loving all our neighbors.

About six weeks ago in my psychology & culture class, we were assigned our groups for a project that we would be doing which focused on topics relating to social justice. For this project, each group would need to partner up with an organization either in our local community or on our university’s campus, in order to fulfill the project’s goal of helping spread awareness & education on these various topics.

My group of six partnered with our university’s Muslim Student Association, and the topic we chose to focus in on was religion, specifically, religious minorities and the stereotypes & misconceptions associated with Islam. Through out the course of this project, we attended meetings, as well as a couple of events during Islam Awareness Week, which occurred this past Tuesday through Friday. The events my group attended included a hijab workshop, as well as a talk given by a professor about the Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Yesterday, my group visited a local mosque to attend & observe a service consisting of prayer and a sermon, or, “Khutbah,”  followed by a Q&A.

This psych & culture class in and of itself has opened my eyes so wide & taken me out of my comfort zone all semester in ways I never expected a class to, and yesterday was no exception. As much as I would love to sit here and write that my decision to go to this mosque was one that I came to easily, that would be a lie. I wrestled a lot with my decision to go or not to go, mainly because, honestly, it made me uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a headscarf, feeling as though doing so would be conforming to an aspect of a religion I don’t personally believe in. I was uncomfortable with the idea of going & being in a house of worship that I was so unfamiliar with. I was uncomfortable getting so up close & personal with a religion that I don’t practice & know so little about. These thoughts and feelings made me feel like a horrible person, but I’m not going to invalidate those thoughts & feelings or leave them out of this post, because it was all part of the process of me deciding to go. Though I understood all along that wearing the headscarf would be out of respect for their faith & that I would never even begin to think to be a guest in somebody else’s house of worship only to be disrespectful by not wearing the appropriate attire, and I knew that going wouldn’t somehow make me stop believing in Jesus or make Jesus mad at me. etc, the idea of going to a mosque simply just made me a little nervous. My initial thought was “I’m Christian – why would I go?” And that very question was the one I wrestled with the most, along with “why wouldn’t I go?” Something in me would not let me just say no or yes without first wrestling with the possibility of both. And so, I prayed, I talked with a couple friends, & I reached out to a pastor of mine. Because going would be pretty far out of my comfort zone, something I had on repeat in my head was a saying he told me, which was to, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Welp, that was exactly what I did yesterday. And honestly? There was not one ounce of comfort involved, so, aI simply chose to bask in the discomfort, and I am glad I did.

While my anxiety was vicious & I wish I could say I felt peace which surpassed my understanding as my pastor graciously prayed for me to have, I didn’t feel much peace, but that’s okay, and the reason I think that’s okay is because I realized, the whole time I was waiting to feel peace and comfort about going or not going, I was neglecting to remember that that is not at all what the Christian walk is about. It’s not comfortable. In fact it is seldom comfortable. I look down everyday and I see this bracelet that has not left my wrist since making it back in January, and its purpose is literally to remind me to ask God to take me and use me, whether it’s comfortable or not. Therefore, I have no business getting upset when he does just that. I’m allowed to be scared, but I need to try to do it scared. And so, I did.

 

cubablogg

I kept my nerves and my hesitancy to myself around my group members, but before we got out of the car upon arriving at the mosque, one of them expressed to me that he himself was nervous, in which I simply replied, “same” (while I, of course, was internally jumping for joy at the fact that someone else was feeling what I was feeling).

We walked into the mosque together as a group and were warmly welcomed and told how their Friday services usually go. We then placed our shoes on the shelf and entered the room where the prayer & sermon would take place. Upon entering that room, the women were directed to the back right of the room, behind a tall curtain, and the men were directed to the front of the room. We, the women, were then given headscarves to put on, and those of us not participating in the prayer were asked to sit towards the corner, so as not to get in the way as they carried out their prayer(s).

Was I comfortable? No. But I went & stayed through the service, through that not so fun feeling of discomfort, and left the mosque feeling glad to have gone, and eager to process it.

See up until an hour or two before we left for the mosque, I still was not sure I wanted to go, so, it goes without saying that I definitely wished that I had had somebody there to tell me Ashley, just go or Ashley, just don’t go, but I’m smart enough to know that none of my friends or mentors are dumb enough to tell me that & make it that easy for me, no matter how much I want them to. However, I think God did nudge me a little to go, through one of my group members. Our group met up before the service to go over our PowerPoint presentation for Monday, and during our meeting, we got to talking about the religions that we each individually belong to. After talking about that for a bit, one of my group members looked at me and said, “You are the only open minded Christian I have ever met.”

I thought to myself, “Alright God, I see you.” Also, “No pressure or anything.”

