The Women’s Ministry barn sale has come and gone again and we always have the same basic question. Where did all this stuff come from?! Well, we know where it came from. it’s just always amazing that a big barn full of stuff can appear each and every year without eventually cleaning the community out. It always starts with a few big loads. A woman dear to the congregation passed away last year and her children wished us to take a great many of her things for the sale. The grandmother of a member of the congregation moved to an assisted living facility and, following a yard sale, the family donated a lot of the items from her full-sized home for the sale. One neighbor’s mother passed away. Another neighbor’s father passed away. Books, clothes, and other such things moved into the barn. And then, people who know about the sale give us the fruits of their spring cleaning. So it goes until by truckload, trunk load and arm load – in bags, boxes and baskets – stand-alone furniture items – both levels of a good sized barn are full to the point of overflowing.
There is always a good supply of clothing. There is often a lot of furniture. There will be a toy department. Some years there is a good selection of tools. We generally get a lot of glassware and kitchen stuff. This year there was an enormous cache of high-end Christmas décor. We also got a great big chaise lounge like I haven’t seen since I was a kid! For the second year in a row we had a nice working hospital bed. And It never fails that there will be a few items we have sold in past barn sales come back around.
As the stash builds up through the winter, some items will be distributed to folks whose needs we become aware of. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty when barn sale season arrives! Somewhere around the first of May the ladies start sorting and organizing (and also pre-sale buying) even as more is coming in daily. As the sale date draws near, all pray for good weather so we’ll be able to put a lot of things outside. Otherwise, it will be really tight in the barn! Somehow or other, it all comes together and the community shows up hunting bargains.
When it’s all over the ladies will have raised a few thousand dollars and a lot of stuff will have been carried out – nevertheless, the barn is still pretty full. Some of it will be recycled as paper and scrap metal. Remember all that Christmas stuff I mentioned? We became aware of another congregation in the community that has a Christmas Store kind of rummage sale as a fund raiser. We took them a big truck load of Christmas goods – and we sold about half of what we had! Most of the rest goes to other local ministries (This year three big truck bed and twenty-foot trailer loads) where it will be distributed to folk who can use it. A little bit of the right kind of thing will go to the Habitat for Humanity Re-store.
To quote Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plan comes together!
A good friend recently pointed me to a song about a place from my past. The name of the (sad/miserable but compelling) song is You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive. The reference is to Harlan, Kentucky and the woes of the early coal mining industry. You might give it a listen. But – my mother’s folks are from the area – mostly the neighboring community of Hazard but spread all over Pike County. I was there off and on as a child up to about twelve years of age. One of my haziest memories is of a conversation with my great great grandmother (Sis-Maw) who lived with her daughter – my great grandmother (mommy Duff). The vague memory of Sis-Maw included an Indian Head-dress and a little hidden closet/pantry where, she said, they used to hide the children during feuds. It’s the only memory I have of her. Mommy Duff, of course, I remember a good deal better. And, then, there was my great Aunt, Martha who ran a small general store and was quick to give us kids treats from the candy shelves. Coal was still the life blood of the community at that time – or so I judged by the number of big dump truck loads constantly going by. The house and the store sat next to each other right off U.S. 421.
I caused a great deal of consternation one day by scaling the rock wall left where they cut the mountain to put the road through some time in the dim past. Relatives emerged from the house in time to look across the road and see me about 50’ up, reaching for the roots of a stump that dangled from the top. The relatives, all being female, insisted I climb back down – a good deal more risky than simply pulling myself over the top. In their efforts to prevent a repeat performance my mother and various aunts all assured the stump was no doubt the site of a multi-generation den of copperheads and that a crazy man lived on top the mountain who was better kept clear of. Fine by me – because they neglected to tell me to stay away from the railroad tracks where, just a few bends from the house there was the neatest trestle spanning a deep gorge – but that’s another story.
It’s all gone now. Mommy Duff passed away a year or two after that last visit when I was twelve. Martha moved to Indiana and the state of Kentucky decided the property was needed for their road expansion project – no doubt intended to make for better transport of all that coal. The state – like most states – had written the law of Imminent Domain into its charter which meant that when the state wanted to buy – you sold – at the state designated price. Most of the family was pretty unhappy about that. But the law is the law and imminent domain is the law. The house and store went away – the road expansion went through.
