Wednesday, December 27, 2006

leave me hanging

We're back from Pittsburgh. It was good to see family, and the trip went largely without incident, but I can't say I'm entirely happy with my experience of the holiday. I knew, of course, that I wouldn't be attending an Orthodox service throughout. I also knew that I was planning to be lenient with fasting. We haven't discussed Orthodoxy with my aunt & uncle or grandfather, and we did not plan to do so on this visit. (They're very loosely Christian--at least, that would be their professed affiliation, but none of them attends church with any regularity or exhibits much personal devotion.) I knew it would be difficult to explain my fasting to them, and since we were there to observe the holiday, I figured I would just go along with whatever happened. If I had the opportunity, I would fast to one degree or another. So, for instance, Friday morning I ate dry toast for breakfast. Most other meals, we all ate together, and there was little opportunity to avoid meat or dairy, at least not without drawing attention to the fact. I tried to watch how much I ate, but that was about the extent of it. Since my grandfather was there only on Saturday, we ate our Christmas dinner then and exchanged gifts. Essentially, that was the holiday in our observance this year, so I considered it the formal end of my Nativity Fast.

It was disappointing that the holiday itself got lost in the shuffle. By that point, we were on our second day of leftovers. Ian opened his stocking stuffers in the morning. Otherwise, we just hung around and watched TV throughout the morning. In the afternoon, Julie and I caught a movie. Ian didn't get much of a nap and freaked out at bedtime. He was way too goofy and wouldn't cooperate when we told him to undress. I ended up forcing him into his pajamas, which then created a new battle of wills, as he wanted to undo everything and do it himself. Too late for that. Finally, Mommy left the room, which gave him something new to lament. He was still pretty torn up when I finally got him to quiet down and prayed over him. He went to sleep after that and seemed better in the morning. It was time to go home, though, and get things back to normal. ("Normal"--on top of her morning sickness, which has been running pretty much 24/7, Julie came down with a cold on Christmas that only got worse yesterday--I still don't know how she managed to catch it, since no one else in the house was sick.)

At least we did get to a Christmas Eve service of some type. My aunt, who at times has gone to church with more regularity, wanted to go somewhere for Christmas. Originally, she wanted to check out a big, new church that was just built around the corner from them, but when she sent us the URL for their Web site I discovered that they were charismatic. There's a section that explains stuff you'll see in the service--speaking in tongues, falling to the ground, etc. She didn't want to go there after we mentioned it, but she found another church not too far away. It's very much in the same tradition as Bethany, where we've attended since our second year in MD. The singing is led by a praise band, the preaching is topical, oriented toward the lifestyle of white-collar, white-bread Americans; they're big on visual aids, but utterly iconoclastic--this one didn't even have a cross on the wall. They had decorated the auditorium for Christmas--or at least for winter holidays. There was fake snow all over the place, a bunch of evergreen trees with lights, and a big snowman front-and-center-stage. Off in the corner, there was a tiny manger scene--a vestige of some distant, less aural tradition, for which I should be thankful. The singing was a mixture of popular praise songs and traditional Christmas carols.

The sermon was a fairly standard evangelistic message. (Any good, Evangelical Christmas Eve service should target the heathens who show up on this day and no other.) I don't want to sound too cynical here. I really do think, in general, that God uses Evangelical Christianity in important ways. More specifically, the service seems to have had a positive impact on my aunt, and when the invitation was given at the end, the pastor indicated that several people had raised their hands. (For those unfamiliar with the format, it's typical of much Evangelical preaching to end with an invitation where everyone is told to bow their heads and close their eyes, not just to show reverence, but for privacy. The preacher leads a "sinner's prayer" and asks those who prayed along for the first time to raise their hands. This is the kinder, gentler approach that has widely replaced the old "altar call," where those making first-time professions are supposed to come forward. Some churches do both--raising the hands first, then an optional altar call for those brave enough to come. It's common practice for the preacher to acknowledge the hands that are raised, which signals to the individual that they can put their hand back down and also registers for the rest of the group how much positive response there was.)

When I was in college, I used to work in evangelistic outreach--talking to people on the street and going door-to-door. The philosophy is that, while it may not be the ideal way to do evangelism, it may reach some people who otherwise would never hear the gospel. It's an accepted fact that few will respond and even fewer will make a genuine, lasting commitment. Measures are taken to follow up, but there's a lot of disappointment. There are some parallels with evangelistic preaching. The audience is presumably more disposed to listen (since they came in the first place), but there is still a strong tendency for people to respond in the emotion of the moment but never really show any lasting commitment. I say this not to downplay the possibility that some real life change began that night, but even many Evangelical churches accept that such momentary decisions might not be real. For this reason (and others), some churches almost never give a public invitation (even the "raise your hand" kind). They might extend the opportunity for people to talk with someone if they have questions about what they heard, but that's about it. Room is left for the individual to reflect and choose on their own whether they really want what's being offered.

So I do hope and pray that those who raised their hands were sincere and made a real decision about following Christ. More than that, I hope that they have people in their lives who can be a continuing influence on them. Salvation in any case is a process, and it would be a shame to see real desire die without the nurture of a faithful community. There may be a lot more to Christianity than Evangelicalism has to offer, but everyone has to start somewhere. It's a constant call to come further in and further up.

At any rate, we both felt like Christmas was lacking something this year and decided that we'll probably stay home next time. As for me, I'm looking forward to Theophany. I guess I'll just have to be old-fashioned and lump the two back in together :-)

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