Our Advent waiting is over. Our Christmas journey has begun. This journey takes us many places: some of which we have been before. Many of us may feel as though we’ve been to Bethlehem a few too many times. After all, we go every year. So perhaps we already feel very familiar with this journey. We already know where the star in the sky is going to lead us. What could there possibly be for us to see on this year’s journey that we haven’t seen several times already?
However, the Christmas journey takes us many places: some of which we have been before and some we have not.
Every year when we reach our destination, like the wise men did, we enter the place where we find Mary and her child. And every year, when we encounter Christ in this place, it’s just a little bit different. Because each year, we are different. Each year when we go on this Christmas journey together to encounter the Christ child, we bring something different with us. The three wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And there is some scholarly debate as to the motive behind these particular gifts. Some believe that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given to the Christ child as a special symbolic gesture intended to typify Christ himself: gold to represent His sovereignty, frankincense to represent His priesthood, and myrrh to foreshadow the special significance of His death. Others posit that these gifts of the magi actually bore a practical purpose, even a medicinal one. For example frankincense can be used as an herbal remedy to treat arthritis.
So whether these gifts had a symbolic intention, a practical one, or both, they were physical things that the wise men brought with them and presented to the baby Jesus as their offering. Although it’s difficult for us today to unequivocally discern what type of offering this was that the magi brought, they knew in their hearts what these gifts meant to them. These three wise men remind us even still today that we don’t come to Christ empty handed.
Now I’m not talking about the offering plate that will be passed around later---although please keep that in mind for later. I’m talking about the things we carry in our hearts. For even though we don’t come on this Christmas journey armed with treasure chests of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, rest assured we still come with baggage. That’s the part of the journey that changes most subjectively for us. We are different each year that we embark on this Christmas journey to the manger.
Maybe this year we are coming to the manger filled with joy. Maybe we just had an incredible year brimming with great happiness and love. Maybe that’s what 2016 was for some of us. Maybe 2016 brought great triumphs, great accomplishments, and great relationships. Maybe we came to worship this evening and our hearts were full and happy, and we approach the manger this year overcome with gratitude for our many wonderful blessings. And we’re so eager to see what 2017 has in store for us.
Or maybe, 2016 was a difficult year. Maybe some of us are coming to the manger this year with hearts that are heavy, hearts that our grieving, hearts that our anxious and troubled. Maybe we feel tired, worn out. Maybe we feel like we can just barely lift our hearts up this Christmas season in order glance briefly at the manger scene, before moving quickly along. Because we don’t want to linger here too long in this happy place with this happy scene of mother and child. Maybe this year, the Christmas journey was just too painful.
Those are two extremes, right? There is a middle ground. Maybe some of us feel kind of indifferent this year. Not unhappy, mind you. We’re just kind of here. It’s another year, another Christmas journey. We made it. We can pat ourselves on the back. We can eat a couple Christmas cookies and sing a couple carols. Peace out, baby Jesus! Until next year…
We change every year. We have different experiences. We have new challenges, new hopes, and also new pain. That’s the price of living in a broken and sinful world. And so our Christmas journey takes us to new places. It also takes us to many of the same places.
But the one constant in our inconstant world is who we encounter at the manger. We always encounter the Christ child. Just like the magi did on the first Christmas journey. Now we may come with different baggage each year. Just like the magi had their reasons for what they brought to baby Jesus, we have our reasons, too. A year is a long time. A lot can happen in a year.
But we know that no matter what happened in 2016, we get to go on this Christmas journey together and we encounter Christ together. Now, of course, we encounter Christ 24/7, every day of the year. Christmas isn’t somehow more holy than any other day. But we have decided as the Church (capital C), from our humble beginnings in the first century, that we would take this Christmas journey together every year and see that manger scene together. We decided that we would read the Christmas story in our scriptures and that we would picture what it was like that first Christmas day every single year. The Early Christians went on pilgrimages to the historical places on the Christmas journey and literally walked that walk together to the historical place where the manger scene allegedly was. And many people, Christian and non-Christian, still go on that holy pilgrimage today.
