Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Alcohol & the Christian Life

January 3, 2018

Last week I was called an alcoholic by someone who has never met me or spoken to me.  Based on circumstances of their life experiences with addiction (first and second-hand) and the fact that I drink alcohol and also serve alcohol to other people from time to time, and based on their interpretation of Scripture, they concluded that I’m likely an alcoholic and that I’m leading others (including my children) into alcoholism.

Today – at my request – I sat down and spoke with that person, as well as her daughter and mother.  I was informed initially that they agreed to the meeting only to share their perspectives and experiences with me so I would understand where they were coming from.  Fair enough.  I arrived prepared to listen to their personal experiences.  However when I arrived, I was informed that their purpose had changed, and that their intent was to convince me that alcohol is evil and an inappropriate thing to either enjoy responsibly personally or to offer responsibly to another person as part of hospitality and generosity.  Especially for a pastor, and especially if a congregation was supporting this activity in some way.   And then to demand that I agree to certain things and that the congregation I serve agree to certain things.

All of this not because anything bad has ever happened at Sunday Happy Hour.  Not because anyone who has ever visited has complained about the presence of alcohol  or the way in which I serve it.  Not because of any actual problem at all.  Simply because some of these folks are convinced alcohol is inherently evil, and some of the folks are convinced that a pastor and a church should never utilize alcohol in any sort of public ministry (other than Holy Communion, I assume) because of our larger alcohol culture.

It hasn’t been a fun week.  Hopefully your end off 2017 and start of 2018 was more enjoyable!

My denomination prides itself on refraining as much as possible from saying things definitively that Scripture itself is not definitive about, just as we strive very hard not to ignore anything that Scripture is definitive about.  We are imperfect in this to be sure.  But if you hold that all of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) then you have to at least try.  So in dealing with the accusations and demands that have been made, my main concern is to go to Scripture and see what it has to say.  I don’t really care if a Happy Hour ministry is unconventional.  There are lots of unconventional approaches to ministry – ask any missionary.  Some mission approaches have elements of risk to them, but that’s not my primary concern at this point either.  Risk is not in itself sinful.  My primary concern is whether involving alcohol in a Christian function is sinful.  And to figure that out, I go not to personal experiences or popular practices or Twitter or Facebook but to the Bible to see what the Bible has to say.

And certainly on the issue of alcohol, Scripture has a lot to say.  Hundreds of verses that refer to wine in one way or another.  And we have to pay attention to all of it rather than just cherry-pick the few verses that support our position.  That’s how I’m attempting to deal with the things I’ve been called to my face as well as in other discussions that I’m not privy to.  I go to Scripture to make sure that I understand what it is saying to the best of my ability, so I can provide my congregation and family both corporately and individually with good theological guidance.  Any of you who wish to weigh in on this topic here are free to do so (including the folks directly involved with this who are likely still reading).  As long as you’re respectful, I want to hear what you have to say and I’ll post it in the comments section of the appropriate post so others can see and hear what you have to say and weigh in as well.

To start my study on this topic, I’m utilizing a basic multi-translation Bible tool called e-Sword.  I’ve been using it for years instead of paying big bucks for the more professional programs that I wouldn’t use very often.  E-Sword is available either as a downloadable program or an app (both free!).  I  think it’s a very good baseline tool for casual interaction with the original languages as well as multiple English translations.

I’m using a public domain derivation source for the Hebrew (Old Testament) verses, and the Textus Receptus and Westcott-Hort translations of the Greek New Testament in addition to the Septuagint (Old and New Testaments in Greek).  While these may not be the best translations, I trust that for basic word study purposes they’re serviceable.  If any of my colleagues out there have anything pertinent to share as a warning about these translations, feel free to let me know.

To start with I’m doing a basic search across multiple (12) recent and historic English translations for every occurrence of the word wine in Scripture.  I’m then going through every single verse individually to see what the original language word is that is being translated as wine.  Since different English translations sometimes translate differently (duh!), I’m getting an interesting cross-section of Hebrew words that are sometimes –  but not always – translated as wine by some, but not all, English translations.  I’m only through Isaiah but there are so far eleven different Hebrew words that are sometimes translated as wine and/or strong drink.  Some of them have only been used once or twice, but there are two that far and away have the most occurrences.  It will be interesting to see how many different Greek words are used in the New Testament!

