The First Sunday of Advent: December 3

Isaiah 64:1-9
Devotional by Chris Currie
Art: "Markan Apocalypse" by Leon Hinson

‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...’

Advent and the coming of Christ remind us that our problem is not that God is far away, distant, remote, detached, uninvolved in the affairs of our lives and the life of the world, but that God is near. That is what Advent promises. God’s nearness. Life is less complicated when God is far away, but when God tears open the heavens and comes among us in Christ, our lives get disrupted and rearranged and caught up in ways of service and witness and mission we never really intended or imagined for ourselves. Advent means coming, but Advent also means disruption. The world is about to turn, we will sing this Advent, and Christ is not just about making our Christmas perfect, but making it messy, complicated, and giving us things to care about we never really thought were our problem too, giving us people in our lives with whom we find we are tethered, giving us a mission in this world that may create more challenges for us rather than alleviating them all. As the Iona liturgy reminds us: ‘with a gentle touch, with an angry word, with a clear conscience, with burning love, Christ is coming to make all things new.’

Prayer: Tear open the heavens and come down, once again, Lord Jesus. Fill our lives with the messy grace of your way of life that fills our lives with hope, generosity, concern for others, and care for the life of the world. Amen.

Monday, December 4

Luke 1:46-55
Devotional by Sarah Chancellor-Watson

I first heard and sang the song “Canticle of the Turning” during my Young Adult Volunteer orientation in the summer of 2009. During those few days where we would be introduced to the values of the YAV program – intentional Christian community, simple living, solidarity and partnership, it became a theme song of sorts for us about embark on our “year of service for a lifetime of change.” As a young person fresh out of college I was ready for an adventure; I was ready for a change, as scary and intimidating as it was, from the comfortable and sheltered life that I had led up until then. Singing these words “for the world be about to turn…” encapsulated much of my feelings of standing on an important precipice in my life, ready to leap into the unknown and having the faith that I would be caught and find my footing in this new world.
The words of this advent hymn are a paraphrase of the passage in Luke known to many as “The Magnificat.” It is Mary’s song of joy and praise as she likewise stands on a precipice of great change. Not only is she undertaking the immense responsibility of parenthood as she transitions from maiden to mother (recall for yourself or ask any parent what it felt like in those final weeks and days before the arrival of a child – the fear, the trepidation, the excitement and the joy of knowing that soon life will never the same); but her words also reflect the seismic shift in the world’s order God was enacting through this child she was carrying. Part of what makes The Magnificat so beautiful is that Mary’s trust and faith in God are evident here – she knows who holds her in this transition and change and she is not afraid.

Prayer: Holy God, as we enter into the season of Advent remind us of your goodness and faithfulness. Even in the midst of change, you are Lord. Help us to not be afraid, but to trust you all the more as you are turning the world around. Amen.

Tuesday, December 5

Micah 4:1-5
Devotional by Cathy Rogers Franklin
"Stinson Beach, CA" photo by Katie Brendler

“Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore…”
The image of a world without war seems far-fetched, and our sense of helplessness can be overwhelming. My internal “committee” repeats a vivid video of my flaws in my head. How can I bring peace, end hunger and poverty in the world, in my community? I’m learning to rest in a contemplative prayer practice most mornings when I go up to the mountain of the Lord from a particular bench in Audubon Park. In the stillness and silence, even when the golf course mowers are speeding along before sunrise, I pause to see myself and my day through God’s eyes.
Often, however, I’m challenged to see the day ahead with light because of that video of afflictive thoughts. Seeing myself as God sees me is more work than it should be, but the practice turns me away from negative thoughts.
The beauty of nature sustains me when nothing else does, if I’m attentive and notice. Joy comes from being outside whether I’m pulling weeds, planting bulbs in the soil, playing tennis with my daughters, sweeping the sidewalk after my husband edges the yard, or stretching my hamstrings next to a fragrant pine tree at the park. But, I need God’s grace to notice the miracle of such moments to conquer fear and anxiety.
“…Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”
As you strive to balance the grief of memories of loved ones with the joy of this season, find your own vine, fig tree, park bench or swing. Rest in the gentle embrace of the Lord and don’t be afraid. Be still and know that God is with us. The mountain of the Lord is unmoving.

Wednesday, December 6

Luke 21:29-32
Devotional by Miriam Hollar
Art by Ann-Kempter Wheeler, age 6

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
Waiting is the watch word of the Advent season. We live into the promise that God will send His Son to live on earth. As surely as the fig tree sprouts new leaves after a long barren winter, we know that the Advent season will lead us into Christmas when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who brings us renewal and teaches us of God’s love.
In this season, we do not sit passively, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. We actively make ready – often in too harried a way, causing us to lose sight of why we are preparing as we rush to decorate, attend parties and ready for the coming festivities. As a fig tree is patiently pruned and fertilized in the hope of producing plentiful and life-sustaining fruit, so too must we prepare for the coming birth of Christ, with joy and excitement.
Henri Nouwen reflected “To wait open endedly is an enormous radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings…. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction.”

Prayer: God of love and waiting,
Just as the budding of leaves and fruit on a barren tree harkens the eventual joy of harvest, help us to hold the promise of Jesus’ arrival in our hearts this Advent season. For the dawn draws near and the world is turning. Amen.

Thursday, December 7

Psalm 85
Devotional by Ashlin Murphy
Art "Yesterday's Thorns" by Saskia Ozols

The concept of God’s anger has always stuck out to me. It seems too ugly of an emotion for the Lord to color Himself with. Shouldn’t He be above anger? His unconditional love has been a concept stressed to me for my whole life; should that not overcome His anger? He created us imperfectly, so why then does He get to be angry at our actions?
Time and time again we see examples in the Bible of God forgiving individuals or groups for their sins. These instances occur when the individuals or groups allow evil in and act against their Lord. God becomes angry, creates a lesson for others through punishment and ultimately forgives his trespassers. Whenever we choose or allow evil to dictate our actions, we are welcoming God’s wrath. When framed this way, it is apparent that God’s wrath is directed at evil, not necessarily his people.
There are people in my life that I believe I love unconditionally: my family, some of my closest friends, my cute little doggy. Each of these loved ones has enraged me at some point or another in my life, as I’m sure I have to them as well. The thing that gets us through that rough patch is our devotion to each other; we value having each other in our lives more than we hate the evil that has momentarily worked its way into our relationship. It’s the reason we are still in each others’ lives and the reason God will always forgive us. As long as we keep our eyes on Him and work to exalt Him, he will continue to forgive the evil and cherish us.

Friday, December 8

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Devotional by Ann Byerly

In my twenties (a long time ago) I walked away from my home in Brini N’Konni, Niger into the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. I wanted God to speak to me; I thought if I reduced all the “outside” interference I would hear guidance and approval of my work. I also wanted it in English; I was frustrated speaking French and Hausa all day. One mile from the city limits, I was isolated – no people, no animals or livestock, no huts/houses, no highways with traffic. The only sound was wind blowing sand. I sat on the ground and waited. All I heard was my own chastisement for not bring my water bottle – “Girl you’re going to get lost and die of dehydration” was all I heard.

NOW, Chancy Gondwe prayed and has heard God throughout his adult life. He is the Director of the Muliku Literacy program SCAPC sponsors in Malawi. His autobiography was recently sent to me (if you want a copy email me; he left Malawi to advance his education in South Africa with no money, no job prospects, etc. He prayed and God sent a donor to pay his tuition and board. God spoke to him when he choose to return to Malawi and establish a school and start an adult literacy program. Chancy Gondwe not only teaches literacy programs in the local prison, he teaches elementary school. He is pushing his countrymen forward: if you can read, you can read both sides of an argument or political statements. An education you can not take away from someone; Chancy evangelizes. He asks God to help him push his people into the modern world. Chancy prays and hears God. I pray that violence and strife are eliminated and African countries can offer a peaceful life for their people. In this Advent season, let us sit quietly and pray that God will guide us to a peaceful world.

Prayer Requests
• Pray for salvation of lost souls.
• Pray for God’s provision: cyclone Freddy has greatly affected families’ food security. This year there is a looming hunger crisis.
• Pray for the Mozambique mission trip- protection and God’s guidance.
• Pray for resources to build additional classroom blocks and a hostel for Grade 7 learners.

Saturday, December 9

Isaiah 26:7-15
Devotional by Libbie Reiss
Art by Ann-Kempter Wheeler, age 6

Also known as the Song of Judah, Isaiah 26 is a powerful statement of our beliefs as Christians and followers of the Biblical word of God. A canticle or “small song” can express these beliefs in a way that was so often used in Old Testament scriptures and have come down to us throughout the development of our current-day religious practices. The hymn, “Canticle of the Turning” repeats the themes of Isaiah 26 of the hope for repentance of evil in the world and that we, as Christians, are assured by God that this will happen solely because of his love for humankind.
As children, do we ever question whether Christmas will come every year? This innocent, childish self ­assurance of Christmas is the same self-assurance that God wants us as adults to have and to hold even in times of misery and pain. This is the most difficult commandment that God gives us despite his assurances in word, prayer, and song. As the canticle reads “the world is about to turn” and with this turn will come repentance in a world where every human will understand that we are all meant to be righteous believers of God’s.
When we or others we know, or people we read about somewhere in the world, suffer physical or emotional pain or trauma, we question God and our belief that “he is with us always.” This is the struggle we face knowing that we, as righteous human beings, should never doubt him because of his promises and assurance. The world is turning. We are all turning. God has told us so. And when we are in doubt, as we all seem to be at times, we only need to ask a child if Christmas is coming next year.

Sunday, December 10

Isaiah 40:1-11
Devotional by Chris Currie
Photo "Glacier Park" by Steven Blackmon

“Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.”

This regular Advent passage reminds us that Advent does not just mean disruption but also brings comfort and good tidings. We usually like to hold those two concepts separate. Disruption and chaos are the opposite of comfort and serenity, but I believe our Advent text tells us Christ brings both comfort and radical change at the same time and together. None of us who are extremely comfortable like to entertain much radical change and disruption, but the coming Christ child does not seem to give us one without the other. And to be fair, some of our best growth and best lessons come to us not out of success or placid uneventfulness, but come out of failure and major changes we have had to confront and deal with in some form or fashion. I remember the sadness and anticipation I felt leaving home for college and moving to a new world thousands of miles away from home. A college senior who is now a friend and fellow Presbyterian minister told me at the time, ‘your life is about to change,’ and I hated him for it. I didn’t want my life to be upended, to change, to be challenged, and proven all over again. He was right though. Life did change; and most of it was for the better. Not unpainful or unclear or uncertain, but there was growth and formation and becoming taking place. So may you experience not just one high and happy moment after another, but may you in the valleys and mountains see the movement of Christ carrying you and me to a future where God writes straight with crooked lines and we grow and learn in the midst of every failure, valley, and change that comes our way.

Prayer: On the mountain top and in the low places, O God, help us never be too good or perfect to fail and to find that our real growth and lessons happen when we do. May we follow Christ through failure and change and see it all as part of your providential care of us and all creation. Amen.

Monday, December 11

Psalm 27
Devotional by Tyler Wheeler
Photo: Tom and Ann Hogg, Tyler's Dad and Grandma on their Grand Canyon trip

"I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord." (Psalm 27:13-14)

According to the late Tom Petty, “the waiting is the hardest part,” but what if the waiting is actually the best part? I wondered this after my Dad and his brother attempted to plan a surprise birthday trip to Arizona for their mother’s 91st birthday a few years ago. One day after she turned 90, my Grandma mentioned how much she wished she could have seen the Grand Canyon in her lifetime, but seeing as she had recently become a nonogenerian, she worried she never would. Upon hearing this, my Dad and my Uncle sprang into action booking flights and researching hotels to try to pull together the perfect surprise birthday trip. But somehow my Grandma caught wind of a surprise being planned and asked that whatever they had up their sleeves, to please let her know the plan. She explained that at her age and stage of life, there aren’t as many things to put on the calendar and so for her, the anticipation of an event fills her with as much joy - if not more - than the actual event itself. Once her sons told her about the trip to the Grand Canyon, she was elated. Now she could wait for her trip with eager anticipation as she read travel books about Arizona, shared the news of the trip over lunch with her friends, and imagined how it would feel to finally gaze in awe and wonder at the beauty of the Grand Canyon. As we sit in our personal times of waiting, let us remember the joy and the power of anticipation and hold on to that uncertainty with hope and faithfulness.

Tuesday, December 12

Acts 11:1-18
Devotional by Geoffrey Snodgrass
Art: "Icthus" by Auseklis Ozols

“There is enormous redundancy in every well written book.”- Marshall McLuhan

Acts 11 begins with a retelling of the story in the previous chapter. It recounts St. Peter’s visionary experience prior to meeting with the Roman Centurion Cornelius in Caesarea where he witnessed the Holy Spirit descending upon gentiles. In his vision, Peter had understood that the Gospel is not limited to Jews but is given for everyone. In Chapter 11 Peter has returned to Jerusalem and is meeting with Jewish Christians to explain and defend his visit to Cornelius. He had shared a meal with Cornelius and associated with other gentiles. By doing so, Peter had broken Jewish law. In sharing the story twice, Luke was emphasizing its importance because it marks the expansion of the Christian message beyond the Jewish community to the gentiles. Although the Great Commission in Matthew has Jesus commanding the apostles to make disciples of all nations and baptize them, the earliest Christians were observant Jews who believed newly baptized converts should also be observant. Through Peter, God changed their thinking. They understood that by descending upon the gentiles in Caesarea, the Holy Spirit was telling them that converts to Christianity did not need to follow Jewish law to receive the Gospel. The inclusion of gentiles allowed the early church to broaden its scope from being a sect of Judaism to becoming a more inclusive, diverse religion. By resolving the tension among Jews and gentiles, the church was able to spread the gospel more quickly, providing the groundwork for the subsequent development and spread of Christianity throughout the world.

“Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens-usually .” ~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Wednesday, December 13

Luke 1:5-17
Devotional by the SCAPC Aden Program participants & Nursery School children

For he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Our verses from John begin the story of John the Baptist’s birth with his parents unsure and afraid that the future will indeed bring what the angel tells them, things of their youth, a baby. The baby will grow into John the Baptist who will prepare the way for Jesus; the world is about to turn.
Pictured here is the Gator class with Harriet Riley as she led them in their writing of this devotional poem. The class joined together to think, share, and imagine the sights, sounds, and feelings of Christmas. Harriet also visited Aden and shared a similar activity with them where they came together sharing their memories connected to Christmas and meanings connected to those things to create their devotional poem. May their words remind us that we are never too old, too young, too ____ to prepare the way for the Lord.

"The Presents of Christmas"
by the Gator class of SCAPC Nursery School (preK)

Opening presents
Lights in the zoo
Cuddling with my blanket
Making gingerbread houses
Snuggling with my mommy & daddy
Sounds of falling snow
The taste of gingerbread
Baby Jesus on little white boxes
Glowing things
A lot of love

"What Christmas Means To Us"
by the participants of the Aden Program

Children singing
Hearing my granddaughter’s laughter
The sound of Silent Night at church on Christmas Eve
The chill in the air

The feel of snowflakes hitting my face
The smell of evergreen trees
The taste of eggnog
The taste of turkey and cranberry sauce

My dog sneaking the Christmas roast off the counter
Being with my cat
Remembering family connections through ornaments
The warmth of the love from my children

The calm peace of Christmas Eve
Love in the air
The warmth and love of Christmas

Thursday, December 14

Psalm 126
Devotional by Judith Halverson
Acrylic painting: "Lily of My Dreams" by Candy Cranch, M.Ed., NBCT

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

Advent is regarded as a time of waiting and the time to prepare. For whom are we waiting and for what are we preparing? The birth of baby Jesus? The gifts to give and receive that the season encourages? Preparations for the arrival of loved ones? Peace [insert your word] within our household, our city, our nation, our world?
Psalm 126 is in a collection of 15 Psalms called the Songs of Ascent. These Psalms were sung by pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the three yearly festivals. The pilgrims eventually climbed the 15 steps up to the Temple, the House of God, singing their songs with each step.

During Advent, we are on that same journey to meet God in the form of baby Jesus, God and human in one being. Perhaps we journey with songs of joy, perhaps tears of sorrow, and perhaps both at any given time. During this season we are told we should feel joyous, yet we may feel anything but that. The Psalmist sings in verses 5 and 6 that “those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy! And he that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy.” Advent is an opportunity for us to look at both the joy and the sorrow, and to know that without one, the other cannot be felt.
As we prepare for all the trappings the season brings, may we pause, reflect, and consider whether our hearts are prepared for the remarkable gift God has given us through becoming human. Take a moment right now and pause. Quiet your mind and allow “the peace that passes all understanding” settle within you. With the pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem, may we also turn and journey to God during Advent. God, Love, is waiting for us.

Friday, December 15

Habakkuk 3
Devotional by Harriet Riley
Photo: SCAPC Youth at Montreat, July 2023

The prophets in the Old Testament have a special connection to God. They got directions from God to help people face challenges and difficult situations. Habakkuk was one of the so-called minor prophets, but he had something major to say. In the first chapter, the prophet Habakkuk is talking to God and expressing disappointment in a world that seems filled with war and evil on all sides. He is complaining to God about His silence amid the world’s troubles. Then the prophet waits and listens.
In this third chapter, Habakkuk prays to God and realizes his mercy. At the end, in Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation, the prophet sings “joyful praise to God.” And “turns cartwheels of joy to my Savior God.” He continues “I take heart and gain strength.” The prophet Habakkuk claims joy in the middle of a world of pain. This takes real trust in God’s promises of hope.
This holiday season we see a world of sorrow with horrific wars and deep division. We, like Habakkuk, must sing hope into the darkness and choose joy.

At Montreat this past summer we talked about how joy is an act of defiance. As followers of Christ, we can choose joy amid the brokenness of the world. Joy and happiness are not the same. Happiness depends on your circumstances. But our lives aren’t happy all the time. Joy is deeper. Joy is a gift from God.
We cannot let the pain of the world define us. We belong to God. We can trust that we are defined not by what the world does to us, but by what God offers us.
When the suffering of the world overwhelms, we can choose to share God’s joy. We can practice joy this holiday season by sharing meals with dear friends, showing kindness to strangers or spending time in nature. Defy the evil in the world by sharing joy this Advent. Take heart and gain strength.

Dear God, amid so much suffering, give us the courage to choose to share kindness and joy this holiday season. Help us to do “cartwheels of joy” for you. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

Saturday, December 16

Matthew 21:28-32
Devotional by Wendi Adams
Art by Lilly Wheeler, age 4

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, and even after you saw it you did not change your minds and believe him.

The parable of the repentant son is not exactly the stuff of a picture-perfect Christmas. Neither is John the Baptist, eating locusts and wild honey and shouting at the top of his lungs that we should repent. And yet the whole point of the Christmas story and the greatest gift ever given is just that! With Jesus’ birth, his ministry, his crucifixion, death, and resurrection we are gifted with the option to “turn again” from the ways of sin and death in this world, and toward the gift of everlasting life with our Lord. Grasping the idea that I can repent and ask forgiveness for my many sins and be forgiven is huge for me! I am guilty of thinking “that is too big for God to forgive!” But nothing is too big for God if we repent with a true spirit. And it is not a “one and done” kind of thing. The word repent literally means “to turn again” and we must continually turn away from the sin and turn toward Christ.
When our daughter and son were young, we tried to teach them that part of saying you are sorry is trying not to do again whatever they were apologizing for. Big concept! Not sure they really understood, but we were trying to teach them that “I’m sorry” is empty without a sincere desire to behave differently next time. And I believe God wants and expects the same from us every day.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your son Jesus, who suffered so that we might practice repentance and receive forgiveness. Help us to remember that nothing is too big for You and Your grace and love.

Sunday, December 17

Isaiah 61:1-4
Devotional by Chris Currie
Oil on panel: "Blessings from Above" by Saskia Ozols

‘...good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.’

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion and forgiveness of the Holy Spirit sound different inside a prison. When I was a prison chaplain, I used to count the number of locked doors I had to unlock and lock back again before I arrived at the chapel or on one of the units of the prison. It was more than 10 and sometimes as high as 15. I also remember a particular prisoner who was delightful when I saw him and who struggled with addiction and got the help he needed inside the prison. But one time I was walking through a park in the center city and I saw him and some of his buddies and he had so much to drink that he did not recognize me. I walked right past him and I may as well been a ghost. His prison was outside too. We are all captives in various ways. Sometimes we are captives to success or to achievement or to social media or to our own resentments and grievances or our blindness to the lives of others. We don’t need to live in prison to be in captivity. Jesus comes though to release us from every form of captivity, not just the behind bars kind. This Advent and beyond, may Christ set you free, again, and again, and again.

Set the captives free O God. In our hearts, in our particular struggles, and in all that can possess us. Help us to find true freedom, not in having lots of choices or getting to do whatever we want, help us to find true freedom in leaving what we thought was everything behind and follow you. We find true freedom not in freedom from, but in freedom for, freedom for others, freedom for service to Jesus Christ, freedom to flourish as children of God. Amen.

Monday, December 18

Ephesians 6:10-17
Devotional by Bria Rault
Photo: Frances and Camille Rault, ages 4 and 1 1/2

We’ve all heard this passage many times, so much so that I tend to tune it out while hearing it read. The imagery Paul uses certainly helps to portray his message in which we should be firm in our faith, but as I was pondering these verses, I found myself trying to find a version of this armor that felt truer to me. As a millennial stay-at-home mom, I spend a big chunk of my time playing with my two daughters, ages 4 and 1 ½. A favorite pastime of theirs is to play with Barbies, dressing them, undressing them, placing them all over Barbie’s dreamhouse, imagining all sorts of scenarios where Barbie and her friends or family are going and why. Like many millennial women, I saw the Barbie movie this summer and it had me daydreaming, questioning, and pondering all sorts of topics in life for weeks, something I never expected to do before seeing what I assumed would be a lighthearted, silly movie.

I would never classify myself as a soldier for God suiting up in my armor each day, but I would categorize myself as Ordinary Barbie. My belt of truth may have some sparkle to it and my shoes may have some added height for special occasions. My helmet is most certainly a baseball cap or top knot headband to hide my dirty hair that I didn’t have the time or energy to fix. Paul tells us to stand strong in our faith, like Barbie’s confidence in her career at NASA. No matter who we are or what our successes look like to other people, we are loved by God and made in His image. Such a simple truth that can still be difficult to grasp even on a good day.

As you get dressed in the morning to start you day, visualize yourself suiting up with God’s truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s word. Our suits look different, but we are called by God just the same. If you happen to see a child opening a Barbie this Christmas season, I hope you are reminded of Paul’s instruction.

Tuesday, December 19

Psalm 80
Devotional: "Tears by the Bowlful" by Gillian Egan
Photo: Dome of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey by Chesley Hines

In the vivid imagery of this psalm, Israel is a once-glorious vine that the Lord had protected and nourished long ago, and then abandoned to ruin and destruction. The people pray and worship God, but suffer still – feeling the searing heat of God’s fiery anger, they beg to know how long wilt thou smoke? Nothing but sorrow, nothing but pain: You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
People suffer. People pray to God. God does not ease their suffering. These past few years, this feels familiar, doesn’t it? We carry hell and misery around in our pocket, images of war and agony and death mixed in with colorful ads for new boots or diapers on sale. You can google the names of civilians murdered in war – find their LinkedIn page, their latest Facebook profile pic, their Instagram snaps. So mundane, nothing special, until a bomb cuts them down as they run to the last train out of town, and the news serves up images of a packed suitcase in the street by the bodies of a whole family. A bottomless well of inescapable content, images insinuated into every corner of this relentless attention economy – drinking it in by the bowlful.

The plaintive refrain in the Psalm is repeated three times: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. A Biblical historian I read noted that this was a common prayer – the psalmist would have heard this blessing a thousand times. I have no tidy lesson here, no neat way to flip this into a message of joy. For all time, there are moments when it feels like God has abandoned us and all we know is suffering. If that is you today, even in this time of Advent blessings and cheer, then the psalmist speaks for you. May God restore you. May God shine his face upon you, that you may be saved. You are not alone.

Wednesday, December 20

Malachi 4:1-5
Devotional by Kathy Randall
Art by Emelia Keene, age 4

How does the final book of the Old Testament summarize God’s instruction to humankind about good times and bad? In short, the author gives us a word picture, an example that we can count on the fact that the last days of time will come raging like a fire. Malachi recalls the prophecy of Moses and Elijah to teach us not to trivialize daily life thinking we are in control. Last words matter. I am reminded of my mother’s continual parting phrase as I would leave her for school or independent activities. “BE SWEET” she would say. Not be safe as we often say today when crime and accidents like the Manchac I-55 pile-up come to the forefront. What has changed in our mindset? Do we need more sweetness? Have we joined the “I’ll sue you” train of thought? I was an adult before I realized that everyone had not been given these same words of instruction in departing one another. The colloquialism – BE SWEET - was a regional term in Central Mississippi where I grew up and most assuredly reflected a Southern culture and expectation. Being sweet meant minding your “Ps and Qs”. Respecting one another. Maybe the words were straight from a paraphrase of Malachi 4:5 as Eugene Peterson writes, to clear the way for the Big Day of God – the decisive Judgment Day!

Creator God, make us mindful of our actions. Teach us to watch our words this Advent as we prepare. Give us sweetness in more ways than a spoonful of sugar. Help us to understand that even a crisis can be a wake-up call. AMEN.

Thursday, December 21

Psalm 89
Devotional & Art by April Weiser

This beautifully written Psalm demonstrates the relationship between creator and creation much like the bond between parent and child. Much praise and awe are given to the parent who is the source of all that is good for a young child. Such was the case in young David’s faith as he bravely stepped up to face the might of the Philistines and defeat their giant warrior Goliath. He trusted that the God whom he worshipped would be with him on his righteous path. David’s love and loyalty to God led to a covenant from God through the Holy Spirit. God promised that David’s descendants would reign over his kingdom on earth. Psalm 89 honors the expression of God’s unconditional love. However, such love does not free one from the consequences of their actions. For as David grew in power, his humble nature gave way to pride and desire. He coveted his general’s wife and thus sent the general into a battle from which he could not survive. These actions of adultery and essentially murder greatly hurt God’s trust in him resulting in the loss of David and Bathsheba’s first child. It is important to recognize that a loving parent does not give consequences to a child for punitive sake alone but rather as an act of love, a gift of teaching self-discipline so that the child may learn and grow for the better. Even though David’s actions greatly disappointed God, he never withdrew his love from David nor the promises he made to him. God kept his covenant and established the House of David through his descendants to reign over the Israelites. Through the fulfillment of his promise, eventually the world was blessed with the gift of Jesus Christ, a descendant of the House of David and the reason for this holy season. Hallelujah!

Friday, December 22

1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
Devotional and photo by Karen Donaldson

It’s been almost a year since Epiphany Sunday. I remember it well. Keith and I entered the sanctuary through the Narthex to retrieve our Epiphany star word. We approached the table with the sea of paper stars and together, we placed our hands atop one, anxious to flip it over and read our word as if it was a fortune pulled from a Chinese cookie. Anticipating “Joy”, “Love” “Blessing” or the like, we read with furrowed brows, “Sonder” - realizing that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Huh? We looked around to see if anyone was watching so we could turn it back over and pick another. We took the star home and placed it in a place of prominence…the refrigerator.
How often does judgement pass through our thoughts or worse, our lips? Guilty. That person with road rage cutting you off in traffic raises your ire only to realize that they may be later than you for an appointment, anxious about something heavy on their hearts, or worst of all, just plain angry. Convicting someone in our hearts without the evidence isn’t justice and certainly isn’t realizing that that passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as my own. But how does one imitate Christ in the traffic circle at Causeway and Airline?

In Thessalonians, Paul brings light to community. What I do in my daily routine touches people whether it’s from inside a vehicle or in the aisles of Walmart. I can show a fist in equal anger or offer a wave or a smile. I have found myself approaching my community with a little more grace since “sonder” entered my vocabulary. Through the Joy of the Holy Spirit, may I be the light in someone’s darkness, and leave the judgement to God.

Saturday, December 23

John 7:40-52
Devotional and art "Tears of Joy" by Ashley Brown

The Gospel of John is known for the writer’s mystical approach to the divinity of Jesus. Two thousand years later, with Christianity being the faith of one billion on this Earth, it’s fascinating to see the evolution of the identity of Christ. Christ modernly is heralded for his patience, generosity, kindness and sacrificial nature. To those around him at the time of his life, Jesus was hard to really put in a box. This mystical coat of miracles and resurrection we attach to Christ hasn’t yet fully landed on his shoulders, and we’re left with tension.
Some context around this particular passage is important. In John 6, we read Jesus’s message of being the bread of life, and of his blood. “No one ever spoke the way this man does!” Says the guard who doesn’t bring Jesus back to the Temple.
Of course the guard doesn’t want to touch a dude who is running around town telling people to drink his blood and eat his flesh. I mean, would you?
There is a holy unseen armor of protection when you’re the town weirdo.
Wherever we might be personally with Jesus Christ, son of God, we can probably all agree that the Jesus Christ, son of Joseph was true to himself. Jesus “triggered” a lot of folks around him by his teachings of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.
It’s a lot easier to make friends and be a part of a community when you fall in line with the teachings of a community.

