Christmas Reckoning

In the summer of 2016, I watched Krampus (2015), having missed it during the previous Christmas season. The perfect time of year, right? Well, it wasn’t the most spectacular yuletide horror flick of all, but it had its moments. Its subtle homage to all sorts of classic Christmastime pop-culture references was witty. Perhaps the issue was that the movie was truly effective and made me squeamish. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser mythos has the same effect on me.

Then in the winter of 2016, I saw A Christmas Horror Story (2015). I enjoyed that film more for whatever reason. I’m considering adding it to my annual list of Christmas flicks. Maybe it was the quirky touch that only William Shatner can bring. He played a local radio host in the quaint little hamlet of Bailey Downs on Christmas Eve who got more liquored up and loosened up by the hour.

Multiple storylines are at play in A Christmas Horror Story. Most stalwart of all is Santa Claus in the mode of a somber action hero. He goes to war against his elves turned by infection into foul-mouthed zombies. Spoiler alert! And at last, the final showdown as beleaguered and bleeding Old Saint Nick lays eyes on the bringer of evil lurking in the snowy shadows. “I knew it. Krampus — vile enemy of Christmas.” Once Nicholas has bested the beast, he rouses from his waking nightmare to realize he’s just a shopping mall Santa who’s been carrying out a homicidal bloodbath upon seasonal employees in a delusional state. And the Bailey Downs SWAT team is bearing down on him. Perhaps this Santa was suffering severe alcohol-induced psychosis. Or perhaps it was some sort of Christmastime spirit that possessed him much like the spirit of Krampus possessed and transmogrified others in a parallel storyline.

Shatner as Dangerous Dan covers the murder and mayhem at the mall. He laments the horrific annual abnormalities of Christmas Eve in Bailey Downs. And he proclaims the urgency for us all to recapture a classically spiritual Christmas rooted in Christ. A good message indeed.

I’ve certainly been fascinated by the symbology and history of Krampus the Christmas Devil. I’ve encountered his Alpine mythos over the past few years. He even made an appearance (albeit a very cuddly revision of him holding mistletoe) alongside Sinterklaas on my family greeting cards as the traditional Christmastime Justice Duo.

It seems that pop culture has experienced a growing interest in Krampus — a Krampus Resurgence — in the last decade according to Jonathan McDonald writing at Dappled Things in December 2015. The whole piece is a short and worthy read. McDonald muses about what this pop culture manifestation of a reworked Krampus concept says about ourselves after we’ve deconstructed and reconstructed Santa Claus for generations:

Carl Jung would doubtless have written a two-volume set about what Krampus Resurgent means about our collective unconscious. Maybe our country is using this to work through its growing hatred of Christian holy days. Maybe we’re tired of paper-thin happiness and manufactured joy. Maybe it’s an indicator of our increased cynicism about the commercialization of Christmas. Maybe subconsciously we all know that our anti-religious attitude is going to get us dragged down to Hell someday, and we’re manifesting that fear through pop culture. How long until we start seeing the Krampuslauf on our city streets?

It leaves me wondering just what we’re collectively unconsciously expressing. And the Krampuslauf (or Krampus Run) would be quite a terrifying sight on American streets right alongside a Christmas parade! Look one up on YouTube and see for yourself.

The New Birth

A pastor-friend and I were discussing how we should understand (and not understand) the meaning of the new birth or being born again as taught by Jesus and his Apostles in Scripture. It was a fruitful conversation.

More recently, I’ve tended to favor or emphasize the New Birth as a corporate objective historical reality first and foremost. And there’s plenty of biblical warrant for viewing it that way. Lots of biblical talk about sociopolitical turmoil and society upheaval as birth pains. And in this thinking, an individual’s new birth is a matter of subjectively getting caught up in that corporate objective historical reality. It’s akin to the historia salutis of salvation accomplished by Christ in history compared with the ordo salutis of salvation applied by the Spirit in the individual.

I can see some contrarianism to American baptistic revivalist evangelical notions of the born-again experience at work in my shifted view. And that doesn’t bother me all that much. But I don’t like that I sense my shifted view is going so far as to undermining my confidence in a significant change in the individual that marks a real event.

