Advent Devotional Dedication and Gratitude

Advent 5Each year, I write the Advent devotional as my way of giving back to my faith community that fills my life with so much love, peace, hope and joy.  Last year we did excerpts from the devotion each day on this blog.  This year, each day’s entire devotion will be posted here.  The devotion in its entirety can be found at Complete Advent Devotional Link

This year I have dedicated the devotional to three friends whose journeys have embodied everything that goes in the container called faith .  I also have to say thank you to the people who help me along my devotional way.  Below is the dedication and gratitude pages from the devotional.

Dedication

“I come before you today,
And there’s just one thing that I want to say;
Thank you, Lord
For all You’ve given to me, for all the blessing that
I cannot see
Thank you, Lord;
With a grateful heart, with a song of praise,
With an outstretched arm, I will bless your name.”

***

Gratitude walks with me every day.  I think it always has because I can’t remember a time without it.

Okay, maybe the year my mom insisted I be a Dutch girl for Halloween, wooden shoes and all. I wanted to be Superman.  My fingers got slammed in the car door as I tried to get that crazy multi-layered skirt in the door without the shoes falling off my feet.  I may not have been hand in hand with gratitude that day.

I have a sign in my writing room that says, “You cannot be grateful and bitter.  You cannot be grateful and unhappy.  You cannot be grateful and without hope.  You cannot be grateful and unloving.  So just be grateful.”  The author is unknown but I’m pretty sure it was scripted by God.

He will be our peaceThis year, I have been blown away by the upbeat spirits of three friends faced with harrowing winds.  Their smiles are not manufactured, their peace is not manmade, their steady faithfulness tethered by a strong belief in prayer is powerfully real.  Micah 5:5 says in part, “And he will be our peace.”   I know this is true because I have seen it in the eyes of my friends.  These three have been my stalwarts of grace, a bottomless sea of buoyant belief that has made my own faith bolder and are my sweet inspiration for this devotional.

***

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jen and I

Jennifer has been a friend for a long time.  She lives in California, I’m in Minnesota.  We don’t talk daily.  Often we go months without speaking.  She gave me a figurine many years ago that sits on my kitchen counter.  It’s an angel, tiredly leaning into the crook of a star that says, “Believe in your dreams.”  It nudges me when I’m slipping in the muddiness of life.   There is a scripture in Thessalonians that says that we should encourage each other and build one other up.  That’s Jen – everybody’s cheerleader.  Even when we tease her about it, she refuses to be any different.

Her breast cancer diagnosis in her mid 40’s last year was a sucker punch for us all.  The woman is vivacious, spirited and energetic.  Cancer tried to take that away from her just as her husband tried to take away her cell phone when she was in the hospital.  Cancer and her husband had a lesson to learn.  She has discovered how to fight for herself, for her health, for her life, for her family.  But it’s not a bitter battle.  Her battle plan is her faith, laced with a strong conviction in the power of prayer.  Part of the plan rests in a gentle acceptance of every possibility.  Her cancer will not define her and she resists every limit it tries to put on her.  She has a robust family life, raising three teen boys and filling her home with extended family.  Her career is manifested by helping people, teaching people, inspiring people.  I have loved this woman for years but this last year has given me a keen appreciation of what she means to me.  The depth of her faith has powered mine deeper.

***

Greg and I have been friends for a long time too but I’m convinced we met in heaven before we were born.  To look at us, you’d never know we shared a soul.  He is a black, married, gay man from Louisiana.  I’m a white, married, straight woman from the Yankee netherlands.  We finish each other sentences as we teach together, can share ideas with a look and know each other’s heart intimately.

