Tag Archives: reflection

The World Is A Messy Place

As we settle down after Christmas dinner on this Lord’s Day I share with you a few thoughts from the last 24 hours. It was a period filled with worship at three different churches with three different styles and about as many theological perspectives. (Full disclosure: the pictures of the three churches below were all taken well before the service began.) Needless to say – considering the season – I heard the second chapter of Luke read three times.

One of the things that has always struck me about Luke’s writing is the historical details. His mention of specific figures outside of Israel lends an authenticity that was certainly intended by the author to give his audience some context for the events he narrates. In this part of the story he gives us the references to Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius.

But with the repeated readings I got a bit distracted and a couple of the Greek words in Luke 2:1 caught my attention so I got sidetracked into word studies. The first is the word for enrolled or registered – apographo. A technical term related to the census that conveys the official nature of it. As an interesting side-light, that word is used in only one place out side of Luke’s narrative and that is in Hebrews 12:23 where it speaks of the firstborn being registered with the assembly/church in Zion.

The second Greek word is oikoumene which is translated something like “the inhabited world.” The simple lexicon I had with me conveys the reference to the earlier Greek-speaking world and then the Roman world. The sense certainly seems to be to those considered civilized as opposed to the barbarians or to put it another way – us versus them.

Now I should be clear that I am working off my small lexicon and I look forward to exploring these words more with my more extensive ones. But for the moment I think this is enough to convey what struck me this weekend.

The idea is that Jesus was born into a messy world, in a small province of a big empire ruled from a city far away, with a governor to represent the rulers and a local king (admittedly Herod is mentioned mostly in Matthew and not Luke) who only retains power by the permission of the occupying rulers but has enough latitude to wield that power in horrific ways among the local population. The terms discussed above suggest official control, taxation and a sense of who is controlled, maybe even welcome, and who are the outsiders and not being controlled. Furthermore, we know from archaeology and hints later in the Gospels that there are multiple factions within the region that cooperate with the occupying forces to various extents to keep hold of power. And factions who want to get rid of the foreign powers by various levels of violence and terrorism. Yes, into this messy world God became incarnate in the form of a new born baby.

Why at that time we can not be certain – that is a matter for God’s sovereignty. But at this time, in this world we still have a lot of messy situations. Some of these situations are in places mentioned in the second chapter of Luke. Some of them are where others of us live. Some are messy in the sense of physical violence, some political turmoil, some racial discord, some due to corrupt institutions… the list goes on. The world is still a messy place, and we would be hard pressed to say if it is any more or less messy than the one Jesus was born into.

And yet, into our mess the Word is still with us. Born once in human form and subject to the social, economic and political forces of his time he overcame them not by force or political power as the world expected but by his spiritual and divine power exercised in the context of a messy world.

And so we find ourselves in a similar situation this Christmas: Much pain and hurt, much political uncertainty and frustration, much economic unevenness, and much social tension. And yet, the message of Christmas is that God was and is with us, gave his life for us and will come again.

Even so, Come, Lord Jesus

 

Presbyterian Presidents

While it was very tempting today to riff on Chesterton (“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”) or Psalm 20 (“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”) I decided on a different path. Instead, we have the potential for another self-identified Presbyterian to be elected the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government so I thought I would take a brief look at other Presbyterians in that position.

There are a number of lists of the religious affiliations of Presidents, including Wikipedia, Pew Research Center, and Adherents.com. From these lists, it is clear that the largest single group is the presidents who were Episcopalian with about eleven total. This is closely followed by the ten-ish Presbyterians. And coming to a fixed number is a bit challenging because of switching in their lifetimes.

But some presidents were life-long Presbyterians and easily identifiable with that denomination. These include:

  • Andrew Jackson, raised and self-identified as one his whole life, although he technically did not join a church until after he was president.
  • James Buchanan, raised and educated (Dickinson College) in a reflection of his Scots-Irish Presbyterian roots, but like Jackson did not officially join until later in life.
  • Grover Cleveland, a son of the manse but with age is reported to have become less devout
  • Benjamin Harrison, a lifelong and active Presbyterian. More on him a but further below.
  • Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse often held up as a model of Presbyterian presidents. However, being politically and academically active during the fundamentalist/modernist debates, he came down on the modernist side at a time when the PCUSA was still dominated by the conservatives.

