We are approaching the end of a particularly odd season in my Christian world.
From mid-October through late April, my Facebook feed gets inundated with posts condemning the celebration of Halloween, Christmas, and Easter (somehow Thanksgiving gets a pass — maybe it’s the Pilgrims and the turkeys and the football). The basic framework of the argument goes something like this:
- Major premise: The New Testament does not establish any holy days.
- Minor premise A: The only day the New Testament establishes for religious celebrations is the first day of the week.
- Minor Premise B: Since the New Testament has clearly established the Lord’s Day, no other religious celebrations are permitted.
Supporting evidence is then provided, including, but not limited to:
- Scripture: Texts from Romans 14 and Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 and Hebrews 8 are provided; texts which rightly forbid the REQUIREMENT of celebrating certain days. In a sort of quiet bait-and-switch, these are given as evidence that the celebration itself, rather than the binding as law of certain celebrations upon one’s brothers and sisters in Christ, is condemned by God.
- History: The pagan origins of the particular holidays are expounded upon at length. Halloween is sometimes called the Devil’s Birthday. Christmas is rightly identified as being founded over the top of a pagan celebration begging for winter to end and for the sun to rise again. Easter is laid at the feet of the pagan goddess Ishtar (for whom a terrible movie with Warren Beatty might be rightly blamed, but that’s as far as it goes) — even though it is far more likely that the word belongs to the Germanic goddess Ēostre or Ostara — the goddess of the radiant dawn (according to Jakob Grimm — yes, THAT Jakob Grimm) who actually had bunnies and eggs as some of her symbols.
I have two problems with this argument.
- First, that which proves too much proves nothing. The list of things in our modern world which derive from pagan origins would go on longer than everything I’ve written so far. Names for the days, names for the months, personal names (my own name, Anthony, derives its origin from one of the sons of Heracles! I wish I’d gotten the muscles, too), symbols on our currency, currency itself, mourning veils, wearing black at funerals, flowers on graves, gravestones, birthstones, celebrating birthdays, and — wait for it! WEDDINGS.
Yes, I said it — Weddings. God invented marriage, but EVERYTHING about modern weddings is of pagan origin.
- Wearing Veils
- Bridesmaids and Groomsmen Dressing Alike
- Exchanging Rings
- Vena Amoris (the whole tradition surrounding the placement of the ring on the “ring finger” is of magical, not biological, derivation)
- The First Kiss
- Tiered Wedding Cakes
- Throwing Rice
- Offering a Toast (Even Sheldon Cooper will set you straight on this one)
Furthermore, Scripture describes private exchanges and arrangements between families as how marriages are established — there’s not a single religious marriage ceremony from Genesis to Revelation.
Therefore, by the very logic used to anathemize Halloween and Christmas and Easter, religious wedding ceremonies are also proven illegitimate. What proves too much, proves nothing.
But that isn’t my big problem — my big problem with this kind of argumentation is theological. Patrick Mead expressed the idea far more succinctly than I could, so allow me to quote him at length:
God told Adam and Eve to subdue the earth. We are here to take this land for Jesus. Early Christians understood this and went out to intentionally and aggressively recast the traditions and places and ideas of men. They were not idiots; they were wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). When they found the bulk of Europe celebrating a variety of mid-winter events or gods in late December, they chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus during that time. They knew that Jesus was not likely to have been born on that date or even within months of that date. That was not the point. The point was to take that date for Christ. They took the tree and spoke of eternal life. They took the fire and talked about the light that had come into the world. They took the wreaths and spoke of eternity. They took the songs and turned them into carols. They took the candles and spoke of the Spirit of God. They took the gifts and spoke of the Giver of all good and perfect gifts.
“That’s what we do with pagan things. We take them back, rename them, and give them to Jesus. The perfect love of Jesus has cast out our fear. We do not have fellowship with darkness but we don’t run from it, either. We take it over and give it to the Light.
