Fourth Sunday of Advent

Photo by Vickyvs on Flickr creative commons license

Photo by VickyvS on Flickr, used by permission creative commons license

Contributed by Virginia Holmstrom. This is the fourth in a series of blog posts for Advent. Scripture readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25.

I ponder Mary. She’s present in every Sunday school Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen, cuddling a plastic baby doll, standing awkwardly beside the 4th grade boy assigned to be her husband Joseph, who looks as equally embarrassed to even remotely suggest to the audience that they begat anything together.

I ponder Mary the mother of Jesus in her youth. Did she cry herself to sleep with the shame of pregnancy before marriage? Was it her parents that sent her away in haste to stay with her relative in Judea? What were the realities of first century traditions and customs that muffled the heralding words of the angel spoken in a dream?

I ponder Mary and the Marys of today.

Miriam, a young teen in a village in Romania, is ready to embark on wedded life, too. Her father found for her a good Jewish husband, a hardworking man who farms his father’s land. On the day that Miriam is wed, she knows she will no longer go to school because she will devote every moment of every day to her responsibilities of caring for her husband and her in-laws, and the first of many babies to come.

Maryam, a 13-year old girl carrying a much too heavy basket of grain through the market place in Ethiopia on a hot, sunny morning, is pulled aside by an older boy she recognizes from school. He grabs her headscarf and forcibly drags her to the backside of the long row of vendors’ tents where he rapes her. And then, as custom dictates, he claims her in marriage and she has no say in the matter. She bears a child nine months later.

Maria, an El Salvadorian teen, belly swollen in her last trimester, fretfully dozes on a worn blanket under the cold desert sky, exhausted, hungry, and parched with thirst, praying that tomorrow she’ll finally reach the promised land beyond the border. There will be no inn to receive her, no midwife present to cut and tie the cord. There will be no visitors arriving to honor her baby with gifts and adoration.

Her name is Mary, and she carries a child that carries the promise that “God is with us.”

Prayer: O God who is with us, help us to see neighbors and strangers as you see them—each one a promise, each one made in your image according to your likeness. Gracious God, in these final Advent hours prepare our hearts to receive anew your gift to humankind: the baby Jesus—the Christ, our Savior. Lead us to the manger to kneel in wonder and awe at the magnificence of your presence born to a young woman named Mary. Allelujah! Amen.

Virginia Holmstrom -colorVirginia R. Holmstrom serves as executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

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Apologies for a brief technical glitch…

There is a post that is scheduled for January 6, 2014, which accidentally “went live” for about a minute and a half today, posted as January 6, 2013. The scheduler hasn’t quite caught up with the impending turn of the calendar. If you subscribe to this blog via email, you may have gotten notification of a new post, but clicking on the link may give you an error message. Please just ignore all that! You’ll see the full post when it’s actually, really-for-true live on January 6, 2014.

I guess we’re just building anticipation…

Third Sunday of Advent

Photo by Funchye under creative commons license

Photo by Funchye, used by permission creative commons license

Contributed by Rev. Valerie Andrews. This is the third in a series of blog posts for Advent. Scripture readings for the third Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.

Recently, as I sat quietly watching television, my daughter looked over and said, “Mom, did you hear about the women in Saudi Arabia?” I responded, “No, I haven’t.” She went on to say the women are banned from driving there and she felt it was unfair. I sat there for a moment and pondered what that would mean for any woman. What if driving was the mode of her getting to and from work? Perhaps driving could be how a woman transports her children to and from school, or maybe driving is simply for her personal leisure and pleasure.

I thought more about it and decided to look into why our sisters are banned from driving. What was the underlying factor beneath such a decision? As I googled to find more information, according to an article on Fox News.com (Associated Press), dated October 24, 2013, the driving ban was “imposed because clerics warn that ‘licentiousness’ will spread if women drive.” To suggest that driving without the permission of a male relative can make a woman irresponsible, wild, careless, or even unruly, and therefore, she must be banned from such an activity, is ludicrous! The idea that in 2013 there is still the domination of a man controlling a woman to the point of not respecting her rights or privileges, continues to tear at the heart of freedom for humanity.

