What are we waiting for?

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Our wait is almost over.

In our worship services tonight, and in congregations all over the globe, the faithful will gather and light the Christ candle and sing of Christ’s birth.

We have spent four weeks preparing, attending to spiritual disciplines both communal and individual to make room in our hearts for the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby.

We’ve decked the halls, sent holiday cards, prepared for gift exchanges.

Some are preparing for travel to see loved ones for the first time in many months.

In the home I share with my spouse, we have marked the waiting time with lighting our own Advent candles on Sunday evenings.

Each day, I attach a little Velcro figure to a cloth Advent calendar depicting the nativity with all the characters (the animals are my personal favorites – there’s even a cat at the manger).

On this day, there is only one more candle to light – the Christ candle.

There is only one more little Velcro figure to attach to the cloth Advent calendar – that of the baby Jesus.

The story of Christmas tells us that our waiting has not been in vain.

We have faithfully prepared, and we will enter the season of joy that follows.

God has taken on flesh, and dwells among us, “full of wisdom and truth.”

It is curious, though. We already know the end of this story.

Jesus will be born, ready or not. And there is grace in that.

But there’s also a potential trap.

We can be fooled into thinking that the efforts around our preparation and waiting produce something.

Plainly described, we perform X number of actions during this season of preparation, and at the end Y happens – the birth of the babe.

Maybe we can flip this formula on its head:

What if God is the one doing the waiting?

… waiting on us to trust the unbounded grace God offers – no matter what we do

… waiting on us to love who and what God loves

… waiting on us to hear the divine “yes:” “You are mine, and I love you. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that”

… waiting on us to deeply understand that our hearts are already ready to receive God-in-Christ. Our hearts (and our entire beings) are created by a loving Creator. There’s already a God-shaped space in our hearts (with special thanks to St. Augustine for that insight).

May this Christmas be our season of joy, of grace, of mercy, of a communal “yes.”

What are we waiting for?

It came upon a midnight clear

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

“Season of Hope!” is our advent theme this year.

The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my favorites. It’s an old black and white movie.

At the beginning of the movie, a senior angel is talking to a junior, telling him about George Bailey.

The scene is set with a star-lit sky.

Although it’s two stars blinking at each other, it is evident that angels are talking to each other.

Clarence is the junior. Here is a bit of the conversation: 

Senior Angel: A man down on earth needs our help. 

Clarence: Splendid. Is he sick? 

Senior Angel: No, worse. He’s discouraged. 

It is easy to get discouraged and lose hope. Life happens.

For young ones, it’s falling off a bike, making a poor grade, losing a game or parents divorcing.

For young adults, it is not getting a job, house, or family that was hoped for in younger years.

For older adults, it can be that things are changing – new technologies, kids moving away or age discrimination.

For all ages, it’s broken relationships, losing loved ones and unrest in the world.

You name yours. There are numerous reasons that we get discouraged and lose hope.

There are so many wonderful Christmas carols. We have so little time to sing them all.

Often times in our haste to sing them all, we only sing one or two verses of each.

Sometimes, however, the most significant verses are in the middle.
 
This is true in the song, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

For background, the Greek word for “angel” means “messenger.”

This song describes angel messengers coming throughout all times, bringing us the message of peace and love.

Three of the verses speak of world conditions.

But the third verse, which is most often omitted, says this: 

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
 
As many of you know, my father died the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

I grieve for myself, but mostly for my mom, who literally lost her life-long love.

I’m thankful for those of you who have modeled “good grieving.”

I recognize that you put your trust in our merciful Lord in times of both sorrow and joy.

I find it ironic that I can feel both joy/peace and sorrow/grief at the same time. 
 
As I “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing,” these scriptures come to my mind:
 
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
 the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
 his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
 and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
 and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
 they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
 they shall walk and not faint. 

– Isaiah 40:28-31


But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

– Titus 3:4-5

 
Prayer:
Loving God, help me to take time to rest, to listen and to be renewed by your Holy
Spirit.

