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.

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.

Sermon: Are we any different than the rich man?

pearly-gatesIt’s easy to look at the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 with judgement for his poor treatment of Lazarus.

But do we treat the Lazarus’ that exist in our life any differently? Do we truly practice what we preach? Do we treat every person as a child of God? Pastor Joe imagines how the conversation between the rich man and St. Peter may have went at the gates of heaven. What would our conversation at the gates of heaven look like?


The Word in Song: “Ready for a Change”
Soloist: Natalie Smith

“You Can’t Get There From Here”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Luke 16: 19-31
Sept. 25, 2016

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, April 1

by Amanda Martin
April 1, 2015

John 15:12-13: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Every Wednesday morning in a local Assisted Living Home sits a healthy man in his mid-70s. He is nicely dressed and pleasantly smiling at those who speed past with trays of food, linens, sanitizing supplies, and blood pressure monitors.  Staff are busy cleaning up remaining breakfast from residents, desperately working to get confused and sickly people to the bathroom, although it is often too late.  He is at work as well, moving slowly with great attention to detail feeding his wife applesauce.  Some mornings he is reading her the paper, softly stroking her hand, speaking as if they were alone in an intimate conversation.

His wife says nothing in return, does not meet his eye, or actively respond to his presence.  She is in the advanced stages of dementia and has not called him by name in a year.  This is not to say that she does not know he is there, she is calm and seemingly at peace.  It is a painful yet beautiful example of real friendship. The man is always present with his wife, attending to her needs, anticipating what she might want.  He asks for nothing in return, he is content to be available to her.

He nods gently at me as I enter, politely acknowledging but remaining attentive to his number one priority.  I selfishly choke down a deep breath to calm my nerves and try my best to focus on residents, not the smell. I am only there for a little while, to share music, involve residents in dance, song, and reminiscence then I am off to the next group.  He remains by her side.  Tapping her lovingly, “…that was a good one, wasn’t it dear”.

Lent has traditionally been an uncomfortable time for me.  It is so painful to watch this man I love and trust go through such agony.  He suffered so, and I’d rather he didn’t have to do it for me.  It has taken some maturing to realize if I truly love Jesus, want to follow his example and live in remembrance of him I must get over my own “comfortability”.  I want to be a friend to him, to honor him, not to turn away in fear.   Perhaps in this way I can better learn to serve those in need, serve God, and in the face of fear fully live a Christian life.

Prayer:  Lord God, thank you for Jesus’ example of friendship. He did not turn away from pain, he lived it. This holy week as we acknowledge his pain help us to honor and love him more.  Through Jesus’ powerful example may we too live through hardship and suffering knowing full that contentment in doing your good work. Amen

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 26

by JoBeth Allen
March 26, 2015

Luke 22:19: “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In her exquisite memoir about grief, The Cruel Country, my friend and colleague Judith Ortiz Cofer recounts sitting by her dying mother’s bedside in Puerto Rico and thinking, “I am … listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them. I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered.” This is how I too think of life after physical death, and how I interpret Jesus’s words at the last supper: “My body will no longer be with you, but I will always be with you. I will be with you in the everyday practices we have shared: breaking bread together, walking the path, extending the hand of friendship as the face of God’s expansive and inclusive love.”

I believe that each of us will live on through the lives we touch during those everyday times. We probably won’t be aware of our moments of immortality. Perhaps these moments will occur when someone shares a loaf of homemade bread, or engages a visitor in meaningful conversation on the long van ride to Athens from the airport, or says, “Let me take the kids for a few hours,” or writes a Lenten devotional, or sings an anthem whose melody lingers in the heart. In those moments, we connect. We are changed. Long after our names and faces have faded from this earth, someone will offer kindness and acceptance and love because their lives or the lives of others once or twice or 100 times removed from us have been touched. Generations hence will do this in remembrance of you and me, not in our names, but in some everyday essence of our being.

In the following excerpts from poems written over the past few years to deal with the loss of three dear friends, I’ve tried to do what Cofer does in listening and telling stories. I’ve tried to capture a few of the ways Jon Kay, Clyde Anglin, and Jenny Penney Oliver touched my life – to capture their immortality.