Once I’ve done that, I’ll research each of the words, trying to determine important differentiations or nuances that govern their usage and occurrence.  That will help me when I attempt to clarify the use of the word within not just the single verse but the overall pericope or section of Scripture.  Sometimes the context is a warning.  Other times it’s a celebration.  Other times it’s a divine promise.  I want to be able to clearly lay out all the different contexts that wine and/or strong drink is referred to in Scripture.

Then it shouldn’t be too difficult to group these contexts into more general categories.  Does Scripture clearly and unambiguously prohibit wine and drink from God’s people?  If it doesn’t (which is my assumption and understanding going into this study), then what should God’s people draw from Scriptural discussions of alcohol?  If it does unambiguously prohibit God’s people from alcohol, I’ll have some major thinking to do about why my particular polity and a good chunk (if not majority) of Christian scholarship through the centuries has ignored or avoided talking about this.

Then the discussion becomes one regarding the role of God’s corporate people – The Church – with alcohol.  Is alcohol something that should be condoned in the lives of God’s people grudgingly or reluctantly, but strictly forbidden in the corporate Church?  All of which drives towards the ultimate question – is it sinful for a Church to sponsor or engage in a ministry where alcohol is served to people, even if it is being done in a prudent and careful manner?

As part of these discussions, there has also been an argument made that alcohol itself – the fermented byproducts of fruit and other organic materials – is inherently sinful in and of itself.  It isn’t part of God’s goodness in creation, but rather something the Devil has injected into the mix.  Again, what does the Bible say on this topic and how do we determine practice based on what Scripture says?

The issue of alcohol is a complicated one because, as I’ve often noted on this blog, it can be so destructive in people’s lives.  My working presumption is that rather than just avoiding the topic and practice completely, the Church can and perhaps even should model what responsible alcohol consumption looks like.  If our culture dominates the discussion about alcohol and dominates it with an insistence that it should be enjoyed to excess more often than not (legal disclaimers aside), is there a place for the Church to say not simply no, but rather not so much?   Again, my working practice has been to say yes, and Sunday Happy Hour is a place where this has and does happen.

There are certainly Christians who insist that alcohol cannot be partaken without sin, or that the odds of sin are so great that it should just be prohibited.  Some of their Biblical arguments towards this end rely on arguments that wine in Scripture isn’t wine like we think of today (fermented and alcoholic), but rather grape juice – negligibly fermented, essentially non-alcoholic freshly squeezed grape juice.  Just in my preliminary foray into the word study it’s clear that the Hebrew is able to make this distinction (but more often than not does not – or doesn’t appear to use it purposefully).  Do their arguments have linguistic merit?  Or is it an attempt to justify their theological conclusions and doctrines by reinterpreting Scripture to their liking?  Is that what I’m doing just because I enjoy cocktails?

Time will tell, but I’ll keep all of you informed as I move along the process.

 

 

Advertisements

Avoiding the Peace

January 2, 2018

Traditional Christian worship often includes a Rite known as the Passing of the Peace.  While it may well be that this was once observed within worship with the sharing of a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26) the practice these days is usually sufficed with a handshake.  Sometimes people will say The peace of the Lord as they shake someone’s hands.  It’s supposed to be a brief exchange with the people nearest you, but it can easily get out of hand in a friendly congregation, with people traversing the entire nave (church space) to say hi to all their favorite friends.

It’s beautiful, but it can be difficult for new folks because regulars aren’t going out of their way to come and say hi to them, so they’re standing there awkwardly while others are going through elaborate greetings.  It can also be very difficult for introverts, for whom large-scale social interaction can be uncomfortable.  I know this.  I’m an introvert.  I became a pastor in part so I wouldn’t have to share the peace.

Not really, but I can certainly empathize!