My pastor-friend said we can have both. And we can especially have the new birth of the individual as a substantial reality (i.e. the meaningful retention of present Reformed and New Calvinist notions of regeneration or effectual calling) without the revivalist baggage. To do so, we have to reject the assumptive importation of revivalist notions about altar calls, radical conversion experiences, etc. into the biblical text when it speaks of us being born of God. There’s no actual biblical expectation of what the event looks like to us. The individual’s new birth by the Spirit is substantial and definitive in some way. But it’s an invisible reality. It’s known by its results. It’s the resulting reality to which we look. But it’s not a spectacle with some particular characteristics to which we look.

The new birth is a status to be believed about ourselves to remind us in Whom we have our origin. And the reality of the new birth reveals to us that it is a necessary work of the Spirit of God in us to grant us sight and entrance into the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God is the Age of the Spirit, and its citizens must be born of the Spirit.

Shepherds and Male Agency

In my translation and examination of 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28, I employed appropriate word choices to accentuate the prominently and distinctly male character of the agency of church elders who shepherd of the whole community. This is not a mere generically male agency but that highly conspicuous agency of virtuous alpha-males who possess the most competence-dominance in the whole community.

No single English word exists to encapsulate this idea of competence-dominance (as I’ve borrow it from Jordan Peterson). It is conceived as the skill to ascend the social hierarchy to the place of greatest influential prominence and maintain that position through well-functioning relationships with those in the group. It is the path to being the man which all women desire and all men desire to be and to befriend. He who plays fair and enables others to play. He who takes up the cause of the widow and the fatherless. He who seeks true justice for all. He who embraces responsibility for himself and those with whom he stands by bearing up and carrying his cross and the cross of his whole world. In truth, he is the man who, however imperfectly, most approximates Christlikeness.

Our present circumstances under the cultural sway have brought a radically egalitarian influence to bear upon all sectors of society including the church. Much of the efficacy to this comes not so much from any conscious effort on the part of ideologically possessed individuals or interest groups—though there is that—but from systemically deforming tendencies inherent in our culture for a variety of reasons. These have a propensity to neutralize or obscure the significance of constitutive differences between males and females as demographic groups.

It would be grievous negligence, a failure to faithfully shepherd and oversee the flock, if elders were to refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God. Special attention should be given to this point. The watchmen ought to possess the competence to see the threat unambiguously and the courage to blow the trumpet resoundingly.

The combative connotations of rulership language emphasize the spiritually militaristic character of the office. The heavenly culture of the church collides at her peripheries (the frontlines) with diverse hostile cultures that rise and fall in the present world. The elders must lead the charge on these spiritual battlefronts, and elders must hold the walls and defend the gates from worldly and demonic onslaughts.

It is the tribal imagery of the warrior men encircling the camp with their spears aimed outward at the prowling menace. Women holding the center with children huddled and reassured. The work of shepherding the community by guarding its borders requires a form of militaristic agency for which men were designed and are morally responsible to exert. Our Maker has made it so.

“A woman shall not take up a man’s gear.” In Deuteronomy 22:5, the Hebrew word refers to the tools, implements, or combat gear of a man. The text is not so much a prohibition on cross-dressing as a denunciation of cross-functioning in naturally (creationistically) sex-segregated duties. We do not thrust women into combat in this manner, because it would be an “abomination” to our Lord to do so.

This is not to say pious women have no place in warfare, especially the spiritual-liturgical warfare of the church. It is to say women function in a different mode of warfare and have different weapons of war. A substantial argument can be made for a biblical motif where pious women are equipped by God with righteous deception as a powerful weapon in the war against tyranny and oppression and receive honor and glory for it.