By this group members words, I was reminded of my call as a Christian, let alone as a future pastor, to be a witness for Jesus and who he is. I can’t effectively do that if I am around people who are similar to me all the time. I can’t do that if I reject people who belong to various different religions and I cannot love all my neighbors if I dismiss a select few of them for what they believe or don’t believe. If God put me in this group in which I am the only Christian, and in this class in which I am 1 of 2 Christians, that’s an opportunity to be a witness for Jesus by being like Jesus and showering them with the love of God — not an opportunity to add to the hypocrisy or hate or close mindedness that they have already experienced enough of from Christians. I know full well that I am no perfect embodiment of what a Christian is supposed to be like & I probably makes God roll his eyes at least 5 times a day, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t strive to imitate Jesus around everyone I encounter, but especially in the presence of people who have lost hope that such a Christian exists. I took this group members comment seriously, even knowing that I am not as open-minded as I should be or as I want to be someday. I also took it as a reminder of my responsibility to imitate Jesus more than I try to imitate a religious person who shoves a set of rules down people’s throats to follow.

So yesterday, I went, & I went for a lot of different reasons. I went to educate myself, to see with my own eyes how those of Islamic faith worship. I went in hopes of maybe helping to eradicate this belief that all Christian’s are intolerant of hearing beliefs different from their own. I went to face my feeling of discomfort for the sake of growing & having my mind opened. I went to show as much kindness as I could to those there, whether they worshiped Allah, Jesus, or no god at all.

I am not going to sit here and try to act as though my faith is really not all that different from that of my Muslim brothers & sisters, and I do not know everything there is to know about their faith, or my own faith for that matter, but I do know that my faith teaches me to love my neighbors – that means my Muslim neighbors, my atheist neighbors, my Christian neighbors, my neighbors of all races, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic status’. If I can get just one thing right in my walk with Christ, I pray that it would be that – loving other people unconditionally just as Christ himself did.

I am finding that the more I learn, the more questions I have. And I like to think that’s a good thing. I’m so lucky as to have people in my life who are willing to either answer those questions that I have, or simply wrestle through them with me, and I really urge you reading this today to find people in your life who can do the same for you, because it’s really nice to know you’re not alone in the confusions, frustrations, and questions you have.

I could definitely write more about this experience, but I am still processing my visit and am still processing this project and class as a whole, so that is all of the writing I’ll leave you with (for now). My hope & my prayer would be that as a society & as a world that consists of different cultures, individuals, and religions with similarities and with differences, that we would be able to reach a place of seeing one another for who we are, differences and all, and being okay with embracing just that, understanding that differences do not have to equal division. I am as guilty as the next person for allowing differences and my discomfort with unfamiliarity to stand in the way of embracing all people the way I should. We’re all imperfect & are going to mess up, but that’s no excuse not to try. So I’m preaching to myself just as much as I am to you when I say, go out of your way to learn about someone different from you. Educate yourself. Do your research. Expand your knowledge. And get comfortable being uncomfortable.

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The Church & Social Justice

If you’ve ever heard the worship song, “Hosanna,” you may be familiar with the lyrics in the refrain which say, “break my heart for what breaks Yours.” I’ve listened to this song probably a hundred times before, and yet, I don’t think I’ve ever resonated with those 7 words more than I have this semester, and especially this past week. I have felt God breaking my heart for what I am confident breaks his, & more specifically have been left sick to my stomach about the injustices that are occurring every moment in this world, and the pure helplessness I feel when it comes to helping end those injustices.

This semester, I am enrolled in a psychology and culture class, which I know I talk about a lot, but this class is one that has opened my eyes so wide & changed my thinking in ways I never thought a class was capable of. Each Monday and Wednesday evening, I walk out of this class thinking about the many different cultures and social justice issues in ways I’ve never thought about them before, and in some cases, never thought about at all. Our class is comprised of individuals of different races, genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, religion’s, career aspirations, & political views, and it is taught by an Asian professor who is passionate about traveling and entrenching himself in the many wonderful cultures that exist in this world that we live in.

On Monday’s, we have class all together in one large room, and on Wednesday’s, we are split up into our smaller sections. We have dialogues almost every Wednesday in those section meetings, in which the class of 15-ish individuals has a discussion about whatever topic we learned in Monday’s class. This past week, the topic of discussion was race and ethnicity.

I sat during dialogue this week with my jaw to the floor for the majority of class as I listened to my classmates of color talk about interactions that they have had with certain individuals who treated them unjustly solely because of the color of their skin. My classmates spoke about instances in which they were pulled over while driving and immediately asked by the officer if the car belonged to them, under the assumption that they had stolen it, or instances in which they felt unsafe in the presence of police officers who were blatantly being racist to them – my classmates talked about how they were and are very cautious about moving a certain way for fear of them drawing their weapon. (please note: I & them know that not all police officers are this way – I thank God for the women & men in law enforcement who sacrifice so much to keep us safe) There was also one individual in this dialogue who is African American, and they shared about a time in which them and a friend were in a store and one store-clerk suspected that they had been shoplifting, so the store-clerk called the police and searched their bags, even though it ended up being a ‘false alarm.’ Instances were talked about in which blatantly racist individuals would make comments to my classmates of color, which, rightly so, left them feeling defeated & confused.

I left class that evening with a particularly heavy heart, as though I had the weight equivalent to a ton of bricks on my shoulders, for more reasons than one. That evening when I got home, I sat on my bed with my Bible open in front of me with tears of empathy and the feeling of helplessness rolling down my face as I reflected so deeply and processed so thoroughly what I had just heard my classmates so painfully described that day. I acknowledged that if my heart hurt this bad simply in listening to these stories that they shared, I cannot imagine how deeply it hurt to actually experience it. I acknowledged my desire to do more to help change this, but also acknowledged my frustration in not knowing where in the world to begin. I acknowledged the anger I have that this is seriously something people have to put up with because such hate and ignorance exists today.

I myself have been pulled over before for speeding, and yes I got a ticket (ya live & ya learn) but not once during my interaction with this police officer did I ever feel unsafe. I  have never had to worry about being treated unfairly by anyone because of my race. That is a very privileged position to be in. While I know full well what it is like to experience oppression & discrimination for being a woman, I don’t have a clue what it is like to be discriminated against because of my race, and I probably will never. But thanks to my peers who are in this class with me this semester, and in general being in college for almost three years now surrounded by people who are different from me, my eyes have been opened wider to these matters – not as wide as they should be but wider than they used to be, and I am very, very done acting as though I am blind to the fact that this is a problem which needs to be addressed.

I can’t not care about these issues, especially as a future leader in the Church. Social justice issues are not things that can or should be left at the church doors on our way in and not brought in and talked about. And personally, I am very done with the Church having so much fear of being “too political” that it neglects to bring difficult issues that are going on outside the church walls, into the church. These issues affect the Church, and they affect our brothers & sisters who are not in the Church, whom we should be ministering to. The Church is not supposed to be separate from the world, friends – the Church – the body of Christ (us) are not of this world, but we are still in this world. We need to be aware of what’s going on in the world and not be in a bubble closed off from it all. We can come to church and we can sit and act as though everything is fine but that will not change the fact that everything is not fine. When we walk out of church, injustice is still happening, and while I in no way have the answers to what the church can or should do, I know enough to write that the Church needs to do something & not nothing.

If we look to scripture, we find that Jesus himself was political. He was SO political! All you have to do is look at scripture to know that – read the Gospel’s. You’ll find that he did so many things that turned heads & went against the “norm” for the sake of doing GOOD & changing lives for the better.

Jesus was a warrior for social justice. And we’re called to live like him, right?

We don’t need to spend our time discussing which political party Jesus would have been a part of – Jesus wasn’t for the republicans or for the democrats – he was for people. We talk all the time about ‘what Jesus would do’ but never when it comes to things that may become controversial, and call me crazy, but I don’t think social justice is a political topic more than it is just another thing Jesus taught in the Bible, which we should be imitating. It’s something Jesus showed us how to actively advocate for in scripture.

Words are powerful, yes, but they are not always enough. We can pray, and we should pray. But friends, please know that wanting to take actions other than praying does not undermine or negate our belief that God can solve or heal this – what if God is yearning for us to GO and make the change happen that we are sitting around waiting for him to do? What if that’s his answer to this prayer? For us to go & be the hands & feet of Jesus in this? In all we do?

I know that requires action – actions that may make people look at you funny. But hey, the Pharisees questioned why Jesus was eating with the tax collectors & sinners, right? Jesus loved, welcomed, talked with, and cared for the least of these, he talked with a Samaritan woman, he worked on the Sabbath, he went against the norm, was an advocate for minorities – for those who didn’t have a voice, were different from him, & didn’t think they were worth anything. May we do the SAME.

This would be about the time where I would write “how” to do just that, but I can’t write that simply because I do not know how. I know I can love people. I know I can start having these difficult conversations, and know I am going to be more intentional about having those conversations with people in my life who are willing to listen & talk with me about it, even if we disagree with one another. I do find myself overcome by frustration for the very reason that I do not know the ‘right way’ (if one even exists) to go about taking the privilege I have as a white individual, and use it for good & to help those who do not have such racial privilege. I acknowledge I am so small compared to this huge issue facing our globe. But I refuse to let my acknowledgement of that keep me from trying.

So please know that I am writing this post today not as somebody who thinks she has all the answers – I don’t have the answers. I’m not even close to having all the answers and you very well could have disagreed with everything I’ve just written in this post. That’s okay. I wrote this today to lay out with a heavy heart what I am feeling, in this open way, so perhaps maybe we, together, can wrestle with it & discuss how to make progress in the right direction. This is something I am working on – it’s something I’m honestly just recently starting to work on actively. But I do want to actively work on it, and not let it be something that I acknowledge is a problem but then don’t do anything about it. I encourage you to work on it with me! And if any of you have any resources to better educate me, I am all ears.

I know progress has been made, and I hope we all never forget that. But I hope we also never forget that just because progress has been made, does not mean that there is not still progress to be made. I don’t know what that looks like. But maybe, just maybe, one of the very first steps in figuring that out, is acknowledging change is needed, & becoming educated to enact that change.

And if you are white, remember that nobody is asking you to apologize for being of the dominant race – you shouldn’t feel guilty and nobody should make you feel guilty, you never chose the privilege that you have. But we can choose what we’re going to do with it. So what will you do with the privilege you’ve been given? Will you use it to do good? To combat injustice? To make the world better for your brothers & sisters who are racial minorities? What are you going to do? Or will you sit back and refuse to believe anything needs to change?

I’ve been praying fervently about this and ask that you would join me. Like I said, I don’t have the answers, but God does. He cares about these things. He will give us wisdom and insight into what we can do. But my brothers & sisters in Christ, we need to talk about this, both with God and with each other.

 

A Reflection: AUMC Living Nativity

This past Friday, December 22nd, my home church told to our community the story of Jesus’ birth through a Living Nativity. This was the first year my church has done this, but I definitely see many more in the future with how wonderful the turn out was, as well as how powerful and memorable it was for each individual involved in preparing this beautiful night.

I wanted to write a bit of a reflection on this night because of the ways in which God worked throughout both the creation of this night, as well as the actual night of the showings.

There were four showings on Friday evening, one at 6, 7, 8, and 9pm.

I had the joy of being Mary at two of the showings, and I thought that the way(s) in which that came about were worth writing about! For me, and maybe for you, too.

You see, I originally said no when I was asked to be Mary. Acting does and always has made me super nervous, so to me, this was nonnegotiable. Some people love acting, and they have a gift for it — I don’t consider myself to be one of those people. You may be thinking, “But you preach all the time in front of people, how can that not scare you, yet acting does?”

Let me just tell you that acting and preaching are two very different things!!

So I said no, but I also said that if they could not find anybody else, email me again, and I will be there. While I know that it is okay to say no and not need a reason or excuse (something I am working on) the last thing I wanted was to be the reason the Nativity was without a Mary, especially if I was going to be there anyways.

After saying no, however, this continued to weigh heavily on my mind and heart. I hadn’t heard that they had found a Mary, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t found one. I was at school in the midst of final exams, so I tried not to worry about it, telling myself that it wasn’t my problem. But continued to have this sense that I was being nudged — not necessarily nudged to be Mary, but I had this feeling that because I was going to be there,  I should serve wherever needed. And, well, being Mary was where there was a need. That nudge, of course, was God, and at the end of the day, I kept hearing him boldly say, “hey, Ashley, you’re there – serve wherever needed.” I had those words in my head every time I thought about doing it, and that did not mean nothing to me.

Five days before the Living Nativity, I found out that there was still nobody to be Mary.

I said, “well, I’m here if you need me.” 

And friends, I am glad that I was ‘there’ wherever needed, because it was so neat to experience the telling of this wonderful story in that way, entrenching myself into Mary’s shoes, trying to act and think about how she was feeling in that moment – so very happy to meet her sweet baby Jesus; all fears relinquished as she gazed into his perfect eyes.

While there’s no telling if I’ll ever do that again or even be asked to do it again, I am grateful that I did it this year. I am grateful to have said ‘yes’ to something that absolutely scared me – as I told people, I was just getting a little head start on my new year’s resolution to do more things that scare me! And in this experience of mine, doing something that scared me, it was so very worth it.

By the Sunday before the showings, we actually even ended up having two people including myself to be Mary, which was such a blessing! This meant that we would each do two showings instead of one person doing four. I went to rehearsal the Tuesday before the showings and was still nervous, but also oddly excited. It just felt ‘right’ that I was there. And the people I got to participate in this ministry with were people I admire and love so much – they made me laugh and constantly eased the nerves I had. They made this Living Nativity experience memorable and powerful, and I’m so happy that when I look back at this cherished memory, it will be with them in it.

In this Living Nativity, we also had animals – live animals, of course, which the crowd got a kick out of. There were sheep, goats, a cow, and a donkey. The donkey, named Gracie, was walked into the Nativity by Joseph as Mary would walk next to them. The donkey was adorable, fluffy, and super stubborn, of course – there were a couple showings where she decided to be difficult and stand still, or walk in the opposite direction that we needed her to walk, but it all worked out – “the show went on” I believe the saying goes. Really the donkey reminded me of how ministry tends to be sometimes – you can only plan so much, and often times, there is a lot of ‘going with the flow’ which is exactly what we had to do with the donkey. We ran through the Nativity numerous times, but we didn’t have the donkey with us when we did that. There’s no telling how animals are going to cooperate or act – you can only plan so much because so often they are unpredictable little creatures. You just have to laugh, which is exactly what the audience did when Gracie got stubborn, and it’s exactly what you have to do sometimes in ministry.

Finally, at the end of the final showing of this Living Nativity, it started to rain (another thing I suppose you can only plan so much for). The whole week we had been praying that the rain would hold off, and it did up until then, but personally, I think the rain was God’s perfect little way of transitioning to the next part of the story — to send us off to respond to the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth, and what his birth, life, death, and resurrection means for us. A curtain closing or a “the end” wouldn’t have been right, because the story does not stop there at the manger. The rain was a refreshing reminder that now, we are sent off, to respond to this beautiful story. May we make that our goal in all that we do & say – to go out into this world & tell of the GREAT news that is Jesus Christ, today & always. 

 

“God is (still) with us” Sermon

Back in 2015, I had the opportunity to deliver the sermon at my home church’s 11pm Christmas Eve service. This memory is one of the many, many reasons I love this time of year; not only do I love that it is a time during which we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ birthday, and then celebrate his birth, I also love that I am able to remind myself of the pure joy I had in realizing pastoral ministry was where God was leading me. God used my pastor at the time to ask me to preach, He used my delivery of this sermon, and really He used this entire Christmas eve service as a whole to affirm this call to the pastoral role. He ignited in me an even greater passion for the ministry into which I’m called and gave me a whole new perspective and understanding of Jesus’ birthday. With that, it may go without saying, but it would be hard to approach Christmas Eve without being swarmed with sweet memories from 2015. It is so special and I will cherish it forever. What makes it even more dear to my heart is that I was able to do this while I was still a student at Liberty University back in my freshman year of college. To preach on Christmas Eve in the midst of my year at a school that was constantly telling me I couldn’t preach or pastor, was so significant for me. It was affirmation that I needed; it was God not whispering this time but yelling (sternly but kindly) at me, that this is my call – it is his call upon my life. And that He is constantly preparing a way for me, even as I would be heading back to Liberty after winter break in January of 2016 for not only the hardest semester, but four of the hardest months probably of life thus far. But God? Boy was he present. He was present and stirring this call and passion from the moment I first spoke on Youth Sunday, to my first semester at Liberty, to Christmas Eve 2015, to every ministry opportunity I’ve had thus far, to present day. I remember beginning to prepare my Christmas Eve sermon at least a month in advance because of how excited I was – after all, it was the Christmas Eve message! And it would be the sermon folks would hear 11pm-12am as they rung in Christmas day. While I know there is no such thing as a perfect sermon, I was determined to write to the best of my ability, with the Spirits lead, a message celebrating Jesus in all of his precious glory. This sermon is titled, “God is (still) with us,” and it elaborates on, “Emmanuel – God with us” It is about how God was with us at Christ’s birth, and how he still remains present with us today. This is a reminder I know I need often, and maybe you do, too. It’s easy to let Christmas come and go the same as we do with any other day, but carrying this message of Christ’s birth with us each day of the year is as important as carrying the message of his life, death, and Resurrection is.

The other day I stumbled across the DVD from that Christmas Eve and I wanted to share it in a post because I know personally I needed the reminded that God is still with you and I today as he was when Christ was born. I needed to be reminded of that beautiful truth, as well as the truth that God is faithful – he brought Jesus into this world. The God who did that, is the same God whose presence is among you, whose hand is guiding you, whose voice is calling you.

I have the sermon copy and pasted below **only slightly edited…I was 18 at the time…but I wanted to edit it as little as possible before posting it here because I personally love seeing how I’ve grown since then!**


Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Mary and Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded and they called Jesus, Emmanuel: “God with us” because God was with them when His Word became flesh, and God has been with us ever since that day – that day when there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, leaving Mary with no choice but to give birth to Jesus in a stable.

In the song, Joy to the World, the lyrics read, “let every heart prepare him room.” That is what Advent is about each year – preparing our hearts and our minds for the birth of our Savior, and making room for him in our lives because he is our Savior. The more we acknowledge that God is with us, and the more we make room for him in our lives, the more we can be filled with the peace, joy, and comfort that Jesus brought when he was born. The feeling of calmness and security that his presence brought is still capable of being felt, because God is still present in this world, just as he was when Christ was born.
We can go out and show the world that God is with us, just as Jesus did, because the Holy Spirit that allowed Jesus to be borne of the Virgin Mary, is the same Holy Spirit that is alive inside of us today.

Jesus introduced this world to God by first being a miracle born child, and later on by healing the paralyzed, giving sight to the blind, and forgiving those who did wrong and who were against him. He even asked God to forgive those who helped put him on the cross. We obviously may not be able to do those exact miraculous things Christ did, because we’re not perfect as he was, but we are still children of God – we can be examples of Him, by the way we live, and treat people, and especially by the way we love. The love that God displayed for us by sending into this world his only Son, Jesus, is beyond comprehension, and the love His Son displayed for us by giving his life up for us…that love is eternal.

Jesus was born into this world, to go to the cross – that is why he is our Savior. That is why it’s so important to acknowledge Christmas as the birth of Jesus – because it was the birth of the man who saved us – that was God’s intention when he placed him in this world.

Jesus’ birth and life had an impact on those in the Bible – The Wise Men and the shepherds at his birth, and people such as Peter and Mary Magdalene later on in his life, and he still has an impact on us today or else we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here in church remembering Jesus on Christmas, or on any day. We wouldn’t set up Nativity scenes in our houses, we wouldn’t sing songs about his birth if he wasn’t special.

Jesus is still leading us, his followers. He is still calling us, his followers.

Jesus was adamant about sharing The Word, and being a light, and a messenger. That light was shown and that message was prepared to be given when Christ was born. And that message? The message that Christ was sent into this world by God, to be borne of the Virgin Mary, and save us from our sins, is still capable of being shared today, and we as Christians are called to be that light. And that light is going to shine the brightest when we prepare room for him in our lives and acknowledge that God is with us.

Preparing room for Jesus in our lives is something we can do daily, it doesn’t have to wait until Advent- Christmas is not just an event to look back on, you all, it’s something to be celebrated every single day because Jesus’s birth was THAT significant-
The significance and the beauty of Christmas is not in the presents we get, it’s in JESUS’S presence. The peace, joy, and comfort that he brought when he was born is what makes Christmas so special. HE is so special. Jesus is the reason we have this entire season, and that’s not just a bumper sticker that’s the truth. God’s Word is the truth and because we still have the Bible, and we know Jesus Christ, God is still with us and he is alive, just as much as he was when Christ entered this world. Jesus is still Emmanuel.
Christ was born so those in the Bible would see and hear the good news, and continue spreading the good news, that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and rose again. He was born to save. He was born so that we may know God. He was born so that we may know love, and peace, and forgiveness, and know what it is like to be followers of Jesus and leaders, who can lead others to become followers of our Savior. A savior who was perfect. A savior who didn’t have a single bit of sin in his life. Yet a Savior who gave himself for us. A savior who was born to go to the cross to save us from our sins.

That is a gift. Christ’s birth was a gift. Not a gift wrapped underneath a tree that holds some new material item – The good news of Christ’s birth isn’t new, or different each time Christmas comes around like the presents we get are. The good news of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection is all the same. Jesus is the same Savior, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is the same Christ every single Christmas, and thank God that we can rely on him, and his Word, to never change.

Jesus was born and that is how this world came to know God, but when he was crucified and died on that cross, God didn’t just leave. Remember Jesus rose 3 days later, and God was still with us during those 3 days. Jesus led this world to know God and we already know because God has told us in His Word that he is never going to leave us and he is never going to forsake us- that is proof that God is with us and that is never going to change.

Because we know His Son, Jesus – the innocent, sinless, perfect human being born in Bethlehem – because we know the Savior who was crucified, died, and rose again, we know God. Praise God that we can have a season of time each year where we can so openly and happily remember the birth of our Savior. The birth of the man who had such an impact on this world, and taught us exactly what love looks like, what a miracle looks like, what God looks like.

Right when Jesus was born he had people bringing him gifts, and worshipping at his manger. Right when he was born there were shepherds praising God, because they had seen God through what had happened with Jesus’s birth. That was God’s plan, it was his intention. He wanted people to know him and believe in him by seeing the miracle of his son and he wanted them to know they were saved because of his son.

The story does not stop there because Jesus did not stay in that manger. God sent him out and he changed the world, he had an effect on people, he showed God to the world, and he taught. He taught what love looks like. We as Christians are called to do that exact same thing, and because of that- because we’re supposed to be Christ-like and be examples of Him, God is with us because if we are examples of Jesus, we are showing God to this world, which is exactly what HE did. It’s what he was born into this world to do. As long as that Holy Spirit is living inside of you and me, God is with us.
This time of year on Christmas is the perfect reminder that he was with us when Christ was born and he is still with us, in the midst of the busyness and stress that this holiday may bring, we get to celebrate the peace that Jesus brought, and be thankful for receiving the greatest gift of Jesus Christ – a gift that we didn’t even have to ask for.

Amen.

A Christmas Prayer

Loving, Gracious, and Holy God,

It is that time of year again, where we celebrate the birth of your beloved Son, Jesus. We spend the Advent season awaiting his marvelous birth ever so eagerly, and we celebrate when Christmas day arrives, and we can bask in the peace and joy that is brought when he enters this world.

God, during this holiday season, we acknowledge that it is easy for us to get caught up in the craze of finding presents for those we love, in the parties we attend, the trips we plan, the traditions we have, but we pray that our eyes would not be taken off of the precious gift that is your Son – the gift that is what this season is all about.

We pray that you would open our eyes so that we may see to the fullest picture how marvelous this gift is, and we pray you would clear our vision when it becomes fogged by the pressure of hosting get together’s, by finding ‘the perfect’ presents, or by spending time hoping for that one expensive gift on our list. We pray for perspective.

We pray that you would give to us a heavenly peace in our hearts and in our minds, and that this peace would overwhelm us in the midst of whatever it is that is stressing us out during this holiday season; stealing our joy, anticipation, and celebration during such a beautiful time.

We pray for those who find this time of year difficult, for whatever reasons there may be. We pray for those grieving the absence of loved ones. We pray for those who find themselves plagued with depression, and anxiety, and we ask that you surround them with your gentle arms; your love and care.

We ask for your forgiveness for the times in which we neglect to acknowledge and appreciate to the fullest this gift that we are about to receive. And above all, God, we thank you. We thank you for this gift that you have given to us, and we acknowledge it is a gift which none of us deserve. But we thank you for sending your Son to be born, to show us what pure, magnificent love looks like, and to show us exactly how we should live, as disciples of Jesus. The love that you didn’t have to prove but that you did prove by sending Him into this world, only to soon be sent to the cross, is a love we will not ever deserve, but we thank you, God, for that love you offered to us, and continue to offer to us daily.

We ask that, for Your glory, you would help us carry the story of Jesus’ birth with us in our hearts and minds not only on Christmas, but every single day of the year, for the rest of our lives. We acknowledge this story as one that cannot afford to go untold, for it is far too marvelous and great. We thank you for this story we have the ability, by Your grace, to tell, and we pray we never, ever, take it for granted.

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – we adore you & we love you.

Amen.

humility.

This past Sunday, I had the joy of preaching at the church I attended back when I was a freshman in college. (If you would like to hear the sermon, you can click this link)

Following that morning, I made a post on Facebook with a couple pictures, as well as a caption expressing my gratitude to God for this call and opportunity, as well as gratitude to this dear church for welcoming me back. There were a number of uplifting comments made on this Facebook post from people of that congregation who were there and heard me preach, and yesterday, someone referring to those comments jokingly said to me, “you’re going to get a big head!”

I laughed along with them and responded in so many words with, “I pray that I do not!”

I took time later to pause and think about this person’s comment though, because it was a joke about something that I have (seriously) always been very aware and careful of. People are always so very kind and quick to share their uplifting thoughts about the sermons that I have preached, and it is a blessing to have such feedback – while I am quick to acknowledge how unworthy I am of such compliments, I also acknowledge how it would be very easy for me to let such comments, or compliments, get to my head. I would even be lying if I said I haven’t let them get to my head before. (surprise I’m human)

It is human nature to let compliments get to our heads every so often, because as humans, we desire to be looked at and talked about in a positive way, so, when that happens, we hold on tight to those words. Now, please be assured that this post is not intended to convince you to not feel good about yourself or about what you have accomplished. You should be proud of yourself when you succeed and reach goals that you have worked hard for. Humility is simply important so that you remember Who gave you the ability to achieve such goals and receive such compliments, as well as Who you are aiming to glorify and serve. As Christians, humility is important because we are not here to serve ourselves or to receive praise.

The sermon that I delivered this past Sunday was about how we are all children of God, and how knowing this truth humbles us. It humbles us because we are all children of a God whom we can do nothing apart from. Nothing at all. This is something I have continuously held tight to, especially since becoming more involved in ministry, because without him, I would be 100% incapable of doing the very thing(s) I am called to do; the things I love to do and am passionate about doing. The truth about being a child of God is humbling because if it weren’t for constant reliance on that very God, I couldn’t do any of what I do. It is also humbling, as the sermon stated, to know that we are each children of a God whom we can do nothing apart from because it gives us a different, better, perspective. It helps us see ourselves as imperfect people whom a perfect Savior died for, and it helps us to see our neighbors in this way as well. As the scripture reading above says:

Who, then, are you to judge your neighbors? You are just as in need of God as they are!

We are to be humbled by the fact that we need God just as much as the next person does. None of us can or will succeed in this life as disciples if we are not constantly relying on God. It is just not possible. If I tried to write sermons, lead, write, or do anything else without reliance on God, I would fail. I would fail at my call to be a disciple and I would fail at what truly matters and that is spreading the message of Jesus through my life. If I did it on my own strength, and not on God’s, I wouldn’t be doing God’s work. I would be doing my own work. And what reward in heaven will that get us? (hint: none)

I would never tell someone, “oh please don’t compliment me” that’d just be silly. But I have to say, my heart sings more when one of my fellow brothers or sisters comes up to me and tells me about how they were able to apply the message back to their own lives, or that it encourage them to go disciple. To me, God should be getting the compliments because he’s the one who’s equipped me and he’s the one who spoke, which is why I admire pastors who respond with, “praise the Lord” when someone compliments their sermon. (That’s something I’ve been trying to do more of!) I know that some of the most memorable times having preached have been when someone has come up to me in confidence after the service in tears and shared with me how God spoke to them through the message that day. See, that is all him. He knows what his people need. He knows not only what they want to hear but what they need to hear. I only know so much. That’s why relying on him for these sermons is so important. I had/have nothing to do with how people respond to these messages, and that is what’s humbling.

See, the acknowledgement that we are mere vessels is what humbles us and allows us to see ourselves as imperfect individuals being used by a perfect God.

I don’t preach or do ministry for myself or for the compliments that I may or may not receive along the way because those compliments (and criticisms for that matter) are fleeting. If I ever find myself with the mindset that I do do it for such reasons, I pray God would help me to step back in conviction and refocus myself on him. But I only do this because God was crazy enough to choose and call me to it and my life would simply have no purpose if I weren’t serving God with it.

Something else that helps us to be humble is acknowledging, not our imperfections, but rather, acknowledging how incapable we would be without him and his grace. I have trouble even attempting to think about what life would be like without him and his grace, probably because life would be pretty darn dull. But because we have the privilege of knowing him and having witnessed / experienced his grace, we are able, but only by him and his grace are we able.

