Archive for the ‘church’ Category

Marriage is inseparable from religion

First published July 25, 2015.

It was Jesus, not Jefferson, who first advocated separation of church and state when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In other words, don’t give the state what belongs to the One who has authority over everything.

Paul, a persecutor of Christians until he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, wrote that all authority is ordained of God, and Luke warned that whenever political leaders overstep their bounds and misuse their God-given authority, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

I quote Scripture only so that readers understand the bedrock beliefs that inform the political thinking of traditional Christians. We are not theocrats, but we do believe, as the Founders did, that the rights we have come from our Creator, and that there’s a higher law than the Constitution.

Now that’s clear, let me turn to marriage — a subject I feel inadequate to write about because I’ve never been a husband, but I have seen unions stand the test of time because of faith.

One of the oddest remarks I’ve read since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell vs. Hodges decision was from Sarah Sturgill of Bardstown, who was denied a license to marry the woman she loves. She was quoted in this newspaper as saying she believes religion has no part in marriage and should be entirely separate from government.

Religion separate from marriage? Marriage is older than either church or state and was instituted by God as a union between man and woman.

One could no more separate marriage from religion that separate baptism from religion. That’s why so many Christians have a problem with the ruling on same-sex marriage. If the decision had entitled all couples to civil unions, most Christians wouldn’t have a problem with it. Render unto Caesar. But marriage isn’t a contract, it’s a sacred covenant.

The Kentucky Standard’s editorial board chastened Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts for saying he would avoid discriminating against LGBT couples by not marrying any couples. It is not required of judges, he explained, and performing same-sex weddings violates his Catholic convictions. The editorial said that a wedding before a judge or magistrate is “a purely civil procedure.” It is not. The words and the structure of the ceremony are similar to a wedding performed in a church before “God and these witnesses.” One civil ceremony used by LaRue County, invokes God no fewer then eight times, and the judge marries the couple “according to the ordinance of God,” not a county ordinance. The one used by Hardin County acknowledges, in Matthew 19:4-6, that marriage was instituted by God in the beginning.

Our editorial also said Watts’ “personal belief that couples of the same sex should not be able to marry” is a form of discrimination. That’s true, but it is not discrimination in a legal sense.

Is the secular agenda now to require everyone to think alike on this issue? If so, that’s an illiberal way of looking at liberty in a pluralistic society.

While marriage is inseparable from religion, maybe it is time to separate marriage from government. How the state got involved in an institution that is essentially religious is too complicated to explain here. But I believe the right compromise is one advocated a decade ago by liberal evangelicals and recently adopted by libertarian conservatives. It is to distinguish between marriage and civil unions.

Let those religious groups that support LGBT weddings, such as the Episcopal Church and Reformed Judaism, perform them, and let the vast majority of religions that oppose them, such as the Catholic and United Methodist churches, Islam and Orthodox Judaism, opt out.

Whether or not there is a religious ceremony, let all couples, straight or gay, go to the courthouse and sign contracts guaranteeing them the financial and legal benefits of married couples.

Just don’t call that marriage because it is not.

First freedom isn’t a secondary human right

First published July 11, 2015

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, there has been a growing chorus calling for the resignation or removal of county officials in Kentucky who cannot, for reasons of faith, support same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear joined those voices, telling Casey County Clerk Casey Davis that he should issue marriage licenses to all who may now marry or step aside — in which case the governor would appoint someone to fill his position until there is another election.

While Davis’ grandstanding approach has gotten the most attention, 57 county clerks last week signed a letter asking the governor to call a special session to address the problem of how to protect their religious liberty while also complying with the court’s ruling, which made gay marriage legal in every state. This was after Beshear had already turned down such a request by Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, a leader of the governor’s own party.

Beshear said the issue can wait until 2016. Meanwhile, nearly half the county clerks in the state, who have until now faithfully executed their responsibilities as public officials, are faced with the choice of either participating in something that violates their consciences or giving up their careers and turning their backs on those who elected them, in most cases knowing they were people of faith.

It is a conundrum the justices created when they decided by a 5-4 margin to create a new civil right by changing the definition of marriage that has existed since the beginning of civilization. It comes as no surprise, yet it comes with questions that must be addressed regarding the place of faith in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and religious freedom as well as on Enlightenment ideas about the nature of humanity and liberty.