I believe that the ritual has a very specific purpose.  Certainly in early Christian congregations you had people from all walks of life – the rich and the poor, slaves and free, converted Jews as well as non-Jews.  Yet in Christ these divisions cease to hold the same importance that they do without him (Galatians 3:28).  It isn’t that these divisions disappear – they still exist (much to the consternation of some very idealistic Christians across two millenia!), but as a reminder to everyone that they may matter in the world but not in Christ, we share the peace.  We share the reminder that we are united in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, won by his very real suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and promised return.  What we now have in common far outweighs our differences.  It transcends them and starts to transform them as we extend forgiveness to one another.

But it’s still difficult for some.  I imagine they might appreciate this little tome.  I haven’t read it, but it was referenced in a high school buddy’s annual missive and I know there are more than a few folks out there who would probably find it very relevant to their struggles.

Don’t Get Cute

December 21, 2017

Someone – someone I’m not sure I even know – sent me a hard copy of this missive today.   What a great Christmas present.

Because of course pastors are stressed out about Christmas Eve service.  As my buddy notes, there is an added pressure to this service, perhaps more so than any other service the entire year.  Additional people present.  And not just extended family of current members, but others as well.  Perhaps estranged former members of the congregation.  People that had a falling out with a pastor some years ago – or perhaps with me! – might show up for some reason they can’t even define well themselves.  People injured by the Church in the past, stepping their toes back in the water after years or decades away.

To have the perfect message – witty, sparkling, engaging – could mean so much for these people and my congregation!  Old faces returning and new faces showing up on Sunday mornings.  Is there a better feeling as a pastor to be told that you’re the reason that someone has decided to return or come to church or the faith?  The monstrous pride that lurks within many preachers and pastors, sometimes masquerading as pious humility – that monster gorges itself on those sorts of comments.  It’s not that the comments are bad, or shouldn’t be shared.  It’s just that the sin within me wants to lead me down dangerous, dark roads of self-congratulatory ego-caressing.

But the perfect message isn’t mine, it’s God the Holy Spirit’s.  And while the Holy Spirit deigns to work through imperfect pastors that fall out in different places on a dizzyingly broad spectrum of speaking skills and writing mastery, the message that counts is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.  The baby in the manger and the God on the cross.  I should care about delivery and about making it enjoyable for the people festively attired in the candlelit pews, but only towards the end that the Holy Spirit’s Word might penetrate the heart, might strike the lethal blow that leads to the death of the old Adam within us, and raises up a new creation in Jesus Christ.  I can’t do that, only the Holy Spirit can.

So I will endeavor, as I like to think I always do, not to be cute.  To make sure the full message is delivered, and that the results of that are to God’s glory not mine.  On Christmas Eve and during every other worship service of the year.

True Worship II

December 20, 2017

Thinking further about this, it came to me that it isn’t just a matter of people deciding not to go to church any more on Christmas that is at issue.  Once again, it’s a complicated subject.  One that is complicated to great extent by our mobile culture and our oft-cited idea that one can (or even should) work and live wherever they want.

I’ve ended up doing this more by hook than by crook.  I understand the appeal of living in different places and seeing different parts of the world and learning about culture and food and all sorts of ancillary aspects of God’s amazing creation (and sometimes our sinful twisting of it).  We recently bid farewell to a young woman headed for multiple parts of the world over the next six months, after living four years away from her family so she could attend university and then another two years after that as she waited to figure out what her next moves (heh) in life would be.

But this mobility is a somewhat new phenomenon, historically speaking.  It used to be that in general, you stayed where you were raised.  In great part because work and family were more closely intertwined, and so the odds of going away from home and finding work were much smaller for most people than the odds of already having work at home.  Most people didn’t go off to work, but lived and worked all in the same or closely related setting.

Family members were more apt to stay put, which meant you had larger networks of extended families all in the same location.  Which meant that Christmas worship wasn’t something that was separate from all your other Christmas traditions – it was a part of them because practically all of your extended family was going to be at church as well.  Church was a more natural part of the larger family celebration of Christmas (or Easter, or just an average Sunday).