[LATE EDIT: Tim Archer rightly points out that Patrick's narrative on the establishment of Dec 25th as Christ's birthday is probably off-base. There's an excellent article, How December 25 Became Christmas, that makes a better argument from the historical evidence we currently possess. But what's more important, I believe, is how the early Christians engaged with the surrounding cultures]
Light does not destroy — it purifies and heals and transforms. Our role as images of God is to reflect His healing light — the love of Christ — into the world and participate in the healing and transformation of things with evil origins into beautiful gifts for our God’s glory.
And for the record, Philippians 4 authorizes you you to celebrate ANYTHING and EVERYTHING “true, worthy of respect, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy” on any day of the week, month, or year. And if you want to put it on a calendar so that your brothers and sisters in Christ can celebrate with you, go right ahead! The more, the merrier! Just don’t be deluded into thinking that your celebration actually makes the day holy or means that that particular day is holier than every other day — and for heaven’s sake, don’t try to force other people to do it with you. That’s wrong. The Bible tells me so.
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. The latter do so from love because they know that I am placed here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, because they think they can cause trouble for me in my imprisonment. What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18 NET, emphasis mine)
This was a bad week for the public image of the Kingdom of God.
Others have done a far better job than I would do of summarizing what’s gone on this week with World Vision, one of the premier and absolute best charitable organizations on the planet (according to Forbes, $1.07bil of their $1.22bil revenue  goes directly to charitable services — that is an extremely respectable level of leanness and lack of overhead).
I would insert a quote from The Princess Bride here about explaining and summing up, but my heart is too heavy to joke about this. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the facts as I know them right now:
- Last fall, World Vision‘s Board of Directors made a decision, in World Vision’s hiring practices, to respect the authority of their participating churches, with regard to same-sex marriage. World Vision is registered in the US as a 501(c)3 “religious charity,” which allows them to apply religious moral standards in the context of hiring and continued employment. They require pre-marital abstinence and fidelity in marriage — violation of those things can constitute grounds for dismissal.
- Their decision was basically to say that LGBT Christians, whose marriages were sanctioned by their own congregations, were no longer automatically ineligible on moral grounds for employment with World Vision.
- This decision was not publicized at the time that it was made, and as far as I know, no input was sought from the donors, upon whose financial charity the organization depends for its very existence.
- Christianity Today either ran or was going to run a story, sourced from someone within World Vision who was unhappy with either the decision itself or how the process was handled (or both). World Vision tried to get out in front of the story and explain the rationale behind it.
- Their call center was almost immediately overwhelmed with donors calling to cancel their sponsorships. 2000 in the first 12 hours, almost 10000 within 48 hours — at which point World Vision announced that they were reversing their original decision. The cancellations stopped almost immediately; calls began coming in from people attempting to take back up their original sponsorships, but at nowhere near the volume of cancellations.
Over the course of the week, I’ve participated in several discussions with other Christians, trying to wrap our heads around all the facets of this nightmare. I’ve gotten angry with folks on different sides of the matter; I’ve prayed, cried, and facepalmed myself into a stupor. I’ve turned things over and over in my head and out loud, and here’s where I think I stand.
NO ONE WAS RIGHT. NO ONE. I’m going to start with where I think World Vision went wrong, but please stick with me all the way through, and please don’t assume, because I make points from the perspective of either WV or those who object to WV’s decision, that you can discern my own thoughts on same-sex marriage. I promise that you can’t, and that my thoughts are different from your thoughts about it (that doesn’t mean I’m right, either — just please don’t create a straw man — let’s talk about THIS and what I think about THIS, not that)
- The board of World Vision was wrong to make the decision on their own. They’re a non-profit whose focus is serving — in the name of Jesus Christ — the most powerless, the poorest of the poor around the world. It is sheer madness to throw your hat into the ring of such a hot-button issue when the stakes are that high. This caused its donors to feel helpless, and that they were deceived into participating in something morally forbidden to them.
- World Vision was wrong to carry out the policy change in secrecy. This added to the sense of alienation and exploitation felt by many of their donors.
- World Vision’s explanation, couched in double-speak and innuendo, did more harm than good. One simply cannot say at the same time
- we are “NOT affirming same-sex marriage” (emphasis mine), but
- we NO LONGER consider sexual activity between a legally-married same-sex couple to be a violation of our sexual immorality employment policies
- Were they wrong to backtrack? I’m not sure.
