Advent Devotion: The Journey from Christmas

Scripture ReadingIf you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil work; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.

Isaiah 58:10

God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus He has created us for a life of good deeds, which He has already prepared for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

MeditationAmong my fondest Christmas memories are the Christmas Eve services at Fredericksburg Baptist Church –the traditional hymns, the candles, the sense of family, big and small.  It is a time of great joy when we allow ourselves to think about new beginnings and hope for a better world.

In many ways that is the essence of Christmas.  It is a journey toward hope.  But God’s call to each of us is to put hope into action.  It would be a mistake to only see the joy and hope that the baby Jesus represents and not listen to the rest of the story, the story of God’s call to reconciliation for each of us and for those whose lives we touch every day.  Our response to the journey after Christmas must be, “Here I am Lord, send me.”

Thus, as we celebrate this holy day, we must recognize that the journey to Christmas was to prepare us for the hard work of the journey from Christmas.  The road is long and filled with trials but the Jesus we meet on Christmas Day travels with us, if we choose to let Him.  And He transforms us on the journey. 

 These words from John Westerhoff, III say it well:

We have been called into a visionary community to risky, laughable lives of tomorrow’s people, to live in and for God’s dream, to witness to a world of peace and unity, freedom and equality, of justice and well being for all people.  We are called to accept the cost and the joy of discipleship, to proclaim the word and deed of the good news of God’s dream come true.  God promises us courage and strength in the struggle for peace and justice; God forgives us our failures and lifts us up to new possibilities; God is present in our trials and rejoicing and hopes from this day forward.

Prayer:  Oh Lord, thank You for the joy of Christmas and Your gift of hope wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Please travel with us on the journey ahead and continually remind us that if we are faithful to the trek, not only will we find friends along the way, not only will we find the beautiful and the true and the good and the lovely and the delicious tastes and sounds and smells and sights given to us by the Creator of the journey …but we will also catch a vision of what is at the end of the road.  Amen.

      (paraphrase from Ken Medema)

Advent Devotion: Servant Leadership

Written by Fred & Ginny Karnas Narrated by Laura Severns

Scripture:  Then [Jesus] poured some water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist . . .  “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet.  You, then, should wash one another’s feet… Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice!”  

John 13: 5, 14, & 17

Meditation:  A life-sized bronze statue of Christ stands outside the Christ House building on Columbia Road in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of northwest Washington, DC.  It is a statue of the “Servant Christ” kneeling with a bowl of water to symbolically wash the feet of whoever passes by.  

Marie worked as a cook at Christ House, and she learned the truth Jesus was teaching when He washed His disciples’ feet.  She acquired the servanthood of love.  Her smile lit up any room, and her cheerful willingness to alter or add to her already-busy schedule bore witness to her inner light of love.  For instance, there were occasions when a Christ House patient would develop a need for a special dish or diet such as chicken soup or clear liquids.  Marie wouldn’t just open up a can of soup; she would make some from scratch!  She lived out Christ’s command to be a willing, loving servant to others.

Marie was born in Kenya, and over the years she saved up enough from her modest pay to obtain a better home for her father who still lives in that African country.  When others needing homes moved in with him, she saved again to enlarge the dwelling.

The salt and light of Marie’s life made me want to give my best to the work at Christ House.  Thus, she became a leader for me through her servanthood.  Often on my way into work at 7:00 a.m. I would see Marie walking to early Mass, knowing she had a full day of hard work in the Christ House kitchen ahead of her after worship.  I had to admit to myself that I probably would have slept later most of the time instead of going to early church on a workday.

As God’s glory was shown 2,000 years ago in the lives of the humble Mary and Joseph who were willing servants of God, so the glorious love of the Savior was shown in the life of the humble cook, Marie.

Prayer:  As this holy season approaches, may we learn better to tread the journey of humility and servanthood which You, dear Lord, have journeyed before us.  May we learn in the doing of it, that loving servanthood is, paradoxically, the road to joy.  Amen.

Introduction to Fred & Ginny’s Devotional Series

Advent Devotion: ‘Tis as Blessed to Receive as To Give

Written by Ginny & Fred Karnas Narrated by Meg Lacy Vega (recorded in 2019)

ScriptureDo not be deceived my dear brothers!  Every good gift and every present comes from heaven; it comes from God….” (James 1:17)

Meditation:   For much of my life I have not been very good at accepting gifts.  I guess I could blame it on an upbringing that etched on my brain the old adage, “‘Tis better to give than receive.” 

