Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Light Overcomes the Darkness

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."  (John 1:5)

Each year the Queen of England presents a Christmas Message to the people of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom.  Her message is televised for all to see and hear.  She tries to reflect upon the Christmas Season and to give the citizens some hope for the year to come.  This year she quoted the verse above as part of her message.  She talked about how even in the darkest of days we can find light to shine in our world.  She concluded by saying that if we follow Jesus and try to love one another, the light will overcome the darkness.

I watched her message on Youtube and thought, "How remarkable that the leader of a country of the world would quote from the Bible and give a bit of Christian testimony in her remarks to her citizens."  Wait, though, the United Kingdom does not have separation of church and state as we do in the United States.  They have an official state church, The Church of England, and the Queen serves as the head of that church, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The intertwining of Christian faith into the comments of the Queen of England is not exceptional.  It is expected.

You see...England has a plethora of religious institutions across its land, just as we do in the United States.  Everyone has freedom of religion to worship as one chooses and everyone has the right not to belong to a religious group if one so chooses.  The United Kingdom, however, has an official state church and it is the Church of England and the Queen represents that church so she can say as she wishes on television as she speaks for her country and this year she shared a bit of scripture and a bit of faith with those who were watching.  They did not have to agree with her but she was speaking out of her own experience to those who would hear her.

Isn't that what sharing one's faith is about?  Is it not testifying to what one believes without requiring that others also believe or agree with what one has said?  You and I, as well as the Queen, can voice what we believe to others as we share our faith but we can also allow others to have the freedom to believe what they will without requiring that they think or believe as we do.

Our church denomination, the United Church of Christ, has similar beliefs when it comes to faith sharing.  We do our mission work through our mission division, along with the Disciples of Christ church, in that same way, reaching out to all, but not trying to convert others who have their own faith tradition, making them think that their faith tradition is less authentic to our own.  We believe in shining the light in the darkness but do not call what other believe as darkness if they see their faith tradition as a path to God as we see our own in that way.

John's Gospel begins with a section that gives a clue as to what the rest of the Gospel will present.  Again and again, John's Jesus encounters people whose eyes are not opened and they live in darkness and suddenly because of the life and ministry of Jesus they can see, both naturally and spiritually.  The light of Jesus shines in the darkness of the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We live in a dark world in many ways.  There are some who would do violence against others and say they are doing the will of God.  They are some who will advocate mistreating others and say they are Christians while doing it.  The light shines in the darkness and points the way and the way it points to is the way of the man who called himself "the way, the truth, the life".  God sent his son Jesus to be the light to shine in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it or be able to put it out.  We are the ones to testify to the light, even as John did, and what we say to others may shine light into the darkness they may be experiencing in life.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Journey

When I was taking psychology in undergraduate school in preparation for serving as a school counselor, I learned that in the 1950s there was a psychological movement based on the power of positive thinking that instructed everyone to arise each morning, look into the mirror, and say to oneself, "Everyday in every way, I am getting better and better."  If one did that each day and truly believed that what one said was the truth, then internally it was supposed to make a difference in the way one lived.

That idea reminds me of a skit that was on Saturday Night Live when Al Franken was part of the cast.  He portrayed a character who was on television who also believed in the power of positive thinking and he would look into a mirror and say to himself, "I'm good enough, and I'm strong enough, and doggonit, people like me."  It was always funny and at times he would have guest stars who would do this with him.  Perhaps this was a parody on that earlier strain of pop psychology.

Whether or not it was based on pop psychology, thinking positively about life is a good idea.  In this age of fear mongering by many in society, where isolationism seems to be promoted as the way to deal with the unknown, it is easy to become afraid of strangers or to want to close ourselves in and not enjoy life as we desire.  Thinking in a positive way about life encourages new relationships and opens us up to new possibilities that we may not have expected in our lives.  It offers us new enjoyment that we may give us a sense of fulfillment.

