Recreating Bethlehem at Midland

Dec. 12, 2011

Luke 2:8-20

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

One of the interesting facts of the Christmas story is that most people know the story to some level. Whether a person attends church on a regular basis or not, whether you grew up in a Christian family or not, you know some of the story’s basics.

What are those basics? Probably something like a man and woman named Joseph and Mary had to travel to this obscure little town calledBethlehem. For some reason, the little town is busy with lots of out-of-town visitors; so busy, Mary and Joseph can’t find a place to stay. It’s time for Mary to give birth and they haven’t found a place to stay. Some kind soul lets them into a stable (or a cave) and she has the baby there. With no cradle, she lays the baby in a feed trough. Angels tell some nearby shepherds about the baby and they go and visit him.

That’s the story. Or so we think.

One of the problems with the story is because we live 2,000 years later, we often think of our culture and our situation and try to impose our culture and situations into the story rather than understanding the culture of the time when Jesus was born. I’ve shared a couple of these things already: how Mary could have been stoned to death for becoming pregnant as an unwed teen, that the stable was more likely a cave, etc. There are lots of innuendos in the story which I hope to explore the in days coming up to Christmas which might help us understand all that is really going on in the story.

While a basic reading and knowledge of the story is important, what the Christmas story beckons us to do is to try and place ourselves in the story and look at it from various vantage points. If you have a 12-15 year-old daughter or granddaughter (or had one or will have one or a niece), imagine this girl getting pregnant and how you’d react when she says, “The Holy Spirit did it.” How could a loyal, faithful Hebrew man who just wants to get married and have the traditional Hebrew family deal with a fiancé who isn’t making sense?

What about the shepherds? It was the middle of the night. It was probably cold. In those days, shepherds moved their sheep from location to location, looking for food and water. The hillsides aroundBethlehemaren’t green and lush. They are more like a dessert. Water isn’t abundant. Being a shepherd is a hard, thankless job. It certainly wasn’t very high paying. As the shepherds took shifts being with the sheep all night, at some point, an angel, a heavenly host appeared to them. Who wouldn’t have been afraid if the sky went from calm and dark to bright and scary? The angel gave them specific instructions: go into town and find the Messiah. He won’t be hard to find. He’s the baby lying in a feeding trough with a few strips of cloth wrapped around his tiny baby. That’s all his momma could find.

Off the shepherds go. Imagine poking around Bethlehem until they found the right cave. They didn’t have a star to guide them like the wise men would. But they found the babe, his Mom and Dad, all doing fine. When they left, they were so excited they couldn’t help but tell everyone!

Now, if you had just given birth to a baby, would you want as the baby’s first visitors some stinky, smelly shepherds from the neighboring hillsides? They may not have showered in a week, their clothes filled with dust and torn by briars. Unkempt beards and dirty fingers grazing over your new baby’s skin?

But this is who showed up, as planned by God. It’s hard for us to understand why God specifically chose shepherds. The symbolism is huge. Remember the first words of Psalm 23? “The Lord is my shepherd …” Jesus’ first assigned job will be to be our shepherd, represented by his first visitors. No job will be too great for Jesus. No challenge too difficult. Being a tough-as-nails shepherd will define his life over and over.

Last night wasMidland’s “Live Nativity.” We had a few challenges with the lighting. I forgot at rehearsal on Saturday when we ran through everything in the daylight that the house lights – the lights in the barn – need to be on a separate control from the lights in the back of the barn where the narrators read. All was fine until I turned down the lights in the barn and the readers lost their reading lights. We scrambled with flashlights. Matt, our innkeeper who also was a shepherd, kept unplugging and plugging in the right cords until we finally got it situated.

Mary and Joseph were in the front, on a raised platform. Baby Jesus had just been born. It was time for the shepherd scene. Three big shepherds (Dads) and four smaller shepherds with two cute little sheep started down the barn’s aisle. The pounding of their shepherd’s crooks echoed through the barn, as we heard about them watching over their sheep. Gabriel stepped out, they fell to the ground on cue. She announced the baby’s birth. And then seven little angels joined her. One of the Dad shepherds announces to the rest of his crew that they will go find the baby.

