Advent Devotional: Dec. 5, 2019

Waiting or Running?

by David Stanley
December 5, 2019

Read Hebrews 11:1-2 and 12:1

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Hebrews 12:1

This is not really an Advent passage. It was read at my wedding … which was in the spring … it is my father’s favorite, who celebrates his birthday today, December 5 … so we are at least closer to Advent there. But what do these words mean for us in a season where our church is “waiting with purpose?”

When my father’s father was a young boy, his older brother was drafted into the Second World War. Bob left for training in November 1943; the family faced the bleak prospect of Christmas without him. On Christmas Day, they opened a record instead. Like many troops, Bob recorded a holiday greeting for family. Just as his voice began to play through the speaker, Bob himself walked in the door, having received last-minute leave and traveled through an ice storm to make it home.

Still reading? You are farther in the story than Grandaddy ever got. He always started crying well before the end; Daddy, too. I cried writing it, even though my brief telling doesn’t really do it justice. I never knew Bob, but I know that story. Understanding its importance to my family means I’ve known “Uncle Bob” is part of my great cloud of witnesses for quite some time.

This Advent, we prepare to hear another story: a miracle of our faith, the story of our greatest witness, the story about a son showing up unexpectedly. In the context of that familiar tale, we find that the ordinary stories we hear everywhere remind us of the miracle. The best part? Everyone can tell the story. We are called to be witnesses to those we do not even know—like shepherds, angels, and wise men.

This is my family’s first Christmas without Grandaddy. I’d like to hear him tell that story again. Of course, I don’t have a record and he won’t walk through the door. But, as it turns out, I’ve spent the last year finding Grandaddy everywhere, and realizing that my great cloud of witnesses—our great cloud of witnesses—really is a miracle.

Maybe it is an Advent verse after all. “Running with perseverance” seems a lot like “waiting with purpose” to me.

Prayer: Dear God, when we feel bleak, help us be active: running with perseverance and waiting with purpose. Fill our clouds, reveal everyday miracles, and make us faithful witnesses.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 4, 2019

Learn to Know Christ

by Sean Beckwith
December 4, 2019

Read Philippians 2:1-11

“Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Philippians 2:2 (ESV)

Learn to know Christ and Him crucified.
Learn to sing to Him, and say,
“Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am Your sin.
You have taken upon Yourself what is mine and given me what is Yours.
You have become what You were not,
so that I might become what I was not.”
-Martin Luther, 16th century

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Save us, we pray, from ordinary religion;
give us the peculiar grace of a peculiar people.
May we abide in Christ, may we live near to God.
-Charles Spurgeon, 19th century

Advent Devotional: Dec. 2, 2019

“Leave the Anger to God”

by Joe Dennis
Dec. 2, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4 (The Message)
God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen?
How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!” before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day? Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung and stand justice on its head.

A former student recently posted on Facebook a link to a story showing that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 69,000 immigrant children were separated from their families over the past year. The student wrote, “How are we letting this happen?”

Joining a series of replies expressing heartbreak and outrage, I posted, “Sorry. I tried. We tried. I hope your generation can do better.”

My seemingly innocuous reply resulted in some well-deserved criticism. Another student wrote, “Wow, Joe. Way to give up.”

As someone who teaches journalism, I have to keep up with the news. Each day I’m inundated with stories about another mass shooting, more terroristic threats, governments brutally assaulting protestors, men sexually assaulting women, intentional destruction of our land and water, the President degrading a fellow citizen via a tweet, and the Supreme Court ruling against anyone who is not a rich, white, straight man.

At times, the parade of never-ending bad news elicits one of two emotions: I either get so angry that I want to punch something, or I get so beat down that I want to give up.

The little-known book of Habakkuk makes me feel like I’m not alone. Although Biblical scholars aren’t sure on the exact identity of Habakkuk, it is likely that he was a prophet around 598 BC when the Babylonians marched against Jerusalem. Habakkuk is witnessing substantial evil in his midst and cannot comprehend how God could be letting this happen. He is angry. And he wants to give up.

Habakkuk’s questioning of God does not go unanswered.

Habakkuk 1:5-10 — God’s response
Look around at the godless nations. Look long and hard. Brace yourself for a shock.
Something’s about to take place and you’re going to find it hard to believe.
I’m about to raise up Babylonians to punish you, Babylonians, fierce and ferocious —
World-conquering Babylon, grabbing up nations right and left,
A dreadful and terrible people, making up its own rules as it goes.
Their horses run like the wind, attack like bloodthirsty wolves.
A stampede of galloping horses thunders out of nowhere.
They descend like vultures circling in on carrion.
They’re out to kill – death is on their minds.
They collect victims like squirrels gathering nuts.
They mock kings, poke fun at generals, spit on forts, and leave them in the dust.

