Christmas Greetings, 2014

I am a frustrated writer.  I have known that since high school, when my idol was John-Boy Walton.  (Well, idol may be too fine a point.)  At any rate, I love to write, and the essay has become my genre of choice, I suppose.  I may have dabbled a bit in fiction, but I haven’t the patience for it, really.  I enjoy the immediacy of the essay.  I love to share thoughts and ideas.  And I must admit that there are times when I have sat back after a couple of days and re-read a piece, only to think, “This is actually good.”  Had I not written it, I would enjoy reading it.  Sometimes, the inspiration to write is so direct and so urgent that I look at the product and think, “Where did that come from?”  Thoughts and ideas pour onto the screen, ostensibly from the action of my fingers and brain, but there are times when for the life of me, I don’t know how I came up with certain phrases.  Writing is a passion.       

I am grateful that anyone would take the time to read any of my blog posts.  The comments I have received and the sense of accomplishment at having expressed something that others may have been struggling with make the effort worth the late nights and early mornings when I usually find the time to really connect with my wayward thoughts.  Perhaps some would consider a blog to be a work of vanity, but I think of it as a labor of love. 

A year ago, I published a post called “Coming to Terms with Joy to the World.”  It was quite popular with those who read my blog, and for that, I am deeply grateful.  Another year has passed, and I have not changed my thinking in the least.  I still believe it is a wonderful thing to take the time to think about one of the greatest events to grace this tired old reality, the birth of a baby who would change the world. 

No, I am well aware that we were never instructed to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  But then, there is no record in the canon of the Jews ever being commanded to observe the Festival of Lights, also called the Feast of Dedication, or more commonly known as Hanukah.  Jesus, good practicing Jew that he was, observed that holiday, as recorded in John 10.  Esther’s holiday of Purim was apparently not divinely appointed, but is still celebrated to this day to mark the Jews’ deliverance from a determined enemy.

I do not purport that Jesus was born on December 25th as in the Western tradition, or January 6th as in the Eastern tradition.  The article cited in the post mentioned above does a fine job of describing how Christians came to observe the birth at those times.

I do not suggest that there were three wise men, or magi, that visited Jesus’ family while he lay in a manger.  No, there were at least two, and they brought at least three kinds of precious gifts sometime after his birth. 

I do believe beyond any doubt in my mind that Jesus came to this world and lived as we do.  I believe that he taught a message that had been nearly lost by a people who had lost sight of their place in creation, though the prophets had called God’s erring children back to it time and again.  Love.  Peace.  Grace.  Justice.  Mercy.  Each concept leapt to new life under the master’s touch.  And believers today still hear him and glow with joy at his message. 

And this makes them want to celebrate, for there could have been no perfect sacrificial offering had there been no humble birth.  There would have been no merciful teacher and judge and healer who showed to hurting people their true selves, as they were, but in mercy and love, showed them what they could become.  Some, like the Samaritan woman with the checkered past would rise above what lay behind her.  Some like the rich young ruler would walk away sorrowful, even though he had just experienced one of the most moving experiences any human could behold, where Mark records the exchange, pointedly noting, “10.21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said….”

Had Jesus never come to this life, we would never have seen ourselves in the impetuous nature of Peter, or the intellectual endeavors of Paul, or the well-placed diligence of Mary juxtaposed against the skewed sense of duty of her sister, Martha.  We would have missed the sincere doubt of Thomas, who, when faced with the ultimate evidence of Jesus’ on-going life, declared, “My Lord and my God!”

I used to feel a twinge of guilt when I sang Christmas carols that spoke of Jesus’ birth.  But no more.  Some of my favorite holiday songs are of the “sacred” variety.  I love “Carol of the Bells,” remembering my short stint in high school chorus, and singing the high tenor part (“Diiiiing, dong, ding, doooong….”), when what I really wanted to sing was the baritone… (“Bohhmmmm!”)  I love “Mary Did You Know?”, whether sung a cappella, or in popular style, or bluegrass.

It took 50 years, but I finally got Christmas.

My wife grew up in a very different heritage, where Christmas was a special and spiritual time of year.  Her mother loved the season, and carols were sung at her December funeral, at the suggestion of a fine and caring minister who knew how much she loved Christmas. 

