Category Archives: Advent

“The Courage To Embrace Radical Love” – Advent Reflection on Luke 3:7-18 and Workers Movements and Unions (at Interfaith Worker Justice)

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I’m reflecting on Luke 3:7-18 and blogging about workers movements and union members over at Interfaith Worker Justice today. Here is part of what I wrote:

I often think about how brave John was.  How did he – this man who lived off locusts and wild honey, who dressed in camel’s hair, who had no power in the Roman Empire – have the courage to stand up and boldly proclaim this truth when it was sure to get negative backlash by those in power?  Then I think about how much his prophetic voice proclaiming this harsh good news in the wilderness was needed.  Without it, so many of those on the margins would have been left hopeless.  And yet, with it, a way was paved for our loving Savior Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and many who followed him in his movement of radical love that proclaims peace and justice for all.

This reminds me of the brave union members and worker movements who are some of the bold prophetic voices of our day.

Read the rest here.

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“A God Who Shows Up” – (At Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Photo taken in downtown Bethlehem on Jan. 6: Celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (Emily Heitzman

I’m blogging “A God Who Shows Up” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA today). Here is part of what I wrote:

Since I moved away after high school, I always look forward to going back to my parent’s home for the holidays. And since Christmas songs, movies, and holiday TV specials often include themes of magical family “homecomings,” I am guessing I’m not the only one whose focus in December is on getting ready to go home. After all, doesn’t Perry Como say: “If you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays, you can’t beat home sweet home?”

And yet, what about those individuals whose family relationships are broken or abusive, those who feel unsafe in their homes, or those who do not have homes to go to? Can they find places during the holidays that “beat home sweet home?”

It seems as though the theme lately in the news has been one of violence, instability, and displacement. The economy continues to leave many people jobless or underemployed, families are losing their homes to foreclosure, and more and more people are moving to transitional housing or becoming homeless. Additionally, the past several months, we have heard about the terrified children at the border who are fleeing violence. We have seen horrific images of the attack on Gaza that killed thousands of civilians and damaged thousands of homes, and we are aware of domestic violence that occurs in households.

So how can our cultural emphasis on “holiday homecoming” be good news when this “homecoming” is not a reality for so many? 

Read the rest at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).

An Advent Call Story (at Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Today I’m blogging “An Advent Call Story” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).  Here is a part of what I wrote:

As I was getting ready for Advent this year, I realized that our Christmas songs, TV shows, and movies emphasize the importance of going home for the holidays. As I realized this, I thought about the people who cannot relate to this “holiday homecoming.” I could not help but think about those who lack a safe place they can call home.

I know this is not one of our Advent texts, but as we approached Advent, I was reminded of Moses’ call story in Exodus 3:1-12.

For many years, there had been a famine in the land of Canaan, and as a result, the Israelites left their homes in great numbers and traveled to Egypt to make a better life. However, Pharaoh disliked the growing numbers of Israelites who were taking refuge in his land. He did not want them to make Egypt their new home. So Pharaoh took advantage of the situation and turned these refugees into slaves. For centuries, the Hebrew refugees were forced into terrible working conditions and became victims of racism and violence. In their enslavement, they longed for release from their captivity and suffering and cried out to God.

And this is where Exodus 3 comes in.

– Read the rest at: Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA)

Finding Jesus in Bethlehem… at the Checkpoint

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I am sitting in my church office surrounded by beautiful nativities, candle sticks, crosses, and ornaments that were hand-carved by some of my Palestinian Christian friends who live in the Bethlehem area in the West Bank… items that my church youth are selling both as a way to support our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters and to raise awareness of the situation in Israel/Palestine… and as I sit here, looking at the beautiful holy family carved out of wood from an olive tree – a symbol of peace in the Judeo-Christian tradition – I am even more so surrounded by the incredible memories of my life-changing experience two years ago in the Holy Land – a place where people thousands of years ago waited for the One who would bring peace and a place where people today continue to wait for peace to be brought to their land.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing… not just in vain, but expectantly for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love and who shines light in the darkness of this world.  And two years ago today I was waiting and preparing in this season of Advent for my upcoming trip to the Holy Land… to Israel/Palestine… Yet, little did I know that I was waiting and preparing to actually encounter Jesus – coming into my life in extremely transformative ways: where not only did I experience so much genuine hospitality and kindness, but where my eyes were opened up to many of the unheard stories of the plight of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

As we continue to wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus this next week, I thought I’d share some of my facebook “journal” posts and photos from the trip where I stood on holy ground and experienced the incarnation of Jesus in the people I met and through the stories I heard.

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Day 2 in Israel/Palestine: Amazing to ring in the New Year at the top of Nazareth watching fireworks all over the city.

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…We also visited the Sindyana of Galilee (a Fair Trade organization in the region of Galilee that seeks to empower and provide jobs for women, reconcile relationships among Jews and Arabs, and support Arab farmers from Palestinian Occupied Territories);

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…went to Kfar Bar’am – a Palestinian Christian city where citizens were dispersed and the city destroyed;

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…stopped by the place where Jesus may have fed the 5000, and visited and worshiped on the Mt. of Beatitudes.

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“I walked today where Jesus walked, and felt Him Close to me.”

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Day 3 in Israel/Palestine: walked in the Sea of Galilee; pictured Jesus performing miracles, walking on water, and calming the storm as I heard the Gospel reading and sang hymns with my brothers and sisters in our boat on the Sea of Galilee;

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…Ate fish as St. Peter did – with bone, head, and all;

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…Saw city ruins from First Century and later in Capernaum and Nazareth;

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…And visited Mary’s well in Nazareth.

Jesus walked this land 2000 years ago and made His presence and love known on this land today.

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Day 4 in Israel/Palestine: started with an extremely eye-opening meeting with the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth and heard shocking truths that are rarely heard or spoken about;

…Saw ruins from the times of the Crusaders and Byzantines, and a home, tomb, and city road from First Century Nazareth;

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…Visited Caesarea;

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…Drove through ancient Joppa (in Tel-Aviv); stood on the Mt. of Carmel, and ended the night hanging out with two new friends who are from Hebron and work at our hotel in Bethlehem – listened to their stories and began to build friendships.

The city of Hebron from a rooftop. (We visited the city later on in our trip.) It was a terrifying site to see the poverty and the mistreatment of the Palestinians here. Hebron is a Palestinian city in the middle of the West Bank and has an illegal Israeli settlement that was established in the middle of the city. The settlers have been extremely violent against the Palestinians, there is a main road that runs through the city and the Palestinian market place that is forbidden to Palestinians and has caused the marketplace to shut down, and there has been a pattern of Israeli soldiers inflicting violence against Palestinians – including children here. My first experience in Hebron was getting off our bus and seeing an Israeli soldier with his huge gun strapped over his shoulder go over to a boy about 9 or 10 years old who was playing soccer with a can and start kicking and screaming at the boy until he noticed me staring at him. To see another incident of such soldier violence against a young child in Hebron, click here.