I suppose that this saying is a useful tool for providing a perspective for children overwhelmed by the desire to receive, but as guidance for building relationships it is not very helpful.  

I have no specific memory of who helped me understand the subtle message of a reluctance to receive, but the value of that lesson has come home to me on many occasions as homeless friends, children, and others have sought to say “thank you” or “happy holidays,” or “I love you” with a simple gift. I have come to understand my acceptance of that gift is an acknowledgment of their humanity, that we are equals in the eyes of God, and that I have a need that they can fill.  I now believe that accepting a gift can be as much of an act of love as giving one.

On Christmas Day in 1986 an op ed piece entitled, “Gifts from the Homeless “appeared in the New York Times.  Written by author Jonathan Kozol, the short piece reminded us of the gifts we receive daily even from those who live on our city streets.

A homeless father of two children whom I met the other day in San Antonio told me that he sells blood twice a week to buy the food to feed his sons.  They sleep with him at night along a railroad track… Those of us who can afford to go to hospitals when we are sick should give thanks to those who offer us their blood – perhaps the one thing we might have supposed that they could call their own.

A woman who sleeps beneath the asphalt roadway of the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon, donates her body for medical experimentation at a local hospital and earns thereby enough to buy the heavy padded clothes she needs to make it through the winter.  Let us thank her for the health she gives us.

An important lesson on the journey to Christmas is that each one of us is created in the image of God and that our relationships to one another, to be honest and healthy, must recognize the contributions we all make.

PrayerLord, thank You for all the gifts we receive this season.  Help us to understand that receiving can be an important and loving act as we build relationships with those whom we encounter each and every day.  Amen. 

Advent Devotion: The Phoenix Bird

Written by Fred & Ginny Karnas

Scripture When anyone is joined to Christ, he [or she] is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come.   (II Corinthians 5:17)

MeditationIn the old terminal of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport one finds a large, brightly colored mural depicting the legendary phoenix.  Egyptian mythology tells of a bird that rises from its own ashes to live again.

FBC’s 1995 mission team to Prague, Czech Republic went there to help raise the International Baptist Theological Seminary (ITBS) from the ashes of what had been a Nazi army camp during World War II and a Communist scientific laboratory compound during the Cold War.  We went to work with paint, cement, muscle, sweat, and prayer to renovate this site of former evils into a hope-filled place of beauty where Christ’s life-giving love is now proclaimed.  Although ITBS is no longer in existence, for nearly three decades the seminary made it possible for Christians from many lands to be equipped for spreading the gospel in their own countries.

While we labored to renovate the buildings of the old site, which contained some structures dated to the 1700’s, God was working on renovation in some of our lives, as no doubt has been true on many mission trips Tabernacle has sponsored

Sometimes these life “renovations” come not through pleasant experiences such as missions trips, but through painful ones which are difficult for us to understand.  C.S. Lewis uses a beautiful metaphor to illustrate how Christ brings about change in our lives:

Imagine yourself as a living house.  God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on:  you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.  But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.  You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage:  but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself.

The last verse of the age-old hymn by Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” echoes this theme of renovation:

Finish, then, Thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be;

Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee:

Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Have you invited the Christ Child into your heart for renovation?

Prayer:  O Lord, thank You for loving us so much that You were willing to come to earth as a lowly Babe, to suffer, die, and rise again for us, and now to transform us into a place where You may dwell.  This Christmas may we willingly enlarge the place of Your dwelling in our lives.  Amen.

Advent Devotion: The Gift of Diversity

Written by Ginny and Fred Karnas

ScriptureYou were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak with the life of Christ himself.  So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:27-28

MeditationSimeon and Anna, the shepherds, the Magi….an eclectic collection of visitors to the young Jesus, but in their differences of class, gender and maybe even race, they shared a single purpose …they sought to be closer to God’s love, to understand His ways and His plan for their lives.  As we journey to Christmas, we should celebrate all those who journey with us, especially those who are different from us, and through those differences help us to see the face of God.