If the imagery of a tribal encampment facing a predator seems too crude, primitive, or distant from contemporary life, the cold reality of the present teaches the same lesson. The safety, security, comfort, and convenience of modern society was established and is maintained through the harrowing exertions of an overwhelmingly male workforce. In our world, the overwhelming majority of active military combatants, field personnel in law enforcement, firefighters and first-responders, coal miners, oilfield and pipeline workers, electric linesmen, construction and demolition workers, fisherman, farmers, and so on are men. One could dare say it would be a even more exclusively male labor force if not for the technological developments of this civilization that was sheltered by the prior exertions of men. Technologies that grant artificially flattened terrain and increased ability to women in these fields.

These men preserve the metaphorical fortifications that surround and protect us from every threat lurking beyond. They sustain our world by the sweat of their brows, the gashes on their hands, the fractures of their bones, the blood pouring from their open wounds, and the tempered steel of their nerves. And then they return to the dust from whence they came in a tragically swift fashion.

The work of shepherding the whole church community is no different. It demands the harsh labors of men to maintain the walls. This is not a matter of muscular physicality, even if that may come to bear on certain occasions. There is an accompanying psychology that is most characteristically prominent in the alpha-male which enables this work. The physicality and the psychology are not flatly and evenly present in all men. And they are not uniformly absent in all women. This is a partially overlapping bimodal distribution, and the extreme male end of the spectrum is in view.

Note carefully how none of these observations reveal men striving to get ahead of women and be the first to lay claim to these brutal forms of servitude. None of these observations argue for men having to strive to attain this role. These observations reveal men to simply possess this sort of agency. To take up the outwardmost positions in the male frontlines of defense is not something that men have to outperform women to achieve. It is simply the way in which men are designed and what they do.

And none of this is a denial of the place and need for women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. In his pastoral Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul calls older women (female elders) who possess a pious reputation to lead younger women into similar piety. There is much feeding, tending, and guiding involved in this calling. And it is a duty that men—elders or otherwise—are far less equipped to do for a variety of reasons.

To probe the metaphor of a shepherdess-elder by looking to literal shepherdesses, the Old Testament contains several insightful narratives about women tending to sheep and other livestock. Two highly illustrative cases are Rachel in Genesis 29:1-12 and the daughters of Jethro in Exodus 2:16-20. In both cases, these women led the sheep of their father’s flock to wells and gave them water. To even cite these women and their shepherding is to cite their dependence on men to enable them. In Rachel’s case, she waited each day for a man to remove the heavy cover stone from the mouth of the well. And one fateful day, it was Jacob who removed the cover stone for her. In the case of Jethro’s daughters, they were harassed and driven away from the well by cruel shepherds. But it was Moses who “arose and saved them” and who “delivered [them] out of the hand” of the shepherds. It signified the very same thing in the very same language which Yahweh would accomplish through Moses in delivering his people Israel from Egypt. These women labored faithfully in their particular capacities as those who tended flocks. But their labors depended on men first digging wells, men routinely rolling away heavy cover stones, and men rising up to save and deliver the women from other tyrannical men.

Once more, the point is not to deny the place and the need for godly women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. Nor is it an assertion of comprehensive inferiority in the agency of women. It is a refutation of the place, the propriety, and the plausibility of women as elders over the whole community. They cannot encompass the community as a whole society in a function that is readily interchangeable with men and fundamentally indifferent to gendered agency. Women cannot effectively accomplish the totality of the work of shepherding every segment of the community, because women lack the capacity to shepherd the one critical segment of a comprehensive community that possesses the capacity to shepherd its own: men atop the competence-dominance hierarchy.

The only sort of person that every sort of person in the community of a local church will follow is competent-dominant men. If any other sort of individual is appointed to the most prominent eldership, the compositional breadth of a congregation will assuredly shrink from the slow attrition of such men. They become disinterested and disillusioned. And it’s readily apparent this has, in fact, already occurred in the contemporary Western Church. We can scarcely recognize a virtuous alpha-male as possessing characteristically masculine godliness rather than faulting him for nonconformity to a standard of gender-neutralized or distinctly feminine piety. The lack of strong male leadership is a frequent and growing problem not only in the Western home but in the Western church.

The simple fact that the elders of whole congregations (functioning at the highest levels of prominence in the community) are, must, and will be males is no more coincidental than the simple fact that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as a man. He is the unique Son of God. He is the Head and Savior of the Body. He is the Husband who seeks, saves, and weds the Bride. Jesus Christ is a man. And he is not a man inconsequentially, neither are his representative undershepherds.

Perhaps what this essay has really demonstrated is that the office and function of elder as it is commonly conceived in many local churches and the contemporary Western Church at large is something quite different than what has been envisioned and explained here. And if so, take heed! That is a significant lesson to learn.

Shepherds of the Congregation

Church elders display a Christ-signifying instrumentality. They do this as they exercise the agency of undershepherds over their congregations as they were and are exhorted by the Apostles Peter and Paul in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20 respectively.

I exhort the elders who are in you—I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One and a partaker of the glory to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God in you—exercising oversight—not reluctantly but resolutely, not for shameful profit but ferociously, not as those lording over their portion of the inheritance but being exemplary specimens to the flock. And at the appearing of the Chief Shepherd, you will receive the imperishable victor’s laurels of glory.

– 1 Peter 5:1-4 (my translation)

The Apostle Peter is writing to the elders who are in the congregations. The Apostle asserts that he is a fellow elder with them, a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah), and a partaker in the glory to be revealed at the Second Coming of our Lord to consummate his kingdom in its fullness.

As an apostle (a “sent one” or authorized ambassador) of Christ the King, Peter issues this kingdom directive or summons (exhortation) to the elders of the churches. The office of the apostle is another case of representing or signifying the person and office of Christ. In this function, it is the authoritative capacity of speaking for Christ to the nations. This office draws on the image of political ambassadors of state sent to embassies in foreign nations. This is essentially the same concept and office applied to the Kingdom of Christ.

This passage is thick with the language of sheepherding. For instance, there are several occurrences of terms in the Greek word family [poim–]. The precise noun for shepherd [poimēn] is not used in this passage, but it clearly implies elders are synonymous with pastors or shepherds, which is literally the same office. Pastor (herdsman) and pasture (grassy field) are related words from the Latin verb for grazing [pascere]. Elders are to feed and tend or shepherd [poimainō] the congregation or flock [poimnion] of God. The word for flock is a variation of the word for a flock of sheep [poimnē] and appears to have been coined to refer to a group of people with purposefully sheep-like connotations. At the close of the exhortation, Jesus is alluded to as the Chief Shepherd or Arch-Shepherd [archipoimēn] using a compound term with the root for a shepherd [poimēn]. Yet again, this implicates the elders in these churches as assistant shepherds or undershepherds.

Peter knows this role of shepherding well. After his resurrection from the dead, the Lord told his apostle, “If you love me, shepherd my sheep.” The Apostle John translated and recorded the words of our Lord using the same Greek verb [poimainō] used by Peter. The Lord’s Ambassador, as a church elder, extends the calling to shepherding out of a love for Christ on these men who are his fellow elders over the congregation of God.

The work of shepherding God’s people has deep roots in the time of the Old Covenant. It was an easily accessible metaphor for the Israelites as an agrarian nation settled in the Promised Land and as the descendants of the Patriarchs who were sojourning shepherds. After forty years as a prince in Pharaoh’s court and another forty years as a shepherd in Jethro’s camp, Moses was prepared to lead the congregation of liberated Hebrew slaves—so prone to wander! The young shepherd boy was anointed king over God’s people, and the nation of Israel confessed David to be the one of whom Yahweh had declared: “You will shepherd my people Israel and will be ruler over Israel.” And shepherding language was a standard metaphor in the writings of the prophets for the priests and the judges in Israel, often regarding their unfaithfulness to tend God’s people and their selfish devouring of the flock for their own gain. This shepherding legacy serves as the background to Peter’s exhortation to the elders. Conversely, elders as leaders of the people also has an extensive background under the Old Covenant reaching back just as far and wide. The key element in the analogy of the shepherd is rulership.