Hebron: outside the Christian Peacemakers Team office: a group of Christians who, among other things, walk with Palestinian children on their way to/from school to ensure they are not attacked by the Israeli settlers or soldiers in the city.

Hebron: outside the Christian Peacemakers Team office: a group of Christians who, among other things, walk with Palestinian children on their way to/from school to ensure they are not attacked by the Israeli settlers or soldiers in the city.

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Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron (location of the “Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre:” where American-born Israeli open fired on unarmed Palestinian Muslims praying in 1994, killing 29 people and leaving 125 people injured.)

…Experiencing God through the many beautiful people I am meeting and the love and hospitality they are providing.

(I got to blow Hebron glass)

(I got to blow the Hebron glass)

…Starting to anticipate the celebration of the birth of the One who brings Peace to a hurting and oppressed people (which we will celebrate here on Jan. 6) and beginning to wonder if this is how Mary, the mother of Jesus, felt when she entered Bethlehem before His birth: fear for the unknown and present and future political/societal situation, pain for the suffering of the oppressed, and hope and anticipation for God to bring peace, love, and reconciliation to all God’s creation.

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Day 5 in Israel/Palestine: an incredibly difficult and yet amazingly spiritual day: Visited Sabeel (Palestinian liberation group) and Musalaha (a Christian reconciliation group), visited numerous places where Jesus walked and ministered in Jerusalem;

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…And ended the evening meeting new friends who are shop owners in old city Bethlehem and hearing their extremely tragic stories. (Including: 1. Story of 27 year old: when he was only 17 – during the 2002 siege of Bethlehem – he participated in some of the non-violent protests against the Israeli occupation.  Because of this, one night, an Israeli soldier followed him to his family’s shop, barged into the shop, grabbed him, and slammed him against the wall with his gun pointed at his head, screaming at him for a while.  Then the soldier dropped the gun and left the shop.  2. Story of the 65 year old, a shopkeeper near the younger man’s shop.  When shopkeepers were forced to close their shops during the Israeli siege of Bethlehem in 2002, this man – along with several other shop owners – decided to protest the Israeli occupancy by keeping their shops open.  A soldier busted open his shop, threw a gun to his head, screamed that he would blow his brains out for a while, and then finally dropped his gun – saying he is lucky he is letting him live.  These were only a few of the stories I heard.)

Bethlehem markets

Bethlehem marketplace

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Bethlehem marketplace

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…Was overwhelmed with pain and shock by seeing the separation wall;

Separation Wall in Bethlehem (where Palestinians cannot cross from the West Bank to Israel without a visa)

Separation Wall in Bethlehem (where Palestinians cannot cross from the West Bank to Israel without a visa)

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Our group's tag on the Wall: Outrageous Hope 2012

Our group’s tag on the Wall: Outrageous Hope 2012

…Felt Jesus’ love and presence while praying/crying with my sister Celona in the Garden of Gethsemane, and wondered as I heard Jesus’ voice while on the Mt. of Olives looking over the city of Jerusalem if He continues to weep over it today: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.'”

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Day 6 in Israel/Palestine: visited the Wailing Wall and Holy Sepulcher Church;

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…Heard from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs about issues in occupied territories: terrible oppression of civilians, the illegal settlements, the issues of poor education, lack of jobs, growing numbers of homeless/refugees due to home demolitions, and families that have been split up because of the Separation Wall and restrictions on crossing territories, and found some hope from Israeli peace activist Matan Kaminer in his true bravery and commitment to fighting for justice and peace for/with the Palestinians.

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Palestinian loss of land from 1946-2000 (Palestinian land is in green)

Aida Refugee Camp: a camp (full of poverty and limited space) established in 1950: hosting refugees from 17 demolished Palestinian villages.  They were originally given the promise to return home, but still have not been granted this return.  Currently, there are 4700 residents in 277 housing units.

Aida Refugee Camp: a camp (full of poverty and limited space) established in 1950: hosting refugees from 17 demolished Palestinian villages. They were originally promised the ability to one day return home, but still have not been granted this opportunity to return. Currently, there are 4700 residents in 277 housing units. For more information, click here.

Aida Refugee Camp

Aida Refugee Camp

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…Also ran into my new Palestinian friends at their shops.  The 27 year old – really smart and kind – said after experiencing much violence in Bethlehem much of his life, he received a scholarship from a university in Illinois but couldn’t go because the US embassy in Israel deemed him a terrorist threat because of his sex, age, and ethnicity. However, he said: “After struggling to make a life for myself, I finally opened this shop to be able to support my younger siblings. I don’t care what this shop does for me, but I care to give my siblings a full life.”

As I stood in the upper room in Jerusalem, I imagined how Jesus invites ALL to the table and as I touched the stone of Calvary, I was reminded of how He suffered and died on the cross to conquer death and bring forth new life, peace and justice to the world!

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Day 8 in Israel/Palestine: celebrated Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem Square outside the Church of the Nativity with festivals, music, and amazing Palestinian food;

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Church of the Nativity (There are still visible bullet holes from the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002.)

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…Learned about Palestinian Christianity and Theology of the Land at Bethlehem Bible College; heard more about the Kairos Palestine document at Evangelical Lutheran Church in the infamous and struggling town of Beit Shahour; and ended the evening celebrating Christmas in a huge celebration in the Square with music, dancing, food, and wonderful conversations with the Eritrean refugees.

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…Was saddened to hear their stories of how hard it’s been to live in Tel Aviv – as they have received no aid, lived/slept outside for 2 years, and receive little pay for hard work – and to hear how much they wanted to get to the US to gain a better life.  But I was blessed to see and hear their true kindness and joy as they celebrated the birthday of the One who gives them hope in liberation and justice.

…Can’t think of a more appropriate place to celebrate Christmas today: in the little occupied town of Bethlehem that has never really been seen as lying still, where a poor and oppressed teenage girl could not find room in an inn 2000 years ago, and yet gave birth to the One who would come to preach good news to the poor, recover sight to the blind, free the captives, and liberate the oppressed.

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It is here where I find hope in the birth of that baby in a whole new way and pray: “Oh come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel! And peace to men on earth.”

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Related Articles and Websites:

Israel/Palestine 101 (on jewishvoiceforpeace.org) – an introduction to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

Nakba Fact Sheet (on jewishvoiceforpeace.org) – a fact sheet about what led up to the Palestinian Nakba (or Catastrophe), who are the Palestinian refugees, and the role of the UN.

Encounters with Israeli Soldiers in Hebron (on catholicpeacefellowship.org) – testimonies of encounters with Israeli soldiers by a member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship

The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Christian Peacemakers Team

Kairos Document – written by Palestinian Christians about what is happening in Palestine

Christ and The Checkpoint Conference – hosted by Bethlehem Bible College:  To Challenge Evangelicals To Take Responsibility To Help Resolve the Conflicts in Israel-Palestine By Engaging With the Teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.