Many families can tell a similar story somewhere along the way and we can all agree or disagree on the merits of Imminent Domain. But I will tell you this – The earth is the Lords and the fullness thereof. And God has a highway project in mind. He will level mountains and use the rubble to fill up valleys and gorges and build His highway straight and level. He said so in Isaiah 40 – A voice is calling, clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a path and the rugged terrain a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see it together.
The passage probably refers to God steering governments and civilizations, causing the rise and fall of kings and nations to prepare the way for Jesus to come into the world. That’s what I think anyway. But: If the prophecy extends further and God intends to knock down any actual mountains and level up any actual gorges – He isn’t going to get any arguments from me! It’s all His anyway AND I have a vested interest in where that highway leads. I plan to get there after all.
Many years ago I made an evening run to the hospital with friends/members of the congregation to which I then ministered. I rode with them. It was early in the course of treating a lung cancer that turned out a year or so later to be fatal. There were complications with the treatments. There needed to be tests for blood clots and so forth. The doctors wanted the man to check in. His wife wanted him to check in. He didn’t want to check in. At one point we left the hospital and got halfway home before turning around and going back. He checked in. It was all a process. About 3 AM it was decided I would take their car and go home. I would make sure their kids were about their day, get on with my own schedule, and wait to hear what developed. I was familiar enough with their old beater car (one of a series of beaters my friend used to deliver newspapers – a task not suited to nice cars) well enough to know that the hinges on the driver’s door suffered from metal fatigue. You had to lift the door to open it. I did and the door began to open but stuck. This was a new kink. On my knees in the dimly lit hospital parking garage, working the handle and craning my neck to stare at the exposed inner edge of the door, I determined that the latch was stuck. I had no tools. I looked around the garage a bit and found, of all things, a spoon. Using the tip of the spoon handle as a prying tool I managed to trip the latch and open the door completely. The fatigued top hinge chose this moment to give way completely. As I was unprepared for the sudden addition of several pounds of weight, the latch pulled from my fingers and the lower rear corner of the door crashed to the concrete parking deck. After a little head shaking and a long exhale, I got in the driver’s seat, rolled down the window, grasped the door by the top frame, lifted and closed it. Sort of. I could not get the latch to engage. This was in the pre-cell phone era. I could have gone looking for a pay phone and gotten my wife to come get me but it’s not in my nature. I decided I would drive home (a mere fifteen minutes) holding the door shut.
It turned out the whole sequence of events to this point had been observed by a very interested police officer whose current job it was to watch over the parking garage owing to some recent crimes there – specifically, people breaking into cars and stealing stuff. He fell in behind me as I navigated the spiral ramp downward and pulled me over just as soon as I got on the street. He asked for my license. I’m sure he appreciated the way I dug my wallet out and extracted the license with my right hand, never taking my left hand off the driver’s door. He then asked for the car’s registration. This was more difficult as the glove box was a stretch to reach without releasing the driver’s door. That difficulty was compounded when I unlatched the glove box and it fell to the floor. But I gathered up the handful of papers and sorted them – one handed – handing the registration to the officer. He disappeared to his car for a bit and when he came back he noted grimly that the names on the license and registration were not the same, that the plates were expired and instructed me to get out of the vehicle. I complied but first warned the officer – you might want to step back. He did, resting one hand on the butt of his pistol. I released the door and gave it a nudge outward. It crashed to the street.
The officer stood there a moment in silence and then said – ‘You want to tell me about it?’ He listened patiently as I recounted the details of the situation – all the time wondering who was going to feed my children while I was in jail. When I was finished, the officer grinned and shook his head. He returned my papers, allowed me to get back in the car and helped me get the door in place. He advised me to stay on the surface streets and go slow, got back in his cruiser and re-entered the parking garage.
I suppose that my friend’s beater would be an unlikely selection for a car thief. Beyond that, if a person was going to make up a story – they probably would have made up a better one. The truth has a ring to it. It explains the context without straining it. It’s usually simple. And the truth will set you free.
