Advent Devotional: Dec. 24, 2020

By Brandon LaReau

I love song titles which ask a question. A question mark in the title means the lyrics are full of story, the best songs tell a story. If the best story is that of Jesus’ birth, then it follows that all songs about His birth should be titled with a question. 

“What child is this?” 

More than any other year, 2020 and I have asked each other more questions than I was prepared for. Will I serve my community? How can I help? How can I help those I usually look away from? What are my responsibilities? Who do I vote for? What do I believe? Why do I feel guilty for still having a job? What do I say to my friend whose mother is in the hospital? What parts of my ‘routine’ have to change? These questions, of course, all have answers. Answers found in the Bible. Answers found through prayer. Sometimes the answer is laughter, sometimes tears, sometimes surrounded by those you love, and sometimes completely alone.

“Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?”

While not usually thought of as the theological lynchpin of the song, this question carries an important message. Jesus could have been born anywhere, to any wealthy family, by the warmth of a fire, in any palace. For me, it is His manger birth which reminds me of the earthly side of Jesus. It is easy to think of Him in brilliant white robes and to picture Him in Heaven. It is much harder to imagine Him stubbing His toe on a rock He didn’t see, getting sand in His mouth while playing in Egypt, or scraping His knee chasing a dog down a side street. Why lies He in such mean estate? To remind all of us that the King of Kings started His earthly life in a small wooden structure, open to the elements, full of animals and their waste, under a bright star, “whom shepherds guard and angels sing”. As we contemplate all of the carnage of 2020, and struggle to make sense of it all, the clearer it becomes that we cannot make sense of any of it. That, family, is the point. That is faith. That is the manger birth. Despite being unable to see any of you for months on end, the church is more alive now than ever before. Grad student peers of mine who have never prayed a day in their lives have asked me to pray with them. Charitable donations are skyrocketing nationwide despite people having generally less money in their pockets. Hope and faith are alive and well in 2020. The struggles of humanity, the pain and suffering, the unanswerable questions, THAT is why Jesus had a manger birth. That is why He lies in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding. 

“The King of Kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”

The lyric is clear: loving hearts. Not Republican hearts, not Democrat hearts. Not ‘Boomer’ hearts, not Millennial hearts. Not gay hearts, or straight hearts, or cis hearts, or trans hearts, or non-binary hearts. Not black hearts, or white hearts, or Latinx hearts, or Middle Eastern hearts. Not rich hearts, or poor hearts. LOVING hearts. Jesus brings salvation to every loving heart, despite any of the labels and walls we attempt to build in secular society. Let loving hearts enthrone Him. Whether you have gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer; or all you have to offer is a song. The lyric is very clear here as well: peasant or king. With so many uncertainties in our future, 2021 promises to be a year of equal change and turmoil. Through all the upheaval there is a constant, the salvation brought by Jesus. His manger birth. Let Jesus be the hope you are seeking. Wise men still seek Him. “Haste, haste to bring Him laud”, “Hail, hail the Word made flesh”, “Joy, joy for Christ is born”.

“The babe, the son of Mary.”

Advent Devotional: Dec. 23, 2020

By Meg Morrison

Last night, one of my very good friends Claire, who lives in Spokane, Washington, FaceTimed me out of the blue and said, “I just need a good sad girl/hopeful girl chat,” and I knew exactly what she meant. Claire and I joke a lot about being “sad girls,” girls that listen to sad music on purpose, love overcast days, and Halloween. 

One day when I was living in Spokane back in October, a time where it was actually difficult to be there because I didn’t have a community yet, Claire called me and said, “Let’s go on a drive.” It was of course an overcast day and we played very moody music as we traveled around Spokane, not a specific destination in mind. We ended up at a park that was Claire’s favorite place to go and stood along the cliffsides and looked out over the valley and the changing leaves. It was breathtaking. That night I had bought tickets to go to a concert for a very moody, sad artist who I love and I went all by myself. 

That day sticks out in my mind so clearly. It was a day where I felt hopeful of the future. Everything was overcast and grey, but Claire still called me. Everything was gloomy and sad, but I was still able to witness beauty. I went to a concert by myself and felt known because the lyrics that Lucy Dacus and Liza Anne were singing were true to my life. 

I think oftentimes hope encompasses the small things that urge you to continue on. Sometimes you’re lucky and hope encompasses the big moments, but most of the time, it is small. It is the little candlelight saying, “Come on, follow me, we still have places to go, music to listen to, people to love.” Hope just asks that you would be present and that you would try. 

