Many faiths celebrate many festivals at this time of year. For many faith leaders, the pressure to prepare a meaningful message that resonates with their congregants is of utmost importance.
We asked local faith leaders what message is the most difficult message to get across to their congregation? What idea/tenet/concept is the most difficult for people to accept? What provides a mental hurdle for them?
Here are some of the answers:
The Very Rev. Douglas Hahn, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington: What message is hard to accept? The great gap between our promise of "Peace on Earth" and the ever-present poverty and violence in our news and in our streets. When the Christian community doesn't take this gap seriously we are accused (rightfully) of being naïve or out of touch. Our good news in Jesus is that God walks in our shoes and suffers with us, which is pretty unbelievable. What helps me believe is the witness of people I know — faithful believers — who speak the message with their hands and feet, people who sacrifice vacation time to teach at-risk children to read, who welcome and feed the hungry in their homes and churches, who speak out for justice when it's not popular, who hold the hand of dying strangers. These acts of faith are what help me believe that the Christmas message of Emmanuel — God with us — just might be true.
Pastor Rachael Brooks, New Hope Church, Lexington: The most difficult concept to convey is the idea that God doesn't call us to be "spiritual," he calls us to be obedient. Instead of focusing on emotion and feelings we should be striving to build our character.
The Rev. D. Anthony Everett, lead Christian social activist, Nia Community of Faith: The most difficult message to get across to people during the holiday season is that Christmas is not about gift giving and receiving. It is not about the rich getting richer and the poor getting crumbs. Christmas is about the gift of God to humanity through the incarnation of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One named Jesus — the Son of God. Through this divine and human sacrificial gift of life, death, and resurrection, humankind has been given the freewill to accept the grace of God and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us closer to the image of God from which we were created.
The difficult part of this message is that hope is not found in material things but the firm reality that to get closer to the image of God, we must reflect God. When children die from adults' lack of gun control legislation, we are not moving closer to God. When the poor and people of color are disenfranchised through a justice system that is not only broken, but specifically works to marginalize and enslave rather than restore and reconcile, we are not moving closer to God. When we ignore our own personal health and well being for short-term gratification and ignore the health and well being of the earth in the same manner, we are not getting closer to God.
I hope and pray that some day the message of Christmas is not about a Europeanized Santa Claus changed from a Turkish Christian named Saint Nicholas or that Jesus Christ is no longer a white male instead of an historical Northeast African from Palestine. On that day perhaps Christmas will no longer be about store sales and it becomes all about God's gift to humanity through Jesus Christ and how we emulate God's unconditional love in our own lives daily.
Melissa Bane Sevier, Versailles Presbyterian Church: I can't know what issues our parishioners deal with, but I know what my issue is during this season: time. We have so many demands on our time that it can seem overwhelming. But if we see each day as a gift of time, and as an invitation to participate in that gift, then maybe our mindset will help us appreciate the moments. If we can see each day, each moment, as gift, then we move toward beauty, toward delighting in the deliciousness of being alive.
Chuck Queen, Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort: One of the most difficult truths to get across to people of faith is this: What the Bible says is not necessarily what God says. This is true not merely in conservative churches, but in moderate/progressive congregations as well.
We know that the Bible didn't float down from heaven on the wings of angels. We know that no matter how one defines inspiration, our sacred texts are fallible documents written by fallible human beings. There is no pure word.
We know that in theory, and yet in practice the Bible is given a god-like status in many of our churches. While the Bible is central to Christian faith, it needs to be dethroned from its divine status.
I advise asking three questions of a text to determine its redemptive value. One, does it make God look good? My assumption here is that God is good; that God is always better than our best. If the God depicted in a text is not as loving, just, good, reliable, forgiving, compassionate, etc. as the best person you know, then that text cannot possibly be giving us an authentic depiction of God.
Two, does it make me want to be good? Does the text in some way offer a vision of God or human possibility that inspires me to deal with my false attachments and strive through God's grace to be a better person?
Third, is it reasonable? I do not mean, "Is it provable?" or "Is it without inconsistencies?" Often, authentic spiritual truth is filled with paradox and on-the-surface contradictions.
