Advent Devotional: Dec. 11, 2020

by Allison Floyd

1 John 4:7, 12:
“Behold, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whomever loves has been born of God and knows God. … No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”

This morning, I am baking ginger snaps for no other reason than that it gives me time to be grateful and contemplate the previous year – both the good and the bad. 

Today, though, the instructions to let the butter soften and sift the dry ingredients are bringing to mind a friend who died about 18 months ago. It’s as if she is here in the kitchen with me, dropping by to make the memories more vivid.

I knew Jean Welch from Young Harris UMC, where she sat next to me in the pew, greeted me with a warm hug every time we met and corralled me into volunteering to help other people.

Jean was Scottish. Though she had been in the United States since the 1970s, when her husband Roy brought her across the pond as a young bride, Jean spoke with such a thick brogue, most people couldn’t understand everything she said. She’d smile, explain that she was from Glasgow and ham up the accent a bit more to make the other person less self-conscious.

She drove a Toyota Highlander, had half a dozen huge hound dogs, wore practical shoes and made helping people a full-time job.

Superficially, Jean fed people. She organized the volunteers to feed the crowd at Our Daily Bread. She provided an evening meal at the Salvation Army homeless shelter. She brought supper to the families staying with Family Promise, which shelters families experiencing homelessness.

She made me pot roast with potatoes and parsnips for my birthday, at my request, and made the most ah-mazing shortbread cookies each year for Christmas.

The shortbread came on Christmas Eve in small decorated bags, and the people lucky enough to receive some rationed their cookies to make them last longer. Only a few dozen people received cookies each year, and Ms. Jean said jokingly (though she was serious) that she wouldn’t bake more; she would add another person to the list only when someone died.

Photo by Katherine Sousa on Unsplash

The secret to the cookies lay in a special kind of sugar, she said. Though she wasn’t proprietary about the recipe, she assured me that it is so laborious, I didn’t want to try it.

While Jean seemed perfectly at home in an apron, cooking was just an expression of her love for people. She volunteered thousands of hours at St. Mary’s Hospital to help people through the worst days of their lives and served with Stephen Ministry, where she basically listened to people work through their own brokenness.

She described her role as listener. We are most alone when we are lost in the wilderness of adultery or trapped in the net of addiction, she said. When we are too ashamed to talk to the pastor, we isolate ourselves even further. “How are you supposed to find repentance there?” she asked.

Jean died suddenly of a stroke in March 2019. Because she and Roy never had any children of their own, her only blood relatives were in Scotland so the funeral was delayed a few weeks while they made travel arrangements.

At the funeral, a nephew described their ancestral home, an outlying island with no trees and  mainly lobster and mutton for protein. (No wonder Jean knew how to make that pot roast so tender.) Her name actually was Barabul MacNeil and English was not her first language. I never knew she spoke Gaelic.

The nephew told us how Jean sent her nieces and nephews the hottest toys from America each year for Christmas and, when she learned that the delivery created a huge buzz with all the kids in town, she began to send gifts to each child in the village.

The story reminded me how she insisted I take ten $100 bills from her when a young friend came from Nicaragua to study in the U.S. “This is travel money for him. I have been an immigrant, and it is terribly lonely. This is only to travel. If you think he will spend it on anything more practical, you keep the money and buy plane tickets with it.”

At her funeral, dozens of strangers shared similar stories.

And the pastor told the congregation that he had a handful of Ms. Jean’s shortbread cookies left in his freezer. He jokingly urged us to practice our baking skills so that someone could fill her shoes. It was March, so we had nine months to find a successor.

But, he pointed out, the cookies were just a sweet reminder who Jean was. It is more important for us to study her recipe for love and service. The world needs that recipe today more than ever.

My kitchen is now full of sweet smells and rich memories. If anyone wants ginger snaps for Christmas, let me know. I’m still compiling my list.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 10, 2020

by Sylvia Hutchinson

Psalm 18:29:
“With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.” 

Well I don’t think I can take this short passage literally. At 82 in the midst of a pandemic, I am not advancing against any literal troops, nor am I scaling walls of any height. However I am walking a little farther as I take my daily stroll (with the encouragement of my doctors). I am working in the yard a bit more (with the encouragement of the women gardeners who do the tough parts).

I am learning to use the computer for zoom classes which I never thought I would (with the incredible assistance of a colleague and students who are unbelievably patient and knowledgeable). I am cooking all my meals at home which I had not done in years and years (with the recipes from books and friends who are also vegan and gluten-free). I am cleaning out most of my closets which is a Herculean task (with encouragement from Rick and Amanda Martin who have painted and remodeled parts of my house).

