Thursday 6 December 2018
“8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” (Romans 13:8, NIV).
So Christmas is upon us again, that wonderful time of year where we get to celebrate with family, join in on amazing Christmas traditions like carols nights, and turkey and glazed ham and open presents. Oh the presents, for some people, especially younger people, so many presents, present’s galore.
Gift giving is one of the great traditions of Christmas, and it even predates the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. In Yuletide in northern Europe people gave each other presents. In pagan Rome people gave each other presents. Indeed if you remember the Christmas story well you will know that several Magi, from the East (aka from a pagan nation, likely Babylon) came to Jesus’ birth place, Bethlehem, bearing gifts. Gifts are a wonderful expression of human generosity and human selflessness. They allow us to express our care for others in a tangible and solid way, and they allow us to shower blessings on, and increase the joy of, those we care about, at least for a time. There are even wonderful opportunities to give gifts to complete strangers on the other side of the world through charitable organizations.
But if I said that this gift giving experience was only positive, we all know that would not be true. Gift giving is a wonderful opportunity to bless someone else. But in our modern society it has been turned into an opportunity for showmanship, braggadocio and worst of all, it has become a trap that sends people into further and further debt every year. A rather confronting meme has been making its rounds online, and though it is a harsh image, I think it says something powerful about what Christmas is and isn’t. It is a picture of someone who is cutting their wrists with a credit card, and their blood is flowing down to a wrapped present and landing in the shape of a bow. These words accompany the picture: “No holiday should manipulate you to the point where you’re going into debt just to show someone you love them.” It’s a confronting picture and a powerful message, but I do not view it as an anti-Christmas message.
You see the message of Christmas is not supposed to be, and never really was, go into debt to blow your children’s minds with what you can give them. I understand the desire to want to give your children good things, and if you can afford much by all means give to your hearts content. I also understand the idea that we don’t want to appear stingy, and I think some people do compete with others with the amount they give their children for Christmas. But this is not what Christmas was ever meant to be about or should be about. We cannot let Christmas get co-opted by the mercantile nature of those who just want to turn it into money making enterprise. I think something inside of all of us is repulsed at the way Christmas has become so much about money and things. We understand there is more to life than this, and we want to experience those other aspects of joy that don’t come through money. And that’s what the true meaning of Christmas actually points to.
You see the message of Christmas is not go into debt, it is this: you can have your debts paid. I don’t mean someone else will literally pay your credit card debt (though how cool would that be, but also how bad for us would this be if it kept happening?). I mean the message of the Christmas is that there is a God who loves you, no matter how many or how few possessions you have. There is a God who wants you to have a chance to know him. A God who we have all sinned against, who instead of just sitting in the sky looking for a chance to judge us, actually makes a way for our record of sinful debts to be cleared. You know those sins, those mistakes that keep us up at night? The ones that weigh on our mind and steal sleep from us? Those hurts we have inflicted on others and feel terrible guilt about? You know those deep wounds that no amount of retail therapy can actually heal? Jesus offers us salvation, in others words to pay our debt of sin, and clear our slate.
The way he did this was by sending his son to become a small child, Jesus, who was born in a manger, who lived a perfect life, the life we cannot live. This child became the grown man Jesus who then died on our behalf taking the punishment we deserved, and that he didn’t deserve, and he did this willingly. Then he rose to life again, so that anyone who wants to trust in him can have the eternal life he achieved.
The message of Christmas is not: get into debt to impress. It is this: God wants to pay our debts, that we owe him. He wants to free us from our guilt and shame through forgiveness.
In other word’s the message of Christmas has been directly inverted by our culture. And this is sad. I encourage you to remember the free gift of salvation that God offers us. The free gift that he promises to all who believe in him. How much more awesome does that gift sound? To me it sounds so much better than the sound of the cash register ringing, or the credit card machine swiping. It also feels better to experience the free gifts of salvation than the terrible regret so many people experience in January when they realize how much they have spent, and how empty they still feel, and how much debt they now owe.