Two presidents became notable Presbyterians later in life:

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose upbringing and earlier life included family participation with the River Brethren sect of the Mennonites and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his presidential years and especially in retirement at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church he was an active member.
  • Ronald Reagan, was raised in his mother’s Disciples of Christ church but after moving to southern California was associated with Bel-Air Presbyterian Church much of his adult life.

And three presidents drifted towards the Methodists:

  • James Knox Polk, whose middle name Knox reflects his mother’s Scottish roots and descent from John Knox’s brother. While raised Presbyterian, later in life he would identify with the Methodist church, although he would regularly attend Presbyterian services with his wife.
  • Ulysses S Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, I am lumping together as, at least according to Adherents.com, their paths are about the same. While accounts are not entirely consistent they both may have had Presbyterian connections early in their lives but they were not the most religiously active later and generally were more visible with their wives’ Methodist traditions.

It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln, while not an adherent to a religious institution, did regularly attend Presbyterian services with his more devout wife Mary.

Another interesting note is that Jame Madison, while never identifying as a Presbyterian, was a student of that great colonial-era Presbyterian scholar and theologian, John Witherspoon, at the College of New Jersey.

And speaking of the College of New Jersey, it is probably worth mentioning that the son and namesake of clergyman and second president of that institution, Aaron Burr, Sr., was a vice-president of the U.S., but these days is better known for a particular incident.

Let me return to Benjamin Harrison and his Presbyterian faith. While Wilson is held up as the Presbyterian scholar and academic, I enjoyed finding out more about Harrison and in the humble, day-to-day faith associated with the Calvinists he may be a better representative for what it means to be an active member of the church. For an interesting read on his faith there is an article by William C. Ringenberg, “Benjamin Harrison: The Religious Thought and Practice of a Presbyterian President.” While his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, is typically counted as a nominal Episcopalian, it was his grandmother, a strong Presbyterian, who helped raise him and left her mark. Upon graduation from college he considered a career in the ministry and while widely acknowledged as having the gift of oratory, his innate interpersonal skills were lacking and pastoral work would have been more challenging. He chose law, and politics, instead.

Throughout his life he was active in the local church, serving as a ruling elder, Sunday school instructor and other positions. Maybe the most telling statement in that article about his church activity is this:

A long-time usher, Ben passed the collection plate on both the last Sunday before going to Washington for his inauguaration [sic] and the first Sunday after he left office

Need I say more?

So as the first polls are about to close, will we have another self-identified Presbyterian become president? The experts say no, but it ain’t over until the voters have their say. We shall see.

Stay tuned
Postscript:

Reading through some of this stuff, it seemed to me that another interesting path to chase down could be Presbyterians who served as U.S. Secretary of State including such interesting political and Presbyterian names as William Jennings Bryan, John Foster Dulles and Condoleezza Rice. But I will leave that for another day.

“Forever Wild”

With a title like that you could be excused for thinking I was writing a summary piece about one, or multiple, general assemblies. No, this is a bit of a departure from the typical style for my July Fourth reflection, but please bear with me.

As I began thinking about the piece for this year my mind drifted towards the centennial of the National Park Service. In case you did not know, it turns 100 on August 25th. In a patriotic spirit it has recently gained the popular title “America’s Best Idea.” That comment alone, made by Wallace Stegner in 1983, should be patriotic enough to end the post here and go watch the parade. The complete quote is “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

But this thought was not unique to Stegner. Franklin Roosevelt said “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

Or as the first director of the Park Service, Stephen Mather, said

“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…. The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.”

“Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”

(Quotes from an NPS web page of quotes)

It is sounding very Presbyterian to me actually – the availability to all and the participation of all for the greater good – but it would make sense as one of the early advocates for wild space, John Muir, was born in Scotland and exposed to Presbyterianism there. His very religious father had an early Presbyterian affiliation before drifting through a variety of leanings and activities that had ties to the Restoration movement, specifically the Campbellites. But I digress.

As regular readers know, I have a great love of the outdoors, for the recreational opportunities and inherent beauty. But on a higher level for their spiritual connection as much as for their democratizing influence. And while the area around the Yosemite is one of my favorite areas, the earliest area that was a “thin place” for me was the Adirondacks of New York.

100_4297In case you are not familiar with the Adirondack Park it might help to know that it comprises one-third of all the land area of the state – over 6 million acres and growing – making it the largest state park in the country. That makes it larger than any national park in the contiguous United States. It is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined. Of that area in the park, 2.6 million acres are Forest Preserve owned by the state – still an amount making it larger than any national park besides some Alaska parks and Death Valley.

100_4347But what makes the area truly unique from a public land stewardship point of view is the foresight that the leaders of the state had regarding the land. As more land was clear-cut for lumber the forest preserve was created in 1885 and the Park in 1892. In 1894 New York wrote a new state constitution and included this clause:

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

This was part of the constitution ratified by the citizens of New York and is known to many as the “Forever Wild” paragraph. Twenty times the voters have approved exceptions or land deals allowing sale or use of certain lands for reasonable causes from expanding a municipal cemetery to building two ski areas. But on this holiday it is notable that this must be done by an action of the citizens.

Over the years I have found a number of areas that are for me thin places. But still, for a variety of reasons there is none as thin as the New York State Forest Preserve. And I am looking forward to a return visit later this summer.

And on this Independence Day, I give thanks for civic-minded leaders and citizens that have the energy and foresight to create, maintain, care for and preserve public lands for the benefit of all.

100_4425

Wrap Up And Reflection On The Fourth Day Of General Assembly

It was an interesting day at the 222nd General Assembly on a number of levels. Like one of my previous wrap-ups I am going to take this in reverse chronological order.

I write this from the convention center as the hour grows later and Committee 4 – The Way Forward continues their work. In my wrap up from Sunday I was partly right and partly wrong in my assessment. What I got right is that they are working late on Tuesday night – to my knowledge the only committee still working. What I got wrong is that I suggested they might be working through it in a cursory way to get it done. Watching the committee working this evening it is clear that they are taking their job very seriously. They are using parliamentary procedure fairly well, the members of the committee are listening and respecting each other, and they are being very thoughtful and deliberate in what they write. It is a pleasure to watch them work on this, with the exception that the hour grows late. (For the record, they did get to the point where they got the heavy lifting done and could have done some more detailed work but instead did lump a few overtures together to be answered by an earlier action.)

And if you asked about my using the word “writing,” yes they are writing a lot. Part of their deliberative process was to be generative and come up with new ideas to move the church forward. They have discussed some interesting ideas, wrestled with the polity constraints, and will be bringing something interesting to the plenary. I am not going to expand on that at this time since it is not finished yet, but it will be interesting to see what the whole Assembly does with it.

I spent most of the rest of the day observing the Committee on Mid Councils. Today they were dealing with the question of synods. They were instructed early on that the actions of previous Assemblies were not binding on this Assembly. Therefore, if the 221st had asked synods to find a way to restructure themselves, this Assembly did not have to follow through with that. In brief, they did not. After hearing from a lot of people for and against, after discussion in the committee about options, after advice from the ACC they chose to recommend rescinding the actions of the 221st and leave synods alone. There were whispers of “minority report” and we will see what comes to the floor. Both this and their decision on non-geographic presbyteries rub some people the wrong way so it will be interesting to see how the different dynamics of the plenary play out.

On the one hand, a lot of time, effort and money have gone into two Mid Council Commissions over the last five years. I have heard some reaction that after all that work it is being undone. On the other hand, the process of the last two years with the synod consultations has happened, they came back with a recommendation and this committee basically took that recommendation.