The book of Philippians offers advice on this very topic in chapter 4 when Paul wrote to the church at Philippi and told them, "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (4:8)  In other words, fill your mind with good things and the negative things will not overwhelm you.

Life is a journey and as we travel along from birth to death we can become better human beings or ones that others would rather not be around.  Our lives can be blessings or hindrances to others on their own journeys.  We make choices to live so that others may be blessed with our joy and the good that we can do.

Every day in every way, we ARE getting better and better, as we walk the journey of life and attempt to make others on the journey also to experience the better in life.  We will not always make the right choices and make unintentionally harm others.  But our good intentions to continue to live in a constructive manner will outweigh our minor indiscretions now and then.  Live in a way that is pleasing to God and helpful to neighbors and know that God will be with us as we travel daily.

Monday, December 7, 2015

All Fired Up and Washed Clean!

The Prophet Malachi predicted that a messenger would come to prepare the way for what God wanted to do for the people of Judah and Jerusalem.  The messenger would come, "but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (3:2)  This messenger would purify those who needed purification.  He would be like "a refiner's fire" and "like fuller's soap" burning away every fault and sin and washing away every impurity.  The ones who needed the most purification, according to Malachi, were "the son of Levi", the priestly tribe, the ones charged to process the rituals of the Temple, the ones that took the animal presented to atone for the sins of worshipers and slaughtered it on the altar in the area near the Holy of Holies.  The priestly tribe was not always completely righteous themselves though and needed sacrifice given on their behalves to wash away their own sins.

So, Malachi predicts that one would come whose effect on them would be to purify their actions and cleanse their sins even as a fire hot enough to melt metal could do and a soap harsh enough to wash away a bit of skin along with the dirt as one used it to do the laundry as well as clean one's body.  The messenger of the Lord would purify the priests along with those offering sacrifices until the sacrifice they gave would be pleasing to the Lord.

Fast forward 500 years or so, and up steps John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, yelling out at all who would listen that they need to submit to his baptism for the purpose of repentance.  Calling his listeners broods of vipers, he told them to change their ways as well as to be dipped in the water as a symbol of their new life to come.  Their family heritage was not important to him.  Instead, it was obedience to the message he preached that would bring a change in their lives.

Tax collectors and soldiers were among the crowd listening to John and they asked what they should do in order to escape the wrath of God that he said was coming.  Share, give to others, do not cheat, be satisfied with what you have....good advice to live by.  "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."  (Luke 3:18)

Is being subjected to fire and soap good news for the masses?  For John's crowd, it seemed to be what they needed to hear.  Clean up your act, John would say, and your life will be much better.

Perhaps John's message to his First Century listeners is one that is relevant for today's world also.  Many people seem to have no direction in life and go about in patterns of life that bring them and others misery and pain and confusion.  Maybe what Malachi and John offered the ancient world is what continues to be needed in modern society in order for peace to truly be the order of the day.

The messenger that Malachi predicted would bring about righteousness through a purification process that would be painful or uncomfortable to say the least.  Israel had experienced that purification again and again as their land was overrun by foreign armies and their citizens were killed or taken into exile.  Each time they rebounded and began again in the land God had given them, they were faithful to the Covenant for a while and then began to stray away from what God had instructed them to do.  Purification happened again and again and each time the People called Israel learned more about how God would have them to live.

We, as individuals, as members of a country and society, are much like the people that Malachi and John spoke to.  We forget the lessons we learned in the past and go our own ways to do what we think is right.  Time and again, experiences happen that provide purification and cleansing.  They teach us how to live as we reflect upon them and compare them to what we know from our study of God's Word.  John's advice to those in the First Century was kind and share what you have and treat others the way you would want to be treated.  This Messenger spoke as the one he was preparing for would do.  Jesus' words to the crowds who heard him were exactly this same message.  Those words are ones we need to hear again today, in the complex, confusing world we live in also.