Although our nation’s founders were men of diverse views — from Thomas Paine, a Deist who despised Christianity, to Patrick Henry, who was a devout Christian — they were able to agree that all of us are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights …”

In other words, all rights come from God, and so does all political authority, according to the Bible in Romans 13:1. Those who oppose same-sex marriage make the case that God cannot grant a right that is contrary to his perfect order. And in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus — who was the Word of God incarnated (John 1:1) — teaches that God was the author of marriage from the beginning. Quoting the ancient Jewish scriptures (Genesis 2:24), Christ said that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The Bible is also unambiguous in describing homoerotic relationships as sinful, although I believe we are guilty of the ultimate sin of pride if we believe those relationships are worse than other sins or that any of us is without sin.

Conservatives conveniently forget that the sin of Sodom, according to the prophet Ezekiel, was that the city’s people had become “overfed and unconcerned” and “did not help the poor and needy.”

That’s something we might want to keep in mind when we’re stuffing ourselves full of fried chicken and potato salad at a church social and grousing about our taxes paying for food for the children of the working poor.

As the United States becomes an increasingly secular society, more Americans conflate Thomas Jefferson’s limited idea of the idea of separation of church and state with the broader postmodern notion that religious beliefs have no place in the public sphere. Not only is that not possible, but if it were, it would be discriminatory.

“Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital,” said Stephen L. Carter of Yale, a prominent constitutional scholar.

And John Adams, who played an eminent role when this nation was conceived in liberty, wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

At the heart of Christianity is the commandment that we must “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and there is no caveat that excepts our LGBT neighbors. And at the core of American democracy is the principle that all of us “are created equal” and endowed by the Creator with human rights.

In balancing LGBT rights with religious liberty, though, we should not forget that the First Amendment right of religious freedom is first for a reason.

Hyperbole and hysteria in Indiana

First published Saturday, April 4, 2015

ABC 57 in South Bend, Ind., reported April 1 that a high school coach was suspended after she tweeted that she was going to burn down Memories Pizza in nearby Walkerton for refusing to cater gay weddings.

Walkerton’s police chief said his department had investigated the threat and informed prosecutors, and he asked that folks follow the law — no fooling.

Tuesday, the TV station aired an interview with Memories manager Crystal O’ Connor and her father, Kevin, about Gov. Mike Pence’s signing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Crystal said that if the family were asked to provide pizza for a gay wedding, they would have to refuse based on their Christian beliefs.

Kevin O’ Connor said sexuality is a choice and that he chooses to be heterosexual.

To its credit, ABC 57 tacked on a footnote at the end of the story saying the family would not refuse a gay couple that came inside the restaurant to eat.

That’s a distinction most who are outraged about the law don’t make — between refusing to serve persons because of who they are and refusing to service events.

Some Christians believe that catering a same-sex wedding amounts to approval of, and participation in, something they consider sinful based on what the Bible says about homosexual acts.

Discrimination against persons is unconscionable and should be illegal. However, if the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion means anything, refusal to participate in events that violate one’s conscience should be lawful.

According to Pence, Indiana’s new law doesn’t give anyone a license to discriminate, and he wants the legislature to amend the law to make that clear.

Indiana’s law, which takes effect July1, is almost identical to those in 20 other states, including Kentucky, and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It differs from the U.S. law by defining persons to include churches and corporations, and providing a defense in civil actions involving private parties.

Basically, Indiana’s states that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in furthering “a compelling governmental interest,” and if it must impose a burden, it must use “the least restrictive means.”

Secularists are outraged over the refusal of a religious minority to accept their redefinition of the sacrament of marriage and are willing to discriminate against anyone who does not adopt their view.

One state legislator in Oklahoma offered a bill to brand Christian businesses that want to opt out of promoting same-sex relationships so that others might shun them and destroy their livelihood.

It seems the only acceptable bigotry today is against traditional Christians.

One reason is that most don’t know what traditional Christianity is. Many think the free exercise of religion means only that people are free to worship inside their churches or synagogues on their own time, but should keep their religious beliefs to themselves. They want to force Christians into the closet.

Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative, wrote that orthodox Christians should retreat to a redoubt they can defend.

“If by ‘Christianity’ we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it,” he wrote. “We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order.”