My wife remembered her family’s table-top nativity scene, so important to her experience of the holiday as a child, but now long gone after the passing of her wonderful parents.  I wanted her to have a connection with her childhood, so last year, I bought a starter set for a nice collectible line that could be expanded as years go by.  But there was no stable.  What is a nativity scene without a stable?  As luck would have it, I found a “vintage” porcelain set at Goodwill, this one with its original rustic wooden stable, and a similar scale to the new set… And so now we have two sets.  And a new stable this year for the newer set.  And they are both nice.  And they make me smile, and think of a baby, born into an unkind world, who would demonstrate to us all, from then and for all time, what love can do.      

I know that December 25th is not Jesus’ actual birthday.  But he was born.  And he lived.  And he died.  And he changed the world.  And he changed my life.

And that is worth celebrating.

Everyone knows the opening lines of Isaac Watt’s “Joy to the World.” 

“Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let Earth receive her king!”

But the final verse is powerful, in its own right, echoing John’s little reflected on declaration from the first chapter of his gospel account.

“He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders, wonders, of His love.”

 To all my dear friends to whom these greetings may come, those I have known for many years, and those I may have yet to meet: May your Christmas and New Year be blessed with his truth and grace.  To find that truth and grace, it may be necessary to peel away accumulated layers of religion, and get to know the real Jesus.  He is a friend for the ages.  And a friend like that is worth keeping. 

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Can Negativity Spark Renewal? Thoughts on Jesus’ Prayer for Unity and the Need for Continuing Restoration

It takes a lot of energy to be negative.  I should know, since I’ve spent so much of my life being just that, and I’m exhausted so much of the time.  But some circumstances (like autism) make it awfully hard to stay positive.  I know people who can do it even in the face of abject adversity, and I admire them a lot. 

One place that we see a lot of negativity is in religion.  There are times when I am so bone weary of the negative messages with the rider always added that, “It’s not what I say, it’s what the Bible says.”  I have yet to find some of those overly confident prohibitions on a page of scripture.  But these people assure me that they are there, hidden between lines of black and white (and red). 

Or, spoken in peals of deafening silence.

It just struck me that there is a huge difference in the way that many of the most notable Old Testament Laws are presented and the way the New Testament provides commands.  Just think for a moment:  only two of the Ten Commandments are not delivered in the negative, and one of the remaining ones has a negative command in its explanation.  The best Jews of Jesus’ day had difficulty with keeping track of all of the prohibitions.  Centuries of Rabbinic teachings had resulted in multiplied rules that were put in place to make sure that the primary prohibitions were kept. 

In the New Testament, there are first fewer commands, and the ones given are more frequently spoken in the positive, or delivered in couplets with a negative statement being balanced by a positive one.    Jesus commanded his disciples to “Love each other”, as opposed to “Do not hate each other.”  “Love your enemies.”  “Bless those that curse you.” “Husbands, love your wives.”  Take, eat…”  Certainly, there are negative statements in the New Testament.  Jesus said, “Do not love the world.”  But the positive seem to outweigh the negative.

So why have we developed a framework for Christian behavior and church function that is built on negative commands, frequently implied or inferred from silence? 

I have fought that battle before.  After years of study and thought, I don’t much believe in the “Law of Silence” anymore, which is itself a construct of the silence of scripture forged after the Protestant Reformation.  Odd, isn’t it, that we command and condemn based on something that is not explicitly instructed, but is manufactured from the same reasoning that the one talent man presented to his master?

I am weary of the joyless existence that the Law of Silence binds on people.  I am also weary of the lies that are spread from pulpits regarding other people in other tribes who differ from those in a particular group.  I don’t know how many times I have heard brothers in other streams denounced for their fellowship practices by calling their congregational common meals nothing more than plying people with “food, frolic and fun.”  I used to believe that, too, because my preacher said it.  But then I learned differently.  I learned the truth.  And it makes me sick and sad to think that such lies continue to be spread to drive a wedge between brothers.

I have heard preachers say say things like if you can find the name of your church in the Bible, they would gladly attend there.  But they didn’t really mean it, as witnessed by the easy way that they can denounce people whose churches include names like “Church of God” and “Church of the Firstborn,” even though those names are there in the Bible in black and white.  I may not agree with all of the specific practices of those groups, but their names are in scriptures as prominently as the one that we profess to wear.  The argument that we are the only church with a scriptural name is baseless and wrong.

