As regular readers know, I spend my days as a pastor. The last couple of years have been a unique time to be in ministry and, doubly so, as I found myself “planting” (starting) a new church in the midst of it.
I sit here thinking about how things aren’t going right. Plans I’ve made, how I’m feeling — stuff isn’t how I want it to be. Ironically, even plans I’ve made as a pastor for Holy Week aren’t how I had hoped. I get wrapped up in all of that and then I have to return to the central truth of Holy Week: it happened because we human beings have broken the world. That things aren’t how they are supposed to be is precisely the point.
It’s 3 a.m. and I’m on Twitter impatiently refreshing, looking for news from Ukraine. I check over on Ukrainian President Zelensky’s account, too, looking for signs he’s still alive and Russia hasn’t managed to find him yet. Probably a lot of you reading this are doing the same. Death looms large this Ash Wednesday, situated amidst the first global-level conflict of the Internet era.
We forget this all the time. Perhaps as we get older, we’re a little less oblivious and proud about it, but I don’t think we truly understand the fragility of our existence. Most people who start off essays like this have some sort of axe to grind; I don’t, at least not about this, but I was reminded by something I read.
During Advent, we all excitedly look towards celebrating Jesus’s birth. However, suddenly it is December 26 and the world resets to its ordinary preoccupations. That’s what is wonderful about observing the Twelve Days of Christmas: it helps us keep reflecting on God’s grace and the miracle of Christmas after the busyness of Christmas Day is past. Tim Butler has prepared a free devotional booklet for these next twelve days.
So. We’re three days from Christmas. These last couple of years the holiday, like everything else, has gotten a bit deflated as two presidents and a lot of medical bureaucrats, liking the feel of unexpected power, have succumbed to the irresistible compulsion to do something, whether it was advisable or not. The effects were troubling to some people more than they were to me, because for a number of years now I’ve enjoyed low-key Christmas celebrations.
There are special days and months that we celebrate in the secular society. Holidays for the birthdays of presidents, recognition of ethnic minorities, and days set aside to raise awareness for rare diseases and conditions. Most of this passes without notice, and much of it is unobjectionable. But I have noticed that some of it is, and that it forms a competing liturgy with the Christian one.
I don’t know what sort of regime of shame existed in American culture before I was here. In some people’s telling, everyone thought sex itself was dirty and shameful, and untold secrets were kept. I don’t want to take us back to the good old days that never actually existed, but I think sexual intercourse between unmarried people is still wrong. That’s what “fornication” refers to, if you didn’t know.
Tomorrow being Thanksgiving, chances are good that most of us will in fact pause to give thanks for the many blessings that are undeservedly ours, possibly while surrounded by the aromas of rich and tasty foods. Good for you, and good for us. Perhaps you can pause for a moment and think of the people — there are many of them — for whom a blessing denied them is one we take for granted: a glass of clear, clean water.
The little “issue” at the local church might not seem like a big deal. Sure a few people got hurt and the pastor seemed to overreach a bit, but it all worked out OK, right? Those who left were “troublemakers” and keeping things controlled kept the little issue little, they claim. But the little issues become big ones. I know. I have lived the little church issue that becomes the national news story.