It didn’t take long for them to find the baby in our production. There’s only one possible place. So, the shepherds entered the “stable.” They touched baby Jesus and then stood behind them on the platform surrounded by hay bales. Sheep were in a pen on one side; goats on the other side. Being in the back and helping run the lights, I wasn’t sure what had happened when I heard a collective gasp come from the audience. By the time I saw what was happening, one of the Dad shepherds, Matt, was rescuing a little shepherd, Eddie, from the sheep pen. Apparently the hay bales had fallen backwards into the sheep pen and so had Eddie! Matt lifted Eddie back onto the platform, got himself back up and the show went on.

A few minutes later, Gabriel got her flock of little angels onto the platform. Eddie’s fall was momentarily forgotten when the barn lights were completely darkened, the little kids held tea lights and from the back of the barn, we heard a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The tea lights danced in the dark as we heard the words. Christmas arrived in the barn last night; in the hearts of each of us who saw those lights dancing in the hands of little shepherds, sheep and angels. It’s a sight I hope to hold onto for a very long time.

After the production, I was talking with Gabriel about the flubs of the night. She and Mary were not quite sure what to do when our narrators were distracted while we were trying to get the light situation fixed. King Herod was upset with himself for forgetting a great line he’d added to the script. And of course, Eddie falling into the sheep won’t soon be forgotten. Eleanor, aka Gabriel, said to me, “Didn’t you just tell us a week ago, Dianne, that the first Christmas inBethlehemwasn’t perfect?”

It’s hard to hear your own words back sometimes. Generally, when someone does this, I get excited because that means a) someone was actually listening; and b) they are getting it. What made me think that our little production of the story would be perfect when it wasn’t perfect the first time around?

Every time we hear or read or see the Christmas story, it should be a little different. We should note a new detail or word or nuance we haven’t observed before. Maybe not having all the details in the Bible is OK because we can add our details which make it personal and meaningful for us. When the light of the world came into the world, it wasn’t perfect. Far be it for me to try and recreate something perfect either.

In case you’re wondering how Eddie is doing, he’s just fine. After the production, he rode the school bus back to the church with the rest of the folks from the barn. He burst into the church community room to tear off his costume before getting a hot dog and chili for supper. With his eyes dancing and excitement in his voice, he told Gloria, one of the women helping with the costumes, “Sign me up for next year!” I’m thinking it’s a rendition of the story he – and many others who were in attendance –won’t soon forget.

Let us pray: Be near us, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by us forever, and love us I pray. Bless all your dear children and thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Blessings –


Christmas’ True Worth

Dec. 11, 2011

John 1:9-10, 14

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came to the Father, full of grace and truth.

My neighbor, Tina brought over a poem she wrote last year during the Advent Season. It fits right into the reason why I decided to do this Advent Devotional this year. Last Sunday, Tina shared this in church. And with her permission, I share it here:

Forgive us our sins, Dear God

At this Christmas time,

We should take a moment to give you thanks

As we stand in yet another line.


But we don’t give you a single thought

Because our minds are too busy racing

Planning the next six stops to make,

And that “gotta have it” gift we’re forever chasing.


Who has time to think of you?

We have to find a place to park.

Thank goodness the malls are open late

With all the fluorescent neon lights

Who notices when it gets dark?


Maybe we’ll find time to think of you

For an hour on Christmas Eve

And that is if we decide to go to church.

We might remember that we believe.

But all the cookies still need frosting

And last minute party invites start to appear,

So we decide the service is what we’ll skip,

Better try again next year.


It appears we’ve buried this holy day

Under a mountain of unimportant things,

We’re so busy endlessly talking and talking

We never hear the angels sing.


The colors and lights of our parties

Are glittering and sparkly bright,

But they blind us from those

Who cry out for food or safety from a war

That doesn’t stop for the night.


How could we possibly remember

The meaning of this day,

It’s enough we remember gift receipts as the hours tick away.

And that annual Christmas letter

We still have that to do,

All the wonderful things we include in it,

We forget they’re all blessings from you.


Still the end of Christmas season finally comes

And we box up all the garland and lights,

It all goes back in the basement

On a shelf and out of sight.

We’re glad to vacuum all the needles

And put things back in their place

At last a time to just sit

And rest from the dizzying pace.


But then we see it

Tucked in a corner by the chair,

A stray Christmas ornament

That fell through the branches

And all season stayed hidden there.


We pick it up and look at it closely

It contains the Christ child’s gentle face

And that’s when it hits us,

The only reason for Christmas

We let stay hidden

While we joined in the commercial Christmas race.


We’ve forgotten

That on that cold angel-filled night

Perfect love was born on earth.

