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Good News of Great Joy

by Rev. Cara Morgan, Ministerial Intern, First Baptist Pendleton

I’ve always felt a special affinity with the quality of Joy; it’s by far my favorite Fruit of the Spirit.  You see, my middle name’s Joy (and who wants to name Self-Control as their favorite?).  I’ve always really liked my name, and I’ve often thought of it as a blessing.  I love more than anything to joke around, and, over the years, I’ve used my middle name in a number of really bad jokes (mostly to the tune of: my name is Joy, not Grace; so, as long as I can laugh at my own clumsiness…).  A number of special people in my life call me Cara Joy, and I treasure those relationships and their associated memories whenever I hear my middle name.

Sometimes, though, I feel like it is hard to live up to my name.  This seems especially true during this busy season.  In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Advent and Christmas, well, sometimes being joyful simply sounds exhausting.

But joy is so central to the Christmas message.  In fact, when the angels appear to the shepherds in Luke 2:10, they refer to their message about the Christ child as “Good news of great joy for all the people.”  It’s encouraging to me that this joy is for everyone – not just for children, or for saints, or for those who have more than they need, or for those who have it all together.  The joy of Christ’s birth is for all of us, because God is not only with me, or you, or any certain group of people; God is with all of us.

Yes, this season is busy; yes, it’s stressful; yes, it’s not quite as magical as when we were all children.  But, there is so much joy to be found in Christmas – in our family, in our friends, in the music, in the decorations, etc.  And there is so much joy to be found in the Lukan Christmas story – in visits between Mary and Elizabeth, in the song of Mary, in Jesus’ birth in a manger, in angelic choruses in the midst of shepherds in the fields.  And the joy continues throughout the gospel story; after all, it is “Good News!”

May all of us, this Christmas season, not only find that joy for ourselves in the midst of a busy time, but also share that joy with those around us.  After all, the Good News shared by the angels in the Bethlehem fields is for all people (with no exceptions!).

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In the Midst of This Imperfect World

by Rev. Jennifer Rygg, Senior Pastor First Baptist Pendleton

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Matthew 1:23

Oh, Advent…a time of expectations, anticipation, and so much work to do!  In this busy time of year, I want to feel peaceful and joyful. I imagine sitting by the Christmas tree, watching a Christmas movie, and drinking hot chocolate…and then I look at my stack of unread commentaries for this week’s sermon, the pile of ornaments my two-year-old has not-so-gently removed from the Christmas tree, my growing list of errands to run, people to visit, and gifts to purchase, not to mention the “unwritten” list that never quite makes it from my mind to one of my multiple lists.  And I wonder, when did Advent become so overwhelming?

At our Wednesday night Bible study this week, we talked about how it is the church’s job to remind Christians of the true meaning of the Christmas season, the birth of Christ. And yet even in church, we often become distracted and overwhelmed by the many activities of the season. One woman commented “I loved Christmas, until I became in charge of it! And now I just feel relieved when it is over.” I can certainly relate to that sentiment. How easy it is to feel responsible for making Christmas happen. The pressure to create special moments and memories for our families, friends, and churches, from planning the perfect worship service, to finding the perfect gift, to preparing the perfect meal can distract us from what Christmas actually is – the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us.

God is with us not just in the magical moments of candlelight and music, but God is with us in the messy moments, the frustrating moments, the lonely moments. God is with us when nothing is going according to plan. God is with us when we are grieving, when we are frightened, when we are angry. God is with us.

To show us just how much God is with us in this imperfect world, God was born in the form of a vulnerable human baby. Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, came into the world without comfort and luxury. He was placed in a manger, surrounded by animals, and cared for by a young couple who were probably worried about how they were going to pay their bills, take care of this baby, and meet all of their responsibilities. Into this imperfect world, Jesus was born.

While we are busy trying to make Christmas happen, Jesus is already here. Emmanuel, God With Us, dwells with us in this imperfect world. This Advent season, may we look for signs of God’s presence in our midst. May we let go of the pressure to create the perfect Christmas, and may we encounter God’s presence right where we are, in the midst of this imperfect world.

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Awesomeness and Touchability

by Rev. Mary Frances Thompson, Ministry Assistant Greenwood First Baptist, Field Director for the State Committee for Epiphany

Some years ago, our church was given a beautiful crèche made out of ceramic pottery or some equally breakable material. Part of our Hanging of the Green service each year involves bringing crèche figures down a stone aisle and up a couple of stone steps. The year I was assigned to help bring in the crèche, I was more focused on not dropping the piece than I was on the meaning of the service. Did I mention I am clumsy? When I was growing up the ceramic crèche would have been a “look but don’t touch” item. Sometimes God seems like that, too. The awesomeness of God sometimes causes God to seem untouchable. How do I relate to Someone as great as God? How do I dare to approach the Creator of the universe, the Sovereign over all that was, is, and ever will be?

