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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(i’m going to Cuba!!)

Perhaps you remember me writing at the beginning of this year about how, coming into 2018, my ‘new years resolution’ was to be intentional about asking God to take my plans, wreck them completely, and have his prevail instead. He has done an excellent job of doing that so far in the 21 years I’ve been alive, and although it is sometimes tough to watch the plans I have for myself crumble and change, His plans always, always end up being far greater than mine would’ve been, so I thought – why not go ahead & make it a point to ask him to do it. In addition to this, I wanted to challenge myself to come into the new year being more open to God, more open to doing things that scare me, more open to him leading me places I never thought I’d go, and more open to him using me however & whenever he pleases. The way in which I have gone about carrying out this ‘new years resolution’ of mine has been to simply offer up to him short but loaded prayers, such as, “here I am” “send me” “use me” “lead me”

When this semester began in January, my friends & I decided it’d be fun to make beaded bracelets with words that we wanted to carry with us into the new year on them, and I decided to put the 3 words “here I am” on mine (pictured below). I chose these 3 words because I think they are one’s that really encompass what it means to give your whole self to God, and open yourself to his using & will, whatever it may be. The bracelet hasn’t left my wrist since making it, and I have a feeling that will remain the case as the year progresses because of what a great reminder it has been to me.

cubablogg

These words which Isaiah spoke to God in Isaiah 6:8, and words which many other individuals spoke to God in the Bible as well, such as Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Samuel, have been words that I have found myself saying often to God through out the course of this year so far, and I have to tell ya – God hears these prayers, & he does not ignore them

God takes these prayers seriously you guys!! 

A couple weeks ago, I was walking home from campus, looking through my phone, and I saw that I had an email from Heritage UMC, which is the church that I attended during my freshman year of college. This email was about an upcoming interest meeting for a mission trip to Cuba as part of a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team.

For whatever reason, every word in this email seemed to jump right out at me as I read it. I went directly to the calendar on my phone after reading it to check my summer class schedule to see if going on this trip would even be feasible for me (when I transferred college’s 3 semesters ago, unfortunately a whole semester worth of credits did not transfer with me, so I have to take 3 classes this summer if I want to graduate on time) BUT sure enough, after looking at my summer class schedule, I would be finished with summer classes by the time this mission trip rolled around, if I chose to go. So, I sat with this email for a bit. I sat with what I knew about it: the location, the dates, the cost, the purpose, the people I’d be going with. After sitting with it, I reached out with a couple inquiries about the mission trip, such as whether or not this trip would even be open to me, as a young adult (I thought perhaps the skills that I would/would not bring to the mission trip could perhaps be an issue considering I’m barely 5’3 100 pounds and can’t lift many things heavier than a chair) (I can climb though so maybe that will come in handy?)

I was however informed that the trip was open to people of my age & people of my skills (or lack thereof). So thus began the prayer about whether or not this was something God was leading me to say “yes” to. I couldn’t go a day without thinking about the possibility of going which I think now is safe to say was God nudging/pushing/shoving me towards the opportunity to go and serve him in this way.

So to make a long story just a little shorter –  after lots & lots (& lots) of prayer, I sent off an email confirming that I will be joining this team on their mission to Cuba.

………I’m goin’ to Cuba!!!

I wish I could relay to you the excitement I have in simply typing that! But come see me in person and maybe you’ll get a better feel for it because according to those around me I apparently can’t talk about it without smiling.

I know of course only the minor logistics as of right now because it is still super early, but I wanted to take the time to gush about it now in between the loads of studying and homework assignments I currently have, because I thought the way in which God worked in this was super cool. Also, I’m sure it goes without saying but I will definitely be writing more about it as I learn more & as it gets closer (and after it happens of course!)

The team going on the trip will consist of some folks from Heritage UMC, including the pastor and his wife who I know are wonderful individuals, and then as I understand it there will also be some couples/individuals from various other churches in the area. We will be going as part of a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team, which I had actually had never heard of before, but after clicking around on their website, it is so evident that they are doing amazing work all over the world in the name of Jesus. Our team will be heading to a small town in Cuba to help repair a neglected church, so that the people who live in this town will have a formal place to worship our awesome God and be in fellowship with one another, as a church family. While you and I both know that the church is not a building, rather, a people, the idea of helping to create for these, our brothers and sisters, a place to gather together and worship God is very special and powerful. I can just picture all of the fellowship that will take place, all the songs of praises that will be sung, and all of the sermons that will be preached.