I have to laugh thinking about my (in)capabilities and how incredible God is to continuously extend his grace. I like to picture God laughing at me, his child, who loves to death what he has called her to do, yet his child who is is still anything but professional/worthy. For kicks/for this post, I’ll give some examples of how humility does sometimes mean laughing at how imperfect/ridiculous we are:

If you’ve known me long enough, especially since I first heard God calling me to ministry, you know this: those mic’s you wear when you preach that go around your ear, and sometimes both ears? I hate them. I love everything about preaching and leading church, except for those little things. They get tangled in my hair, wrapped around my arm, stuck on my clothes, they knot my hair, if I move an inch while speaking it muffles. If people in the congregation knew how much much effort (and not church words) went into putting that little mic on, they’d know there is absolutely nothing professional about me. Or that I never dare wear wedges or heels when I preach because I’m the clumsiest person you will ever meet and would likely fall and break my neck in the middle of the service if I did attempt to wear them. It is by God’s grace I haven’t broken more than one bone. It is by God’s grace that he called this ridiculous kid at age eighteen to pursue ministry for him. I’m so incapable. But it makes me laugh, and it makes me grateful to have a God I can rely on to help me be capable.

It is hard to be humble. I know that and you know that. There aren’t many instructions in the Bible that are easy to obey, but living with and for Christ sure makes them easier, friends. That I know, and that I want you to know.

As I have grown as an individual, as a disciple, and as this mini preacher, it has become easier to respond with humility to compliments, encouragements, and positive feedback, because as I have grown, I have also realized more and more my desperate need for God in order to do all that I do. I could never do it out of my own strength. God is the One holding me up, strengthening me, placing words on my heart, helping me put one foot in front of the other. Without him,  I could do nothing. Without him, my neighbors can do nothing. May we all carry ourselves and treat one another with that acknowledgment: that really we are all in this together. We are all in desperate need of God. Without him, we can do nothing.

Prayer

Lord, we thank you for the grace you extend to us each day. We ask you for the wisdom and humility to know that everything we do should be done to give you glory or not ourselves. Help us to remember that every good and perfect gift we have received and will receive comes from above. We ask that you would give us the mental strength to know that we have no business judging our neighbors when we are just as in need of You as they are. We love you, we praise you, and we ask all of this in your Son Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Guest Post: “Why, God?” by Jason Stanley

There are a lot of interesting stories in the Bible. And sometimes you are invited to preach about them. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I was asked to preach on Genesis 22:1-14 for a church’s midweek service. Genesis 22 is often referred to as “The Binding of Isaac.”

Or, it can be referred to as that time God told a dad to sacrifice his child. (There’s a reason you won’t find this story in a children’s Bible.)

As a dad myself I struggled with this story differently than I had before. How could a loving God ask a dad to give up his son as a sacrifice? What would God ask Abraham to kill his son?

And I wrestled with just how I would preach this text. It is not an easy story. It makes us uncomfortable and we feel anything but safe. It’s not one of those warm and fuzzy children’s Bible kind of story.

And maybe that’s the point?

Perhaps the Genesis writer, who can span generations of families in a single chapter, slows down in the Abrahamic narrative to tell this story (with all the detail) for the simple reason that it makes us uncomfortable – that is causes us to wrestle with it a bit, not unlike how we, from time to time, wrestle with our faith.

And as I wrestled with this text, I tried to imagine what Abraham the dad was thinking. I imagine that when Abraham was chopping wood that day his thoughts ranged from anger to awe. Did he release what anger he had towards God with every swing of the axe? Or did he remember all the times God provided and kept his promises?

I think when crazy things come up in life – like God asking you to sacrifice your child – we tend to search for explanations as to why these things are happening. Why did my dad get cancer? Why did the car break down THIS week? Why does this professor hate me so much?

The problem with seeking explanations, is too often it leaves frustrated because of the answer we get, don’t get, or it leaves us with more questions.

Even though God has asked something crazy and tragic of him, Abraham chooses to be faithful, focusing, not on the explanations – in fact he never asks why –but on the promises of God. Abraham understood that God’s will never contradicts God’s promises.

Our assurance of faith does not stand on explanations; instead it stands on the promises of God.

I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but I imagine that there are days that aren’t as great as others. I imagine that there are some relationship tensions or work place drama that you could do without. There is a lot of crazy going on in our world that may leave us wondering, “Why, God?”

But we must not take our eyes off the sacrificial lamb God provided in Jesus Christ – the fulfillment of promises that God made.

God promises, one by one, are never broken. Unlike the frailty of humanity, God keeps his promises.

When we stand on these promises we, like Isaac, are unbound from the things that hold us down. When we stand firm on the promises of God, we can overcome and weather any trial and test that comes our way.


 

Rev. Jason Stanley is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, chair of the Order of Deacons in the Virginia Conference, and currently serving as the Coordinator for Church Revitalization on the Elizabeth River District in Virginia. Jason is married to Rev. Megan Saucier and dad to Jayne Carter. Jason is also an avid blogger so be sure to check out his blog here and like his blog’s Facebook page here.