Life Notes—December 29, 2011

“He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”  Ecclesiastes 3:10-13

Christmas, at least the traditional American version, is over.  The child has been born, the presents opened and travels concluded as we prepare for the next big celebration—New Year’s Eve.   News stories opine about the “Best of 2011.”  There will be numerous predictions for 2012 about the economy,Iraqminus US troops, global warming, and the Jayhawk football fortunes.  New Year’s Eve has become a time to party—to oust the old and welcome the new.  Unfortunately, it has also become an excuse for excesses, as have most of our holidays, where many will drink too much, eat too much, stay out too late and begin the New Year with a whimper and a headache. 

But there is something holy about the New Year and, at least in my mind, it has more in common with Christmas than just its proximity on the calendar.  Ditto for the winter solstice, celebrated by pagans for centuries upon centuries as a time of new birth.  The solstice, on December 22nd this year, is when the sun falls to its lowest point in the southern sky and begins its annual trek to the north.  In terms of sunlight it is the shortest day of the year.  From that point until the summer solstice the daylight hours get progressively longer.  Even though the deepest part of winter may be yet to come, the lengthening days give us hope and remind us that spring is coming. 

Although some feathers are ruffled when similarities are drawn between Christian and pagan celebrations, I cannot believe December 25th was randomly selected as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ.  It seems to me, in the absence of Biblical evidence, it has no more chance of being the actual date of Christ’s birth than any other day.  Yet, the time of year selected coincides with the winter solstice, the rebirth of the Sun, as well as the birth of a new calendar year.  God’s Son manifests in human form to bring us a new life.  New Year’s Day ushers in a new beginning.  The sun’s cycle begins anew.  Rebirth and hope.  Hope for better days.  Hope for improved health.  Hope for peace on earth.  It is a time to celebrate second chances and an opportunity to refocus our lives on change for the better. Whether we celebrate the birth of Son the birth of the New Year or the rebirth of the sun, light is returning to our world—and that is cause to celebrate! 

Life worship begins at 10:00 AM in Brady Hall, downtown.  Traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the downtown sanctuary.  Contemporary worship at the west campus begins at 9:00 and 11:00.  Communion will be celebrated at all services. 

Come home to church this Sunday.  2012 atFirstChurchis calling!

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

Where’s the Peace?

Life Notes—December 22, 2011

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Isaiah 9:6 

Every year is the same.  Well before Thanksgiving I vow to begin my Christmas shopping early and to finish before the crowds swell.  And every year I find myself in the hours before Christmas Eve still shopping, still addressing cards and still behind on other preparations.  This year is no exception, and I do not like it.  This season of joy and new birth and family and fellowship becomes a nightmare of crowded check-out lines, cranky shoppers and looming deadlines.  It is a frantic mess.  When I hear Jesus referred to as the “Prince of Peace,” I laugh.  This celebration of his birth is anything but peaceful. 

How has Christmas, the celebration, strayed so far from its origins?  Didn’t the angels sing of “Peace on Earth” in Bethlehem 2000 years ago?  Is that peace in our inner cities?  In theMiddle East?  In the stomach of a starving child?  Certainly not.  Perhaps we should consider where peace is not.  Wherever violence and chronic need and fear and uncertainty exist, there is no peace.  The least peaceful times in my life have been characterized by fear, uncertainty, anger and loss of control; times when it is difficult to maintain enough focus for even the simplest of prayers.  In the disorganized havoc of such times God is certainly present, but mostly unknown to me.  In fact, the manger scene to which Jesus was born could not have been the peaceful scene we now romanticize it to be.  But God was there; and God is here today. 

We are given the free will to turn to and acknowledge God’s presence—or not.  For me, I must quiet my mind to experience God.  Then I find peace, even in the midst of fear and uncertainty.  Most years I find that peace, if only for a moment, after the last Christmas Eve service has concluded and my world grows blessedly quiet.  When I am centered enough to experience the presence of God, there is no fear or uncertainty or need—there is only God, and that is fully sufficient.  And in those quiet times of holy peace, the child is born again.  And I know the challenges on earth will not have the final word.  And if only within, and if only for a moment, and if only for me, there is peace on earth.  It’s not a matter of whether the Prince of Peace comes, but whether we are there to receive him… 

Saturday evening is Christmas Eve.  The “Life” celebration will occur at 9:00 PM downtown in the Sanctuary.  A traditional service will be held at 7:00 PM in the downtown sanctuary.  Communion will be served at both downtown services.  Two family services will be held on our west campus at 4:00 and 5:30, followed by a contemporary celebration with communion at 7:00 PM.  Sunday is Christmas Day.  There will be one service at each campus, 9:00 west and 10:00 downtown. 

Come home to church this season.  If you cannot find peace this Christmas, look within…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

The Favor of God

Life Notes—December 15, 2011

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.’”  Luke 1:46-48a

When I was in college I worked at a nursery in Topeka.  The nursery was located near the I-70 exit one would take when driving to the Governor’s mansion.  Then President Gerald Ford was coming to visit our Governor at the mansion and several of us were lined up along the split-rail fence, looking out some distance across 6th street to catch a glimpse of the President’s motorcade as it exited off the Interstate.  We heard the sirens approaching and soon realized the motorcade was not on the Interstate.  It was on the street, barely 25 feet from where we were standing!  Of course, they passed by very quickly and the windows of the President’s limousine were tinted, but I am certain the President waved at me—not my co-workers, but me!  I felt I had been acknowledged by greatness—not because Ford was a great President, but because the person of the President of theUnited States had looked with favor on me. 