- On the one hand, once the flood of calls began, it became their only choice.
- On the other hand, they let themselves be backed into that corner by relying on secrecy and thus allowing a staff member to manipulate the company. In my opinion, a company has every right to terminate WITH CAUSE any employee who allows their privately-held opinions to detract from that company’s mission. Not everyone who wants whistle-blower status is, in fact, a whistle-blower. Some are just angry that they aren’t getting their way.
NONE OF THAT CAUSED IRREPARABLE HARM, TO WORLD VISION OR TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD. I CAN’T SAY THAT ABOUT WHAT FOLLOWS.
- Cancelling the sponsorship of children should have been an ACT OF LAST RESORT, not an initial reflex.
- The donors, no matter how powerless they might have felt, were not IN FACT powerless at all. They could have:
- Petitioned for redress of their grievances;
- carried out an #Occupy-style sit-in of the areas surrounding World Vision’s offices;
- used the myriad forms of communication at our disposal in 2014 to plead and pray for World Vision to change their decision
- WE ARE CHRISTIANS — WE ARE NEVER POWERLESS. And feeling powerless is never an excuse for sin.
- According to the CEO of World Vision, Richard Stearns, “the people manning their call centers were screamed at, berated, and accused of being Satan’s instruments by outraged ‘Christians.’”
- The callers in question inflicted their indignation upon the most helpless and powerless employees of World Vision.
- No matter how angry Jesus Christ became (cleansing the Temple, Matthew 23, etc.), he expressed his righteous indignation towards the powerful themselves, not their helpless servants.
- As a former waiter, I have experienced the kind of berating that Stearns describes, and it is one of the most horrible and dehumanizing experiences I’ve ever endured in public.
- For Christians to behave this way TOWARDS SERVANTS, towards helpless low-wage men and women doing their best to be of service, is COWARDLY BEYOND THE PALE.
- The donors in question are by all means free, in Christ, to decide how to appropriately invest the resources over which God has granted them stewardship.
- THEY WERE NOT FREE TO BREAK TEN THOUSAND PROMISES, without first exhausting all other means of influencing the organization for change.
- WE ARE CHRISTIANS! OUR simply given WORD (Mt 5: 37) IS SUPPOSED TO COUNT FOR SOMETHING. Promises of sponsorship, made to 10,000 children and their communities, were broken BECAUSE IT WAS EASY. THIS IS SIN.
- What’s worse is that it compounds itself with the sin of hypocrisy, because it is sin carried out in the name of purity. Claiming to seek purity, Christian men and women made themselves liars to 10,000 children. THIS IS SIN PILED ATOP SIN.
- Christians are NEVER free to choose convenience over commitment.
This post opens with a quotation from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in Philippi. He has some extremely negative things to say about some of his fellow evangelists, but the key to this is how the inspired Apostle evaluates the work they are doing. What matters?
CHRIST IS BEING PROCLAIMED.
No matter WV’s stance on homosexual marriage, Christ was being proclaimed into the lives and communities of 10,000 children around the world.
Why wasn’t that the most important thing?
This is the table of the Lord, where we gather around to remember Him and what He did for us and for the world. We celebrate the one who has accomplished our reconciliation with God.
We remember the one who died in our place; the one who prayed from the Cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We gather to honor Him. We honor him, we express our love to him and for him by becoming more and more like him. Listen to what he says:
Matthew 5:21-24 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
This is not the altar — this is the table. The altar is where the sacrifice dies; the table is where the people of God gather to consume and enjoy the results of what happened on the altar. Our altar is the Cross of Calvary, where our Passover lamb was slain. This is our table.
But the principle is the same. If we have something against someone here, or if we know we’ve hurt or sinned against someone else, the Lord calls us to do what it takes to reconcile with your family member in Christ, to forgive them and to do whatever it takes to seek forgiveness from the one we have wronged. For this is a table of unity — and if we eat and drink of the table of fellowship while holding something against another person, we are play-acting. And you know as well as I do that the Master has a great deal of patience with everything except play-acting. His word for play-acting? Hypocrisy.
Let me close with Paul’s words to the church in Colossae. Colossians 3:12-13 reads:
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else.
