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Merianna Neely Harrelson

The Lord is Come

by Rev. Merianna Harrelson, Pastor New Hope Christian Fellowship

This Advent instead of studying the gospel of Luke or Matthew, we studied the gospel of Mark. The Messianic Secret drew me in with its secrecy and mystism.

The gospel writer makes sure there are no questions about why the gospel was written:

The beginning of the good news of about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God

Mark 1:1 (NRSV)

An unfinished sentence? A title to the gospel? We’re not sure, but what we are sure is that the story that is about to unfold throughout the gospel of Mark is good news.

The little apocolapyse in Mark 13 that predicts a day of judgement? Good news.

The disiciples who never seem to fully understand who they are following? Good news.

The uncertainty of what happens to Jesus at the end of Mark? Good news.

Because perhaps, the gospel writer of Mark reminds us as the people of God that there are some aspects of the Divine Incarnate entering the world that we will never understand. Perhaps the unfinished sentence that starts the gospel of Mark is an invitation for us to tell the story of God with us. Perhaps Emmanuel, God with us, is something too great for words.

May God remind us this season that we can’t fully comprehend the Divine even when the Divine takes on flesh.

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Joy and Hope in the Midst of Grief

By Rev. Dr. Ginger Barfield, Executive Director of the Academy of Faith and Leadership, Professor of Theology

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Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among all people.” Luke 2:14

On that first Christmas morning, it was the angels who spoke first. “Do not be afraid,” they told the shepherds who saw the glory of the Lord all around them. Then, the angelic chorus proclaimed the reality of peace on earth. Christmas and peace always seem to go hand-in-hand.

Not always . . . .

Exactly 12 days before Christmas and 13 days before the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I went to visit her grave.  For the first time.

It was not as hard as I had imagined all these months. It was not as easy as it might have been. I had put it off for so long. I was afraid of the grief that I might uncover there. I was looking for peace and closure that I know will never come.

I took a live Christmas tree, a Norfolk pine, with pretty red bows and placed it directly above the headstone. She always loved Christmas and we always had a tree, even when she was in the hospital in her last days last year. It only seemed right that there should be a tree there for this first year without her.

This day had lived in my imagination for a long time. I am not one to hang around cemeteries.  Mama was not there in that space. I could talk to her and sense her presence almost anywhere I was, at almost any time my thoughts grew still. As the holidays approached, though, I knew that I wanted to go to the grave. I had a gnawing inside me that had been building and I needed some resolution.

As soon as I placed the tree, I realized that this is just a place, a space where we put her in the ground. She is not there. I do not need to go there to find her.

Mama taught me in that moment as I looked to the right of her headstone. There, a few feet away, is the marker for her father, my grandfather. The space beside him is empty. His wife, my namesake, died in another state just before I was born. What suddenly struck was that my mother had never said anything to me about where her mother was buried. My mother, to my knowledge, in the six decades since her mother died never went to visit the grave.

An enormous relief washed over me. I had done what was hard. I had made the trip that I feared. And I had been given a gift of peace for this season of waiting and for the waiting of all seasons to come.

Mothers and daughters don’t have to be in the same space at the same time to know the glorious truth of love. At least my mama and I don’t. Just as she didn’t have to be in the same space as her mother who died way to young to give my mama the full set of memories my mama gave me. There can be space and room for the angels to sing.

At Jesus’ birth, far away from that feed trough, shepherds knew. They knew that something majestic had happened and that they could participate in this great event. So, they went to see.

I was afraid, but I followed the pattern of the shepherds. I went to see. I read the marker and put the tree there. I remembered the words I last heard in that place, “from dust to dust.” And I learned . . .

I learned that ALL of the candles on the Advent wreath are still vitally real in my life. Love, no question. Joy, I wasn’t sure. Hope, it’s tattooed on my arm for my mama from years ago. The one that I questioned most, Peace. I found it there in that little cemetery.

This Advent, I received the gift of all the candles. So may each of us claim them all.

LOVE

JOY

HOPE

PEACE

Grace for us all from the baby in the manger.

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Instead…

By Rev. Stacy Sergent Lawton, Chaplain MUSC

Three Decembers ago, I expected that I would always decorate my Christmas tree alone. Like many of my expectations, that turned out to be wrong. I also expected that my Christmases would always include the smell of a Fraser fir in the living room. But not this year. One of my two new stepsons is allergic. Instead, my new husband assembled the artificial, pre-lit Christmas tree. I looked forward to the four of us decorating it together, telling stories and making memories all evening long. Instead, Will and the boys had finished putting all their ornaments (which were in one large box with cardboard dividers, not individually wrapped or in their original Hallmark boxes like mine) on the tree in about ten minutes. I had barely begun unboxing my own ornaments and placing them on the tree one at a time when the boys dug into the boxes themselves and started haphazardly hanging things on branches. They didn’t even give me time to tell them the stories of the ornaments. Instead, I had just started to tell Beau about one of my favorites he was putting on the tree, when I heard Jackson’s voice behind me asking, “Is this an egg?” followed by a cracking sound.

It was an egg once. Now it was hollowed out, with a green ribbon tied through the hole in the middle of it, and the original German lyrics to “Silent Night” painted all around the shell. I bought it in Salzburg, Austria just after I had visited the birthplace of Josef Mohr, the priest who wrote those lyrics long ago. I had looked forward to sharing with my new family the memories of that trip as we unwrapped the ornament. Instead, I was picking it up off the floor where our 5-year-old had dropped it, inspecting it for cracks, and I was at a loss for words. I had expected decorating the tree for our first time together to be an hour or two of holiday magic. Instead, it was a frenzied activity during halftime of the football game. Soon the game drew them back in and the boys were rushing off to play while I finished hanging the ornaments myself. The idyllic expectations I had for my first holiday season with my new family had set me up for disappointment.

As I ponder these things in my heart in light of the stories of my faith, I see a lot of “insteads” in the story of Jesus, from the very beginning. When Mary imagined the birth of her first baby, she probably pictured being at home, surrounded by family. Instead, she was in a stranger’s barn, with only a few animals, her new husband, and eventually a bunch of shepherds still smelling like the fields they had just left. Joseph certainly expected that when Mary had her first baby it would be, you know, his. Instead, he watched in wonder as she gave birth to a baby both she and an angel had told him was the son of God. I have no idea what the second person of the Trinity expected from incarnation, but I would be surprised if all of those expectations were met. Part of being fully human surely meant that he learned firsthand the pain and frustration, and surprise and delight, of unmet expectations. And part of being God must mean, I hope, that God is always at work in the midst of our “insteads” to bring about something wonderful.

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Peace and Chaos

by Rev. Jennifer McClung Rygg, Pastor, First Baptist Pendleton

To tell the truth, I feel like possibly the least qualified person to write a reflection on peace. I read Mary’s words in Luke 1:38, and I am in awe of her willingness to enter the unknown with so little information. An angel unexpectedly appears and announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God, and Mary says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. What faith…what trust…what peace!

Meanwhile, I am struggling to keep up with all of the Christmas activities – the church programs, the school activities, the family gatherings, along with all of the necessary preparations, not to mention the “ordinary” stuff of laundry and dishes and trying to be patient with my children. As a pastor and mother of two young children, “peace” is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think about my life these days. How far I feel from Mary, who did not know where they would sleep that night in Bethlehem, who gave birth to her son with so little resources and support, and yet who said “let it be with me according to your word.”

But perhaps my struggle to feel “peaceful” is because my understanding of peace is too small. My life may not be calm, quiet, and organized, but God’s peace is certainly present. When my 3 year old says “I really love you, Mommy,” and my 1 year old reaches his arms up to me, I am reminded that peace can be found in the midst of temper tantrums, runny noses, and endless piles of laundry, When I see church members welcoming guests, giving generously, and excited about opportunities to connect with our community, I am reminded that peace can be found in the midst of a society that seems less and less interested in church. Peace is not the absence of conflict or worry or struggles, but peace is finding tranquility even in the chaos.

When Mary said “Let it be with me according to your word,” she had to have known the road ahead would not be an easy one. Yet she accepted the challenge, not expecting it to be free from conflict, but knowing and trusting that God’s peace would carry her through the difficult times. My prayer this Advent season echoes Mary’s words, “Let it be with me.” May God’s peace be with you this season, even in the midst of chaos.

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Resting in the Not Yet and In-Between

by Rev. Judith Myers, Pastor, Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship

I love Advent, almost as much as I love Lent.  There’s something so beautiful and sacred about times of not yet and in-between. I give thanks that God presents me with seasons that allow me to slow down a little and reflect.  For those that know me, you know I’m not a very patient person. I’m working on it, but impatience runs deep in my family. So when Advent and Lent roll around, I force myself to wait.  It’s a spiritual discipline during these seasons.  I settle in the unknown. Impatiently, yes, but Advent and Lent have saved my spirit and my faith.  I love the moments that cause me to take a step or two back.  Maybe to reflect on the year behind me, hope for the year ahead, or just take time to sit in the valley of the dry bones.