And shamefully we’ve given everything else

Far more value and worth

Than the birth of that one baby

That wise men came seeking.

They worshipped him the Savior

But to his mother who sang to him

He was her newborn son

Who lay peacefully sleeping.


And so on the rare occasion

When we linger outside and look up

At your uncountable stars,

Forgive us for ignoring you

And remind us that the path to you is not far.

If we walk close to you

Everyday through the year,

Then when next Christmas comes

It will find us near

To the manger and the baby

Who was God here on earth

And we’ll rejoice with the angels

For we have found our way back

To Christmas’ true worth.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to remember the true reason for the season this year. Tina – thanks for these wonderful words as a reminder of why we even have a Christmas holiday.

FYI – if you come to Midland UMC’s “Live Nativity” tonight, Tina will be Eunice, the noisy lady from Nazareth who also went to Bethlehemduring the census. She’ll be looking for Mary and Joseph, to see if their baby has arrived.

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. May your face be what we see as we journey through Advent this year. Amen.

Blessings –



Observing Christmas vs. Keeping Christmas

Dec. 10, 2011

Matthew 1:25

But Joseph had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

I heard a thought this week about people who observe Christmas and those who keep Christmas. Hmmm … it got me thinking. What is the difference?

Is putting up a tree observing Christmas or keeping Christmas?

Are Christmas cards an act of observing or keeping Christmas?

Are wrapping presents be an act of love or a waste of time?

I quickly came to the conclussion that any part of the western Christmas celebration can be either. It depends upon your attitude and how you approach the tradition.

Christmas trees are green year around and remind us of God’s love for us year around. When we see a lite tree, it can remind us that Jesus is the light of the world.

Yesterday, Rick and I walked down to the local hardware store and bought our tree. It’s only two blocks away, so walking the tree back to our house isn’t very hard. Halfway home, I realized the checkbook had fallen out of my pocket. So, Rick stayed with the tree while I jogged back to the store. It was lying in the parking lot, right where I had bent over to pick up an end of the tree. I’m sure the guy driving away wondered what I was picking up from the ground. Finding the checkbook wasn’t a big deal but it made my day less complex as I pondered what I’d have to do if I didn’t find it.

I love receiving Christmas cards. Unfortunately, there are way to many people from various eras of my life that we only touch base at Christmas. As I complete the cards for each family we send to, I say a prayer for the family as I prepare the card. It’s a tiny way of lifting up those who are important to me that I don’t pray for every day. I pray that they will find peace on earth, not just one day a year, but be guided by God’s peace every day.

Another fun part of yesterday – I received a special Christmas card. The Elliots are a family who used to attend Midland. Chris and Michelle are about my age and have three daughters. How we miss them atMidland! They now live in Illinois, close toSt. Louis. Michelle called me yesterday. We had a great conversation and caught up. She was getting ready to mail our Christmas card and decided to call. Bonus! Now, if I would only take the time to do as Michelle did and phone someone who I would like to have a long conversation with, even if it meant everyone got their card just a bit later.

Rick and I keep our Christmas shopping to a minimum. We stopped last Friday night in Baraboo and did the majority of the shopping. On the way home, I said that I thought we had most of the shopping done. Rick’s response, “I sure hope so!” One night this week, I decided to see what we had here and if there was anything else I really needed to get. As I wrapped the presents we had, I thought about the person(s) the gift will go to and prayed that they would capture the reason for the season moreso than what they were receiving from us. As I went through this exercise, I decided that wrapping presents takes a lot of time. But it also gave me time to think about the loved one I was wrapping the gift for. Scenes from interactions with them from the last year replayed in my mind as I tied ribbon around the packages. “How can I be God’s presence to them this year,” I thought.

I also discovered that I needed two more gifts. On Thursday, I stopped at a store and picked out the gifts. I forgot that this store wraps everything more beautifully than I ever could. Bonus! As I carried the last two into the house, I stopped and thought about the receivers of these gifts. “May their Christmas be more about the Christ child than whether I got them anything significant,” I thought as I placed them with the other gifts.

What is the difference between observing Christmas and keeping Christmas? We decide that individually. For me personally, I pray the things I do this month are a little softer, more intentional and less about me and more about a baby born over 2,000 years ago. I want to arrive at Dec. 24, knowing that my heart has rediscovered once again why we go through this crazy time of the year every year. I pray that your heart will not just observe Christmas and that you will do more than go through the motions. I pray that you’ll rediscover how you and your family can truly keep Christmas.

Dear God: Did the angels simply “do their job” when they went to the shepherds? Or were they so excited to be the first ones to announce the Savior’s birth? How easily the wise men could have gotten discouraged as they probably spent months traveling to Bethlehem! I’m confident that they didn’t feel let down when they arrived. It was just an ordinary night for the shepherds until it was interrupted by a heavenly chorus. May our Advent nights be interupted by Your as You help guide our lives. These were the first keepers of Christmas. May we not be casual observers but determined keepers of Christmas this year. Amen.  

Blessings –


I’m sick and I need healing …

Dec. 9, 2011

Matthew 8:1-4

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosycame and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Ever been sick on Christmas? I have been a couple of times. Once when I was a teen, I remember spending most of Christmas day on the couch with a blanket. Growing up, we seldom had soda in the house. There were two times when we did: when company was coming or someone was sick. My Christmas dinner was cold 7-Up. What a treat! As an adult, I got sick on Christmas Eve. For years, long-time family friends Dick and Jean Easterson would come to my parents house after church on Christmas Eve. Because they lived inCalifornia, this was the annual time we’d catch-up with them. I tried to enjoy their company that night, but after awhile, my upset tummy won out. I spent most of the night in the bathroom, praying for healing. I didn’t want to feel crappy all Christmas Day.

Healing is tricky. We pray for physical healing. There are also other kinds of healing: emotional, mental, spiritual. We want healing but not the person on TV who kind of scares us. We want healing but …

Right before this passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus completed the Sermon on the Mount. He was near theSea of Galilee and saw great crowds interested in him. The people sat on a hillside and he taught them many counter-cultural understandings of God. We find the Sermon on the Mount in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew’s gospel.

At the conclusion of the sermon, Jesus is coming down the hillside when a man with leprosy kneels before him. Leporsy is an awful disease where the skin is transformed and eaten away at. When Jesus lived, folks with leprosy were required to live in areas separate from the rest of the population. They were outcasts and no one wanted to be near them, help them or see if they could be healed. We could equate the disdain for leprosy in Jesus’ day to how people first felt about AIDS when it was becoming an epidemic.

This man asked for Jesus to heal him and Jesus does. One of the many, many people the bible says Jesus healed. Another miracle by Jesus!

Before we moved to Mazomanie, Marilyn and Wil were our neighbors. One day, Wil brought over a book about running for Rick. I’m the one who read it and decided that I could run again. I’d ran on and off over the years, but never with a goal in mind other than trying to keep my weight in check. Wil inspired me to set the goal of running a marathon and complete it. Wil and I have ran a few races together. A few years ago, Wil and I ran a half-marathon inDuluth,MN. He was in his 70’s and still running half-marathons.

This year, Wil was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. He went through very aggressive treatment, being in the hospital about every three weeks while he went through various chemo cocktails. Last Friday, Wil called and shared with Rick that he’d been to the doctor last week and received a good report. His next visit to the oncologist isn’t for another three months and at this time, no more chemo! A miracle for Wil! I’m confident Wil feels like he’s gotten a wonderful Christmas a couple weeks early.

When Jesus came into this world, he came as a change-agent. He was going to do, say and be things that were unpopular and would threaten certain people. In our very imperfect world, Jesus comes to heal us in whatever way we need healing. Jesus doesn’t want us to live crappy lives.

Unfortunately, when our lives are crappy, it becomes easy to blame God for our situations. Why did God allow this to happen? It’s not fair when a young person gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. We pray and pray for healing. Sometimes it happens. Too often, we think it doesn’t.

When Mary held her new baby in her arms the night he was born, it would have been impossible for her to imagine everything this baby would accomplish. The way he would heal would have been beyond her wildest dreams. She spent most of her life trying to understand Jesus. We see Mary showing up again and again, loving her son and wanting to try and understand why he did the things he did, said the things he said, lived the way he lived. She followed him all the way to the foot of the cross he died on, still not completely understanding Jesus.

Healing is an important part of the Christmas story. When Jesus comes into our world as a baby, he brings with him the ultimate healing: healing from ourselves, from this crappy world, from everything that separates us from God. Eternal salvation becomes available for us because Jesus makes this possible for all people. Our wounds are healed by Jesus’ wounds. We know this because we know how the story ends. For Mary and the man with leprosy, healing was what would fix their crappy situation right now. It was impossible for them to understand how Jesus’ life would become the ultimate healer for them and the world.