Now that’s not as often the case.  Most of the members in my congregation have to travel somewhere else to be with their kids and grandkids for the holidays.  Or their family has to travel to them, often from multiple locations around the country, which of course is hard to coordinate and often doesn’t happen.  Our Sunday Happy Hour Crew is mostly still of the age (early 20’s) that they go home to be with their parents for Christmas.

This sounds at one level as though not much has changed.  Family is still together on Christmas, so they should naturally be at church, right?  Sure, I can agree with that.  Except that mom and dad’s church may not be son and daughter’s church.  Or it may be the same church with a new pastor.  Or the pastor may be the same, but son and daughter were whisked away to children’s church every Sunday and never formed relationships with the pastor or the other adults in the congregation, so effectively their parent’s church really is a different church from the one they went to, even if the location and the preaching pastor is the same.

All of which continues to contribute to a sense that church really isn’t part of the family’s Christmas observance, even if technically they were all at church together before.

I’m not advocating throwing our hands in the air and saying well that’s that, we might as well cancel our Christmas worship.   There are plenty of people who still incorporate church as part of their Christmas day celebration.  There are still a few who will wander out on Christmas by some indefinable prompting even if they don’t go to church the rest of the year.

And while people may relocate away from family more often these days, this highlights the important aspect that church can play as a new family to transplants.  Few of my parishioners were born and grew up here.  Most came from elsewhere, generally in their 20’s with spouses and children in tow.  But they found a home away from home, a family away from family in their congregation.  I visited a woman in the hospital who is 91-years old.  She was sitting and talking with a woman she has been best friends with for 60 years.  Many of the people in my congregation have known each other for more than half a decade.  They are family to one another, which is an incentive for them to come to worship regularly.  They’re getting to see their family that they didn’t get to see most of the rest of the week.

Just like people did centuries ago.

The rise of the Church and particular celebratory observances was facilitated in great part by the fact that families – extended families – would all go together.  It was part of their tradition (and if they were Roman Catholic, also an obligation on their part!) together.  While we can lament that this is no longer the case, we should at least acknowledge that this will have an impact on church attendance patterns on holy days.  And we should, as the church and parents and grandparents, be encouraging our kids and grandkids to plug into congregations where they live, so that they can begin building the relationships that will serve as surrogate family to them all the rest of the year when they don’t travel home to be with Mom and Dad and the rest of the clan.

True Worship

December 20, 2017

Since this is the time of year when many Christians take up the familiar lamentation about how our culture is forgetting the real meaning of Christmas, I read this article the other day arguing that it isn’t secular cultural we should be mad at for being, well, secular.  Rather it’s Christians we should be mad at because they don’t prioritize Church for Christmas.

Which of course, got me thinking.

Growing up, our family tradition was to go to a late-night Christmas Eve worship.  Probably not technically midnight, but maybe 10pm or 11pm.  It was great as kids because we’d get to stay up late and sing some cool Advent and Christmas hymns.  Then we’d get a paper bag with some peanuts and an orange and a candy cane in it on our way out of church.  We had no idea why this combination of things was supposed to be in some way valued, but we’d at least eat the candy cane.

I serve a congregation with a tradition of worship on Christmas morning.  I don’t have any problem with this tradition and am happy to continue it and foster it.  But if I served a congregation who didn’t have a tradition of meeting for worship on Christmas morning, I wouldn’t be inclined to start one.

Some might say this just reveals my lazy, self-centered nature.  I’m guilty of what the article author blames as the demise of Christmas in Christian culture.  But my wife and I have intentionally set up ground rules to buying into (heheh – that’s a pun, get it?) the consumer mentality that does tend to overwhelm all other aspects of the Advent and Christmas season.  The author sets up an either or without an in between and without necessarily questioning the validity of the one pole while presuming the other pole is of course evil.

But here’s my radical thought.  You don’t need to go to church on Christmas morning in order to have a Christ-filled Christmas.  You may not have the technical Christ Mass which the author likes to emphasize, but this is, after all, not a Biblical mandate either.  It’s a tradition, to be sure, and a tradition that had great value perhaps in an age when persecution was rampant.  Perhaps as our culture becomes less Christian on the surface, Christians will once again see value in gathering communally to celebrate the birth of Christ.

