Monday, December 28, 2009

I don't want to be an agent of the state in weddings anymore

For a long time I have been uncomfortable being an agent of the state in performing marriage ceremonies. That discomfort was heightened recently as I have been completing a project on the struggle for religious liberty in Virginia in the late 1700's. Back then, those who were not part of the state-sponsored church, including Baptists, had a hard-fought battle getting their marriages recognized by the state.

As I studied the efforts of Virginia Baptists to be free from state shackles in performing marriages, I remembered what I had to do years ago in order to officiate at a wedding ceremony in the Old Dominion. A member of my old home church in Appomattox County wanted me to do her marriage ceremony and I agreed. Having lived in Texas or North Carolina for my entire ministerial career, I didn't realize that I couldn't just show up in Virginia and solemnize a wedding--I had to go to the courthouse first.

Note these lines from the Domestic Relations section of the Code of Virginia:

When a minister of any religious denomination shall produce before the circuit
court of any county or city in this Commonwealth, or before the judge of such
court or before the clerk of such court at any time, proof of his ordination and
of his being in regular communion with the religious society of which he is a
reputed member, or proof that he holds a local minister's license and is serving
as a regularly appointed pastor in his denomination, such court, or the judge
thereof, or the clerk of such court at any time, may make an order authorizing
such minister to celebrate the rites of matrimony in this Commonwealth.

At the time I jumped through that hoop rather hurriedly so I could do the ceremony and I did not reflect upon it much. Now it bugs me. I am giving serious consideration to contacting the courthouse in Appomattox to see if it is possible for me to rescind whatever approval I received. The idea of a government official making "an order authorizing" me "to celebrate the rites of matrimony" just galls me. The state has no business in giving me any sort of stamp of approval to perform a religious rite.

Here in North Carolina I didn't have to go to the courthouse with my ordination certificate. They will take my word for it that I am a minister. But I still have to work for the state by filling out certain paper work after a marriage ceremony and if I don't do things right I am subject to a fine. That bugs me too. As a minister of the gospel I don't like working for the government in performing wedding ceremonies.

How about this ... When a couple shows up at the courthouse to get their marriage license, let that process instead be the actual marriage in the eyes of the state. Then, for those who choose to do so, let them be joined in matrimony in the presence of God and before their family and friends with a minister officiating in a religious ceremony that has no government ties whatsoever. Take ministers out of the loop of the state requirements for marriage. We don't belong there.

Friday, December 25, 2009

An excellent screen adaptation of a great story

When I read Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, I was very impressed. So when I first heard that the book was being made into a movie, I was excited. But, after further reflection, I became concerned. I wasn't sure this story would translate well as a movie. Well, tonight I got to see the movie version of The Road and I am happy to report that I was wrong.

The Road is a parable of faith and generosity. It is set several years after a some sort of cataclysm has left the earth a very inhospitable place. At the center of the tale is an unnamed father and an unnamed son trying to survive in a very dangerous world in which people literally kill for food. The father seeks to protect the son and to teach him to stay alive. But in his desperate attempt to train the boy to get by in a cruel world, the father loses something very important.

On several occasions the father and son encounter persons in a weaker position they could help. The son always wants to assist those in need. The father resists. He is always afraid the can of food they share today might be all that stands between them and starvation in a few days. He has the best of intentions, but the father doesn't see that the little chances to share, as risky as they may be, are precious opportunities to experience some light in a very dark world.

I'll stop there in describing the story. All of the performances in the film version are outstanding. Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of the father is compelling. Kobi Smit-McPhee is convincing as the son. The visuals are bleak as they should be but they are also stunning.

I haven't told you much about the movie or the novel, but maybe what I have said is enough to entice you. I am concerned that the film version of The Road will be lost in the holiday movie season. If so, that would be a shame. This is a parable that needs to be experienced today.

