and ivy have little to do with the Biblical story, and Christmas trees only really share a name with the big event. But if we removed from our celebration of Christmas everything that didn’t directly reference the Bible, we wouldn’t have much left. No snow, no sleigh bells, no carols and no candles. No trees, wreaths or decorations. No Santa, no elves, no reindeer, no stockings, possibly no presents, certainly no cards. No irritating and ridiculous Christmas No. 1 single, no fairy lights, no robins or cardinals, no turkey with all the trimmings. No Christmas pudding, mince pies, Christmas cookies, egg nog or chestnuts.

It might even be at a totally different time of year; after all, it was the early Church’s decision to commandeer the Roman Saturnalia that set the date of Christmas to begin with.

We might have more of a commemoration than a celebration, and we might not even have that much. After all, birthdays aren’t mentioned in the Bible at all, much less as a cause for celebration.

Certainly, too, all of these things can be a distraction from the real story. Or at least, that’s what we’re told. Personally I’m starting to wonder about that: if we are following Jesus, it’s only natural to make Him the centre of the festivities no matter what kind of trimmings we surround them with, and it’s kind of strange to expect people who don’t believe and don’t follow to get it without being told. If we didn’t have all the trimmings surrounding it, Christians might be the only ones who cared about Christmas, and we’d lose a God-given opportunity to tell people about why we have a celebration at all.

Yes, a lot of the “Greens” from the Hanging of the Greens have their roots in Northern European pagan traditions. Holly, ivy and mistletoe have Druidic associations. Bringing a fir tree into the house and decorating it may come from the Norse. But just like the Saturnalia has been Christ’s Birthday for long enough that very few even remember that it was once a festival dedicated to the god Saturn, so most of the Greens have very few, if any, lingering pagan associations in the minds of most people. If anything, the “pagan” associations of Christmas trappings these days are with the commercialism of Mammon, and those are more tied to Santa and reindeer than holly and ivy.

The Christmas Greens were sort of baptised and imbued with Christian symbolism during the early Middle Ages. Holly was stripped of its Druidry and became a simple pointer to the events of the Biblical story, as in the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy: “The holly bears a blossom/As white as any flower/And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ/To be our sweet Saviour”. It’s fairly simple – physical characteristics of the holly are used as a mnemonic for aspects of the Christmas story – but for Mediæval illiterates, it’s exactly what was needed. Here is something you can see, and here is how it points to what you can’t.

And I guess that’s the point. It’s exactly the same, in principle, as Communion, it’s just of a lesser antiquity and authority. Bread and (ersatz) wine symbolically standing in for the body and blood of the Lord Jesus are swapped out for holly prickles and berries representing the crown of thorns that Jesus came to wear and the blood He came to shed for us, and fir trees whose evergreen boughs represent the faithfulness of God in promising that a Deliverer would come and in fulfilling His promises.

It’s still a little odd, but that’s just because we never did it when I was growing up. And I have to say that in some ways it’s better than the total failure to acknowledge the season at all that many nontraditional (American) churches seem in danger of.

I have to wonder about the thinking behind this. At the one time of the year when people who don’t normally come to church just might spontaneously come in wanting to sing some carols, we give them…Oceans. A song that is difficult to sing anyway and which they stand no chance of knowing.

I mean, we don’t have to sing Jingle Bells or Jolly Old Saint Nicholas or anything, but if you sit down and actually read the words of Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Come All Ye Faithful, they speak truth. They tell the real story. They point beyond the crass commercialism and the corporate spirit of buying and selling, back to what it’s really about. And they invite worship of the newborn King.

If I have to choose between the Hanging of the Greens and the Ignoring of the Season, I’ll pick the Greens every time.