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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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

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 

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

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

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

Flashback

Flashback pic - BrittanyMy name is Brittany. I’m not a pastor, ministry leader, or longtime member of Chapelgate Church. I’m just an ordinary girl living life…often day to day, and sometimes more gracefully than others.

I’m a writer. It’s not what I do on a day-to-day basis, but it’s what makes me feel alive. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited when asked to write a post for this Advent blog. Until I sat down to write, that is. Laptop open…blank white page…and that intimidating blinking cursor daring me to begin typing.

I refuse to call it writer’s block. For me, it’s more like God saying it’s time to listen before I’m given words to speak. Sometimes it’s scripture, sometimes it’s quotes from my favorite authors, and occasionally it’s my own writing that I’m called to read and meditate on. This time it’s the latter.

I swore I wouldn’t do what I’m getting ready to do. I considered it a cop out. But last year I waited too long to share this piece with the world, and I think that others suffered as a result of my shame. So below you will find a copy of a post from my personal blog originally published on January 5, 2015. No matter where you find yourself this Advent season, I hope you will find some comfort in this piece:

The Not-So-Christmas Spirit

 The reality of my situation hit me while sitting in Sunday school right before Christmas. The rest of my family had already left for vacation and I was left in an empty house. Our Sunday school class had been covering various individuals in the Christmas story. This final week was spent talking about Herod. The pastor leading our group asked us which of the characters we identified with the most in the story of Christ’s birth. We talk about Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. Even the little drummer boy. But rarely do we consider the role that King Herod plays in the greatest story on earth.

 As we talked more and more about Herod, I came to the startling realization that there was no one in the entire Christmas story that I identified with more than King Herod. It was everything I could do to contain my tears in that moment of revelation.

 Every year after Thanksgiving, people refer to something called the Christmas Spirit. It usually involves a joy of decorating, singing, and baking. This year I experienced none of it. I did not want to decorate. I avoided Christmas carols at all costs. And as for baking…and here’s the “real” part folks…that just wasn’t happening. I’m knee-deep in eating disorder treatment and festive food is the last thing on my mind.

 Back to Herod.

 While everyone else in the Christmas story joyously celebrated the birth of our Lord and Savior, Herod saw the event as a threat to his kingship–his power and control–everything he had worked for–his life. The presence of Jesus in this world was a direct challenge to everything that Herod valued.

 This year the Christmas spirit haunted me. It burdened my soul. It was not until that day in Sunday school that I realized the truth. That the coming of Jesus threatens the control I’ve tricked myself into believing that I have. My ability to control my food intake and body is an all-consuming illusion. An illusion that brings me nothing but complete and utter misery. An illusion that extinguished the true meaning of the birth of the King. It robbed me of joy, left me in a perpetual state of exhaustion, and slowly drained the warmth from my skin and the sparkle from my eyes. Yet I clung to my illusion and avoided anything that threatened its existence. The thing I feared was the very thing I needed–the only thing that could save me–Jesus.

 I’d like to say that this realization changed my heart and allowed me to joyfully celebrate Christmas with my family.

 It did not.

 Revelation does not always breed immediate change, but it does aerate the heart. Which is exactly what I needed.

 People often confuse the Christmas spirit with Advent. They become blended together, a single entity. But Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation. It involves the heart and the soul, which means it might not always be cheerful or involve an upbeat melody. For me, Advent meant observing my role in the story and realizing my devastation at what had become my reality. In its own way, the Advent season prepared my heart to realize the magnitude of what was to come: an all-powerful King who destroyed my very need for an illusion of any sort.

 I know I’m a little late in sharing this story.  Most people have already begun taking down their Christmas lights.  We’re going back to work and school. Walmart is already filling their empty shelves with Valentine’s Day candy. But I thought it was a story that deserved to be shared because I have a feeling I’m not the only person who found Christmas difficult this year. Perhaps you don’t have a heart like Herod. Maybe illness has shaken your world or a valued relationship has been destroyed. There are many forms of pain that can keep us from experiencing joy. Often our knowledge of this fact can be more devastating than the pain itself.  And that’s ok.

It’s ok to admit a hurt.  It’s ok to feel sad.  It’s ok to cry while everyone else appears to be laughing.

Because a King has come and the story has a happy ending. The pain will not last forever.  This is not the end.

 So cry.  Mourn.  Scream.

 As long as you are breathing, there is room for a revelation. One that will aerate your heart and provide a breeding ground for hope and renewal.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Wait.  He will meet you here.

Brittany Bowen

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

An Ancient Carol

The Kontakion of the Nativity was written by Romanos the Melodist sometime in the 6th century. Romanos was born in Syria to Jewish parents. He became a follower of Jesus and was baptized as a boy. Ordained a deacon in the church in Beirut, Romanos later served in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). His hymns are still used today in Orthodox services. The beauty and simplicity of this English translation stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it. I hope you are moved to worship Jesus today, “who, by his own will, became a newborn babe.”

Today the virgin cometh unto the cave
to give birth to the word who was born before all ages
begotten in a manner that defies description.
Rejoice, therefore, o universe, if thou should hear
and glorify with the angels and the shepherds.
Glorify him, who, by his own will, has become a newborn babe
and who is our God before all ages.

The Ever Present Jesus

jesustokyoA few weeks ago, the Chairman of the Missions Committee at Chapelgate and I were privileged to spend a few days in Japan meeting with various church planters all over the country. Japan is a country where less than one percent of population professes any sort of faith in Christ. In fact, the dominant religious beliefs in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. Yet even in a place where Christianity is so completely foreign the Gospel is bursting into the lives of people because of God’s work through the local church. The churches that Chapelgate partner with in Tokyo are reaching their communities by starting new churches throughout the city. What these church planters have found in their efforts is that the Japanese people are deeply spiritual and the threads of that are written all over their culture.

Believe it or not, the Japanese people celebrate Christmas. One of the churches in Tokyo, Grace Harbor Church, is reaching the community through a Christmas party with food and music. While we were in Tokyo we could see Christmas lights, ornaments, and green and red colors decorating storefronts. We could go to Starbucks and buy a bag of their Christmas blend, which isn’t available until after Thanksgiving in America.

As we were walking around Tokyo, signs of Christmas were everywhere yet something was missing. It was strange not to see any mention of Jesus until we were taken to the Sky Tree Tower. The Sky Tree Tower is sort of like the Inner Harbor of Tokyo. It is where you want to take visitors who are new to Tokyo. The Sky Tree Tower is the tallest tower in the world and at night it lights in the green and red colors of Christmas. The complex around the Sky Tree Tower is set up like a Fall Festival with picnic tables for eating, booths selling pretzels and, of course, plates of fresh sushi. As we were looking at the decorations we discovered that covering the tops of these booths were some plastic wise men, farm animals and, yes, a manger with the baby Jesus. It was odd but this plastic ornament served as a reminder to us that Jesus is always present no matter where we are, where we have been or what we have done. In the incarnation, Jesus relentlessly pursued us with his whole affection and he has promised to make all things new.

It’s because Jesus is present in our lives that we are freed to celebrate like the wise men who when they saw the star leading to Jesus “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Rejoice, rejoice Jesus has come!

Patrick Allen