Sunday, December 8
Gathering up the straw of love
Start gathering the straw of good deeds for this week by spending this second Sunday of Advent reflecting on where you brought hope to someone last week.
What did you do as an individual, as a family and as a church to reach out to others?
Did you find hope for yourself in every act of kindness offered?
Now consider how you can bring love into the world this week. List the pieces of “straw” you will place in the baby’s bed that will show others the love of Christ.
Monday, December 9
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. — Isaiah 61:1
When Jesus said to visit those in prison, he was likely speaking about those who were unjustly imprisoned, like John the Baptist. In the Apostle Paul’s admonition to do the same, he was encouraging fellow believers to visit those who were imprisoned for the sake of the gospel.
Today, when we speak of the vulnerable, we need to remember the 2.7 million children of inmates in the United States, who themselves are prisoners of stigma and loneliness for having a parent in prison. For many, according to Prison Fellowship, an organization that works to bring hope and restoration to prisoners, families and communities impacted by crime and incarceration, these same children could easily follow their parents down the same destructive road to incarceration.
Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship, reaches out to the children of prisoners and their families with the love of Christ. The program gives individuals an opportunity to share God’s love by helping to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners. The program was founded in 1982 by an ex-prisoner who witnessed the strained relationship between prisoners and their families.
Straw for the manger: Make a donation or buy a gift for a child of a prisoner. More information can be found at prisonfellowship.org/about/angel-tree
Only you, Lord Jesus, can truly set us free from all of the chains that bind us and all of the prison cells that hold us. As we spread love to others, may they see your face and find grace to follow in the way of righteousness. Amen.
Tuesday, December 10
Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name. The righteous will
surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me. — Psalm 142:7
Prisons of all kinds encage us — prisons of loneliness, poverty, racism and grief. Memories of what once was, and of loved ones no longer with us, can be our wardens. These prison cells have invisible bars that keep the captive in and the visitor out. No other holiday season carries more emotional darkness than Advent.
Those imprisoned by loss, loneliness and injustice live in what may feel like solitary confinement. We can bring love into the lives of those who suffer through simple acts of compassion. With festive lights, a tree anchored in its stand or a shared meal, new memories are created and neighbors become loved ones.
Straw for the manger: Help decorate a home for Christmas for a neighbor who may have suffered a loss this past year, or who is elderly and unlikely to prepare their home for the holidays. You might even take a collection in church to help buy Christmas trees for families who you know are struggling financially.
Open our eyes to see those who live in solitary spiritual confinement; who remain locked in prisons of loneliness, sadness or loss. May we reach out to help unlock prison doors and keep them open. Amen.
Wednesday, December 11
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 11:19
My class in seminary had a large contingent of students from South Korea. After exam week my first semester, only days away from Christmas, I felt compelled to invite one of the Korean students to my home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. My husband agreed to pick up Dun Jin and take him back to his dorm later Christmas Day, about an hour from our house. Dun Jin was excited to not be alone on Christmas, so far away from his family.
There was a luminosity about Dun Jin, who was in his mid-20s. He had a solar flare of a smile and a light-beam personality. He was simply fun to be around. It was a Christmas that I remember as one of our richest, having him around our table, sharing stories of his life and what it was like to live in the shadow of North Korea. My son was only 8 years old at the time, and he showed Dun Jin every toy he had as my husband and I prepared for our extended family gathering. Dun Jin was a “captive” audience.
Inviting the stranger home means being granted a view of the world that is likely to change the view of our own.
Straw for the manger: Is there someone you know who is of a different culture, whose mother tongue is not your own, whom you could bring home for the holidays? Perhaps it is someone from church or someone from your child’s class. Invite them in. You may just be entertaining angels unaware.
Forgive us for treating strangers among us as if they were invisible. Open our hearts to see those we have made to feel unwelcome in our lives, our communities and our churches. Amen.