I strongly disagree. Being a Christian is personal, but not private. It is a 24/7 thing, not something reserved for an hour on Sunday mornings. And if you believe in Christ’s Great Commission, as I do, then it isn’t something one keeps to oneself.

I also believe in the Great Commandment, which is that we should love God foremost and love our neighbors no less than ourselves. There is no caveat exempting gay or agnostic neighbors.

I wouldn’t discriminate against anyone, but I wouldn’t tell others they must participate in things they don’t feel right about.

In a pluralistic society, religious liberty must not only be tolerated but respected.

Modern martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels

In the film “Selma,” released early this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights marches in Alabama, one of the most disturbing scenes is the brutal murder of young Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Baptist deacon.

The scene is shown as an event that precipitated those marches.

Jackson, however, wasn’t the only clergyman who was killed in the events surrounding those marches in support of passage of the Voting Rights Act. Another young Christian martyr, who is honored with a memorial here in Nelson County, was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Harvard-educated white Episcopalian who was gunned down 50 years ago this week.

In 2012, I mentioned Daniels’ memorial in an illustrated column I wrote for The Kentucky Standard’s People & Places page about an autumn day hike at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

In a forest glade on the grounds of the Trappist monastery near New Haven is the beautiful, life-sized reproduction of “The Garden of Gethsemani” by renowned American sculptor Walker Hancock. It shows a kneeling Jesus agonizing over his impending crucifixion while nearby his disciples Peter, John and James, lie asleep, unaware of his fear and suffering.

The story of the artwork is included on a plaque near the sleeping disciples. It attributes the sculptures to Hancock, mentions that they were donated by William Coolidge of Boston, Mass., and says only that they were dedicated to the memory of Daniels. According to the plaque, he was killed in Alabama on Aug. 20, 1965. (Several online sources give the date of his death as Aug. 14, but the date on his gravestone is the same as that on the plaque.)

The plaque also contains these words as a reminder that the one holy Catholic and Apostolic church includes all followers of Jesus, not only those of any particular denomination: “May we always remember that the church exists to lead men to Christ in various ways, but it is always the same Christ.”

The story of Daniels’ killing is told in more detail in a book I read this summer by Gene Robinson, a retired Episcopal bishop from Kentucky.

According to Robinson’s account, Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, N.H., and while studying at Harvard, experienced a conviction to become a priest. He was to have been ordained in 1966. But in 1965, he heeded a call by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for students and others to come to the South and join in the march to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital.

After the Selma marches, Daniels chose to spend the summer in Alabama and advocate on behalf of disenfranchised African-Americans.

On Aug. 13, according to Robinson, he and other protesters in Fort Deposit, Ala., were arrested and jailed in nearby Hayneville.

After their release, Daniels, a priest and two black youths went to a grocery store to buy Cokes. Tom Coleman, a highway worker and special deputy, was angry with the demonstrators and came toward them with a shotgun leveled at 17-year-old Ruby Sales.

Daniels pushed the girl to the ground and took the full blast of the gun himself. He died instantly.

The priest was shot in the back but escaped with the two youths.

In 1991, the Episcopal Church honored Daniels with a special day of remembrance in its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, on Aug. 14.

Following is the collect for the day:

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The real St. Patrick — a slave for Christ

Published March 14, 2014

Near the entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin a simple plaque marks the location of the well, where, legend has it, Patrick baptized converts to the Christian faith in A.D. 450.

I visited that Church of Ireland cathedral while in Dublin in 2010, and it brought back memories of worshipping, 10 years earlier, at another Anglican cathedral, in Belfast, where there was a big, beautiful mosaic of Patrick — or Padraig in Irish. The saint is said to have first landed on Erin’s green shores at Downpatrick (thus the name), in Northern Ireland, and in that town, both the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals are named for him.

We have all heard the myths of Patrick — how he drove the snakes from Ireland (there were never any there), and used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity. There are fantastical tales of his use of magic, such as the time when he changed his shape, and that of his companions, into deer to elude capture by fierce pagan warriors.

When I was in Ireland five years ago, I walked the Hill of Tara, where ancient Druids offered human sacrifices to their false gods. It was on the nearby Hill of Slane that Patrick, in defiance of the high king of Tara, lit the paschal fire of Easter that signaled to the king and his druids that the light of Christ had come to Ireland and would never be extinguished.