The Bible argues with itself on almost every issue of any importance. The biblical writers and communities that gave us our sacred texts brought their biases, cultural conditioning, beliefs, world views, and presuppositions into the process of discovering God's will, just as we do.
The Bible is not literally the Word of God, but it can become a medium through which we encounter a living Word from God if we read the Bible critically, discerningly, and spiritually.
Jim Sichko, priest, St. Mark Catholic Church, Richmond: At Christmas, the most difficult message, in my opinion, is the message that salvation is for all people. We tend to categorize people and develop reasons why some are or are not "worthy." That we consider ourselves able to judge who are the "haves" and who are the "have nots" is the biggest hurdle and greatest obstacle to the message of Christmas. The message of Christmas is that we'll find a fragile, wide-eyed baby looking at us and asking us to love him, at Bethlehem that baby was Jesus. In loving him, we love God. Today, that means that we, in loving others, love God. In fact, God is in the spiritual DNA of everyone!
Mary Weese, Midway Presbyterian Church: What's most difficult, I think, is what is difficult for everyone. To slow down. To be still. To do a little less and breathe a little more. To learn to be OK with waiting. In the midst of everything we are doing, Advent asks us to wait and watch and listen because God is doing something, too. Remember, says Advent, that Jesus was born when people were very busy. Mary and Joseph weren't on a relaxing vacation in Bethlehem. They were there to do some very inconvenient government paperwork. The streets were crowded. The inns were full. The whole town was bustling. So when the Prince of Peace arrived, the world hardly noticed him out back in the cattle shed. But the good news is that God shows up anyway. In all of our busy, bug-on-a-hot-rock, franticness. God shows up in Bethlehem in that messy manger, attended by messy, wild-eyed shepherds working the late shift. And that's how God shows up now, too. In all our mess, in all our busyness, God chooses to be with us.
Pastor Pete Hise, Quest Community Church, Lexington: You know what the father of a 10-year-old son (like myself) absolutely will not find under the Christmas tree by 10:30 a.m.? Unopened presents. A 10-year-old understands that gifts were meant to be opened ... even if they aren't his. They could belong to mom, a brother, or even the dog — but he won't rest until every gift has been fully received (translated: wrapping paper dismantled and shredded across the living room floor). It's an unwritten code among elementary school students: "No gift left behind."
If only adults had the same hunger when it comes to the gifts of God.
Every week I stand before my congregation at Quest Community Church to preach, and I find myself praying the same prayer I have for the past 15 years: "Jesus, open the hearts of each person to encounter you and receive your love for themselves!" The shocking truth found in the Bible is that the heart of God can be boiled down to one word: "Love."
But sadly, many people leave that gift unopened underneath the tree. It sounds too farfetched ... too good to be true. So they choose never to unwrap this heaven-sent present for themselves.
So it remains my prayer, week after week, and certainly this Christmas, that people everywhere would investigate this 2,000 year-old present — wrapped in the humble trappings of a manger — and finally receive the love and acceptance of God they were made for.
Rabbi Marc Kline, Temple Adath Israel, Lexington: The winter holiday is a difficult time of year. It is the best of times and the worst of times. Even while we keep preaching peace on earth and good will toward humanity, I watch as this season really brings out the worst in so many folks.
Between the debt we rack up buying more than we can afford, the pushing and shoving to make sure that we get the last of a sale item being offered, and the expectations for gifts, parties, and special treats that we have fostered, people sometimes forget the reason for the season.
These days are all rooted in miracles. They may or may not be rooted in history, but they are absolutely rooted in miracles. Khanukkah is a holiday of rededication. We remember the trashing of the Temple in Jerusalem and the effort that it took to rededicate the Temple, restoring light to the community. Christmas is a holiday of rededication. Christians remember the gift of light brought to the world, as they celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Kwanzaa calls to mind the rededication of people to a life of freedom with the light of hope and remembrance. Even Thanksgiving reminds us that we are blessed to have an earth that produces and people with whom to share its bounty.