Possessions won’t satisfy, but God offers us something better. That’s the message of Christmas, as the wonderful Harry Belafonte Christmas songs says: “And man shall live forevermore, because of Christmas day…”
Sunday 25 February 2018
We understand that currently there is an enquiry into religious freedoms being undertaken by an expert panel commissioned by Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. This panel is considering the intersection of the practice of the rights of people from the LGBTQI community and the religious freedoms of many Australians, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and people of many other faiths. We appreciate that the Prime Minister commissioned this panel because of community concerns about the impact of same sex marriage legislation. We know that the report is due on March 31st and that the panel has been hearing submissions from various groups.
We recognize that the Australian people signalled overwhelmingly in the same sex marriage plebiscite that they wanted to redefine the definition of marriage to include same sex couples. Because this plebiscite was done in good faith by your government, we accept this decision, however, we also mourn it, as we believe that marriage in Australia has been systematically weakened over the last few decades and this decision of the Australian people, ratified by the parliament, is just another step in this direction. However, we are not writing to seek to overturn this decision, we have far greater concerns.
Religious freedom is an important aspect of Australian society, and I and many people would argue that without it a society cannot function in a healthy and free manner. This is because religious freedom is about much more than just allowing people to practice their religion as they see fit. Religious freedom is one small part of supporting freedom of conscience, that is the ability for people to live according to the values they believe are important, and the ability to exercise them without fear of persecution and legal harm. Many people lost their lives over the course of western history because our society lacked the wisdom to protect people’s freedom of conscience. But starting in the reformation and culminating in the enlightenment, many men and women made the case for freedom of conscience and for several centuries now we have been living in the fruit of their arguments; a free society. But now we see this freedom being etched away.
Obviously there are limits to how people can follow their conscience, we cannot allow people to harm others physically, or to force their religious or non-religious views on others. However, we are concerned that this is exactly what some lobby groups in our society are seeking to do. There are groups that are seeking to remove exemptions for religious schools from hiring teachers who have lifestyles consistent with their stated beliefs. If these exemptions are removed this will place officials in these schools in danger of prosecution from law and therefore they would be in danger of having their conscience overridden by force and would be compelled to act against it to follow the prescribed orthodoxy of the day. This is in many ways similar to the inquisitions of the past, and we believe this is unacceptable. We have also heard of similar moves from these groups to seek to have exemptions removed from charities and other religious organizations, and we can envision a day when these kinds of law could be turned against churches. In essence we see some radical groups in our society seeking to encroach on religious freedoms as a result of the same sex marriage legislation and enforce their version of orthodoxy. We ask you to stand against this in parliament and defend everybody’s right to freedom of conscience, including those of us who would like to practice our religion without being forced to subscribe to the new sexual orthodoxy of the radical left.
We recognize that in the past our society has gone too far in how it has treated homosexual and transgender people, and we would not like to see extreme law enforcement measures brought against these lifestyles ever again, as this was unjust. However, many of us in religious and even non-religious communities are sensing the pendulum swing in the opposite direction and we ask for you to be vigilant on our behalf in parliament. But this is not just to protect those of us who are religious, we stand beside our non-religious citizens and defend their right for freedom of conscience as well, because Jesus would have us do this. As he said, “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you.”
Specifically for Christian churches we ask that you defend our right to teach what the Bible says about marriage, that it is between a man and a woman, that you defend our right to only practice marriages that are in accordance with this teaching, and that you defend the right of Christians schools, business owners and other Christian organizations to follow their conscience and practice what they believe the Bible is teaching. We also ask that you would do this for people of other faiths and people of non-religious organizations as well. We would not expect a Jewish butcher to be forced to go against his conscience, nor a Muslim congregation either. A strong society protects the rights of its citizens to disagree and still live in harmony.
We thank you for your service in parliament, and pray that you will be able to fulfil your role diligently and faithfully. We recognize that being a member of parliament is a stressful and demanding job and we thank you for being willing to do it.
Reverend Matthew Littlefield