It’s been a while since I delved into another historical episode so, here goes. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) remains my perennial favorite among the ‘Church Fathers’ (I named a character after him in my first novel). For one thing the man showed such dogged persistence and devotion to duty it’s hard not to admire him. He began as something of a hermit monk who loved monastery life and lived to study and pray. His favored life though, was not to be. Recognized for his diligence, integrity and intellect he was called upon to serve beyond the monastery – ultimately becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm didn’t want the post – or any of the lesser posts that led to the greater post. But the church NEEDED him and he answered the call.
It was not a great time for a man of integrity to step up to the plate – or perhaps it was the best possible time for it. What I mean is – the times were characterized by rough and tumble power struggles, political intrigues, land grabs, financial swindles, back-stabbing, patsy making, tangled romances, etc. It was even worse outside the church!
It is difficult to explain in just a few words how charged the atmosphere was. Pope Urban II initiated the first Crusade. He secured the papacy largely because the French bishops wanted the crusade. But the church was deeply divided on the subject – and almost every other conceivable subject. The struggle became bad enough that Guibert (former bishop of Ravenna) held Rome for a time – declaring himself the anti-pope. This chaos provided opportunity for already existing corruption in the priesthood to run wild. Things were no better in the secular realm and incentive for improvement shrunk with Urban’s declaration that anyone who served in the crusade would automatically have all their sins (past, present, and future) forgiven.
In the midst of all this, Anselm was called to be the Abbot of Bec. He quickly whipped the place into shape and (remember – at heart Anselm was an academic) Bec soon become the foremost seat of learning in Europe. This (unfortunately from Anselm’s point of view) led to promotions until he was called from his native France to England as the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the plus side, this gave Anselm an opportunity to implement reforms on a much bigger scale. On the minus side – the bigger and more corrupt the institution, the more it hates and resists reform.
And corruption in the English Catholic Church was rife, partly because the English monarchy was in a huge debate with the pope over ‘homage’ and ‘investiture’ ‘Homage’ concerned whether Catholic Church officials (like Anselm) owed any allegiance and obedience to the country – specifically to the king or government of the country – in which they served. ‘Investiture’ concerned the question of whether the king of a country could seat (invest holy authority in) his own bishops and clerics or had to settle for whoever the pope and his delegates chose. To both questions, the pope said ‘no’. William and Henry (the two kings under which Anselm served) both said ‘yes’. Henry in particular quit waiting for agreement and began investing his own bishops and clerics and insisting on their loyalty. It was the kind of controversy that got people killed. It got Anselm exiled – twice. But Anselm was never deterred. In office or in exile he worked steadfastly to lead both church and state through the strife and to some kind of peace. He did this without ever sacrificing his personal priorities of higher learning and reform.
Although Anselm was not fond of politics he proved quite adept at the game, equally handy with the carrot and the stick. He was particularly good at building chutes (ideological and legal chutes rather than physical ones) slowly narrowing the walls until he had herded everyone to the end he had in mind. Neither exile nor trial for heresy nor bribery (which was tried) nor anything else thrown at him could make him cease these efforts.
Just to reference a single chapter in this episode, Anselm travelled to Rome to argue for a special dispensation for Henry and the king’s right to insist on some degree of loyalty from bishops in English territories. Whatever Anselm’s arguments on the matter, the end result was the excommunication of three English bishops ‘invested’ by Henry. Note: investment/investiture referred to investing a man with sacred authority but ‘investment’ in terms of bribes, lands, important wives (Henry thought clergy should marry) were all part of the program in Henry’s attempts to win clerics over to his side. When Henry received word of the decision he refused Anselm permission to come back. For Anselm to defy Henry’s order represented the very real possibility of execution but his bigger concern was that even if he survived a defiant return to Canterbury, it would deepen the hostility between Henry and Urban.
Anselm bided his time while Henry slowly discovered that he needed the approval of the church more than he had supposed. As more and more bishops and prelates were excommunicated, confidence in the efficacy of the rites – including marriage, baptism, confession, penance, and last rites - administered by a shrinking number of clerics willing to serve under Henry and in defiance of the pope, regardless of bribes and incentives – fell. These days we would say Henry’s poll numbers fell as well and even a king needs the confidence of his people. When Henry finally got around to requesting Anselm’s return so as to have a reliable envoy to the pope again, Anselm declined the invitation and hinted at his own willingness to work for not only the excommunication of more bishops but perhaps of the monarch himself. This resulted in Henry travelling to France to meet Anselm on Anselm’s terms where it was agreed that Henry would forsake investiture if clerics appointed by the pope were allowed to express at least some degree of allegiance to the government of England.