The Mid Councils Committee closed their work considering a request for an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) about the inclusive nature of the church and its leadership and whether non-ordained leadership from church plants could be given a seat at the table in presbytery with voice and vote. The original motion from a member of the committee was to do that but when it was explained that if they wanted to have an AI they would have to provide it. No one felt like they had the necessary words, or maybe the time, and without much additional discussion the request for the AI was denied. I bet if that had not been the very last item on the docket a writing team would have put something together for consideration at the end. But so goes business at the GA.

Finally, please allow me to tell my best story of the day – maybe of the whole GA.

Before the Mid Councils Committee began today Jana Blazek from the Outlook and I were setting up at the press table. Todd Freeman, the Moderator of the committee came over and was chatting with us. When I introduced myself he recognized my name but not from this blog. It took him a moment but remembered that I was the author of the Outlook article looking at the overtures related to synods. He explained that he wanted to read from it but left that copy of the Outlook in his hotel room. “We can fix that” we told him and helped him call it up on his tablet. Thanks to Jana for the picture of me and Todd with his table showing the Outlook article.

Comm5Mod

He then proceeded to open today’s meeting by reading to the committee the first paragraph of my Outlook article on synods. I am humbled to say the least. My thanks to the Outlook for the opportunity to write it and for them publishing it.

And with that, I am going to crash. No writing time tomorrow morning as I will be meeting with people but will be back to live blogging as the afternoon plenary begins at 2 PM PDT.

See you then.

 

And Though This World, With Devils Filled…

I had an interesting day today.

You probably heard about my day. Media outlets across the country, and the world, were covering the latest university shooting, this time on the UCLA campus.

I spent about two and a half hours in my computer lab and connecting office suite sheltering in place with the class that was in there when the notification came to lock down the campus. We were in the building complex directly across the quad from the shooting and I had in fact been very close to the location of the shooting minutes before it happened as I went across to Engineering to get a cup of coffee. The containment perimeter was set up just outside our building and for about three hours at least one, probably two, law enforcement helicopters were circling overhead.

There is no question this is a tragedy. Few details have been released beyond that two males were killed in what was a murder/suicide. Over the next few weeks to months as more details become known we can debate possible issues that might include mental health, gun control, a culture of entitlement, unreasonable expectations about success, and probably a plethora of other issues. I can also tell you that based upon the experience today there are some significant issues with being able to shelter in place at some points on campus and problems with communication systems.

And then there are the theological questions? Where was God? Why did this happen? If God is sovereign, how can this possibly fit into God’s divine plan? All those questions we ask when trying to figure out how we are in such a messed up world when we proclaim that The Lord is a good God.

For some of these questions there are no answers this side of Eternity. We live in a fallen and broken world. Things are messed up. And yet somehow God is in charge. As the great Reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress, says in the third verse:

“And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.”

In the Epistle to the Romans the Apostle Paul has the line “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” At a time like this that is one of those problematic verses I have no idea what to make of it. I will faithfully accept it and stay away from simplistic explanations.

But a few verses later Paul writes one of those passages of scripture that I personally hold onto through thick and thin, in good and bad, and especially at times like this:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We do not know what is going on or why. But we do know God is with us throughout it.

Can I get an Amen?

 

 

 

A Milestone…

I would like to rise to a point of personal privilege…

If you will indulge me for a couple minutes I would like to take some time to reflect on this blog.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my starting to write this strange little piece of niche social media. And looking back I am both surprised and comforted to see that my very first post was a list of several General Assemblies and General Synods in 2006.

I had previously done a series of daily web updates as a commissioner to the 209th General Assembly in 1997. I have preserved that web site and on the archived page from the PC(USA) you can see that they were kind enough to include my coverage, although that link is now dead. And while we might consider it a blog in today’s terminology, that is a word that was not coined until two years later, at least according to the OED. But to my knowledge, I was the first GA commissioner to be posting daily updates on the web during the Assembly.