Help me to be the person you need me to be to bring peace on earth (or a least to those who are near me.)
 
Blessing:
May your hope be renewed this advent season.

And my tree is still up

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Pastor for Children and Families

The seasons are changing.

A new year. A new president. New vaccines.

Christmas has come and gone.

And Epiphany.

And we’re planning for Lent.

And my tree is still up.

The ornaments are packed up.

The nativities have been wrapped up.

The snowmen and penguins and stockings are boxed up.

But the tree remains.

It is currently covered in handmade paper snowflakes.

I expect come February it will be adorned with paper hearts.

Because my kids remembered a story.

I told them about a colleague of mine, the minister of music at the church where I served in the Houston area many years ago, who one year left her tree up the whole year.

With all that was going on in her life, in the church, and with family, she just never got around to taking it down after Christmas.

And then it was Easter.

And then it was summer.

And then she thought, well, by the time I take it down now I’ll just be putting it right back up!

So she left it up. The whole year.

My kids remembered. They begged. Please! Can we leave the tree up!

I guess if there was ever a season to make joyful memories, this is it.

So now that I have this tree in my living room, I wonder…

Well, I wonder how I’m going to dust it.

I wonder if my neighbors will be curious.

I wonder if it will bring joy to my children, excited at creating new decorations throughout the year. 

I wonder how often it will bring to mind other stories of those early days in Houston.

Stories of friends, of nurture, of beginnings.

I wonder if it might be a symbol of steadiness in our lives that seem to change by the week, by the day, sometimes by the hour.

I wonder how often we will tell each other that the evergreen in our midst reminds us of an even greater everlasting life, centered in Christ, the Christ-mas tree now in the center of every season.

I wonder what other practices we have and will discover to center ourselves, to ground ourselves, to stay rooted to who we are and who we were created to be.

I wonder how often it will make us smile.

I wonder what new stories will be born of this story.

The seasons are changing.

The story continues.

The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

Thanks be to God.

Carols, tunes and melodies for Christmas redux

Dr. Eldred Marshall, Artist-in-Residence and Associate Director of Music Ministries

EDITOR’S NOTE: This replaces yesterday’s First Reflections, which included a version of the video that was not final.

We apologize for any confusion, and hope you will enjoy – and share with your friends – this very special Christmas gift, albeit a day late, from the Music Ministry of First United Methodist Church Garland. 

On this day after Christmas, please accept a gift of music.

It is a ‘concert’ of sorts, featuring various instrumentalists and performers from local orchestras playing favorite Christmas carols.

Feel free to listen and share with family, friends and neighbors.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas treasures

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor

I finally brought out all the Christmas boxes today.

Not that they’ve all been unpacked, but I did pull them out of the closet, staged and ready to go.

The tree went up the day before Thanksgiving this year, but it stayed bare for several days.

Tonight we finished hanging the first box of ornaments, some of our favorites that I got when the kids were tiny.

Then I opened a second box that has many things I remember from my childhood.

I slowly unwrapped each item, found a place on the bookshelf for the angels and sheep, and tied the handmade ornaments on the tree.

A couple of the handmade ornaments were falling apart.

I found the craft glue and tried to fix them.

We’ll see in the morning whether I was successful or whether they will go back in the box.

I watched my kids handling all the decorations.

They are old enough to know how to be careful, but sometimes accidents do happen, and some items are just old.

Part of me cringed as I watched them, fearful that things would break, but I didn’t interfere.

I didn’t interfere because I remember being allowed to tie the handmade ornaments on the tree as a child (after I was “allowed” to iron the ribbons).

I remember sitting with my mom unwrapping the tissue-packed nativity.

I remember untangling strings of lights with my dad.

I remember crowding around the tree with my brother finding where our favorite ornaments were hung.

So the kids rearranged the nativity.

They hung ornaments on the tree, even the fragile ones.

And the collection of nutcrackers were lip syncing Christmas carols.