Back in office in Canterbury and enjoying peace for a time, Anselm was finally able to institute his reforms including that English clerics ceased to marry, tax-bribes/extortion of church officials was done away with, and several other matters that lessened the king’s power over the church. It took Anselm most of his life to accomplish these reforms but there was no quit in the man.
As mentioned earlier, Anselm accomplished these reforms and all the political steps necessary to broker peace between Henry and Urban without giving up his cherished studies. Anselm staked out a position that seems common sense to most of us today but which was unheard of at the time. He held that while faith necessarily precedes reason, once faith is established – reason can expand it. (it is necessary to point out that Anselm correctly separated ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ – something we too often fail to do. Anselm believed that any intelligent person could reason their way to accepting that there is a God. Faith – putting yourself in the hands of that God and trusting Him implicitly – is something else.) In other words – you can’t reason your way to faith in God but once having received faith from God you can strengthen that faith by means of reason. Reason supports faith once realized. There is no need for the faithful to fear the pursuit of knowledge and reason. This thought won Anselm the title – Father of Scholasticism and his work is the prelude to the broader work of Thomas Aquinas. Anselm is also the first to formulate the Ontological Argument. It must be noted that the Ontological Argument is based upon Aristotelian logic which often makes my head feel like there are snakes crawling around in it. But the argument still has force all these years later and those who think they have easily dismissed it (Richard Dawkins et al) generally manage to show that they never understood it in the first place.
*Even an atheist can imagine a being than whom none could be greater.
*However, if such a being’s attributes did not include existence, a still greater being could be imagined with all the attributes of the first – plus existence.
*Therefore, the truly greatest possible being must exist.
The third step seems too easy. But, it begins with this: an existent being is greater than an imaginary being therefore, whatever may be known as the greatest of all beings must be one that exists rather than one that is imaginary. Thus far, we go without problem. And there must be a being who comes in first in the competition for greatest. Still so far so good. The greatest being exists. Behind this lies a layer not easily included in Anselm’s simplified proof. By what standard do we judge beings to arrive at a decision as to which is the greatest? Why, by those characteristics it is better to have than not to have. Whence do we arrive at such concrete and comparative values and virtues? How can we hold beings we see to exist to a standard higher than themselves if that standard is derived from the realm of the imaginary and anything extant is greater than anything imaginary? Feel those snakes yet? To Anselm it seemed clear that the ideal which represents the standard must exist else it could not be the standard. It’s a difficult argument to wrap your head around but easily dismissed.
Based on his ontological reasoning, Anselm was the first to state that God neither invented nor conforms to the ideal standard of morality but embodies it!
Some of you may well be asking – Can’t we just go back to his political accomplishments? But I admire Anselm for his studious philosophical efforts as well and especially for his insistence that faith need not fear learning.
This is all probably all more than you asked for – since none of you asked me to write anything about Anselm – but there you are. Something more light hearted next time.
Here it is again – Barn Sale Time! I continue to love the IRCC Barn Sale. The barn - here on-site at the church – fills up over the winter and early Spring. How? People move. A family member passes away and things need to be removed from a now vacant home. Some one buys a house to convert into a rental and it has items in that need to go. People just do Spring cleaning and have items to get rid of. By box loads, truck loads, and larger items that constitute a load in and of themselves, items arrive. This very minute, as I write, the big sorting is underway: furniture, glass ware, hardware, tools, books, art, games, toys, sporting goods, Christmas decorations, collectibles, small appliances and more are being examined, cleaned, grouped and priced. Some of it will be purchased by the people working on it – never fear, most of those folk also bring stuff in when they come to work. Some of it will already have been given to folks who had a need for a dresser, dinette set, or whatever. And more things arrive from out in the community even as the items that have been in the barn all winter are being sorted. Then, June 3-5 this year, the doors open to the public. That first morning there will be a frantic burst of activity and then it settles in to a stream. Come the last morning, prices are EXTREMELY negotiable. At this point we love yard-salers who may bargain for a truck load. When the doors finally close on the last day of the sale, what remains (Quite a bit usually!) will be divided up. Some will be free to anyone who has a need. Some will be taken to ministries like Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, or the Blessing Exchange who specialize in getting certain kinds of items to new homes. Some will go to the congregation’s scrap and paper drives. Some will be converted to wood-burner chow to keep another home warm come Winter again. The proceeds from all the sales will be put to good use by the congregation’s Women’s Ministry. A tiny percentage of the barn full of stuff will end up in the dumpster.