Needless to say, I am so, so excited. I am excited to help play a very small part in the very huge work that God is doing in this world. I am excited to see the ways in which God works around us, through us, and through those we’ll meet, and I am excited to see the ways in which he impacts lives and uses our imperfect selves to help make this church a place where people can come and worship.

Does going on my first international mission trip scare me a little? For sure. Will I get home sick? Most likely. Do I wish I had taken Spanish in high school/college instead of German and Latin? Yup. Do I love flying? Nope (although thankfully, I am not one of those poor people who panics at the mere thought of hopping on an airplane).

Going on this trip is definitely an example of something that is out of my comfort zone, but I have quickly found that God seldom calls us to do things inside our comfort zones, and he rarely sends us places we are fully comfortable going. (can I get an amen?)

And all fear aside – my confidence in God’s ability to use me and every single person he is sending on this trip is sky high. I am so eager to not only watch as he works & moves but also experience his movement, in preparation for this trip, while on the trip, and after it as well.

I pray that we are able to go and be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in all that we do while in Cuba. I pray for the individuals whom we are going to serve. I pray that God would help prepare the hearts & minds of everyone planning to go, and I pray that our eyes would be opened and that perspective would be gained. I pray for the relationships that will be formed, both among the awesome people who are going on the trip and among the people we will meet in Cuba. I pray that those whom we do meet are able to see Jesus in us, as we work to repair for them a church – a church for public worship, for prayer, for Bible study, for fellowship & communion with one another. I pray that we would be able to communicate joy and love to each person we meet even if some of us find ourselves in the midst of a language barrier. I pray that we all never fail to remember that the people outside of the country we live in are our brothers and sisters just as much as those inside this country are our brothers and sisters. And as a couple of my friends put it, the goal of international mission trips is not to go into these different countries and “fix” or change them, or “bring God” there. God is already there. The goal is to go and serve, and love,with all our might. I am so eager to do that, where I am now, and also there, when the time comes.

Your will be done, God. I am here and I am all yours! Use me, use us, however you want.

(stay tuned!!)

2017.

And just like that, tomorrow is the last day of 2017.

I know many of you are happy to be leaving this year behind, and I know many of you may be sad or simply content with ending another year and beginning a new one – whatever you are feeling about this year coming to an end, I pray that you ALL enter into 2018 with happiness & health, and make it as great of a year as you can for yourself and for those whom you encounter.

As 2017 comes to a close, I have many thoughts, many reflections, & yes, many resolutions. I wanted to share them in a post to the best of my ability, because to me, it would feel weird to simply go into a new year without first writing about the year we’ve just had. I love that writing can be a way to bid farewell to one year and welcome a new one, and I invite you to join me in doing that. Even if writing is not your forte, simply taking time to pause, reflect, and then prepare for the coming year.

2017 to me almost feels surreal in a way, because so many things happened in my life that I never thought would happen (but am glad happened). It seems God has made a habit of leading me places I never thought I’d go & doing things I never thought he’d do (or I’d do). As absolutely insane as it seems at times & as scary as it can be, I have nothing but gratitude for his ability (and liking, apparently) to do just that.

When I look back on 2017, I see a lot of hurt, many obstacles, a whole lot of joy, and a ton of change. In all of it, I see God.

When I think about 2017, I think about transferring to JMU in January of 2017. I think about the entire transfer process that resulted in my being at JMU, I think about the fear but also the joy,  I think about the friends I’ve made there, the professors I’ve had, the difficult yet rewarding time I had transitioning into a brand new university. I think about the pride I have in being at such an amazing school, and the excitement I have in my heart to have at least three more semesters there.