Like the man with leprosy, too often we look at the immediate need for healing and pray for that. If healing doesn’t happen as we desire, how do we respond? Get angry? Accept this? Or can we look deeper and see that Jesus has many different kinds of healing. He comes to us in so many different ways and venues that it’s impossible for us to even understand how complex his healing is.

Do you feel the need for healing in your life this day? What is separating you from completely experiecing God’s love for you? Or do you know someone else who would benefit from Jesus’ healing touch? Pray for them. Advocate for you or someone else. Don’t give up on how Jesus can heal you. I’m guessing the man with leprosy never expected Jesus to really heal him. It was a long shot. Jesus can take the crappy parts of our lives and worlds and make sense of them. This is the kind of present Christ gives every day.

Dear God: Thank you for sending the ultimate Healer in your Son Jesus Christ. You heal us even when we don’t know we need healing. The crappy part of our lives is not more than you can handle. May we seek and receive the healing we need in our lives this day. Amen.  

Blessings –


Labor of Love

Dec. 8, 2011

Luke 2:4-7

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Andrew Peterson wrote a Christmas song called “Labor of Love.” Here are the words:

It was not a silent night

There was blood on the ground

You could hear a woman cry

In the alleyways that night

On the streets of David’s town.


And the stable was not clean

And the cobblestons were cold

And little Mary full of grace

With the tears upon her face

Had no mother’s hand to hold.


It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above

But for the girl on the ground in the dark

With every beat of her beautiful heart,

It was a labor of love.


Noble Joseph at her side

Callused hands a nd weary eyes

There wer no midwives to be found

In the streets of David’s town

In the middle of the night.


So he held her and he prayed

Shafts of moonlight on his face

But the baby in her womb

He was the maker of the moon

He was the Author of the faith

That could make the mountains move.


It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above

But for the girl on the ground in the dark

With every beat of her beautiful heart,

It was a labor of love.

When I first heard this song a couple years ago, it captured me. A labor of love. Wow.

When I went into the ministry, I served as a student pastor for two small, rural congregations. They were very gracious to me. I wasn’t really sure just what I was always supposed to be doing or how to minister to them spiritually. They helped me learn and was tolerant of my mistakes and shortcomings.

A year or two before I began serving them, they had began a tradition. They recreated the nativity story in Gene & Dorothy Barber’s barn. One of the ladies had put together a script, based on the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth. Another woman sewed together beautiful costumes with hats fit for a real king. The unused hay loft in Barber’s barn was turned into a small theatre. Straw bales became the seats. The east end of the barn became a crude stage. Ameatuer lights were hung from the rafters.

With a elementary speaker system, narrators recited the nativity story while actors portrayed the scenes. Mary and Joseph went to the innkeeper with a real donkey. Sheep baaed during the production. The production was portrayed after it was dark in the natural elements. This was a situation when more bodies in the inn was a good thing! Afterwards, everyone warmed up at the local town hall with bowls of steaming chili and hot coffee and lots and lots of Christmas cookies.

This will be the 12th year I will be involved in putting together a “Live Nativity” production. When we moved to the Midland UMC, Rick and I knew the perfect site. A barn just down the road from the church that happened to be owned by a church member would be the ideal spot forMidland’s “Live Nativity.” Like the Barber’s barn,Cal’s hayloft barn is mostly unused – except for one night a year when it becomes our local version of Bethlehem.

For me, the “Live Nativity” isMidland’s labor of love: our re-creation of the birth of Christ offered as a gift to the community. Yep, there are years the barn has been down-right cold. Cast and crew use hand warmers in their gloves and in their boots to keep our extremities warm. Costumes are big enough to go over King Herod’s real-life hunting gear. Angel halos glimmer above pink polertec hats. While we have real sheep, a few ofMidland’s youngest folks become the sheep that are actually with the shepherds when Gabriel surprises their quiet night. These little sheep have sometimes literally rolled around in the straw before the production began and their little white costumes are as covered with straw as the real sheep stationed in pens just off to the side from the stage. A few years, we’ve had a real baby Jesus; sometimes a boy and sometimes a girl.

For many of the cast and crew, our retelling of the nativity in the barn is as close as we’ll ever get to the events that happened in Bethlehem that first Christmas night. One man told me a few years ago that when we host the “Live Nativity,” for him, this is Christmas. It doesn’t get any more real for him than this.

