Advent Devotion Introduction

The Christmas story is about journeys.  It is the story of a young expectant mother traveling to Bethlehem with her husband to pay taxes.  It is the story of the Magi following the stars in search of a King, and of humble shepherds taking leave of their sheep to find a Savior wrapped in cloth in a manger.

And so it is for all of us.  The birth of Christ marks the beginning of the journey to Easter and our personal journey from brokenness to wholeness.  For those who choose to listen, the Christmas story transforms each of us into a traveler on the road to reconciliation, redemption and hope.

Our personal journey has taken us to many places only God could have imagined, from the windswept plains of a North Dakota reservation to the sugar cane fields of south Florida; from a barrio in the desert Southwest to the hollows of Appalachia, and the streets of inner-city Washington, D.C.  Along the way we were blessed with a decade at Fredericksburg Baptist Church where we were nurtured, supported, challenged and uplifted.

In 2002, we were humbled to have been asked to share some stories of our journey with our fellow parishioners during Advent season.  And, this year, we are equally humbled to share these stories with our friends at Tabernacle Baptist Church. In the pages of this devotional you will hear the stories of those we have come to know as we have traveled…stories from our work with Native Americans, migrant farm workers, elderly persons and the homeless men, women and children.

Many of the people we will introduce to you in the pages ahead have led very difficult lives.  Most have overcome incredible odds and openly share their stories.  Others are more reticent, desiring to put the past behind them and grasp their new futures of hope.  In order to ensure that we did not compromise anyone’s privacy we have changed some of the details.

Additionally, to make it easier for readers (and the writers), we have chosen to refer to God as He, even though it our belief that God encompasses both masculinity and femininity.  All scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Bible in Today’s English Version, commonly know as the “Good News Bible.” 

A number of the readings make reference to Christ House, a medical recovery facility with 24–hour nursing coverage for homeless and formerly homeless men and women.  Christ House is an all-encompassing ministry with a social work department, a substance abuse recovery program, a worshipping congregation, and a staff who live in community on site.  Kairos House is a companion ministry nearby where former Christ House patients committed to recovery live in community. Christ House is located in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC, and was part of the Church of the Saviour’s family of ministries. The Church of the Saviour is now a scattered community of independent churches.

As we journey toward the destination of Christmas, we must recognize that this journey is only preparation for a longer one.  Christ invites you on a longer journey into the life of your community to tell the story of Jesus and reach out to a hurting world.

It is our prayer that through our stories you will hear the Christmas story in a different way this year, and the people we introduce to you will challenge you to invest yourselves even more in ministry at Tabernacle Baptist Church and in the community.   As we begin our journey remember these words of Jean Vanier:

We are called to drink deeply from the heart of Christ, so that we, the church, can become a home for the lonely and the crushed of this earth. Christ puts into the arms of His church the suffering and the hungry of this world so that they may heal us, call us down from our pedestals of power and wealth and lead us into the wisdom of the beatitudes.

Please come with us as we travel to Christmas.

Fred and Ginny Karnas

Making Room in the Inn

ScriptureAnd Jesus concluded, “In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man attacked by the robbers?”    The teacher of the law answered, “The one who was kind to him.”  Jesus replied.  “You go then, and do the same.” (Luke 10:36-37)

MeditationA few years ago, I attended a meeting in Cincinnati and decided to spend the night sleeping in a shelter run by a close friend of mine.  For nearly two decades, my friend Buddy had reached out to the homeless men and women in that city.   Buddy was one of the most gentle and caring people I have ever known, unless you were a city official bent on redeveloping his beloved Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and displacing the poor and struggling families living there.

No matter who came to his door, no matter how dirty or confused or inebriated, Buddy put his arm around him and welcomed him into his shelter. 

Tom was one of those men who somehow found their way to Buddy’s doorstep.  The night I stayed at the shelter, Buddy asked Tom to give me a tour.  Tom spent a little time showing me the various programs and residential portions of the building, but mostly Tom took me on a tour of his life. 

He told me how he was abused as a child, how he quit school and got into trouble, how his marriage fell apart and he lost his family, and how drugs and alcohol consumed him for years.  He said, “I have a Master’s in drugs, and a Ph.D. in trouble!”

“But,” he proudly continued, “because of this place and the people who cared about me, I found hope and the strength to change my life.  I have been sober for 10 years.  I have my children back in my life.  I have a job I love, working with others who are struggling with addictions.  And most of all, I know who I am.”