This tale, whether or not it is factual, comes closer to illustrating the truth about who Patrick was — not a wizard, but a bishop and evangelist.

As the 15-year-old son of an aristocratic Celtic Briton who was both a Roman official and a Catholic deacon, Patrick had been captured, probably near the River Severn, by pagan Irish raiders and taken across the sea to be a slave. He believed this was his punishment for a sin he committed, but in his writings he doesn’t say what the sin was. While he was a slave, his faith in God grew, and while tending his sheep herds, he prayed sometimes as many as 100 times a day, from morning until night, according to the written record he left behind.

Patrick escaped from Ireland, but had a dream, which led him to believe he was being called back to the Babylon of his captivity to spread the gospel. After being educated to become a priest and bishop, he did eventually go back and served the church as a missionary for the rest of his days. His writings consist of his “Confession,” similar to St. Augustine’s, and a letter to a British chieftain Coroticus, excommunicating him and his soldiers for slaughtering Christian converts in Hibernia (Ireland) on the day of their baptism.

I was preparing for a short mission trip of my own to Northern Ireland with Habitat for Humanity in 2000 when I read “The Spirituality of St. Patrick” by Lesley Whiteside, a thin paperback published in Dublin by Morehouse Publishing in 1996. It is an explication of Patrick’s writings. Here is an excerpt from his best-known work. It gives us a better understanding of the real Patrick and why he matters.

St. Patrick’s confession

The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High — I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

Christianity, Islam and understanding

Published Feb. 28, 2015

Following the horrific murders of innocent Americans by jihadists, the president went on television and said “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country” and should be respected and not feared or blamed for what happened.

Millions of Muslims in America and around the world were just as “appalled and outraged” as the rest of us were by those evil acts, he said.

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” the president said. “Islam is peace.”

Some of you might be surprised to learn that the president who made those remarks was George W. Bush, and that he made them less than a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

President Barack Obama has continued the war on terror. He gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, took out many of Al Qaeda’s top leaders with drone strikes and carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is neither Islamic in the normal sense nor a state.

Like Bush, Obama has been careful to make a distinction between ordinary Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s people, and the religious extremists whose understanding of Islam is as different from that of most Muslims as the Ku Klux Klan’s understanding of Christianity is from that of most Christians.

Speaking at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama took what I thought was a Christian stance against pride (the original sin) when he said that we shouldn’t “get on our high horse” and think that violence committed in the name of religion is unique to others. He mentioned Christian attempts to justify atrocities committed during the Inquisition, the Crusades, American slavery and the Jim Crow era in the South by saying that throughout history, some people have “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

It didn’t matter that he made this statement in the context of his strong condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” against religious minorities, although he might have strengthened his argument if he had specifically mentioned that Christians have been the minorities most victimized by this cult.

All some listeners heard was that he was bringing up the Crusades again (as liberal secularists almost always do), and that he was comparing some Christians to Islamic jihadists.

Within moments, what was trending on social media were the same tired untruths about the president having been brought up as a Muslim and being anti-Christian. It doesn’t matter to these people that he never knew his father, a Muslim convert to atheism before Barack was born, nor that it was a Catholic school, not an Islamic one, that the future president attended in Indonesia for two years. And there was the same tired arguments about the true nature of Islam.

Many conservative evangelical Christians don’t want to hear that jihadism is an aberration. Misled by celebrities such as Bill O’ Reilly and the Rev. Franklin Graham — who has called Islam an “evil religion” — they think Muslims are the enemies of Christians.

I’m a conservative evangelical Christian myself, and I think Graham and those who think like he does are wrong.

It’s true that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus, whom they call Isa, is God incarnate, or the “Son of God.” Nor do they believe he was executed on a Roman cross.

Based on what I’ve read from those like Ihsan Bagby, a scholar of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, and Shirin Taber, an Iranian-American evangelical Christian and author of “Muslims Next Door,” I was surprised by the similarities between the two faiths.

Here are a few.

Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah — the herald of the last days — who will usher in a kingdom of peace and intercede for his people at the time of judgment.

They revere his mother, Mary, and believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

They believe he was the only man who never sinned, and that he performed miracles, including raising people from the dead.