This is the bottom line for me. We are such a throw away society. The barn sale gives people an option for shedding unwanted items other than the landfills. Almost all of those items will be put into service for another go round. Money will be raised for good works. It always strikes me as a win/win/win/win.
It also strikes me as an expression of our creation in the image of God. The same culture that regards so many things as completely disposable, frequently looks at people the same way. The world devalues the elderly because they have too many years of wear on them, the weak because they seem to have too little utility, the fallen because they are damaged goods and the different because – well they are different. News-Flash: we are all different and age and weakness come everyone sooner or later. But God is a God of restoration, redemption, and revitalization. God is a God of second chances – third and fourth chances too. God is not content to let us end up on the trash dump of history or society. We are still treasures to Him and He can put us into service again!
Well, here it is the 21st of April and a wet heavy snow lies on the ground. The temperature this morning was about 27F and tomorrow morning promises to be a bit colder than that. Friends of mine just returned from Florida this week – bet they wish they’d stayed a few days longer! The Killdeer nesting by the crab apple trees in the church parking lot was hunkered down surrounded by a rim of snow. The local peach crop just got whacked and the apple crop at least diminished. If April showers bring May flowers then what does April snow bring? Woe and Lamentations! That’s what!
OK, it probably isn’t as bad as all that. It’s not like this is the first April snow we’ve ever seen. There have even been some May snows. In 1956, in Central Indiana, there were at least a few snowflakes in the air early in June! The Kildeer will still hatch her brood. Peaches have not perished from the face of the earth. And by the weekend the weather is forecasted to be fine.
But somehow, a couple inches of snow and sub-freezing temperatures seem less troubling in January than April. In part it’s a matter of expectations – it’s supposed to be cold and snowy in January! But it’s also a matter of risk. Cold and snow in January doesn’t cost us much. In April, every April, someone gets the itch too early and gets plants (other than spinach, beets, and other cold resistant stuff) out and – a lot of work comes to nothing. Peach trees in Northeast Ohio are a built in risk and if heroic measures are not taken in weather like this, there is a cost. Of course, the heroic measures cost something too. You have to weigh it all up and make a decision. My decision would be not to plant peach trees in Northeast Ohio!
So, expectations and risk - but then, the risk was based in part on the expectations. If mother nature was a real person she would no doubt laugh when she hears us – It’s so warm! I bet there won’t be another frost!
For what it’s worth, in 1999, 2000, and 2001, here in the East Canton area, there was either a frost or an outright freeze on the last night of May/first morning of June. And though there was no frost, I remember a youth group camp out in early July when everyone was sorry they didn’t bring more blankets.
Expectations, risk and the inappropriate presence of cold and snow: hmmmm.
There are some things and kinds of things that can be taken for granted in the world but are catastrophic when present in the church. Like snow in April, worldly values are out of place and very costly in the household of faith.
One of -if not THE – hallmarks of the Restoration Movement/Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is our doctrine of baptism. Like all things among the independent congregations of the movement, there is no official written stance and congregations will vary somewhat. I myself have been regarded as ‘lax’ and even heretical by some of my fellow ministers who hold ‘stricter’ views on the matter. And yet, I am on the spectrum with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in differing with almost all mainline evangelical denominations about –
*The mode of baptism * The purpose of baptism * The efficacy of baptism
As to the mode – I believe it to be immersion. The New Testament Greek word ‘baptizo’ means ‘immersion’. In one of the great ‘chicken out’ instances in the history of Bible translation, translators have generally decided not to translate the word into English. Instead, they transliterate – simply change the Greek letters to equivalent English letters and so we inherit the Greek word wholesale as the now familiar English – ‘baptize’. If this same practice were adopted with every word in the New Testament you would not be able to read it at all. An example – here’s a familiar verse concerning baptism in which I transliterate the whole thing. Hay agnoeite hoti osoi ebaptisthamen eis Kristos Iasoun eis ton thanaton autou ebaptisthamen. You can probably (now that you know what to look for) pick out the past participial form of ‘baptizo’ and maybe recognize the words – ‘Christ Jesus’. After that – good luck. The translation is – Don’t you know – all those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into His death?