This year during our Hanging of the Green service, we made a couple of simple, yet profound changes to the way the crèche was brought into the service. We did not use the ceramic crèche. We used a variety of child-friendly Nativity sets from our children and preschooler area. Some of the choices were wooden and large in comparison to the other pieces. Other choices were made of durable plastic. The children were allowed to choose the piece they wished to carry. (Rumor is that there were two baby Jesuses.) Most of the children walked alone down the aisle. At least one older child escorted a younger child who was not her sibling. At least two families, who had dedicated their children during the year, carried those children down the aisle with crèche pieces. One toddler walked down the aisle on wobbly legs as his parents held his hands. Although our pastor had recited the Christmas story from Luke, the children conveyed the real meaning of the story through their actions, without words.

When our parents dedicate a child, the parents promise to raise the child in the knowledge and love of Christ. The church promises to support those parents and to pray for and help nurture the child. The very young children who participated in this year’s Hanging of the Green will not remember the service. Their parents and the rest of the congregation will not soon forget it. As the children grow older they will be told of how they helped lead worship.

Our older children often have opportunities to help our younger children. Years ago, when we first began having times when older and younger children met together, the older children complained about working with the “babies.” Now, most of the older children in our congregation have grown up being helped and then becoming helpers. I have never heard them complain about working with the younger children. What I have heard is reports of an older child helping one of the younger children at school. Our children “get” the concept of being brothers and sisters in Christ.

Most of the congregation did not see one young girl leave her parents and siblings as they walked down the aisle. She chose to give her grandparents a hug and to stay with them instead of approaching the crèche. The child’s action could be interpreted as choosing family over Christ, but I see her actions another way. This child saw someone she loved and chose to share love in a tangible way with that person. She felt comfortable enough during our service to make that choice. The symbolism of taking the crèche to the altar and even of hugging her grandmother were lost on the child. She shared love instinctively and innocently – like a child. Isn’t that how Jesus said we are supposed to come to God?

This year’s creche showed that Jesus came to be among us, in a way that we can touch. The awesome, indescribable God came as a baby, touchable, huggable, and familiar. All ages, sizes, shapes, and appearances were welcomed at the creche two thousand years ago and now. The children who needed help were given help. The children who could make the journey alone were trusted and allowed to approach the altar. I cannot help but think that one day, when these children are old enough to decide to make a profession of faith, the walk down the church aisle will not be intimidating.

Jesus is fully God in all of God’s awesomeness. Jesus deserves our respect and our worship. Yet, Jesus became fully human. Jesus chose to give up his place in Heaven to come to earth to be one of us. Jesus chose to be touchable. Sometimes we need a God who is great enough, powerful enough, insulated enough from our problems to be in control. We need a God we can look at and worship but not touch. At other times we need a God who understands us, who loves us, who accepts us. We need a touchable God. In God’s great mystery, we have a God who satisfies all our needs!

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The Light Shines in the Darkness

by Rev. Anna Burch, Minister to Children, Greenwood First Baptist Church

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” John 1:1-5

This Christmas, I find myself so drawn to the lights. I am loving my tree and candles in the windows. They are calming and peaceful.  I’ve been transfixed. I’ve found myself wondering in past days why I find myself so drawn to the lights this year?

I hope it has not been the case for you, but it’s been a tough year for me. Both my maternal grandparents and cousin died. I am so saddened, frustrated, and disheartened by the strife, anger, injustices, and division within our country. I am just entering my second year of ministry, which means I’ve been hitting those first bumps with church members and navigating my way through dealing with them as well as continuing to develop my own  view of myself as a minister. It’s been a pretty trying year.

Maybe this is why I am craving the lights of the Christmas decorations this year? I need that peace. I need that hope. I need that reminder that the light shines in the darkness. I need that reminder that God drew near to us as a tiny, unexpected baby 2,000 years ago. Maybe I am intrigued with the lights this year because I need that visual reminder that God draws close to us still today? That God is still shining in the darkness and that darkness will not overcome.

 

I am a fan of Richard Rohr’s meditations, in which he ends with a ‘Gateway to silence’. I’ve included one so that you might spend some time this Advent season in stillness and silence.