Thursday, December 12
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. — Philippians 4:8
Last year, after we finished our Thanksgiving feast and gave thanks for all of our blessings, my 23-year-old son sat by the hearth, staring into the fire. He said, “Why is it that on this day we say how grateful we are for all that we have only to rush out tomorrow to buy, buy, buy?”
In this season of never enough, we are often blind to those who work so hard for us, behind counters, at cash registers, on the floor and in the stockroom; those who serve us our meals when we are too exhausted to cook at home. Whom do we not see? Whom do we not acknowledge by name, even though they are wearing a name tag for all to see? Whom do we dehumanize in our daily lives without any clue that we are doing so?
Straw for the manger: Acknowledge those in the service industry by name. Write a positive review online or wherever the opportunity is, giving those who serve you high marks. Encourage children to follow suit, and to say thank you for what others do. Consider leaving a larger-than-average tip. Waitresses, for example, make on average less than $3 an hour. Children can offer their drawing or coloring work of art created on the backs of paper placemats as a way to say thank you to the waitstaff.
Our Lord and our God, you have called us to think on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. May we willingly take off the blinders we wear and treat all those who serve us with dignity and respect. Amen.
Friday, December 13
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted. — Isaiah 61:1
How does anyone bind up the brokenhearted? Grief shatters. No one can fix it or make it go away. Decades ago, I learned an unsettling truth about my father’s life. I cried and confronted him. I had to share the revelation with my siblings and my mother, his wife of 25 years before he divorced her. I needed to grieve his lie and all of the ways it had formed and deformed me. Within 24 hours of this revelation, an acquaintance called me. Her marriage was falling apart, and she needed to talk to someone. I didn’t want to listen to her story. I was too busy lamenting my own. But she came over to my house. She confessed that she had had an abortion and that her husband had been physically abusive. As I listened, as I worked to be present to her, the chokehold of my sorrow lessened. I came to understand something vital that day long ago. Sometimes the only way through the most downcast times of our lives is to reach out to others in their suffering and need. We are all broken. We all need one another.
Straw for the manger: Reach out to a friend or someone you know who is having a difficult emotional time. Maybe they are recently divorced, widowed or dealing with a troubled child. Have children or grandchildren draw or paint pictures for the person or family. Invite them to sit down and share whatever is on their minds.
God, in and through our brokenness, help us to reach out for the healing of others. May we find in such willing acts of compassion healing for ourselves. Teach us to be a soft place for others to fall. Amen.
Saturday, December 14
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I
praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know
very well. — Psalm 139:13–14
I’m watching as my 95-year-old mother ages about as elegantly as anyone possibly could. She didn’t retire from nursing until seven years ago. I have witnessed through her fading vision and hearing, and her slower walk through this world, that these losses are God’s way of loosening her tight grip on life itself, for there is too much beauty, wonder and awe to willingly leave behind.
A geriatric physician once shared with me that as we age, we are in a constant state of mourning. We might lose our independence and health. We might outlive our loved ones.
One way to offset these losses is to volunteer and bring comfort to others, which is something my mother does every day, in every way she can. Volunteering increases happiness and your sense of well-being.
For example, in many hospitals, neonatal intensive care units seek volunteers who are lovingly called “baby huggers” or “rockers.” These volunteers simply hold infants and read, talk or sing to them when their families can’t be at the hospital due to other commitments. The benefits of volunteering cannot be overstated, particularly for older adults. Research shows that such activities can reverse declining brain function, decrease depression and release dopamine in the brain — providing what is known as “the happiness effect.”
Straw for the manger: If you know someone who is suffering the losses of age, encourage volunteering. Offer to help them enroll in such a program, and if they can’t drive themselves, arrange for transportation.
God, let us not forget that we all need love to thrive, whether we are the smallest of infants or the oldest and most frail. When we hold others, let us feel your arms around us. When others hold us, let us feel their arms as your own. Amen.