Just as the Lord has forgiven you,
so you also forgive others.
This is the table of the Lord. Let us honor and express our love to him by forgiving one another and eating and drinking together.
Then they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple courts. He turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘ My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations ’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers !” The chief priests and the experts in the law heard it and they considered how they could assassinate him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed by his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18 NET)
These are MEN.
These are WEALTHY.
These are EDUCATED
They have every advantage available to them! They rule their culture and appear to be living in God’s blessing! Why don’t they please God? Why have they become THIEVES and REBELS and fallen under the King’s condemnation?
Then he sat down opposite the offering box, and watched the crowd putting coins into it. Many rich people were throwing in large amounts. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny. He called his disciples and said to them, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. For they all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had.” (Mark 12:41-44 NET)
She is a woman.
Not just a woman – a widow – in the eyes of her culture she lives under a curse because God took her husband.
She is poor – another sign to the “common sense” thinking of her day that she is cursed by God.
She is uneducated – especially compared to those in the first passage. She probably learned the Psalms and Deuteronomy before her time as a student in her culture was over.
Why have they become thieves and rebels while she is blessed by the Messiah?
Simply put – she has what they lack. Trust.
Anyone can please God – man or woman, rich or poor, schooled or unschooled. What pleases God?
O sacred head now wounded
With grief and shame weighed down
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns Thine only crown
How art thou pale with anguish
With sore abuse and scorn
How dost that visage languish
Which once was bright as morn?
What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend?
For this Thy dying sorrow
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever
And should I fainting be
O let me never, never
Outlive my love to thee.
So I’m an “80s kid” — I graduated from high school in 1991.
I’m also a nerd — not that that is a big surprise to anyone reading this blog!
I also process many of the stories and ideas that I encounter via other stories that I know and love. Those three things came together in a scary way last night.
You see, we were talking about King David of Israel, the infamous “man after God’s own heart,” and how such a flawed person could receive such a noble description. We considered his unstinting loyalty to his God — how no matter the terrible situation (even the illness and death of he and Bathsheba’s first child), he never seeks aid or comfort from “the gods of the nations.” He talked about his depth, and how his contributions to the Psalter amaze us with his passion and his contemplation of the wonders of his God.
And then we turned to 2 Samuel 18 and talked about David’s love, and I got overwhelmed and started CRYING! It all came at once, because of how I often process stories through other meaningful-to-me stories.
Being an 80s nerd who lives on stories, especially movies, you might imagine that Dead Poets Society is one of my heart’s favorite stories, and you would be correct. A scene from DPS and a scene from the life of David came crashing together. I can’t find a Youtube clip of the actual scene, but it doesn’t matter, because what blew me away was my memory of a voice (captured in the link below).
The voice of a heart-broken father discovering that he has lost his beloved son.
That perfectly-rendered agony from the deepest part of the soul was what I heard in my head and my heart as I read:
The Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”
The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”
More profound, though, is the recognition that what makes David a man after God’s own heart is his undying, unchanging love. All the awful things Absalom did to his father did not change the fact that David would have, in a heartbeat, died in his son’s place.
This is the love of the one true God, the God who suffered death to take the place of his children whose sin had wrought death for themselves. When we suffer because of sin, He suffers alongside us. He cries out, “Oh [your name here]! Oh my child! Oh no no!”
This is the heart of David, and it is the heart of the God who pursues you relentlessly (but not irresistibly), to bless you and rescue you and grant you life, life, and more life!
Christianity is an ancient religion. The ancients understood, better than we do today, how life can be dark and full of terrors — how we need protection against the forces of evil in this world. The ancient way that that protection has been sought and given is through blessing. To live without a blessing is to live unprotected against the darkness. Pray with me, as together we ask God’s blessing over this new couple.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who created all things for His glory.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, our Maker and our Sustainer and our Father.
Father, embrace this couple. Protect them.
Give joy to this bride and this groom all the days of their lives. Be their shield and their very great reward.
Make Derrick a pillar of strength, a living reminder to Lea of your love and your strength and your power. Make him a Husband and a Father like you.