They believe the first five books of the Bible, the Psalms and the New Testament are God’s “inspired word,” and they refer to Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” indicating a common religious heritage among all the Abrahamic faiths.

“Allah” is the Arab word for God, and it is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims.

I’m astounded when I hear some people say Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians and Jews, or that they worship Mohammed, the Prophet, or that Allah is a “moon god,” or some other nonsense.

Maybe, before we are critical of someone else’s religion, we should first try to understand it a little better — not that we should ignore differences.

I believe, as C.S. Lewis did, that there is some truth in all religions, and that, where other religions differ from orthodox Christianity, they are in error. But every one of us is in error to some extent. As the Apostle Paul said, we see through a glass darkly.

I also believe that in discussing matters of faith, we should be open-minded and, perhaps even more importantly, openhearted.

Thomas Merton, who was certainly no syncretist, said: “If I insist on giving you my truth, and never stop to receive your truth in return, then there can be no truth between us.”

That seems to me the Christian way to have a dialogue with people of other faiths.

Lessons in faith from servants of the homeless

Published Feb. 20, 2015

Two out of three Sundays, my niece and I attend a Eucharist service in Lexington’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood. The liturgy always ends with these words — “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Then we drive back, past stately old houses and leafy yards, bicyclists, bakeries and boutiques, and onto Winchester Road, past greasy diners and gas stations, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and street people, and a brick building with a large Latin cross.

I never knew what the building was until I went there recently with students from St. Catharine College. It’s an overnight shelter, the Community Inn, run by the Catholic Action Center, which also feeds, clothes and provides laundry service to the destitute at other facilities nearby.

In these places, saints and sinners love and serve the Lord by loving and serving those he called “the least of these.”

The St. Catharine students’ class on faith and homelessness is taught by Matthew Branstetter, professor of philosophy and religion, who volunteered for the Catholic Action Center while he was in seminary in Lexington and was changed by his encounters with the poor. Now he wants his students to consider how they are changed once they’ve looked into the faces of those in need, and consider questions such as whether charity is enough and what their religious traditions say about poverty and social justice.

Helping the hard-core homeless can be frustrating and humbling. I know. For many years, I led a group of volunteers from my church who served meals at Lexington’s Hope Center to drug addicts, mentally ill men and some who seemed normal. It was as discouraging to see new faces and wonder how they ended up there as it was to see the same old faces month after month for nearly a decade.

Some of the Hope Center’s guests were ingrates. Others were gracious, like the ragged man who held my eyes with his when I asked how he was and answered with sincerity, “I’m blessed. I really am.”

In that moment my own hurts and disappointments didn’t seem so important anymore.

Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”

Ginny Ramsey, Gary McKinley and Barry McGuffin are believers. They spoke to the class on Fridays in February. Ginny runs Catholic Action and often does battle with city officials on behalf of Lexington’s outcasts. Gary is a Purple Heart veteran and cook at Catholic Action’s kitchen and ministers to homeless veterans. Barry is a pastor who operates Bethany Haven, a transitional homeless shelter in Bardstown.

Something I’ve learned from these people — and I hope the students have learned too — is that that to effectively serve those who are broken, you have to look past “their hang-ups,” as Matt said, and see them as our neighbors.

Barry told us Bethany Haven’s success rate — which is defined as someone getting an income and a permanent place to live — is a little better than 50 percent. But he added, “I can’t dwell on the 48 percent who don’t succeed because that would be devastating.”

While Bethany Haven serves women and families as a transitional residence, there is no emergency shelter or homeless shelter for single men in Nelson County. Barry and others hope to change that.

The need is great. We have people living in caves and woods, and, as I described in a recent story, in their vehicles in the brutal cold.

Some local leaders I’ve talked with about the need for an emergency shelter, who have a heart for the poor, are concerned that the shelter would attract vagrants and undesirables from other counties. It would. But there are ways to coordinate efforts among social service groups and faith-based charities to make sure those people aren’t gaming the system, and there are leaders among us who know how to make that work.

As I write this on Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded that each of us has failed. The fact that others have made mistakes shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to help them.

We’ve heard it said God only helps those who help themselves. Nothing could be further from the Gospel. God helps those who deserve nothing, and so should we. And sometimes our helping can be the spark that reignites hope in them that they can help themselves.