I’d argue that while it’s fine to go to Church on Jesus’ birthday, if that’s how you define putting Christ back in Christmas, you’re woefully missing the point and settling for the very surface-level sort of lip service that the author tries to decry.  In other words, the Church should be in the business of teaching people how to celebrate the birth of Christ in their families.  Before church.  After church.  For the whole season of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany (gasp!).  Heck, every day of the year, every day of our lives.  If putting the Christ back in Christmas consists simply of attending the literal Christ’s Mass, we’re actually no better off.  And perhaps, this is actually the reason we’re at this point of apparent Christian decay in our culture.

There is no glory or benefit per se in Church in and of itself.  Yes, we are to continue gathering together as the faithful, to be certain (Hebrews 10:25).  But why do we do this?  Because there is intrinsic merit in this?  No.  But rather because of what Christian community can and should do.  It enables us to hear the Word of God – but this should be something we are doing in daily prayer and devotion.  We receive the gifts of God in his Sacrament, and to be sure this is something that traditionally only happens in Church as believers gather together.  Church should be equipping people to live out their faith in their daily lives, as parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, employees, employers, citizens, etc.  Church is supposed to help connect our faith to all the aspects of our life.

Simply equating church with having a Christ-filled Christmas is oversimplification.  And I could conceivably see myself saying to people wondering whether or not they should start a Christmas Day service – No problem, as long as you’re going to sing or listen to the Christmas hymns at home as well.  As long as you’re going to pray together at home as well to give thanks to God for sending his Son into the world.  As long as you’re going to read the Christmas story to your kids and talk about what it means to you so they can learn what a life of faith looks and sounds like by watching and listening to you.  So long as you’re not going to spend the rest of the day focused only on football or food or drinks or whatever other good gifts and creations of God may really fire you up.

In other words, Sure, let’s gather together to praise God for sending his Son, so long as you don’t think you’ve fulfilled your ‘Christian duty’ in this act alone, and the rest of the day is yours to spend without a second thought for God.  Sure, let’s celebrate together, as long as you’re celebrating with your family at home as well.  Because Church is NOT supposed to be a substitute for that most primal and critical congregation of faith, the family.  The Church should strengthen that smaller congregation.  Equip it.  Minister to and with it.  But never set itself up as the replacement for it or to it.

Just like the family should never, under ideal circumstances, be the substitute for Church.  Just like those folks who insist on worshiping alone in their family or in front of their television instead of plunging themselves into the messy world of congregational relationships are in error.  Just like those who insist that they can worship alone better than they can worship with others are waving a massive red flag about something in their heart or past that the Holy Spirit should be working through to resolve, not reinforce.  Circumstances may dictate that Christians worship in hiding or only as families, but this is the exception to the rule.  The healthiest life of faith consists of a strong grounding at home reinforced with regular involvement in the larger community of faith, where forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, and as necessary even private or – God-forbid, public – rebuke is possible for serious misunderstandings or misappropriations of the life of faith.

The author is dead on – Christians need to keep Christ at the center of Christmas as well as every day of their life.  The Church should help them do it.  But let’s not oversimplify things to the point where Church becomes the definition of a Christ-centered Christmas.  If you have the ability to gather with other Christians to celebrate Christ this Christmas, by all means do so!  Do it week after week, frankly.  Maybe even do it on Christmas Day at church!  But by all means, make sure that in your private life of faith, in your family life of faith you’re doing it as well.  Don’t assume that just going to Church puts Christ back at the center of Christmas for your heart or your family.  Don’t separate or confuse Church and everyday life.  Keep them both together and in proper relationship.

Thoughts?

 

Charity & Taxes

December 17, 2017

As we move closer to a major (or allegedly major) overhaul of our tax code, some are raising red flags that this might have a significant impact on the Church, namely in the realm of charitable giving.

Currently donations given to churches and other non-profit entities are tax-deductible if you itemize deductions.  But the new tax code may reduce the overall benefit of itemizing by increasing the standard deduction.  The net result could be lower incentive to give to charities for a tax benefit, and overall lower donation levels.