God not only hears his complaint, but doubles down on Habakkuk’s criticism of the Babylonians. What joy this must have given to Habakkuk (which he later expresses in song in chapter 3). Not only did God hear him, but God gives justification to Habakkuk’s anger. Most importantly, God closes his response by noting that the Babylonians will get what’s coming to them …

Habakkuk 1:11 
They’ll all be blown away by the wind. Brazen in sin, they call strength their god.

It’s easy to get angry, and give up hope in the wake of today’s troubles. It’s easy to plot revenge and fantasize about vigilante justice against those perpetrators of death, violence and greed. But that is beyond my human capabilities — I need to let go of anger and leave that part to God. My focus needs to be on spreading love, social justice and caring for God’s amazing creation, in any way that I possibly can. 

Prayer: God almighty, you have given us an awesome world. Although there are people intent on destroying this world, give us the strength to persist in doing the work we are called to do. Help us have faith to know that our work is making a difference, and that you will be there in the end. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 1, 2019

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

by Rob Yongue
Dec. 1, 2019

Read Isaiah 11

Isaiah 7:14“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”

The text for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” comes from a seven verse Latin poem that dates back to the 8th century. It was used in a call and response fashion during the vespers, or evening service.

The poem came to the attention of Anglican priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale in the mid 1800s. Neale was prevented from serving in a parish due to lung disease, but he devoted much of his life to social ministry. He founded a nursing order of Anglican nuns and helped organizations that cared for orphans and young women. In his “spare time”, he translated early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns for his fellow Anglicans.

Like the original poem, Neale’s translation from 1851 contained seven stanzas; today many modern hymnals contain only four or five. Various names for the Messiah are used in each stanza to express the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brings. English choirmaster Thomas Helmore was the first person to pair Neale’s text with the tune Veni Emmanuel. He also is said to have added the familiar refrain “Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”

British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in our United Methodist Hymnal: “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”

Each antiphon begins as follows:

  • Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
  • Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
  • Clavis David (key of David)
  • Oriens (dayspring)
  • Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • Emmanuel

Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” Jesus is God with us. He has not only come in history, but he is coming again. What a reason to rejoice!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we wait in joyful hope for you. Send us your grace this Advent season so that we can prepare for your coming. Touch our hearts with longing so that we can better love and serve you and each other. Fill us with the hope that we can be transformed by your Spirit and so help transform the world. We ask these things in the name of Jesus whose kingdom we seek. Amen.

Devotional: April 23

By Erin Barger

For me, the week of celebrating resurrection is the cornerstone of the year. Why this is, I share below. As I know it does for many of you, this week brings closer within my grasp the incredible promise that those who we lost in this life will be restored to us again. The following was written within hours of my sister’s death, to be read at her memorial. Nearly ten years later, I share it with you. Her name was Susie. In her last 3 years of life she cared for 18 foster children, as well as the 4 children she brought into the world. May God be glorified in her death as He was in her life.
John 1:4 — In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.

As the book of John opens we are introduced to an entity named the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. He brought an omnipotent kind of light to the world, and this light is strong enough to offer us all an otherwise impossible inheritance: the right to be sons and daughters of God. He also came in grace and truth, and from the fullness of that grace we have received one blessing after another.

Knowing Susie Graves as my sister was also one blessing after another. My memories of her begin with knowing a mother like figure. Thirteen when I was born, Susie was more like a mother to me than a sister: as I began kindergarten she was finishing high school. She worked after school jobs and, like my brother, shared her earnings by buying me coloring books and generally spoiling me. I could have had no doubt that I was loved, partially because of her.