What is the greatest obstacle in the way of people feeling uplifted in the blessing? Why are people stuck in the consumer-driven madness which the holiday presents? At the risk of pointing fingers, I think that there are times that even with the best of intentions, we do it to ourselves. We want to make people happy, so we want to buy nice gifts. We want to beautify the world, so we get more and more ostentatious with our decorations and our celebrations. With the best of intentions, I was at a holiday event at a shelter last year. The decorations and the gifts brought were wonderful, and the party was grand. It was, until I realized that many were awestruck more with the reality that the people serving them had lives so much better than their own, than they were with the graciousness of the people serving. For some, the depression only deepened.
Perhaps the hardest thing to get people to think about is the idea that each of these holidays is only one day, but that the celebration of these blessings and the need to share blessings is an everyday event. People show up for worship, projects, or events on these special days, but who clamors to serve the rest of the year. How many children have birthday parties at shelters? How many festive meals happen throughout the year.
Yes, there are people doing great work. Even the folks caught up in the consumerism are good people. I do not mean to demean them, but why aren't more of us doing the "holiday" work year round? I want to put a sign outside of the malls that reads, "For the amount you will spend today, have you given this much to people in need all year?"
A few years back, the Kentucky governor changed the name of the "holiday tree" back to the "Christmas tree." People were offended that it was ever a "holiday tree" to begin with, and flooded his office with angry phone calls demanding the word "Christmas" be restored. My response to a television news camera was that Christmas was the only winter holiday that had a tree, but that I wondered whether Jesus would have been more concerned with what we called the tree, than with all of the people sleeping in the streets over the course of the holiday.
Let's make this year the time to commit to letting the holiday never end. If we can fill every day with a little more hope, we will change the world.
Ernie Heavin, Oasis Pastoral Care: One of my greatest challenges in preaching has not been trying to convince people that Satan and evil exists; no, the hurdle has been to keep them mentally and spiritually aware of his presence. In Ephesians 6:12 Paul was quite adamant about the spiritual warfare being waged on humanity. Satan generally attacks in two ways. He will intimidate you like a beast (Revelation 13) or seduce you like a prostitute (Revelation 18). The question you must always keep in mind is this, "Are you being intimidated or seduced?" He maneuvered himself into the Corinthian church and caused them to accept a different Jesus, another spirit and another gospel and they didn't even know it. (2 Corinthians 11:1-4) He convinced Eve that she was being short-changed by God. Think about it. She's already living in paradise and Satan convinced her there's so much more.
He incites us to attack the very ones we should be protecting. The next time you fly off the handle at your spouse, child or parent, just remember there is someone in the background displaying a devilish grin. The next time you attack or gossip about another person (by the way, for whom Christ died. Romans 14:15), just realize there is someone sinister applauding. The one question we should often ask ourselves, whether in our home or church family is, "Who is Satan stalking, looking for an opportunity to devour?"
The Rev. Kory Wilcoxson, Crestwood Christian Church, Lexington: I think the hardest message to get across to people at this time of year is joy. This is supposed to be a joyous time, and yet we are so easily caught up in the busyness of the season. Our joy is stolen by mounting credit card bills, frenzied schedules or by our own Grinchy-ness toward the excesses of the season. And yet, if you take away all the tinsel and trimmings, the true source of joy is still there: the good news of Jesus' birth. Our joy can only be stolen if we let it.
Therese Warrick, Founder/Ministry Leader, Sisters Road to Freedom Inc.: The most difficult message I believe I must get across is the need for compassion. Compassion must be a way of life for us as believers, disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. The Synoptic Gospels recorded Jesus' 33 years on earth and every step of the way Jesus walked and served compassionately, especially to the least of these. He healed the sick, fed multitudes, made the lame to walk, dumb to talk, and the blind to see. He cast out demonic spirits and taught his father's word in homes and in synagogues. He encouraged and inspired multitudes, and gave hope to the hopeless. He forgave those who persecuted and crucified him.
Compassion must be shown each day, not just during Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the winter solstice. God's love for each of us is every day, not during a certain season.
The body of Christ must strive to be Christ-like and do for the least of these just as Christ did when he lived on this earth. I pray that places of worship all over Kentucky will take a stand for compassion. I pray that God will break our mental hurdles and prick our hearts that we will love and be compassionate to the least of these, not only at this time of year, but every day of the week throughout the year.