Besides Jesus

Besides Jesus pic

When my children were young they often sat with us through the Sunday sermon. The small church we attended held Sunday school classes for kids and adults at the same hour so the children were always in the main service. Often the preaching was a bit more than their little minds could take in so my husband and I would seek to engage them after church on our drive home. We would ask them questions about the message and we quickly found that their answer to most our questions was the same- “Jesus”.

What did the pastor talk about today? “Jesus”

What do you think was the most important part of the sermon? “Jesus”

—Then we would get the occasional forced variation—

Did you learn anything new from the message today? “Um….that um…(long pause)…To love Jesus!”

In some ways, their one-subject response was encouraging because it pointed to the fact that the pastor made a pretty big deal about Jesus. On the other hand, and probably most often, they knew that Jesus was an answer that would get them out of further questioning on a message they mostly doodled and wiggled through.

Sometimes, in our little conversations about the message, we would add the caveat “besides Jesus” before asking our questions just to try to get a little more from them. Not that Jesus wasn’t a good answer, but we wanted them to engage further. It would stump them and they would stumble for an answer. Usually, other key Bible words would be their response; sin, obey, God, and maybe a biblical name or two. The “besides Jesus” trick didn’t get much more out of them.

It has been several years since we have had those conversations with our kids. They are all grown up and drive themselves to church now. We still talk about the Sunday sermon but the exchanges are much deeper and richer than those of their younger years. But the funny thing is, now more than ever before I realize that their childhood answer -“Jesus”- is actually more accurate than anything else.

As we face struggle or temptation the answer is Jesus. We need him. He is our help and hope. As we face joys and blessings it is because of Jesus. When we endure trials it is because of Jesus. He turns sorrows to joy in ways that often don’t make logical sense. Life may not be exactly how we expected but we can carry on only because of Jesus. And even more, the best is yet to come when we meet him face to face in heaven. One day everyone will know the only answer is Jesus. Every knee will bow in his presence as all things become completely clear. My kids’ simplistic answer was actually the true answer to life’s complexities. The older I get I see more clearly that there is nothing besides Jesus.

This Christmas season many of our children will come away with one message from holiday services- “Jesus”.  As they see nativities, sing Christmas carols, or hear Sunday lessons Jesus will probably be what they take away. It may seem simplistic but one day they too may see more clearly that Jesus is all there is to know.

Eliza Huie – Counselor, Life Counseling Center

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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

 

Waiting for my Delivery

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Just one more gift. That’s all I’m waiting for. I ordered it so that it would arrive by Christmas, but its not here yet. The confirmation email says it will arrive by 12/24, but every day that passes I begin to doubt.  I keep clicking on the tracking number hoping that I will see those three little words “out for delivery”. I pause at the sound of every passing truck, hoping that my awaited package will arrive. It’s December 23 – Only 2 days left for it to arrive. Waiting is hard.

In Luke 2, we meet Simeon. A devout and righteous man who was told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the promised Messiah. We don’t know how long he waited, but it appears it was a long time. But one day when led to the Temple by the Spirit, Simeon met a young couple who had brought with them their new born son. Simeon knew this was the one. The one he had waited for.

Simeon faithfully believed that that which was promised would come. A Messiah, promised deliverance and salvation. He rejoiced and blessed the child saying:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

What have you been waiting for this year?

A restored relationship?

Physical or emotional healing?

A new job?

Getting out of debt?

finishing school?

pregnancy?

As you wait, rest in the promise of God’s salvation. Rest knowing that our Emmanuel, (God with us) is here. Rest in the truth that our Prince of Peace sustains us. Rest knowing that the end of the story has been written. God’s timing isn’t always our timing, but His timing is always perfect.

Wait is that a UPS truck I hear?

Steve Dallwig

Fear Not

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Luke 2: 10 – “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy . . .”

It was dark. The sheep were doing whatever it is that sheep do once night falls. The shepherds were keeping a watchful for eye for any signs of danger, as shepherds had done in this region for centuries. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared them. The glory of the Lord illuminated the area around them. Think about it. In the dark shadows of the night, the invisible suddenly becomes visible. The veil that separates heaven and earth is pulled back and they see something few mortals have ever seen. There was nothing in their collective experience that would have prepared them to make sense out what was happening. In the face of this unexpected and supernatural occurrence they were understandably overcome with fear.

