We Have Arrived At Christmas

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The John of the fourth gospel, writes about the Baptist being the one who is “a witness to the light.” Unlike some of the other gospels – and John the Baptist appears in all the gospels – the fourth gospel cares nothing for how John was dressed. Luke says that John had a very peculiar diet and lived out in the wilderness. John tells us nothing of this. Luke also says that John called people to repent of their sins, to set their lives right. When people asked John what they ought to do, John told them to straighten up and live right. But not in the Gospel of John. In John’s gospel, John is not even called John the Baptist. He is a “witness,” a witness to the light.

Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the fulfillment of our deepest hopes. He is light into our darkness, the embodiment of all of God’s glory, full of grace and truth.

I can’t stand it when people ask that favorite pre-Christmas question, usually addressed to a child, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?” Such a question plays right into the hands of the commercialism and materialism that mars the Christmas season. As Christians, we know that Christmas is more than greed or gifts. Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child.

And yet one could learn a great deal from the question, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?” For if you know our hopes, you know us fairly well. If you want to know who a person really is, and plans to be, inquire into what that person is hoping for. We hope to find peace in our anxious lives. So we come to church on Sunday morning hoping that the music of the hymns, the words of scripture and preaching, may fill us with a sense of peace. So we come to church on Sunday morning hoping for an interesting sermon, something that will help us to use our minds, something that will test our intellects, make us think about things in a way we haven’t thought before. What are you hoping for?

What are you hoping for?

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Church is where we get our hopes met; where our yearning is fulfilled. I dare say that is the major reason why people keep coming to church. Though their hopes are often disappointed by what we do here on Sunday morning, there are enough Sundays where one is able to emerge from the service saying, “That service really did something for me.”

The trouble is that the gospels seem to engage in a continual debate with people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus came, light into our darkness. But the problem with Jesus was he was not the sort of light that we expected. That is where the trouble started. Jesus was the hope of the world, but he was not the hope for which the world was hoping!

It’s enough to make each of us ask, “What am I hoping for this Christmas?”
Some among us may not be sure. What will bring you to church this Sunday morning, or to worship on Christmas Eve? You may have been called here by some strange, indefinable pull, some tug on your heart, that you would find difficult to describe. An open heart may be better than one that is filled with definitions and preconceptions and preconditions.

The Bible says the light has come into our darkness. John says it best, In him was light, and the light was the light of all.

Torture Is Immoral

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The United States Senate just released a report on the activity of the CIA in the months following 9-11. The report brought into question the techniques the CIA has used over that time to get information out of people they feel a threat to the United States. All of us who lived during that time know how unsettling life was during those days. And if we are truthful to ourselves, we don’t feel anymore secure today than we did at that time.

We Americans are a paradox. We hold high our liberties and our freedom, but we have difficulty giving those liberties and freedom. We demand our second amendment to have firearms, but we want to eliminate abortion – there is a moral contradiction. We are outraged that liberals are forcing same-sex on our society but we don’t want government interference in our individual lives – there is a moral contradiction. We want the borders tightened and keep the immigrants out, but we want free trade and for other nations to buy our product – there is a moral contradiction. We are like the Cox Cable ad, “we want our cake and we want to eat it, too.”

Our liberties are only as good as the liberties that we grant to others. Following World War II, society was so incensed at how the Germans, Japanese and Russians had treated not only prisoners of war, but civilians, that the world came together and formed the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions was made up of four treaties and later added three protocols for standards of international law. Those international laws became the basis for what we call “human rights.” For the United States (the CIA in particular) not to honor those laws (whether on American soil or off of American soil) is a contradiction to the rights and liberties we all hold dear.

As our grandparents have said to all of us, “the end never justifies the means.” I am mindful of a story in the Bible (Matt 21:23). Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism — where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’-we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

If we really believe in our heritage as Lincoln said, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Liberty and freedom (human dignity) is not just an American thing, it is for ALL people.

Church and Marriage

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There are a lot of changes a foot in Kansas and in the nation. The latest is same-sex marriage. On November 18th a local Disciples of Christ minister’s photo was in the newspaper. He was downtown supporting same-sex marriage, marrying couples that wanted to be married, and had his stole on that announced he was a Disciples of Christ minister. The paper just a few days earlier had already quoted another local Disciples of Christ minister as being supportive and willing to marry same-sex couples.

Because of these two clergy, everyone, especially non-Disciples of Christ people, assume that all Disciples of Christ congregations and all Disciples of Christ ministers support same-sex marriage. It is difficult for Christians (Disciples or not) to understand our concept of diversity and autonomy in the life of our congregations. To jump on the bandwagon (even when it may be long overdue) without considering all sides of any argument, usually brings hurt, anger and division. When I look at the two ministers featured in the paper, one probably has the support of their congregation, the other one does not. I think this is reflective of Disciples congregations across the globe. A few are supportive, a few are very much against the idea, and the majority are somewhere in between.

Hillside Christian Church is taking this whole process slowly and deliberately. We are having conversations within the life of the church. The whole conversation is more than a political conversation. The conversation must involve a Biblical understanding, a medical understanding, a social understanding, and even a humanitarian conversation. Isn’t it odd that Hillside probably has more gay and lesbian members than the other two churches combined. It comes as a shock for many congregants that there are gay members (most silent) in every church.

I was asked in a Board meeting where I stood. It is not a simple response. Ministry is not black and white. If a same-sex couple came to me and asked to be married, that had never attended Hillside and had no relationship with the church, I would say “no.” If on the other hand, a member of the congregation who I had pastored for many years wanted to get married, I would be open to it. Of course, only after they had gone through pre-marriage counseling. Part of this comes from a philosophy that I accepted at the beginning of my ministry. After pre-marriage counseling, I am not always confident in the long term success of a couple, but if they still want to marry, I will perform the ceremony. My performing the ceremony doesn’t necessarily mean I am supportive of any union. I would rather have a couple married in the church as opposed to the courthouse.

One thing is certain, same-sex marriage is here to stay. The issue seems to be divided on generational grounds. People under 35 (the Millennial Generation) are overwhelming supportive of same-sex marriage, where many who are much older are struggling. One thing is certain, time will change things and the Church. Now, how will the Church deal with it?