Make Lea a companion of equal strength, a living reminder to Derrick of your grace and your mercy and your provision. Make her a Wife and a Mother like you.
May their laughter and their joy be a blessing to their friends all the days of their lives. Bless them, Father, that they may be a blessing to everyone they meet.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, helper of the helpless and giver of joy to the weak.
Bless us all as we enjoy this foretaste of the Age to Come.
We pray in the name of your Unique and Blessed Son, Jesus your Christ and our Savior. Amen.
Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, is a Hebrew of Hebrews – exalted among the Jewish hierarchy – when the Messiah strikes him blind for three days and transforms his life.
From that day forward, he no longer concerns himself with the myriad of qualms that an observant Pharisee would have with the way Gentiles ordered their societies.
Does he stop believing that moral purity matters? Hardly! No one can read his treatises on taking off the old way of being human and putting on the new way and come away with any doubts about his dedication to radical holiness.
Does he stop believing that equality matters? By no means! He surrounds himself with fellow teachers and deacons and apostles, both male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile.
What changes, then? How does he go from being a brilliant Pharisee, zealously defending the Law of Moses, to a man in prison, preaching the kingdom of God?
1 Corinthians 1:21-25 NET
For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Most people believe they’re living life as wisely as they know how. Paul says they’re wrong — that not all things called “wisdom” are truly wise — but recognizes that if you attack them head-on, (if you try to get them to choke down what you value before they understand its worth) you will drive them to devour you rather than appreciate what you value. Fighting fire with fire only keeps firemen employed, and Satan is more than willing to sell ammunition to both sides of the culture war.
Where did Paul learn all that? From the one about whom it was written:
Isaiah 42:1-4 ESV
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
Lord, forgive us, and grant us the focus of Paul.
Interesting reading today – I missed my reading in the Hebrew Scriptures yesterday, so I got to experience one of the great hinge passages in the Bible today… The frustration of Genesis 11 that becomes the determined blessing of Genesis 12. The Garden, the Flood, the Tower – no matter what the Creator God does, humanity continues to resist the grace of God and seeks to glorify themselves. Three times, God moves in a sort of holding action, using his power to thwart the advance of chaos and evil. Though He is frustrated at every turn, he will not give up on this project. Finally, as we turn the page from Chapter 11 to Chapter 12, he begins his great advance!
He chooses one man out of the pagans of Ur, and promises to bless him and, more importantly, to bless the whole creation through him. Abram is not a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination (despite centuries of hagiography that would grow up around him), but his god does not require that. He requires, instead, that Abram trust that He is a different sort of god from the spiritual powers of the Chaldeans. He is not a localized power, or a seasonal power, or a fertility power. He is a power that can bless in Ur, in Harran, and in Canaan. He, Abram will learn, is the God of the whole earth – indeed, the one and only being worthy of the label “god.”
We see in the second half of the chapter where his grandson will come by his cunning and guile. The truth is that the great problem lies even within Abram himself. Later in the story, we will be reminded over and over and over that the great problem lies deep within the hearts of the People of the Solution. Psalm 12 reminded me of that today. Eventually, the God of Israel will have to defeat the powers that have arrayed themselves against his creation. He has prepared a people for himself, a people in whom He can come and face down those awful powers and invite them to do their worst to him. But I am a long way from that point in this reading.
Well, THAT was fun! We will miss you, 2012!
I’m watching reruns of The Newsroom instead of hanging out with some fantastic kids from my youth group. Headaches and insomnia have me in a place where I’m doing some reflection, and that’s what I think will be my theme for this year.
I’ve got more self-created chaos in my world than I should. I’ve become ineffective in roles that I value. The answer to this ineffectiveness is focus.
In the beginning, creation was formless and void – chaos ran rampant and the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of that chaos. Chaos is meaninglessly destructive to life, to beauty, to meaning. I’m tired of fostering situations where chaos is hindering the creative, life-affirming work of God’s Spirit in my life and my surroundings.
I want my life to reflect the power that transformed utter chaos into the mind-boggling beauty of the cosmos, the power that became flesh and dwelt among us, the power that remade my life and world.
What that will take, on my end, is Focus.
in HIS love,