Greg and Paul

Paul and Greg

When I learned he had stage 4 colon cancer, I wept.  Then he told me how this was going to go.  Replace my tears with prayers.  Firmly focus on his recovery as nothing else was acceptable.  His mom, his grandmama, his kids, his husband and his siblings had all agreed that a large part of his treatment was going to be positivity and powerful prayer.  The doctors could bring on the medicine for his body but we were doing all the soul work.  His sister started a GoFundMe Page and sold t-shirts that read, “Life Him Up!”   When you look him in the eye, you know his belief in the power of prayer and God’s healing strength goes all the way to the inside of his big toe.   When fundraising became critical so he could get into a highly expensive treatment, we all prayed and shared his story endlessly.  An anonymous donor contributed all the necessary money for the treatment.   When he told me the news, his smile, the joyfulness in his voice, the gratitude for a stranger’s generosity, the sense of God, resonated in my soul and brought chills to my skin.

***

We have known Amber since she was a teen.  She took a GED and turned it into a law degree as a single parent and a captain in the Army.  Last year at this time, she was thrilled to pass the bar and begin her law career.  Tonight, she is sitting in a Denver hospital in the NICU, watching over her daughter Hannah and grieving the loss of Hannah’s conjoined twin Olivia.

Amber Tristan Savannah

Amber, her son Tristan and daughter Hannah

The unexpected pregnancy last winter didn’t change her plans to build a law firm and a great life for her and her 6 year old son.  She was prepared to go forward, with or without the baby’s father.  When the baby became babies became conjoined twins, the father favored termination of the pregnancy.  Amber soldiered on alone, despite medical diagnoses that said her daughters would never be viable, that she was endangering her own health and the proclamation that they wouldn’t deliver her babies in their hospitals.  Her inquisitive, brilliant mind allowed her to understand all the medical terminology flung around by doctors all across the country, comprehend the legalities and ethics of the decisions the medical community had to make and find the one place in the country that was willing to give her daughters a shot at life.  But one abiding belief carried her beyond it all.  Amber believes pugnaciously in the power of prayer.

When she was no longer able to work and terrified she wouldn’t be able to support her son, she launched her GoFundMe page.  We shared her story with our own circles.  And the power of God swirled up a miracle on my Facebook page.  Once Greg learned that the anonymous donor was going to cover the cost of his treatment, he chose to shut down his own GoFundMe page.  Upon learning about Amber and her babies, he turned the spigot of his circle’s prayers and funds onto Amber.

His loving and happy generosity, in the midst of his own crisis, reminded me of a scripture a Sunday school teacher taught me in elementary school.  I could only remember part of it but the internet remembered the rest for me.  2 Corinthians 9:7 says “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Greg’s spirit, joyfulness and quiet peace has brought me to my knees in gratitude for his presence in my life.  In days, Amber’s fund grew from a couple hundred dollars to thousands.  The love and caring of strangers for this young woman we love like a daughter filled me with a joyful hope.  God, again, proving to us that love shows up when we believe and pray.

Amber’s tenacious belief in the power of prayer and her soft spoken gratitude brings fortitude to my own faith.  I really thought my faith was lock, stock and barreled solid.  Her gracious example, in the face of every parents’ worst fears and then some, caused me to challenge myself to go to a deeper place with God and allow my vulnerabilities to live in that relationship.  In turn, it has brought me to a more candid place with the world about my faith and my heart.

***

This devotional is dedicated to Jen, Greg and Amber whose commanding faith has graced my heart.  It is in memory of Olivia, whose face I came to know and Dedicationrecognize in sonograms and who sits on the crook of a star in the heavens, watching her sister, brother and mom, whispering, “Believe in your dreams.”  It is in honor of Hannah, a feisty little spirit whose determination to live should propel us all to gather up piles of gratitude for each breath we take.  I am blessed to have them in my world, to inspire and challenge me in my faith and how I show up in the world.  They have changed me, changed my heart, changed my life.

 

In Deepest Gratitude

Gratitude 3“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks.”  ~William Shakespeare

A tremendous thanks to Pastor Kris for believing in me enough to let me continue to do this Advent devotional.  I have no formal education in religion or ministry.  Yet, she agrees to my doing this work of love each year.  Her example this last year, celebrating and grieving her mom, teaches much about grace and grief.  Easter is tremendously fortunate to have a woman of her insight, faith, compassion and joie de vivre to lead us.

