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Do Santa Claus, the American flag and other symbols belong in our churches?

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins takes on some sacred cows Wednesday at Synod School

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Fungai Tichawangana via Unsplash

STORM LAKE, Iowa — The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins warned Synod School attendees that his Wednesday message “might be a challenging. My wife says I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.”

Still, Hawkins, the PC(USA)’s advocacy director, brewed up a satisfying hot beverage based on the symbols of our faith, taking on some Presbyterian sacred cows along the way during his third convocation this week at Synod School, put on at Buena Vista University each year by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. About 500 people are in attendance.

When it comes to adorning their sanctuaries, for the most part Presbyterians believe in simplicity, which Hawkins called “a gift from John Calvin.”

Just about every Christian church has a pulpit, a baptismal font and a communion table. Our primary symbol is the cross, and for Protestants it’s the empty cross. For Presbyterians, the specially designed denominational cross contains numerous symbols, and Hawkins took time to identify each and show how they’re connected.

Hawkins spent most of his energy on what are not symbols of the Christian faith, opening with whether the American flag should be displayed in the sanctuary.

“I think we need to have serious conversations about that in our churches,” Hawkins said, relating a story about a church he once served that had a U.S. flag placed directly in front of the pulpit. In his earliest days as pastor, Hawkins asked the pastor nominating committee about whether the flag should be there. “You know, that’s a session responsibility,” PNC members told their pastor.

The session decided to move the flag upstairs. Expecting a rapid response from church members and friends, Hawkins said he waited two months before someone said, “Pastor, didn’t we used to have a flag right here?”

“I said, ‘Yes, the session decided to remove it,’” Hawkins said with a grin. “I love our [Presbyterian] structure!”

The Stars and Stripes “provides a symbol of hope for America,” Hawkins said, “but we also have to have some distinctions in our faith life” when deciding whether or not to display the American flag in our churches.

The cousin to the American flag in this context is the Christian flag, which first made an appearance in churches in 1897. The danger here is that the flag can distract “from the real, God-given symbols of the faith,” Hawkins said.

As for singing patriotic songs in worship, Hawkins’ research showed it’s a “split decision.” Among many authorities, the Presbyterian Association of Musicians said that “we are mindful that national boundaries are not God’s boundaries.”

When he launched into a discussion on Christmas, Hawkins was clear: “I want to remind you Jesus is the reason for the season,” he said. “We need to reconnect Christmas with the birth of Jesus. Secular society has lost its mind, and Christmas no longer belongs to the church. It belongs to society.”

Santa Claus is real if one goes bac to Nicholas of Myra in Turkey, who used his wealth to help the poor. The Dutch celebrate the life of Sinterklaas, who later in this country became known as Santa Claus.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins

Hawkins recalled one Christmas Eve when he told his then thee-year-old daughter that Santa doesn’t bring gifts to her and her brother — Jesus does. “Oh, no,” the girl told her father. “Santa does.”

“Well!” her father told her. “We’ll see in the morning who gets gifts and who doesn’t.”

After the girl had gone to bed, Hawkins’ wife reminded him, “You do know she’s three years old.”

“I waited a year and then said, ‘Where’s your mother?’” Hawkins said. “Mom’s outside,” their daughter told him. Hawkins then repeated his story to her from the previous year.

“She’s 19 now,” he said, “and she knows Jesus is responsible for Christmas.”

Hawkins also explored some middle ground symbols, including the Easter Bunny, whose eggs represent Jesus’ resurrection; candy canes, which when looked at one way look like the “J” in Jesus and in another way remind the viewer of a shepherd’s staff; and the Christmas tree, which is evergreen and “represents faith that never dies,” Hawkins said.

“Symbols are important,” Hawkins said, “and we want to make sure they represent who we are.”

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