It was another steamy summer morning in inner-city Norfolk, Virginia when Steve opened the doors of the small Methodist church and welcomed the children of this vibrant, yet struggling, African American neighborhood to the daily recreation program.  As the children shuffled, bumped and sped their way in, I stood there watching with my five summer mission teammates.  I was just shy of my 21st birthday and yet I marveled at the exuberance of the youngsters.  That morning would proceed like most of the others that summer, a cacophony of laughs and cries mixed with the stickiness of lemonade spills and Elmer’s glue excesses.  Just before lunchtime, as I sat outside watching a game of kickball, the littlest of all the children, Joellyn, climbed into my lap and began to run her fingers through my hair.  After a couple of minutes of research, the four-year old exclaimed, “You have baby hair.”  

In a moment she was off and running once again and I was left to ponder the meaning of the differences God created in each of us.  I suppose Joellyn was referring to the way my hair felt compared to the hair texture of the African American adults with whom she spent most of her time.  In the many years that have ensued since that moment I have come to see beauty in our differences as they teach each of us a little more about what it means to be made in the image of God, and give us a greater understanding of the breadth of His love.  I am reminded of the beautiful Christmas song which helps us understand how the baby Jesus is seen through the eyes of children around the world.

Some children see Him lily white,

 the baby Jesus born this night.

Some children see Him lily white

 with tresses soft and fair.

Some children see him bronzed and brown,

 the Lord of heaven to earth come down.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown

 with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond eyed,

 the Baby whom we kneel beside. 

Some children see Him almond eyed

 with skin of yellow hue.

Some children see Him dark as they, 

 sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.

Some children see Him dark as they, 

 and ah they love Him too.

The children in each different place 

 will see the baby Jesus’ face

 like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace

 and filled with holy light.

Prayer:    Lord, this Christmas season help us to celebrate Your Kingdom.  Help us to recognize that in our differences we can learn a little more about Your love and Your plan for all of us.  Amen.

Advent Devotion: The Widow and the School Crossing Guard

Written by Ginny & Fred Karnas Narrated by Rachel Brock (2019)

Scripture: … the Lord Jesus himself said, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.”  (Acts 20:35b)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.   (Luke 10:27)

Meditation:  Lupe was a school crossing guard who lived with her husband and four school-aged children in a very small tarpaper dwelling in southside Phoenix, Arizona.  Her neighborhood of poor Hispanics, Native Americans, and elderly and mentally ill boarding home residents was not the pictorial stuff of travel brochures about sunny Phoenix.  As a neighborhood in the flight path of Sky Harbor International Airport, it was noisy, but most residents paid little attention to that until they were forced to move due to airport expansion in the mid-seventies.

Lupe enjoyed little of the world’s riches, but her soul was rich in faith which produced the gifts of God’s Spirit.  I can still see the light of her smile in my mind’s eye.  Because of her deep love for God, Lupe named her sons Moses and Solomon.  She made sure her children were in Sunday School and church every week and at every activity offered for their age groups at the Phoenix Baptist Center where we led Bible studies, sewing, crafts, recreation, and other activities.

Though she had very little in the way of material goods, Lupe was always finding a way to give – a shared meal, babysitting time, a hanging flower pot with a macramé holder she had made, and a small stuffed animal which our daughter, then a toddler, still cherishes to this day.

Lupe had learned the Christmas lesson that the widow in the Bible who gave her famous mite had learned centuries earlier – that it is more joyful to give than to receive.  They learned this truth and lived it out because they loved God with a passion that came close to total devotion – heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, may we who have most of what we want and much more than we need become more like the widow and Lupe who gave from their little.  As we journey toward Christmas, may we give passionately to You of heart, soul, mind, and strength, so that we may know You more deeply as the Ultimate Giver.  Amen.

Advent Devotion: Simple Gifts

Written by Ginny & Fred Karnas Narrated by Hogan Brock (2019)

ScriptureDo not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mathew 6:19-21)

MeditationIt was a few days before Christmas when I saw the homeless man walking through the alley behind our office building.  I had seen him many times before as he wandered through the neighborhood looking for cans to sell.  He always came carrying a large garbage bag or pushing a shopping cart and went about his chore in a quiet and business-like manner, seldom staying anywhere long enough to say hello, or be caught by those who didn’t appreciate his entrepreneurial spirit.