The scripture above begins a passage referred to as the “Magnificat.”  It is Mary’s response to the news of being chosen to carry, birth and raise the Messiah, and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful and lyrical passages in the Bible.  It is the song of a regular, everyday person being chosen for something unfathomably special.  Her joy overflows as she expresses amazement that of all the people in the world, God favored her.  She contrasts the greatness of God with the lowliness of her status in her world.  But there is no ego or pride in her song, only humbleness and honor. 

There is joy in being chosen, in being recognized, in being favored.  Most of us, most of the time, lead mostly routine lives.  And then something special happens: an angel of the Lord appears, or the President waves, or a child jumps into our lap and says, “I love you, Daddy!”  And we know we are not lowly at all—we are favored!  We are treasured and loved and special beyond belief!  We have been chosen!  As this Advent draws to a close, remember the Christ-child comes for you.  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you (yes, you!) good news of great joy for all the people: to you (yes, you!) is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”  You have been chosen.  You, too, have received favor from God—known, loved and treasured as you are, where you are, who you are.  It is a gift.  It is grace.  It is Love.  This Christmas, why not simply receive? 

This Sunday is the last of Advent and the theme is Love.  Tom’s downtown sermon is “The Gift of Love,” based on Luke 1:39-56. Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary.  Mitch’s west campus sermon is “Open Up Yourself,” based on Luke 2:1-7.  Contemporary worship is at 9:00 and 11:00. 

Come home to church this Sunday.  Receive God’s favor for you this Christmas!

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

Proclamations of the Past

Life Notes—December 8, 2011

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…”  Isaiah 61:1-2

When I consider what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, I am led to what it means to love God and others.  Indeed, Jesus told his disciples the most important commandment was to love God, followed closely by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And that leads me to consider the different forms love takes.  Certainly that does not mean we should love our neighbors in a romantic way, as we would a spouse or significant other.  Nor does not mean we are to love them as we would an infant, being available 24/7 for their every need.  On the other hand, it cannot mean loving indirectly, as we might love a book, a landscape or a television show. 

But love takes many forms and we do ourselves and others a disservice by confusing love with lust, infatuation or other fleeting emotions.  Christian love requires sacrifice and focused attention over a period of time. Everyone in our lives has needs, if only occasional needs for attention, recognition and company.  And if we love them as we should, we will sacrifice some of our time and resources to help meet their needs.  And during times of acute and critical needs, our love focuses us on them even more. 

The above passage is part of a song from Old Testament days and recorded in the book of Isaiah.  It tells us to ‘bring good news to the oppressed,’ to ‘bind up the brokenhearted,’ to ‘proclaim liberty to the captives,’ to ‘comfort all who mourn.’  These are solid instructions for loving our neighbors.  This is possible because the spirit of the Lord is upon the lover.  Certainly, the spirit of the Lord is upon us today, too, encouraging and pleading for us to love one another as Christ loved us. 

During this season of Advent, as we prepare again for the birth of Love, may we commit to opening our eyes to some of the needs around us? Yes, it may seem overwhelming. Yes, we may feel inadequate to the task.  And yes, we may internalize some of the pain and suffering of others.  But that is the nature of the love to which we are called.  We give as we are able, and we receive as we could never imagine. 

This Sunday is the third of Advent and the theme is Joy.  Tom’s downtown sermon is “The Gift of Joy,” based on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary.  Mitch’s west campus sermon is “Open Up Family,” based on Luke 2:8-20.  Contemporary worship there begins at 9:00 and 11:00. 

Come home to church this Sunday.  Put some skin on God’s love this season…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

Accepting Our Role

Life Notes—December 1, 2011

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”  Matthew 1:19-21

I have always imagined Joseph as a humble, hard-working man, quietly trying to build a good and righteous life for himself.  I suspect he wanted to be a good citizen, a good husband and father, in keeping with the traditions of the time.  He spent the time expected in theTempleand tried to apply what he heard to his daily life as best he could. 

How do I know all this?  I don’t.  There is very little written about the earthly father of Jesus, but what is written paints a picture in my mind consistent with the above description.  The fact that he finds his fiancé pregnant, not by him, but still intends to dismiss her quietly rather than make a public spectacle, indicates to me a quiet and humble man.  The fact that he had the above encounter in a dream with an angel and obeyed seems to describe someone faithful, discerning and obedient.  I doubt he aspired to raise divinity, but when called to do so he obeyed.  Personally, I shudder to think where I might be if I acted on some of my dreams—probably behind bars somewhere… 

But Joseph had a role to play, if one with few speaking parts.  Most of the glory would go to the child and the mother, but someone needed to support the family.  Someone had to shepherd the mother and child intoEgyptto flee Herod.  Jesus would need a male figure to teach him a trade and model what it meant to be a man in first centuryJudea.  But Joseph is seldom mentioned as part of the story of Christ, and never after Jesus was twelve.  Was Joseph alive for the crucifixion?  Alas, we are not told. 

There are undoubtedly many unsung heroes, unnamed people who played various and important roles in the growth and development of Jesus—not unlike in our churches and communities.  What gets done, gets done because faithful people see a need and step in to do what they are tasked and gifted to do.  It’s always been that way.  It always will be that way.  Joseph receives three brief mentions for what was certainly a difficult, heart-rending and life-consuming role.  Should we expect more for our faithful service? 

This Sunday is the second of Advent and the theme is Peace.  Tom will preach downtown, where Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary.  Mitch will preach at the west campus, where contemporary worship is at 9:00 and 11:00. 

Come home to church this Sunday.  Maybe it’s time to find your role in the church.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator