Light in the darkness

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

St. Francis of Assisi once said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

The Christmas eve candlelight service is one of my favorite activities for Christmas celebration.

I remember the first candlelight service in our sanctuary at First United Methodist Church Garland. I think it was 1973.

Back then, there were no safety lights, no glow of cell phones and only boy scouts carried pocket flashlights.

So when the lights were out in the sanctuary, it was really dark!

Back then on Christmas eve, near midnight, after the Christmas story was read, after carols were sung, the sanctuary lights were dimmed and only the lone Christ Candle glowed.

The pastor then recited John 1:1-5:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

It always amazed me how that single Christ Candle lit the whole sanctuary.

Then as we sang Silent Night, the sanctuary illumined even brighter and brighter.

And finally on the last verse, everyone lifted their candles so that the light became even more brilliant!
Our first Christmas eve Candlelight service began our years-long tradition, which offers the same message of light and life.
The Light came into the world! 
We sometimes take for granted the power of lighting a candle in the dark.

A single light allows us to see everything more clearly.

With Christ’ light, we can have hope.
In Jesus, life in the light of God’s grace, this abundant life of peace, hope, joy and love is given. 
I want to see the brightness of God. I want to look at Jesus. 

Clear sun of righteousness, shine on my path, and show me the way to the Father. 

In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. 

The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus. 

I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
Verse 2
United Methodist Hymnal #206

A spiritual practice for Advent

Rev. Dr. Scot Bontrager, Senior Pastor

I like to program computers.

For me, programming is like doing crossword puzzles or knitting.

It’s something I do to keep my brain active, to relieve stress, and to give me a sense that I’m accomplishing something.

I love building things that other people can use and enjoy.

Almost a decade ago I wrote a program for the Order of Saint Luke, which I called “Breviary,” to help us pray together.

Br. Dwight Vogel started calling it “Web-Amplified Daily Office,” which got shortened to “WADO.”

I’ve never been fond of this name, but it stuck. 

To be fair, we aren’t good with naming things.

The team which has been working on structuring our prayer life is called the “Daily Office Revision Team” (DORT).

WADO is the tool for collecting and displaying the work of DORT.

We need a marketing department to come up with better names for us.

WADO 1.0 has been showing its age and was in need of some new features.

Instead of just fixing the bugs and adding new features, I decided to rewrite it completely.

When it was too rainy to go on the beach while I was on vacation, I worked on WADO – programming is relaxing for me.

WADO 2.0 is ready to go. We are still loading in the data.

There are still bugs. But you can use it now.

If you need a new spiritual practice during Advent, try praying liturgical prayers along with us.

What are we waiting for?

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Our wait is almost over.

In our worship services tonight, and in congregations all over the globe, the faithful will gather and light the Christ candle and sing of Christ’s birth.

We have spent four weeks preparing, attending to spiritual disciplines both communal and individual to make room in our hearts for the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby.

We’ve decked the halls, sent holiday cards, prepared for gift exchanges.

Some are preparing for travel to see loved ones for the first time in many months.

In the home I share with my spouse, we have marked the waiting time with lighting our own Advent candles on Sunday evenings.

Each day, I attach a little Velcro figure to a cloth Advent calendar depicting the nativity with all the characters (the animals are my personal favorites – there’s even a cat at the manger).

On this day, there is only one more candle to light – the Christ candle.

There is only one more little Velcro figure to attach to the cloth Advent calendar – that of the baby Jesus.

The story of Christmas tells us that our waiting has not been in vain.

We have faithfully prepared, and we will enter the season of joy that follows.

God has taken on flesh, and dwells among us, “full of wisdom and truth.”

It is curious, though. We already know the end of this story.

Jesus will be born, ready or not. And there is grace in that.

But there’s also a potential trap.

We can be fooled into thinking that the efforts around our preparation and waiting produce something.

Plainly described, we perform X number of actions during this season of preparation, and at the end Y happens – the birth of the babe.

Maybe we can flip this formula on its head:

What if God is the one doing the waiting?

… waiting on us to trust the unbounded grace God offers – no matter what we do

… waiting on us to love who and what God loves

… waiting on us to hear the divine “yes:” “You are mine, and I love you. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that”

… waiting on us to deeply understand that our hearts are already ready to receive God-in-Christ. Our hearts (and our entire beings) are created by a loving Creator. There’s already a God-shaped space in our hearts (with special thanks to St. Augustine for that insight).

May this Christmas be our season of joy, of grace, of mercy, of a communal “yes.”

What are we waiting for?

It came upon a midnight clear

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

“Season of Hope!” is our advent theme this year.

The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my favorites. It’s an old black and white movie.

At the beginning of the movie, a senior angel is talking to a junior, telling him about George Bailey.

The scene is set with a star-lit sky.

Although it’s two stars blinking at each other, it is evident that angels are talking to each other.

Clarence is the junior. Here is a bit of the conversation: 

Senior Angel: A man down on earth needs our help. 

Clarence: Splendid. Is he sick? 

Senior Angel: No, worse. He’s discouraged. 

It is easy to get discouraged and lose hope. Life happens.

For young ones, it’s falling off a bike, making a poor grade, losing a game or parents divorcing.

For young adults, it is not getting a job, house, or family that was hoped for in younger years.

For older adults, it can be that things are changing – new technologies, kids moving away or age discrimination.

For all ages, it’s broken relationships, losing loved ones and unrest in the world.

You name yours. There are numerous reasons that we get discouraged and lose hope.

There are so many wonderful Christmas carols. We have so little time to sing them all.

Often times in our haste to sing them all, we only sing one or two verses of each.

Sometimes, however, the most significant verses are in the middle.
This is true in the song, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

For background, the Greek word for “angel” means “messenger.”

This song describes angel messengers coming throughout all times, bringing us the message of peace and love.

Three of the verses speak of world conditions.

But the third verse, which is most often omitted, says this: 

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
As many of you know, my father died the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

I grieve for myself, but mostly for my mom, who literally lost her life-long love.

I’m thankful for those of you who have modeled “good grieving.”

I recognize that you put your trust in our merciful Lord in times of both sorrow and joy.

I find it ironic that I can feel both joy/peace and sorrow/grief at the same time. 
As I “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing,” these scriptures come to my mind:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
 the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
 his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
 and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
 and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
 they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
 they shall walk and not faint. 

– Isaiah 40:28-31

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

– Titus 3:4-5

Loving God, help me to take time to rest, to listen and to be renewed by your Holy

Help me to be the person you need me to be to bring peace on earth (or a least to those who are near me.)
May your hope be renewed this advent season.

Carols, tunes and melodies for Christmas redux

Dr. Eldred Marshall, Artist-in-Residence and Associate Director of Music Ministries

EDITOR’S NOTE: This replaces yesterday’s First Reflections, which included a version of the video that was not final.

We apologize for any confusion, and hope you will enjoy – and share with your friends – this very special Christmas gift, albeit a day late, from the Music Ministry of First United Methodist Church Garland. 

On this day after Christmas, please accept a gift of music.

It is a ‘concert’ of sorts, featuring various instrumentalists and performers from local orchestras playing favorite Christmas carols.

Feel free to listen and share with family, friends and neighbors.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas treasures

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor

I finally brought out all the Christmas boxes today.

Not that they’ve all been unpacked, but I did pull them out of the closet, staged and ready to go.

The tree went up the day before Thanksgiving this year, but it stayed bare for several days.

Tonight we finished hanging the first box of ornaments, some of our favorites that I got when the kids were tiny.

Then I opened a second box that has many things I remember from my childhood.

I slowly unwrapped each item, found a place on the bookshelf for the angels and sheep, and tied the handmade ornaments on the tree.

A couple of the handmade ornaments were falling apart.

I found the craft glue and tried to fix them.

We’ll see in the morning whether I was successful or whether they will go back in the box.

I watched my kids handling all the decorations.

They are old enough to know how to be careful, but sometimes accidents do happen, and some items are just old.

Part of me cringed as I watched them, fearful that things would break, but I didn’t interfere.

I didn’t interfere because I remember being allowed to tie the handmade ornaments on the tree as a child (after I was “allowed” to iron the ribbons).

I remember sitting with my mom unwrapping the tissue-packed nativity.

I remember untangling strings of lights with my dad.

I remember crowding around the tree with my brother finding where our favorite ornaments were hung.

So the kids rearranged the nativity.

They hung ornaments on the tree, even the fragile ones.

And the collection of nutcrackers were lip syncing Christmas carols.

Will these treasures eventually fall apart? Of course.

But the deeper work will remain. The work of sharing story, time and love together.

It is the same with our faith.

Our journey with God is not something to be kept away for safe-keeping.

Our faith is meant to be interacted with, used, be part of our life.

It is meant to be shared with others, to bring joy, to share story, to bring hope, to remind us who we are.

Let’s be bold and get our faith out of the box!

It might get some wear along the way, but oh the shared stories, the new memories, the bold work, the ties formed.

It’s what we’re meant for.

It’s what we’re made for.

You are blessed to be a blessing.

Bringing home Bethlehem

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

On the way home from recording our video segment for A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, my husband Rick and I began to sniff.

Cumin! Fennel! Cinnamon!

This took us back to late nights after A Night in Bethlehem in past years.

Since Rick and I host the spices booth with awesome volunteers each year, we’ve come to expect and enjoy the scent of spices lingering in our nostrils and clothes.

We recalled stories from A Night in Bethlehem, and felt pangs of sadness at not being able to enjoy the wonder of Bethlehem in our church building this year.

But we also felt a sense of connection.

This year – on Friday, December 11 at 7:00pm – First United Methodist Church Garland will host A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, ushering the village of Jesus’ birth with all its swirling activity right into our homes. 

It’s a meaningful connection, don’t you think?

Along with all the sadness and frustration of our current crisis, we are being given the gift of relating what goes on in the church building with our homes.

Our dining tables have become altars, our living rooms and home offices sanctuaries for worship. 

It’s a “Temple-synagogue” dynamic. 

In ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the locus of worship, sacrifice and festivals.

God’s Presence was understood to dwell in the Temple. But the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 BCE.

Great swaths of the population were deported into forced exile hundreds of miles away.

And so the question arose, “If we can’t worship in the Temple, then where is God? And how do we worship?”

The synagogue was the answer to that dilemma. 

Groups of exiles began gathering to read the scriptures, to chant the Psalms, and to pray together.

(The word “synagogue” comes from a Greek noun that means “assembly” or “gathering.”)

The gatherings of worship cropped up wherever the people of God lived.

As they worshipped, they realized God wasn’t confined to the Temple.

God was with them, wherever they were! 

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were a lay-reform movement that sought to bring the practice of worship and Torah beyond even the synagogue.

They wanted to bring faith practice into everyday life.

Blessings, ushering in the Sabbath, communing at the table over a meal, welcoming the stranger as guest – all of these were part of worship practice that moved into the homes of practicing Jews.

(One of the things Jesus argued with the Pharisees about centered around some of these very questions – How do we worship God with our whole being, day in and day out? How do we practice Torah in any given situation?)

The early Christians experienced something similar: since there were occasions they weren’t welcome in the synagogue, or if they found themselves in a town where there was no synagogue, then how would they worship?

They gathered in homes, sharing the Lord’s Supper, searching the scriptures, praying together.

And God was with them.

Our virtual worship invites us to engage in these very questions ourselves.

We gather virtually, making our homes places of worship that connect to other worshippers.

Some segments are recorded in our sanctuary, inviting us to mirror what’s happening in the sanctuary in our own homes.

In the coming season of Advent and Christmas, you will see the Advent candles being lit in the sanctuary.

In addition, families will lead us in lighting the Advent candles in their own homes, connecting our home space with the formal worship space of the sanctuary ever more deeply.

We miss our sanctuary – especially at this time of the year.

Pandemic fatigue compounds this.

But God is with us, wherever we are. All the time.

Connecting us to each other and to the world through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

We can trust God’s presence with us, and give thanks.

Haven’t you heard? God loves you!

Josh Medlock, Director of Student Ministries

Now that Christmas Day has come and gone, I am taking time to reflect.

It seems like every year the anticipation and rush of Christmas comes and goes much more quickly that I expect.

I know it is coming.

Advent heralds the season, and we on staff at First United Methodist Garland go into lightning mode to prepare for all that we will do.

Even though I know it is coming, it still surprises me how much we do.

This season we prepared and transformed our church for an entire week to bring the Night in Bethlehem experience to our congregation and community.

This year we welcomed over 300 people to Bethlehem and told them that God loves them.

I saw so many new faces this year as well as lots of familiar ones.

I even saw some who came home to fellowship and experience with us.

Then we worked into the late hours of the night (and the morning) to tear it all down and put it away so that we could set up for our regular church activities.

Next we began the set up for Distribution Night for The Reindeer Project, where we served and ministered to hundreds of Garland Independent School District (GISD) students and their families by providing presents and food for Christmas Day.

This work took several weeks to plan and prepare. Then we had just one night to make it all happen. And boy did it happen!

We worked again into the late hours of the night and into the next day to put it all away and set up for church.

But wait, we weren’t done yet!

We still had three Christmas Eve services to plan and celebrate.

Our Christmas Eve candlelight services were, once again, awe inspiring and joyful to be a part of and witness.

I always look forward to the music and children at the five o’clock service and communion at our seven o’clock service.

My favorite part of these services though is the candlelight.

I love being able to look around the sanctuary and see the light of God being shared among so many at one time and in one place. One body. One purpose.

I reflect on these times during Advent and it brings me joy, happiness and hope.

When I reflect on the year in the life of our church, however, I have to be honest and say it isn’t always filled with joy, happiness and hope.

Our church is struggling with some issues that are deep and can be very difficult for some and very hurtful for others.

This isn’t affecting just our church. Our entire denomination is struggling right now.

We are struggling to find common ground.

We are struggling to find hope in a time that that finds us divided.

These difficulties are affecting everyone, regardless of where we are in our walk of faith.

However, it is this time that has just passed – this time of Advent – that gives me hope.

You see, during this time we are able to move past our differences and judgments, and work together to provide love and hope for our local community.

We are able to look people in the eye and tell them that God loves them, and believe it is true.

We are able to sit with families who are in a different place than we are – economically, socially, and in some cases physically – and tell them God loves them.

That WE love them.

We are able to provide joy, happiness and hope to people who otherwise might not hear God loves them.

When I look to this coming year I have mixed feelings.

On one hand I have fear and doubt about whether the people called Methodist will remain united as our name suggests.

I am sad that some will not be able to reconcile our differences and will choose to leave this church and perhaps our denomination.

I am uncertain about what the future holds.

On the other hand, I remember the light of God being passed from one person to another in a place where we celebrate the fulfilled promise of God for a new world, a new way, a new life found in the love of a baby given to us in love.

It gives me hope for a brighter tomorrow.

It gives me joy to know that I am loved.

It brings me happiness because, “Haven’t you heard? God loves you!”

Let it be so.

Changing the light

Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor and Pastor for Children and Families

I have led acolyte training with older elementary children in our congregation for many years. A big part of it is helping them see and claim the work they are a part of in worship.

Their main task is not to light and extinguish the candles. Rather they remind us that Christ is with us in the world.

They bring the light of Christ into the worship space to help us remember and know that God is with us as we worship.

And they remind us that the light of Christ goes before us as we go back out into the world.

This Advent we are including a different element. At the end of the service we change the light.

This fall I was about to begin that portion of the training. This particular group of acolytes was fascinated with the mechanics of the candle lighter and its snuffer.

We were at the table with the candles lit, practicing how we close the service, and I was modeling for them how to hold the candle lighter.

I said, “and during the closing hymn, you come, light your candle lighter from the candle first, and then … “

And a dear new acolyte chimed in and said, “we change the light!” 

I beamed. She said it perfectly.

Here in the sanctuary, I didn’t have to explain any abstract symbolic language about light and God’s presence. I didn’t have to try to crack open a sliver of her mind to convince her that she’s not just lighting a candle. She knew!

She sees that candle every Sunday and knows it’s the light of Christ.

She sees the light being carried out every Sunday, sees the wisps of smoke from the candles on our worship table, and knows that the light has changed, and now everywhere she goes she is near the light of Christ.

You see, when the candles are lit, it’s very easy to see the light. It’s all in one place.

When we change the light, we can immediately see the wisps of smoke. The light has changed.

Then then the wisps rise higher and spread thinner, and it seems as if they are gone.

But the light is not gone. It has changed. It spreads out to reach every space.

The light of Christ is with us, is with you, is with our world.

Sometimes it is difficult to see. Sometimes we forget it is there. May you always know the joy and hope of the light of Christ.