 

Gateway to silence: The light shines in the darkness.

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Waiting

by Rev. Mary Frances Thompson, Ministry Assistant Greenwood First Baptist, Field Director for the State Committee for Epiphany

I do not wait well. It may take me a while to make a decision to do or buy something, but once the decision is made I am ready for action, I am ready to use my purchase. Several years ago, I had the privilege to go on a missions trip to Kenya. The beginning of the trip was delayed because of bad weather. Due to plane schedules, the group had to wait from Wednesday to Sunday to start our trip. What a long span of days! My experience in Kenya was wonderful. I did not want to leave. However, once I was on the plane home, I wanted to be home. I remember flying over the Alps, a beautiful mountain range indeed. What was my thought, as I looked out the plane window? “That’s a nice view, now let’s get home.”

Some waiting goes on for so long that we begin to act as if the awaited event is never going to happen. It becomes a some day . . . . If most of us are honest that is the way we view the second coming of Christ. Scripture teaches that Christ will come again so we keep the Second Coming as part of our doctrine, but do we really expect (or want) that event to happen in our lifetime. After all, it has been two thousand or so years and it hasn’t happened yet. I think many people viewed the coming of the Messiah this way. The Hebrew scripture promised a Redeemer was coming. The Jewish people, who were well acquainted with hardship, exile, occupation of their land, and waiting, hoped the Messiah would come soon. Yet, how many really thought it would be in their lifetime?

Then an angel appeared to a young girl. She was told she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary had to wait. She had to wait for nine months for her son to be born. She had to wait for that son to grow into a man and for that man to begin his ministry of teaching and preaching. She had to wait to see how Jesus and his band of seemingly misfit disciples would become a force of redemption. She watched her son be crucified and then had to wait as he lay in the tomb for three days. She had to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to anoint the followers of Jesus with the power to change the world.

In many ways, the world was changed. Two thousand or so years later, we continue to commemorate the birth, death, and resurrection of Mary’s son. And, we wait. We wait for Christmas. We wait for the promised hope, peace, and redemption. We wait for the kingdom of God to come.

We do not wait well. We fill our time, our hearts, and our surroundings. While lights and other decorations, brightly colored gift-wrap and bows, Christmas pageants and holiday music are enjoyable, none of our preparations bring lasting hope, peace, or even joy. We anxiously wait for Christmas, and then, too often, we miss it. In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come. Jesus replied, “’The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV). The footnote in the NRSV says “among” can be translated “within.”  The first Christmas ushered in the kingdom of God. We do not have to wait. When we allow Jesus to live within us, the kingdom of God is within us. The world is waiting for the followers of Christ to bring the kingdom of God to a visible reality, a life changing, and world changing reality. What are we waiting for?

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Blooming in Hope and Faith

By Rev. Merianna Harrelson, Pastor New Hope Christian Fellowship

I’m a terrible gardener. It might have something to do with the fact that the only gardening I had experience with growing up was when my brothers and I spit watermelon seeds off our porch and we unintentionally grew a small watermelon patch. Perhaps it made me think that all gardening just happened without much intention or planning.

When we decided to plant a small vegetable garden at our house, Sam who was born and raised in the Peedee, showed me that there was much more to gardening. There was planning, planting, weeding, and watering. Some of those needed to happen on a daily basis! It was a lot of work. I tried to be diligent in my gardening but I wasn’t very good. I would remember some days and forget others. The okra didn’t seem to mind, but the tomatoes were a lost cause.

My lack of gardening became a bit of a inside joke between my congregants and me. Whenever I started telling a story about our garden, I would hear the tickle of laughter spread through the sanctuary. It’s why I was shocked last year when one of my parishioners gifted me the Christmas cactus she had used as an illustration during a children’s sermon. Really there had to be someone a bit more capable to take care of a plant, than me?

I wonder if there are any pastors or ministers who feel the same way during the Advent season. Isn’t there someone a bit better suited to deliver the gospel message, than me? Isn’t there someone a bit better suited to talk about the Messiah being born into the world, than me? Isn’t there someone a bit better suited to offer hope in the midst of all the brokenness and hurt in this world, than me?

And yet the promise of the Advent season is that there is hope in the midst of the fragility of the human form. There is light in the midst of the darkness of a world in conflict. Miracles can happen.

I know because I walked into my kitchen just a couple of weeks ago and guess what was blooming? A Christmas cactus from last Advent. A gift of hope and faith in the miraculous and mysterious nature of this season. Thanks be to God for bright, pink reminders of this truth.

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