When I think about 2017, I think about the time I spent in the mountains (because let’s face it – I was there more than I was anywhere else this year). I think about the times I went hiking with friends and the memories made there with them. I think about the time I spent alone there in the quietness of nature, simply being present & trying to listen for God. I think of the times I drove to the parkway just to get away from the noise of the world & the to-do lists I had.

When I think about this past year, I think about the ministry I got to be a part of. The preaching I did and all of the churches I had the privilege of leading through out the year. Those 9 different sermons, 8 different churches, & 15 church services contributed greatly to the joy I had this year, really helping to make this year one that I will never forget. Did I think at the beginning of 2017 that I would have done all that? No way! Am I glad & will I cherish those moments, services, & churches forever? Absolutely.

Reflecting on 2017, I really can’t help but think about God and the many ways in which he worked in my life, to challenge me, grow me, give to me opportunities, and open me up to new things.

JMU, mountains, ministry, people, God.

That’s what I think of when I reflect on 2017, and it’s really stinkin’ cool, because those are the things I want my life to be filled with always.

While my time will come to graduate from JMU, I love learning, and I never want to stop learning, so while I won’t always be a student at a university, I do want to always be a student in the sense that I am always, always learning. I never want to get to a place where I think I know everything, because that will never be true – there is always more to learn.

The mountains are & always will be my place of retreat; where I seek sabbath when I need it and when I think I don’t. I want my life to be full of time spent in the mountains, seeking rest, peace, renewal, and God’s voice.

As for the people – I love people! I love the wonderful people in my life, and I love meeting new people. The goal is to never take for granted the people you have in life — and I want to go a step further and challenge myself to never take for granted the opportunities (given to us literally daily!) to bring light into complete strangers’ lives as well.

If 2017 taught me anything about ministry, it’s that it is more than a career or something to pay the bills. I still to this day get an element of surprise every time somebody hands me a check for guest preaching, because I will never be able to wrap my head around the fact that I’m able & will be able to make a living off of doing something I love so much. 2017 taught me ministry is hard & it can be ugly & messy, but it is beautiful, and I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing with my life than serving His precious children in His precious Church. I am so excited to see what God does with my call to ministry in 2018.

I am so excited to see what God does in general in 2018!!

 

My main prayer for 2018 is that God would take my plans, and wreck them — wreck them completely.

He has done a spectacular job at doing that so far in my 20 years of life, and he has also done a pretty great job at proving why (hint: because his plans are far greater than my own!) I figure, why not go into the year asking God to wreck my plans, instead of being stubborn and fooling myself to believe that my plans are sufficient.

 

Going into 2018, I do also have lots of goals, or, “resolutions”

I know a lot of people frown upon new years resolutions, and that is totally okay! You do whatever floats your boat. But I love to make new years resolutions because I love to challenge myself & see growth from doing so.

So, for a new years resolution, I want to do more things that scare me.

I want my immediate mental response when I think, “I can’t, it scares me” to be “you can – do it anyways” (We’ve all heard that quote, “feel the fear and do it anyways,” well, that’s pretty much this new years resolution right here. I acknowledge that fear has held me back from doing so many things. Heck, it almost held me back from making one of the biggest (and best) decisions of my life (i.e. transferring colleges) I have come to realize that fear has no place holding me (or any of you) back in a life where God is present and holding each of us in palm of his hand every step of the way. So this year I want to give those fears to God & ask that in every fearful moment, he would kindly take those fears and squash them like a bug.

I, like many of you, am entering into 2018 with high hopes & goals, while also acknowledging that life is so very good right now. I don’t want to rush or wish away the time I have right here, right now. I love the beginning of new years because I love the fresh start that comes with it. Though things don’t often feel different, it’s a brand new year and something about that makes me excited.

I do want to say thank you x10000 to each person who read my blog this year (or any year!) I am so very thankful for each of you & pray that God has used any of this writing to speak to you in whatever way He sees fit. I hope you ALL have a safe, happy, & healthy new year, & be prepared for lots more blogging in the new year!!

a guided prayer for the new year

Dear Loving, Holy, and Gracious God,

As this year comes to a close and we prepare for a brand new year, we’d like to take a moment to stop, reflect, and prepare – reflect on all that you have done through out the year we just had, and prepare our hearts, with you, as the new year comes.