Nine years later I moved on to this crazy social media technology called blogging. In the last ten years I have posted almost 1100 articles on this blog and while it seems to me that there are almost as many unfinished drafts the stats tell me it is actually an order of magnitude less. And looking at the categories, about two fifths of what I have written somehow involve the PC(USA), about one third somehow relate to a general assembly, and the Church of Scotland comes in a clear second in the denominations with almost one fifth of the posts mentioning them. In all, I have discussed 35 different Presbyterian and Reformed branches from around the world and through history.

It should be no surprise that if I have kept it up for this long I have enjoyed doing it. I view it as one of my hobbies, not as a job, and it helps me process the news and polity developments by studying and writing about them. And being only a hobby, I can write about what I want, how I want and as my time permits.

But the real payoff has been getting to know a good number of you, my regular readers, whether it be in person or virtually. In both the scientific as well as the Presbyterian parts of my life review by others, be it peers or higher governing bodies, is not only appreciated but expected. A sense of accountability is part of our system and comment and critique are appreciated forms of feedback.

Looking to the future I have a lot of ideas and a lot of GA’s I would like to attend. However, I still have my day job as well so I will get to all of them as time and finances permit. I am hoping to make it to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) and leading up to that I have appreciated the opportunity to branch out a bit and write some polity articles for the Presbyterian Outlook, one of which was published online yesterday.

So in conclusion, a big THANK YOU for joining me on this weird journey through the polity and news of global Presbyterianism. Thank you for not just reading this blog, but your interaction and encouragement. That has made it what it is.

And now I will return to my seat and thank you for allowing me the privilege of the floor for a few minutes.

Back to our usual presby-geek agenda.

Another Game, Another Venue

You have to admit there is a certain synergy to The Big Game in the U.S. falling during Carnival. I will leave the liturgical and cultural significance of that as an exercise for the reader and instead turn my attention to another game and another venue here in Southern California.

A couple weeks ago I was delighted to read a column by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times – “Girl Scout’s project provides hope through hoops.” It was about a recreational basketball court built by Claire Dundee as the community service project for her Girl Scout Gold Award. She had taken a small piece of yard at a transient apartment complex and oversaw the construction project that turned it into a small but usable basketball court for the kids in the complex. Mr. Plaschke describes her accomplishment like this:

With her wits and will, during a six-month period that occasionally seemed like forever, Claire Dundee arranged and supervised the construction of a simple court that has been the answer to endless prayers. She initially did it to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, that organization’s highest honor, but eventually reaped far greater riches, restoring faith in adults skeptical of a teen’s determination and hope in kids who didn’t have a place to play.

She raised the money, convinced the contractor, dealt with the architect, eventually even pushed the wheelbarrow. In the beginning, she was so scared to phone strangers that she would write down a script before every call. But by the end, she was overseeing the pouring of the concrete.

Clair talked about the challenge saying:

“A lot of people said I was crazy,” she recalled. “But I knew something like that would last forever.”

The head of the construction company she worked with, Mansour Jahanbin of Oxford Construction, had this to say about the project and the boss:

“She was my boss,” Jahanbin said. “It was one of those projects that you start at a certain level, and it keeps getting bigger, but it was such a good thing, and she was so impressive, you can’t stop, you’ve got to finish it.”

And a mother at the project told of the importance of the play area and the impact it has had on her son:

“I can see a smile on his face, a change in him, he can come downstairs and just play and be a kid,” she said. “Who knew a court could be so important?”

So yes, Claire did it for the Gold Award, but the court itself is its own testimony in that place:

Yet the Girl Scout has stayed in the background, no initials carved in the concrete, no plaque anywhere, Dundee leaving no personal mark on the court other than her sweat. In fact, she says she’s not even finished, as she insists on painting the court green and adding official lines once it dries from the recent rains.

Read the whole story, I assure you it is worth it. And the LA Times thought enough of this story to put it on the front page of the Sunday sports section, above the fold.