A Common Friend to Arabs and Jews – by Lynne Hybels (in Huffington Post)

Breaking the Silence – testimonies of Israeli soldiers of what really goes on in Occupied Territories

“What Do You Expect?” – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

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The sermon I preached at Unity Lutheran Church on Sun., Dec. 15, 2013.

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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It is the beginning of June in the year of 1964… One month before his 46th birthday… After being transferred the past two years while on trial for “sabotage” from one prison to another, he is now back in his tiny, dark cell on the secluded Robben Island with a life sentence for “treason.”

Though we now know that Nelson Mandela’s life sentence was cut “short,” isolation on an island in a small prison cell with only a mat on the floor for a bed, a bucket for a toilet, the allowance of only one visitor a year for 30 minutes, a poor diet, enforced hard labor, and having to continuously face discrimination because of his skin color even within the prison – all for 27 years: cannot seem like a sentence cut “short.”

This man’s faith was extremely important to him.  And the faith that had once led him to confidently and boldly fight for equality and justice for all in South Africa by trying to end the apartheid had now led him to an unbearable sentence in prison.  My guess is that there were many times in that little cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela could relate to John the Baptist in Matthew 11, our Gospel text for today: doubting and questioning who and where Jesus really was.

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This morning we encounter John the Baptist for the second week in a row… Though now, he no longer looks or sounds like the same man we encountered last week: who – with wild-eyes and camel-haired clothes (in Matthew 3:1-12) – so boldly and confidently proclaimed in the wilderness a message of justice for all and called out for repentance from those who were sinners and hypocrites and who claimed they had a special privilege because of their status and heritage while taking advantage of the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the poor.

John the Baptist is now a different man than he was last week – as he sits in his tiny cell: no longer with the assertiveness and the bold voice, but rather with a shaky and doubtful voice, a voice of longing and confusion and of despair.  As he waits out his ultimate life-sentence (one that would not last 27 years, but rather only a little less than one year, and would end with his ultimate execution by beheading) – he wonders if he prepared the way for the true Messiah he and his ancestors had been long-expecting.  And he wonders whether or not what he did and proclaimed in the wilderness was in vain.

But somehow in the midst of his doubt and despair in that secluded prison cell – as he hears about what Jesus is proclaiming and doing – he decides to seek out answers by going to the source directly.  And so out of final desperation, he calls out for his own disciples and tells them to go to Jesus and to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come?  Are you truly the Messiah we have been waiting for for so long?  Or are we to wait for another?”

It may be shocking for us to see such a transformation this week of the one who was preparing the way for Jesus in the world and who – by Jesus, himself, – was said to have arisen greater than all others who were born of women.  And yet, how can we blame John?  How can we blame him for questioning and doubting?  How can we blame him as he sits alone awaiting his execution in his little secluded cell wondering where in the world was this Jesus – the one who came to bring salvation to the world and to conquer death and evil?  Where was this Jesus now?

Don’t we understand where John was coming from?  Isn’t it easy for us, as well, to see, trust, and proclaim who and where Jesus is in our lives when things are going well?  And yet, don’t we know what it is like to start doubting Jesus the minute things start to take a downhill turn and don’t go the way we expected them to go?  …When we unexpectedly loose our job or don’t get into the school we had worked so hard for… when our marriages are failing, our relationships are broken, or we have to watch our children and grandchildren struggle to succeed… when we find out about our terminal illness or our loved one unexpectedly passes away…  In times like these, don’t we – like John – begin to question where Jesus is in our midst and sometimes wonder:  Is he really the one we have been expectantly waiting for?

And don’t we wonder who exactly Jesus is – if he truly is the Messiah who came to conquer death and evil – when we feel like we are living in our own prison cells, held captive by depression, lack of sufficient health care, or our struggle to pay the bills… And don’t we question who Jesus really is when we hear about others who experience captivity in their own “prison cells”: through mass damages and losses due to a typhoon, or the struggles others go through to gain citizenship and in the meantime fear deportation, or through the loss of a child because a young man entered an elementary school and started shooting?

In times like these, don’t we, ourselves, want to call out from our own tiny, dark cells to Jesus, asking: “Are you truly the Messiah, the one who is to come?  Or are we to wait for another?”

For John the Baptist, it is no wonder that he is confused and doubtful about who Jesus is as he sits in his prison cell.  John had come from a tradition that expected a Messiah to come into the world with earthly power, wealth, royalty, and authority.  In the midst of the oppressive Roman Empire, John and his contemporaries expected a Messiah to ultimately conquer death and evil by overthrowing the Empire and immediately establishing a new kingdom of God on earth.  And so we have to understand why John the Baptist was a bit confused and troubled after he had prepared the way for this expected Messiah in the wilderness and he is now sitting alone, locked up in a tiny cell and still has not seen the signs he had expected to see of the kingdom of God.  If Jesus wasn’t the one, was there another to come and conquer death and evil?  Or does this mean that death and evil have won?

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Memorial and Vigil at Sandy Hook Elementary — image courtesy of nation.time.com

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I cannot even comprehend what the families of those victims have and continue to go through.  And yet I imagine that at times, they can relate to John the Baptist – feeling alone and held captive in the darkness of their own prison cells and wondering when and even if light will ever shine in.

A few days ago, I watched a video created by Alissa Parker, the mother of 6 year-old Emilie, one of the victims of the shooting.  In the video, Alissa talks about how sweet, creative, and giving Emilie was.  She loved mornings and making art.  She loved doing projects.  And as the family was working on a project early last December in the house to make a crawl space into a play room for Emilie and her sisters, Emilie came up with the idea of collecting several of her toys, putting them in a box, and giving them to children who didn’t have many toys that year for Christmas.

Alissa explained that this was Emilie’s last project.

After Dec. 14 last year, Alissa could not bear to finish or look at the crawl space.  And she said every time she saw the box of toys Emilie had been collecting, she felt tremendous pain.  She said: “It was hard to imagine a world without that goodness and that selflessness in it.  I was so consumed with how evil could be so powerful and felt that evil had won.”

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This week in Advent, we light the candle of joy.  And yet, in the midst of this dark week in December where we remember this mass shooting – along with all other forms of violence against children in our country, in our own city, and throughout the world – and as we grieve with the world this week over the loss of Nelson Mandela – an incredible leader who fought for peace, equality, and justice, and yet died knowing that there was still so much work yet to be done – it is really difficult to imagine where and how we can find any bit of joy.  Like John the Baptist, we are left with a lot of questions, doubts, and darkness.

And yet, in our text in Matthew 11, Jesus does not allow John to just sit alone in the darkness of his cell and wait for his expected fate without answers.

