In northern and western Europe in the 4th century AD, in the month of December, Christian missionaries emphasized repentance for new converts and spiritual disciplines for believers in preparation for the baptismal festival of Epiphany on January 6. Advent in those regions was not a time of joyful preparation for Christmas, but of solemn reflection as people looked toward a day of renewal and redemption on Epiphany and the Day of Judgment when Jesus came again.

In northern Mississippi in the 21st century AD, on December 8, the second Sunday of Advent, I attended a production of The Nutcracker put on by a local dance center. The show took place in a deconsecrated Protestant church that has been turned into an arts venue. The particular congregation that used to occupy the building practiced baptism by immersion, in keeping with their tradition.

The chancel was now the stage, but the baptistery remained (drained and dry, of course). The dance company used it creatively for certain scenes. The most striking were the ones in which, behind a mist from the baptistery, the shelf-sized nutcracker becomes life-size, and then later, becomes a real boy prince for Clara. In other words, these were times of transformation.

I not only found the director’s use of the baptistery space imaginative, I found it theologically profound, given the original connection of Advent with baptism. In that sacrament, we too are transformed, I dare say, into princes and princesses or even more, into full-fledged monarchs. “[He has] made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father….” the seer of Revelation says (1:6). We are given a new status, a fresh identity, a different purpose in baptism.

And like Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s son, we will have many adventures of discovery on our amazing journeys into wonder.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it (Luke 17:33).

Susan and I just saw a great movie from the middle of the last decade (2005). Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I recommend it highly. I consider it one of the best theological films of this century so far.

It’s called Elizabethtown, and is about a young man named Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who fails so monumentally in his work that he wants to kill himself. But then a call comes that changes, and saves, his life.

The story follows the classic, archetypal course of the hero’s journey. Drew must go from his home in Oregon to a strange land (Kentucky, specifically, Elizabethtown) to complete a task for which he is totally unprepared. Along the way he meets a wise guide, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who helps him navigate both the unfamiliar physical and emotional landscape. Living up to her name, she makes things clear for Drew, but not so much by telling him what he needs to know as by guiding him to discover the possibilities of life—his life–for himself. Drew, so prepared to end his existence, finds in and through his failure new possibilities.

One of the key themes of the film is remembrance and the different ways we do that. The climax of the story is a memorial, which features different characters recounting their experiences with the deceased. Earlier, Claire speaks an enigmatic line, which somehow feels to me central to the tale: “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” What is the difference between not forgetting and remembering? I’m still trying to figure that one out!

Another theological theme is the Holy Spirit, present in unpredictable ways and at odd moments. I love the scene in the Brown Hotel ballroom where a special effect goes awry as the band Ruckus plays “Free Bird.” A gigantic white dove catches on fire as it flies across the room, setting off sprinklers, then crashes to the ground. Most people run. But Drew’s sister Heather (Judy Greer) stands under the shower from the sprinklers with oransher hands in the orans position (see picture for an ancient example) , eyes closed, as if being baptized. Is this rebirth what she has been yearning for? How do you and I respond when the Spirit comes in crazy ways?

It’ was interesting to see this movie while I’m reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which also has to do with the hero’s journey. Rohr points out that it is through suffering that we move into the second half of life, our further journey. “One of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight,” he writes, “is that the way up is the way down. Or if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” He continues: “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?

“Normally a job, a fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern is in fact so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson” (xviii-xix).

The lesson from Rohr and from Elizabethtown is that God comes to us sideways, from sources we don’t expect, on a journey we did not or would not choose. He is not absent from suffering; in fact, it may be through the experience of loss, failure (even fiasco), sadness, and strangeness that his greatest lessons of the soul are taught and learned. As Claire urges Drew: “I want you to get into the deep, beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.”

God give us grace to receive what he gives.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

“Three marketing researchers have concluded that the less religious one is, the more commercial brand names matter…. For people who aren’t religious, visible markers of commercial brands, such as logos on a laptop or shirt pocket, function as a means of self-expression and as an assertion of self-worth comparable to the symbolic expression of faith” (The Christian Century, November 2, 2010: 9).

“In [Christ] you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

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I can’t quote him exactly now, but I recall Alan Flusser, the men’s clothing designer and expert, saying in his 1981 book Making the Man that if you wear initials on your shirt, they should be your own, and not some designer’s. What Flusser advised in that early work and in his subsequent books has been a kind of gospel for me as I built my wardrobe.

Interesting that the actual Gospel preaches a similar message. Our identity comes not from the brand names we wear or own. Rather it arises from our baptism, our being marked with the sign of God’s grace which claims us. Invisible once the water and oil dry on our skin, the symbol of our identity is nevertheless indelibly imprinted on us.