And a personal note to conclude this post: I will acknowledge that this is the first time my post for The Big Game has strayed from American Football. But I did want to include a bit of back-story and why this story grabbed me on a whole lot of different levels. First, I have worked with the ministry that runs the housing complex while in grad school when my small group cooked a monthly meal for their homeless shelter. Second, my daughter also did her Gold Award project using sports, what the rest of the world calls football in her case, as she collected equipment and worked with kids at a community center operating out of a local church. Finally, I work with other projects like this all the time with the Boy Scouts. When I review a project for approval I always ask the young man “Why do you want to do this particular project?” Often that is an amazing insight into the life of that scout and what their passion is. There are a lot of amazing young people out there doing some great stuff for the community.

And so, if you are so inclined, enjoy The Big Game tomorrow. But remember that some of the other match ups out there may ultimately be more important.

Sola Scriptura And A War On Christmas?

On this Fourth Day of Christmastide in the “Fools rush in” department, you might want to play along with me in a simple thought exercise.

Our starting presumption is Sola Scriptura – the good old Scripture Alone admonition of the Reformation.

Now given that let me ask “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

From the four Gospels we have four accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Yes, Mark is minimalist with the call of Isaiah to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And the account in John is more symbolic with “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us.” The accounts in Matthew and Luke, while more detailed, each have very different emphases.

So, based on Scripture, what are we celebrating?

Looking a little further, we can raise the question of when was Jesus born? I won’t go into the year as that is well worn territory and there are historical landmarks for that in the texts. The date of December 25 is a bit more problematic as there are really no solid clues as to the date of birth and even the date of December 25th has multiple possible origins.

So, based on Scripture, when should we be celebrating?

Finally, if we are to be guided by Scripture in our worship, what is the pattern we find of the early church for celebrating the nativity? The New Testament gives us no mention that it was a point of worship and it is not until the late second century that the church fathers make mention of trying to put a date on it. (Hint: the date is not certain and it certainly is not in December.) And then it is not until the early fourth century that a date becomes standardized and celebrations develop around it.

So, based on Scripture, how are we to be celebrating?

Therefore, based on Scripture alone, do we have enough evidence or direction to even be celebrating it?

Now, moving on from this thought exercise, is it any wonder that our predecessors in the Reformed branch in the Reformation, who were trying to recapture the basic core of the Christian faith and throw off all the human innovations of the intervening 1500 years, decided that the Feast of the Nativity could be dispensed with? There is no question that our modern celebration of it has issues, such as the good old question about whether the three gifts from the magi mean there were three magi or why we add the magi to all the characters in the stable scene when Matthew clearly states they found Jesus in a house.

But taking the long view – a trend I seem to be on at the moment – why do we take it as seriously we do? The Scottish Reformation led to Christmas not being celebrated until 1956 in Scotland and in the U.S. it was not a formal national civic holiday until 1870 although introduced in many states before then.

The churches that have the Second Helvetic Confession as a confessional standard, such as the PC(USA), are probably covered since Chapter 24 does provide for certain special days:

The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

But if your confessional standards include the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship of God you have an appendix in there that begins:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

This year the specter of the War On Christmas has been raised again. Personally, I have to chuckle a bit because my doctrinal heritage has been a long-standing war on the holy-day from the other perspective. Rather than being an attempt to remove the religion from the holiday it has been an effort to remove the holy-day from the religion. It is the view that Scripture is so important that if the event is not clearly defined in it then there is no warrant to celebrate it.

Let me take this moment to confess that I personally live in a tension about this holy-day. While I acknowledge all the difficulties and perspectives mentioned above I also recognize the importance of the fact the event did indeed occur and if we are to remember the conclusion and significance of Jesus’ earthly ministry it is also important to recognize the beginning of his earthly presence. It is not just a celebration of certain stories but a time to recognize the beginning of the Incarnation, the coming of Emmanuel – God With Us.

So, in whatever manner you celebrate this holiday, best wishes to you and yours as we remember the coming of him whose work was foretold throughout the Old Testament. And whether you celebrate this season or not, may we always remember that at one point in history God was present in this fallen world and would ultimately give up his human life as a sacrifice for us.