I have not hugged any of you, but I have named you in my evening prayers. I have enjoyed your phone calls, emails, porch and yard visits.

All this is to say I am so grateful to friends, colleagues, students, all of you at Oconee Street UMC who give and give and give to others. You have encouraged me to find new ways of trying, to keep working to do a little more each day, to find new ways to share. This Christmas is a time of thanksgiving for me. I thank God for the support provided in praying and listening for answers. I thank my Oconee Street UMC family for being the sure instruments of our Lord.

Dear Lord, how thankful I am that I belong to your church, your Oconee Street Church, and have the grand opportunity to know and share with your messengers of hope and love. Help each one of us to listen for your call and follow where you lead. Amen

Advent Devotional: Dec. 9, 2020

by Tom Drewry

Luke 2:13-15 (The Message):
“At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises: Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.  As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over.”

For the last month or two, in our SALT Sunday School class, we have examined the theology, themes, and poetry in Charles Wesley’s hymns. Wesley’s words have inspired some rather intense and honest discussions about the nature of God our parent, what it means to worship Christ the king, and how we can love others amid a broken world.

It is hard to imagine that in the 1640s, a generation or so before Wesley, Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical perfection parade dismantled the practice of Christmas, banning carols as a popish excess and December 25th celebrations as worldly indulgence. For one Puritan grinch, the celebration of Christmas was complicit in rampant “wickedness” and various “fooleries” that filled beer mugs, crowded dance halls and let the dice roll. Perhaps the “war on Christmas” was initially a strike from Christians, not Starbucks baristas. For authorities who wanted to moralize their way to God’s good graces, Christmas celebrations mocked the bent knees and penitent hands worthy of the arrival of God’s Son.

While our Christmas season too often trades the “triumph of the skies” for the traditions of hearth, family, and gift-giving, this Incarnation needs exhilarating celebration—one filled with glorious song. In every season, we need a boisterous tune from Heaven to announce the arrival of our Redeemer in our world and in our hearts. If “heaven and nature sing,” it seems right for us to sing along. If the “choirs of angels sing in exultation,” surely we too should rejoice. Indeed, most of us, probably unintentionally, reserve the word Hark! only for the Advent season. To what better news could we ever attune our hearts and affix our ears?

The arrival of our Deliverer demands a glorious song, one exalted by heavenly hosts, discussed by lowly, illiterate shepherds, and pondered by a young teenage mother relegated to a humble stable out back. This song and all of our Christmastime celebrations are not parties to control with parliamentary decree, but expressions essential to experiencing the joy found only in adoring our Lord.

Lord, let the carols of this season remind us of the heart-fluttered memories of friends, family, and Christmases long, long ago. But better still, may our caroling point us to those heavenly hosts who sing over us right now, proclaiming the hope we have in a God who is indeed with us. Let us join that joyful refrain.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 8, 2020

by Waketa Marshall

Matthew 18:10:
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

My granddaughter Chrishana is my hope.  When I was younger I had no plans for any children.  But God said, “Haha,” and gave me two. 

In hindsight I would have been a crazy woman without children.  Chrishana propels my dreams and hopes.  She is the opposite of me in some ways but she has always drawn on me to guide her.  Even when she was a little baby people noticed how she preferred me.

Photo by Baylee Gramling on Unsplash

People want to talk badly about teens, but if you really pay attention and watch and listen, they are an awesome group.  They have been on fire since the womb.  We’ve got to protect them and support them. 

I have no choice but to hope.

Thank you, God. Whatever I need I know you have already done it for me.  Help me to get out there and look for it.  Thank you, God.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 7, 2020

by Nevena Martin

Genesis 18:1-10
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.  Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.’ ‘Very well,’ they answered, ‘do as you say.’ So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.’ Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him. ‘There, in the tent,’ he said. Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”

At the onset of the Covid pandemic here in the States, there was a run on toilet paper. Folks lost their dang minds over that 2-ply and, God-willing, 3-ply good. Elbows were thrown, curses were cast, friendships ended over the angely-soft paper product which was not widely utilized by woman and mankind until the year of our Lord 1857. Joseph Gayetty marketed “Medicated paper for the water closet” that year, and our ability to think outside the roll has drastically declined ever since.