I really think that’s all God has said to me this year, “Please be present, please try, because if you don’t, you’ll miss out on the little hopeful moments that you love about life.”  

So last night, Claire and I had a sad girl/hopeful girl chat about what was coming for us in the future. We shared dreams and worries and small moments that kept us going. We were present and trying, and that is all that hope asks of me. 

Prayer:
Creator of hope, 
Would you make space for me to see the moments that remind me of goodness?
Would you make space for me to see the moments that remind me of peace and wholeness?
It has not been an easy year, but you are still here, you still call me, you still take me on drives because you love me.
Thank you, that even though I sometimes do not believe that hope is present, you believe it and hold it for me and you have others in my life that believe it and hold it for me as well. 
Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 22, 2020

by Gabbi Pohlman

Matthew 2:11-14
An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying “Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.” So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt.  

This is not the first time an other-worldly messenger has appeared to Joseph in a dream. One chapter before this passage, in a dream, Joseph is instructed to keep Mary as his wife. Reason granted him the idea of a quiet divorce to avoid public shame. However, in both instances, Joseph allows divine intervention to alter his plans, even forgoing temporal logic. 

Over the course of this year, it has grown increasingly harder to dream (and I don’t mean sleeping at night). Even dreaming about the next year or next day is hard. Logic says that any dreams or plans are probably going to be altered, so why even do it? However, I think God is inviting us to dream with him, to hope and be radically optimistic that he is still moving and working in the world today. How can you let yourself dream big in this season? 

What strikes a deeper cord within me about this passage is that Egypt, formerly a place of great oppression for the Jewish people, becomes a place of refuge for the Christ Child. God is a master in the work of redemption. Everyone has an Egypt in their life – a place or thing that traps us in the shadow of our former self. What would it look like for your Egypt to become a place of refuge? To cultivate the redemptive work of God in ourselves, we must look to the least favorite parts of ourselves and invite God in. When we allow a healing work to occur within us, we then invite everyone in our sphere of influence to receive their own healing. 

God, would you give us the strength to dream big with you in this year where dreaming seems silly. Help us to hope without ceasing and invite you into the places within ourselves that we think are past redemption. Thank you that hope does not come from the condition of the world and there is no place where you are not. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 21, 2020

By Martina Bober

Luke 2: 21-38
“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.  When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

One of my favorite Christmas Hymns (and there are tons, tucked away for this Season of Christmas running post-Thanksgiving until the end of January!), is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We await Christmas in this new church year for a matter of four weeks of Advent” known in our tradition as Ordinary time. But 2020 has had very little ordinary time. Our world is fighting a virus and our nation is wrestling with a divide that we have tucked away for too long. If ever there was a time to hold onto hope, it is now.

In a season of waiting to remember the birth of Jesus into a broken and divided world I look to Simeon and Anna. Living in an occupied city, both have longed their entire lives for the Messiah, Son of David. Their anticipation was not a matter of days, or weeks, or months but part of a longer period of longing for God’s promise to be fulfilled to God’s people over centuries.

“Jesus Presented in the Temple” by Jesus Mafa (Creative Commons)

The passage tells us that Simeon “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (v 25-6) Simeon’s hope came from the Holy Spirit and upon seeing the fulfillment of this promise breaks into song.

The gospel gives us less information about Anna, also a prophet, who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (v 37) She too was filled with longing based in hope for the birth of a child who would bring the redemption of Jerusalem. (v 38) She was sustained by the life she was living. Both centered their lives in the temple. At Oconee Street UMC, a church on the hill, we do not center our lives only in our temple. It has been mostly empty for months and yet who we are to each other and our community continues to live on. It is an embodiment of hope. We are a church family that is intentional about living as Christ. But even in our action we still wait, we still hope.

Our Hope, like that of these two, comes from God through the Holy Spirit. We may not have the assurance of Simeon or the fasting rituals of Anna but our expectations, our desire as followers of the Babe of Bethlehem sustain us. In my lifetime, in this season, I had hoped our healing would be greater and deeper. Like that hymn my hope remains that Jesus will release us from our fears and sins and bring the gracious kindom near. Hope brings us strength and consolation; it sustains us in our despair. This hope also calls us to do our part, not in celebration, but in this waiting to move to listening, action and healing.

Oh God of waiting, you gifted us with Jesus, a babe long hoped for. Send your Spirit upon us as you did for Simeon and Anna. You can release us from our sins and fears. Help us move our Hope to Love so that we may do our part in the gracious kindom.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 19, 2020

By Erin Steele

John 12:24:
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 belongs on the trash heap of history. Somewhere in the sadistic heat of July, I decided my feelings had been hurt enough for this year, and I wasn’t going to hope for anything to get better. I resigned myself to wallowing in this dark season, and figuring it out when we’re able to breathe freely again. We grow weary of hoping sometimes, don’t we?