Postscript

First, let me acknowledge at this point that in most cases the five solas of the Reformation are considered mostly in matters of essential doctrine and are cited primarily in the matter of the doctrine of justification. As the Second Helvetic Confession passage above mentions the celebration of events from Scripture are, in the view of most, a matter of Christian liberty and not an essential. Further sola scriptura says that Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of doctrine and practice but again, as implied above, our understanding can be further informed by the subordinate standards of the creeds and confessions.

If you want other commentaries on this topic you might be interested in a through article titled The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism or a perspective published by the OPC titled Is Christmas Scriptural? which answers the question in the negative. And yesterday it turns out that Church Norris weighed in on aspects of this topic arguing that the lack of public observance of Christmas did not mean that Colonial and early American religious and civic leaders were not religious.

Thank You Alice

I spent this past weekend with my family back east and when I arrived Friday night I found out that the schedule included a memorial service that my dad was planning to attend at church the next day. Initially I thought that I would probably not go but when I spoke with my dad the next morning and found out the service was for Alice Gabriels there was nothing to decide. I had to be at the service for Alice.

Alice was a friend of mine from growing up in the church. She was always around and involved with the children and youth programs and was a chaperon on our Junior High youth group trip. As I went back and visited each year with my own family Alice was there to greet us and take an interest in my kids. And I looked forward to seeing her and made it a point seek her out. She was a ruling elder, having served on session multiple times as well as many committees and groups within the church.

Professionally, she had been a social worker and upon retirement had actively volunteered in various classrooms around the city as well as for organizations of interest to her. In her spare time, when she was not volunteering one place or another, she enjoyed folk dancing.

At the service the gathered community spent a significant amount of time remembering her as there were many stories to tell. I will tell you one of mine in a minute. But as one of the speakers said, “God made each one of us unique. And then there was Alice.”

You also need to know that Alice grew up in an observant Jewish family in Holland. During the German occupation of the country the family split up and went into hiding. After the war when they reunited Alice found her two siblings had survived but their parents had been betrayed and died in Auschwitz. Alice chose not to remain in Holland but to immigrate to the States sponsored by her uncle who was already living there. While the siblings scattered geographically they remained in close touch through the years and the service included readings from letters written by her sister and nieces.

Needless to say, Alice’s personal experience made her a powerful voice when social justice and human rights issues like immigration, oppression and racism arose. She was not shy about her life story and was glad to tell you if you asked. In those classrooms she volunteered in it was said “she would tell the young children about St. Nicholas and the older children about the Holocaust.”

One of my stories about her begins with the church sponsoring an Indonesian family that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The mother of the family spoke at the service about arriving at the airport knowing nobody and not knowing the language. But they did know Dutch, as Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, and Alice was there to greet them and provide one small piece of familiarity in what was otherwise a very confusing situation. Their oldest son was my age and was a friend of mine growing up.

Fast-forward to a few years back at the memorial service for the father of that family. I have a vivid memory of Alice getting up at the service and singing a hymn in Dutch to honor their heritage. I don’t know what she sang but I know the tune was Beecher so it could have been a Dutch version of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” While Alice had no problem speaking in front of groups, singing was a different matter. Talking with her after the service and thanking her for doing that, as she was clearly uncomfortable doing it, she acknowledged that but also expressed her respect for the gentleman being honored and felt that some tie to home should be offered.

Which brings me to the final question for today: What was the journey of an observant Jew to become a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church? From knowing Alice I was aware of two important pieces of this. The first was that when the family went into hiding they were hidden by fellow Dutch Christians and this dangerous act of sacrifice had a profound impression on her. The second was that when she found herself in Rochester, while she did have natural family in the area that had sponsored her, over the years the church became her family and in the community of faith she found support, identity and a sense of belonging. (And as a symbol of that, after the service there was no receiving line as we were all her family and we just gathered around cookies and some of her mementos to share stories.)

But during the service I found out about a third influence. As a young adult she had begun reading the New Testament and the stories of Jesus she found there also raised her interest and started to draw her in.