As the TP wars raged, I remember gazing out the window in late winter and shrugging, “Them leaves will be out soon – they’ll work in a pinch.” Thus, the Martin household did not fall victim to the hysteria of the toilet paper. As, I’m sure, your families did not, either. Now, eight months on, I gaze out the window as those same bathroom-McGuyvers gently cascade in the wind, peacefully falling to the ground in all their red and yellow and brown glory, and I can’t help but reflect on all the stuff we’ve been through this year. All the pain, all the hurt, all the losses, all the fear, all the division, all the grief and sorrows, all the joy, all the rest, all the ingenuity of connection, all the tenacity of spirit, all the well-wishes, all the miracle of scientific discovery, all the hope for a new season of health and togetherness. All the dark and all the light. 

And then my eyes fall upon one of my favorite species of tree – the American Beech. It has smooth gray bark, perfecting for engraving lovers’ initials, and its stems are marked with distinctive oval, serrated, veiny leaves whose texture is second to none. It is a sturdy, long-lived, shade-and-infertile-site-tolerant tree with entire groves of beeches sprouting and growing from the roots of a single tree. Before the Passenger Pigeon was hunted to extinction their flocks were so densely populated they literally blackened the sky as they passed over. These tragic Columbides highly preferred Beech nuts and sought shelter in the branches of this magnificent tree which makes this species even more dear to me. While the beech is distinctive in both its appearance and its history, it’s also unusual in that it is one of the few trees which holds onto its leaves deep into winter. 

You see, Evergreen trees were the first trees to exist on our planet. And, for a long time, evergreen was the only way to be. Over the eons, though, a spectrum of ways for trees to exist in the world evolved with deciduous trees making their appearance at the opposite end of the spectrum. Evergreens are adapted to year-round photosynthesis while deciduousness allows for adaptation to increasing photosynthetic efficiency during favorable seasons and reducing frost damage and water loss during unfavorable seasons. In the middle lie beech trees whose leaves, like the deciduous, die in the fall but, like the evergreens, retain these leaves deep into winter. This retention of dead matter is called marcescence. 

A number of theories exist to explain this take on defoliation – retention of leaves until closer to spring may allow for natural compost to fall and begin to rot at the onset of a new growing season, the dead leaves may provide some frost- and depredation-protection for buds, and/or the retained leaves may funnel more snowfall towards the base of the tree, providing more moisture for growth. Perhaps these potential competitive advantages are what drive this process of marcescence. Or, perhaps, the existence of evergreen species within the same family as the Beech tree indicates that one of my favored species is still on its evolutionary path of becoming. 

The jury is still out on the hows and whys of marcescence, but I continue to enjoy gazing out the window mid-winter to see the sturdy beech holding onto its dead, brown leaves despite the rustling wind and the piercing cold. I hope you’re able to find a favorite tree and marvel at its annual pilgrimage, finding some comfort and joy in the witnessing: “Have you ever heard a tree be anything but quiet? It may rustle or creak in conversation with the wind but it would never think to name all the creatures it gives refuge to or boast about the shade it casts on hot days. It silently reaches out into the world to do its part and its actions are its declaration.”
– Lori Hetteen

Creator. Please help us find and hold onto faith that our path extends beyond our imagination, that the sorrows and despair of today will be memories in our tomorrows. Help us to honor our grief but not clench so tightly to it that we do not have an open hand free to receive the gifts of joy and love. Help us to wonder about the world around us. And, as we gather around our trees this year, help us to find the thrill of hope, help our weary selves rejoice in your love. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 5, 2020

by Chad Clark

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.” 
—Isaiah 9:2

Photo by Julie Thornton on Unsplash

There is no way to sugarcoat it – this has just been an extremely difficult and challenging year for most of us.  It seems like everyone is feeling weary and burdened to some degree.  The old saying “we are all in the same storm but in different boats” sounds very applicable to 2020, and I know for some the last nine months have felt like trying to steer a raft out of a hurricane.  Loneliness and isolation, fear for your health and the health of your family, fear of losing your job.  Fear of further oppression, fear of deportation, fear for the future of this country that has been teetering on the edge of a cliff over a very dark valley.

But it is important to remember that we are instructed by the almighty not to live in fear.  As we reflect on the birth of Jesus this Advent let us embrace this gift of hope through Jesus that is still alive today.  The light of the advent candles reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world and when darkness comes we must look towards the light to help guide us.  Advent is the time of preparation for good things to come – keep the faith and know that the Lord will see us through these troubled times.

God of hope, help us to see the light through the darkness.  In your name we pray, amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 4, 2020

by Martha Collins

Photo by Diana Simumpande on Unsplash

“Pray without ceasing.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17

I know the good Lord is on my side.  I just know.  I’m blessed.  And I bless others.  I don’t mess with special prayers.  I just talk to God every day and every night and when I’m walking.  I just talk and the good Lord is with me.  I just know.  