Then I came across a quote from Seamus Heaney that changed my mind: “Hope is not optimism, which expects things will turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” 

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It is enough, today, to find the good thing in front of us, and decide it’s worth reigniting even the smallest spark of hope. Maybe it’s the changing of the leaves, the warmth of the sun on a cold day, the five minutes of quiet you get when your children find an old Lego set in the basement and haven’t started arguing over who it belongs to yet. Whatever it is, may you find your good today. 

The story says that the greatest force in the universe chose to become like us, and was born into what history might call a trash heap. He came into the dark of night, after 400 years of silence, a tiny spark in an abyss of hopelessness. He is an eternal reminder that because of who he is, there is always good worth working for in this world. 

This Scripture may not be the very first one you think of when you set out to read something to bring you hope, but it has been a constant refrain for me. It’s a reminder that even when all looks lost, that death has won and had the final word, the work of hope is done in the quiet, and in the pain, and in the darkness. So, even after we’ve given ourselves over to the reality of what we face, may we still have eyes to see. 

God of the watching ones, 
give us Your benediction. 
God of the waiting ones, 
give us Your good word for our souls. 
God of the watching ones, 
the waiting ones, 
the slow and suffering ones, 
give us your benediction, 
your good word for our souls, 
that we might rest and rise 
in the kindness of your company. 
— adapted from the book Celtic Daily Prayer

Advent Devotional: Dec. 17, 2020

By Sloan Dobrin

2020 is a weird year for hope. When I think back to January, we had so many dreams and plans for the year that vanished in a puff of smoke. My planner has a yearly “bucket list” in the front that now looks like a joke. I think the only thing I can actually cross off is we got our toddler potty trained.

November was when my hope hit the low point. Cases for the pandemic were going up. I was hoping for a landslide victory for my presidential candidate of choice and that didn’t happen. In fact, it took days before we knew the results. I felt so much relief when I found out that what felt like four years of outrage, fear, and sadness would be over. News of a vaccine began to become real. I began to feel hope again.

But then I started to wonder what would have happened if my candidate hadn’t won. What would have happened to my hope? And I began to think and realize that my hope had been misplaced. My hope is not in old white men, no matter how thoughtful and compassionate they are. My hope is not in a vaccine. My hope is in a “brown skinned homeless radical preaching love and justice 2000 years ago.” My hope is in a God whose kin-dom is the only thing that will matter in 10,000 years. My hope is in a Church that lives out our directive of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

I’m not there yet. I still place my hope in jobs and footballs and election results. But I’m also placing my Hope in Christmas cactuses that bloom and yeast that rises and the flicker of a candle. So here’s to a hope that will anchor our souls in the coming year. May it be a glimpse of our kin-dom that is coming.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 16, 2020

By Katie Calkin

 Luke 19:41
“As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it.”

Sometimes hope feels like a happy, buoyant feeling.  Especially when it pops up unexpectedly.  But often hope feels more like a decision to me, a determined resolve.  So many times this year as I’ve despaired it has helped me to remember that Jesus also wept over selfishness, greed and violence, but continued with his journey into Jerusalem and towards the cross.  Jesus’ resolve bolsters me to sit with God in silence asking for guidance, and to continue to do the small acts of God’s work that I am invited to participate in each day.  

But this grittier type of hope can sometimes get shriveled like a dried sponge.  Even though Christmas brings mixed emotions, and this pandemic year will continue to have unique losses and disconnects, I am already feeling my “hope sponge” swell.   

We have several nativity sets that are meaningful for different reasons, but year after year this Joseph especially draws me in.  When I gaze at him I feel humbled and awed that I am nestled in a much, much bigger story than my own.  God reveals God’s self to us in little glimpses we can handle, and on Christmas morning that is through a vulnerable baby born into poverty in troubled times who will show us what it is to live in complete surrender.  May all of our weary spirits be lifted this Advent as we anticipate the miraculous and mysterious incarnation of Christ.

Living Christ, renew our hope with the celebration of your birth.  Bathe us in awe.  Refresh our spirits so that our actions are hope for the world.  Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 15, 2020

By Laura Valentine

Psalm 25:5
“Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”

The year 2020 will likely go down in world history as one of the worst for many. From a world wide pandemic that continues to wreak havoc, to the killing of multiple unarmed black people, murder hornets, and the deaths of multiple influential people, this year is quite literally: THE WORST. 