How comforting it must have been that the angel’s first words were, “Fear not!”. It was exactly what they needed to hear to stop them in their tracks, calm their hearts and keep them from running. There must be something viscerally terrifying about an encounter like this, because these were also the first words uttered to Zechariah when the angel appeared to him. He spoke these words because he knew something neither the shepherds nor Zechariah knew. Somewhere on the eastern frontier a boy was born who would be their Savior!

Life can be terrifying. It’s full of uncertainty. Bad things happen to people we love and care about. We are mugged by circumstances that are beyond our control. People we count on disappoint us, even betray us. It’s easy to be overcome by fears from within and by fears from without. After all, the world is a very dangerous place and there is no lack of evidence to belie our concerns. It’s in these moments that I need to hear the words of the Angel of the Lord echoing in my heart and mind saying, “Fear not! … For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The birth of a boy in a manger in the city of Bethlehem announced to the shepherds the good news concerning the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. The arrival of the One who brings true healing, renewal and peace has come to pass. Expectation has given way to fulfillment. As we celebrate Advent, all the scenes and signs of the season are pointers to this new reality. The true King of the world has come! He is the one will rescue us from the curse of sin and death. And if we are His, we have nothing to fear. May we hear the voice of the Spirit shouting those words, “Fear not!” in the face of all our fears.

Jim Mckee

God’s Time and Place

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It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of Christmas to Christian theology. While the death of Jesus on a cross has become the global symbol of Christianity, his arrival in Bethlehem is no less important.  The stories of Jesus’s birth in the gospels give shape to much of our understanding of who God is, who we are, and even how we do theology. The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:6 that the incarnation (that’s the fancy word to describe God taking on flesh and becoming a man) demonstrates that God is, by nature, a being who gives himself in love for his creation. In Jesus’s birth and life, we see the kind of life humanity was made to have – one of dependence and submission to God that leads to fullness of life.

The arrival of God in a specific town, at a specific time and place, shows that God does not exist in a vacuum. Place and time and culture matter. Context matters when we do theology. So today, as you think about what Christmas means, take a few minutes to enjoy a tour of modern-day Bethlehem with one of my favorite video tour guides.  It isn’t the same town it once was, and that matters.

There’s no going back – and that’s ok. Because the incarnation of Jesus paved the way for God to come to you today, in your place and your context…even if the world has changed in the 2000 years since his first coming.

Dan Passerelli

Great Expectations Come True

vannessblogI was told by my mother that one of the last wishes of my grandmother was to live long enough to meet her first great grandchild. Marilyn and I had the great honor of fulfilling that wish when we introduced her to our son, Joshua, about four years before her death. As I recall, she commented that all was well because he had ten fingers and ten toes. Twenty-eight years later, our daughter had the same honor of introducing my mother to her first grandchild, Kayla Joy. Like my grandmother, there was an unmistakable sparkle in my mother’s eyes when she met and held her first great grandchild.

As I consider my grandmother’s wish I am drawn to Simeon, a more obscure character in the story of the Incarnation. He too, looked forward to the birth of a baby. Unlike my grandmother, however, he lived with the promise (Luke 2:26) that he would one day see the Messiah, or as the New International Version translates it, “the Lord’s Christ.” He didn’t have to hope this would happen, he lived in expectant faith that he would one day see Jesus. When that much anticipated day finally arrived, Simeon “took him in his arms and blessed God and said,

‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:28-32)

As I recall my grandmother’s introduction to Josh, I can easily picture the quiet joy, wonder, and excitement of Simeon when he embraced Jesus. It was a deep inexpressible joy as demonstrated by his jubilant prayer of thanksgiving to his Heavenly Father. For Simeon and for all who will embrace the Christ child as Savior, Jesus’ birth is the culmination and reality of God’s one-way covenant to mankind as declared throughout the Old Testament.

As we ponder and celebrate the reality of the Incarnation and what it means for us, we can join with Charles Wesley who beautifully captured the desire of Simeon when he penned the following words:

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

 

Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,

born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thy own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone;

by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.

(Come Thou Long Expected Jesus)

 Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Jesus has come to rescue us in our sin. He has come to give us freedom from the penalty and power of sin, and one day will deliver us from the very presence of sin. This is “good news!”