The point is that no matter who we are, no matter where we are, as Christians we come together as we are to the manger. We bring our feelings and our experiences with us to the manger. We bring our failures and our successes. We bring our sins. We bring our joy. And just like the wise men did with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we lay it all at the feet of Christ. All of it. It doesn’t matter what it is, we give it up to Christ.
Because even though we change, Christ doesn’t change. Christ is love and Christ always has love for us. Christ always forgives. Christ is always there. He walks on Christmas journey with us, and we always see him at the destination. And then he leaves with us, ready to be there with us for whatever 2017 has in store.
Where are we going this Christmas season? Well, we’re going on a journey. Together. You probably know a little bit about it. We’ve been on this journey before. This journey takes us many places: some of which we have been before and some we have not. We change each year that we take this journey. But you know who never changes? Jesus Christ never changes us. He is always there with us and for us, ready to take our burdens from us. And now this Christmas, just like every Christmas, He is asking for us to come to the manger. To finish the journey. And to lay everything down at His feet.
 Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. Why did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? Bible History Daily, 12/01/2016.
 Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. Why did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? Bible History Daily, 12/01/2016.
Sometimes, we Protestants tend to get a bit carried away in celebrating the Reformation. In my undergraduate college (which just happened to also be a Lutheran college), each year I remember the study body banning together to make our own version of the 95 Theses and hanging it on the door of the chapel. Reformation Day would be a campus-wide celebration, and there would always be a special hour-long chapel service. Images of Martin Luther, our great "emancipator", would be scattered around the campus, and together as a study body we would celebrate the origins of our proud Protestant heritage.
As I reflect on our Reformation celebrations from undergrad, I realize that we Protestants often get very excited about celebrating our Reformation heritage but often at the expense of our Catholic heritage altogether. One of my parishioners sent me an article of a European museum that invites guests to come and "virtually" desecrate the image of the Virigin Mary suspended on a computer screen. This exhibit is supposedly intended to honor the Protestant Reformation but, as my parishioner aptly pointed, out, "A little too much Reformation, I think." Of course there were Protestant Reformers who desecrated Catholic images and relics of all sorts during the Reformation---from stained glass windows to icons of saints to so much more. Obviously, this European museum is commemorating that particular part of the Reformation, which, however historically accurate it might be, probably should not be the part of the Reformation that we still celebrate today.
Our Reformation celebrations should not be ones that antagonize, alienate, or serve to make our Catholic brothers and sisters uncomfortable. We so easily forget that our many Protestant denominations today would not exist without the Catholic Church. After all, the Catholic Church came first---long, long before we did. The many traditions we hold so dear in our Protestant churches were first established many centuries ago in the Western Catholic Church. The Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed both are confessional statements of the early Catholic Church that still serve to unify Protestant denominations across the globe. We gather together in worship each Sunday and proclaim our faith out loud, saying together the words of these ancient creeds that so many generations of Christian saints---Protestant and Catholic alike--- have said out loud long before us.
As we approach Reformation Sunday, let us be mindful of our origin as Protestants---but most importantly, our origin as Christians. For we are one body of Christ, united together in the name of Jesus Christ who is the one and only head of the Church. Let us not think so much of Martin Luther as an "emancipator," as one who set us free from the bounds of the Catholic Church. Instead, let us think of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwinlgi, and all of the other Reformations together as just a few of the many great voices that gave our Christian faith a new expression in a new era of Christianity. Let us think of the Reformers as just a few of the many, many generations of brave Christian witnesses who came before us who helped make it possible for us to worship God freely and diversely today.