Will these treasures eventually fall apart? Of course.

But the deeper work will remain. The work of sharing story, time and love together.

It is the same with our faith.

Our journey with God is not something to be kept away for safe-keeping.

Our faith is meant to be interacted with, used, be part of our life.

It is meant to be shared with others, to bring joy, to share story, to bring hope, to remind us who we are.

Let’s be bold and get our faith out of the box!

It might get some wear along the way, but oh the shared stories, the new memories, the bold work, the ties formed.

It’s what we’re meant for.

It’s what we’re made for.

You are blessed to be a blessing.

Bringing home Bethlehem

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

On the way home from recording our video segment for A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, my husband Rick and I began to sniff.

Cumin! Fennel! Cinnamon!

This took us back to late nights after A Night in Bethlehem in past years.

Since Rick and I host the spices booth with awesome volunteers each year, we’ve come to expect and enjoy the scent of spices lingering in our nostrils and clothes.

We recalled stories from A Night in Bethlehem, and felt pangs of sadness at not being able to enjoy the wonder of Bethlehem in our church building this year.

But we also felt a sense of connection.

This year – on Friday, December 11 at 7:00pm – First United Methodist Church Garland will host A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, ushering the village of Jesus’ birth with all its swirling activity right into our homes. 

It’s a meaningful connection, don’t you think?

Along with all the sadness and frustration of our current crisis, we are being given the gift of relating what goes on in the church building with our homes.

Our dining tables have become altars, our living rooms and home offices sanctuaries for worship. 

It’s a “Temple-synagogue” dynamic. 

In ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the locus of worship, sacrifice and festivals.

God’s Presence was understood to dwell in the Temple. But the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 BCE.

Great swaths of the population were deported into forced exile hundreds of miles away.

And so the question arose, “If we can’t worship in the Temple, then where is God? And how do we worship?”

The synagogue was the answer to that dilemma. 

Groups of exiles began gathering to read the scriptures, to chant the Psalms, and to pray together.

(The word “synagogue” comes from a Greek noun that means “assembly” or “gathering.”)

The gatherings of worship cropped up wherever the people of God lived.

As they worshipped, they realized God wasn’t confined to the Temple.

God was with them, wherever they were! 

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were a lay-reform movement that sought to bring the practice of worship and Torah beyond even the synagogue.

They wanted to bring faith practice into everyday life.

Blessings, ushering in the Sabbath, communing at the table over a meal, welcoming the stranger as guest – all of these were part of worship practice that moved into the homes of practicing Jews.

(One of the things Jesus argued with the Pharisees about centered around some of these very questions – How do we worship God with our whole being, day in and day out? How do we practice Torah in any given situation?)

The early Christians experienced something similar: since there were occasions they weren’t welcome in the synagogue, or if they found themselves in a town where there was no synagogue, then how would they worship?

They gathered in homes, sharing the Lord’s Supper, searching the scriptures, praying together.

And God was with them.

Our virtual worship invites us to engage in these very questions ourselves.

We gather virtually, making our homes places of worship that connect to other worshippers.

Some segments are recorded in our sanctuary, inviting us to mirror what’s happening in the sanctuary in our own homes.

In the coming season of Advent and Christmas, you will see the Advent candles being lit in the sanctuary.

In addition, families will lead us in lighting the Advent candles in their own homes, connecting our home space with the formal worship space of the sanctuary ever more deeply.

We miss our sanctuary – especially at this time of the year.

Pandemic fatigue compounds this.

But God is with us, wherever we are. All the time.

Connecting us to each other and to the world through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

We can trust God’s presence with us, and give thanks.

So we wait

Josh Medlock, Director of Student Ministries

Were you one of the millions of people watching the election results this past Tuesday night?

Were you surprised that we didn’t have a clear winner that evening?

Are you surprised that as of this morning, we still haven’t had an official winner declared for the office of President of the United States?

My friends, the statement “It’s 2020” applies here.