It is clear that Tom’s life was changed by the programs which helped him deal with some very difficult personal issues and by his own willingness to choose hope over hopelessness.  But what really saved Tom’s life was the gift of hospitality — an unconditional acceptance of the stranger in our midst — provided by Buddy and his staff.

Henry Nouwen describes hospitality this way:

Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria for happiness but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way… hospitality is… a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances.. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

Prayer:    Lord, help us to reach out to the strangers in our midst, to offer love, hope, comfort, support, and a safe place to find their own way.  Amen.

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.

Sticky Kisses

Scripture:   Jesus said, “Let the children come to me and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.  (Matthew 19:13-14)

MeditationAs I pulled my car into the parking lot at the shelter, I saw another car follow me into the small lot.  The car was crowded with children and belongings.  It looked like the family had endeavored to strap every last possession on the car’s roof, and the trunk strained with the remaining items.  As I sat and watched, three children climbed quietly out of the car, but it was clear that another child remained inside the car.  He was engaged in an animated conversation with his parents.  All of a sudden the car door swung open and the young boy burst out, tears streaming down his face. He was barely 12 or 13 years old. He began to walk briskly down the sidewalk, screaming and crying that he did not want to stay at a shelter, asking his parents, “How could you do this to me?”  As he walked away his shattered and defeated parents stood with their heads bowed, holding back their own tears.

Parents know how tough the years of a middle-schooler can be as they seek to venture out on their own and gain the acceptance of their peers. Can you imagine being a young boy living in a shelter? How do you invite your friends over after school?  How do you even tell your friends where you live?

Homelessness is hell for children, and it shapes their lives for years, if not for a lifetime.  A study by the Interagency Council on the Homeless (now the U.S. Interagency on Homelessness) revealed the sobering statistic that more than a quarter of all homeless adults had been homeless as children, and many others had experienced similar childhood traumas of abuse, foster care, or institutionalization.  Every day that we allow children to be homeless on our city streets increases the likelihood that they and their children will find themselves on those same streets years from now.  We must find a way to imbue this generation of children with hope for a future, or their hopelessness will consume them and diminish us.


We pray for children

              who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,

              who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish,

              who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,

              who cover themselves with Band-aids and sing off key,

              who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink,

              who slurp their soup.

And we pray for those

              who never get dessert,

              who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,

              who watch their parents watch them die,

              who can’t find any bread to steal,

              who don’t have any rooms to clean up,

              whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,

              whose monsters are real.

By Ina J. Hughs

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.

Wisdom Through the Eyes of a Child

Scripture:  Remember this!  Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.  (Luke 18:17)

MeditationChildren are an important part of our journey to Christmas.  The excitement of little ones as they restlessly prepare for bed on Christmas Eve and their sparkling eyes and shrieks of joy as they crawl under the Christmas tree to retrieve that much -wanted toy are the things that often define our Christmas memories.

As we travel through the scriptures, we regularly encounter Jesus ministering to children, or sharing parables which help us see the Kingdom through the eyes of a child. 

Thirty-five years ago, the city of Phoenix was making its first effort to address the growing problem of homelessness in the downtown.  After purchasing a building to renovate into a shelter, the city began to clear an area for an “outdoor shelter.”  This facility was intended to be an alternative to the city park until the shelter renovations were completed.

Each Saturday as the site was being cleared and prepared, I took our six-year-old daughter to watch the bulldozers at work, the sod being laid, the metal sun shields being built, and the picnic tables constructed.  On every visit we talked about what it must be like to be homeless.  Lindsey would ask the simple questions of a child, “Where do they eat?  Do they go to the store?  Are homeless people mean?  Where do they go to the bathroom?”

On the Saturday before the outdoor shelter was to open, we visited the site and watched as the palm trees were put in place.  I waxed eloquent about how in a few days the homeless people we had seen on the street would have a place to stay.

But little daughter sat uncharacteristically quiet, pondering some deep thought.  Finally, she broke the silence with these words, “But Daddy, they still don’t have houses!”

I sat there sufficiently chastised.  Along with my colleagues, I had allowed the pragmatic and politically feasible to substitute for the justice demanded by the gospel.

Like so many times in the scriptures, I saw the world differently because a child had simplified the issue.  Even at six years old our daughter knew what a home was.  It was a place that families lived, where there were bedrooms, and fireplaces, and laps to sit on.  This park was not a home and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to accept it as a substitute.