And to Cindy Wilson, who does so much more than make this devotional be a printed page or a web link.  Even when facing her own hurdles this year, she championed me through the writing.   Her photos, her humor, her gentle spirit encouraged me in ways big and small.  To know Cindy is to smile.  The God in her is amazing.

Lastly, to my husband Chris, who journeys with me, ever supportive and always kind.  He makes strangers laugh and inspires those who know him with his gentle and helpful heart.  When you look in his soul, only love resides.  This fall, as I undertook the writing of this devotional, I became seriously ill and was hospitalized for nearly two weeks.  Every day he was there, filling the sterile hospital room with his warm strength.  When I was home, he cared for me with a heart only God could plant.

Each year I learn how much I don’t know in the writing of this devotional.  I discover songs and artists that slam my heart with love.  (Don’t miss Christmas Eve’s song.)  It strengthens my faith, builds my commitment to letting the God in me see the God in others and opens my eyes and soul to the many ordinary miracles that fill my each and every day.  It changes the eyes through which I see this world.

With much love and a humble thanks to all.  May you have a blessed and rich Advent.

thank you

Thank You Lord”  Thank You Lord song link

I come before you today,
And there’s just one thing that I want to say;
Thank you, Lord
For all You’ve given to me, for all the blessing that
I cannot see
Thank you, Lord;

With a grateful heart, with a song of praise,
With an outstretched arm, I will bless your name.

Thank you, Lord, I just want to thank you Lord,
Thank you, Lord, I just want to thank you Lord;
Thank You, Lord.

For all you’ve done in my life,
You took my darkness and gave me your light
Thank you, Lord
You took my sin and my shame,
You took my sickness and healed all my pain
Thank you, Lord

With a grateful heart, with a song of praise,
With an outstretched arm, I will bless your name.

Thank you, Lord, I just want to thank you Lord,
Thank you, Lord, I just want to thank you Lord;
Thank You, Lord.

Miriam: Faith, Joy, Love, Friendship

Miriam: Faith, Joy, Love, Friendship

Hello Easter community!  My name is Sarah Lardy and I am a current freshman at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to go on the Arecibo, Puerto Rico mission trip and thought I’d share a way I saw God throughout the week.

I have been on five mission trips total, all through YouthWorks, so you could say I’m pretty familiar with the typical daily schedule of a mission trip. In general, days consist of an early morning breakfast, and devotions, then work sites from 9-3 (including lunch), and showers, dinner, and evening activities to fill the rest of the day. On this particular trip, work sites were shortened to 10-2, to allow for more time to experience the culture and community in which we served.

Sarah, Emma, and Courtney

Sarah, Emma, and Courtney

My group was sent to the Salvation Army to work with kids, however we learned the morning of day 1 that no kids showed up for kids club. Instead, we would be cleaning and painting the building.  Normally, I expect to be working for the solid four hours we’re at the site, with a lunch break sometime in the middle. However, we soon learned that this place was not like that.  Miriam, the woman in charge of our projects, often gathered us inside the building and talked to us for hours. She constantly told us to take breaks and slow down. It was a little weird for me to experience this as I was planning on working hard to make a difference; it was odd to just sit.  What I didn’t know, is we weren’t just sitting around, we were being exposed to God’s work.  We came to learn that Miriam is a strong woman of faith, and she uses that to carry her through each day. She was so grateful we were there to help; it didn’t matter how much we worked, even the smallest amount made her so happy. She spoke to us about how God has a plan for each of us and that it’s important to put our faith in Him. She spoke of how she turned her life to God and followed where he led, and encouraged us to do the same. The people at the Salvation Army even took a morning to pray for us and hold a mini-worship through which they praised God and sang. It’s through Miriam, and others at the Salvation Army how I really saw God that hot week in July.