On this particular day when I saw him in our back parking lot, I remembered that I had a large bag full of cans in the trunk of our car that I had been meaning to drop off at a recycling center for weeks.  I immediately determined that I could eliminate my task and perhaps provide the homeless “canner” with a little more capital than usual.

He was a bit wary when I popped out the back door of the office and got his attention, but I assured him I meant no harm.  I merely wanted to offer him something I had in the trunk.  

He stood by me silently with no real expression as I opened the trunk and pulled out what for him was an entire day’s haul of cans.  

As I handed him the bag, he realized what I was giving him and his expression changed dramatically.  A smile came across his face.  He looked me in the eye and in a loud voice he exclaimed, “Well, Merry Christmas!!”

Christmas is about joy.  Too often, however that joy is complicated by unreasonable expectations, endless advertisements, and the crush of holiday events, and, as a result, opportunities for small acts of love are missed.  But in that brief moment, the homeless man taught me that the joy of Christmas can come in the simplest of ways when we seek to cross the barriers that divide us one from another. 

PrayerLord, help us cut through the drudgery of shopping and the dint of expectations to embrace the simple gift of a Baby in a manger and Your eternal gift of love to each of us.

Introduction to Ginny and Fred’s Devotion Series

Advent Devotion: The Sacred Romance

Written by Fred & Ginny Karnas Narrated by Sterling Severns

Scripture:  For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not die but have eternal life.  (John 3:16)

MeditationIn their book, The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldredge discuss the various metaphors used in scripture to describe God’s relationship to us.  God is the Potter, we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8).  Christ is the Shepherd, we are the sheep (Psalm 23).  We were God’s enemies, but through Christ we are now His friends (Romans 5:10).  Christ is the first among many brothers and sisters (Romans 8:29). God is the Father, we are His children.  But, they write, the most amazing metaphor is that of God as the Lover and us as the beloved (Hosea’s undying love for his unfaithful wife, Gomer; Christ as the Bridegroom, the church as His bride).

But the authors point out in a quote by the Christian author, Philip Yancey:

Power can do everything but the most important thing:  it cannot control Love… In a concentration camp, the guards possess almost unlimited power.  By applying force, they can make you renounce your God, curse your family, work without pay, . . . kill and then bury your closest friend or even your own mother.  All this is within their power.  Only one thing is not:  they cannot force you to love them.

Curtis and Eldredge explain that the reason God gave us freedom to choose is that He wanted lovers, not puppets.  God is inviting us to become involved in a romance with Him!

The great philosopher, Kierkegaard, uses the analogy of a king who dearly loves a lowly maiden, but knows that while he can force her to become his bride, he cannot force her to love him.  To win her heart, he gives up his throne and goes to her dressed as a beggar.  God in Christ has done just that to win our love!

Again, Philip Yancey writes, “The deepest longings we feel on earth, as parents, as lovers, are mere flickers of the hungering desire God feels for us.  It is a desire that cost Him the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.”  This Christmas, how will you and I respond to this sacred Romance?  And what will it cost us?

Sung prayer:  What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,

                        What wondrous love is this, O my soul!

                What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss

                To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,

                        To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.   (USA folk hymn) 

Introduction to Ginny and Fred’s Devotion Series  

Advent Devotion: Seeing Each other With New Eyes

Written by Fred & Ginny Karnas Narrated by Mamie Ruth (Hitchens) Blanton

Seeing Each Other With New Eyes

Scripture:  What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to- face.  (I Corinthians 13: 12).

For where two or three come together in My name, I am there with them. (Matthew 18:20)

 Now go to the main streets and invite to the feast as many people as you find. (Matthew 22:9)

MeditationJames was admitted to the Christ House medical recovery facility looking very disheveled.  His hair was very long, he had a frightened look in his eyes, and his hands shook from many years of alcohol abuse.

We got him a shower, a haircut, a bed, and medicine to pull the poisons from his brain that his damaged liver could no longer neutralize.  We also got him help for his drinking problem.  Slowly the tremor in his hands improved.  Slowly, very slowly, the look of fear in James’ eyes became an off-and-on occurrence instead of constant.  James began to trust our care for him.  He had finally found some peace, and he began to open up and talk.  We had not gotten to know him for who he was until he had had time to know and trust us.

