Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent and Apathy: What Millenials May Be Waiting for This December

They say 95 percent of the world's oceans have yet to be explored. They remain mysterious and uncharted waters inhabited by the unknown.

You could say we mostly have a surface level understanding of aquatic life. We can make guesses and develop hypotheses, but in order to make new discoveries marine biologists must dive deeper.

Their real challenge is to plunge into the darkness of the 95 percent and remain open to the mystery before them. If researchers want to enhance their work, they must be willing to risk going places others have either previously hesitated or failed to explore.

But these waters are dark and mysterious, able to challenge most of what has been considered sure and certain for so long. It is far easier to cling to the five percent up top, where we have more of a history and control.

This past Monday at Lutheran Theological Seminary, theologian Andrew Root posited some rather poignant observations about the slow currants of younger generations in the church. Root suggested the demographic between ages 18-35 don't hate the church. "They can't," Root said. "You can't hate something you aren't connected to or involved in." Instead of the misconception that younger generations hate the church, Root exposed a much more challenging response: apathy.

Why such pervasive apathy?

The church* has demonstrated an unwillingness to swim in the same waters as millenials. Religious communities have hesitated to dive into the depths of curiosity and wonder that make up the lived experiences and raw questions of younger generations. In a sense, Root suggested the church and related preaching, teaching, and ministry programs, have copped out and merely hovered on the surface while generations continue to come and go, longing for a community to explore the complex mysteries and issues of the day.

The church has not adjusted the religious rhetoric or fostered environments where millenials can wrestle with God and find solidarity as they ponder...

....questions of faith and an suspicion about absolutes.

...ambiguities and insecurities related to identity and self-worth.

...inclusion of LGBTQ persons and others who frequently feel unheard and devalued.

...fresh takes on old biblical stories and Christian theology aimed at a way of being versus thinking.

...interfaith dialogue and a religiously plural world.

...angst about long-term commitments and intimacy.

...a nation and world far too eager to wage war and expecting citizens to pay for it.

...increased pressures forced upon us by consumer culture.

...pervasive racism underscored by the deaths of and responses to Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

...unjust systems that protect the rich and powerful at the expense of minority groups and those on the margins of our communities.

...a financial future that will never again look like it did for generations right before us.

This begs the question, will the church snorkel in shallow waters of the five percent while millenials suit up in SCUBA gear and plunge into the darker and deeper waters of the 95 percent yet to be defined?

It's time for the church to join the youthful crowd, maybe even follow their lead, as they push us further. After all, they don't hate us. Actually, studies suggest they'd appreciate our company.

Advent is a popular time for millenials to show up at church. Despite misconceptions, many young people like the liturgy of seasons like Advent and Christmas. The challenge for the church, are we narrating the Jesus story in such a way that makes space for their honest questions and demonstrates we are wrestling with God in the same ways they are?

Karl Barth once wrote, "In the crib of Bethlehem and at the cross of Golgotha the event takes place in which God gives Himself to them to be known and and in which they know God."**

The God we proclaim at both Christmas and Easter, times when more than just millenials return to church, must be celebrated as One who entered as a child into the dark waters of real history. Our real obligation as communities of faith is to proclaim Immanuel as the One unafraid of a deep and mysterious world of pain, suffering, complexity, and various manifestations of despair and death.

We must make space for questions this time of year, too.

And many are waiting this Advent for exactly that. In light of the pressing issues of racism and unjust political systems, imbalanced economics, increased pressures of consumer culture, an increasingly violent world, uncertainties about financial futures and mounting debt, concerns about local and global poverty, and ever-shifting self-understandings and individualized identities- Advent is a chance not only to proclaim, but also embody all we believe to be true about who God is and where God may be calling us next. We echo the grace of a God who is as concerned about the mysteries and darkness of first-century Bethlehem as those of today's Ferguson, Coatesville, West Chester, Liberia, Honduras, and Washington, D.C..

Advent is a chance to validate the musings of younger generations who may be walking in the church doors once again or for the first time after prolonged seasons of apathy and avoidance.

Advent is when we dare to suggest the church is eager to hang out with younger generations in the deep waters of their lived experiences, unafraid of uncertainty and ambiguity, darkness and mystery.

Maybe then they will come back after the holidays.

I pray they do. The church needs them.


*When I say the "church" I am speaking mostly about the Main Line Protestant church I call my tradition and context.

**See Church Dogmatics Volume II.1



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

St. Nicholas Would Sandal Slap Santa: Ancient Bishop as Advocate for Children, Victims of Human Trafficking, and Wrongly Accused on Death Row

There's a legend about St. Nicholas that many fanatics of Early Christians desperately want to be true.

