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. 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.

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