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Religion | ON FAITH / The Rev. JOHN HUFFMAN

On Holy Days, Some Return to Christ's Fold

April 10, 1999|The Rev. JOHN HUFFMAN | John Huffman has been pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach since 1978

How do I feel about Easter and Christmas attendees--those whose faces we see in church only on the holiest of days?

First, I am excited to see them: I have a great desire to observe someone come to lifesaving faith in Jesus Christ and then become active in the community we know as Christ's church. That's why on Christmas Eve and Easter I try to present the very essence of what it is to be born again spiritually by the power of Jesus Christ.

Second, I endeavor to understand them: I know that there may be very valid reasons why a person comes only on Christmas and Easter.

One reason may be that they have had some kind of traumatizing negative experience in a church. Even Christians can be cruel. A person may have been burned out by committee work. Perhaps it was that the church didn't really preach Jesus Christ, and was just a social club. Or some have even been spiritually raped by an overeager family member who has tried to force or manipulate one into the faith.

Another reason may be that they have suffered a major personal tragedy that has rendered them emotionally incapable of going to church.

I have a dear friend who quit attending after her mother died. She told me: "I can't maintain my composure when I hear those familiar hymns sung. I break down sobbing and embarrass myself."

Eight years ago, when our daughter Suzanne died, it was very difficult for my wife, Anne, to come to church. During the next few months, she had to make her own lonely odyssey of grief, dealing with it her way, as I did with mine. I needed to be here. She needed a bit of aesthetic distance before she could reenter.

She says: "Going to church to worship God, to sing 'How Great Thou Art,' was salt in the wound of my broken heart! Protest to God and worship are often oxymorons, so I stayed away for several months." Now that she has returned, she has in some ways moved beyond me, using her professional training as a psychoanalyst to lead, with no charge, grief recovery workshops within the community of faith.

For many young people who leave the church during their college years, another reason may be the need for spiritual autonomy. They need to stand back, reflect, to make certain they are not just jumping through religious hoops. The faith needs to be theirs personally. Many later return with a newfound personal dimension to their faith in Jesus Christ, returning to church, but not necessarily the congregation of their youth, where they can grow and serve.

For some, it is simply a case of active or passive rebellion against God. These persons stay away because they don't believe in God or they are very hurt by something God has allowed in their life. Or they may know there is some area of unconfessed sin in their life and they don't want to be a hypocrite.

Another reason may be that one has never really understood what the Christian faith is all about. These two festive holidays are like the theater previews of coming attractions: They are interesting. They whet the appetite. But they are not the movie.

Christmas and Easter are not designed as an end in themselves, but to encourage a person to a full-time, 365-day-a-year commitment of one's life to Jesus Christ--finding his forgiveness, meaning and strength to live one day at a time, knowing that the name of one's higher power is Jesus Christ!

Third, I am sad: I know that as much as we all pray and work, some will simply not take seriously the claims of Jesus Christ. There are those who may continue to attend for a period of time. Some will be radically converted. The others will drift back to their old lifestyle. This breaks my heart. Yet, even Jesus taught that not all would respond positively.

Fourth, finally, I am hopeful: Every Christmas and every Easter there are some who come home to Jesus. They see beyond the civic and religious holiday to the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.

They come to understand that there is a God who created them with purpose and meaning. They come to understand that no one is perfect. They come to understand that God took human form in the person of Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and to rise from the dead in victory over sin and death. They come to understand that one needs to receive freely the gift of God's grace that cannot be earned by religious activity, even church attendance.

They come to understand that God, knowing that we cannot "go it alone in the Christian faith," places us in his local community called the church, where we grow through worship, Bible study, fellowship and service to others. And they enthusiastically join us in the realization that every weekend is Christmas and Easter, for every Sunday we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.

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