In my last post, I briefly discussed a controversy that occurred nearly two centuries ago, which involved the nature of the Eucharist (also known as "communion"). And many of us who hear or read about religious controversies of the past may simply feel that these controversies are tedious, even boring. Everyone from pastors to popes have managed to argue about some aspect of our faith ever since the origin of Christianity itself. Same story, different century...right? We've got plenty of controversies in our own time. Why do we need to worry about an age-old argument that occurred between two dudes tucked away in their offices back in the 1800's?
Well, for starters, the bottom line of this old communion controversy is something that we as church goers are all very familiar with today. And it goes like this: What is the meaning of communion? Here we find two men, both pastors, professors, and theologians, both part of the same faith tradition, yet vehemently opposed to each other's view on the meaning of communion. Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin were both esteemed and educated men of their day, and they each shared a Reformed faith and heritage (the heritage of today's Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). Yet neither one of them could agree on the meaning of communion.
Generally speaking, Hodge tended to emphasize the more symbolic and memorial aspects of communion, feeling that these most adequately represented the faith of the Reformed tradition. Hodge believed that it was simply common sense: a finite thing (the bread and wine) could not contain an infinite being (the body and blood of Christ). Therefore, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember Christ's sacrifice for us but are not actually eating His body or drinking His blood. Whereas Nevin, on the other hand, strongly disagreed. He tended to emphasize the more mysterious and mystical aspects of communion. He believed in the "real presence" of Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist, believing that both Christ's human and divine nature are present in the bread and wine we eat today.
The legacy of this controversy and others like it have left Protestants in American largely confused about their communion beliefs. The beliefs of both ministers and lay people alike in the PC(U.S.A.) fall upon a great spectrum, ranging anywhere from what Hodge believed to what Nevin believed. And somehow... both are right! Because as both Presbyterians and Protestants, we have both things as part of our heritage. Crazy, huh?
Yes, communion is a complex and beautiful gift of grace. We will never fully understand it---at least not in this lifetime. But we should attempt to understand the variety of beliefs that our forebears have held in order for us be better informed about what we believe ourselves. Blindly coming to the Lord's Table to receive the elements of bread and wine is something that neither Hodge nor Nevin would have accepted. And nor should we. Ministers have a duty to teach---and congregants have a duty to learn. Communion is a wonderful blessing that equips us to go out and to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. It is mysterious and humbling. It has incited far too many debates and disagreements in our history to count. To "remember" what Christ has done for us is an undertaking not to take too lightly. But it is up to us to learn and to grow in understanding---with God's help--- so that we will never again come blindly to the Table.
It’s difficult to perform a Google search these days on any Protestant church without uncovering headlines about the latest denominational controversy. This past month, the nation watched with interest to see how the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church would address some critical sociopolitical issues. As several mainline denominations, including the PC(U.S.A.), have already discovered, the method in which a church body handles controversy determines, in many ways, its ability to remain unified. Denominations, like the PC(U.S.A.), are still bleeding due to rifts and divisions, so it’s no wonder that the UMC has decided to be very cautious in addressing its own controversies.
It’s true that the very nature of our Protestant heritage implies controversy. Even our very name implies controversy, since the word “Protestant,” of course, comes from the word, “protest.” And so for centuries, Protestants have argued amongst themselves about different aspects of the Christian faith. These historical arguments have often caused divisions or splits within the Protestant tradition itself, which is usually how different denominations are formed. And while some debates have been loud and prominent, shaping the course of our Church heritage forever (the events that sparked the Reformation most definitely fall into this category), other debates, while certainly creating a stir at the time, have since slipped through the pages of history but certainly deserve a second look.
One such debate occurred in 19th century America between Charles Hodge from Princeton Seminary and John Williamson Nevin from Mercersburg Seminary. Nevin took it upon himself to challenge Hodge’s spiritual understanding in many areas, but primarily, he challenged Hodge’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Now, Charles Hodge was one of the most prominent teachers and theologians at the time, and he shaped the overall course of Reformed and Protestant orthodoxy in America. Hodge’s pupil, John Williamson Nevin, on the other hand, was merely a blip on the Protestant radar and unfortunately never gained much influence in the course of history. Yet the mere fact that Nevin took on the Princeton school, one of the most influential theological centers in America at the time, shows that meaningful controversy can come from the most unlikely of places.
