What Doesn’t Change

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Every year, my family sits together and sets up our nativity. It gained that shiny star one Christmas when we kids decided that that’s what we wanted to give our mom for Christmas. But for the most part, it’s essentially remained unchanged through my whole life. When we were younger, we would squabble over who got to put baby Jesus in the nativity, try and put every figurine on the nativity, and occasionally someone, usually the angel, would end up on the stairs, or the roof. My mom would leave it up for a few days, and then rearrange it so you could at least see baby Jesus.

Now we’re all getting older, and things are changing.

And isn’t that reassuring, that no matter what changes in our lives, the story of Jesus and its message will always stay the same?

Emma Vaughn

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Mary Did You Truly Know?

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“Mary, did you know

that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know

that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know

that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

The sleeping Child you’re holding is the great “I am”?”

As a mother, I often wonder about Mary. How she handled the usual nervousness of becoming a first-time mom with the added responsibility of being the mother to the King of Kings. Did she fully know what she was being called to do? Did it weigh on her heart like many of my motherly duties often do?

When Jesus was left behind at the temple in Jerusalem, his response to her worry was “Where else did you think I would be?” In that moment, did she think, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out”? Or did she realize at that moment that he was so much more than just her child? Her patience and grace had to be the reason she was chosen to be his mother.

I love looking at my daughters while they’re sleeping and quietly wondering what they will become as they grow up. Will they choose to follow Christ? Will they be loving, caring women that exemplify Christ’s love through their actions towards others? I’ve done that since they were born: wondering, hoping, and praying. Holding them as newborns, honored (and slightly terrified) with the new responsibility I had been bestowed upon.

Mary must have looked into Jesus’ precious, newborn face and known that he was going to be something more. She must have seen the glory and awe that all mothers experience when they hold their child for the first time. She had to have prayed for his safekeeping and acceptance in a broken world. Imagine the love she must have felt holding him for the first time, knowing he was born for so much more and that she had been blessed to be chosen as his mother. What an honor. What a blessing.

Luke 2:19 “But Mary kept all of these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

Carol Badaracco

Thanksgiving at Christmas

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From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained. – Jeremiah 30:19

Every year, millions in the U.S. gather around tables with friends and family for the Thanksgiving holiday. For some, it’s a sweet time they look forward to each year, for others it’s a holiday they dread. Maybe it’s because the holiday reminds them of the loss of a loved one, maybe it’s because being with family draws them back into the dysfunction they spend the rest of the year avoiding or maybe it reinforces a sense of loneliness and isolation. But no matter what camp you place yourself in, the essence of the holiday is all about gratitude.

But why just at Thanksgiving? Living a life of gratitude shouldn’t be the essence of Thanksgiving; it really should be the essence of our life as believers. Thanksgiving for many is the inauguration of the next big holiday, Christmas. Christmas is about giving – and it’s centered on God’s greatest gift to us, his son. But as we all know, the message of ‘giving’ quickly turns into a message of ‘getting’. The ads on TV, the displays in the stores or at the Mall, the Christmas lists our kids write become centered on ‘What do I want?’ ‘What do I need?’ I find my own heart longing for nicer cars, bigger televisions, nicer cameras, new clothes, new gadgets and new toys. What happened to Thanksgiving?

A few years ago I helped serve breakfast at a homeless soup kitchen at Christmastime. Before the meal, there was a time of sharing and testimony. Person after person stood up and gave praise and thanks to God for what they had. “Thank you Lord for waking me up this morning.” “Thank you Lord for the breath in my lungs.” “Thank you Lord for a meal to eat.” These were men and women with nothing. Yet thankful.

Take a moment, stop and think about all that you have that you can be grateful for. Don’t compare it with what others have, that’s a losing game, but meditate on what you have been given: A roof over your head? Clothes on your back? Friends? Food to eat? etc.