So would you give even if you weren’t getting a tax write-off for it?

 

Catholics & Relics

December 15, 2017

Another interesting Catholic article, this time dealing with the very old practice of having relics in the altars (or other areas) or Roman Catholic churches.  Now, unlike other Protestants (perhaps) I don’t have a problem per se with the idea of relics.  But I do find it interesting that this gentleman argues that there is a Biblical precedent for this practice, referring to Revelation 6:9.

I find this a fascinating theological move!  If you read Revelation 6:9, you come away with the very definite impression that these are not relics being referred to, but living people.  Not physical people – but their souls.  These are two major differences between the Biblical text and the practice of relics.  Living spirits vs. dead bodies (or parts of bodies).

I like the Catholic theology that informs their architecture and much of their worship (essentially the same worship that many Protestants celebrate).  But I think it’s a rather large leap to go from living spirits to dead body pieces in the same breath.  At least I understand a little better their rationale for this, even if I’m not comfortable with their Biblical justification for it.

 

Choosing Exile

December 13, 2017

I had the privilege of sitting with a group of congregational leaders last night.  They weren’t my congregational leaders.   This congregation is nearly 100 miles away from me. I didn’t know any of them before last night, and I had only met the pastor via phone and text last week.  Yet here I was sitting in on their council meeting as they grappled with exile.  When a Seminary prof began one of my first Sem courses by emphasizing the noble task – a kalou ergou in the Greek – we were aspiring to, I had no idea that this could also apply beyond the realm of purely pastoral parish ministry to the less defined world of polity organization and hierarchy.  Yet here I was, functioning as a pastor to another pastor and another congregation, being with them and encouraging them in a hard moment to choose exile.

That’s how their pastor described it at one point.  The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years.  We won’t be wandering nearly that long.  It was a good analogy, though perhaps not an overly comforting one in the moment.  They’re saddled with a building in desperate – perhaps mandatory – need of repair and renovation.   With bills they aren’t able to pay.  They have struggled and clawed to keep their ministry alive and moving, but are up against walls they cannot avoid or break through.

Choosing exile is a hard thing.  Stepping into the unknown.  I’m not sure if I’ve really thought about that aspect of the Biblical exodus.  The descendants of Abraham had a choice to make that dark and terrifying night.  In the midst of inky blackness and the Egyptian wails of loss and mourning, they could either get up and trickle into the alleys and streets, meeting others shuffling through the darkness with their bread troughs on their heads and sleepy children in arm.  They didn’t know where they were going, only that they were leaving.  They couldn’t imagine what it would mean, what life would look like from day to day and week to week.  All they could do was decide whether to head out the door or stay huddled inside.

Many congregations can’t handle that decision.  They put it off and put it off and put it off until there really isn’t a decision to be made.  Until the choices don’t exist any more, or until there is nothing left but bad options.  When the neighbors are gone and there is nothing but the sound of crickets and the waiting to see who will be the last one left to turn off the lights when all is said and done.  When there is nothing but bitterness about how things have worked out and a scrambling search for someone to blame.

But last night a sat with a group who, amid tears chose exile, an uncertain future  In so doing, they opened up all sorts of unseen doors.  Possibilities they have no way of knowing about and yet to be revealed.  But it’s hard to leave what you know, even when what you know isn’t really all that it could be.  It meant a great deal to them.  It had impacted their lives in various ways and created a sense of loyalty that made their vote last night seem like betrayal and treachery on the scale of Judas.

But in exile, step by step and day by day they will learn by new means about the Lord they follow and the myriad ways He works – always for the good of those He calls (Romans 8:28) but not necessarily in ways we would like or even want.  Day by day and step by step the inky darkness and the wails of loss will give way to a new day and new possibilities.  New challenges as well.  My prayers are with them as they move down this road together but not alone.  The hardest part always seems to be the choosing, at the moment of the choosing.  Only later do we realize that was perhaps the easiest part of all, and the most necessary for all that would follow.