In my next post, I will examine the content of Hodge and Nevin’s very interesting debate, but for now, it’s important for us to see in their example a hope for the controversies of our day, no matter how debilitating and divisive today’s controversies may seem. Protestant debate is certainly not a new phenomena! Protestantism was born out of controversy, and as Protestantism continues to grow and develop in new times and places, new controversies will arise. But John Williamson Nevin, for all intents and purposes, was a very fascinating underdog. He shows us that even the most unlikely of voices can cause a stir. But he also shows us that just because a tradition is large and established doesn’t necessarily make it correct. Nevin took on the “status quo,” so to speak, of Reformed orthodoxy in America. He also took on Revivalism in America. Both huge movements, and he made a stand against both.
Now whether or not Nevin was right or wrong is not the issue at stake here. What is important is that Nevin embodies this very spirit of Protestantism, and his example teaches us not to shy away from debate, not to shy away from controversy. When Nevin found something in Hodge’s theology that he found unbiblical and unfaithful to the tradition, he challenged it. And even though Nevin may not have ultimately won the debate, for Hodge’s thought and Princeton theology continued to dominate American Reformed and Protestant thought, Nevin threw a wrench in the system and encouraged his brothers and sisters in Christ to wake up and to see what the living Christ is doing in the world, not simply to follow the status quo…
To be continued.
Understanding the day-to-day weekly workload of solo pastors in small congregations is a difficult task. Many lead pastors don’t have a pastoral staff, so most likely we’re operating as a one-woman (or man) show. Speaking as a pastor, I know it’s difficult for people who aren’t us to understand what it is we actually do. Maintaining scheduled office time is challenging, to say the least, (some of us don’t even bother to maintain a regular office schedule,) we are constantly on the go, and our work always goes home with us. In fact, speaking for myself, you’ll often find me reading and researching out on my front porch---not exactly what society perceives as typical “office hours.” So how in the world can the sheep keep tabs on the shepherd? Obviously, it’s easy to see what pastors are up to on Sundays---but the rest of the time is not as easily discernible.
You know that old joke that pastors only work one day a week? It’s an unfortunate one because it’s definitely the opposite of the truth. So little of the work pastors do can be visibly scene by our congregations. Our weekly workload really is like an enormous iceberg submerged deep below sea level, with the stuff we do on Sundays being the tiny tip that peeks out just above the water’s surface. That tip is---what---maybe about 15-20% of the entire iceberg itself? Sunday worship amounts to so little of the total time and energy pastors actually put in, yet most of our church members only show up for Sunday service. So if most of a congregation only sees their pastor consistently working one day a week, then naturally there are going to be some collective misconceptions about the capacity of their pastor's calendar (especially if he or she is single and doesn’t have a family waiting at home).
One of the skills seminaries teach future pastors is the value of self-care and personal boundaries. It’s okay to say “no.” It’s okay to not be present at every single church and/or community event. After a 40-hour-week, which will be supplemented by many more hours of sermon prep and editing on weekends, the fact that I may make an executive decision not to attend a church event does not mean I’m not interested or don’t care. It simply means I want a few hours of “me time,” (in between editing and writing my sermon, of course). Indeed, without learning how to say “no” to certain church-related events, what little time I have for myself and my own relationships will quickly disappear. Because what many parishioners don’t understand is that any church-related time for their pastor is still work, even if it happens to fall on a weekend.