This video, produced by Forest Hill Church,  captures the essence of what I’m talking about…

This year, let Christmas be a true Thanksgiving as we meditate and remember all that we have, and especially that the greatest giver of all gave freely of himself through the gift of his son, the baby in the manger who was the God of this Universe, sent for us.

Steve Dallwig

 

A Light in the Dark

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“For the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”

(Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:16)

There is no doubt that many people are struggling with one form of personal darkness or another in their lives, and sometimes this struggle seems greater during the holiday season. There may be expectations of joy, happiness, being merry! When oftentimes in our own hearts we feel anything but that. We see the lights, hear the music, we paste on a smile, we frantically try to feel something that looks like Christmas Joy…but instead we are faced with a darkness of the soul. I know I have had some years when I went through the season with a pasted smile, particularly right after my husband had died. There seemed to be no light within my heart, even though I showed to my children and others that Yes! Let’s be joyful, it’s Christmastime!! I felt mired in grief and disappointment, and felt this would be my reality for a long time. I had temporarily forgotten how pervasive light can be; stealing through the dark cracks in my broken heart, doing away with the shadows, pursuing me steadily, lovingly.

Let us not forget in the very first chapter of the Bible, in Genesis 1:3, when darkness was “over the deep” – God said, “Let there be light.” Our Almighty Creator was not content to let darkness remain on the earth, and He is not content to let darkness remain in our hearts. Instead, He comes down to walk WITH us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4); Jesus comes down to BE the light, declaring “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12) He is the “Word made flesh”, who made His dwelling with us (John 1:14). The book of John also stated, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

My Friends, as we prepare our hearts to welcome our King, Jesus the Almighty God, let us remember that He did not remain that baby in a manger – He entered into our humanity in order to enter into our darkness; to take it upon Himself, to eradicate the black suffering and evil and to bring us into His marvelous light – may His light shine on you this Christmas season!

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9)

 

~ Heidi Bertaux

X-mas… Is Christ still in Christmas?

Santa-Claus-and-presentsHe’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out whose naughty and nice… Rocking around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday… I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus …okay okay, maybe we’ll throw in Silent Night for the religious folks.

WAIT!!!…this is our holy holiday, our sacred celebration. Yes, us—the CHRISTians—CHRISTmas is about Christ.

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

I know…it’s Charlie Brown. No wait, maybe Tiny Tim…or Macaulay Culkin?

CHARLIE BROWN AND LINUS DISCUSS THE FORLORN LITTLE CHRISTMAS TREESorry to be the “Grinch who stole Christmas”…well, Christmas as the world knows it today. As I reflect on all that Christmas has become, it so easy to get caught up in the commercialism of this season. Christmas wish lists, letters to Santa, ugly Christmas sweater-themed parties… While all of these things are fun, they miss the real meaning of the season. When we dig deeper, the noble themes of giving and charitable acts also tend to mask the true essence of what it is that we are celebrating. In that sense, we become distracted and quickly forget about the magnitude of the miracle that took place some 2,000 years ago: God in human form entered the womb of a human vessel to accomplish the redemptive plan of reconciliation between God and man. That alone is heavy for me; God…God entered the womb of a human vessel!

In the midst of decorating the tree, exchanging gifts with loved ones, and donating to our favorite charities, let us remember that

 This, this is Christ the King, 

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The babe, the Son of Mary…

The King of kings salvation brings,

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. 

     ~William Chatterton Dix

Maame Yaa Manu

I Ain’t As Good As I Once Was

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As I read through the Christmas story in Luke 1 & 2 again on Monday. The story of Zechariah the high priest caught my attention. He was an old man. Both he and Elizabeth were well beyond their childbearing years. Gabriel, the Angel of the Lord, appeared to him as he burned incense the temple. He announced to Zechariah that his wife would give birth to a son, whom we know would grow up to be John the Baptist, the last prophet and forerunner of Jesus.

