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Advent

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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Love

by  Stacy N. Sergent is a hospital chaplain, and author of Being Called Chaplain: How I Lost My Name and Eventually Found My Faith. She blogs regularly at stacynsergent.com. On March 26, 2017, she will marry Will Lawton and become stepmom to Jackson and Beau. Hurley will also get a stepsister, Will’s dog Madison.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

I John 4:13-18

I knew I loved the man who is now my fiancé when I started having nightmares about him dying. This is what happens when I begin to love someone. It happened when I adopted my dog, Hurley. I would wake up shaking after dreaming he was hit by a car or fell off a cliff or, in one creative nightmare, got electrocuted by power lines as we were tandem skydiving. It didn’t take long after I met the man of my dreams for the nightmares to come. My subconscious mind knew how risky it was to love Will, making myself vulnerable to the pain of loss.

It wasn’t that different when I began to consciously love God as a child. My longing to know and belong to God was strong. My prayers every night ended with, “I love you, God.” But that love was tied up with fear. I was afraid I’d mess up and God would stop loving me. Knowing my faults and capacity for failure, I feared there was no way I could be worthy of God’s love and so, sooner or later, I had to lose it.

I knew my love for Will had matured when the nightmares stopped. This is what happens over time when I truly love someone. The fear goes away. “Perfect love casts out fear” according to the above passage in 1 John. And while my love is by no means perfect, it deepens to a place of trust. I trust that loving Will, his two boys, Hurley, my friends and family is worth the risk, because even if/when I lose them, I won’t lose the love we share. I trust that although I mess up, nothing can separate me from the love of God shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

God, thank you for taking the risk of loving us, even enough to live and die as one of us. In Jesus we see that love is never safe, but it is strong, stronger even than death. Help us to love you and those around us without fear. Amen.

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A Gift of Words

by Melinda McDonald, Interim pastor for Saluda/Columbus UMC in Polk County, NC[

The identity of “Writer” is something that we might not attribute to God, but when you think about it, next to “Creator” and “Nurturer,” this identity is definitely one of God’s. We know of God as the Author of all life. We acknowledge that God spoke the world into existence from Genesis. We read from the Old Testament prophets the many warnings for God’s people to get their act together. We know from Jeremiah that God has written God’s new covenant into our hearts rather than on stone tablets. The New Testament refers to this new covenant in the verses we use at Communion or The Eucharist. Indeed, God has been busy writing to us as well as deeply loving humankind throughout all time.

In contemporary times, words and writing are important for relationships even though our world seems now to be so picture-oriented. Movies are the sources for communal stories that used to be transmitted through the printed word. Now we have websites, Facebook, blogs, and texting – electronic means that still rely upon words to convey messages again! We humans cannot seem to leave printed words behind entirely.

I remember being a child and telling my mother that I might be a writer one day. And things have worked out that way although far beyond my wildest imaginings! I am a listener/chaplain/pastor-at-large currently and supply preacher vocationally.

For my family’s Thanksgiving gathering this year, I shared two things with them: a small origami box and a poem that I had written in 2012 to commemorate that year’s Christmas gathering at my dear sister’s. I offer this gift of words to you now – to exhort you to take the opportunity to record some special memories. None of my family could remember when this particular event took place, but luckily I had dated it.

A Gift of Words

Not so random words on tiny tads of paper

Placed within little origami boxes made

From old Christmas cards saved by Mary.

Sister turned these into a puzzle – an after Christmas treat this year.

In the box given to my husband and me:

Rejoice… Happen… Came…

Miracles… God…

Near… Everyday…

We arranged them: Everyday God came. Miracles happen near. Rejoice!

The puzzle author had composed them: God came near. Miracles happen every day. Rejoice!

Small boxes yielding delight and pleasure – A Christmas memory now to treasure.

The gift of my sister’s words and the gift of The Word Who Became Flesh are the true gifts of Christmas. It may be Advent while you are reading this, but it is my prayer that you have spent some time anticipating, preparing, discerning your purpose in participating in the Kingdom work Christ came to inaugurate. The world awaits hopefully for the love, joy, and peace that are God’s gifts to us. It is my prayer for all of us who serve God that we experience genuinely in our own lives the true gift of Christmas: shalom – wholeness and health and completeness.