Rather, Jesus listens to John, and without judgment, he sends him a message of hope.  However, he does not answer in a way John had expected.  Jesus does not say: “Yes John, there is another one to come who will bring about the kingdom of God fully now.” And Jesus does not say: “Yes, I’m the Messiah you expected… and just wait: very soon you will be released from captivity in prison, and you will see the army I will lead in conquering evil and overthrowing the Roman Empire.  Just you wait.”

Instead, Jesus tells his disciples to:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

In other words, John was expecting the wrong things about whom this Messiah was, what this kingdom of God would look like, and how and when it would be brought forth.

…The kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom full of worldly power, authority, and force – like what John had been expecting – and it will not be fully brought forth immediately.  It has begun to enter the world through Jesus Christ, Immanuel: “God with us” in the flesh, and it will continue to be brought forth through John the Baptist and all of Jesus’ disciples who prepare the way in the world for the coming of the Messiah, the one who brings hope, peace, joy and love to this world.

And John will sense the work and the presence of this Messiah in the world when he hears and sees signs of the kingdom of God: when he hears about and sees light being brought into the darkness of the lives of the blind, the deaf, the lepers, and the poor… the last and the least… those who are suffering the most.

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You see, just when we think we know Jesus, our Messiah, and what to expect of him, he surprises us and comes to us in very unexpected ways: coming to us not as a powerful and wealthy worldly king… But as a baby, born of a poor carpenter and a teenage girl, in a dirty barn among filthy animals… bringing us light in the midst of our darkest times and calling each one of us to receive that light and to pass it onto others.

While in his dark prison cell, Nelson Mandela heard and saw these signs of the kingdom of God, and after 27 years, he walked out of prison a changed and transformed man.  Rather than seeking revenge, he chose to work for reconciliation and peace – and this work eventually ended the apartheid and led him to become the first black president of South Africa.

Mandela received light in his darkness and he passed it on, urging others to do the same.  During his inauguration speech in 1994, he quoted Marianne Williamson, saying:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

You see, when we see and receive this light and when we pass it on, we can find hope in knowing that our Messiah is at work and that the kingdom of God is both in our midst and is still yet to come.  And as we hear, see, and share these signs of the kingdom of God, we can and will experience little bits of joy – even in our most dark times.

Though, for a while, Alissa Parker felt like she was held captive in the darkness she experienced after she lost Emilie in the shooting last year, over time she began to hear and see some of these signs of God’s kingdom and was able to find in them some hope, peace, joy and love.  She explains in her video:

“One day the oil truck just showed up.  I never called for our oil tank to be filled.  This kindness given quietly from a family I hardly knew was one of so many.  The letters started to pour in.  And these letters over and over were more accounts of the power of God’s love.  There was an overwhelming response from millions of people: well-wishers, people praying for us, people sending us things. I truly started to feel this obvious strength and power that lifted me… that lifted my family.  It was time to finish what [Emilie] wanted done.”

And so in Emilie’s honor Alissa co-founded a school safety advocacy group, she began connecting children in need with art, she supported a group that provided emergency response medical care in Guatemala, and she and her husband finished the project of making the crawl space into a play room for their other daughters.  Alissa continues:

“People ask: but where was your God when this happened?  Why didn’t he stop it?  God allowed others to kill his Son.  He allows for us all to make our own choices – good and bad – because that’s the only way good can be in us: if we freely choose it over all else. Evil did not win that day.  We will carry on that love like she had.  It’s quiet, it’s not on the news.  It takes an effort to find it.  But what I’ve realized through all this is how strong and how big God’s love really is.”

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Twenty-six candles lit by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in remembrance of Newtown. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

This Advent, as we continue to expectantly wait for the coming of Jesus – the meek King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, Immanuel: “God with us” in the flesh – let us remember this message of hope, peace, joy, and love proclaimed by Alissa Parker, Nelson Mandela, and John the Baptist, himself.  As we continue to feel doubt and despair in the midst of our own dark prison cells, may we call out to Jesus, keeping our ears and our eyes open to hear and see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst.  And when we do see and hear these signs, may we receive the light of our Messiah and accept the little bits of joy that come with that light.  And as we experience that joy and are transformed by it, may we also let our own lights shine – as children do – so that others in the darkness may know and experience that Jesus Christ truly is our Messiah, the one who was and who is to come.

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Related Articles:

Street Violence and Holy Darkness (on messyjesusbusiness.com)

Joy in the Advent World of Ours (on andthebearersstoodstill.com)

In Which Heaven Breaks Through (on sarahbessey.com)

Advent Activities for Families at Home and Youth and Children’s Ministries

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It is Advent: the time of year where we are called to expectantly wait and prepare for the coming of the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love!  So how do we expectantly wait and prepare for this coming of Jesus Christ?  I thought I’d share some Advent activities for my fellow youth/children’s ministers and for other singles, couples, and families with children and youth.

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ADVENT IDEAS FOR SINGLES, COUPLES, AND FAMILIES AT HOME

Advent is an intrusion upon our crazy lives this month.  And yet, it is a season that calls us to wait in expectation and prepare for the coming of the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love and light in the darkness of this world.  In the midst of the December chaos full of parties, decorating, hosting family or traveling, and Christmas shopping – take some time as individuals and as a family to remember the reason for the season.

Some ways to expectantly wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus (both as a baby boy 2000 years ago and who will one day return) are: individual reflection and time with God, reflecting on Advent as a family through rituals and discussions, taking time to do random acts of kindness for those around us, sharing what we do have with others who have less or are in need (time, food, clothing, resources, gifts), giving gifts this year that matter and help others in need.  I am echoing my last post by providing several resources for each category below (as well as adding a few new resources):

ADVENT RESOURCES:

1. Individual practices and devotionals.  Some of my favorites are:

D365 devotional (There is a free app for this.)

3 Minute Retreat (There is a $1 app for this.)

Presbyterian Daily Readings

Daily Readings with the Irish Jesuits (scroll down and click on Advent Retreat)

Advent Breath Prayer (breadnotstones.com)

2. Devotionals and rituals for Advent to do as a family:

Why Wait? (Adult/Couple, Young Family) – Advent is about more than just doing nothing.

Advent Chain (Young Adult) – a creative way to pray for friends and family.

Advent: A Time of Waiting (Teen Family) – as a family, talk about how to wait well.

Countdown to Christmas (Young Family) – read a scripture a day during Advent.

Decorate Family Advent Candles (Young Family) – create Advent hope, peace, love, and joy!

Saint Nicholas (Just for Kids) – here the story of the real Saint Nick.

Christmas Myths Busted (Teen Family) – activity to talk as family about Christmas myths

Taking the Advent Story Home (For everyone!) – a terrific daily devotional.