Through the miracle of Christmas, we are invited to see God’s plan for our lives and our world.  We must not settle for the world’s response to those who are suffering.  As John Howard Yoder writes, “The church is called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately.”  It is the church’s job to embody the hope of Christ and share it with the world.

PrayerLord, thank You for the gift of the Christ child, and the gift of children.  Help us to untangle and simplify our perspectives so that we may see as children.

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.

The Puppy in the Pocket

Scripture:  Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us.  We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed.”

(II Corinthians 4:7-9)

MeditationIn the mid-eighties I volunteered as a receptionist at the St. Vincent de Paul medical clinic for the homeless in Phoenix.  It was my first real introduction to those who lived on the streets.  At that time it was mostly single men sleeping in the streets or in shelters.  Then, as now, about 25% were mentally ill and about 50% were substance abusers (although this number is often disputed to be both higher and lower than 50%).  At the present time in some cities, over half the homeless population is made up of family members, including children; and approximately 10% are now single women, almost all of whom have suffered from some sort of violence or abuse.  Thus, the demographics have changed since the mid-eighties. 

But in my work as receptionist these categories of “mentally ill,” “substance abusers,” etc. did not occur to me nearly so much as other questions in my mind: “How can any of these people have any hope about the future?  How do they keep going?” 

Then one day I was not prepared for the simple sight that touched me so deeply – a man came in wearing a coat for the cool weather, and in one very large pocket he carried a puppy!  Now what else does a puppy bring to mind but joy?  And how could I believe that this man had no hope?  I had to think that he was betting on life, as opposed to despair, for his puppy and himself. 

That day several of my misconceptions about homeless people were shattered.  I learned that they aren’t all hopeless just because they’re homeless.  And I learned that they are a little like me – they love puppies!  I can imagine that Tabernacle’s have shattered many misconceptions of church members regarding homeless persons, and vice versa.

Jesus always bids us to choose life over death and hope over despair.  Sometimes, even with all the blessings of my life, I lean away from hope towards despair.  In those times I need to recall the man with the puppy in his pocket.

Prayer:  Forgive us, Lord, when we think of the world’s problems, or our own personal ones, and leave You out of the equation.  Help us to build hope from the wise truth that “God is all we have and God is all we need.”  Amen.

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.

The Good Work of the Church

Scripture:   And so I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

Meditation:  The late Elizabeth O’Connor was a founding member of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC and a great influence on my life.  Her thoughtful teachings on the meaning of call and the importance of Christian community continue to be grist for much contemplation on my role in the Kingdom.   In her wonderful book Cry Pain, Cry Hope she writes:

Every single one of us has a “good work” to do in life.  This good work not only accomplishes something needed in the world, but completes something in us.  When it is finished a new work emerges that will help us to make green a desert place, as well as to scale another mountain in ourselves.  The work we do in the world, when it is true vocation, always corresponds in some mysterious way to the work that goes on within us.

With each new stage of life a new work emerges in us.  In all likelihood it was there from the beginning, waiting to be claimed for the development of our personalities and of our gifts.

Because Elizabeth was a firm believer that the Church was made up of a collection of gifts, I believe she would have said the same thing about the church body, that, “with each new stage of life a new work emerges in us.”

Such is the Christmas journey, a trip toward a new understanding of who we are as individuals and who we are as a church community.  We see the possibilities for exciting new work at Tabernacle Baptist Church with those this society has left behind.  This new work does not diminish the work that has been done in the past, but rather builds on it, calling each of us to determine whether it is time “to scale another mountain in ourselves.”  What a wonderful Christmas gift it is that God has entrusted us with this new challenge to bring hope to a suffering world.

PrayerLord, thank You for the gift of Tabernacle Baptist Church.  Be with us as we discern Your will for our role in the church’s ministries.  Amen.

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.

In the Cry of a Tiny Babe

ScriptureThe Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.  (Luke 4:18-19)

Meditation:  One of my favorite Christmas songs is by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.  It is far from a traditional Christmas song, but, as you can see in the verses below, it reminds us of the incredible gift of Jesus’ birth and life on earth.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river

 driving the ripples on forever,

Redemption rips through the surface of time

 in the cry of a tiny babe.

There are others who know about this miracle birth.

The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth.

For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes,

 but to shepherds and street people, hookers, and bums.