So, why translate everything else but transliterate ‘baptizo’? Precisely because of the denominational disagreements! If the word is translated – ‘immerse’ – the version of the Bible in which it is so translated just lost millions of readers/customers who practice sprinkling, pouring, etc. So runs the calculation. Transliterating allows for ducking the argument and (more or less) pleasing everyone.
Grow a spine! I think everyone ought to be immersed. It’s what the word means. It better suits the context of the New Testament accounts – seeking out places where there was much water, wading out into the water, etc. It better suits the ‘burial’ motif (keep reading in Romans 6 past verse 3 which I both transliterated and translated above). It better fits the Old Testament antecedents. But what about all those people who have been sprinkled? Hold on to that one for a moment.
As to the purpose of baptism. This one is a little harder. Baptism is sometimes reckoned to be a statement of congregational affiliation or larger church membership. Others say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Still others, that baptism is a way of saying thanks for salvation already granted – or a public expression/testimony of salvation already granted. The question is complex and proof-texting is not the answer.
It is quite true that Acts 2:38 attaches baptism to the remission of sins. It is also true that I Peter 3:21, in the ‘flood of Noah’ themed discussion, says ‘corresponding to that – baptism now saves you’. But it is also true that Peter quickly adds – ‘not the removal of dirt from the flesh’ i.e. the washing with water ‘but an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ And in Acts 2:38 the exhortation to baptism is ‘in the name of Jesus’. In New Testament thought there is more to a name – especially the name of Jesus – than just phonics. The point is, in both passages (and others) the real power is not in the ritual dunking but in the blood/death/burial/resurrection/name/power of Jesus Christ. Given this, we can readily understand Paul’s rather dismissive attitude towards those who were in fact baptized but did not believe in the resurrection of Christ (I Corinthians 15).
The point is that ritual immersion in water is not a magic/silver bullet means of salvation. Back, then to Romans 6 where baptism is understood as being united with Christ in the ‘likeness’ of His death, burial, and resurrection (verse 5). I, at least, put it together this way – baptism is a ritual designed to express and move us toward unity with Christ – who saves us. Baptism is an appeal not an automated salvation process. God is in no way magically or legally constrained to grant the appeal just because you or I got dunked. There has to be a real desire/pledge for unity with Jesus Christ. Lacking that – we probably just got wet rather than saved.
But what about all those people who were sprinkled? Hold on a little longer.
If the purpose of Baptism is to help us move into unity with Christ, then the efficacy of baptism is measured by the degree to which that unity actually occurs. Let’s just say it – lots of baptized people are toast! Which begs the question -if baptized individuals who did not move into unity with Christ are not saved – are non-baptized (immersed) people who have moved into unity with Christ saved despite not having been baptized or having been baptized by a mode other than immersion? Now we’re really treading thin ice!
I have long been a ‘hat person’. I like hats and generally wear one. I have had many hats over the years. Some were just for style. When I was, perhaps, eight years old my mother bought me a little felt skimmer for Easter Sunday. I have no recollection of what happened to that hat. I’m sure it suffered the same fate as many things belonging to young children. I’ve owned – and still own fedoras (including a blue plaid model), cowboy hats, and an endless parade of ball caps and toboggans. I have the ‘dink’ I was forced to wear during Freshman Week at College. I’ve had a couple of those umbrella hats. Straw hats, fishing caps, a Russian’ Trapper’s cap (synthetic – not real fur) that was really good for staying warm in the winter, a cheesy fake Racoon Skin cap (ala Daniel Boone) bought at some tourists stop gift store: and many others. I still have a truly dorky hay mound hat (if you remember John Astin’s appearance on Gunsmoke as Festus Hagen’s cousin) I bought from a now defunct general store in my teen years. I love that hat. My wife wishes not to be seen with me on any occasion I wear it. I once had a derby that I let a member of my youth group keep after using it in a play.