My 2020 hasn’t been so different. Multiple losses and personal tragedies, some of which I’ve shared with friends, family, and social media. Others, I’ve kept close to me- only letting a small circle of minds in on the events. Still, I know those who have suffered far worse than me. 

These past 349 days have been hard. Hope has been a thing in short supply. Even when “good things” have happened this year, the overwhelming weight of current times has had me feeling sadness, anger, confusion, and anxiety regularly. Admittedly, I have turned to prayer less and less as the days have crept by. 

Despite it all, I’ve kept going. It’s nothing special about me. It’s a human thing really. God designed us to keep pushing forward even in the lowliest of circumstances. To grab ahold of the tiniest glimmer of hope we can find and hold on for dear life. For me it’s been the sweet smiles and laughter of my daughter, the afternoon walks with my dogs, the caring (and delicious) breakfasts prepared by my husband; Music, running, and late night trips for ice cream. These are the things that have carried me through this year. For me, these are the things that make up Hope. 

Dear God, Be with us each day, in everything we do. Guide us through the dark and troubled times. Lead us in your ways to joy and gladness. Reveal  the Hope you’ve placed in our lives’. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 14, 2020

By Gayle Chimo

Romans 12:12:
“Be joyful in hope, patient in afflictions, faithful in prayer.” 

February 8, 2020 was a gray, bitter cold day. With frost on the lawn it was a day you just wanted to stay in your jammies, sit by the fireplace and savor your coffee. But a commitment was made and must be kept. It was orchid re-potting day at the GA State Botanical Gardens for Orchid Madness. The weather forecast called for a slight chance of snow!

Halfway through re-potting the snowflakes started falling, I could hardly pay attention to the event, I finally had to break away to experience the flurry. Soon the gardens were draped in a white blanket of glistening snow. As I meandered around in this winter landscape, I came across yellow daffodils springing up through the white powder. The contrast of the bright yellow bloom against the white snow was brilliant.  

A month later COVID-19 hit like the grim reaper, stealing our way of life as we knew it, threatening our health, taking lives, shattering livelihoods.  With the anxiety of uncertainty, a fear crept in, what was to come? My mind took me back to the flowers on that cold winter morning in February. How they stood confidently under the weight of the snow, holding their petals up strong in defiance of the adverse conditions. 

I started making trips back to the Botanical Garden, hiking and snapping up pictures all through spring, summer, and fall. God’s brilliant display of blooms helped me cope; it melted away the day’s stress and renewed my hope each day. From the charming to the exotic, the flowers never stopped showcasing God’s message of hope. A confident expectation of what God has promised and the strength in His faithfulness.  

This connect to God’s creation of nature, reminds us that flowers can bring us joy triggering our happy brain chemicals, bringing a feeling of wellbeing and happiness. This gives us hope to muster through this pandemic knowing that God is with us, even during these turbulent times. The Christmas story, Jesus’ birth, is a story of hope fulfilled, for unto us a savior is born. God sent his son and redeemed His people.  

This year Christmas will be different, there is restlessness, sadness, and loneliness but we must not lose our hope. Deck the halls, sing your carols, create new traditions, and reflect on all the blessings God has given us in His garden of flowers. Maybe this Christmas will afford us more time to reflect on the gift of hope, to be patient, and to pray with conviction for a better 2021.  

Dear Lord, hear our prayer, surround us with a special sense of your presence this Christmas. Let the beauty of your creation remind us of your promise of hope this season. Bless us with patience while we confidently wait and envision your abundance to come.  

Advent Devotional: Dec. 12, 2020

by Nancy Staton

I realized as I was thinking about an advent devotion for this year’s season that I have used the word “hope” more flippantly than I should. I seem to always say, “Hope you have fun. Hope your new shoes fit.”

That is all good, but “ hope” is a deeper emotion than that. In a year like 2020 when globally, so many people have become sick, continue to get sick, and so many have died and continue to die from COVID-19, “hope” becomes more. This is a year when people have lost jobs and businesses have failed. More people are now facing homelessness and food insecurity than at any time in recent history.

We are all experiencing harder times which we have not known before. Isolation can be the most difficult condition for many of us. Hope carries us forward. If we lose hope then we lose the will to live. Hope is life.

Each year during the Advent Season, we celebrate with anticipation, the reminder that God is with us. We anticipate the coming of the Christ Child, the one sent by God to reclaim us as his own. This HOPE is eternal.