But the psalmist encourages us as he describes our God as One of help and hope! The psalmist writes:

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 146:5-10, NRSV)

Because of Who God is: the Creator, Faithful in all His ways, the Righteous One, a Provider, Deliverer, Healer, Lifter of our souls, the Watchman, and the Sustainer, we know that God is still able to make the wrong right, and to make the crooked places straight. With every situation that oppresses a woman or girl, including banned driving, God is there to help and to give her hope! And how do we know this? Unlike the men of Saudi Arabia, their ability to demonstrate control is only for a time. Nevertheless, in verse 10 of this psalm, we find the good news is that the LORD reigns, forever, and ever!

As I continued to read articles about this matter, I discovered that several women of Saudi Arabia made a decision to “drive for change,” and this should inspire us to hope in our God who helps us to sometimes, do the unthinkable. So as we consider our sisters both near and far who are dominated, in bondage, and are struggling to gain their freedom, let us not forget our God. As we pray to Him, may we always be reminded our LORD is the God of help and hope!

Prayer: God of help and hope, we lift before you during our time of Advent preparation all the oppression and exploitation in the world–may those who are victimized feel your strength and healing; may those who are oppressors and exploiters also find healing and restoration to wholeness through you. Help us to prepare ourselves to more truly be bearers of the light of Christ to the world. In the name of the coming son, we pray. Amen.

Rev Valerie AndrewsRev. Valerie Andrews serves as associate minister at Church of the Redeemer, Philadelphia, PA, and is national events coordinator for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Second Sunday of Advent

photo by underthesun on Flickr through creative commons license

Photo by underthesun on Flickr, used by permission creative commons license

Contributed by Rev. Yana J.C. Pagan. This is the second in a series of blog posts for Advent. Scripture readings for the second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12.

Matthew 3:1-12 is very significant during the Advent season as we reflect on the challenge of growth and change, especially as we wait. I have been thinking about John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus a lot because my family is in the process of moving. We have been at one residence for almost seven years, so moving is logistically and emotionally challenging. If you have moved even just once, you will agree that moving can be stressful and exciting simultaneously.

Although this move is a good change, it still requires much work. While packing, I realized that there are many sections of this home that we have not touched since we first entered. I do not want to take things that we have not touched in so long into a new residence, because we may not actually need them. Moving can be a great opportunity to purge from things that hold us down or that we have held on to for too long. I considered simply dumping my dresser drawers into suitcases. That would work momentarily, but unpacking would be a headache. Being between two places during this final weekend of packing makes me think of Advent. I hate waiting! It causes me to think too much. Upon further reflection, it is a time of knowing something is blooming (as in the passage of Isaiah), but not yet developed.

This season in the church calendar actually makes me a bit antsy for Resurrection Sunday. I see Advent as a time of preparing the way for something; as Christians, we know what is coming next, but not really. The idea that things must change and can no longer be the same is the tension to which I believe John the Baptist was speaking. He lived with the understanding that something greater was at hand and that we needed to prepare ourselves for what was coming. That is the tension I have been living in with the move. I am planning and expecting, but nothing has happened. From John the Baptist’s perspective, it is the baptismal waters that help to prepare a person’s heart for what was coming. My family will transport our furniture, but we understand that the new layout will be totally different.

As we walk into this season of Advent, we need to inwardly and outwardly ask ourselves, what is the tension in which we should be living? We all make the mistake of thinking that we need to be comfortable and satisfied with the way things are, but I dare to say that we should want more. We need to prepare the way for Christ. My family needs to live in the tension of knowing that great things are yet to come while we are still living in the mess of boxes, tape, and paper. So, we take that reality down with us to the waters. I hope that when we come up, we would be transformed, renewed by the water of life, daily; simultaneously rejoicing and grieving as we live in the reality of the now and not yet.