Our Fredericksburg Baptist Church pastor, Larry Haun, shared a similar story with me regarding the new outreach ministry of Community Meals which the church had begun.  Larry said that people who used to approach him on the street for food or money are now sitting and talking with him over the shared meal as you and I would.  Others have reported the same experience to Larry.  People are beginning to know each other as individual persons, instead of “homeless” or “church people.”  They are participating in God’s call to be peacemakers.

There’s a Thursday night tradition at Christ House called Table Fellowship when Christ House patients, former patients who live in a nearby companion-ministry house called Kairos (“God’s time” or “God’s timing”), and friends and staff share a meal, singing, a devotional, the Lord’s Supper, and fellowship.  Fredericksburg Baptist Church’s Community Meal was very similar – a place where barriers between people are getting torn down and Christ is invited to be the Guest of honor.

Prayer:  Thank You, holy and gracious God, for empowering us to become peacemakers by tearing down old walls and building new bridges.  Thank You for blessing us with Your awesome presence when we gather in Your name.  Keep our eyes fixed on You to give us strength for the long haul.  Amen.

Introduction to Ginny and Fred’s Devotion Series

Advent Devotion: What is Peace?

written by Fred & Ginny Karnas narrated by Penny Jenkins

What is Peace?

ScriptureOur God is merciful and tender.  He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.”  (Luke 1:78-79)

MeditationAs Christmas approaches, songs of peace often emanate from our lips.  But do we know what peace looks like?  

When we initially wrote these devotionals, there was much talk of war in Iraq, even as our nation continued to struggle with the problems in Afghanistan, Palestinian areas, and Israel.  Today, 17 years later, we still are dealing with the remnants of those wars.  And, in other corners of the world, peoples and countries spend their precious resources to take the lives and livelihoods of their neighbors.   Despite the current state of the world, the Christmas journey calls us toward peace.   But what does peace look like in a world so torn apart?  Isaiah (65:18-24 CEV) offers this alternative for our world:

Celebrate and be glad forever!

I am creating a Jerusalem full of happy people;

I will celebrate with Jerusalem and all of its people;

There will be no more crying or sorrow in that city.

No child will die in infancy;

Everyone will live to a ripe old age.

Anyone a hundred years old will be considered young, and to die younger than that will be considered a curse.

My people will live in the houses they build;

They will enjoy grapes from their own vineyards.

No one will take away their homes or vineyards.

My chosen people will live to be as old as trees,

 and they will enjoy what they have earned.

Their work won’t be wasted, 

and their children won’t die of dreadful diseases.

I will bless their children and their grand children. 

I will answer their prayers before they finish praying.

It is a long way from the place described by Isaiah to where our world finds itself today, and yet it is not an impossible journey from here.  To paraphrase a former National Security Administration official, we can bomb Afghanistan and chase al Qaeda around the world but we will fail if we do not see that the best deterrent against terrorism is hope.  In a world where hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry each night, and where hate still rules many nations, it is not a hard leap to understand why some misguided young men and women are willing to sacrifice their lives for any cause which even remotely promises a better life for their families.  They are literally hopeless.  In their minds they have nothing to lose.

The promise of Isaiah can only be achieved when we really understand that the scriptures call us to do justice.  The gift of Christmas is the freedom in God’s love to seek this goal knowing that He is there to help us over the hard spots.   We are called to give hope to the hopeless even in today’s very difficult world. Clarence Jordan offers some guiding words for those who commit to taking on the daunting task of working for peace in a troubled world:

It seems to me that He (Jesus) said something like this: “Fellows, this is it. You think you’ve already been through a lot. You’re just getting started.  As you walked up these steps and came into My kingdom, I made it clear to you that you were there by making an all-out commitment. I charge you now to be faithful, cost what it may. But don’t let them scare you or bully you or make you back down.  Rejoice that you’ve been counted worthy to be on our side.  You’re in a great company of prophets whose glorious past stretches back to the beginning of time and whose future has no end. So, go to it. I’m with you.

Prayer:   Lord, continually remind us of the song of peace sung by the angels that Christmas so long ago, and give us the strength to be Christ’s peacemakers in the world today.