God, I hope the homeless find somewhere to stay.  I hope you take my cancer away.  I hope you take all sickness away.  I thank you for my home.  I thank you for all my blessings, good Lord.  Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 3, 2020

by Carrie Neely-Etheridge

“You grew weary from your many wanderings, but you did not say ‘It is useless’. You found your desire rekindled, and so you did not weaken.”
—Isaiah 57:10

Last year after Christmas our family met with others at the church to help take down the Christmas decorations. When things were just about wrapped up and we were getting ready to leave Mrs. Maxine stopped me and asked if I would like a couple of the poinsettias from the entryway. She said they were a bit worse for wear and otherwise they’d probably end up in the garbage, but the kids had enthusiastically taken notice of them and they were very happy to take the plants home with us. Unfortunately, these poinsettias did not fare well at my house and it was only another week or two before they lost the last of their leaves and looked pretty sad. I set the dead plants aside and figured I’d deal with them later.

On a good year I go from excitedly wanting to grow all the things and horribly neglecting my garden and houseplants, without much in between. This year was no different, but the anxiety the pandemic brought had kind of set my growing fervor into high gear. The potted plants and seed trays doubled in number and by the end of the spring there were as many flourishing garden beds as there were abandoned plants around the house. I ended up moving all of my tragic plants outside under a tree, hoping I would remember to water them at some point. While moving them outside I did notice some new growth on one of the poinsettias Mrs. Maxine had given us but didn’t give it much thought.

When the first cold snap came this fall I guiltily remembered my tragic plants under the tree and went to move any survivors inside. Much to my surprise I found a full-grown poinsettia, just starting to turn red among the plants. Finding that plant hidden among the weeds I was suddenly flooded with the memory of being back in the sanctuary, surrounded by friends and wrapped up in the hope of the advent season.

During the long summer months when I had been covered in anxiety and fear, this small neglected thing of hope had still managed to thrive. And even now when I am in a place of longing thinking of how different this year’s advent season will be Mrs. Maxine’s simple kindness has given me a precious reminder of our church and our time gathered together in fellowship. I have hope in small kindnesses, I have hope in neglected plants that still grow, I have hope that we will be able to join in fellowship again, and I have hope in the example of love given to us by Jesus.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 2, 2020

by Laurie Norris

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning. Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.” —Psalm 130:5-6

Waiting sucks.

I’m the absolute worst at waiting on anything.

The idea of just sitting around, doing nothing, unable to control everything going on around me because I’m trapped in stasis waiting on someone else to do something that, ugh, couldn’t I just do it myself already and get on with it?

Like I said, I’m the worst at waiting.

Ironically, this is a big reason why Advent is my favorite time of year. I can’t speed things up and just get to Christmas already. I can’t control time or its effects on the season. I have to shut up and wait for Christ to arrive on his schedule on God’s kairotic timeline. Since waiting is like wearing someone else’s shoes, Advent is for me the time of year I wear my faith most uncomfortably. It’s the time of year I become most aware of myself as a person of faith. Because I have to cede control to God’s schedule, and all of our rituals throughout the Advent season are designed to emphasis this act of letting go and waiting, Advent means I end up stopping to to think about who I am and what my role is in this palimpsestic day planner God’s got going now. This season and our rituals remind me that my mundane obsessions are just teeny blips in a larger, grander plan for the perfection of all reality. If God could wait some 13 odd billion years for me to show up on the scene to play my part in creation, then I can wait for four simple weeks for a holy ritual reminding us all of the overwhelming and consuming love of a creator who made every single thing in the universe and even then made me, too. And Des you.

So, waiting sucks, but Advent is amazing. #WorthTheWait

“Waiting as Prayer” by Jaunita Ryan

I wait. I wait for you to answer. I wait for the first light of dawn. I wait for you. I wait for you. I wait for you. I wait. My waiting is my prayer. In the pain of the waiting I feel my longing for you. I long for you to be here. I wait for your arrival, you who has always been here. In the waiting I know a larger space in my soul is being excavated. I can feel the growing emptiness. But I know that it will be filled with your gracious, loving presence. Make me ready to receive you. I wait

Advent Devotional: Dec. 1, 2020

Photo by Ferdinand on Unsplash

by Katie West Greenwood

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
–Matthew 4:16

It happens like this:

First, you lose hope.

Then, you lose the hope of hope.

Then, you lose the hope of hope of hope.

What happens next is variable.

Some of us encounter the Holy Spirit.

Some of us are crushed. 

So come with me today:

Put your shoulder to the wheel.

Let us resolve together 

to join the Holy Spirit

in hope 

of shifting 

the boulder of the world.