Advent, week 2

By Bruce Stanley, president / CEO

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. –Matthew 3:3-4

As we deck the halls of our administration building we put out several Christmas creches. Each is unique; They are from different countries, different cultures, and made from different materials including pewter, wood, and ceramic. While the styles vary, the substance does not. In each there is a manger, a holy family, a shepherd’s crook, sheep, and wise men bearing gifts.

Those are the beautiful and celebrated parts of the Christmas story. Yet they do not tell all of the story. There is one essential character in the narrative who has already come and gone in Matthew’s narrative: John the Baptist.

Every year this awkward, unkempt guest shows up on the second Sunday of Advent. He comes unwashed, out of the wilderness, with challenging words of repentance and accountability for our sins. He is wearing a camel’s hair shirt and a barbed belt that purposefully chafes him each time he moves as a reminder of his sins. No Christmas cookies for him. He eats severely – only wilderness foods. While he seems out of place and unwanted, his importance cannot be denied. His awkwardness is essential to Christmas.

Many times as a pastor I have seen the unwashed, unexpected, or uninvited guest become the one who ushers in the Christmas spirit. Grace UMC in Wilmington is located on the same block as the Cape Fear Gospel Rescue Mission. In my second year of ministry we planned a Christmas party with the mission. The idea, of course, was that we, the advantaged, would provide presents/party/program for the disadvantaged. We shared a wonderful meal, we handed out presents, and then our choir led us in Christmas carols.

Unexpectedly, in the midst of the caroling, one of the homeless residents stood. He was tall and so slender as to suggest chronic hunger. His hair was clean but unkempt and he had a couple days stubble on his chin. In wavering southern voice, he spoke in the idiom of the rural church. He said, “I want to favor you with a special.” Then, without accompaniment or permission, he sang ‘O Holy Night.’

When he sang the words, “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” we all teared up. His voice was untrained. He wandered between sharp and flat. And yet, this awkward, unexpected soloist who came to us out of the “weary world” brought us into hope and rejoicing. Forty years have passed, yet I can still see his flannel shirt and blue jeans. I hear his untrained voice not with my ears now but with my heart. We who thought we were bringing the gifts were given a greater one. I doubt he ever realized that he was “the voice of one singing out in the wilderness,” but that day he prepared the way of the Lord.

As we wait and prepare for Jesus to come, let us do so with a renewed appreciation for the role that all of God’s children have to play in our lives. Let us actively welcome those who come from wilderness or weary world.

Read Advent, week 1
Read Advent, week 2
Read Advent, week 3
Read Advent, week 4


Advent, week 1

By Bruce Stanley, president / CEO

Watch therefore, and pray without ceasing, that ye may be accounted worthy … to stand before the Son of Man. –Luke 21:36

For the second time in four years our family finds itself preparing for the marriage of one of our children to a fantastic person. Joy is overflowing our hearts and we are counting down the minutes. Decisions have been made, details decided, rethought, and decided again. The planning and preparations are complete. With only two weeks before the wedding, we sit on the edge of our seats with high anticipation.

The first wedding we celebrated was for our daughter; this time, our son. Because of convention and cultural norms, there has been a marked difference in the amount of work involved. At this point I will readily admit to what you already surmise – as the dad I have done none of the heavy lifting. Because all involved want the events to be tasteful and refined, my contributions have been limited to offering praise, affirmation, and applause.

From my father’s sideline seat I have been struck by the marked difference in effort required of our family this second time through. For our daughter’s wedding I was asked to be attentive to details large and small for months and months. For our son, not nearly as much has been asked. While I have been looking forward to his wedding, I confess that even as dresses are selected and accessorized, the menu for the rehearsal dinner chosen, and family travel solidified, it wasn’t until last week when a package for our son (who lives in San Francisco) came that the moment to be seemed close upon me.

I reflected some that night that my level of necessary preparation for the two events has been greatly varied. In the words of Luke 21:36, for my daughter’s wedding it felt that it was indeed “watch therefore and pray without ceasing.” For my son’s wedding, I am clearly joyous and looking forward to it but honestly my level of watchfulness has not been as high.

Further reflection revealed that this varied level of preparation and watchfulness applies not just to impending nuptials, but also to my approach during Advent. I know that during some years I have been constant in prayer and Bible study and I marked the days of the Advent calendar without fail. In other years my preparation has been more episodic and periodic. I am convinced that in most if not all of life, anticipation is likely to exceed participation. In years in which I prepared little for Advent, I gained little. In years in which it was priority, I gained spiritually.

With this renewed understanding, I am fully and completely committing to preparation for the coming of the truly great event, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I invite you to also rededicate yourself to intentional preparation for the joy that is to come.

Read Advent, week 1
Read Advent, week 2
Read Advent, week 3
Read Advent, week 4


Advent Series

Week 1

The days are surely coming says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called, ‘The Lord is our Righteousness.’
Jeremiah 33:14, 16

When news spread of the massacre of the faithful at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, my siblings and I reached reflexively for one another. Immediately my older brother Mark shared with us a connection he had to that congregation.

His beloved wife of 29 years, Von, now deceased, was best friends with Carol – Carol who was maid of honor in their wedding. Shortly after graduating from West Virginia University, Mark and Von moved to Pittsburgh where Carol had grown up and where she had returned. Carol married Marvin, and together Marvin and Carol became part of Tree of Life. Mark said with emotion, “That’s Carol and Marvin’s church. Von and I were there for bar and bat mitzvah for their children, their graduation parties from high school, and other functions. What an awesome congregation; what a horrible thing to consider.”

Now whether this slaughter took place in Portland or Pittsburgh, whether it was Baptist or Jewish, does not change the terror of what occurred. And yet, the fact that my brother Mark directly knew members of the congregation, and had sat in the pew and broken bread in their fellowship hall, caused the event to have a greater impact on us. I have not seen Marvin and Carol since Von’s funeral, yet upon hearing this it felt as if they were near. Personal connection, even across time and distance, matters.

This is why Jesus came and lived among us. We celebrate a Lord who not only loves, but has lived among us and as us. He endured temptations as do we. He experienced joy and frustration, heartache and success. He lived our life and died our death so that we might one day realize the promise of Jeremiah. As we enter into the season of waiting, Advent, we do so with confidence that we are not loved from a distance. Jesus has come, is come, will come. We call upon his person to be with us fully and completely.

Come Lord, let Judah be saved and Jerusalem live in safety.

Read Advent Week 2
Read Advent Week 3
Read Advent Week 4