How sad to try to affirm your self-worth by sporting a logo that tells everyone you’ve bought an overpriced shirt or that you are technically savvy because you have a smartphone from the “right” maker! But also how telling. We are all at root people who seek meaning, who want to belong, who desire to be claimed by and identified as beloved by someone, and indeed by Someone, whatever our protestations to the contrary. St. Augustine famously said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

When the One composer Kurt Kaiser once called the “Master Designer” (© 1969 Lexicon Music, Inc. in Tell It Like It Is) has touched you and marked you as his own, you know who you are. How could you want any other monogram on you than IHS or XP?*

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

* The classic Christograms: the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek, then the letters “Chi Rho,” which begin the word “Christ” in Greek.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:9-12).

I had checked the census at the hospital in Amory and was glad to find a healthy congregation, as usual. As I was walking through the lobby toward the exit, a young man and his mother, both strangers, were also making their way out. The man asked me “Where are you the minister?” I told him and his mom, and we had a nice conversation, especially about the community Food Pantry First Presbyterian helps sponsor. They knew a couple of our members and spoke highly of the church. I told them about the Animal Blessing that we were planning, and then we went our separate ways.

All that happened because I was wearing a clergy collar. I was recognized as a minister.

All of us need to wear our clergy collars every day. Don’t have one? Believe you’re not a minister? Yes, you do; and yes, you are. In baptism every believer is clothed with Christ and called to service in his name. It is our behavior that identifies us as ministers. The way we act is our “collar,” our distinctive clothing.

What opportunities for conversation, for ministry, for compassionate service, for witness will you have in coming days or even today because you’re wearing your “clergy collar”?

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

This post is dedicated to my niece Page and nephew Julian, both of whom begin college this month, and to all in the Class of 2013.

"The future of ‘mainline’ Christianity in North America, as well as the future of the university, will be profoundly affected by the way in which Christians, among others, relate to the intellectual project of the West at this crucial juncture in its history (postmodernity)”—(Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith).

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This Sunday, August 16th, is Higher Education Sunday across the Presbyterian Church (USA). In this post, I want to offer some practical suggestions for observing the day, my “three R’s” for campus ministry.

First, ritual. Holy Communion and Baptism are both sorely neglected in the PC(USA), despite the call in our standards for frequent Communion (Book of Order W-2.4009) and for remembering the grace of God at work in Baptism (W-2.3009). Yet both sacraments can be a tremendous resource of strength, encouragement, and community building for college students, faculty, and staff. So I long for the day when each congregation located in a university or college town provides a weekly opportunity for receiving Holy Communion. And I would be thrilled if those same congregations would emphasize the call and the comfort of God in Baptism somehow in those same services and in every time of worship. One great way to do this is to offer an ancient/future or a contemporary service on a Sunday or Wednesday evening for students and others. In those times, the community can remember Baptism in some creative way upon entering the sanctuary, then later celebrate together as all come to the Table.

Second, reminders. Let us remember that God is already on campus; we don’t “take” him there nor do we need to “take back” the campus for God. None of us possesses God. The highest heaven cannot contain him; how much less the church, the university, any human construct or institution (see 1 Kings 8:27)! God is already at work on campus in the lives of his people there and by the Spirit in ways both hidden and open in the institution itself. Our task is to discern where and how God is acting and join him!

Let us also recall that our college students are the Church now. Well-meaning people often speak of them as “the future of the Church,” and I try to hear the words of support of campus ministry in such comments. But too often ministry in higher education is seen as a way to grow congregations or ensure new blood for leadership tomorrow. I am firmly convinced that God will not honor such viewpoints. He will give success when we begin to see college students as valuable in their own right, for their ideas, their leadership, and ther commitment now, and give them meaningful opportunities to serve and to bear witness.

We need also to pay attention to faculty and staff. They are living out their baptismal vocation in the college and university. These faithful people are seeking to serve our Lord through their engagement with ideas, their guidance of students, their help with procedures and problems, and in so many other ways. In any celebration of higher education ministry, they need to be remembered. Perhaps they could be commissioned in worship at the start of the school year for their work. (See the Book of Occasional Services.)

Finally, resources. Let me simply point you to some helpful websites, then give a few suggestions about ways individuals can remember college students. To find out more about PC(USA) collegiate ministries, go to http://www.pcusa.org/collegiate/index.htm and also to www.pachem.org (Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministries; some of the resources on this site reguire registration, but that’s free). For a wonderful resource for progressive young adult Christians, visit www.livingthequestions.com and click on “Dream, Think, Be, Do.” Note that this curriculum piece costs about $300. Finally, if you are in a community college town, check out www.listeningpostinc.org, a well-established and respected franchise program that promotes listening among generations.

Or how about these simple ideas? Recruit one or a few interested people in your congregation to keep in touch with students, faculty, and staff, doing things like remembering birthdays or other anniversaries (a parent’s death, for example), sending exam snack bags, and keeping up by Facebook. Establish a program linking students with older folk in the church who can be a local resource for them. And finally, pray for students, faculty, and staff and all who minister with and to them.

I trust these ideas will be helpful to you as you celebrate Higher Education Sunday. It’s my fervent hope and prayer that our Church can recover its vision for ministry in higher education. And that begins with you and me. May God bless our efforts!

© 2009 Tom Cheatham