Advent Devotional Guide: Preparing for the Coming of Christ (For everyone!) – lighting candles at home (by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts)

Printable Advent Calendar (For kids, families, and everyone!) – with daily reflections/questions (By Loyola Press)

Calendario de adviento para ninos (Para las familias con ninos) – (Loyola Press)

 3. Doing Random acts of kindness:

Value of All People: (Young Families)-  Activity to do together to help kids understand value of all people

Random Acts of Kindness Resources: (For everyone!) website with all sorts of ideas

4. Sharing what we have with others (our time, gifts, compassion, and money) through volunteering in the community.  There are great opportunities in your community where you can volunteer and serve as a family (such as homeless shelters, women and children shelters, community or soup kitchens, etc.): *You and your family will often be surprised at how much you receive from those you planned on “serving.”

Volunteer Match: website that can help locate agencies in your area in need of volunteers

Spread the Christmas Cheer: (Families with children or anyone!) – activity for spreading Christmas cheer to others through music

 Christmas Giving For Children in Need: (Family activity)

If you live on the north side of Chicago, some great places to volunteer at are:

Care for Real (Edgewater’s only food and clothing pantry) – hand out food or help sort winter coats and clothes

A Just Harvest Community Kitchen (community kitchen that serves meals every day in Rogers Park) – serve a meal

Bethany Retirement Community or Breakers at the Edgewater Beach Assisted Living  – Sing Christmas carols to residents

Sarah’s Circle (women’s shelter in Uptown) – there are many different ways to volunteer

The Night Ministry – serve meals to people on the street (multiple locations)

5. Buy gifts this year that matter and help others in need.  (Here is a list of several fair trade organizations.)

31 Bits – fair trade jewelry and bags from Uganda

Bead For Life – fair trade beads from Uganda

Mata Traders – fair trade jewelry, clothes, and home decor from India

B. Salsa Handcraft – fair trade Palestinian olive wood

Sindyanna of Galilee – fair trade Palestinian olive oil, soaps, and spices

World Vision – purchase livestock for a child in need

*For more options, check out this post on Sarah Bessey’s blog.

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YOUTH MINISTRY ADVENT IDEAS

This week, both of my youth groups gathered to discuss what advent is and to make some space for God and time for waiting and preparing.  They were both wonderful nights!  Feel free to take these ideas and use them in your youth or children’s ministries or even in your home activities.

OPENING:

– Ask youth what season we entered this past Sunday, Dec. 1. (Advent)  Ask the youth if they know anything about Advent (what it means, what we do during Advent, etc.)

– Tell the youth we are going to do an Advent Trivia Game. Tell them that it is okay if they don’t know the answers to the trivia.  This is a learning game.  (The trivia questions were written by Deanna Mascle.)

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ADVENT RUNAROUND TRIVIA GAME: 

Gather in the gym and designate a zone in each corner of the gym (zone A, B, C and D.) Line the youth up in the center of the gym when asking a question.   Tell the youth that you will ask several questions and each question will have four possible answers (A, B, C, or D.)  Explain that after each question, they should run to the zone of the answer they think is correct.  When they arrive at their zone, tell them the correct letter answer and gather them back in the center of gym.  Once they gather back to the center line, explain the rest of the answer to the question (TOPICS).  (Further explanations are included below the letter answer.)

 1. What is Advent?

A. Preparation B. Celebration C. Mourning D. Darkness

 A. Preparation

TOPICS: In the Christian church, Advent is the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

2. What feast marks the beginning of the Advent period?

A. Feast of John the Baptist B. Feast of St. Andrew C. Feast of St. Matthew D. Feast of Thanksgiving

 B. Feast of St. Andrew

TOPICS: Advent is a period beginning with the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) which does coincide pretty closely with Thanksgiving many years. In the 5th Century, Advent began on 11 November (St Martin’s Day) and took the form of a six week fast leading to Christmas. During the 6th century, Advent was reduced to its current length and later the fasting was dropped.

3. How many Sundays are included in the traditional Advent celebration?

A. 1 B. 2 C. 3 D. 4

 D. 4

TOPICS: The first Sunday may be as early as November 27th, and then Advent has twenty-eight days, or as late as December 3rd, giving the season only twenty-one days.

4. What shape is the Advent wreath?

A. Square B. Triangle C. Circle D. Rectangle

 C. Circle

TOPICS: The circle of the wreath reminds Christians of God, His eternity and endless mercy, which has no beginning or end.

5. What colors are the candles in the Advent wreath?

A. Purple B. Pink C. White D. Purple, pink and white

 D. Purple, pink and white

TOPICS: Traditionally three of the candles are purple, the color of kings and of penance. A rose-colored candle is used to mark the Third Sunday of Advent as a time to rejoice over the closeness of Christmas and the coming of Christ. In the center of the circle is a fifth candle (traditionally white) which is lit on Christmas Day. Candles symbolise the light of God coming into the world through the birth of His son, Jesus.

6. What color is the Advent wreath?

A. Gold B. Silver C. White D. Green

 D. Green

TOPICS: The green of the wreath speaks of the hope that Christians have in God, the hope of newness, of renewal, of eternal life.

7. Why was purple chosen as an Advent candle color?

A. Represents the common people B. Represents royalty C. Represents peace D. Represents war

B. Represents royalty

TOPICS: Purple dyes were once so rare and costly that they were associated with royalty; the Church has long used this color around Christmas and Easter to honor Jesus.

* I added the question here: Why do we use a “royal” color to honor Jesus? (Explain: Jesus is referred to as our King.  The people of God in Biblical times expected that a Messiah would come to save the world… But they believed that this Messiah would come in the form of a worldly king: with a lot of worldly wealth and power.  But instead, Jesus – our Messiah – came in the very humble form of a baby boy, born of a poor carpenter and a teenage girl, in a manger, among dirty animals. And he proclaimed a message that was unlike the message of the worldly kings: rather than continuing a message of oppression and taking advantage of the poor and the marginalized, he proclaimed good news to the poor and taught a message to love all – including those on the margins.  And we proclaim that Jesus is our TRUE king: the King of all Kings, the Lord of all Lords – who didn’t bring about a kingdom of inequality and oppression as the worldly kings did, but rather one of equality, love, and justice for all.)

8. Two of the five Advent candles are different than the others. What does the rose or pink candle signify?

A. Joy B. Birth C. Angels D. Prophecy

A. Joy

TOPICS: The third week of Advent is marked by the Shepherds’ Candle or Joy Candle. The shepherds represent the message of great joy that is brought to the world about Jesus’ birth.

9. Three of the Advent candles are the same color. Which is NOT represented by one of these candles?

A. Christ B. Hope C. Peace D. Love

 A. Christ

TOPICS: The three purple candles in the Advent wreath symbolise hope, peace, and love. These candles are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The first candle is called either the Hope Candle or the Prophecy Candle. The second candle is the Bethlehem Candle or Peace candle represents the preparations made for the coming Christ child. The fourth candle is the Angel Candle or Love Candle which represents the love which God shared with the world when He sent His Son, Jesus.