Rob Van Ness

Coming

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For many years I lived near Edwards Air Force Base in California. This afforded us some unexpected memorable moments. One of those moments was the landing of the space shuttle. Edwards AFB was the alternative landing spot for the shuttle during its era of space exploration. With an average of 360 days of cloudless skies and its enormous dry lake bed, Edwards AFB made a perfect destination for the shuttle’s return whenever weather conditions were not quite right at the Kennedy Space Center. This was always an exciting time for us as we were in the flight path of the shuttle’s re-entry. When this was to take place we would tune in to listen to the shuttle report from Kennedy Space Center and head outside to see if we could catch a glimpse of the space orbiter as it returned.

Seeing the shuttle was not always easy but we were sure to know when it had arrived by the twin sonic booms it produced as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. There was always the anticipation of the booms. These booms were exciting to hear not only because they rocked the windows of our home, but because they represented the arrival of the astronauts. They had returned!

However, waiting for the booms would always be accompanied with a sense of apprehension and maybe even a little dread. Would they return safely? Would everything work as it should? I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the booms sounded as we searched the sky for signs of the shuttle, fixing our eyes on any place we might catch a glimpse of it. We didn’t always see it but we knew it was there, the twin booms serving as the announcement for all to hear. Usually a week or so later we would get to see a close-up look at the shuttle when it would fly piggy-back on a 747 jet as it was carried back to Florida to the space center.

So what does all of this have to do with Advent? Advent comes from the Latin word adventum meaning “coming”. It is easy to think of Advent as a way of looking back to a time when a nation was waiting for the coming of their Messiah. Jesus’ arrival was the fulfillment of a long period of waiting. However Advent is not just for looking back. Once again we are waiting, waiting for the coming of Jesus to earth. His return is as certain as his first arrival but the waiting can be filled with trepidation as well. Just like the tension felt as we waited for the twin booms to be heard, we as believers can at times be apprehensive as we live here in the waiting period. Life can be uncertain and filled with challenges. However we must remember that Jesus is coming again. John 14:3 is a promise directly from Jesus for us.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

During this time when we celebrate his first coming, let us also keep in our hearts that he is going to return. He will come again. Celebrate Advent with a heart full of confidence that Jesus’ first coming points to his second coming as well. If God would be willing to send his only son into the world in order to die for us, He will indeed send his son back to this world to bring us home to him. He is coming.

Eliza Huie, Assistant Director of Life Counseling Center

Children of the King

It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie. Hands down. No competition. I absolutely love it. My wife and I watch it every Christmas Eve and it never fails to deliver. Some of the affection I hold for it is admittedly nostalgic, but it’s an all-time great movie (#11 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list), and Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey is brilliant.

As the story goes, George is an eminently likeable, affable, and all-around good guy who spends his life mostly helping others succeed. Because of this, he misses out on college, traveling, and becoming someone ‘important’, to his way of thinking.

This leads to frustration, anger, and even self-pity, all of which eventually boil over when $8,000 of company money is misplaced. The loss appears to put him out of business and a warrant is issued for his arrest on embezzlement charges, leaving George understandably despondent.

It’s at this point in the movie an angel named Clarence enters and, through a series of encounters, helps George gain the perspective he so desperately lacks. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch it this Christmas season — it will be time well spent.

Before his experience with Clarence, George believes his life will be worth something only if he is able to, as he says, “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet” and do something really big. He fears that he’s living the life described in Thoreau’s famous quote — “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

In the end, George has an epiphany. He realizes all of the longing for something bigger and better has been replaced by the longing to once again love those who love him. He finally understands that he is loved simply for who he is — a husband, father, son, brother, and friend.

This Christmas season, my hope is that we experience a similar realization. May we be confident there is no amount of doing or being that can add one ounce of worth to who we already are in the Father’s eyes. May we truly live as sons and daughters of the King, rather than those forced to perform for affection or approval. And finally, may we rest in knowing that God sent us his Son at Christmas for one reason only — because he loves us — and that’s reason enough.

Even Santa Needs a Savior

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“He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice….”

The songs and folklore of Christmas tell us that Santa is not only a mystical altruistic giver of gifts to children around the world, but that he is also a vigilant watchman or ‘big brother’ keeping his eye and taking notes on the morality of every boy and girl around the world.