Another untruth that I have seen perpetuated involves the statement by preachers in this faith heritage who say that Baptists trace their origins back to John the Baptist.  This is patently false.  One Baptist writer, a professor of Church History, discussed this in an essay from 1979.

“Many people assume that Baptists got their name from John the Baptist. This is not the case. Like most religious groups, Baptists were named by their opponents. The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion.

The first known reference to these believers in England as “Baptists” was in 1644. They did not like the name and did not use it of themselves until years later. The early Baptists preferred to be called “Brethren” or “Brethren of the Baptized Way.” Sometimes they called themselves the “Baptized Churches.” Early opponents of the Baptists often called them Anabaptists or other less complimentary names.

Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist, not wishing to be confused with or identified with the people who bore that name. (In fact, the true Anabaptists were not fond of that name either, because it had unfavorable overtones from early church history.) Even as late as the eighteenth century, many Baptists referred to themselves as “the Christians commonly (tho’ falsely) called Anabaptists.” – H. Leon McBeth (http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistbeginnings.htm)

According to McBeth, much like the churches of Christ and their insistence on the unbroken chain of a faithful (if unrecorded) remnant of New Testament Christianity, there are those among the Baptist faith who have purported an unbroken chain of Baptist tradition, a “trail of blood,” since apostolic times.  In many ways, our stories are similar.  But again, while I may disagree with some of their specific doctrines, Baptists, so “named by their opponents,” have historically referred to themselves as Christians—also likely to have originated as a term of derision— and do so today. 

My point here is that we cannot allow falsehoods to be preached, whether about those of a different stream in our own faith heritage, or about those in different denominations.  To try and build yourself up by tearing down another, especially by spreading false information, is woefully dishonest.  If we do these things willfully and without any attempt at real investigation, we are guilty of deceit, compounded by an attitude of conceit.

I recently watched an exchange unfold on a Facebook thread that involved one who was apparently a far right-wing church of Christ preacher and some people of different faith traditions.  This man was the farthest thing from the spirit of Jesus when he called Baptist believers “repulsive.”  It is no wonder that adherents to his faith heritage are looked down on by so many people in the world today for what they perceive as cult-like attitudes, teachings, and behaviors.  When we damn what we do not know and what we do not even attempt to understand, that does not in any way support the cause to which we have staked our souls. 

St. Francis of Assisi crafted a prayer that should be studied and considered by any person who truly seeks to follow God.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

“O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”         

 The sad fact is that while the sentiments of this prayer ought to be universal among all Christians, I can think of some that would dismiss it because of its Catholic origin.  That is not uncommon among some groups.  I even remember an instance where a church of Christ preacher in the heat of verbal combat questioned whether we were under the Old Testament directive to love our neighbors as ourselves, which was specifically ratified by Jesus himself, because it was not breathed on or after Pentecost, and we are only subject to commands rendered after the “institution” of the church.

When you add to these issues the heritage of racism that has plagued at least parts of the movement, and now talk of child sexual abuse in some quarters, the deplorable discipling/mind control perpetrated by an offshoot denomination, among other scandalous incidents and what is considered by some to be the pinnacle of righteousness may have the appearance of having its foundation not on the solid rock, but on eroding sand and clay.

Some will say that I complain too much.  In fact, I was accused of that by an elder once, even though I was only trying to stand up for what I believe in, including things like integrity, honesty, treating people of other faith traditions with decency and respect, and embracing love and grace as central to the Christian experience.

My point is that we cannot hope to affect others and impact the world for good if we refuse to acknowledge our flaws and open our hearts first to healing our own afflictions.  Jesus said it best when he gave that unforgettable mental image of the speck and the beam. 

To move forward and upward, we need men and women who are dedicated to real scholarship, not just parroting the positions of the current and past church luminaries.  We need real knowledge, not filtered through the interpretations of reactionary or activist preachers.  We need a broader willingness to learn, and if our new honest learning leads in a different direction, the willingness to change our practices to better align with what we know.