Although Zechariah was known as a righteous man, he was filled with unbelief when he heard this news and stated it honestly: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

These words reminded me of a line I love in a Toby Keith song, “I ain’t as good as I once was.” It’s a lament that resonates with me more with each passing year and I have all the typical aches and pains associated with aging to prove it. Even as I type I’m literally, painfully, aware that my hands don’t work as good as they once did.

Zechariah’s unbelief didn’t disqualify him from serving God’s purpose, but it did silence him until the moment Elizabeth gave birth. God took away his voice for a season so that he’d have no choice other than to be still and listen. Gabriel’s news was really good news for Zechariah and Zechariah’s story is good news for me. No matter how old we get we are never beyond God’s reach to use us, often in ways we never expected. And I need to be reminded that faith sometimes looks like being quiet and listening.

Jim Mckee – Pastor 

All is Calm, All is Bright

“All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child. Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

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When you look at the photo of the keys below, what is the first thing that enters your mind? Maybe nothing, or maybe it reminds you that you misplaced them this morning in the hustle of leaving the house. Or maybe you recall the moment that you locked your keys in the car or, if you are like me, maybe you have one set of keys for work and one for home and you remember the time you got to the office and realized that your home keys would not open your office door.

Keys
The keys have a very different meaning for a homeless family that recently enrolled in the Rapid Rehousing program I lead Baltimore City. A mother with three children under the age of five fell upon hard times when she had sudden job loss. As a single mother, this meant as a result that she wouldn’t be able to afford childcare or provide adequately for her family. Even though the relationship with her family was very estranged, she bravely asked if she could live under their roof just until she regained employment. Only four days after being in this household she was told to leave; no reason was given, just that the family member had changed their mind. Unable to secure a hotel for the evening because of finances and with the weather being so cold for her and her children, she snuck into her storage unit. She and her children slept there every evening for 12 nights. Yes, you read it right—a mother with her three children stayed in their storage unit for over a week. On Day 13 she was referred to our program and was put in a hotel, and on Day she moved into her new apartment.

The keys above in the photo are her keys—to her very own apartment. The keys that will unlock a safe, secure place for her and her children to land every evening after a day of school and work. Keys represent so much.

What does this have to do with Advent? I challenge both myself and my readers to say, ‘what doesn’t this have to do with Advent?’ As we await the birth of Christ, the story above reminds me of the hope that the birth of the King of the World brings. The hope of the already and not yet. As in the beloved ‘Silent Night’ Christmas hymn the night was silent, yet holy—all was calm and all was bright.

Isn’t this the way that it is with our God? Stories of hope; awaiting, trust and often silence as we wait on our Lord. The family in the above story did the same thing: she did what needed to be done to provide protection and care in anticipation of what the future would hold—which has now led to a new beginning and a trust in what God may have in the coming moments as each day, more and more, ‘all is calm and all is bright’.

Author – Laura Starsoneck

 

Christmas for the Outsider

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Luke 2:8

We matter to God.  Inexplicably.  Undeservedly… God is watching, listening to us, speaking promises into the cacophony of our worries and the certainty of their fulfillment into our most deeply buried hopes.” – Patty Kirk, Confessions of an Amateur Believer

Blog PicThis Christmas has begun differently from any we have celebrated. At this date (November 29) we have yet to purchase a tree or put up a single decoration or light.

It isn’t that we are any less enthusiastic about the season or that our philosophy of Christmas has changed. It is that we have been sick, Katherine before Thanksgiving, and me since.

And it’s killing us! It is as though Scrooge lives in our neighborhood – and he is us!

But it gives me pause.

Each Christmas I try to remind our church community – and myself – that for all who celebrate the season with joy, there are many who are barely hanging on, observing from the edges, grieving, struggling, even hiding. Family pain, broken relationships, shame, illness, death and financial pressures bring isolation rather than festivity.