As I grew into womanhood, we shared a new bond as sisters. As I recovered from knee surgery in high school, she and my brother were by my side. As they witnessed my first steps as a baby, they were there again to hold me as I learned to walk again. It was a scary time but, yet again, there she was. On my wedding day, she was to my immediate left. On her dying day, I was face to face with her, racing to find just the right words to communicate all that she had meant. Perhaps I should have simply said: “Susie, you have given one blessing after another.”
Within hours of her death, I thought of the story of Lazarus and knew that I would not read this story in the same way ever again. Today I can picture Mary running out to meet Jesus, knowing that His presence could have saved her brother’s life. The book of John says that Mary fell at the feet of Christ. Mary seemed willing to do anything to see her brother alive again, and now I can finally understand how that must have felt. We know that Jesus was so moved by her grief that He also wept. Although Christ knew that He would restore Lazarus to life, his love for these sisters and their grief compelled his perfect compassion. He restored Lazarus to life, and I know He will also resurrect my sister to life. I praise God today, not only for the power that He will share to restore us to never-ending life, but also for the compassion that drove Jesus to cry with Mary that day. This realization is powerful, as I know that today Christ is weeping with me, and that His comfort is perfect and the epitome of love.
Christ also redefined love later in the same book: when He is preparing his closest friends to live without Him, he shows the full extent of His love by washing their feet. Those of you who knew Susie well, knew that she also showed the full extent of her love in a similar manner. By opening her home to a little boy named Cooper whose parents were lost to him; by sacrificing daily for Emily, Caitlin, Hannah, and Amanda; by serving her husband Shayne; by watching over her little sister Erin; by creating a home for children that are often forgotten about and thereby, practicing pure religion: it is in these ways that Susie showed the full extent of her love. I praise God today for His grace upon my sister, which allowed this love to come to life after the example of our Lord.
Death has already been swallowed up in victory the day that Jesus fought death and won. Through this, I know that these memories with my beloved sister are a blink of an eye compared to the life that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps what allowed Christ to stop weeping the day he comforted Martha was, not just his vision of Lazarus coming back to life temporarily, but even more the sight of Lazarus rejoicing by the side of Mary and Martha in heaven. Therefore, we too “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” knowing that if we cling to Christ our own mortality will be swallowed up in life. I praise God for helping me to know Him more because of Susie and for his promise to protect her and keep her safe as a perfect Father until we are together again.

Prayer: God, your promise of resurrection defines our approach to death, and drives our fearlessness in life, as we remain rooted in Your love. Thank you. God, I don’t understand why death is essential, having lost so much as a result. But I look to you, and I trust You with what I do not understand. I believe that whatever I suffer, You suffered it first. Please send your Spirit and humility as a balm; deliver your resurrection promise in ways all who are hurting can see, even today. Thank you for the compassion of Jesus that led Him to restore life, no matter the cost to Him. May I follow in His steps.

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, April 20

By Dee Cole Vodicka

John and I thank God that we were led through the doors of Oconee Stree United Methodist Church! We have been so blessed by your warm and gracious welcome. You are so welcoming, in fact, that you allow a non-member to offer a Lenten reflection. Here goes!

In this season of Lent, I’m taking time to read and reflect on “An American Lent,” from the Repentance Project.  “The Repentance Project exists to encourage racial healing by communicating the systemic legacies of slavery, building relationships, and creating opportunities – through formation, repentance and repair – for a just future.” https://repentanceproject.org/

Each day, I’m challenged to read and reflect on the legacy of enslavement in the United States, and to repent on how this evil practice lives on in systems and structures that benefit me every day. I encourage you to sign up for their daily Lenten readings.

Then I started to think about other systems and structures that call out for justice, particularly the struggle to lift up and affirm the full personhood of my LGBTQ siblings. And, I’m thinking about my place in this struggle, and how to respond as a straight woman. It occurred to me that I might learn something by applying lessons from the civil rights movement for racial equality to the civil rights movement for LGBTQ equality, and that these lessons might also inform us at Oconee Street UMC as we consider “The Way Forward.”

I recently re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963. In it, he lays out a case for clergy, and all people of faith, to apply Jesus’ teachings to a movement demandingrecognition of the full personhood of African Americans. Please read these excerpts (and read the entire letter, when you have time), and then reflect on whether you see an application to other movements for civil rights.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

……

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

……

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

……

And, speaking of people of faith who stood up and spoke out: Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Please pray with me in a prayer adapted from this week’s Repentance Project meditations:

God our creator and redeemer, you are holy and just. You love honesty and fairness. You embedded your image in all people.  I don’t know what to do with my failure to recognize this and my failure to act justly with all people – especially people who don’t look like me, or who identify differently from me, except to ask for your mercy and for the courage to be stretched to meet the challenges before me. May your will be done; your ways established; and your honesty, generosity, and freedom openly exchanged among your children —here in our town, in our state, and in our nation. Have mercy on me. Have mercy on us.