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

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A Divine Intervention

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It’s no surprise that we live in a very broken world. As we are involved in ministry, we will encounter many heartbreaking scenes, crises, distressed families, and troubled lives. A wife discovers her husband’s infidelity. A person learns that they have a fatal cancer diagnosis. A family has to grieve the death of their daughter because of suicide. The list goes on and on.

Crises are an inescapable part of life. They provide an unavoidable opportunity to be shaken out of complacency. When a crisis breaks, it changes the life of one or more persons and leaves us saying “We will never be the same again”. Part of us cries out, “It’s not supposed to be this way. This isn’t normal. This is not right.” Some crises make us want to cry and shout with anger.

The good news is that God is working all things together for good for his people. Jesus enters the world of sinners and sufferers and goes to work. The hope of the gospel is what we celebrate on Christmas. Jesus didn’t come because we deserved His intervention, but because He is a God of grace, and a God of mercy. His lovingkindness toward us is absolutely undeserved. He voluntarily gave His life; no one took it from Him. His love was overwhelming. As He entered our broken and sinful world, He saw the inevitability of death and hell, and He paid the price Himself. Nothing deterred Him from that. Even when He came to earth and the mass of people rejected Him, mocked Him, hated Him, and even killed Him, that didn’t stifle His grace. Whatever you may be experiencing this Christmas, you can put your trust and hope in the one who was born to die.

Rich Starsoneck

The Long Wait

I have been blessed to meet Ced & Jean Dale. He turned 100 just before Thanksgiving. She is 95. They will have been married 72.5 years on Christmas Eve. It is so beautiful to be with them. To see the care they have for each other, the love for others they foster, the sweet mercy they display to all around makes me yearn for even a touch of those acts at any age, much less pushing a century.

Sadly, Jean Dale is nearing the end. She’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She has moments of clarity. Times when you can whisper the sweet truth of God’s love for her come seldom, but they are there. You can tell her good news and see her eyes shine like the stars as she comprehends for a moment before the veil returns. The fog sets in and the silence pulls at your heart as you see the light dim from her eyes.

And yet, Ced still hopes. He hopes for the day in which Jean Dale will return to her former self. When she will walk without aid, when she will be the fullness of her sweet self to all who see her, when she will be able to tell of the goodness of her Savior once again – that day will be glorious. For he knows with confidence that one day it will happen. In the fullness of time, in the presence of their Savior, in a moment of erupting praise Jean Dale will be whole once again, but not here on earth. For that we wait.

In Amos 8:11-13 (NLT) we find the beautiful longing of others who were waiting. “The time is surely coming,” says the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread or water but of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from border to border searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it. Beautiful girls and strong young men will grow faint in that day, thirsting for the Lord’s word…” And grow faint they did. That’s what 400 years of waiting will do to a people. Waiting and waiting for the promises to be real, for the purposes to be found, for the praises to be brought. Waiting.

And then it comes.

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it. – John 1:1-5 (NLT)

That Light, born as a baby, shines like never before to return the glimmer of hope, to draw us into the warmth of His never-ending embrace of our hearts, and to restore our longing hearts with the sweet song of an always present Savior. And now we wait for he will return. And it gonna be glorious!

Dear Jean Dale/Nana – I am so blessed to become part of your family. Thank you for your legacy. I see it in your grandson’s face and sweet spirit every day. Oh, for even an inkling of that sort of impact – one can dream. With love, Debby

Debby Sutton

A Very Nice Nativity

IMG_2965I had a long day at work and when I walked in the house and saw that my husband had put the lights and decorations on the tree that we had chosen with the kids this past weekend, I was overcome with thankfulness. There was so much that I needed to do before Friday when Han would be bringing her college friends home for a Christmas sleepover and Joe had just done a huge job on my list! It was an enormous surprise and relief.