At Emmanuel, we follow the Narrative Lectionary.  This past week’s sermon Scripture was Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones.  Valley of the dry bones? During Advent? Weird.  AND YET.  It’s the perfect passage when you’re allowing yourself to rest in this not yet and in-between time.  The valley of the dry bones is a story where God’s presence comes alive, working to bring new life and to piece the bones together. God’s presence brings restoration to God’s people.  It’s a story where dry bones are given sustenance.  It’s a story where hope is found.  Many of us find ourselves in the valley of the dry bones during this season.  Divorces or strained relationships with loved ones leave us lonely and grieving for what used to be, for what should be.

On Sunday, my congregation reflected on their own not yet or in-between because this season is so, so hard.  And they heard a word of hope.  Maybe God is breathing new life into them, into all of us.  Maybe God is doing the same to you because this time of year is joyful.  Maybe you need Advent, a time of longing and waiting.  Maybe you’re approaching this season with dry bones, with no hope. Maybe you need time to reflect, to figure a few things out.  Take time this season to rest in the valley of the dry bones.  And then hear a word of hope.  Hear that God is working in you, piecing you back together, breathing new life in you.

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Advent: The Grace of God Gestating

I love the Christian calendar – that we can mark our days throughout the year according to the life of our Lord and his Church – and I love that each Christian year begins again with Advent. Waiting and watching for the Christ child to be born in and through us.

Being the mother of two children whom my husband and I adopted at birth has connected me in a profound new way to Mary’s experience of giving birth to a child that was and was not her own. This is the beauty of the Incarnation for us all! I stand in total awe of a God who still chooses to be born in me and in you in so many different ways. Meister Eckart wrote, “We are all called to be mothers of God.”

The angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Then, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Like Mary, what happens to us when “the Holy Spirit comes upon us” and when we, in turn, say “let it be” is simply holy. That which is birthed is and is not our own. And it is Advent that has the power to teach us that birthing God comes not without waiting and watching.

My 5-year- old son is fascinated this year by the nativity set in our home. He couldn’t wait (not such a fan of Advent :)) to place each figure in place in and around the stable, so you can imagine how tough it was to convince him to wait until Christmas morning to place baby Jesus in the manger!

It was through watching and waiting that God wrote Malachi’s and Kamryn’s birth stories for Dave and me, as I carried them in the womb of my heart. It was through watching and waiting that God gave birth to Koinonia of Columbia in Dave and me.

When I began my days at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 2004, deep within my heart was a longing for inner-city community ministry. Looking back, I see now that this was God’s dream beginning to germinate in me. Much had to happen before God’s dream, Koinonia of Columbia found life in me in 2017. Seminary education, marriage, my first church call, motherhood and even a letting go of the dream.

I see now that this was the gestation. Birthing cannot happen without gestation. It was through much waiting and watching that Edwina Gateley discerned her call to open the Genesis House in Chicago. She writes in her spiritual memoir (In God’s Womb) of these months of solitude: “I began to think of a woman who conceives a seed of new life within her and of how she must undergo a period of gestation and waiting as that new life grows. And I realized that this is what God does with us. Although we cannot see, the invitation is to trust in the darkness and wait for the surfacing of God’s wisdom in our lives by allowing the gestation period to happen… Maybe what we need is simply to realize that God does not hide from us, ever, but that God gestates within us –the grace of God gestates within us – and we must be faithful to the spiritual process of birthing the presence of God into our world.

Like Mary as she awaited the birth of the Christ Child, may we, too, find ourselves singing as the grace of God gestates within us this Advent season! “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” And when the waiting is over and the Christ child is born in each of us in so many different ways, may we, like Mary, “treasure up all of these things and ponder them in our hearts.”

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How Light Gets In

by Rev. Anna Burch, Children’s Minister, First Baptist Greenwood

“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 did not overcome it.” – John 1:1-5 (NRSV)

As I enter into Advent season this year, I find myself in a much different place than last year- in a new job with a similar, but still very different vocation, with new roles in the church and in worship, and as a newly ordained minister. While all of these changes have brought about goodness and have shown evidence of God’s faithfulness and providence, they still are new and unfamiliar. As I move around in this new space of ministry, I find myself particularly drawn to the words I read as we hung our wreaths this past Sunday in our Hanging of the Greens service.