It occurred to me that this is why the shepherds are my favorite characters in the Christmas narrative. When it came to the common life of the broader social structure, they were always observing from the margins.

They were outsiders, and yet God found them and invited them in by making them the recipients of the first announcement of Jesus’ birth.

Interestingly God didn’t turn them into kings, executives or land barons. He simply came to them and ascribed value to who they were by virtue of His Son. Upon seeing Jesus, they were tasked with sharing His birth with the rest of the world.

So I take heart in the shepherds’ story – On that first Christmas they were isolated but not unnoticed by God.

Neither are you.

What good news of great joy.

grace & peace.

Mike Khandjian

 

Lament for Aleppo

WARNING: This video contains distressing, graphic images from Aleppo. I recommend watching it but muting the sound, as the images alone are very powerful.

I caught sight of a friend’s post this afternoon that linked to a news report about Aleppo. The quote in the article read, “Aleppo is a place where the children have stopped crying.” My eyes rose to the movie that had begun to play. I was at work, so I muted the sound. A little boy of maybe three or four sat on a table in an orange sweatshirt, his hair tousled, eyes full of horror, lips pressed together, a wound on his forehead. His small hands touched, the fingers brushed against each other. He stared sadly at those examining him. Oh, be gentle, I pleaded silently.
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Oh dear God.

A mother wailed that she had lost all of her children.

A teenage boy sobbed as he clasped the body of his infant baby brother.
Oh God, these dear ones made in Your image… There are thousands.

I cannot ignore this. I weep for the horrors they have seen, the terror on their faces, the agony and despair. I weep because while I have never experienced their specific losses, I know what it feels like to be shattered, traumatized, lost and overwhelmed. My heart breaks, spills over.

I sit alone in the darkness with Christmas lights overhead, and I believe with my whole heart that my God sees and knows and cares, both for them and for me. He knows the depth of their pain and He understands mine. He was here.

Here.

My God came here into the mess, the horror, the sadness, the chaos of this world. And He didn’t come with walls and barriers to shield Himself from it all – no, He embodied it, He suffered, and then He conquered it. So in all the sadness I cling to Him, my hope.

I ask, Oh God, who will care for them? Who will help them? Can I? Will You? Please show me how. Please show them mercy. Please, please, please save them.

Save us.

Save me.

Lauren McWilliams

Savior

f60a75b558a14d61052bf9e6b4eba8ceI usually look forward to that November email from Steve asking us to write a blog for Advent. I’m a talker, so I don’t struggle to find stories to share or thoughts to express. Give me 30 minutes and you’ve got a blog post. Now I must admit, it is full of grammatical errors and lacks polish, but it gets done rather easily. For some reason though, this year when I got the email, there was no eagerness. I felt like I didn’t really have anything I wanted to share and instead it felt like just one more thing I had to do.

To be honest, this was not a great year. It was a long year. It was a tear-filled year. It was a very heavy year. This was the year that every counselor dreads. This was the year that I experienced the thing that I had spent the last 25 years trying to prevent. This was the year that I lost a client. This was the year that a young person that I had known and loved and invested in took their own life. This was the year I had never wanted to come.

This year I had to actually believe the words I so often say, “I can not be your Savior.” I always knew these words were true but then when it happened, all I felt was my immense failure to save a life. When that young adult had been a teen, I had spent hours walking alongside them. I had offered countless messages of hope. I had listened to each heartache. But I had obviously never said whatever words they needed to hear so that as the years passed, they would chose life. This was the year that I truly learned that I couldn’t save them all.

“No matter what we say or what we do, sometimes people are going to die,” is what Mike told me that day. I will never forget it, words so obvious and familiar but so unexpected. He looked me right in the eyes and in that moment I was forced to not just hear the words, but to trust the words and accept the proof. Kind Mike, he helped me recognize that I would grieve two losses, one was a beautiful young woman and the other was the knowledge that I could not save.

This year, may these words, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” be engraved upon my heart.