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Hello First UMC Alachua!

This last week in service we began the Advent season together. Advent, as I mentioned on Sunday, is all about preparing our hearts for the work of Christmas and what is to be found in that manger in Bethlehem. The work of Advent is so special to me because it is the very real way to encounter our God who comes to us in the dirty, dusty mess of life in that manger. What is so real about Christmas isn’t the beautiful decorations, the amazing songs, or the glam and shine of it all. It’s the very real idea that God, being whole and divine, would put his presence through the pains of childbirth and enter into our story as a fragile child. This is what we believe in when we claim Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Advent is four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve. The four Sundays are titled as Hope, Faith, Joy and Peace. This last week we lit the candle of Hope. Most of our message last week was meant to help us own our chains and recognize what was holding us back from living a life free from the weight of our poor decisions. As I reflected on this last Sunday and was working through my devotions this week, I really wanted to spend more time thinking about hope. Specifically, for our context right now and how the world is in a constant state of disarray and difficult to deal with.

I don’t mean to be negative or without hope when I talk about the current state of our world. I’m a bit of a “realist” so much that I like to own the situation we are in. I believe if you face what is in front of you and don’t ignore the issue at hand, you can then lead through it with God’s help. What I hope to express to you is that things are difficult right now. People are sick and dying. Small business owners are wondering if they’ll make it through the holidays. We have many friends who have been at home and quarantined for so long that they wonder if anyone cares about them. (We do, and call that friend you’ve been thinking about. They miss you too.)

A few years ago, I was introduced to a new kind of service during the Christmas season called “Blue Christmas.” At the time I wasn’t familiar with the service or it’s purpose. I learned that this special service is a holy time to hold space for those of us who may not find the lights and decorations as joyful as others. Blue Christmas is a service to help people hold their grief of the loss of a loved one or the difficult nature of the season on their life. This service is the opportunity to recognize pain and grief inside of what is often commercialized as a time to be happy and joyful. Before this year, I didn’t have an understanding of this kind of grief and what a service like this could do to help process that grief. This year is different for myself and many of you.

It’s interesting to contrast hope with a service like Blue Christmas. So often when we consider hope, we don’t consider a somber service that holds grief and hope in tension. Hope is often, and mistakenly so, used as a tool to try and get someone to be happy that is grieving. One of the most dangerous things we say to those who are grieving is that if they just had more faith in God or more hope, they would be ok. We don’t like tension, or the idea that our friends and family might feel pain in the Christmas season. We want them to be ok and we try to point to the lights and joy around us to get them to forget the very real pain they are experiencing. Hope doesn’t work that way.

Hope is holding tension with the fact that things are not the way they should be. Hope is not a blanket to wrap ourselves in and think that all our problems are going to go away. Hope is the opportunity to stare into the darkness and expect God’s light to shine. Hope is realizing that God is in the work of holding pain and hope together. To me, that’s the Christmas story. The story is about God coming into the mess through a very messy means (I’ve seen four births, they are messy), into a messy manger and engaging a very messy world.

That’s the hope that each one of us holds onto inside of times of job loss, broken relationships, financial hardships, and loss of our loved ones during the holiday season. Hope that as messy as things are for us today, God shows up in that mess to be with us. There is nothing more powerful than this story and it’s why we do the work each Advent season to prepare our hearts for the truly monumental power of this story in our lives and the world!

I hope you will join us this week as we engage the story of Scrooge’s past in “A Christmas Carol.” We’ll look at what it means to own our past and have faith that God is preparing the way for us. I look forward to seeing you in person or online. Until then, take heart that hope is here for you, no matter what season you are facing. God loves you and so do we here at First UMC.

With Grace & Peace,

Pastor Augie

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