Ten years now. Sometimes I'm surprised at the fellow who looks back at me in the mirror. His beard is gray, and most of the hair on top of his head is gone. When this annual journey into ministerial mode began a decade ago, there was more hair than scalp, and more brown than gray. Most of my internet friends are aware that I usually leave my ministerial robe on its hook but allow myself to slip the robes on once per year. Please delete this note now if this annual missive offends you. Most who do not enjoy or appreciate these words are kind enough not to say so. Thank you for your patience and indulgence.
Each December our church participates with Baptists everywhere in receiving an offering for our Baptist missionaries around the world. The tradition of focusing on missions at Christmas is long standing among Baptists, and we at FBC Winnsboro take it seriously.
My friend Welton Gaddy serves as pastor of Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana (nearest town of any size to Winnsboro) and is also president of The Interfaith Alliance in Washington DC. He flies back and forth each week and wears both hats with aplomb. The primary focus of The Interfaith Alliance is protecting religious liberty in America. Another good friend Basye Shuey spends much of her time working on dialogue between Christians and those from other faith traditions.
In America, we don't fight wars over religion because the First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees religious freedom for me, for those with whom Welton Gaddy and Basye Shuey work every day, and for those who choose faith in no god. In my opinion, religious liberty is the single most important freedom in my country. It is what unites the United States of America. Around our globe many countries seem to be fighting constantly over religious beliefs. If those countries' founding principles championed religious freedom, would they still be as warlike and divided as they seem today? I doubt it. So many of our world's wars are fought because one religion or sect seeks to force everyone to worship its god or gods regardless of conscience. All over our world people fight "holy wars" to deny freedom of religion to everyone who disagrees with them.
What do Baptist mission efforts, interfaith dialogue efforts, and religious freedom have to do with each other? And with Christmas?
Christmas is about God who became flesh and dwelt among us, who understands us and loves us anyhow. I believe it and proclaim it. Respectfully, I hope. What we share in missions is our faith. Not our certainty, nor our proof, but our faith. There is a difference. I am a person of conviction, but I hope I am not dogmatic or arrogant. I proclaim how God is real in my life, but seek not to judge how others relate to God. I seek to tell the Good News as I have experienced it. I despise the anger and hatred throughout our world today over differences in religion and faith. I want my life to count for respect, civility, and compassion. I believe everyone ought to have the freedom to live and express their faith without government interference.
At the same time, I hope you will understand if I look you in the eye at Christmas and say "You really should believe in Jesus. God coming to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who became the Christ of the ages is what I celebrate at Christmas." And I hope you respect my convictions without mistaking them for dogmatism. For while I believe it with all my heart, I will never force that belief on you.
I hope you share that commitment as you celebrate during these Holy Days.
God's best to you at Christmas,
Reverend Doctor Harry Boyd, Jr.