10. The candle in the center of the Advent wreath is called what?

A. The Star Candle B. The Bethlehem Candle C. The Stable Candle D. The Christ Candle

D. The Christ Candle

TOPICS: In the centre of the circle is a fifth candle (traditionally white), the Christ Candle, which is lit on Christmas Day.

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DISCUSSION:

Follow up with the youth on any other important topics or issues regarding Advent that you touched on in the game.

Discuss what Advent means and calls us to do:

ASK: What happens when we light one more candle each week and why is this significant?  (EXPLAIN: In the darkness, the lighting of the candles brings more and more light until we get to Christ’s birth.  This lighting of the candles reminds us that in the midst of the darkness in our world (times of suffering and pain), Jesus brings us light, hope, peace, joy, and love.)

EXPLAIN:  Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which means “coming.”  It is the time of year when we wait for the coming of Jesus (both as a baby 2000 years ago) and … when? ASK: youth to finish this proclamation that is spoken in our Eucharist liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will…” (come again.) EXPLAIN: Christ came in the form of a baby boy 2000 years ago and will one day return again to bring about God’s Kingdom fully – where we will no longer experience pain and suffering.  So we are here waiting for that time.  And this Advent season calls us to wait for this coming of Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago when he first brought light to this world AND for his return.  But we don’t wait by sitting around idly twiddling our thumbs.  We wait in expectation and through preparation because just as Jesus brings us light in our darkness – just as Jesus is the light of the world – as followers of Jesus, we are called to be the light of the world and to bring light to others who are experiencing darkness by sharing God’s love.

EXPLAIN: Now it is often difficult to prepare for the coming of Jesus during this Advent season.  ASK: Why do you think?  What goes on during this month? (Christmas shopping, parties, concerts, lots of things to do that distract us from the real reason for the season.)  Discuss the irony and implications of Black Friday that occurs the day after Thanksgiving.

APPLICATION: Challenge the youth to make space for God and time to prepare for the coming of Jesus this Advent season.

– SHARE: Share some ideas of how they can give up a few additional activities in their lives that distract them from spending time with God.  Share some ideas and practices they can take on this Advent season that help them prepare for the coming of Jesus.  (Personal devotions, family devotions, random acts of kindness, volunteering to help others, etc. *See some of the ideas I list below in the section under: “ADVENT IDEAS FOR SINGLES, COUPLES, AND FAMILIES AT HOME.”)

– REFLECT: Give the youth a slip of paper and ask them to write one or two things they can give up to make space for God and one or two practices they can take on this season to prepare for Christ’s coming.

RESPONSE: 

End the evening by allowing your youth to spend some time with God, preparing for Christ’s coming.  Go to a small chapel or quite room, play some Gregorian Chant music, and ask them to (quietly) go to all or any of the advent prayer stations you have set up in advance.  (See stations I used below for suggestions.)

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ADVENT PRAYER STATIONS

(I took these and developed them a little from rethinkingyouthministry.com.)

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ECT Youth Group

(Provide at each station: the materials needed and one or two instruction sheets for that station.  Ask the youth not to all be at the same station at the same time.  The stations do not need to be visited in this particular order.)

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Station 1: Where am “I” In the Nativity?

Advent is the time we are waiting for the coming of Jesus.  Think about which character in the Christmas story you identify with most at this point in your life: the expectant mom, the worried father, the scruffy shepherds, the travelling magi, the angels coming to bring good news, the animals wondering at the spectacle happening in their stable?

Take a paper doll cutout and draw your likeness or name on one of the dolls and place it in the nativity scene as a way of symbolically entering the mystery of this story for the rest of the Advent season.

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ECT Youth Group

Station 2: Letting Go of Distractions

Advent is a time of year where we wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus.  In doing so, we take some time to get rid of distractions so we can make more space for God in our lives.

Take one or a few pieces of paper and write or draw the distractions in your life right now that are keeping you from focusing on your faith. (These distractions might include worries, stress related to school or family, relationship issues, or the everyday things like TV, video games, and the like.)

Place your lists of distractions in the gift bag as a reminder that Jesus is a gift to us who carries our burdens for us.  Placing your distractions in the bag also is a gesture of letting go of some of those distractions during Advent so that you can focus on God.  When you place it in the bag, think about how you are taking the gift of Jesus and letting go of your distractions to him.

 ImageStation 3: Paper chain Prayers

During Advent, we are called to pray for others who are in need, and we are reminded that we are not alone when we suffer or struggle… We are joined together by so many others around us who care and who pray, and our prayers are connected to the prayers of others.

Take one or a few of the paper strips and write down the names of people, places, or causes you would like to lift up in prayer.  (for example: organizations or issues of hunger, poverty, people in the Philippines, victims of war and other violence, abuse victims, persons in your life who are struggling or ill, etc.) Connect your strips as loops to the paper chain as a way of connecting your prayers together with those of the rest of our community.

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Station 4: Shepherd

As we wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus this advent season, we are reminded of the many times we here about shepherds in our Bible.

In the Gospel of Luke in the Bible, the angels appeared to the shepherds.

The 23rd Psalm in the Old Testament reads: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Jesus is described as a shepherd to his flock many times in the Bible.

As we prepare again for the birth of the shepherd who comes to lead us closer to God, consider who the shepherds are in your life. Who has helped you know and experience God’s love and compassion?   Take pieces of paper and write names of people who have been shepherds in your life, leading you to safe places or bringing you comfort.   Tape these names on the wall as a prayer of thanks for these individuals.

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Station 5:  Waiting

 Advent is a season where we wait for the coming of Jesus (who came as a baby boy 2000 years ago and who will one day come again to bring us to a place where we will no longer shed tears or experience pain.)  So we wait now both as we prepare for Jesus’ coming as a baby and for the day he will one day return.  However, this waiting period means that we wait expectantly and actively by sharing God’s love and light to the world and working for justice and peace in the world.  (We don’t just sit around doing nothing.)

Answer the following questions on the brown butcher paper: (Write it under each question in marker)

1. What are you waiting for this advent?  (What is it that you hope to see or need to see in your life or other’s lives?  Examples: healing relationships, a closer relationship with God, something to do with school or college applications, less violence in your neighborhood, kids to be included in school, etc.)

2. What do you think God is waiting for this Advent season?  (What is it God is waiting for you to do, for others to do?  Is it peace in the world, more people sharing and loving others, less focus on materialism and buying things and more focus on loving others?  Is God waiting for you to reach out to someone in need or for you to spend more time with God?) 

North Shore Baptist Youth Group

North Shore Baptist Youth Group

 

ECT Youth Group

ECT Youth Group

Station 6: Light in the Darkness: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love

During advent, we are reminded that Jesus brings us hope, peace, joy, and love.  Each Sunday in Advent we focus on one of these theme words as a reminder of the gifts Christ will bring to the world.  And each week, as we light one more candle, we are reminded of how Jesus brings us light in the midst of our darkness.