The passage from 1 Peter also uses the verb for watching like watchmen. This notion also has strong connotations with shepherding in ancient Israel due to its associations with the responsibilities of the priests and the judges as the rulers and guides of God’s people. Prophets are likewise called watchmen in Israel—perhaps the most famous being Ezekiel—on account of their responsibility to be attentive, discern impending trouble, and sound the alarm. According to the Apostle Peter, church elders are to exercise oversight or watch over [episkopeō] their congregations. This verb belongs to the same Greek word family as the noun for the office of the overseer or bishop [episkopos]. Elders are the watchmen of the church under their care. Such watching or oversight involves diligent and competent contemplation and thorough inspection to mark out the kinds or qualities of persons, things, or actions under observation.

In 1 Peter 5, elders (old men), pastors (shepherds), and bishops (overseers) all appear to occupy the same functional office within the churches, at least with respect to their rule over congregations and care of congregants. Earlier in 1 Peter 2:25, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Shepherd and Overseer. If there is any firm distinction or difference between the three named offices, it is not apparent in the biblical text.

The Apostle Paul exhorted the church elders at Ephesus to the labor of shepherding in a similar manner to the Apostle Peter. That exhortation is a second witness to establish the truth of this matter:

Take heed for yourselves and all the congregation [poimnion] of God in which the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers [episkopos] to shepherd [poimainō] the assembly [ekklesia, i.e. church] of God which he obtained (1) through his own blood (2).

(1) or preserved
(2) or through the blood of his Own, i.e. Christ

– Acts 20:28 (my translation)

Without belaboring the point, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian church elders to labor as shepherds and watchmen over the congregation, mirroring the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to the church elders elsewhere in Asia Minor. These two Ambassadors of Christ demonstrate consistent policy directives for all churches as embassies of the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of this imagery should evoke the thought of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which preceded the exhortations of the Apostles and which culminated the shepherding legacy of the people of God under the Old Covenant. Elders are being distinguished as undershepherds over the flock of God. When the sheep (congregants) in the flock look at the elders, they see undershepherds rather than oversheep. Elders typify or represent the Chief Shepherd. They serve the Chief Shepherd, and they are authorized and appointed to do their shepherding under the authority of the Arch-Shepherd. Elders are distinguished from the flock and associated with the Shepherd by their function (office) in the eyes of the flock. This establishes elders as functioning representations of Christ as they labor with him shepherding and overseeing congregations. Even if elders are sheep in their own right in Christ’s eyes and likewise in need of Christ’s shepherding, our Lord has set up these men in such a way so the flock does not look on their office as that of a fellow sheep but as an undershepherd who authoritatively models the Chief Shepherd.

The domain or union language employed by the Apostle Peter is also provocative. Elders are verbally distinguished and said to be “in” their flocks, and the flocks are said to be “in” their elders. That echoes the language of all the believing ones being in Christ and Christ being in all those who believe. It’s also like Jesus saying his disciples are in him, and he is in them, as he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and so forth. To speak of elders and their flocks in this way puts them in a juxtaposed relationship, which once again distinguishes them in their office from the congregation and lends itself to Christ-like functional representation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There are a number of descriptions used by Peter to illustrate the agency of elders in their shepherding. The elders must not shepherd reluctantly [anagkastōs]. The word indicates constraint or compulsion by external agents pressing hard upon the will of the elders. It connotes characteristic hesitation or passive submission. It is not the elders who should seemingly be ruled by congregants who lead them around like sheep nor be goaded into compliance. By contrast, elders should conduct their shepherding resolutely [hekousiōs]. The word indicates firm assertiveness and strength of will, even presumptuousness or defiance.

The elders must not shepherd for shameful profit [aischrokerdōs]. The word indicates any sort of dishonorable or disreputable advantage or gain from the position. Occupying the office of an elder should not elevate or empower a man into a lifestyle of comfortable ease and lavish privilege. By contrast, elders must shepherd the flock ferociously [prothymōs]. The word indicates an eager readiness arising from a focused indignation or harnessed fury. There is a masterfully honed spiritedness or fieriness in the elder serving as a well-regulated furnace at the heart of his work to withstand and carry him through the rigors of the calling.