Another sad truth is that the “un-denomination” is as divided and divisive as any religious body in history.  We have discarded the Restoration plea to unite the Christians in all of the sects, and in so doing, we have become what we beheld. 

I wish it were not so.  I hope that I live long enough to see a renewal of that true Restoration spirit and initiative.  I believe there are winds of change growing across the vast sea of Christianity.  It is not the siren song of change for change’s sake.  It is a longing for something that is a real relationship with God less fettered by organizational hurdles and inferred impediments to a joyful experience.  There was something natural and organic about the dispersal and phenomenal growth of the church in the first few decades after the crucifixion.  Jesus’ message of love and hope and peace and liberty rang true to people who were slaves or living as subjects of hostile powers in occupied territories.  Maybe if we could ever truly get back to the basics, to experiencing love, joy, righteousness and peace, and recognizing it all as the product of grace, both received and given, we might see a glimmer of the true Kingdom of God, not confined by titles and names and specific denominational dogmas, but boundless and real and genuine. 

Jesus prayed for the unity of all of his believers.  Rather than seek new ways to divide ourselves, engender hatred, manufacture mistrust and hinder our influence in the world, maybe we should listen to the words from Jesus’ heart that he poured out to his Father. 

John 17.20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus prayed for it.  But he must have known that in order for it to have real meaning, that unity of purpose and will must come from the believers.  It cannot be imposed from outside, even if imposed by God.  To be real, it must be freely offered.  If indeed that wind of Restoration is rising, may the Spirit lead us to a simpler, unfettered, joyful experience of better life in the Kingdom.                              

On the Weakness of Faith and the Strength of Hickory

I have not ventured into the turbulent stream of Romans 14 before, at least not for more than to dip a toe into it.  But for some reason, there are concepts from that chapter that keep revisiting my consciousness, and will not let me rest until I more fully explore them. 

It is no mystery why this reading is troublesome.  It specifically focuses on an issue of eating meats.  If we connect this to the discussion in I Corinthians 8, it may be that the meat in question had been offered to an idol in a temple, and then sold in a market.  A converted pagan may have been sensitive to this, and may have been offended by it.  Paul says as a general rule, meat is meat: eat it with thanksgiving for what it can do for you physically, not what it was falsely purported to do as an idolatrous offering. 

Some scholars pictured a Christian vegetarian sect as having emerged in Rome, which is largely speculative, but not out of the question, given the track record of humanity in distorting simple things to require far more than necessary.

Throughout the text, the theme is that we should not quarrel over matters of opinion.  This does not include core doctrinal issues, but that opens a completely different set of controversies regarding what is a core doctrinal issue.  Paul builds his argument on the dichotomy of weak vs. strong.  I have always found this curious, since no one ever pictures himself arguing from the position of weakness.  Was this by design, so that we all could see ourselves as the bigger person, demonstrating the magnanimity of enlightenment to the “weaker” party?  That idea keeps returning to me.

The strong brother believes he can eat meat.  The weak brother is offended.  Paul says to both in verse 3: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”   Paul acknowledges that there are indeed differences.  To deny them would be dishonest.  The key is finding balance, but he entreats that the balance must come from within each brother.

How do we know this?  He says beginning in verse 22, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.  23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  The brother that violates his conscience and understanding has sinned largely against himself. 

Paul suggests that there may be those situations where continuing to consume the meat may cause a brother to violate his conscience, as shown above, that this would be a hindrance to that weaker brother.  Beginning in verse 13,  he says “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.  14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  15  For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.”

But then he turns around and says in verse 16, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”  The weaker brother considers the meat eater to be engaging in evil.  The one who eats know the truth is to the contrary.  Is that not contradictory to the teaching that we should abstain from something to prevent a weaker brother’s offense? 

Perhaps Paul is saying that there is a responsibility to help the weak become strong.  You cannot win over a heart by causing offense.  But to allow that to remain a constant source of offense is to fail to grow.  As the weak become stronger, the offense should diminish with greater understanding.      