Prayer: God of the now and the not yet, mold our hearts during this time of preparation. Help us to know what needs to be left behind and what needs to be taken on as we move forward in our walk of faith. Transform and renew us each individually, and as a people. In the name of the coming son, we pray. Amen.

0475-0092Rev. Yana J.C. Pagan is a chaplain and a  professor of justice at Esperanza College, Eastern University, Philadelphia, PA.

First Sunday of Advent

Photo from *lemur* under creativecommons license

Photo from *lemur* on Flickr, used by permission creative commons license

Contributed by Patti Stratton. This is the first in a series of blog posts for Advent. Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44.

Advent! That time of year we frantically “wait” for Christmas, right? If we’re honest, we might realize we’re finding ourselves doing everything but waiting! The beginning of Advent marks the beginning of the race against the calendar to complete all the Christmas celebration preparation: buying and wrapping gifts, addressing and sending Christmas greetings, getting everyone together and dressed in coordinating colors for the yearly family photo, decorating, baking, preparing Christmas dinner menus, and shopping. Add to this those of us who aspire to be “little Martha Stewarts” by hand-crafting items for the season! Blend in those of us who are students—writing papers, preparing projects, and studying for final exams that all come due exactly at this time of year. If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you’re also involved in ministry which means preparing for special services, adding seasonal elements to regular services, rehearsing Christmas pageants and cantatas, looking for new or innovative ways to tell the Christmas story in sermons, Sunday School lessons, and small group settings. Whew…I’m exhausted just writing about it all!

But wait…

What say we do something entirely different this year? What if we decide right now, at the beginning of this Advent season, to “peacefully” wait… to prepare our hearts and our homes, our families, and our churches for the coming of the Christ Child, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and to truly experience God’s intended shalom/peace?

I’m a wife, a mom, a sister, a daughter, a pastor’s spouse, and a pastor myself. I feel all the same pressures as you. And yet I’m sensing there’s something special I have been missing. Practically speaking, there are preparations to be made—but what if I make them all more about Jesus? I’m praying about what I might give as gifts: Maybe Mom doesn’t need another bottle of her favorite perfume. Maybe she’d be pleased to know I gave a gift to the Women and Girls Mission Fund* in her honor, instead. After all, she encouraged me to be who I am. I think she would be happy to know her gift would help other women and girls to become all God intend them to be.

Do you know what shalom means? It is a wholeness, a completeness in all aspects of life, for us as individuals, within society, and for the whole world. Imagine your home as an oasis of shalom, a place where the frenzy of the season disappears. Give yourself permission to be minimalist in décor and preparation, and invite your family and friends to do the same. Then take the time that you’ve now found—time not engaged in the frenzy—to simply be together, loving one another, singing and talking together, and enjoying the blessing of life.

Yep, this is what I’m going to do. And I invite you to join me. Talk about it with family and friends. Share this idea with your congregation. Invite them to join you. Stop, take a deep breath, center your focus on the coming of the Christ Child; and relax into the arms of shalom, content to wait, open to anticipate, and willing to be present…

Prayer: Our God of shalom, we seek wholeness in you during this Advent season. In the days and weeks ahead, help us to stay focused on the gift of your son in the form of the baby Jesus; may every holiday preparation we undertake be done in anticipation and joy. May your breath that formed the world breathe your peace into our lives, that we may be complete. In the name of the coming son we pray, Amen.

patti 2013 bContributed by Patti Stratton, national president of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

*Your gift to the Women and Girls Mission Fund helps American Baptist Women’s Ministries empower women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. Through Christ-centered ministries of discipleship, leadership development, educational opportunities, economic sustainability, and by addressing injustices such as gender violence and exploitation that oppress women and girls, the Women and Girls Mission Fund helps women and girls discover God’s full potential for their lives. For more information or to donate online, click here