Sunday, December 1
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” — Matthew 25:37
Gathering up the straw of hope
On this first Sunday of Advent, consider what gives you hope. Who took notice of you when you felt discouraged or alone in the world? What was done for you?
Now think about your neighbors. For many, it is the season of magnified loneliness and despair. How might you, your family and the church be the flesh and bone of Christ in your neighborhood and beyond?
Make Christ known through the sign language of kindness — it’s the language that all people of every nation and tribe can understand.
Reflect on what you choose to do and how it affects you, your family, the church and the community at large.
Monday, December 2
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. — Isaiah 43:18–19
Who do you know who has lost hope? Maybe someone who was recently divorced or separated, or someone struggling as a single parent. Perhaps you know someone who is facing the holidays for the first time as a widow or widower. For those who have lost a loved one, this can be the most difficult season of the year to endure. How can you bring hope to the downhearted?
Human beings are relational by nature, and hope is strengthened or weakened by our interaction with others. We find hope in abundance when we give hope to those who have felt no arms around them, who are thirsty for the human milk of kindness, and who ache to see the face and hear the voice of someone who cares. Where you bring hope, you bring Christ.
Straw for the manger: Help someone you know who is downhearted by offering to do a simple chore or errand. Engage the entire family. Shovel the driveway, take the garbage cans to the curb or offer to do a house repair. Knowing one is not alone will bring a person, or a family, hope.
Jesus, we know that faith without works is dead. Through our simple actions, grow our hearts and the hearts of those we serve. Magnify our joy and the joy of those we care for. Renew our hope as we bring hope to others. Amen.
Tuesday, December 3
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. — Colossians 3:13
Sometimes friends betray us; sometimes we betray friends. We tell them there is no room in the “inn” of our life for them anymore. With every lost friend, the world is a lonelier and darker place.
Many years ago, a friend turned away from me when my marriage was breaking apart. There was nothing but a thorny silence between us, and for me at least, a quiet sadness. What amplified my disappointment was that I had been there for him when he had gone through a similar time.
Twenty-five years later, this long-lost friend called me. We talked for a few minutes. I was cautious but glad to hear his voice. We promised to meet over coffee sometime in the future. After the call ended, the weight of rejection, hurt, fear and anger — a burden I didn’t know I was lugging around — began to lift from my shoulders. Ever since, I’ve wondered about the millstones of broken relationships we carry around; about the harms and injustices committed against us, and the harms and injustices we have committed against others that crush our spirits. Reconciliation brings health to our bones and encourages peace in the world.
Straw for the manger: Make that difficult phone call or write a letter to a friend who has hurt you or whom you have knowingly hurt. Offer, or ask for, forgiveness. If the person is no longer alive, if you don’t know where the person is, or if receiving such a letter would stir up greater hurt, write it anyway. You can store it away or burn it afterward. For younger ones at home or in the congregation, encourage them to draw a picture or make a card to give to a friend who has hurt their feelings.
Forgive us for hurting and betraying friends, loved ones and strangers. Grant us the courage to reconcile, and be reconciled, whenever it is in our power to do so. Amen.
Wednesday, December 4
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. — Lamentations 3:22–23
Advent occurs in the darkest month of the year. So how can we make God’s light known? By showing mercy.
“If we are to love our neighbors before doing anything else, we must see our neighbors with our imaginations as well as with our eyes, that is to say … the life behind and within their faces,” writes Frederick Buechner.
But some faces, like Ethan Moyer’s, we will never see. And yet, he has shown exceptional mercy to strangers. Ethan was 20 years old when he was killed in a drunk-driving accident one block from his home. He had signed an organ donation card, and today his heart beats in another, his liver saves the life of an 8-year-old girl, and one of his lungs gave breath to a teacher, Ellie Doerr. Ethan’s gift allowed Ellie to spend another 7½ years with her family, and before she died in 2018, she looked at a photograph of Ethan’s face every morning and thanked him for the mercy shown to her.
Straw for the manger: Sign an organ donation card and encourage your loved ones to sign one, too.
Lord, you said that there is no higher expression of love than that a person lay down their life for another. May we give life to others, in your name, so that the heart of our faith may beat in another whose heart has failed. Amen.