The crux of the issue is not to judge.  He pointedly asks in verse 4, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” 

 He further condemns this judgmental attitude in verses 10-13, where he says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;  11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

Paul summarizes his argument with a declaration that mundane things like eating or drinking are not really germane to citizenship in the kingdom of God.  In verse 17ff, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  Eating meat, the direct antecedent of the argument, and by extension, drinking wine (v.21) have little to do with the actual conduct of life in the kingdom.  Whether one eats or drinks is irrelevant compared to the truly important aspects of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Can one eat meat, even offered to an idol and be acceptable to God?  Yes, if he demonstrates qualities like righteousness, peace and joy.  Can one abstain from such meat and still be acceptable to God?  Absolutely, since to do otherwise would not be acting on faith (v. 23), thus violating the conscience and sinning against one’s self.  Can we hold differing opinions on any number of matters that do not pertain directly to the life, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus?  The application appears to be obvious.  But liberty must be exercised with sensitivity to others so that peace and “mutual upbuilding” can continue.  

 Paul uses the observance of feast days as another example of the same principle.  No feast days of religious obligation are enjoined upon the Christian believer.  However, it is likely that Jewish converts maintained observance of Jewish festivals.  They must not condemn those who do not keep the festival, and those who do not keep the festival must not condemn those who observe the day as unto the Lord.  Whether concerning meat eating or observing holy days, the principle is the same.

 Now among those of my faith heritage, there has been a great deal of controversy regarding this chapter.  I am convinced that some people would prefer that it wasn’t even included.  But if we accept that scripture is indeed inspired and preserved for our learning, then the chapter stands. 

 But isn’t it interesting that there are such wide opinions about how to apply these teachings?  According to the strict constructionists, this applies only to meat, although a companion argument was made with respect to holy days, which logically was meant to demonstrate a broader scope to the concept.  However, many of these same people will take a passage that addresses a specific concern and make that passage apply to all things.  For example,  in I Corinthians 16, Paul instructs the Corinthians as he had the Galatians to set aside a sum each week to make ready for his arrival to collect the funds and forward them to Jerusalem specifically to aid the saints who were in need there.  If anything, this is even more restrictive in scope, since Paul himself was to collect it and see to its disposition. 

 The inconsistency with application borders on the hypocritical.  What was meant to show a general principle by arguing from multiple specific examples is disregarded, while a specific example recorded as history is elevated to universal command.    Now, I am not suggesting that there be no collection.  Jesus and his disciples had a common treasury, and his example is good enough for me without wresting a non-existent universal command from the instruction to a specific group to meet a specific need.

 The point I am trying to make is this: within the faith heritage to which I belong, there has been so much division that could have been avoided if we had but applied the principles found in Romans 14.  Instead of withholding judgment, we have judged to the finest of minutiae, and shattered the unity that Jesus prayed for to our own dishonor and disgrace. 

 And the sad thing is that we are not finished.  There are those among us who would continue to split and divide us over matters of opinion, as Paul condemned in Romans 14.1.  There are too many churches where there should be one church.  When churches of Christ plant buildings within earshot of each other and refuse to acknowledge each other as brothers, we are judging another man’s servants.  When we fail to extend a hand of fellowship to a person who has accepted the same Savior and been baptized into his body, we are judging another man’s servant.

 In truth, there is none so strong that he does not become weak when lit with the brightness of the Son of God.  Paul himself discussed his own weakness in II Corinthians 12.9,10 as he discussed his pleas to be relieved of the thorn in the flesh.  “9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

 Returning to Romans 14, no matter our true level of attainment, we would all like to believe ourselves to be strong.  The true test of wood’s strength is not purely density, however.  Oak is dense, hard and strong.  But hickory has the added strength of being strong enough to bend.  That is the strength that Paul is commending.  The strong brother is able to bend to support the weak brother.  But he holds him up and helps him to grow and shares his strength.  The strong sister bends to seek forgiveness for (or to forgive) some perceived offense, understanding that the source is from weakness, but as she resumes her proud height, she brings the weak sister along with her. 

 Romans 14 describes the reality of community, whether in families of flesh or of faith.  There will always be those of varying levels of maturity.  The task is not to seek our own interests, but to be gracious enough to accept and honor genuine—if ultimately insignificant—differences among us.  We each can learn from the other.  For this grand endeavor to succeed, we must be willing to listen as well as to speak, to learn as well as to teach. Like a shepherd, a good leader knows when to stand before his followers and when to walk beside them.  We could learn a lot from a shepherd.  Maybe that’s why Jesus claimed to be the good one.      