*Pause in silence for a time of reflection. Perhaps think about some of the times during which you saw God at work or heard God speak in 2017*

Lord, we acknowledge that to many, this year has been filled with suffering, sickness, pain, trauma, loss, tragedy, and heartbreak. We ask that you would wrap your strong yet tender and gentle arms around those people, who found 2017 to be a year that they would rather not remember. We pray that you would help them to see you clearly and remind them that you are with them always. Help them remember that it is okay to feel whatever it is that they feel from those experiences, and that you love them through it all.

*Pause in silence for a time to remember all those who have lost loved ones, and to remember loved ones whom you have lost in 2017*

We ask that you would take the hardships we endured in 2017 and help us see light in those situations, as well as the strength we gained from those situations. As hard as it is often times, we thank you for the difficult times, acknowledging you did not once leave our side through those darker times.

*Pause in silence for a time to remember the hardships you endured this past year, and allow God to hold you through whatever it is you feel from them*

Lord, we thank you and we praise you for the wonderful and memorable times we had in 2017. We thank you for the joy that we shared with the people we love. We thank you for the triumphs we had and even thank you for the challenges 2017 brought, acknowledging that every triumph, challenge, and even failure we endured has made us to be more like the people you have called us to be.

*Pause in silence for a time to thank God for all the joyous things he has done in your life and in the lives of those around you*

God, We thank you for the endless grace that you offer to us daily. We acknowledge that we do not and will not ever deserve your grace or love, but that you give it to us each day, and for that, we thank you. Far too often we do not acknowledge the presence of you or of your grace in our lives, and for that, we are sorry. We ask that you would forgive us for the times in which we have sought to glorify ourselves instead of you, for the times we have ignored you or turned away from you, and for the times we have neglected to give you praise for amazing things that have happened in our lives that only you could have done.

*Pause in silence for a time to ask God for forgiveness*

We pray for the wisdom to know where you are leading us each day. We pray that you would guide our steps when we are unsure which way to go, and even when we think that we are sure.

Lord, take the plans we have made for ourselves, and wreck them completely. 

Show and tell us of the marvelous plans that you have for us, while helping us to remember that our plans are always insufficient compared to yours.

This year, God:

Take our fears and replace them with your promises.

Take our anxiety and replace it with your peace.

Take our sorrow and replace it with joy.

Take any obstacles and use them as opportunities for growth.

Take any desires to glorify ourselves and replace it with desires to glorify You.

Help us seek You over the things of this world.

God, we pray for growth in this new year.

We pray that you would give to us open minds to talk with people who are like us, as well as with people who are not like us. Help us to remember that we are all Your children, no matter ones race, political party, age, sex, ethnicity, physical, or mental state. We pray for your help in always remembering that no difference between any two people is great enough to prevent us from showing them the love of Christ. We also pray that we would always have open ears with which to listen to those who simply need to talk, may we be present and alert to those in need. We pray that we would have open hearts to welcome into our lives anyone who may need to experience the love of your Son, Jesus. And also open doors, to welcome both strangers and friends into our churches, homes, and lives, for we are all brothers & sisters in Christ.

We ask that you would bless this year of 2018, God.

We pray for the strength we’ll need that only you can provide, to face any challenges that may arise in 2018. We pray for a focus in 2018 that is constantly on you, and when our focus shifts, we pray that you would guide our eyes straight back to you.

We pray that this coming year, you would place in our lives an abundant amount of opportunities to serve in Your Name – opportunities to give our time, money, and love even when we feel we have nothing to offer – opportunities to serve others even when we would rather not – opportunities to be kind even when we’re having a bad day and would rather turn away – help us always choose to serve, and grant us the vision we need to always see those opportunities, and not turn a blind eye as we would often do.

In this new year, God, we pray that we, your servants, would be the hands & feet of your Son, Jesus. And finally, we pray for Your will, in 2018 – nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Optional: The Lord’s Prayer written below

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

This marks the end of this guided prayer. If you have any prayer requests at all that you would like to share, please feel free to leave them written in the comments section below.

 

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.