 

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A Stronghold

by Bridget Kokolis, Minister to Families, Augusta Road Baptist Church

 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

Growing up as a military chaplain’s child, Advent was always an exciting time filled with family traditions and meaningful candlelight services. We often worshipped with different denominations, and so we were able to learn and grow from that ecumenical spirit. I vividly remember sitting next to my dad on the pew during these special services feeling so excited as we learned about hope, peace, love, and joy. Our family traditions were plentiful because we added to them with each new location and community, soaking up the local favorites and making them our own. It was comforting and fed my soul.

When I became a parent, Advent morphed into a time that I wholeheartedly focused on passing on those traditions and creating new ones alongside my husband. Suddenly, my own son was taking part in worship and my heart was full. Watching him embrace the journey of this season was another beautiful tradition to add to this season.

Last year everything changed. The city I lived in had devastating flooding in early October. By the time advent rolled around, my heart was so heavy with guilt and the pain and destruction that I passed daily on the roads. I just couldn’t bring myself to feel remotely jolly. It was a difficult time. I pasted a smile on my face and went through the motions so that I could minister to others and help my son experience the joy of the season, but oh was I hurting. Have you ever found yourself depleted or stressed or grieving during Advent? Maybe that’s true for you this year.

On top of the destruction and devastation I was seeing, I was also struggling with the notion that God was calling me away from the church that I had poured myself into for ten years.  How could I say goodbye to the children and families that I loved so deeply? As I taught and led in worship, encouraging others to embrace each week’s theme; I felt like a fraud. Yet, despite all that, I grasped onto each week with all my heart. I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful, yet the verses comforted me. I was not at peace with the turmoil in my life, but well-timed words from friends and strangers alike brought me peace. Joy was not bubbling up from my heart, but I experienced it through my son and yes, throughout it all, I experienced great love. I was weary, yet, those four weeks kept my eyes lifted to the purpose of the season, something so much bigger than me, the birth of the Messiah.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Powerful words that I found myself reading daily. I held fast to them, and they strengthened me.

And here we are at Advent once again. Over the past year my heart has healed and I’ve come to realize that for me, Advent has taken on a new meaning once again. Yes, it’s still a time filled with special traditions, but now I see it as stronghold. In times of goodness and light and in times of hurt and despair, Advent still comes. Its constant, no matter our mess, Jesus is still born; we celebrate the coming of the Messiah. What comfort and strength can be found in the knowledge that no matter the season of life and ministry that we find ourselves in, each and every year we have a chance to refocus and let true hope, peace, joy, and love resonate within us.

Praise be to God.

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Treasuring the Stillness

by Jennifer McClung Rygg – Associate Pastor, FBC Pendleton
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:19

This Advent is a different one for our family. Our second son was born mid-November. On the first Sunday of Advent, he was 11 days old. As the Christian church is preparing to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, we are adjusting to the birth of our own child.  Rather than spending the weeks of Advent planning worship, attending a multitude of special events, and trying to squeeze in a few more visits to homebound church members, I am spending a great deal of time this Advent being still.

As I spend hours each day nursing and holding the baby, I sometimes think of Mary, caring for her newborn on that first Christmas without so many of the luxuries I take for granted. We have at least 5 different devices where our baby can sleep (pack and play, rock and play, car seat, etc.) Mary had only a manger, a feeding trough for the animals, in which to place her baby. We complain about our 3 bedroom house being too small to hold all the equipment we “need” for our children, while Jesus was born in an overcrowded inn, without even one room for his parents to call their own. We are spending most of our time at home, avoiding crowds to keep the baby healthy during flu season. Mary and Joseph didn’t have that option. Having a new baby this time of year has helped me reflect on the nativity story in a new way.

But the truth is, the different routines of a new baby have also been a bit disorienting. While I am so thankful for this time at home to focus on our family, there is a part of me that misses the “busyness” of Advent at church. The planning, organizing, leading, and preaching that come with being a minister during Advent have become such an integral part of my preparation for Christmas, that it feels odd to prepare for Christmas without those activities.

My hope is that I will be able to treasure this time and experience, as Mary did. I want to use the stillness of this season to reflect on Advent and Christmas not as church events that require my preparation, but as cosmic events that invite my celebration. It is a bit humbling to accept that the Christmas season at church goes on without me. Others will plan what I would have planned; others will do what I would have done. And Christmas will still come. Like many overachieving ministers, sometimes I forget that my leadership, preparation, and involvement is not required for Christ to enter into our world. This Advent season, I am reminded that my work is to be still, to treasure these things in my heart, and to let Jesus be the one and only Savior of the world.

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