A few of my hats have been more specifically functional. (These days they’re all functional because they keep me from sunburning the bare skin where my hair used to be! But leave that aside.) For instance, I had a hat for the Marching Band in high school. As part of a ‘uniform’ it served the purpose of making me look as much like all the other kids in the band as possible. As a college student and Seminarian in Tennessee I got into spelunking. After painfully bumping my head enough times, I got a hard hat – and a cool carbide lamp to mount on it. When I lived in Indianapolis, I came across a broad brimmed Australian Stockman’s hat that I liked a lot! I rode a bicycle around quite a bit in those days and was amazed how that brim could keep you almost entirely dry when riding in the rain. My children, in their very young years and for reasons that eluded me, thought it was extremely entertaining to stomp that poor thing flat.
Many professions employ recognizable headwear; police caps, firemen’s helmets, various head covers for different types of sailors and non-military seamen. Back in the day there were banker’s visors and nurses’ hats. Even diner employees used to wear those jaunty little paper caps!
And in the field of religion the Catholic Church has several specialized hats designating various officials right up to the pope. Judaism has skull caps. Eastern Orthodox clerics have their own versions. Islam probably wins the prize.
If there is a prescribed head gear for non-denominational Christian preachers, I missed the memo. But, as a Christian, I can only say that I hope one day to have a crown – only for the purpose of casting it at the feet of Jesus Christ.
The day is truly upon us now. I hope we all celebrate it well. Paul said – if Christ is not risen from the dead then we are, of all men, most to be pitied – after all, our faith would be vain without the resurrection. My single greatest concern for modern Christianity is that we have to think a bit to get on a wavelength with Paul here. We are so very comfortable in the world that we have lost the sense of urgency – almost desperation – that drove our first-generation brethren. They were intimately familiar with violence and injustice. Socio-economic inequality on a level we can barely imagine was an accepted reality. And taking up faith in Jesus Christ only made it worse. Being a Christian could get you divested of your property, thrown in jail, beaten and/or killed. These things did happen to plenty of people simply because they followed the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul himself, who once known comfort, status, and wealth, said that he had lost it all – traded it for beatings, privations, and ultimately death – and counted the loss as having given up only so much garbage in comparison to the excellency of knowing Christ. Well, as long as there is a resurrection from the dead! If there was no resurrection – if Christ had not been raised and neither would we – then why was it that we were giving up such little comfort as might be had and calling down the wrath of the sinful world on our heads? If this life was IT – why make it shorter and harder than it already is? That whole ‘take up your cross’ thing loses a lot of luster if there isn’t an empty tomb!
Our situation is different. I have been a Christ follower all my life. You could lose a couple of fingers and still count on one hand the Sundays I have not been in Church in my soon to be 64 years. And the very small amount of negative attention I have encountered as a result is not worthy to be called persecution. I am further blessed to have lived my life in a time when I enjoyed great freedom and legal protections. I have not always had everything I wanted but I have never gone hungry and never lacked a roof over my head. I am not complaining about my good fortune. And, although many now disagree, I continue to assert that it was the force of the gospel that shaped the best things about the world I live in. But I do understand why those who share my circumstances are not quite as focused on the world to come as Paul was. This world seems pretty good to us.
And yet, in 2018 (the most recent year for which I could find complete statistics) there were 620,000 abortions in the United States. In that same year 1.2 million Americans went to the ER as the result of assault. 20,000 of those died despite medical attention. This does not touch the larger murder rate. The number of children that went missing in 2018 was 421,394. There is scarcely a family that hasn’t been touched by divorce.
I could fill this blog post with grim statistics like the ones above. But you probably begin to take my point. The world – the poor fallen sinful broken desperate world – still stinks. Can we as Christ followers ever truly get comfortable with all this tragedy because we all got raises and social security (despite my fears to the contrary) looks like it may survive long enough for me to claim benefits?! And that’s the thing. Getting comfortable with the world means ignoring a lot of stuff. If our Christ-like hearts aren’t breaking, we don’t have Christ-like hearts.