His help in getting the decorations up inspired me to set up our nativity later that evening. Once again, he surprised me by jumping up to help me unpack the big box that held our nativity. The nativity meant a lot to me. My wonderful mother-in-law had bought it for me years ago when I had told her that I thought it was important to have a “very nice” nativity displayed in a home. It is my favorite Christmas decoration. As we unpacked the pieces I saw that the angel’s arm had broken off. I was devastated. My perfect, expensive, big, NICE NATIVITY was ruined and I ran for the superglue. When I returned and began gluing the angel’s arm back on, Joe tried to calm me down and reminded me that we had used it for many years and that it was not the end of the world. I ignored him and fumed that my nice nativity was now damaged.

FullSizeRender_1Then something even worse happened. Joe
unrolled the bubble wrap and tissue from around Joseph and we saw that his face was broken. JOSEPH HAD A BROKEN FACE!!! “This is not acceptable! At all! Not at all! My nativity Joseph, my very nice treasured Joseph… can NOT have a broken face!” I yelled. Then, I literally threw the tissue paper in the air and proclaimed, “Christmas is ruined! We cannot have a freakin eighty five dollar perfect tree next to a freakin broken nativity!!! Priorities Joe!!! Jesus before Santa!” We needed to show that the nativity mattered more than the gifts.

Joe just kept on tending to my nativity as I loudly lamented and he put my Joseph front and center facing the child in the manger. He then turned all the others so that their backs were to the room and their faces were towards Jesus. He changed the way we had always set up my very nice nativity. We could no longer see the carefully hand-painted front details but the angel’s missing arm was now hidden and Joseph’s broken face was out of view. Even the cracked donkey ear could not be seen, for he was facing away from us and looking at the newborn. As my husband finished creating the scene he said, “Tonya. It is ok. When you have them all look at Jesus you can’t see their cracks. Just like us, if we just face Jesus, our brokenness doesn’t matter. It’s really ok.”

I smiled at my husband and ran upstairs to take a picture of my VERY NICE nativity.

Tonya Cherry

Heaven on Earth: We Need it Now

The other night I was working, getting ready for our high school gathering, Breakaway, listening to iTunes , studying, writing, and praying. A song I don’t usually listen to came up on my playlist, usually I skip over these hoping to find something more current. The song gave me pause, because while it’s not a Christmas song per-se, it is all about the longing for Christmas in a fallen world. The song is “Peace On Earth” by U2. The very first stanza of the song says this:

“Heaven on earth

we need it now!

I’m sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there’s gonna be
Peace on earth”

At some level this is true. “Peace on Earth” as a platitude doesn’t really offer much hope for those who are hurting. But this is not what Bono, or the Bible for that matter, has in mind. When the Old Testament talks about peace or Shalom, it means human flourishing in all of life, not just the absence of conflict in our lives. Isaiah 9 says that Jesus is our “Prince of Peace”, that he is the one who brings peace to every square inch of our world and this gives hope to those who are hurting.

While I was in Japan, the violence in Paris erupted. Our team got the news at various times in the late night and early morning. It was difficult to follow all that was happening. Shots fired, terror ensued. I think most of our team gave a collective groan at the brokenness of our world.   We pray.

“Heaven on earth we need it now!”

Just this past week a young couple decided to violently attack their co-workers at a training session in San Bernadino California. Fourteen people died, several more were critically injured. We Pray.

“Heaven on earth we need it now!”

A cursory reading of the headlines today reminds us that we see children and families fleeing for their lives because of terrorism.   We pray.

“Heaven on earth we need it now!”

In our own church, we know many who are hurting, dealing with, disease, depression, disappointment and longing. We pray.

“Heaven on earth we need it now!”

The good news of Christmas reminds us that our Prince of Peace has come. God is with us. God hasn’t forgotten us. He hasn’t left us. He has brought peace. When it was all said in done, evil doesn’t win. Jesus does. He has conquered death, crushing the serpent’s head giving us all something to hope for. Peace has come to earth and this is why we celebrate!