Christmas is a season to count our blessings

Published Dec. 19, 2014

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas …

Here in Kentucky, Christmas is more likely to be wet than white, but the meteorologists are predicting a big storm the morning of Dec.25, so one can only hope.

There’s something magical about snow — the crispness of the air, the way it carries scents like cedar and bourbon, the beauty of sunlight on a field of white.

Today is the first day of winter, and I don’t mind. I like all the seasons.

The Season of Advent, which is supposed to be a time to unwind and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, is an impossibly busy time for newspaper people, as it is for retailers and many others.

As I take a few minutes to write this, I’m exhausted from back-to-back interviews and working well into the night, and I think I may be coming down with the flu.

I’m looking forward to the Christmas season, which goes from Christmas Eve until Epiphany (Jan. 6), so that I can finally get a little relief from the stress.

My family and I have rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and I can’t wait to visit Gatlinburg’s craft shops, drive through the scenic Smoky Mountains or just sit by the fire with a good book and a cup of coffee and enjoy the company of those to whom I’m closest, but separated from by distance.

Those are the things that matter most, and that we shouldn’t take for granted.

On the day I wrote this, I interviewed a young couple — Breanna Miller and Kevin Murray — who are staying in a homeless shelter in Bardstown. The woman was about to give birth any day to her fourth child. They had come to Bardstown because they wanted to be near Brianna’s other children, who live here with her mother, but there was no more room in the house, so almost as soon as they arrived, the couple were without a home until Bethany Haven took them in.

The same day they came to the shelter, they both got part-time jobs. Things are looking up for them, Kevin told me.

Brianna said she would enjoy having her children at Bethany Haven for Christmas.

Barry McGuffin, the shelter director, mentioned another family that had been sleeping in the woods until they came to the shelter, and a middle-aged man who has been sleeping in his truck.

For security reasons, Bethany Haven can’t take in single men, but the plight of this man, who has been living on the streets in Bardstown for months, has resulted in a flurry of activity on Facebook, and a local effort to find food and shelter for him.

Barry told me people here have raised hundreds of dollars to pay for a motel room for him for several nights, and others have provided gas cards and gift cards for food.

The same day I talked with the homeless couple, I was on the scene of a house fire. Kecia Copeland, a new city councilwoman, and her son, Joshua, who had recently rented the house in Wellington, were lucky to escape unharmed before the structure filled with smoke. They, too, may be without a place to call home for a while.

Someone wise, possibly the Scotsman Ian McLaren, said, “Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Those are words we should heed year-round, but especially at Christmas, when there is much to occupy our thoughts, and yet many who have it harder than we do.

My wish is that you have a Merry Christmas and a prosperous and Happy New Year, and that you spread tidings of comfort and joy to all you encounter during this time of peace and good will.

No peace on earth for Iraq’s Christians

Published Dec.13, 2014

The true story of Christmas isn’t about a newborn in a menagerie manger being heralded by cherubs in the sky. It is about a family of refugees fleeing the wrath of a tyrant who puts every infant boy in Bethlehem to the sword to prevent another king from usurping his throne.

Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. to subjugate his people to Caesar’s rule. The Gospel of Matthew tells of the Slaughter of the Innocents in this way: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

Twenty-one centuries later, there is another slaughter of the innocents in the Middle East.

Canon Andrew White, the Anglican “vicar of Baghdad” I introduced you to on Easter, tells an interviewer about the gruesome murder of children by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. In the video, published Nov. 28, White said that days before, ISIS fighters ordered four children, all under the age of 15, to say the words to become followers of Muhammad. The little ones refused.

“No, we love Yeshua,” they said. “We have always followed Yeshua.”

So the brutes chopped their heads off.

White wept for them.

“They are my children,” he said.

The Sunday Times of London reported that Andrew, 5, the son of a founding member of White’s St. George’s Church in Baghdad, was named for the English vicar who has devoted his life to the pastoral care of Christians in war-torn Iraq. When attacking the city of Qaraqosh this past summer, ISIS killers cut the boy in half.

Throughout Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS, which thinks of itself as the successor of the medieval Islamic caliphate, is beheading children in front of their parents. They are crucifying Christians on wooden crosses, as the Romans did. Neighbors of the “Nazarenes” are painting the Arabic letter “N” on the homes of Christians who are targeted for extermination.