Christmas Time at Home

Listening to Rhonda Vincent’s “Christmas Time at Home,” I can’t help but let my mind wander back 40 years and more, to the late 1960’s, to Christmas at my grandmother’s house, when I had yet to reach the cares and concerns that seem to have crept upon me when I reached the treacherous years that began with the double digits.

There is only one word for Christmas to a child of 5 or 6 or 7: magical.  The tree—always a red cedar, because that was the only evergreen that grew near my grandparents’ tiny house in South Central Kentucky—was trimmed in those big old light bulbs of red and blue and green, sparkling with strands of tinsel, adorned with a few ornaments.

The music of the season played on the AM radio.  The feast of the holiday was prepared in the little kitchen at the back of the house, a large, black wood-burning stove in the corner for heat.  I always sat on a stool at the corner of the table.  The food was never too fancy, but always good.  There would be the “good” food, sure, but the desserts were memorable:  Chess pie, pecan pie, jam cake—the foundations for a tradition that would last for years. 

I remember one year when my sister conned me into wearing funny cut-out pointy paper ears, and I was an elf.  It was fun.  I remember the year my gifts included Johnny West and Chief Cherokee from Louis Marx toys.  I still have what’s left of them.  A lot of years made their plastic brittle.  But not their memory.

I remember the anticipation of Christmas.  I remember the Sear Wish Books from that era, and memorizing specific pages that had the things that I not only wanted but felt that I needed to make my life complete.  I was always accused of getting mean around that greatest of holidays.  It was not by design.  It was more by default.  But I was never shut out of gifts for my bad behavior.  I was always more than blessed.

Through the years, my parents made sure that “us kids” had some things that we wanted for Christmas.  And I know there were years when it must have been hard making those dreams come true.  But all I knew was that I got some really neat stuff. And deep down, without a shadow of doubt, I knew I was loved.

My grandmother has been gone for over 40 years.  I still hear her voice, I see her eyes, her smile, I feel her warm hugs.  I know she loved all her grandchildren equally.  But I always secretly believed I was her favorite.  After all these years, remembering her at Christmas, like any other time, really, makes me smile.

And I think with deep and abiding love of my mother, who was to me the very soul of the holiday.  Like my wife—who (either oddly enough or not surprisingly) is so much like her in so many ways—she planned the holiday carefully.  She wasn’t much for singing, but she broke into a chorus of “Christmas Time’s A’Coming” at the appropriate moments.  She made sure the Christmas breakfasts and dinners were perfectly choreographed.  And she made sure that we were happy, like she tried to make sure her grandchildren were happy.  Perhaps it was her example that taught me well by living a most important principle: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

I hope my children will have good memories of the Christmases of their childhood.  I hope they will treasure the trinkets that marked their younger years, but I hope they will know more than anything else, they are loved.  Despite the cares of the everyday world.  Despite the difficulties of indifferent fate.  They are loved.    

Embrace the memories but don’t stop there: seize the opportunities to bridge the years, the generations with the same love that made those memories dear. It wasn’t the presents that made Christmas special, but those who were present.  And they always will.

The season is young, but I’ll start early: Merry Christmas.   

Racism III: E Pluribus Unum

Caution: In this article, I present some historical references that use some disturbing terms. I present these comments not to condone the demeaning references, but to be historically accurate in portraying the attitudes and racial climate of the times.

 
Racism has been a blight on churches for decades, maybe even centuries. I have recently been exploring the incidence of racism in churches of Christ, and found, to my grave concern, that there was a time when it was rather common. The comments and actions of Foy E. Wallace, Jr. and N.B. Hardeman in the first half of the 20th century were, I believe, indicative of an institutional, ingrained racism that plagued the church and hindered the gospel message. I came across one report that suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King was referred to by the vulgar racist epithet of “Martin Lucifer Coon” from a Church of Christ pulpit in Arkansas in the 1960’s. In brotherhood papers during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, blame was placed on civil rights marchers for causing conflict and harm, with little or no concern for the biblical directives to eliminate oppression and aid the afflicted.