Jon connects us through kindness
In gestures large and small:
Creating Jon-style Gourmet
For gatherings of friends,
Remodeling the bathroom
To surprise Amy when she was away.
His Grandest Idea was this:
“Live your life from the heart –
You never know whose
Spirit you may touch.
Leave nothing unsaid
When you sink into bed –
Then wake up each day and try.”

My friend Clyde had Carpenter’s Hands –
Designing, renovating, constructing;
Crafting the family mantle
From ancient heart of pine,
Building sheltering Habitats:
Framing, forming, and finishing
The Abraham House
With foundational joists of understanding,
Sturdy frames of friendship.

When you pen a handwritten note
To console a friend,
Celebrate a birthday or graduation,
Rejoice in a marriage or birth,
On a card you chose just for him,
That’s the Jenny in you.
When you read the Athens paper front to back,
Drive country roads with the top down,
Fill your house with zinnias and sunflowers,
Register voters in every Clarke County precinct;
When you celebrate every holiday season
– and celebrate for no reason –
When you make friends with every person you encounter,
And counter every challenge with a solution,
When we simply and profoundly and eternally
Love and cherish one another,
That, my friends, is the Jenny in me,
The Jenny in you.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for all the people who have touched our lives. May we live each day in such a way that we make that day a little brighter for someone.

Lenten Devotional: Monday, April 7

by Aaron Farnham
April 7, 2014

1st John 3:24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

As I sat down to write this I had just learned of the passing of a friend’s paternal grandfather, and that news gave me reason to pause and consider the life of my own. That brought me to this reflection…

Grandpa Farnham was a self-educated farmer, and showed many of the same traits as others of the Tom Brokaw labeled “Greatest Generation”; responsible, frugal, humble, loyal in love (my grandparents had celebrated 62 years of marriage just before he passed) hard working, willing to take on challenges and keeping things simple to name a few. In particular, when I was younger I often found myself standing in awe of his resolve. He was also a man of habit and routine, and after retiring he made drinking beer his routine. It was so consistent that he wore a patina into the end of the banister from standing at it and another on the picnic table bench.

Likely it is a product of where Andrea and I are in life, but the image of the worn pattern of his forearm on the English Oak banister and seat marks on the picnic table brought Gaby to mind. There is also the fact that I wish this seventeen month old could meet her great-grandparents. They would likely be excited by her growth and development. The pediatrician has told us we can begin potty training, and thus, I have started to read up on the topic, but am sure great-grandma and great-grandpa would have opinions to share on the matter.

While Gaby did most of her crawling up on all fours and did not leave any marks on or from her elbows or forearms, she has grown content with her bum in a particular caress. The method that we have decided to use to potty train Gaby demands commitment to no longer using diapers. Oddly enough, that brings me back to my grandpa.

Just as with smoking, at one annual physical the doctor told him, “Marshall, if you don’t stop drinking it is going to kill you.” He never had another sip of alcohol. The first time my dad pulled into the farm driveway after that I immediately noticed that grandpa was in a rocking chair at the opposite end of the porch from the picnic table. Later that evening when he wanted to watch the news he sat down in a chair. I had never seen him do either of those two things. Incidentally, and this might be coincidental, I think our relationship blossomed alongside his new found interests in gardening, ecology and birdwatching as he came to life in those activities.

That is the crux of it, really. When, over the longterm or short, one abstains from something, be it alcohol, diapers, caffeine or Netflix and Hulu, it can be beneficial to chart new patterns. While we have all likely thought about inserting something into our lives to fill in the space left by what we have extracted, there is a chance you might need some encouragement at this midpoint of Lent. You might even need to consider altering your routine ever so slightly. For example, by not walking into the office first thing upon arriving home my better half has found it easier to not be tempted to stream television programs that she enjoys.

However God has directed you in the spiritual habits, please realize that even in the pragmatic minutia of something so simple as sitting on the opposite end of a porch, never wearing a diaper again (okay, so maybe that is not a little thing) or walking into one room rather than another the God’s grace, through the Holy Spirit, is with you. If abstaining from something has been particularly difficult, or if it proves to be in the future, please consider some small changes that might ease the difficulty.

Holy Spirit, thank you for the promise of your presence in our lives and your grace which allows us to be in relationship. Humbly, we ask that you guide us as we pursue Christ-likeness and God’s love throughout the year and particularly in this Lenten season, and help us discern ways in which we can honor you in our holy habits and grow stronger through them. Amen