The story goes that Nicholas and Arius were among many at the Council of Nicaea in the midst of a heated theological debate about the nature of God. That's when Nicholas grabbed a brick, lifted it up, and declared that as the brick was one substance in three parts, i.e. earth, fire, and water, so also was God one substance (homoousios) made up of three parts. Father. Son. Holy Spirit. The brick then burst into flames, vanished from their site, and left only water to drip from Nicholas' hands and onto the floor.

Arius, on the other hand, was a gifted orator* and began to spit rhymes about how Jesus was not fully divine. Christ was actually not of the same substance as God the Father but had a created beginning. I like to think that after his rhythmic rhetoric, Arius dropped his mic, shook the dust from his shoulders, winked at his counterparts, and stepped aside in challenge.

St. Nicholas wanted nothing to do with this blasphemous, albeit popular and catchy, theological beat. So the Bishop of Myra stood up, took off his crusty sandal, and slapped the would-be heretic across the face.

That's right, St. Nick sandal slapped his theological opponent. So much for being jolly.

It's not known whether St. Nicholas was even at the Council of Nicaea and unlikely that his nemesis Arius was even invited, as he was not a bishop and would have had to send representation. Still, the story gives hints and guesses to the pure passion of the man who would be morphed into a Coca-Cola ad campaign of the 1930's and the foundation for consumer-driven Christmas, long lists that keep places like Macy's, Walmart, and in business, and the parental threat that runs a muck this time of year- better be good, Santa's watching.

Needless to say, anytime I pass by a makeshift North Pole in a shopping mall I pause and think, would St. Nicholas sandal slap the bearded icon and all nine of his reindeer? I wonder if Nicholas would do the same to Santa Claus as he supposedly did to Arius, counting Claus as some sort of blasphemous and offensive distortion of who he was and all he aspired to be as a disciple of Jesus and leader in Christ's church.

Sure, there is much to like about Santa. Maybe the old fella encourages the imaginations of children and playful generosity of parents. It's possible that Santa is a fun folklore to hand down to each generation, fostering a spirit of mystery and anticipation common to the season.

It's also possible that Santa has overshadowed the more brilliant stories that were told for generations before soda companies and capitalism got hold of him.

Stories like the time when St. Nicholas rescued three women about to be sold by their father into an ancient human trafficking ring.

The family had run out of money and found themselves uncertain about how to live another day. The only option the father felt he had was to sell off his young girls into prostitution. Bishop Nicholas got word and on two separate occasions anonymously tossed bags of money into an open window. The money, which came from Nicholas' inheritance, was enough to pay the dowry needed to be wed and prevent them from captivity and the horrors of prostitution.

But there was still one more daughter. And the father was determined to find out the identity of this mysterious donor. As the father camped out on the roof of his home he saw Nicholas dropping a bag of money down their chimney and into a sock hung out to dry.




Anyway, caught red-handed, Nicholas made the man promise to protect his identity and refrain from revealing who had provided such elaborate funds. Thus the beginning of the mystery behind the man with a beard and red mitre.

Yet the story was too good not to be told. The prophetic and radical generosity of those who benefited from and followed behind the secret graces of Nicholas even birthed new legends.

There's the story of those wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to death by beheading. Just as the sword was about to come down, Nicholas intervened, seized the downward thrusting sword in his calloused hand, halted their execution, and played a pivotal role in accusations being expunged.

There's the tale of two parents whose enslaved child was lifted by his hair out of the courts of an oppressive ruler and returned to his mother and father by the spirit of the deceased Saint Nicholas.

It can be said that Nicholas was one of the earliest advocates of victims of child labor and slavery, human trafficking, and those wrongly accused who sit on death row.

A far cry from what has become to be known as Santa Claus.

As we approach December 6th and the Feast of St. Nicholas, may we pay homage to the faithful witness and man behind the myth. May we tell our children these sacred stories of justice, advocacy, intervention, concern for the poor, and desire to give mysteriously more than receive abundantly.

Maybe then we will begin to tap into the true Spirit of Christmas, which neither involves sandal slapping our theological opponents nor trampling those in front of us in the lines at your local retail store.

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas.

*"Arius' views were all the more popular because he combined an eloquent preaching style with a flair for public relations. In the opening stages of the conflict, he put ideas into jingles, which set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city" (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language 100-101).

See Pete Enns Post, St. Nicholas: What Can I Say, He Was a Beast

The Man Who Would Be Santa Claus by Adam C. English