So what are some of the things we pastors do with our time throughout the week? Obviously I can’t speak for all pastors, so I will give you a glimpse of what it is that I do on a typical weekday:
-Make calls/home visits
-Prepare and revise bulletin for Sunday service
-Edit and prep my sermon audio for the church website
-Update the church website
-Sermon research (which involves many, many hours of reading)
-Reading and research for classes
-Reading and research for self-study
-Prepare curricula and group activities for classes
-Visit with parishioners in my office (which is continuous throughout the day)
-Attend various kinds of meetings (congregational level and Presbytery level)
-Meet with local clergy
-Mediate disputes between parishioners (both young and old!)
-Attend choir rehearsals
-Attend Bible studies
-Write and update this blog!
This list, of courses, is not exhaustive and does not include special church events, funerals, weddings, special services, holidays, etc. But the desperate plea I make to you all this day is to please not define your pastor solely by what he or she does on Sundays.
Trust me: Sunday is only the tip of the iceberg!!
My fiancé lives in Upstate New York, and so, of course, we very frequently travel back and forth to see one another (about once a week). The drive is long and winding, weaving up, down, and around endless mountain ranges and large expanses of uninhabited forest. In other words, time to think presents itself in no short supply. So, as I sped down Interstate 81, gobbling up mile after mile of asphalt on my return drive home, I found myself pondering the predicament of so many small, mainline Protestant churches today (including my own). Just as those great, green mountains towered over me, giant beasts overwhelming my vision behind and before, so too do many mountain-sized problems that threaten to swallow up our small Protestant churches. Many big issues are looming before us on the horizon---whether it be the increasing secularization of American society, the rapid decline of national church membership, or the rising Biblical illiteracy in our local congregations. And these are just a few of our very mountain-sized issues.
So, of course, it's tempting for us---both as clergy and as laity---to feel an urgent call to want to do something. Right now! The problem naturally is: where to begin?? And everyone has an opinion about the answer to this question! But since this is my page, I guess that means you get to hear my opinion. The many big issues facing small, mainline churches today can all be answered by a collective identity crisis. We mainline Protestants simply don't know who we are anymore. We keep attempting to define ourselves by the many sociopolitical issues of our time, thereby by aligning ourselves with the social agendas of other mainline Protestant churches and over/against other churches that we identify as more "evangelical" or "conservative." (And thus, we also wind up redefining these two terms over and over again until no one is sure what they really mean any more.) And while it's important to speak out against the evils of our time and to support those doing good in our world today, perhaps we have lost sight of the respective Protestant traditions we claim to be a part of. Perhaps we have lost sight of our identity that is continuously shaped and defined only by the one, Triune God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As I am Presbyterian, our modern identity crisis reminds me of one of the confessions adapted by the PC(U.S.A.): the Barmen Declaration. The Barmen Declaration was written in response to the German church leaders just before the beginning of WWII. The Barmen Declaration was concerned that churches were abandoning the traditions of the saints who had come before them and were allowing themselves to be defined by the popular social agendas of the day. Many German people had conflated patriotism and nationalism with the Christian gospel. As a result, many German churches aligned themselves with the Nazi Party. Now, do I believe our modern identity crisis can be rightly compared to that of pre-WWII Germany? Of course, not. But I do believe that the Barmen Declaration speaks to churches in identity crises and reminds us where our Christian identity truly comes from. Barmen reminds us that Jesus Christ is Lord over every aspect of our lives, including every aspect of the Church in our world (8.17). Barmen rejects the notion that the church can neglect the source of its identity and Gospel message in favor of "changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions (8.18)."
Thus, we mainline Protestants need not be weighed down by all of our mountain-sized problems. Instead, we must reunited around the source of all truth, the guiding light we can only find in the one, true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's not that we shouldn't have an opinion about the issues of our world today and be aware of the many sociopolitical problems we face. Quite the contrary! We should be very aware, prayerful, and active in the world we live. However, our identity as a church is not defined by the social issues of our time. It is defined by the our Lord, in whom we live, move, and have our very being. The very existence of the Church today is only dependent upon one thing: our God in heaven.