Patrick Allen

My Bethlehem Prayer

Star of BethlehemOne of my favorite Christmas Carols is O Little Town of Bethlehem. It’s a sweet hymn that I love to sing and listen to throughout the Advent season. Of all the stanzas though, my favorite is the fourth and final. It’s a simple prayer directed to the newborn Jesus and captures so perfectly the beauty and glory of Christ’s Birth and the gospel message.  Here is how I have made it my prayer and maybe can be yours today…

O Holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray

Father, with thankful hearts we rejoice that you left your heavenly realm and condescended to us and entered our sinful and broken world. We are thankful that your eternal and glorious kingdom broke into the middle of space and time to bring hope, healing, salvation, and peace to our lives, our relationships and the world you created.

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today

Father we are a broken and sinful people, our hearts have wandered far from you and daily we seek to gratify our lives and our relationships with things that were never meant to satisfy. As you move in our hearts, reveal to us those dry and empty wells that leave us empty and longing and lead us to the spring of life that comes through Jesus. May the reality and life-giving power of your gospel be born afresh in us each and every day.

We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell

As the Shepherds rejoiced with the angels’ proclamation that “A Savior has been born”, may our hearts be rejuvenated with the joy of the gospel. May our hearts be overwhelmed with the amazing good news of your forgiveness, your boundless love, your abiding presence and rejoice that your Kingdom has come.

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel

Thank you that you have come, for you truly are our Emmanuel, our God with us. Thank you for your abiding presence and the secure hope in knowing that you are with us always; in times of need, in times of sorrow, in times of great rejoicing, in times of fear and even in the times we can’t seem to see you.
Come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Steve Dallwig

Christmas Obscured

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As I was talking with a young man who came very close to destroying his marriage of 5 years, I saw the pain on his face, his voice trembling as he told his story.

His life became a web of lies, fantasy, secrets, and betrayal. He had hidden a porn addiction since his childhood. He became obsessed with it, wanting more and more.  In the last few years he would solicit prostitutes regularly, meeting them in dangerous parts of town. All of this was unknown to his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.

Before we are tempted to judge him, I was reminded of how quickly we all hold tightly to far lesser things. We hold fast to what we desire and what is comfortable. Jesus desires to gift us with himself. How often do we hold on to the things that keep us from gazing directly into His eyes? How often do we replace Him with the things of life, striving for things in our own power and strength?

What are you holding on to that is obscuring your direct line of vision to Jesus, the things that interrupt His best for you?

The Christmas story is about a redeemer who was born to die. It’s a story of how a holy God could communicate mercy and grace to sinful people. How amazing it is that God’s lovingkindness and mercy are never-ending, and that He loves sinners, and delights to forgive us. And we are reminded that the Lord Jesus took our punishment on Himself, bringing mercy and justice together at the cross. How can you resist that kind of love?

Rich Starsoneck

 

It’s the Hap Happiest Season of All?

Most-wonderful-timeI can hear that song in my head while I’m writing this. “It’s the hap happiest season of all.” I think it may be those expectations that make Christmas such a difficult time for so many. It’s as if we expect all the troubles in the world to go away like magic the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas carols return to the radio and the lights go up in every window.

But that’s not how it really is, and frankly, it was never how it was meant to be. A dear friend is facing the ugly reality of divorce, and she drives past twinkling lights and Santa waving from the corner as she heads off to the scariest meeting of her life; that meeting with her lawyer and his lawyer where they all sit at a big table and try to agree on things that they already know they disagree on. It’s horrible and ugly and painful. Another dear friend has been crushed this week by the suicide of a family friend; a mother; a sister; a worn and broken soul who couldn’t see a better way out. People wonder aloud at how things like this can happen because, “It’s Christmas time,” as if it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t this time of year.

I don’t think we’re being fair to ourselves when we set such expectations for this season. The truth is, on that first Christmas, as Christ entered the world, He was coming to a dark, broken, hurting, and scary world. His arrival is the thing that brings the beauty and the hope. Our world is still broken and we’re still hurting, but by His grace we are promised a time that will truly be the “hap happiest season of all.” Now that’s something to celebrate!