In one rather fascinating example of faulty logic (and self-congratulation over it!), a writer for the Gospel Guardian enumerated his reasons for supporting racial segregation, saying that it was God’s will for races to separated, and essentially condemning biracial people as abominations. In his article dated 23 July 1970, Ervin Driskill wrote,

Why I Believe In Segregation of Races

It has been no secret to those who have known me that I believe in the segregation of the races. My reasons appear valid, to me, and nothing I have seen, on the subject, has convinced me otherwise.

1.  I believe the white race owes its existence to God; God made the white man.
2. I believe the Negro race owes its existence to God; God made the Negro man.
3. I do not believe God made a “Mullato Race” (a mixture of white and black); there is no such “Mullato Race.”
4. When white marry white the off-spring is white, thus, perpetuating what God made.
5. When Negro marry Negro the off-spring is Negro, also perpetuating what God made.
6. When White marry Negro, or when Negro marries White, the off-spring is Mullato. This is a corruption or, perversion of what God made. It is my belief we should be satisfied with what God has done.
7. No one, I suppose, would condemn me for contending for something God has done — namely, maintaining God’s fixed order. That is all for which I contend.
8. Since God has made no “Mullato race,” I take it He didn’t want one. Since He has made a “White race” and a “Negro race,” I take it, it was because that’s what He wanted.
9. This does not mean the “White race” cannot be helpful and kind to the “Negro race” (and the poor unfortunate Mullato, as far as that is concerned) nor, does it mean the “Negro race” cannot be kind and helpful to the “White race,” but it does not require an integration of the two to do so.
10. The integration of the two results in a perversion of God’s arrangement.

For many years there was a complete segregation of the Negro and White and much kindness was shown and help given by both. Some years ago we lived in Meridian, Miss., and when a friend from Abilene, Texas, stopped for the night, and we were unable to find a place for her Negro helper to stay, we gave her a place to stay in our home. This was showing kindness to one of God’s creation but it was not a permanent arrangement.

Also, several years ago, we lived near Waco, Texas. R. N. Hogan (a Negro preacher) was in a tent meeting in Waco. Every night I drove thirty-eight miles round trip, and carried a car load of Negro people, to the meeting, in an effort to start a Negro congregation. One old man obeyed the gospel. Because we did not believe one man could worship God, by himself, and because there were no other Negro members in the town, we arranged for him to worship with us.

This, again, was showing helpfulness and kindness. With one more Negro Christian, in the town, I would have helped them start a Negro church.

This may be “racism” but I am not the least embarrassed at such terminology. The Communists have done everything to destroy this nation and for sometime have capitalized on the “Race issue.” It is unfortunate some Papers, Schools, churches and preachers are cooperating with them.

http://www.wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v22/v22n11p8a.html

I find it appalling that this ever appeared in a brotherhood paper. Not one scripture was offered to support the conclusion; only one man’s opinion, and that self-vetted. It is hard to imagine that an editor would allow such to be passed on–unless the editor was in agreement. The logic was completely flawed, drawing “valid” conclusions from false premises. (For more discussion of how religious people can use faulty logic, see the article, “Logic and the Turtle on the Fence Post” in this blog.)

It should be noted that not all preachers for the churches of Christ held such racist views. In the same year, Leo Rogol wrote in the same magazine against racism in the church. In his article dated 18 June 1970, he wrote,

“I have heard sermons and read articles in which preachers criticized the Negroes’ involvement in racial strife and disorder. Now these occurrences are the ways of the world and we do not follow after them. And neither do I wish to leave the impression that I am in favor of such. But on the other hand, let those brethren who speak out against this social injustice be reminded that such expressions of outrage are the effects of the injustice inflicted upon the black race. Let it be known that the Negro himself is the victim of and suffered because of a violation of civil laws by the white society. Laws of our nation, of our free society, should guarantee the peace and tranquility of all people without respect of nationality, class, or color. Then those who have violated the rights of any class protected by law, are as guilty as those Negroes they accuse of such behavior in their retaliation against this abuse.