So on a side note, as we discuss the relative importance of the Proclamation of the Gospel, Nurture and Fellowship of the Children of God and Promotion of Social Righteousness, for Alice it was all three that combined to draw her into the Body of Christ.

Alice will be missed. I have lost a friend and a sister in Christ and look forward to being reunited before the throne of God. And in this week when Americans give thanks for what we have it is only appropriate to say “Thank you Alice” and thanks to God for her life and witness and the opportunity we had to know her.

As an acknowledgement of her heritage and history, a tie to her journey, the service concluded with a reading in Hebrew and then a unison reading in English of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.)
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
..

Amen.

[Ed. note: The title of this piece unapologetically borrowed from the title of Rev. Pat’s meditation at the service.]

The Reformation Lives… At Least In Miniature

It is Reformation Day, the day on which we remember, if not celebrate, the tradition of a German monk turned university professor who is said to have nailed a debating document of 95 theses to a chapel door in Wittenberg 498 years ago. As the quincentennial approaches things are starting to ramp up. And that led to a very interesting event this past year.

luther_boxLast spring Playmobil released a special figure as part of the Luther 2017 celebration. (According to one source this was at the request of the German and Nuremberg tourist boards and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.) Literally overnight this became the fastest selling Playmobil product with over 34,000 boxes out the door in 72 hours. Needless to say, additional stock was quickly ordered.

luther_kleineWhat are we to make of this popularity? It should be acknowledged that Luther had a tremendous impact on the secular history of Germany as well as the history of the church there and around Europe, something I reflected a bit on a few years ago. So maybe we are just seeing a recognition of that historical significance?

Maybe it is purely a collector’s rush recognizing that it is being issued in conjunction with the wider celebration of the event. It is a commercial item to mark a significant anniversary so it is worth something sentimental now and possibly commercial later. (As you can see from the picture at the right I decreased the future value of mine by opening it and putting it together.)

But maybe, just maybe, the Reformation still means something. Does this “Little Luther” as some are calling it, still stand for something? (yes, pun intended) Does he come with a quill and book, rather than a hammer and parchment, to remind us that the lasting value of the Reformation was not as much in the theological debating points as in people being able to hear and read the Holy Scripture themselves in their own language.

I like to think it is the latter, that the work Luther and so many others started continues today. And while many more were involved in the Reformation I’m not sure a Playmobil version of Calvin, Beza or Farel would be as big of hits. However, if you want a set of – how shall I say this – some of the more colorful reformers maybe there should be a set that includes Ulrich Zwingli and John Knox.

It should be noted that this is not the only commercial tie-in to the Luther 500 celebrations. One particular site I know of is the Reformation 500 special collection from Concordia Publishing where you can not only get this dashing replica of Dr. Luther but a whole line of products. Not to be missed is the “Here I Stand” dress socks. (I’ll let that sink in for a minute. 🙂 ) The real sign that this is catering to modern audiences is that there are three different containers for coffee,  but only one beer stein.

On a more cultural note it is an interesting success for Playmobil. An insightful article came out in the New Yorker last month where the author, Jason Wilson, wondered about the distinctions, and relative popularity, of Lego as compared to Playmobil. He came down on the side of the latter explaining it’s value like this:

No one would argue that Lego does not inspire creative, constructive play. But more and more Lego relies on its associations with pop culture in order to catch a child’s attention. The child may build and create, but the narrative is simply copied from the movie. It’s easy to snark, but Playmobil has quietly walked a different path over the past decade—slower, less flashy, more generic scenarios, much fewer licensing deals. This type of unscripted play is very good, for children and the culture. Playmobil may hold tighter to ideals of independent, imaginative narrative play, and it represents a less crass, less marketed, less ironic or knowing type of play.

In a sense is that not a little bit reflective of the Reformed faith – slower, less flashy but independent, imaginative and narrative? As opposed to marketed and associated with pop culture “in order to catch [the individual’s] attention.”

And so I will leave you with that.

And may you all have a merry “little” Reformation Day.