Thursday, December 5
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. — John 13:34
How do we love others as Christ has loved us? Most of the troops who serve our country in the armed forces are separated from their families this time of year. Mothers and fathers will not be home to hold their children or be held by them, nor will they be able to share in the wonder and awe of Christmas. Can we even imagine the longing these parents experience? Bring Christmas to them. Let them know their living sacrifices are not forgotten.
According to Operation Gratitude, an organization that works to deliver care packages, it was one such package that saved a soldier who wanted to die on the battlefield. He had no loved ones back home. As he watched his comrades in arms receive packages, he began to suffer a deep depression. Every day he would go to sleep, wishing he wouldn’t wake up. He sought spiritual counsel with the chaplain, but nothing seemed to lift him out of his darkness. Then he learned there was a package for him. When he opened it, he started to cry, knowing someone cared.
Straw for the manger: Put together a care package for the troops. Include a handwritten letter and homemade treats. Add powdered drink mix for water — something men and women serving in hot, parched places love. Consider Operation Gratitude, which sends care packages to deployed troops, military families, veterans, wounded heroes and caregivers. More information can be found at operationgratitude.com.
Lord, we want to bring hope to those who are far away from family and who will miss out on the joys of the season. We pray that you will keep our troops safe and bring them home soon. Amen.
Friday, December 6
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of
the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. — Matthew 28:19
Humans crave community. For this reason, even for those who have little or no background in any faith tradition, there is a gravitational pull toward engaging in a community with shared values. Often it’s the belonging to one another, and to the ways the church is serving the neighborhood, that attracts believers and unbelievers alike to a congregation. Even the skeptical are drawn in when they see the way that members care for one another.
Carolyn Celli owned an antiques shop next to a small Presbyterian church in Stillwater, New Jersey, where she was a member. I frequented her shop and religiously she would invite me to attend church with her. I had been on hiatus from church for five years after my failed marriage. During that time, I had remarried, had a son and moved to Stillwater in 1997. A year later, my cousin’s 12-year-old son died in a house fire. A few days after that, I saw Carolyn and wept in her arms. Three months later, my father died shortly after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. On Father’s Day the following year, I took Carolyn up on her invitation. From that Sunday on, I rarely missed a worship service. By 2003, I was enrolled in seminary, and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in January 2007. One invitation changed my life.
Straw for the manger: Invite someone to church this time of year, when there are children’s pageants, musical celebrations and sing-alongs, which are less threatening for a visitor. Children can ask a friend from the neighborhood or a classmate to attend. Often parents begin to attend when a child has been invited and wants to return.
Lead us, O God, to be bold in inviting others to experience the body of Christ, to witness the ways that we love one another. Lead us to those who are hungry for you, who want to belong to others, and who may not even realize it. Let us go into this world, taking this simple first step to make disciples. Amen.
Saturday, December 7
O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! — Psalm 95:1
Music is all around us — a child’s laughter, bells ringing from church towers and Christmas music lifting the spirits of shoppers. Music heals, gives us hope and reminds us of heaven and its presence on earth. It stirs our blood, ignites forgotten memories and wraps us with warmth. To hear music, and to sing, is to give voice to grace. Medical research has proven that music relieves stress, reduces anxiety, cultivates community and can ease physical pain.
A retired Presbyterian minister, Betsy, volunteers to play her harp every Tuesday for patients at the local hospital. One afternoon, Betsy entered the room of Danielle, a 30-something woman I was visiting. Danielle had suffered her second massive stroke. After her first stroke, her husband divorced her. She clutched my hand and cried as she struggled to speak. She was afraid of losing what custodial rights she had of her 3-year-old daughter. As Betsy played her harp, peace came over Danielle. Her grip loosened, her speech became less slurred and her eyes seemed to follow the glittering, drifting notes as if they were a visible prayer, reassuring her that God heard her cry and that no battle was too great.
Straw for the manger: Gather the family or a group from church and go Christmas caroling door-to-door in your neighborhood or at a nearby assisted living facility. It will bring joy and refreshment, and for many, will stir happy childhood memories.
We sing, for we are full of joy as we anticipate the birth of the Christ child. May our voices, lifted high, uplift others. Amen.