Elders must not shepherd by lording over [katakyrieuō] their portion of the inheritance [klēros], which appears to refer to the local congregations they oversee. Elders are not to exercise the sort of lordship used by earthly lords who oppress their subjects for the sake of their own privilege or advancement. Instead, elders are to shepherd as exemplary specimens [typos]. The undershepherds stand out as types, examples, patterns, models, or representations. They are to exemplify and represent the dutiful and humble servant-lordship of Christ rather than the lordship of earthly rulers. Elders exhort the flock in word and deed like the Apostle Paul did: “Become imitators of me according to the way I imitate Christ.” Elders are to exercise true lordship over the flock in suffering and self-effacing servitude in their rule which fosters security and loyalty in the congregants who submits to them.

At the glorious appearing, Christ will come again on the Last Day to judge the world in righteousness. At that time, an elder who has shepherded his flock faithfully will receive his champion’s crown or his victor’s laurels [stephanos] of glory. A crown of glory which will be imperishable or indefectible. Peter uses the imagery of a champion runner who outperforms his competition, wins the contest, and receives the garland (wreath crown). But the glorious crown of the faithful elder is made of branches and flowers which do not wither but proclaim his faithful efforts forever. Peter also draws on the imagery of the glorious laurels crowning the victorious commanders of armies as they parade through the city streets, returning triumphant from battle. Elders will receive glorious everlasting recognition from Christ for labors well done.

The elders of the church must contend in their work in the service of Christ, because it is contentious work to shepherd the flock of God, to keep the wolves of the world at bay, and to oppose the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. As undershepherds, they cannot act as mere hired hands with questionable commitment to the integrity of the flock, who withdraw and distance themselves at the first sign of trouble. Elders must lay down their lives for the life of the church. Such is the way of good shepherds as representations of the Good Shepherd.

Called to Gratitude

I’m glad there’s a national holiday that forces me to contemplate my desperate need for an attitude of gratitude for a whole month in advance of it. I do so adore the sights and smells of a Thanksgiving meal spread out on the dining room table. Or at least I love my anticipatory mental aggrandizement of it. A delectable feast ready to serve ten or twenty people with remorseful satiety to follow. But the ethos of a solemn call to thankfulness fills me (and haunts me) more than the food.

Often, I feel like I’m a deeply unthankful man. My ingratitude astounds me in the quiet times when I’m seeking to give thanks to God. My thanks are an empty cistern before I start pouring out a long list of my needs and the needs of others. During bouts of despair, the fog of thanklessness in my heart is even worse! Still, I recognize this. And I recognize it’s God’s mercy and kindness to enable me to see how twisted it is and to be unsettled about it. Confessing that our ingratitude is loathsome is the first and most crucial step to giving thanks with a grateful heart.

There was a chalkboard in an old youth room at church. This month it asks: What are you thankful to God for? The other week I wrote on it: For fortitude and integrity when I can’t find anything else to be thankful for.

That’s a little lesson stuck in my head since my college days:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

– Romans 1:18-21

I saw what had become of humanity in this passage, and I heard the warning to take to heart: the journey to suppressing the truth in unrighteousness and reviling God begins with thanklessness. This passage rises up in my mind every single time someone urges or exhorts me to be thankful. I think it’s a blessing to be haunted by such a thought.

In a previous men’s small-group Bible study, we talked about the inability of rules and regulations to prevent our indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:23). I asked, “What can stop us from indulging our flesh if none of these thing can stop us?” A friend answered, “Gratitude.” Amen. There’s that classic Heidelberg catechetical structure straight from the lips of my Dutch Reformed homeboy: Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.

Thankfulness protects us from futility of the mind and foolishness of the heart, and it fuels our motivation for joy and good works. I can’t think of anything else that does.

My brothers in Christ, hear the Apostle Paul’s loving exhortation:

Rejoice always,
Pray without ceasing,
In everything give thanks;
For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

We spend much of our lives struggling to know what the will of God is for us. There are a few simple things we blessedly know for certain that God wants from us and for us, and this is one of them: our perpetual thanksgiving to him. Amen.

Let us pray and offer our thanks to the Lord for all that he has given us.