I should point out that The Road is rated R--this is definitely not a family movie. But its darkness has the potential to help us see how we might better let our light shine. This story strips away everything in an attempt to expose the emptiness faithless lives.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas movie worth watching

If you have never seen it, rent and watch the movie Joyeux Noel in this Christmas season. Even though it was nominated for an Academy Award ("Best Foreign Film") and a Golden Globe I had never heard of this flick. A movie store in Shallotte went out of business a few weeks ago and I saw a sign out front that their remaining DVD's were 99 cents each. I went in and picked up several that sounded good and I am glad Joyeux Noel was among them.

The movie is based on the true story of a spontaneous Christmas Eve truce declared by French, German and Scottish soldiers mired in trench warfare in World War I (1914). It started when the Germans began singing "Silent Night" and the opposing soldiers across the way joined in. I'll stop there, but the result of one night of peace was amazing and costly. I think it would be a great film even if it were purely a work of fiction. But it is astounding that this is a screen adaptation of an a event that really happened.

A tag line is, "How can there be a war if there is no enemy?" There are subtitles, but many scenes, including the ones involving the night of peace, are in English. Christianity Today did an article on the movie that you can find here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus' real face

Maybe I'm the only one who missed this news two years ago. It appears that a British scientist, using modern forensic techniques based on ancient relics, developed an image of the face of St. Nicholas. As you will note if you read the article and look at the photos at the link above, the scientific reconstruction based on actual skull measurements matches up pretty well with some ancient portraits of the saint.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

So much happiness

I love Charles Dickens' 1843 Christmas tale, "A Christmas Carol." There have been many film adaptations of the story but my favorite remains the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge (I haven't seen the just-released Disney version starring Jim Carrey). This 58 year-old presentation seems to capture Dickens' tale better than the other versions I have seen. Notably it leaves intact numerous blatantly Christian references found in the original story that many film versions cut.

For some years in our Wednesday worship services during December I have presented popular Christmas stories that I have used to make application to the biblical Christmas story. I have done this with O Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning." I have always wanted to present "A Christmas Carol" but it is just too long. A couple of years ago I tried to put together sort of a Reader's Digest condensed version for use in a worship service but very quickly I could see that it just wasn't going to work.

So this week in our mid-week worship service I showed a clip from the final few minutes of the 1951 movie version of "A Christmas Carol." Those of you familiar with the story know that the one overpowering emotion in the final act is joy--great joy. The previously mean and miserly Scrooge was absolutely giddy that he had another chance to use his fortune to help people in need.

In Dickens' telling of the story, Scrooge takes a Christmas day walk in which he sees a man who had come to his office the day before making a collection for the poor. On Christmas Eve Scrooge had angrily sent the man away indicating that he would prefer that needy people just die and decrease the surplus population. But, on Christmas day, after the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future had showed him how his greed had consumed him, Scrooge had a change of heart.

He quickened his pace and caught up with the man and made a commitment to a donation so large that the gentleman collecting for the poor was shocked. Scrooge said the gift included "a great many back-payments." Right after this sacrifice to help the needy, Dickens tells us that Scrooge "never dreamed that any walk could give him so much happiness."

The great joy that Scrooge experienced as he helped those in need reminded me of an important part of the biblical Christmas story. On the first Christmas the angels said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

God sent messengers to make the Christmas day proclamation of "good news of great joy" in the context of a sacrificial gift. In the Incarnation God gave on behalf of those in need to the point that, in the language of Paul, "he became poor" (2 Cor. 8:9, TNIV). And God was so excited about giving to the point of becoming poor that the joy would not be contained. Angels were sent to declare it.

God and Scrooge were giddy as they made sacrifices to help those in need. In Scrooge's case he needed to be shown in a vivid way the value of sacrificial giving before he experienced the joy of Christmas. What will it take for us?

On Sunday we will light the candle of joy in the Advent wreath. As we do so we should remember that lasting joy is not about receiving and it is not about giving stuff to people who don't really need it. The example of God shows us that true joy is experienced as we realize the wonder of sacrificial giving for those in need.