Thanks Be To God

Thanksgiving Day in the United States is not normally thought of as a religious holiday.  It isn’t on any official church calendars, and it is not associated with any specific scriptural events.  Nevertheless, the spiritual connection is clear. To whom do we direct our thanks?  The recipient is Almighty God, of course.

There have been quite a few special days of prayer and thanksgiving that have been declared by various political leaders in the history of our nation.  As every school child knows, the first one was celebrated in New England by the settlers of the Plymouth Colony.  There followed other officially declared days of thanksgiving, sometimes in the summer months instead of autumn.  The first national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed on Thursday, November 28, 1782 by the United States Continental Congress.

Later, on October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation that began as follows:

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’ Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Other presidents also declared special days of thanks occasionally after that.  Then in 1863, in the midst of civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November in appreciation of “the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”  Each president subsequent to Lincoln annually declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day, up until 1939.  That year there were five Thursdays in November, and President Roosevelt declared the fourth (not the last) one to be Thanksgiving.  Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving back a week to expand the shopping season.  Since then it was only a matter of time until football, eating and shopping managed to push most of the Thanks out of Thanksgiving.  In fact, people these days often refer to the holiday only as Turkey Day.

I hope that this year all of us can be more mindful of the original intentions for our national day of thanksgiving.  Thanks be to God.  Have a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

[See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)].

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Shopping for God

While I was browsing the religion shelves in our local library, the “Shopping for God” title caught my eye.  But I was even more intrigued when I noticed the book’s subtitle, “How Christianity Went from in Your Heart to In Your Face.”  So of course I checked it out and brought it home to read.

It turned out that the real theme of the book has to do with marketing, and how commerce has come to dominate almost everything in our country — even our religious lives.  The spiritual lessons here are secondary.  Nevertheless, there is much food for thought as the author skillfully analyzes how religion is marketed and advertised much like any other product or service.

I will leave you with one quote from the book.  Richard Halverson, former Chaplain of the US Senate, said:  “In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ.  Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution.  Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture.  And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

If we take an open-minded look around us, we must agree that much of “churchianity” today is market driven.  We can buy almost any consumer product that is branded and advertised as Christian in some way.  Our churches compete for our attendance as well as our tithes and offerings.  I have said many times in the past that Christianity today would be vastly different if there weren’t so many people and businesses that derive their entire livelihoods from it.

“Shopping for God” served as a good reminder to me to remain focused on my relationship with God and with others, and to be ever vigilant regarding the intrusion of religious enterprise into my spiritual life.

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

I have been writing mostly about the major events and changes in Christian doctrine and practice over the centuries.  However, there have been significant changes in just the past couple of generations.  Thomas E. Bergler has captured one aspect of these changes in a well-written article for Christianity Today magazine entitled When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity.

I recommend that you read the entire article, which is available at:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/june/when-are-we-going-to-grow-up.html?start=1

Here are some quotes from the article that summarize the main points:

“Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults.”

“Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.”

“We need to ditch the false belief that cultural forms are neutral. Every enculturation of Christianity highlights some elements of the faith and obscures others.”

This last quote ties us back to the history of Christianity across the ages.  Each cultural group has put its own stamp on Christian expression,  resulting in significant diversity of doctrine and practice.

Freedom of Religion

On this Memorial Day we are reminded once again of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that our nation can remain free.  We thank God for those fallen warriors, and for the freedoms that we enjoy today because of them.  Among those freedoms is our cherished freedom of religion, which has a unique history here in America.

For most of human history, one’s religion was determined by where one lived.  Each region had its associated religion.  Social pressures often combined with the power of the state to influence the citizens not to stray to other faiths.  This pattern of religious exclusivity ultimately extended to differences in Christian beliefs as well, giving rise to the split-off of various branches of Christianity and the resultant conflicts between them.  Until relatively recent times there was no concept of “Freedom of Religion” or of the “Separation of Church and State”.

The colonists came to America for many reasons, including issues of religion.  However, most colonists carried with them the old world concept that only one religion could be allowed in one place.  Church and State were not separate in their minds.  And “Church” meant their particular Christian denomination.  Other religions, including other Christian denominations, were often not welcome.

In most of the colonies Church and State were united, and only that form of Christianity which was united with the State was permitted.  For example, only Congregational churches were allowed for a long time in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Some Baptists attempted to settle in Massachusetts, but they were not permitted to settle there.  Rhode Island was home to the Baptists at first, but later it became the first colony to have a complete separation of Church and State — a novel concept at that time.

The Catholics founded Maryland, and the Quakers started Pennsylvania.  Other colonies were pretty much exclusive to the Presbyterians, Swedish Lutherans, or others.  The southern colonies, including Virginia, started as Episcopalian.  However, by the time of the Revolutionary War the Virginia Bill of Rights said that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other”.

Eventually the US constitution was written to include “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thank God for our Freedom of Religion.  God Bless America!

Modern Christianity

My previous post made mention of modern and post-modern Christianity.  Those are terms for theological and doctrinal trends over the past couple of centuries, and they can be weighty topics indeed.  But my subject today is about a different kind of modernity.  Have you noticed how churches and other Christian organizations have embraced many of the most recent technologies and social trends?

I suppose that the wide range of contemporary Christian music is a prime example of modernized Christian experience. The instruments, sound systems and multimedia features in our churches are right up to date with the contemporary secular music scene.  We see modern communication technologies everywhere as well.  Our churches all have web sites and email newsletters, and many of us can follow what our pastors are doing by following their Twitter feeds and reading their Facebook pages.

Churches and Christian organizations have been taking advantage of technological advances ever since Gutenberg printed the Bible on a movable-type printing press.  I am a techie type myself, and my reaction to church adoption of modern capabilities is generally positive.  However, I ran across an example last week that I am just not so sure about.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the games that Facebook users play.  I will admit to playing some myself.  But I was just introduced to Journey of Jesus: The Calling.  The promo says that this is a fun adventure where you play a major part in the Gospel story.  So of course I had to try it. It is pretty simplistic as a game, and pretty simplistic in its presentation of the story of Jesus.  The underlying motive of the game is obviously evangelism; the game is complete with a tab that takes you to the four spiritual laws.  So is this a great new outreach tool based on the latest technology and social media?  Or is it an offensive dumbing down of Christian faith and message that will only confuse people and cast Christianity as just another of life’s games?

You can try this game yourself if you have a Facebook account.  It is at http://apps.facebook.com/journeyofjesus/.  I would really like to hear what you think of it.