And the message is clear if you’ve got ears to hear,

 that forgiveness is given for your guilt and fear.

It’s a Christmas gift you don’t have to buy.

There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes.

Sadly, today on our city streets there are scores of people who have not caught that glimpse of their worth.  They struggle each day to find any meaning in life, often making it hard for us to reach out to them.  Ma Curtis was like that.  She was a homeless woman for whom you had to work very hard to find sympathy.  She was dirty, crude and almost always drunk.  She had been through every social service program in the city of Portland and was now mostly “persona non grata” at every one of them.

After 30 years of drinking and riding the trains, no one could see a future for Ma, except a sad and miserable death on the streets…no one, that is, but Michael and the staff at Baloney Joe’s shelter.  Somewhere in this coarse and disheveled alcoholic they saw the image of God.  For years Michael invited Ma into his shelter, kicked her out when she broke the rules, and invited her back, saying, “Ma, you are always welcome here when you want to work on your problems.  We care about you.”  

Not even Ma knows why one day, when she was nearly 60 years old, she woke up and made an incredible change in her life.  She says she remembers only that in her early morning daze she said to herself, “What am I doing?  There are people who care about me and I am acting like this.  What is wrong with me?  I’ve got to change.” Then she literally crawled to a place where she could detox from decades of alcohol abuse, and she never drank another drop.

For the next six years until her death, if you met Ma Curtis, you never forgot her.  She was, as they say, “a piece of work.”   She had an infectious but crusty laugh, the product of those decades of drinking and smoking. And she could regale you for hours with stories about riding the rails and her colorful past. But more importantly she traveled across this land telling everyone she saw never to give up hope on anyone. She would say, “No one deserves to be homeless.”  She became one of this nation’s most eloquent speakers on homelessness. She challenged everyone she saw not to forget that every sleeping form on our city streets is made in the image of God.  To meet Ma was to know that, and to know she had “caught a glimpse of her worth” and found hope in a hopeless life.

Prayer:    Lord, help us to see Your image in our lives and grant us the patience and wisdom to see Your image in all who journey with us.  Amen.

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.

Click here to listen to Bruce Cockburn’s “The Cry of A Tiny Babe”

The Gift of the Stranger

Scripture Reading:  She gave birth to her first Son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger – there was no room for them to stay in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Meditation:   It was my first night as a volunteer at the new Salvation Army shelter, opened to address the growing needs of homeless men in downtown Phoenix.  I had never worked with homeless people before, so I sat nervously at the registration table asking each man a few questions as he signed in.  As I got more and more into the flow of the job, I became more mechanical in my duties, soon failing to look up before asking the next man in line his name. As I crouched over my clipboard, I called out for the name of the next person in line.  A voice quietly said, “My name is Joseph.”   Continuing to stare at my clipboard, I asked, “And your occupation?”  Joseph quietly answered, “I am a carpenter,” and then he disappeared into the crowd heading through the shelter door.   

At that moment, just a few days before Christmas, I was jolted out of the complacency of my “official” role.  I realized I could not ignore these men. I could not fail to give them the simple dignity of looking them in the eye. If Joseph were there, could Jesus be there also?   And what if I missed the opportunity to grasp God’s outstretched hand and His invitation to journey with Him in service to the world? 

The Bible does not tell us why the innkeeper felt compelled to find a place for Joseph and Mary to sleep that night.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was clear that Mary was close to giving birth that moved him to compassion, but why had none of the other innkeepers felt so moved?  Maybe it was because the innkeeper had access to the cave where Jesus was born and no one else did, or perhaps it was simply a chance to make a little more money from the travelers visiting Bethlehem to pay their taxes. Or, just maybe, it was because by looking into the eyes of Mary and Joseph the innkeeper caught a glimpse of God’s love and chose to be a part of His plan for revealing that love to mankind.

We will have to wait until we get to heaven to get the answer to that question, but what we do know is that the birthplace of Jesus is an important part of the revelation of God’s story.  Through His humble birth, Jesus was connected to the world of the broken, and through that was able to teach us about compassion and grace and hope.  As Thomas Merton reminds us:

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited.  But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room.  His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of person, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated.  With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst… It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.

Prayer:   Lord, thank You for the innkeeper who chose to be a part of God’s plan for the world.  Help us to be aware of those around us who need to find room in the inn – be it a place of physical rest or spiritual hope.  Amen.

For additional information about our Advent devotions and their authors, click here.