But did you know that Santa has some skeletons of his own in his closet? In studying the history of the man behind the legend, Saint Nicholas, a little fascinating story can be found.

Nicholas of Myra was born in the third century in a province called Lycia, which was a part of the Roman Empire. Today ancient Lycia is a part of the country we know as Turkey. Nicholas is believed to have died December 6, 343 A.D.

Stephen J. Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College and Church History specialist tells us of a time Santa got into some trouble…

“Bishop Nicholas was present at the Church’s First Ecumenical Council at Constantine’s summer palace in Nicea in 325. Hundreds of Bishops gathered there to refute the false views of Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria. Arius denied Christ’s deity. At one point while Arius was addressing the council, Nicholas’s rage got the better of him. According to some of his biographers, Nicholas stood up, crossed the floor to Arius, and promptly punched him in the face.”

According to Nichols, for this assault, Bishop Nicholas was arrested and put in jail. And more than likely found himself on his own ‘naughty’ list.

You see Bishop Nicholas was human like you and me, prone to the same temptations, impulses and passions. As benevolent and caring he was, Nicholas was also a sinner and in need of rescue.

Jesus was also a human, but he was unlike Nicholas, or any of us. He was God made flesh and although he faced the same temptations and pressures we do, he was without sin. That is why Jesus is the only who could be our savior, through his death our sins were paid for and his righteousness made ours.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, be reminded friends that the baby that was born in a Bethlehem stable was and is the only hope for sinners like you, me and even Santa.

This truly is good news! Merry Christmas.

Steve Dallwig

Bad Memories and the Anticipation of Christmas

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So Christmas is always a time of anticipation, right? We look forward to the parties, the food, the presents, the beautiful candlelit midnight service.

One of the things I always enjoyed as a kid was the model train sets. I couldn’t wait to help my dad go up in the attic and pull down the musty boxes of trains, track, village scenes and miniature trees. The smell of the boxes was distinct, and, while it was probably caused by some mixture of mold on the boxes, old Spanish moss on the miniature trees, and toxic fumes from the fake snow, whenever I smelled it I would get a shiver of excitement because it meant Christmas was around the corner. I still can’t see a bag of Spanish moss without being flooded by memories of hours spent building and running the train set.

Last night I was at my parents’ house, and my father had set up an old train for my nephew – a set that my grandfather had set up in his basement when I was a kid. I couldn’t resist – I bent down and turned the switch on the transformer, sending the train racing around the track. But then I caught a whiff of another smell – electric train. I don’t know what causes it, and I don’t know if it’s all model trains or just this one, but there was a strong electric odor, and it took me back to my grandfather’s basement and many happy hours watching the trains. And then a rather unpleasant memory surfaced.

This particular train set was made well before consumer protection laws required products to come with warning labels or non-toxic paint (come to think of it, maybe that’s where the smell comes from). In order to make things as realistic as possible, red and green lights were placed next to the section of track that allowed you to switch the train between two different tracks. The lights were large, and even 30 years ago they looked very old, with cracked and pealing paint. But they were so cool – cool enough that I wanted to touch them. So one day, I did…and promptly burned my finger. Like I said: consumer safety wasn’t a top priority, and those bulbs got extremely hot. I’m sure I had a small burn for a few days, but the emotional scar of being hurt by the very thing I loved so much and looked forward to every year has stayed with me.

Come to think of it, I have so many bad Christmas memories, it’s a wonder I look forward to Christmas at all. There was the time I got sick after eating too many shrimp at Christmas Eve dinner. There was the year I had Mono and had to sit-out a family ski-vacation over Christmas week. Once I spent an entire Christmas Eve service in severe agony because my wool outfit, while cute, was also itchy. I broke a glass ornament I had bought for my mom over my brother’s head one year because he was being annoying…that incident ended in tears for all parties involved. Frozen fingers while trying to pick out a Christmas tree, presents that broke after the first use…

And yet, every year, I look forward to Christmas. I think the anticipation in the face of mixed past experiences is baked right into the story. The first Christmas certainly was a mixed bag, what with angels and lavish gifts right alongside smelly animals and lack of hotel space. But it’s more than that. It’s about the good news that will be for all people – the savior has been born. And that means we have something to celebrate now, but also something to look forward to. It means there’s hope that everything will be right one day, even if, year after year, we’re reminded that things aren’t right just yet.

Dan Passerelli