My prayers are with them as they prepare to enter a wilderness they’ve never known, trusting in the Lord to lead them, providing them what they need and when they need it, forming them continually more and more into his people and his image.  May they serve as guides and inspirations to the many other councils struggling with similar choices and fears.

 

More Tax Fun

December 11, 2017

Just in case the Congressional tax plan hasn’t been interesting enough for you, you might be interested to learn that in October a judge (for a second time) ruled that the clergy tax exemption on income designated for housing is unConstitutional.  This has enormous repercussions for religious organizations of every kind, as all are blessed to have the income their religious leaders spend directly on housing-related expenses excluded from taxes, saving religious groups a considerable (though probably not outrageous) amount of money.

The judge ruled that the clergy housing allowance is unfair in that it essentially is an endorsement of religious organizations (while not an endorsement of a particular religion), and as such is unfair as secular organizations and individuals do not receive a similar or equal benefit.  The ruling has been appealed, and defendants will argue that this is more an issue of preventing complicated and unnecessary entanglement of the State with religious organizations, which could lead to a breach of the separation of Church and State.

Certainly there are plenty of folks who think the status quo is Constitutional and should withstand this legal challenge.  Recommendations are that congregations continue to designate housing allowance for 2018 onwards until the case is finally resolved by an appeals court or the Supreme Court, recognizing that if the appeal is unsuccessful, it is possible (if not likely) that housing income will become taxable retroactively to the October ruling, as opposed to being implemented effective of the final court outcome.  This would place ministers of religion in a painful financial situation in having to pay back taxes on perhaps multiple years of housing allowance.

This ruling – at least thus far – applies only to housing allowances, cash given to ministers of religion to secure and maintain housing arrangements.  It does not affect a church that owns a home which it allows the minister to use (a parsonage).  Should the revocation of ministerial housing allowances stand, I’m sure there will be a massive upswing in the number of congregations that provide parsonages rather than housing allowances to their ministers.

All of which would spell the end of many small religious groups unable to cope with the additional burden of needing to pay their ministers enough additional income to offset the negative tax impact.  None of this is surprising given our cultural climate and the sudden reduction in the perceived benefit of religious organizations to society and culture as a whole.

Closing Church

December 10, 2017

I just had a call from a parishioner asking if we were having Church this morning.  She heard that another congregation in town had cancelled worship due to the fires raging in the mountains nearby and threatening some of our outlying communities and nearby towns.  I assured her that while we might have fewer folks that decide to venture out, we would indeed be meeting for worship.

I understand that some folks won’t want to come out with it raining soot and ash and the air filled with smoke.  Some of our members with frailer health or breathing issues should stay inside.  But I also know that most of our folks will still venture out for groceries and other necessary errands, and if they’re able to do that, then they can probably come to church as well.

And frankly, should.

Not out of some sort of holy obligation, but as a tangible means of coping with the fear and dread we’ve all been dealing with at one level or another for the past week.  People have been anxiously wondering and watching.  How close will the fires get?  Will I be evacuated?  What will I do if I have to leave my home?  What would I take with me?  What if I lose everything?

Of course, we tend to worry without actually doing much about it.  We’ve watched the news all week but haven’t packed any emergency bags yet.  We haven’t stocked up on food or water just in case.  We continue more or less about our daily routines, but we look out the window more often and we check the news more frequently.

It’s in just such a climate of fear and anxiety that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed loudly.  We are not to be people of fear!  It’s natural and reasonable to be worried but we are to take active steps against such worry.  We should sing and pray and gather together to offer encouragement and remember that we aren’t alone, and if worst comes to worst we will endure together.  We are to be people who point towards our Lord’s return, who live our affirmation of this reality in tangible, visible ways.  There are a lot of things that can and maybe should be cancelled during this state of uncertainty, but I don’t think Church is one of them.

Come and be uplifted and renewed.  Come to receive the assurance that your God is with you and will continue to be with you regardless of wind conditions and which direction the flames turn next.  He will be with you as you clean your car next week or as you sift through the ashes of your home.  He will be with you to death’s door and beyond.  You are his.  He has marked you in baptism.  He hasn’t forgotten you – not for a second!  And for these things it is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to him!