Years and years and years ago when Nell and I first met I was attending New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and worshipping at Canal Street Presbyterian Church. My future wife wasn’t exactly sure what she had found, and after one church service asked me “What are you doing here and what denomination are you, anyway?”
Without missing a beat and assuming she would completely understand, I rather righteously announced, “I am a Christian, an evangelical and a Baptist, in that order.” I still say that today, although I admit it’s got a lot more confusing lately.
Let’s start with “Baptist” first. There are about a zillion different groups. I’ve tried out two of them over my lifetime, and found good people with a faith far more mature than mine in both groups. I’ve also found some scalawags. I like what Baptists believe and aim toward doing, and I like that they put up with me.
Then there is the word “Christian.” This is easy. Before any commitment to a certain understanding of faith, before any commitment to a church or denomination, there must be a commitment to God through Jesus Christ. If I am a Christian, it must mean that my heart’s desire is to follow Jesus. I am to follow him in my cultural outlook, in my vision of faith, in my ethical choices, and in my love and compassion for others. I won’t always get it right, I will certainly stumble in my steps as I follow him, but as I look to Jesus, he will be my hope, strength and life.
It’s that word “evangelical” that’s the problem. What is an evangelical anyway? A bible thumper? A fundamentalist? A fanatic? A right-winger? Somebody who doesn’t believe in having any fun? Somebody who has turned their brain off? Well, yes. Evangelicals are diverse enough to include all of these, along with some of the other misfits Jesus himself would have welcomed. But evangelicalism has historically been a far stronger and vital movement of faith than this ragtag collection of stereotypes would suggest. We are found in every denomination and practice our faith in a staggering variety of worship styles.
When I say I am an “evangelical” I am committing myself to the absolute centrality of the good news, the gospel. Evangelicals see as core to their faith the revelation of God through Jesus Christ, and the salvation that is found in him. By his life, death and resurrection from the dead we are forgiven and reconciled to God, brought into his family, and through the Spirit are empowered to live Christianly. I realize I am using “churchy” words to describe what happens when we connect with God, and if you don’t quite understand, it just shows how far our present culture has moved from the biblical worldview.
Today the evangelical movement has largely been hijacked by it’s fascination with far right political views. I am old enough to remember when the church made the mistake of embracing the political left, and know the destruction that caused within our our mainline denominations. The gospel of Jesus Christ is far too significant and central to all of life to ever limit it to a particular political outlook. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. In our world today many evangelicals have abandoned the core of Christian faith, their love for and commitment to Jesus, and have gone chasing the allure of political power. It seems like God has warned his people about this before. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me….”
Christian. Evangelical. Baptist. I’ve held to those labels over the years. Sometimes I’ve slacked off, or just plain failed. Other times it’s been good. The girl I met who long ago asked me where I fit in is still by my side. We have a relationship that has lasted now, but she still sometimes wonders what I’m doing and where I fit in. That’s sort of like my relationship with God. He’s faithful and knows where I’m going, even when I don’t. I suspect it’s not my labels that count so much, but rather the one God places on me: Loved.
Christmas came and with it the celebration of the birth of our Savior. For The season we focused on the fact that God loved us enough to send his only son to earth to die for our sins. We view the tiny child in the manger and marvel that God could and would come in the form of a human baby. Very few animal babies are as helpless as a human baby. Yet, the omnipotent God who created the universe identified so with his creation that he became like us. But in being born like us he also chose to die as we all do. In his case he who was sinless died with the weight of human sin upon him. In his death, he took upon himself the sins of the world. By removing our sin from us we are restored into a right relationship with God. It is only because of Jesus that this marvelous thing happened.
We have suffered the loss of a church member this season. His death came like a blow to the joy of this holy time. Yet it dovetails with Christ’s birth in the cycle of life we all face. Our first reaction was to think about how sad it is for someone to die at Christmas. But can we imagine what it must be like to leave this earth and come face to face with the risen Christ at Christmas. Surely there was a great celebration of the incarnation in heaven. And David was there with all the believers who have gone before us. Others from our congregation were there, too. What a Christmas party that must have been!
Sunday, December 18
a collection of choir anthems,
solos, duets, quartets,
with piano, organ and violin.
Invite your friends!
We are right in the thick of one of the most important seasons of the Christian year, one you may never have heard of before. We are in Advent.
So what is Advent, and why is it so important? Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends Christmas Eve. It is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, a time of waiting, a time of looking forward to the hope found in Jesus Christ. After consciously going through a time of preparing ourselves to receive and worship the Savior, the celebration of Christmas becomes far more joyful and spiritually rich.
As a kid growing up in the Midwest I never heard of Advent, although I was really familiar with the weeks leading up to Christmas. I loved that special time of the year, and I loved all the goodies I dreamed about getting. Oh, and I loved Jesus, too. Honestly, though, leafing through the Sears catalog toy section beat reading the Bible.
Come to think of it, that kid with the materialistic bent is still alive and kicking. I continue to struggle with balancing the secular and spiritual during these days before Christmas. As a follower of Jesus I certainly know that Christmas is foremost a time to celebrate Jesus’ birth, the coming of God incarnate. It is a Christian day. But my actual life betrays me. I find my time consumed in meeting all the pulls and demands of the secular season. I find my senses bombarded with holy messages from Amazon, Best Buy, Kohl’s and Walmart. I find my interests turning to the annual problem of finding a gift for my wife. (Problem solved this: bought her a lovely, romantic vacuum cleaner.)
Then I hear other voices breaking through the din of the secular noises of Christmastide. Well meaning folks remind me to focus on the real meaning of Christmas. Hallmark cards and church bulletins alike proclaim “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!” TV preachers urge me to help them fly around the world in their new executive jets to give gifts to starving children. And somewhere in the depths of my soul, the quiet, sure voice of the Holy Spirit repeats Jesus’ words: “Come, follow me.” With all the competing demands and only limited shopping days left, just how do I do that?
Paying attention to Advent is a way to grow closer to God even in one of the busiest times of the year. By pausing and preparing ourselves to appreciate the coming of Christ in a fresh vision of faith, Christians will discover a richer, more complete relationship with God. Our lives will be spiritually renewed as we experience a new birth of hope in our Savior. We will know and rejoice that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NIV)