Take a few minutes to think about this.  Think about how you or others you know are currently experiencing darkness in your life or in their lives.  (A loss of a loved one, an illness, depression, a natural disaster, loss of a job, struggle to pay bills, a relationship that has been unhealthy or broken, etc.)

Now think about what you need most in your life from Jesus and how he can shed light in your darkness…

Which element(s) that Jesus brings do you need right now? Hope, Peace, Joy, Love?

Which element(s) do you feel you are most called by God to share with others in their lives right now?

Now light a candle as a reminder that Jesus brings light to your darkness and think about how Jesus calls YOU to be the light of the world.

North Shore Baptist Youth Group

   North Shore Baptist Youth Group

 

Station 7: Letters to God

Think back to the time when you were younger and wrote letters to Santa.  What did you ask for?

Now take this time to write a letter to God, sharing your hopes and fears, your joys and your sorrows.  When you finish, you can fold up the letter and put it at the foot of the cross.  When you do so, think about how you are giving up that letter as a prayer to God.

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For more reflections on Advent, see click here for my last post: Advent 1: What To Expect When You Are Expecting.

Related Articles:

2010 Advent Ideas for Youth Ministry #2: Prayer Stations: (rethinkingyouthministry.com)

Advent Ideas for Families: (hemustbecomegreater.wordpress.com)

Interactive Prayer Stations for Installations, Ordinations, & Avent: (Still Waters: http://theresaecho.com)

2013 Advent Home Worship (gbod.org)

Preparing For Advent: (practicingfamilies.com)

 

Advent 1: “What to Expect When You are Expecting”

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“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Matthew 24:44 (from our Gospel lesson this week)

Yesterday, I had the most wonderful opportunity to visit one of my best friends (someone I’ve known since preschool) and meet her 3-day-old baby boy.  I’ve never given birth to a child, so I can readily admit that I’m not even close to an expert on the subject.  However, I do have numerous children and babies in my life, and in watching their amazing parents: I can assuredly say that the time parents have as they wait for the birth of their baby does not come and pass without a lot of preparation and expectation.

From going to numerous doctor’s appointments – to purchasing clothing and other items for the child – to setting up and decorating the baby’s room – to reading all sorts of books on giving birth and parenting: all of the parents I know spent a lot of time preparing for the day when they would meet and welcome their baby for the first time and continue to care for their child for the many days and years to follow.  And though sometimes this preparation time may seem a bit overwhelming and requires the soon-to-be-parents to take a few steps back from some of their daily activities that were once a part of their lives, many of these parents have expressed how thankful they were that they took the time to prepare.

(Emily Heitzman)

(Emily Heitzman)

This Sunday, we entered the season of Advent: a time in the church calendar that calls us to wait in expectation for a very special birth… the birth of Jesus Christ… Emmanuel… “God with us…”  who came to us in the flesh as a baby boy 2000 years ago and who will one day return to us again.

This season often appears to be overwhelming to us and may even feel at times to be an intrusion in our important lives and busy schedules…  Our calendars are already full of Christmas parties, Holiday concerts, tree decorating, shopping for gifts, preparing the home to host guests, getting ready to travel and visit our relatives… and the list goes on.  So we cannot even imagine adding one more thing to our “to-do” lists.

And yet here – in the midst of our most busy month of the year – we are invaded by the season of Advent and called to take a step back from the chaos, take a few deep breaths, and wait for the coming of the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love and who brings light to the darkness in this world.

Photo taken in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Emily Heitzman)

Photo taken in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Emily Heitzman)

And yet, just as any soon-to-be parent does not just wait for the coming of her child by sitting around idly twiddling her thumbs, we are not called to wait for the coming of Christ in this idle way, either.  Rather, we are called to wait in expectation… and to do so with a lot of preparation.

We, too, should schedule regular “check-ups” for our bodies to ensure that they are properly being taken care of: that they are getting enough rest and experiencing Sabbath from the business of our worldly activities – so that our bodies can truly be temples that host and are transformed by the Holy Spirit.  We, too, should set up and prepare a room in our homes and our lives for this Jesus – who not only brings us the gifts of love and grace, but who also calls us to follow him and share and emulate that love and grace to others.  And we, too, should pick up our own “What to Expect While You’re Expecting… [the birth of Jesus]” books and practices and take time to reflect on what this birth of Jesus actually means for us… what it means for God to be with us in the flesh… and how the gift of this birth did not only impact the world 2000 years ago, but continues to touch and transform our lives today.

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As we make room in our lives for God, we can prepare in expectation for the coming of Jesus by stepping back from a few of our busy daily activities and taking on a few new practices:

1. Individual practices and devotionals.  Some of my favorites are:

D365 devotional (There is a free app for this.)

3 Minute Retreat (There is a $1 app for this.)

Presbyterian Daily Readings

Daily Readings with the Irish Jesuits (scroll down and click on Advent Retreat)

2. Devotionals and rituals for Advent to do as a family:

Why Wait? (Adult/Couple, Young Family) – Advent is about more than just doing nothing.

Advent Chain (Young Adult) – a creative way to pray for friends and family.

Advent: A Time of Waiting (Teen Family) – as a family, talk about how to wait well.

Countdown to Christmas (Young Family) – read a scripture a day during Advent.

Decorate Family Advent Candles (Young Family) – create Advent hope, peace, love, and joy!

Saint Nicholas (Just for Kids) – here the story of the real Saint Nick.

Taking the Advent Story Home (For everyone!) – a terrific daily devotional.

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And we can expectantly prepare for the coming of Jesus by responding to the grace and love he brings us. As we light one more Advent candle each week this month and experience the ever-growing light that comes from Christ in the midst of our darkness… let us not just receive and accept this light, but – as our Isaiah text from this week urges us – let us rather, “walk in the light of the Lord.”

Photo taken in downtown Bethlehem on Jan. 6: Celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (Emily Heitzman

Photo taken in downtown Bethlehem on Jan. 6: Celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (Emily Heitzman)

…Let us walk in this light of Christ and pass it on through little acts of love to others – whether by giving our waitress or our postal worker a little extra tip this year, or by starting a conversation with the person we sit next to on the train, or by giving a grocery store gift card to a person who is shaking a cup on the side of the street.

…Let us walk in the light of Christ with our family members by volunteering together at a local food pantry, community or soup kitchen, or homeless shelter.  (And as we do so, we may be surprised at how much we will experience and receive the light of Christ through those we thought we had gone to “serve.”)

