As Advent winds down to its ending on Christmas Eve, I'm doing what I tell everyone else to do: take a moment to reflect in the midst of a trying season. Several things pop in my mind: being prayerful for those who really suffer this "happy" time of year. For those of you in mourning, our prayers and love surround you in your loneliness and pain. For those of you physically suffering right now, our hearts go out to you in your pain - if we could take it from you, we would. And for those of you caring for loved ones, we hope and pray you will sense the helpful encouraging presence of God in your soul in the midst of your tiredness.
For those of you in trying circumstances: the only thing that can make Christmas "merry" is to experience the deep love God has for you in your wounded heart. Know that you are loved. Know that you are not alone in your depression and sorrow and brokenness.
And I've been reflecting on gifts. Oh, gifts themselves aren't so important; however the thought behind every gift received does matter more and more. As the years pass, I'm learning that gifts take new and varied forms. The best gifts come with skin on them! (Here you will expect an exposition on the Incarnation. Well, that's too obvious. It's the ultimate gift. But here's the secret: the Incarnation is revealed in the hearts, minds and acts of the people - the believers- around us today.)
What am I talking about? Gifts with skin? Zebra skin rugs or something? Nah. It's all about YOU. You volunteering your time and talents in the name of Christ for others is the best gift of all. Why? Goes back to the Incarnation. You represent the Incarnation to others.
Perhaps the greatest present this Christmas is the way we use our God-given gifts to reflect the Light of the World. I am blown away by how many people we are helping directly in our community this Advent. The families dealing with domestic violence; the poor; the staff at Zachary Elementary School we've adopted. Walking in to the church office building today, there were three different areas where items were being collected for various missional activities, while in the foyer of the sanctuary there are loads of food piled up for distribution. Pretty amazing how many gifts we are giving others because we have received the gift of salvation.
There are other "gifts with skin on them" around here!
Jan Whiddon is a great gift. She keeps the church organized. She keeps the pastor organized. She is always pleasant, has a deep faith, and is a prayerful person.
Don Bass is a great gift. He's the most important person in the church. He keeps our church in great condition.
Jason Gafford is a great gift. He keeps our church grounds manicured.
Joe Dilmon is a great gift. He is a faithful steward. With Joe in charge, we have accountability and peace of mind regarding the church's business management. He is a hard worker and loves this church very much.
Cathy Borneman is a great gift. She's a great gift because she oversees a group of great teachers who make our Little School the best in the area.
Myrna Rabalais is a great gift. She is our financial secretary and is always a pleasant soul to be around, as well as a dependable steward.
Chris Stephens is a great gift. Do you realize how talented he is? We sometimes forget how blessed we are to have him.
Our new choir director is a great gift. Daryl Johnson is calm, cool and collected every Sunday morning. We are so blessed to have his leadership.
There's Cyndi Hadden. So faithful. So good at organizing the Sunday morning children's ministries. So good at inviting others to participate in this ministry.
The Stewarts - Lonnie and Susan - certainly have been a gift to so many persons of so many ages at ZUMC. They are truly devoted servants of Christ and they do amazing things in their quiet, humble way.
There's Jennifer Bass who does so much to ensure Wednesday night suppers run smoothly and deliciously.
Another gift is Emily Nevarez, who has transformed our website and maintains both it and ZUMC's presence on the internet via Facebook and Twitter.
Phil Gagliano and Mary Williams are great gifts to our church. Really, if I was gone for six weeks and they were gone for six weeks, whose absence would be more sorely missed? Theirs, hands down. After all, they keep the campus neat and sweet for the rest of us.
What about our sound people? Skip Hudson, John Hadden, Mark Antoine are keeping it real. They have made lots of improvements this past year and contribute to the high quality of worship we enjoy every Sunday morning. You're a gift.
It is so wonderful - such a gift - to pastor such an amazing group of people. The people - you - are the gift. Really, the church is people, not buildings. It's about people doing things great and small to make a difference in other's lives for the sake of the kingdom! It is the response to love.
Way to go Church!
Merry Christmas and God bless you all,
Advent: A Time of Preparation
In chapel this week, I told the Little School students that we have entered December, and we are to consider it a "birthday month" for Jesus. I got the idea for "birthday month" from hearing about so many people having not just a birthday but a birthday week! Really, it is a birthday month: we prepare to celebrate the birthday of someone we love. We call this time of preparation "Advent". Let's break this word down: ad- means toward; -vent means moving. So we are moving toward the celebration of the Incarnation. The four Sundays prior to Christmas Day are the Sundays of Advent. We hear the words the prophets spoke, prophecies the Christian Church has embraced as foretelling the Messiah's birth and clueing us in to the requisite preparations we must make to "prepare Him room" in our hearts. The liturgical color - purple - reminds us of the royalty of the Christ Child/King. The lighting of the Advent wreath - growing brighter each Sunday as an additional candle is lighted...and then on Christmas Eve, the large center white candle is lighted as a symbol of the coming of pure love - in the form of a baby - into our troubled world. There is also the large Chrismon tree at the front of the sanctuary; it is chockablock full of symbols representing Jesus Christ. All of these serve as aids to help us prepare once more for the deeper, truest meaning of Christmas: God loves us so much He gave us Jesus so we could know God in a deep and meaningful way, and consequently live deeper more meaningful lives on earth. So gather with me as we keep preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child!
Consecration Sunday Update:
Let me give you a final Consecration Sunday update:
108 families (couples/singles/youth) shared their Estimate of Giving with ZUMC to assist us in planning our 2014 ministry
One-third of these folks increased their commitment and support for 2014
Based on current patterns of support, we can expect to receive from all sources about $513,000 for mission and ministry in 2014
28 new families shared their Estimate of Generosity with ZUMC
30 families that had not shared their Estimate of Generosity in 2013 did so for 2014
195 families have financially supported ZUMC in 2013
The United Methodist Foundation has created a ministry centered on pastoral leadership. The program, "Leadership Excellence Advancement Program" (LEAP), has the goal of developing pastor's leadership abilities. Your pastor has been accepted to participate in this two-year program. There will be three retreats in 2014 and 2015; there will be numerous assignments to clarify leadership style; readings in leadership, interact with the congregation to improve skills such as preaching, community involvement, and cultivating congregational generosity; interaction with an executive coach and a clergy mentor, experience continued growth and map a plan for ongoing learning; and spend time in theological reflection on the nature of personal and congregational leadership. The Foundation has generously underwritten the cost of LEAP: the amount spent on continuing education will be the lowest since my beginning service here in 2003. There is no doubt ZUMC will benefit from this experience because I am committing myself to engage this congregation in my learning and development. This is an exciting opportunity that I hope and pray will be of great benefit to our congregation!