First Things

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Michael Maturen is a Catholic writer, a businessman, a grassroots political activist, a former evangelical Anglican priest and a professional magician.

Seeking the presidency of the United States may not have been the next logical move for this self-proclaimed "nobody" from the tiny town of Harrisville, on Lake Huron in Northeast Michigan.

"I'm a magician, I sell cars and I'm running for president," said Maturen, laughing. "I am not delusional. People in the American Solidarity Party don't think we can win the presidency. Our goal is to promote the ideas behind our party and the idea that it's time to change our political system. … Two parties are not enough when you look at the reality of modern America."

This would have been more obvious if the party's founders had kept its original name, as in the Christian Democracy Party-USA. That would have linked it to major political parties -- primarily in Europe and Latin America -- with the "Christian Democrat" label.

Maturen said the name was changed because, while the party is built on Catholic social teachings, America has become such a diverse culture. The new name does offer a nod to Saint Pope John Paul II and Poland's Solidarity movement.

"Lot's of people are pretty disgusted with where we are in America," said Maturen. "What changed my own thinking was the ugliness of this election cycle. As a simple matter of ethics, I knew that I couldn't support Donald Trump and, since I am pro-life, I knew I couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton."

Ancient sacraments vs. paperwork for the modern state

Father Patrick Henry Reardon's note to his flock at All Saints Orthodox Church was short and simple -- yet a sign of how complicated life is becoming for traditional religious believers.

"Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor's office, has now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago," he wrote, in the parish newsletter.

The key words were "or signed." The veteran priest was convinced that he faced a collision between an ancient sacrament and new political realities that define a civil contract. Reardon said he wasn't trying to "put my people in a tough spot," but to note that believers now face complications when they get married -- period.

The question priests must ask, when signing marriage licenses, is "whether or not you're acting on behalf of the state when you perform that rite. It's clear as hell to me that this is what a priest is doing," said Reardon, reached by telephone.

"Lay people don't face the sacramental question like a priest. They are trying to obtain the same civil contract and benefits as anyone else and they have to get that from the state. It's two different moral questions."

This is a timely question, as the U.S. Supreme Court nears a crossroads on same-sex marriage.

Goodbye to a radical Baptist patriarch

The old Southern preacher had walked through many airport security gates using his cherry-wood cane and was surprised -- especially years before 9/11 -- when a guard ordered him to send it through the X-ray scanner. After that rite, the Rev. Will Campbell asked the guard to bring him the cane. The guard, somewhat miffed, asked if he could walk through the scanner without it. The preacher, somewhat vexed, said that was a question for his doctor.

Facing a nervous crowd, the guard ordered Campbell to walk through the gate. So the famous civil-rights activist -- the only white leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited to the first Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting -- got down on the floor and crawled through. Then he retrieved his cane.

Campbell admitted, when telling this parable to Baptist progressives in 1994, that he then gave the cane a "sassy little twirl." His wife asked: "Why do you do things like that?"

"Because, I'm a Baptist! I come from a long line of hell-raisers," said Campbell. "I was taught that I wasn't a robot -- that I was a human being with a mind, capable of reason, entitled to read any book, including the Bible, and interpret it according to the ability of the mind I was given. That's why I do things like that."

The key, he said, is to ask what happened to all the Baptists who kept clashing with authority figures in the past. Where are the Baptists who were willing to be "tied on ladders and pushed into burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience," who "were so opposed to the death penalty they wouldn't serve on juries" and who "would not go to war, any war, for church or state? ... Where are they now?"

Campbell, he died last month at the age of 88, was a complex activist and writer who made lots of people mad for lots of reasons. Raised in rural Mississippi, he thrived at Yale Divinity School and failed as a small-town pastor. He accompanied the Freedom Riders in 1961 and marched in Birmingham in 1963. He tried to avoid reporters, but was tight with country-music rebels like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He opposed both abortion and the death penalty and, late in life, backed gay rights.

The self-proclaimed "bootleg Baptist" spent his life preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, yet also called religious conservatives "ecclesiastical highwaymen" who were "espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy." Pushed to summarize his theology he stated: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

"Will was fond of saying that if you are going to love one then you have to love everyone. ... This meant rednecks as well as radicals," wrote the Rev. Timothy George, for the conservative "First Things" journal. He is the dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a former member of Campbell's Committee of Southern Churchmen.

Campbell "infuriated many," George added, "when he befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and even visited James Earl Ray in prison. Campbell wrote: 'I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.'

"The fact is Will Campbell was simply sui generis. He cannot be comfortably squeezed into anyone's box."

In the end, the only box Campbell accepted was a Baptist box that fit his own iconoclastic specifications -- rejecting all creeds, traditions and hierarchies.

"Institutions, by their very definition, are evil," he said, in that 1994 address. "Their raison-d'etre is always and inevitably self-survival. They, all of them, when they are threatened will go to any length, tell any lie, engage in any program to protect themselves. And justify it as being in defense of Almighty God."

For Baptists to be true Baptists, he said, it's crucial for them to teach that Jesus never "demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever."