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It’s that time of year again… The time when the so called “learned” Christians among us begin to criticize and ridicule Christmas hymns and songs for “poor theology” as well as poor ignorant Church members for – well – being so ignorant!

I’ve actually seen pastors become visibly angry over a congregation wanting to sing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” or “Joy to the World” before Christmas Day! What are we going to do with them? (These uneducated church members – not the learned pastors, of course…)

One of the most common of songs to raise ire is the favorite “Mary Did You Know?”

“Well, of course she knew”, they cry. “After all, the angel Gabriel told her everything!”

“Plus”, they add, “Her trip to Elizabeth should have been enough proof…”

Ok – let’s think about that for a moment. Those who follow my writing or Bible study teaching know that I am a stickler for two main things – first – context! The context of the scripture must be correct.

My next oft repeated phrase is that the Bible concerns, “Real people, in real events, in real time.” So with that in mind let’s examine what Mary knew – both mentally and emotionally.

In my poem “A New Understanding of Christmas” (written several years before I had children) I say that:

“Was she afraid, so far from home?

And knowing no more than she must have known,

Was she afraid that Silent Night

Bearing her child with only the light

From the star for assurance

That God was there

In person and prayer

Father and Son as One?”

 

Yes, Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her everything. Mary went to visit Elizabeth and heard an uplifting corroborating word. Yes, and Mary’s “Magnificat” is – well – magnificent in its faith-filled words of praise and submission to God… but… there is such a thing as the emotion of the moment.

And… let’s remember this is a real event, happening to real people, in real time. Mary heard the word from Gabriel. Then almost immediately she traveled to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. She stayed with Elizabeth for three months (whether she stayed until after John’s birth is debatable – personally, I think she did, unless a caravan was leaving for Nazareth and she had to leave sooner.)

Next she arrived back in Nazareth, obviously pregnant… So then we have the “real event” of Joseph’s reaction and his dream assuring him that the baby was, indeed, the Messiah.

And then… nothing…

Not another word from an angel, a dream, or special encounter for six… long… months…

Well… there was the fact that they knew the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem (and they had no intentions of making a trip to Bethlehem!) But then current events dictated that they go there anyway – but I suspect they viewed that more as a difficulty than a sign from God.

And so, they went… And they got there and the place was crowded and noisy and (likely) dirty. Surely to goodness, if this was really God’s Son, there would have at least been a nice place to birth the baby… but there wasn’t.

Think about it… six… long… months… and not a word.

Six long months of morning sickness, and back pain, and kicks that take your breath away… this was a real baby, and these were real months.

 

Have you ever had an encounter with God during a time of prayer or at an event? Have you ever felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to do something, or take on some responsibility or chart some course? How did you feel six months later when there had been no follow up from God and things were beginning to get tough? Have you ever questioned if you heard Him correctly? Of course you have! And I’m sure Mary and Joseph both questioned, at times, if they’d heard correctly.

And then He was born…

My poem puts it this way:

“I wonder if

I could endure

The pain and then still be as sure

That this was God’s plan for my life

To be a mother before a wife,

I wonder if I could…”

 

We sing:

Mary did you know that your baby Boy will someday walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby Boy will save our sons and daughters?

Mary did you know that your baby Boy will give sight to a blind man

Mary did you know that your baby Boy will calm a storm with His hand?

And the critics wail away at us for daring to ask these questions.

Did she really know all this? I doubt it. Did she know that He was God – yes – but what did that really mean? I don’t think she had a clue what it all really meant.

As my poem ends, I say:

“I’m sure then Mary softly smiled

And looked down gently at her child

The Savior of the world to be

But right now, so tenderly

He was her baby.

Somehow, looking out through Mary’s eyes

Brings a new understanding of Christmas.”

 

Yes, Mary knew in her mind that He was God… but in her heart, He was her baby – and that – is a “real time” event!

 

 

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trentville

Trentville UMC Strawberry Plains, TN

 

Third Sunday in Advent – Joy

Father, as I pause in my prayers and think of the third Advent candle – joy – I let my mind wander over the many thoughts surrounding “joy” and am surprised to find the phrase, “there is no joy in Mudville tonight, the mighty Casey has struck out…” comes to mind.

And I have to ask Lord, is that a sign of our culture – that our “joy” is dependant on our team winning; on a player getting a hit, or a homerun; or a touchdown, or a free-throw, or any other corresponding phrase for victory? Is it dependant on the marketplace or the world stage? Is our “joy” based on our being “successful…”? Is it that fragile?

I think of Biblical uses of the word, “joy” and find my heart embracing, “weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning” and “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

And I remember that Elizabeth’s son John, “leaped for joy” in her womb upon hearing Mary’s voice. And that Mary’s spirit “rejoiced in God” at Your choosing her as Your Son’s mother…”

And then there is that ultimate, “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy, which shall be for all people, for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!” and I stop there, and I realize, “this” is the “joy” that the third candle represents. That if not for this one single “joy” no other joy would be possible.

Christ brings the “joy in the morning.” He is the “Good Shepherd” who goes after the one lost little lamb. He is (not to be cliché, but) “the reason for the season”; He is the joy of my life and the salvation of my soul, and You, my Father, made it all possible…

You, are concerned about my joy.

You, want me to be happy.

When I think about all the things that bring me joy – my husband, my children, my family, and yes, even success in the “marketplace” I humbly realize that all of this would be just fleeting fancy without the real joy of knowing Your Son. And I pray Lord; lead me to lead others in knowing this permanent, concrete, solid, never failing, and always eternal Saviour – Jesus – our true Joy!

And it is in His name I pray – Amen

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first-umc-desplaines-il

First UMC DesPlaines, IL

 

There are many questions surrounding the Shepherds and the Wisemen. Why did God choose them to spread the Good News? Perhaps this will help a little. (I also have this is a Bible Study format with questions. If you’d like a copy please e-mail me).

 

The Shepherds

The orthodox Jew often despised the shepherds. Due to the very nature of their occupations they could not always participate in the rites and ceremonial rituals. It made no matter that the Jews’ greatest ancestors, Moses, Abraham, and David, were all shepherds and were idolized. It is much like an ancestor of ours who, though somewhat of a “rascal” or an “outcast” might be idolized or spoken of with thinly veiled price. “We wouldn’t do what they did, but…”

How much easier it is to romanticize life than to actually live it.

Therefore, the shepherds were looked upon with disgust, although they were greatly needed, because it was they who raised and cared for the “unblemished lambs” that were used for all the temple sacrifices.

They were the “blue color service industry.” All these people we greatly need, but never “see…”

 

The Wisemen

The Magi, also known as “The Wisemen” were learned men and scholars, most likely descended from the Medes. They were also skilled in astronomy and astrology, which was the study of the stars, as well as their meanings. (God said in Genesis 1:14 that the lights in the heavens were to be for “signs and seasons and for days and years.”) Astrology and astronomy were not mutually exclusive, but mutually explanatory.

The Wisemen, in addition to being a priestly tribe, were men who spent their time in study. Anyone who comes into a study (of any kind) with an open heart is prepared (however unknowingly) to hear God’s voice. (As God is over all things, He speaks in all things.)

“How do we begin to understand without study?

And how do we study without desire?

And how do we desire without seeing a need?

And how do we see a need without beginning to understand that we need to study?

It is completely God’s Calling.”

The Wisemen were called and prepared, and sent. And then they proclaimed. All without ever having known that they were used of God.

 

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first-umc-akron-ohio

A beautiful shot of First UMC Akron, Ohio

 

Wiseman or Shepherd?

God revealed Himself to the Wiseman’s intellect

and to the Shepherd’s heart…

 

Sometimes I think I’m a Wiseman,

with all my charts and diagrams,

but they continue to point to where I am

and never to where I want to go.

 

But these are my diagrams and charts,

constructed of logic and not the heart

and following my maps will never impart

where God wants me to go.

 

Then,

Sometimes I’m a Shepherd, or so I claim,

when I don’t want to play life’s little game

of who I am by what’s my name.

And I only want to be different.

 

But God called the Shepherds through their open ear,

who we’re willing to follow despite their fear.

Then shouted Hosannas to all who would hear

regardless of the difference.

 

God calls to us wherever we are

to step out on faith and follow the star

to travel however near or far

we have to go to change

or rearrange

our thinking.

 

In each of us the Wisemen lie

the Shepherds too, we can’t deny,

And God’s Holy Name we glorify

each time we’re willing to change

and rearrange

our thinking.

 

Yes, God still reveals Himself to the Wiseman’s intellect

and the Shepherd’s heart

And neither one is more important than the other.

 

 

 

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manger-scene

You can find this in front of Thorngrove Christian Church on Carter School Road in East Knox County.

 

This poem was written in the late 70’s – long before our sons were born – but I just imagined how it might be…

 

A New Understanding of Christmas

 

It’s probably all been said before,

and I really don’t want to be a bore,

But, Christmas to me

and what I feel,

is so very, oh, more real

than anything that could be said.

 

Being a woman, I think of Mary,

bearing the Babe

and having to carry

the responsibility and all the while,

she was little more

than a child herself.

 

Was she afraid, so far from home,

and knowing no more

than she must have known?

Was she afraid that silent night

bearing her child with only the light

from the star for assurance

that God was there

in person and prayer

Father and Son as one?

 

I guess I’m a dreamer, but I tend to see,

how things would be

if it happened to me.

 

I wonder if

I could endure

the pain, and then still be as sure

that this was God’s plan for my life

to be a mother before a wife,

I wonder if I could.

 

I try to grasp how it must have been

in the cold damp barn

when a bunch of men

shepherds they were

reverently knelt

and quietly beheld their Savior.

 

And later then the wise men three,

coming, oh, so far to see,

the Mother and the Child

The King

the Promised One

The Messiah.

 

I’m sure then Mary softly smiled

and looked down gently at her child

The Savior of the world to be

but right now so tenderly,

He was her baby.

 

Somehow, looking out through Mary’s eyes

brings a new understanding of Christmas.

 

 

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wpumc

This is my own church Washington Pike UMC

 

Such a Simple Word (A Christmas Meditation)

 

There was a commercial several years ago where a man taught three guinea pigs to row a little boat while another one cried “row”. And the man said, “Such a simple word, ‘row’.”

I thought about that recently as I was thinking about Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5-8 where he tells of what some have called Jesus’ “7 steps down from Glory.” It can be broken down this way:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God,

  1. did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
  2. but emptied Himself,
  3. taking the form of a bond-servant,

 

  1. and being made in the likeness of men.

 

(Then) Being found in appearance as a man

  1. He humbled Himself
  2. by becoming obedient to the point of death,
  3. even death on a cross.”

 

The first three steps take place in heaven, and the last three take place on earth, but it’s that 4th step that creates the transition between heaven and earth. The last part of verse 7 says, “…and being made in the likeness of men.” That little word “made” is the key word here.

Such a simple word… “made…”

The word literally means “to come into being.” This… is… the Incarnation. Jesus was “made in the likeness of men.” He was born. He came into the world through the birth canal. He was attached to His mother by His umbilical cord… but He had His Father’s sinless blood. His birth was for real. He didn’t “just appear.” He was born, just like you and I were. He didn’t come into existence in Bethlehem, but He was “made” in the likeness of men. And you know what? He still has that body.

Such a simple word, “made…” but oh what significance!

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nativity-beulah-umc

Nativity Scene – Beulah UMC – Knoxville, TN

 

Think About It – Mary and Joseph

Have you ever wondered why, that if “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1), and that “there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) once they got to Bethlehem, why is it that every picture, every drawing, every depiction of Joseph and Mary that we see, shows them traveling alone? Why is that?

Did Joseph know some back road to Bethlehem to avoid the traffic? Did he evade the crowds by traveling when everyone else was stopped? And where was the rest of his family? If he was “of the house and linage of David” (Luke 2:4), where were his parents, and his brothers? Well, maybe he didn’t have brothers, but where were his cousins? And what of Mary’s family? She too, was “of the house of David” through David’s son Nathan (Luke 3:31). Where were all her kith and kin?

The fact is they were surrounded by people! It was like rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Everyone had to get to their “home town” to be registered and counted for the census. So, where were Joseph’s and Mary’s parents?

What we (Bible readers) have to realize, is that this wasn’t the first census to ever be taken! No, “counting people” was a way of life in this culture… well… in any culture! How else would the government know how many people lived where? And of course there had to be a way to calculate taxes!

So what about Mary and Joseph’s parents? Most likely they were “registered” the last time there was a census, and now that Joseph was his own “head of household” he, along with his wife, Mary, had to go to Bethlehem themselves. I know (being a mother) that their parents surely worried, and wished they could go with them, but in that day no one traveled “just because they wanted to…” And so, Mary and Joseph set out alone…

No, they were not “alone” in terms of the sheer numbers of peoples traveling along the same road, but they were “alone”, nonetheless…

Have you ever felt all alone in the midst of a crowd of people? Surely that’s how Mary and Joseph felt. It had been nine months since they’d had a Word from God, at least an “audible” word… But, in a few hours that would change.

The God who said, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5b and Joshua 1:5), will truly “never leave you nor forsake you” either! Think about it, and count on it!

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Hanging of the Greens – A Word on Peace

marilyns-church-2-mcburg-umc

This Advent wreath is from my friend’s church McBurg United Methodist Church

Devotional for Hanging of the Greens service 2016

I just want to share a brief word for this second Sunday in Advent and our Hanging of the Greens. All over the world – either last Sunday or this Sunday – churches are participating in this “Hanging of the Greens” service. This is a “traditional” service. What is it that tradition or routine brings us? Often times it brings us “peace”.

When there are times in my life, when things are “unpeaceful” the one thing that brings me peace (don’t laugh) is the very ordinary chore of doing laundry. I know that seems funny, but when I was a teenager my daddy wore uniforms in his work, and every week on Thursday, he would take his dirty uniforms to work and pick up clean ones. There was just something about that mundane, but routine task that gave me peace during those troubling teen years. No matter what was happening – on Thursday – Daddy took his uniforms to work. You could count on it.

These past few weeks have been very difficult for the people of Tennessee. For many, their lives will never be the same again – but even in that – there can be simple things that bring peace and comfort. I pray that the tradition of this service and the comfort of the familiar hymns during this Advent and Christmas season will bring you peace.

Hear these words from Isaiah 9:6-7 “For unto us a Child is born. Unto us a Son is given. The government will rest on His shoulders. And He will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of His father David for all eternity. The zeal (The NLT says, “the compassionate commitment”) of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

Has this prophecy been fulfilled yet? Part of it has. The Child was born – Jesus was born just like you and I were born. He came as a human to live a righteous life. And, the Son was given – the perfect Lamb given in sacrifice for the sin of mankind. That has been fulfilled. The second part of that prophecy has not been fulfilled – yet – but we can be assured that it will be. Because the first part has been fulfilled – we know that the second part will be as well because “the compassionate commitment of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this” – and that brings us peace – even in the most uncertain of times!

 

Let us pray:

Father, as our second Sunday in Advent brings the message of peace, I have to wonder – what is peace, really? It’s so much more than the absence of war. It’s more than a shaky truce or a temporary lull. It’s more than a momentary laying down of arms or a brief respite from conflict.

No, true peace wells up within us within times of war, within the ravages of the fiercest actions, and during the times when the whole force of hell assaults our souls. “The Peace of God,” said the apostle Paul “surpasses all understanding.” And Christ, Himself, said, “My peace I give you – not the kind the world gives. So don’t be afraid.”

True peace, Father, comes from You. It’s nothing we can conjure up, nothing we can “talk ourselves into” nothing we can “will” to be – it comes, (yes) comes from Thee.

So, how can we explain the conflict of the shaking hands and the calm heart? How can we understand the fear that ravages our minds while a peace pervades our soul? It doesn’t make sense Lord, but we’ve been there.

We’ve felt our hearts cry “Peace! Peace! The Peace of the Most High Sovereign God surrounds you and controls your being!” and all the while our minds are trying to grasp the reality of the moment – the pain that comes with uncertainty and fear, when our stomach turns and our limbs weaken…

And finally, we fall to our knees, grasping the promise that You made to never leave nor forsake us – and peace comes upon us, and we feel Your love.

It doesn’t always “change the moment”; there may still be “bullets” flying all around, whether actual, or figurative (sometimes the “figurative” ones hurt the worst!) But it changes us! And that is, what Peace is.

Thank You Father – we love You and Praise You in the Name of the Prince of Peace – Amen.

 

 

And now let us receive our tithes and offerings.

Prayer: Gracious and Eternal God – bless the gift and the giver – and give them peace. Amen.

 

 

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Sunday will be the second Sunday in Advent. The candle is a candle of peace.

thorngrove-christian-advent-wreath

I forgot that I had all these photos – this Advent wreath is from Thorngrove Christian Church

A Prayer for Peace

Grant Your Peace Lord, I pray, upon those in the midst of conflict this Advent season; and indeed, in all seasons. But, there’s just something about the “Christmas” season that makes conflict more – conflicting during this time of the year.

I pray for those in genuine conflict – in battles, and in wars, with actual bullets and all too real blood-letting. I pray “Peace” Lord, knowing, that until You come again – there will be no real peace for this kind of war. So, until then, I pray “safety” instead…

 

I pray for those in figurative conflict – in battles for their minds and souls. I pray for those who know that “something” ought to be different. But what? And how?  I pray “Peace” Lord, knowing, that “this” battle can be won, that guilt and “chains” can be removed. That all that is needed is for the word to be spread. Give me the words, Lord…

 

I pray for those in spiritual conflict – in battles where the war has already been won, and the prisoners set free, and all that is wanting is for the victory to be claimed…. I pray “Peace” Lord, knowing that they (we) just (sometimes) don’t realize it. Give them (us) Grace, Lord to see the Victory.

 

I pray “Peace” Lord at this Advent season – and all seasons of the year.

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This is not specifically “Christmas” but more “winter”, but as many others, we are praying for all affected by the fires and other disasters in our beloved state.

 

joe-pictures-444

When Winters Come

 

I love the mountains in winter

when you can see its soul.

No leaves to hide its feelings

no brush to take control

of the depths.

 

Every curve and every contour

every rock and log that lays

Seems devoid of all deception

bearing wide as if to say…..

 

“Here I am, as you now see me.

I’ve stood the test of time and pain

Burning wildfires, greedy loggers,

blight and drought, torrential rains.”

 

“Much like you,” the mountain tells me.

“When winters come,

(and winters will).

Hold fast the truths that lie within you

Prepare your heart

with ‘peace, be still’”

 

“Make sure your roots are deeply grounded

Make sure your paths

are well defined.

Hold the strength of your convictions.

A peaceful soul

will help you find,

 

that Spring will surely come again.”

 

Betty Newman ©2002

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