“For Christians, the Season of Advent is celebrated in the midst of great paradox. Advent is the beginning of the Christian story; it is the first season of the Christian calendar. Advent is a new beginning, a season of preparation and hope. And yet, we already know how this story will end. From Advent and Epiphany, we will journey through the wilderness of Lent into the dark shadows of Good Friday. And from the shadows of Golgotha and the cold, dark tomb, our journey will at last bring us to the glorious light of Easter and the eternal illumination of Pentecost. If we dare to follow Jesus on this journey, we will pass through dark valleys of deep shadow, only to emerge at last with Christ in final victory over death. The Christian journey invites us into holy cycle of keeping time with God. Our evergreen wreaths remind us that as we journey with God, we may pass through darkness only for a season; but we always return to where we started in Advent: waiting, hoping, and yearning for the gift of Christ. May our wreaths remind us of this journey where we are never too far from God’s loving presence and eternal light.”

My journey to ministry certainly held a great deal of time in the wilderness. In one of my courses in seminary, we read “How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice” by Pat Schneider. I loved her premise that our cracks, broken places, or times in the wilderness are how the light gets in. My journey and my newest season have shown me that if we are bold enough to journey with God and find ways to be in that “holy cycle of keeping time with God”, we will find that indeed darkness comes for only seasons. We will also find that God uses those times of darkness and wilderness to let love and light shine through the cracks. To see that light, though, we must be looking. We must be waiting and hoping and yearning.

Perhaps this Advent season your journey finds you wandering and waiting in the dark wilderness? Or maybe you are standing in the bright light filled with joy and peace? Wherever you find yourself on your journey this Advent season- whether in it be in the light or hoping that your cracks might be how God’s light one day gets in- may each wreath you see remind you that God is near. God’s love and light are traveling your road with you. How will you feel and how will you see God’s love and light this Advent season?

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Including Time to Lament in Advent

By Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Nance-Coker

During this season of waiting, listening and preparing, while we inhabit the now and the not yet, I invite you to lament. When we lament, we bring our experiences of pain, loss and broken- heartedness in protest to God. We voice complaint, anger, grief, and despair in prayer before God and we share these emotions in community. We hold onto hope on behalf of those who are barely holding on. Someday it may be their turn to hold onto hope for us.
The model for lament found in the Psalms of Lament shows us the ancient way of what feels like a praise song in a minor key. Acknowledging who God is by remembering what God has done, moving into complaint, then begging for help, and finally turning to hope in God with the vow to praise God yet again for what God will do: this is the way of lament. The Psalms found in the lectionary passages for our four Sundays of Advent are Psalms containing lament. “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” from Psalm 80. On the second Sunday, Psalm 85 asks, “Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?”

Then on the third Sunday of Advent, a time of joy, we hear, “May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy.” On the final Advent Sunday, a portion of Psalm 89 asks, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?” God’s Spirit works in us and through us to breathe prayers of lament for life situations of grief and despair. In these laments, we pray on behalf of the bereaved, hungry, oppressed, humiliated, refugees, homeless, inner-city poor, lonely, betrayed. We, the created ones, bring the groaning of creation to Creator God in whose image we are made. Lament carries the freight of protesting the
situations in life, and leads into hope. The Advent season gives us time to breathe these prayers, to have difficult conversations, and to inwardly digest the difficult passages of Scripture. The hopes and fears of all the years are met with hope in Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.

 

The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Nance-Coker holds a Doctorate in Worship Studies and travels to help plan and implement worship in churches. She leads a weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter in Columbia, SC. She is also available to serve as guest pianist, worship leader, and pulpit supply for churches. 

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We Don’t Belive in That 

My story of answering a call to ministry is also a story about being able to imagine and dream of a God and a religion that welcomes and includes all people. When I voiced a call to preach to my home church, the minister I shared with responded, “We don’t believe in that.” 

What he meant is that as a Southern Baptist Church, the leadership did not believe that women were called to be ministers, preachers, or pastors. Instead, women were called to be support staff, preachers’ wives, and mothers. 

What I heard as he clung to a closed theology was, “We don’t believe in you.” I had grown up in this closed theology, but somehow as I found the courage to answer a call to preach and pastor, there was a ray of hope that the community of faith who had nurtured and supported me, the community of faith I had spent countless hours serving, would somehow release their tight grip on dogma and embrace me instead.

They didn’t. 

It was heartbreaking and disappointing. It made me doubt whether I had heard my call correctly. It made me doubt whether I was full of pride or ambition. It made me doubt myself. 

But then I found other women, many who shared a similar story, who were living into their call, yes even in Baptist congregations and that ray of hope returned. I clung to that hope even when people told me to look into becoming Methodist; even when people told me that communities of faith just weren’t ready to call a woman as pastor of their church quite yet. 

Still I clung to that ray of hope, which led me to pastor a church start in Lexington, SC, which led me to pastor New Hope Christian Fellowship. 

That ray of hope that led me and stayed me in the midst of doubt and uncertainty has become a new hope to pastor and lead a community of faith where truly all are welcome and included. 

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