Emma Wingad, Karina Johnson, Courtney , Miriam, Sarah Barber, Sarah Lardy in front of the Salvation Army building

Emma Wingad, Karina Johnson, Courtney Wolfe, Miriam, Sarah Barber, Sarah Lardy in front of the Salvation Army building

One of the biggest things I learned on the trip was not that hard work makes a difference.  Work certainly helps, but the connections you can make to others, the conversations and shared laughter, are what really make a difference.  One other way I saw God on the trip was simply in the majesty of the ocean.  We were able to visit the beach four times during the week, twice to swim and twice to have devotions and hang out.  Often, I found myself on the edge of the water, right where the waves lapped at the shoreline.  Looking out into the vast expanse of the sea, unable to see any land across the horizon, really made me feel miniscule in this huge world.  More importantly, I could feel God’s power over the waves, and it was simply incredible. Overall, mission trips were an integral part of my high school experience, and I’ll never forget the memories made and lessons learned during my weeks away.

Jesus is the Light of the World

Jesus is the Light of the World

Thank you and God Bless!

Christmas in October?

By Sara Currell

For to us a child is born,

   to us a son is given,

   and the government will be on his shoulders.

Isaiah 9:6a

You can see it in the stores this time of year.  Right next to the multiple aisles of Halloween paraphernalia are a couple rows of Christmas merchandise tucked in for good measure. Just in case, you – just – can’t – wait.  And how do you feel about Christmas music?  Some people listen to it all year long and just love it. Some reserve it for after Thanksgiving or when the snow starts to fly.

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At our house Christmas creeps into our lives during the summer. My husband Dan and I direct the Christmas Pageant at Easter Lutheran Church and planning starts early.  We talk about the script, the music and what we want to change for this year. I sometimes struggle to get into the Christmas spirit this early but God carries me along when the meetings start. I can hear the Christmas music in my head.

And he will be called

   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

  Isaiah 9:6b

By the time October rolls around planning, discussion and emails for the Christmas pageant are in full swing. I have about 10 emails in my inbox right now regarding the pageant and the 5th and 6th graders are starting to turn in their sign-up sheets for speaking parts. I can feel the excitement building and I know that rehearsals will start soon.  MaryJoseph1

Dan and I put a lot of time into thinking about how the scenes should look, how certain lines should sound and helping the kids portray the story in meaningful ways.  But it’s not just about the performance. It’s not just about what it looks like to the congregation. It’s about the kids and what they’re learning about the Christmas story for the first time. It’s about what they’re learning about Jesus for the first time. It’s about the new appreciation they have for Him and the plan of salvation God set into motion when Jesus was born on earth and laid in a lowly manger.

Of the greatness of his government and peace

   there will be no end.

Isaiah 9:7a

So, while the process of getting into the Christmas spirit starts for me in the summer and takes awhile for me to warm up to it’s not the process I’m interested in.  This is much like my faith.  I want my faith to go beyond the process – go beyond what I’m doing, when I’m going to church, what my life looks like as a Christian.  I want to go beyond the process of getting the pageant ready and speak to the hearts of the children in the pageant and the congregation that will see it in December.  I don’t want my faith to look like boxes I’m checking off so it looks like I’m getting ready for Jesus. I want both the pageant and my faith life to have heart.  I want to love Jesus and reflect Him to others because of what’s on the inside not what people see on the outside.

He will reign on David’s throne

   and over his kingdom,

    establishing and upholding it

   with justice and righteousness

   from that time on and forever.

Isaiah 9:7b

Come to the Christmas pageant on Sunday, December 13th at Easter by the Lake at 9:30 and 11:00am. See what God can do in the lives of children and their depiction of His Son’s birth. We hope you leave moved, inspired and maybe even learning something new that you didn’t know before.

Cast1 I’m getting used to Christmas in October. It’s an early reminder of what God has done for me and what He continues to do in the lives of others.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

   will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:7c

Lord, be with us and draw close to our hearts.  Let us stop focusing on the when and how of what’s happening; let us just focus on being close to You.   Amen

Sara Currell is a member of Easter Lutheran Church.  She loves teaching kids the Bible, singing and celebrating Christmas all year long.