We say that now whenever something happens that is unusual, unplanned, or seems to affect everyone all at once.

This year has been one of firsts for all of humanity in many regards.

It has been a year filled with uncertainty and the inability to plan ahead. At least it has for me.

Many of you know that I am indeed a planner. All of the events for First Youth this year were planned in 2019.

Of course with the pandemic almost all of those plans fell through or had to be radically changed.

So here we are in November.

Halloween has passed. Thanksgiving is coming.

I waited patiently for Halloween to see how many kids would actually knock on my door this year.

The bell rang seven times. Then it was over.

I have to be honest and tell you that I really didn’t feel anything once it was gone and over with.

Nor was I upset that the bell only rang seven times.

I felt a slight twinge of sadness for the little ones who were denied the opportunity to go out and celebrate the holiday with friends and family.

But at the end of the day I was actually glad more people weren’t out. It meant many chose to stay home and stay safe.

It’s 2020. 

Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

Usually by now we have had conversations about whose house we celebrate at this year, the menu, what time we are eating, who is bringing what … you know, all the normal stuff that families do to get ready to gather for a holiday.

This year is different. We are just now talking about it at my house.

Determining whether we will gather with a lot of family is difficult this year. Do we risk it? Who is going to wear a mask and who isn’t? Will anyone be sick?

I am not really worried about the menu or whose house we will be at.

I am now wondering if we will know who the President will be by then. Surely we will … right?

It’s 2020. 

Christmas is coming!!! Christmas is coming!!!

I am one of those dads who waits until AFTER Thanksgiving to put up any Christmas decorations.

This year, I found myself hunting for the Christmas boxes yesterday in the garage.

I am thinking we will have ours up by the end of next week. That will be a first for me.

I am feeling uncertain and would like to surround myself with a little joy and happiness.

Hard not to be joyful during Christmas.

The music, the trees, the lights, the nativity set.

We get to celebrate the biggest thing to happen to humanity…the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.

So move over Thanksgiving, Christmas is coming early at my house this year.

It’s 2020. 

Right now I find it difficult to navigate social media without getting angry or frustrated.

I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news and try to wade through what is accurate and what is not.

I am realizing that not everyone is seeing what I am seeing or hearing what I am hearing, and that makes it difficult to have meaningful and transformative conversations.

I am not sure if any of you are having the same problems or feelings right now.

If you are, then like me, you find yourself once again waiting.

Waiting for the chaos to settle.

Waiting for love to replace the hate filled speech and actions of those around us.

Waiting for discernment and wisdom to replace ignorance and selfish ambition.

We wait.

The whole world waited over 2000 years ago, when God chose to be among us in human form through Jesus the Christ.

A new way, a new beginning, a new wisdom was shared with us and transformation began.

Through his suffering and death, that transformation is still happening.

We struggle to see transformation right now because our eyes are focused on worldly things.

These things have distracted us and distanced us from being in relationship with one another and with God.

We recently discussed the word HOPE in First Youth during one of our virtual lessons.

I reminded them that we can have hope because we have made it through dark times before.

Every one of us, at some point in our lives, has been through a trauma or situation that we could refer to as “dark times.”

Some of us have been through these times more often than others.

But one thing remains true for all of us … we are still here.

If you are reading this, then you made it through.

It may not have turned out the way you hoped. You may not have gotten the results you wanted.

Things are most certainly different because of it. But you made it through.

And we will make it through 2020. Things may not turn out the way you hoped. You may not get what you wanted. Things will definitely be different.

God is transforming the world. We are being transformed.

God is with us, always. Now and forever. So have hope.

The light is going to turn green and we are all going to go through the intersection.

We have no idea what that road looks like right now, but we will navigate it together and God will be with us.

We just have to wait.

I think I am going to dig out the Christmas boxes today.

Maybe the neighbors won’t be too upset if I hang the outside lights up next week.

Guess I will have to wait and see.

Blessings and the Peace of Christ be with each of you.

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