And, of course, we have to reach out and help. Children need protecting. The hungry need fed. The desperate need support. And who should do it if not those who follow Christ? But here lies another danger. We will not save this world. In the end, we can only be saved out of it and work that as many others as possible will also be saved out of it. Our Savior, who fed multitudes, plainly told us that poverty would endure to the end of the age. War and all its devastation likewise.
What to do?
We are coming up fast on Easter! Well, that’s what we generally call it. When I stop to think about it for a minute before the word gets out of my mouth, I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday. I have known folk who won’t set foot in a congregation that uses the word – Easter. I have known a few who insist that everyone who calls it Easter is bound for hell.
I understand the difficulty. In case you didn’t know – Easter is a remnant word from the old pagan religions – the cult of fertility goddesses. In the Old Testament the fertility goddess is called Ishtar and great efforts were undertaken to cut down all her sacred groves and get the Israelites to stop all the sexually immoral practices associated with her cult. Moving west in time and space, the name Ishtar underwent some phonetic reworking – Astart, Oester, etc. There is no doubt at all that ‘Easter’ is a syllabic recollection of ‘Ishtar’ et al. And, as soon as you think of it, bunnies and eggs as elements of the Easter celebration are carried over from pagan fertility cult celebrations. Those same folk I mentioned above are death on Easter Egg hunts as well.
How did we get here?! How did the name and cultic apparatus of the old fertility goddesses end up as fixtures of a Christian celebration – perhaps the most holy of all Christian celebrations? On purpose as it turns out. For many centuries, the church strategically co-opted the pagan holidays wherever the gospel was planted. There were different degrees of the practice. All over Central and South America, statues of the fertility goddesses were simply renamed ‘Mary’ by the Catholic Church. (They did put clothes on some of them.) This was thought of as ‘baptizing’ the pagan elements. It was also strategically easier to lead pagan populations to Christianity if they were allowed to keep as much as possible of what was familiar and comforting to them of their old religion. Similarly, some missionaries to Haiti were known to characterize the island nation as 99% catholic and 100% voodoo.
Hmmmmm. On the one hand, the Apostle John wrote to a more ‘barbarian crowd’ in his gospel and epistles. And he managed to stress terms like ‘the light’, ‘the word’ and ‘the truth’ all of which these particular pagans were already intimately familiar with only John infused the old terms with the truth of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, John also manages, especially in the epistles, to draw some lines about elements of the paganism of these new converts that could not be imported into the church. One can follow the same logic through the Gospel according to Matthew – written to a more strictly Jewish crowd.
The line can be hard to define, much less hold.
Christmas, like Easter, absorbed the pagan Saturnalia – including some of the familiar elements of the pagan celebration – like decorated trees. But at least the name ‘Saturn’ was tossed and the celebration called ‘Christ-Day’. Easter, beginning with the name, is a more flagrant importation of intact pagan elements into the Christian celebration. Halloween even more so – but that’s another blog.
Is it a problem? As noted – all things considered – I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday. But I have never refused to let my children or grandchildren join in egg hunts. I say to myself, ‘Self, God invented the egg – and the whole sexual reproduction thing – before the sinful world got hold of it and tried to turn into something that did not glorify the creator.’ Romans 1 speaks to worshipping the created rather than the creator. Not good. But God made eggs and rabbits and both were included when God pronounced all that He had made – good. If I yield eggs, rabbits, rainbows, the color pink, the whole notion of angels, the motions of the stars, and a thousand other facets of the created world to those who have perverted what God has made by worshipping the created rather than the creator, I will soon run short of symbols or even words with which to show or speak the glory of God.
Are our pagan roots showing? Well, not because we colored and hid eggs. In fact, that whole activity can be invested with deeply profound Christian meaning. Give it a try! I prefer Resurrection Sunday to the use of even a derivative form of Ishtar but I’m not going to draw a line with you on the other side if you continue to call it Easter. Some of Paul’s helpers were named after the pagan gods before their conversion and Paul continued to call them by those names in his epistles. In the end I think our pagan roots only really show when our practices are pagan.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church