White, who spoke at my parish, Apostles Anglican Church in Lexington, during Lent, says 25 years ago, there were a million and a half Christians in Iraq. Now there are fewer than 300,000.

The ancient city of Nineveh, where Jonah preached and Doubting Thomas shared the Gospel, is Mosul, until recently the center of Christianity in Iraq. But the believers have nearly all fled or been butchered.

White has lost more than 1,000 members of his flock to violence. His staff members have been murdered. White has been kidnapped, beaten, imprisoned and threatened with death. He is now in Israel because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby ordered him there to save his life and the lives of those around him.

White is a peacemaker, but he is no pacifist. He has negotiated the release of hostages, worked with the U.S. and U.K. militaries and heads the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. But there is no possibility of reconciliation with ISIS, he says. They only want terror, torture and death.

As in the time of Herod, Christians are being persecuted to the point of being eliminated from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and other countries where Christianity was born and has thrived for two millennia.

The question Christians in the West should ask ourselves is what will we do about it?

Light Up, lights out and the coming of the Light

Published Dec. 6, 2014

The morning after Light Up Bardstown, our downtown went dark.

I was about to get in the shower when the lights went out and I found myself fumbling for a flashlight. Then I found the bill I hadn’t opened because I don’t believe in doing today what can be put off until tomorrow.

The disconnection date was the day before.

I texted Jeff Mills, Bardstown’s electrical engineer, asking for leniency.

“Could you get it back on today? I’m on my way to City Hall to pay,” I pleaded.

He replied that the city was experiencing a widespread outage.

Jeff was in Owensboro, but he helped me track down Jeff Miller, the superintendent, who was at the substation on Bloomfield Road trying to get the power back on.

He said a squirrel had gotten into an overhead switch connecting two substations.

It’s always a squirrel.

The grays have been waging war against our power grid for as long as I’ve been a reporter. Our infrastructure is somewhat resistant to wind, ice coatings, trucks that take out utility poles, hackers and other enemies, but there’s no good defense against suicide attacks by rodents.

By the way, Jeff, if you’re reading this, the check is in the mail.

———

I like Light Up Bardstown because almost everybody, it seems, gathers on Court Square to see the Yule tree lit and commence the countdown to Christmas.

The best part for me is Stephen Foster Singers’ performance of a medley of carols, from the haunting “What Child is This?” to the jubilant “Joy to the World.”

My assignment that weekend was to cover Small Business Saturday, which I enjoyed. I got to meet some of the nicest visitors, most of them relatives of Bardstonians.

I also talked with merchants who said the weekend after Thanksgiving was their best ever for sales. That’s great because it means the economy is improving, and it shows shoppers aren’t neglecting neighborhood stores for big box stores.

Small businesses are the economic engine of America’s heartland, and we should strongly support them.

­———

I think the “war on Christmas” is malarkey, but the war on Thanksgiving is real. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it’s the least commercial. It’s about family, feasts and football, but most importantly, it’s about taking time to thank God for what we have instead of wanting more. That’s been changing, though, as stores not only open on Thanksgiving, but open earlier every year.

When I read that Target and Kmart managers told employees they would have to work on Thanksgiving or be fired, I vowed I wouldn’t spend a dime at those stores that weekend, and I didn’t.

I was pleased to see that, although Thanksgiving sales were up 24 percent this year, Black Friday sales were down, and sales for the weekend were down by about 11 percent. That tells me retailers can wait until Friday and Saturday to have those big sales without it hurting them.

I hope next year more of them will opt to close their doors on the one day that should be about gratitude and not greed.

———

Now that Thanksgiving is over, some have said, the Christmas season is “officially” here. Not so.

For centuries, the church has said (officially) the Christmas season is from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5 — the 12 days of Christmas. The month or so leading up to the holiday is the Advent season, a time of waiting for God’s presence by celebrating the birth of the Christ child, and also by awaiting his coming again in glory to conquer darkness and make “all things new.”

Advent is the beginning of the church year.

I’m a traditionalist, but I’m also a realist. I know it’s pointless to expect most people to wait until closer to the holiday to begin their celebrations. But maybe it would enrich our Christmas to find at least a little quiet time during Advent to reflect on the coming of the Light of the World and make room in our hearts for him. It is a time to pray, as Mary did, for his purposes for us to be fulfilled in us.

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