Pick a side! Stay there! Don’t cross the invisible lines… you can be friends with people who are like us.. but if you’re seen with them.. well then…

When I read this passage, I am reminded of Jesus’s strength to stand in his individualism and nonconformity and shine back love so brightly that those around him.
So this advent I challenge us to… Listen to people who think differently than us without wanting to change their minds or views; Cross invisible social lines; plant seeds of friendship with people who are not like you, who are different skin tones, who are of different tax brackets; and above all… be seen with them.
Like fine silver, our souls are buffed and polished through these interactions. Our rough edges are made softer, and through each microscopic uncomfortable spiritual scratch of reconciliation and peace, we begin to brighten and reflect back onto the world the spirit of Christian love.
So, shine on.

Sunday, December 24

Luke 1:46-55
Devotional by Chris Currie
Art by Leon Hinson

'My soul magnifies the Lord.’

One of my favorite theologians says that living out the faith is more like a game or a song than it is like work or warfare. If we get too serious about faith we turn it into a problem to be solved or a righteousness to be pursued and are willing to steamroll anyone who gets in our way. There is a lightness to faith that does not allow us to coerce it into something like drudgery or self-righteousness or abstract justice, but keeps it life-giving, flourishing, and playful before God. Kind of like Mary’s song. Even as she sings about God turning the world and our lives upside-down and the coming Messiah upending the orders and powers and principalities, she sings it in a way that makes us want to magnify the Lord with our souls right beside her. Disruption, comfort, and joy all kind of comingle together in a weird way with the coming Messiah. It’s almost like Jesus brings challenge and change, comfort and love, joy and flourishing, all at the same time and not one without the other. May he bring it all to you in these days and never one without the others.

Prayer: Come Lord Jesus and dwell among us until our souls magnify you and we flourish before you in the fullness of life. Help us to see that you bring disruption and challenge alongside comfort and joy and human flourishing; pour it all over and through our lives until we become the people you intended us to be all along for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 25

Devotional by Pat Widhalm
Art by Caroline Wheeler, age 9

St. Paul cites Jesus when he states to the elders of Ephesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) Paul had very specific events and circumstances in mind when he said this, but we often repeat it as a signal of goodness and encouragement to generosity. In a season that is highlighted by the giving of gifts, we can all relate to the blessedness, the happiness, of giving and receiving.
Will the receiver shout for joy when opening the present, realizing that in fact, the giver was listening and plotting about how best to fulfill this wish? Will the child analyze the size and shape of the wrapped present to determine whether or not the letter to Santa was delivered? Will the loved one know that this gift comes with a sacrifice, made with love? We anticipate the giving and the opening. We are blessed in both.
But, what about the gift that we did not put on our list; that we did not know we wanted? Not necessarily the tie, or the mixing bowls, or the new pair of socks, but something completely, seemingly obscure. What about the gift that was forecast through Old Testament prophets and announced first to lowly shepherds, who were the most unsuspecting recipients? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11, emphasis added)
Through two millennia of teaching and tradition, church councils and systematic theologies, we know better than those shepherds what they first received. We experience the gracious gift of God throughout our faith journey, but it is good not to lose sight of the experience those shepherds had. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.” (Luke 2:20, emphasis added)

What they found “wrapped in swaddling cloths” ultimately conquers sin and death and provides for individuals “the free gift of God, eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:23) In addition, the kingdom of God is launched through the church. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of work, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good work, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10, emphasis added) And a reminder from Peter, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Peter 4:10, emphasis added). Receive the gift, continue unwrapping it, and give glory and praise to God for all that we have heard and seen, and all that has been told to us.

Monday, December 25

Matthew 19:1-4
Devotional by Jim Hobden
Art by Howie Homes, age 18

“And I say unto you, unless you change and become like little children,
you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3)

It was late December, 1957. I had been sentenced to after school detention for talking in class. When finally set free, I began walking home alone. Alas! Less than a block into the walk, I glanced down to see a five dollar bill in the grass. In that time of a nickel Hershey bar, five dollars was a veritable king’s treasure.
After checking, the money was not missing from a nearby business. It was mine. There were six in my family at the time. Certainly the goodness of my mother and father played a part in my next decision. The money was used to buy presents for all my family members, which my mother wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.
Most of my intense memories are ones of conflict and personal failings. But this one of innocent generosity has not faded. It floods into my mind every Christmas. It was a moment of joy. It is the way I would like to always be, but often falter. It is the spirit of Christmas. It is the heart of Christianity.