“Why do I say this? To champion the cause of the civil rights in this racial issues? Not exactly so. I do not deny that some, or perhaps even many, Negroes are abusive toward the very progress they seek to make. But this does not justify a Christian abusing the rights and privileges belonging to the Negroes. I am saying this to point out to these brethren who teach against racial disturbances that they also put the brethren “in remembrance” of their proper attitude and conduct toward the Negro as fellowman. While I often hear and read of matters pertaining to the guilt of the Negro in these perplexing matters, I seldom read or hear of any admonition to the white brethren with regard to their attitude and conduct toward the black race. And I fear that much of the spirit of racial intolerance in the world continues among some brethren in the church!”

He went on to say,

“Paul wrote against “foolish talking” and “jesting, which are not convenient” (Eph. 5:4). The word, “foolish,” means: “insipid, senseless, which is not fitted to instruct, edify, or profit; idle chit-chat.” Jesting is language that is “light, or trifling, and malignant.” I believe that many times Christian, sometimes even gospel preachers, are guilty of this sin. How often do we hear Christians refer to the Negro as “nigger?” It is spoken in ridicule and oft times in scorn and derision of the black man. It is entirely wrong to use such language that degrades and makes the Negro the object of contempt or disrespect.

“I do not propose to have the answer to the social or racial problem of our day. Neither do I intend to become involved in the political issues facing our nation. But I do believe I have the Word of God to instruct and direct my words, conduct, and action with regard to my duty for, and relationship with, the fellow man of another color. I do know that a “racial problem” is not that of the colored man alone. It involves a “problem” of attitude and spirit on the part of the white man toward the Negro. I believe, that as a Christian, I can express no hatred, intolerance, or contempt and ridicule toward any race. And I must respect, therefore, the dignity of man regardless of the color of his skin.

“That also means I cannot consider a Negro brother in Christ as a “third” or “fourth rate citizen” in the kingdom of Christ. A Negro brother is not simply to be “tolerated” out of a self-righteous and haughty spirit of benevolent endurance, but he must be considered with equal respect, without distinction or partiality. He is subjected to, is a servant of the same “king of kings and lord of lords” as also am I. All things being equal in our relationship to Christ, then by what right can I assume a spirit of superiority over him by reason of the color of my skin?”

http://www.wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v22/v22n7p6-7.html

David Lipscomb, writing in the Gospel Advocate, dated 21 February 1878, responded to a report of a church in McKinney, Texas, where a black man had petitioned for membership in a white congregation. In part of his reply, Lipscomb said,

“We believe it sinful to have two congregations in the same community for persons of separate and distinct races now. The race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love and brotherhood in Christ Jesus.”

He concluded by saying,

“Our treatment of the Negro at best, is that of criminal indifference and neglect. To discourage and repel him when despite that cruel neglect on our part he seeks membership in the church of God, is an outrage that ought not for a moment to be tolerated.”

http://wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v22/v22n2p1-3a.html

Over the years, I believe that racism has declined in the churches of Christ. But I suspect that there is still an element of it remaining. There are too many examples of segregated congregations in too many cities. There may be lip service to embracing racial equality, but actions do not necessarily support that. I believe that this is of the un-intentional incidental racism variety, but it is racism that needs to be addressed and corrected.

 
In those congregations with which I have been familiar that have had a few black members, there always seemed to be a low but perceptible level of uneasiness. The white members often try very hard not to offend, and in so doing, it seems they become almost patronizing. Again, this has been my perception alone, and I have no other evidence but what my own eyes have witnessed.

 
If there is any remaining tension or uneasiness involving race, we need to get over it. Color is a superficial matter of skin. Brotherhood is a matter of heart. Contrary to the commonly viewed artists’ renderings of a white-skinned, blue-eyed Messiah, Jesus wasn’t a white European. White people need to get over that misconception and view Jesus for what he was: the earthly embodiment of God in human form. If skin tone had been important in our understanding of Jesus, his ministry, death and resurrection, I am confident that we would have been informed. If we were required to keep some rigorous standard of racial purity, I am equally confident that we would have been directly instructed. It is past time to let cultural bias and prejudice dictate our religious duties.

Paul appealed for unity in Ephesians, but that only echoed Jesus’ appeal for unity among all of his followers in the Gospel of John 17, where he prayed,

“20 I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Jesus didn’t separate the white followers from the black followers. He prayed that all followers of all races and ethnicity may be one. If we divide where Jesus has gathered, we are sadly misled. And even more sadly lost.