Trisha Umanah

Where’s My Joy?

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Joy.  It’s the season for joy. Joyful songs, joyful children, joyful gatherings with families and friends.  Yet for so many this season is anything but.

Stressed, panicked, anxious, lonely  and sad are just some of the words I hear from so many people describing their lives during these holiday weeks.

Illness, cancer, crime, war, death, addiction and broken relationships don’t seem to be taking a holiday so that we can all get just a little break. Why?  Why can’t we have just a little happiness?  Why aren’t our lives filled with the joy the anticipation of this season promises?

The answer actually began in the garden.  When Adam and Eve took of the fruit from the forbidden tree, they forfeited the true joy of a harmonious relationship with God and His creation.  From that moment on the world has been filled with the consequences of life in a fallen world. All relationships,  human bodies, vocations and the very earth itself ache with the pain of sin and in it’s brokenness cry out for a redeemer.

But as God was in the midst of cursing Adam, Eve and the serpent for their sin He inserted an incredible promise of hope.  God, speaking to the serpent, told it that one day the offspring of the woman would deliver a blow that would crush his head. (Genesis 3:15).

Advent began right there.  The anticipation of one who would deal the final blow to sin, it’s power  and reign would be fulfilled thousands of years later with the birth of Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem.  He was the promised one, He was the one the broken world and our broken lives have cried for.  And in His coming God is fulfilling His promise of making right all that was made wrong.  It’s there we find our joy.  It’s not in our circumstances, in the events of our lives both in and out of our control.  No, our joy is found as we in faith anchor ourselves to Jesus.  In faith, believing that our circumstances, struggles and pain are not the final word or the end of the story.

This Christmas in the midst of whatever you are going through  may you know the joy of being the Redeemers beloved and that through Him one day an eternity devoid of sin and pain will be ours.

This is good news.

“No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found”

Steve Dallwig

Makeshift Christmas

“What was God’s answer to saving the world and righting all wrongs?

God became small and dirty.”

Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus, A Theography

This has been a particularly hectic Advent season for our family – for only good reasons. Each weekend has brought new deadlines and challenges, and it will be this way all the way up to Christmas morning. By then one or both of us will have travelled three of the four Advent weekends. Next Saturday Katherine will fly to Jacksonville, Florida in order to meet our daughter, who will pick her up at the airport, having driven from Tallahassee, only to immediately head to Maryland, in order to return that evening. Dizzying.

Makeshift Closet

I am neither proud nor ashamed to disclose that the picture above is from a restroom stall in the Nashville International Airport last Saturday evening, taken as I feverishly changed from the suit I wore at a wedding ceremony I performed forty-five minutes before. The goal was to slip into more comfortable clothing (translation: anything but a suit!) for travel back to Baltimore late that evening, in order to be able to preach on Sunday morning.

Keeping Up? Good, because we aren’t!

No sympathy needed – Life is messy and we embrace this reality. Ever since the fall, the world has been in a shambles, and we are no exception.

It was also messy when Jesus was born. A taxation. An unmarried, pregnant teenage girl. The likelihood of scandal. An 80-Mile journey by mule for a clueless young couple. The pursuit of an enraged king. Flight to a foreign country. Unknowns every step of the way.

And that’s the point.

When God came, it was before the world could clean up (not that it could anyway!). He entered into the mess, the brokenness and sorrow. Clothed in the weakness of a newborn, Jesus embraced vulnerability, uncertainty and dependence. He broke bread with sinners, wept over death and experienced cruelty.   He more than saw the world’s despair, He experienced it. And while the purpose of His coming was to die for sin, along the way, He gained on-the-ground first-hand sympathy for every form of human suffering.

Until Jesus returns, we will experience the effects of the fall, but along our way, we can find comfort in the fact that our God is not some faraway, impersonal deity, but One who has tasted and lived our story, in real time – all to welcome us into His.

This is good news…

grace & peace.

Mike Khandjian