Generous Lord, we give you thanks for all of the blessings you have bestowed on us. We give you thanks for health and provision. We give you thanks for endurance and contentment in the face of illness and lack. We give you thanks for the love of friends and family. We give you thanks for peace and comfort in the midst of strife, sorrows, and losses. We give you thanks for our abundance and delight in life. And we give you thanks for discipline and character that you form in us through hardships, miseries, and obligations we owe to our debt of love.

Your hand, O Lord, has appointed all these things;
We receive them with gladness and submission.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
For his steadfast love endures forever!

A Respectable and Courageous Bird

Benjamin Franklin didn’t actually suggest that the turkey should be the bird depicted on the Great Seal of the United States of America. But he took a little comfort that the eagle on the seal looked like a turkey. Writing to his daughter, Franklin lectures about the shady ethical character of the eagle:

For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk. And when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case, but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: the little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America [1] who have driven all the king birds from our country …

I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For the truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America … He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

(edited to conform to contemporary American grammar and diction)

As if commenting on the Book of Leviticus, Franklin’s sentiment is one of animalian moralizing worthy of the Epistle of Barnabas:

Neither shalt thou eat eagle nor falcon nor kite nor crow. Thou shalt not, he saith, cleave unto, or be likened to, such men who know not how to provide food for themselves by toil and sweat, but in their lawlessness seize what belongeth to others, and as if they were walking in guilelessness watch and search about for someone to rob in their rapacity, just as these birds alone do not provide food for themselves, but sit idle and seek how they may eat the meat that belongeth to others, being pestilent in their evil-doings.

– Epistle of Barnabas 10:4

I’m with Ben Franklin when he later actually suggested the rattlesnake was the proper animal to depict the “temper and conduct of America” (or at least what the temper and conduct of America should be). However, these days, the stereotype of the turkey does seem rather apropos some of the time. :-p

Endnotes:

[1] The “brave and honest Cincinnati of America” was a newly formed society of the officers of the American War for Independence at that time.

War Horse Begets Unicorn Colt

We’re at a cultural moment in the American Church where we have staunchly conservative Christians at loggerheads with an adolescent Gay Christian movement. And that conflict extends to conservative criticism of the way in which the subset of celibate gay Christians (who hold to traditional biblical sexual ethics) are even allowed to express themselves and have a cultural conversation.

Here’s slightly tweaked thread from Twitter on how we got here.

Much of the driving force behind the dynamics and conversation being where they are now on this subject and phenomenon is the sad history of callousness and a fearful and presumptive “project management” approach (if not outright hatred) on the part of the conservative church.

Real individuals—sons and daughters of the Faith who’ve been baptized and raised to love Jesus—did and still do enter their adolescence and discover things about themselves in a church climate that signals to them in no uncertain terms they’re the very embodiment of shame and had better keep silent.

The conservative church has fostered a climate that tells its own children they have more solidarity with those who bear the weight of their particular sexuality than they do with those who bear the weight of the same confession of faith and way of life set apart from this present world.

The conservative church has offered a new life hidden in the closet, empty promises of conversion therapy amounting to a prosperity gospel of sexual transformation, and has failed to create a vision for a plausible life of obedience on a long rough road of uneven, incomplete, yet real sanctification.

The conservative church has failed to create a platform where this conversation could’ve happened under our own roof with our own participation as the whole body of believers with all members contributing. Instead our children resort to conferences just to know they’re not alone.

The conservative church has failed to provide a climate that says, “You’re one of ours, and we won’t give up on providing you with all the encouragement, compassion, nurture, and admonition you need.” She’s failed to create an atmosphere where anyone would actually want to ask for help.

This isn’t the case everywhere in the conservative church. But it’s a pervasive reality. And I know from experience. There’s been great help to be had. And there’s been great neglect and injury as well. But by and large, it’s been a lot of us on our own figuring this stuff out for ourselves and teaching our helpers how to helps us.

The conservative church is absolutely where I call home and want to be for a lot of good reasons. But she sure makes it hard to feel welcome sometimes.