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If you live on the north side of Chicago, some great places to volunteer at are:

  1. Care for Real (Edgewater’s only food and clothing pantry) – hand out food or help sort winter coats and clothes
  2. A Just Harvest Community Kitchen (community kitchen that serves meals every day in Rogers Park) – serve a meal
  3. Bethany Retirement Community or Breakers at the Edgewater Beach Assisted Living  – Sing Christmas carols to residents
  4. Sarah’s Circle (women’s shelter in Uptown) – there are many different ways to volunteer
  5. The Night Ministry – serve meals to people on the street (multiple locations)

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…And let us walk in the light of Christ by giving Christmas gifts that have meaning this year.  I’ll echo my last post that offered up a few suggestions of fair trade organizations.

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31 Bits – fair trade jewelry and bags from Uganda

Bead For Life – fair trade beads from Uganda

Mata Traders – fair trade jewelry, clothes, and home decor from India

B. Salsa Handcraft – fair trade Palestinian olive wood

Sindyanna of Galilee – fair trade Palestinian olive oil, soaps, and spices

World Vision – purchase livestock for a child in need

*For more options, check out this post on Sarah Bessey’s blog.

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Whatever we decide to do this Advent, let us allow this season to intrude upon our lives.  Let us step back from some of the extra daily activities that get in the way of focusing on the reason for the season and instead make some space and room to prepare in great expectation for the coming of Jesus Christ.  For, as Paul wrote to the Romans (in our epistle lesson this week) “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

(Video taken at 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering with 34,000 youth attendees from around the country.  Speaking is Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee: “If you tap into your light, this is how the world will be.”)

Thoughts On Thanksgiving, Advent, and the Infamous Black Friday

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“Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good.  God’s love endures forever!” – Psalm 136:1

It is the Monday of Thanksgiving week, and my Gmail inbox is already full of promotional emails about the “best Black Friday” deals… “Deals” that will “prepare” us for Christmas and will “please everyone on our lists this year.”  … We better make sure to get up extra early this Friday (or even – in many cases – cut Thanksgiving dinner short this Thursday) so we can rush off to the stores and be the first ones in line to snatch up the “top items” on our list… And while we are at it, we might want to bring along a broom or an umbrella that we can use as a weapon against anyone who might get in our way…

Oh, the irony…

It is ironic that this “Black Friday” frenzy comes the day after (or even the evening of) the one day of the year that is set aside for one of the wealthiest countries in the world to “give thanks” for what we already have.

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It is ironic that this “Black Friday” frenzy comes right before the season of Advent in the church calendar… the season where we are called to simplify our lives so we can make just a little more room for God – in the midst of our materialistic and busy schedules – as we wait and prepare for the coming of the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love.

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It is ironic that this “Black Friday” frenzy is supposed to help us “get ready” for Christmas: the day in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus – the One who came to this world 2000 years ago in the most humble scene: in the flesh – as a baby boy, in a filthy manger, among dirty animals, and to a poor unwed carpenter and a teenage girl… the One who came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.

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The true meaning of this season of hope, peace, joy, and love – where we should be giving thanks to God for all that we have and for all that God has done and continues to do for us – may very well be on its death bed, just waiting to be given some TLC and a little bit of medicine.

“Look around, and you can see evidence that gratitude is being replaced by good deals. Family meals are losing their competition with shopping sprees. The gifts of life and health are taken for granted as we concentrate on shiny and expensive material gifts. And since we have so many struggles at work and at home these days, we often look for the cheap high that comes from buying something nice for ourselves. It’s called “retail therapy.”  – Henry Brinton

While the seasons of Thanksgiving and Advent are often being suffocated by our schedules that are full of parties and activities and our mass-consumerist hysteria, I still catch glimpses of the true meaning of the seasons in the people around me.

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I catch these glimpses in the children I work with at church who find joy and express gratitude in the little things – even though the majority of them will not likely receive the stores’ “top items” for Christmas.

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 I catch these glimpses in my church youth who volunteer on their day off from school at Care For Real, Edgewater’s community food pantry, and who eagerly ask at the end of our shift when we get to come back to volunteer again.

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I catch these glimpses in the clients who visit Care for Real with huge smiles on their faces and who express so much gratitude – even for the limited and often expired food items that are available that day.

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And just yesterday afternoon, I caught glimpses of the true meaning of the seasons as I gathered with hundreds of my neighbors in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago for the annual ECRA (Edgewater Community Religious Association) Interfaith Thanksgiving Service… Where community members – young and old, Catholic and Baptist, Jewish and Muslim – came together as a unified community to share prayers, songs, and reflections – whether they were sung or spoken in English, Sgaw Karen, or Arabic – and to give thanks for what we have.  As Pastor Barb Cathey from Edgewater Presbyterian Church stated in her reflection: we all have the opportunity to come together each year at this service with our own unique ingredients to make up a wonderful stone soup!

“In time, a crowd gathered with everyone offering their own favorite ingredient: mushrooms, onions, salt, black pepper, acorn, squash. Everyone wanted to be part of the creation. Finally, the traveler removed the stone and declared, “The stone soup is ready!” And the whole community joined in a feast where there was none before.” – excerpt from an adaptation of Stone Soup.

These are the signs of gratitude, hope, peace, joy, and love… For these, I am truly thankful.

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Photo taken inside Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem, Palestine. (Emily Heitzman)

I love how honest, passionate, and down-and-dirty Shane Claiborne gets on this topic.  In an article he wrote in 2008 encouraging others to rekindle the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas by being “Advent Activi[sts] against the Demon Mammon” and turning “Black Friday” into a “Buy Nothing Day,” he explains:

“I love the story of one pastor who got fed up with all the decorations and clutter. He began to see that we are in danger of losing the very “reason for the season,” Jesus –- the Jesus that was born in the middle of Herod’s bloody genocide, the Jesus who was born a refugee with no room in the inn, the Jesus who knew suffering from the cradle to the cross. This pastor went through the sanctuary the night before the big Christmas service and spread out manure all over the floor -– nasty, stinky piles of turd. As folks came in the next day in their best attire, he preached … and did he ever. He preached about how the original story was not about malls and decorations. He preached about a story that was not pretty. He preached about a God who enters the s**t of this world and redeems all that is ugly and broken. It is a story they will never forget. It is the story of our faith.”

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Photo taken in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine (Emily Heitzman)

So this Thanksgiving, as we near the season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Jesus – let us not be tempted by the “demons” of mammon and consumerism, but rather: let us be thankful for what we have, be thoughtful and prayerful for those who have less, and be blessed by the many glimpses we see in the people around us who exemplify the true meaning of the seasons.

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Instead of participating in Black Friday and purchasing many of the “top items” for Christmas this year for people who already have so much, think about giving gifts to your loved ones that have meaning: buying fair trade items or livestock for families in need. 

31 Bits – fair trade jewelry and bags from Uganda

Bead For Life – fair trade beads from Uganda

Mata Traders – fair trade jewelry, clothes, and home decor from India

B. Salsa Handcraft – fair trade Palestinian olive wood

Sindyanna of Galilee – fair trade Palestinian olive oil, soaps, and spices

World Vision – purchase livestock for a child in need