One year when the production was at the Barber’s barn, afterwards we were done with the story, a grandma and her grandson came up to me. The boy was about 4-years-old. He was carrying a wrapped present. Grandma explained to me that when she told her grandson that they were going to a barn to watch how baby Jesus was born, her grandson insisted on bringing a present for baby Jesus. “After all, that’s what the wise men did. So here’s our gift for baby Jesus,” she said. I was touched beyond words. After I was home, I couldn’t help myself. I had to see what a 4-year-old would give baby Jesus. I carefully removed the wrapping paper and uncovered a helicopter. I turned the propellers and though how funny it was the Jesus traveled toBethlehemon a donkey. And now, he’s been given a new form of transportation. I carefully reapplied the wrapping paper and took the gift to the local giving tree. Some little boy got a helicopter that year that really was intended for baby Jesus.

What is the one event during the Advent and Christmas season that exemplifies the true meaning of the season for you? For many, it might be Christmas Eve worship. Maybe it’s driving by a staged nativity scene. For someone else, it might be attending a production of “The Messiah.” If you don’t really have such a tradition, begin one this Christmas. Invite someone to go with you who you might not otherwise do so. Together, discover a local labor of love production that gets right down to the real reason of the season.

If you’re within driving distance of Midland UMC, I invite you to our “Live Nativity.” It is this Sunday night, Dec. 11, at 5 PM. Please arrive at the church (10235 Hwy KP, Mazomanie) by 4:45 PM. You can park at the church and we’ll provide transportation down to the barn. Afterwards, we’ll fill our chilled bodies with bowls of steaming chili back at the church. And you won’t find better Christmas cookies and bars in the county. Oh, dress warm. The barn isn’t heated. Bring a blanket to cover the straw bale seats. And be prepared to be transported back to Bethlehem as we remember Mary’s labor of love for the world.

Dear God: We sing, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” May we find a labor of love where we can recall, observe and, remember Mary’s labor of love and your wondrous gift this Advent. Amen.  

Blessings –


If you aren’t familiar with “Labor of Love,” go to and you can listen to this song.

Even Pillars of Faith Struggle

Dec. 7, 2011

2 Corinthians 11:

Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

I was in 5th or 6th grade. We’d had a lot of snow that December. On Christmas morning, it was bitterly cold. It was not a good day on the farm. Water pipes were frozen, getting a tractor to start was nearly impossible. If I remember correctly, the silo unloader was also under protest. You didn’t know a silo unloader could protest, did you? When it doesn’t cooperate and help feed the cows, I call it under protest.

It was going on noon before we sat down for breakfast and the morning chores still weren’t done. My Mom has this tradition of taking half a grapefruit and inserting a marshmellow and a candycane in the middleof it  for Christmas morning. They are put under the broiler for just a couple of minutes to slighty brown the marshmellow. Along with this, she makes homemade bread shaped like a Christmas tree. We’d help her decorate the tree with icing, red hots and sprinkles to make it look like a real tree.

This is an annual Christmas breakfast tradition that my siblings and I looked forward to. But that Christmas morning, the grapefruit seemed more sour than sweet. The Christmas bread seemed hard and chewy. My Dad was discouraged by all the set-backs from the morning. I’m confident my Mom was tired and running on very little sleep. As we sat in the dining room (which we did only on special occasions) eating breakfast, it was very, very quiet. No one spoke of opening presents. My parents were experiencing financial challenges and I know my Mom had to be creative. My main present was a 12×12 latchhook pattern with a rose on it. I’m sure it cost less than $10. We knew the cow barn still needed to be cleaned and water pipes thawed. Just getting the animals fed and the barns cleaned were going to take most of the day.

No one knows everything you’ve been through but you. No one has ever walked in your shoes completely. Even your spouse, your best friend, your Momma – they aren’t able to get inside your head and understand your emotions.

I wish that I could go back and hear the emotions that my parents and my siblings were experiencing that morning as we quietly ate our Christmas breakfast. What was not supposed to be like every other day of the year was turning out to be just that. For my parents, the morning was probably indicative of the cascading of events which just made their lives seem more and more challenging.

The Apostle Paul is usually quite humble. In this passage, he lets go and shares from his heart his pent-up frustrations. Even the most faifthful of disciples endure great hardship, disappointment and feel let down. “When is enough enough?” Paul is saying. “When am I going to get a break? Others around me have. Isn’t it my turn?”

My mentor shared with me this week how everyone considers Mother Theresa a Christian martyr. She’s only considered one because everyone knew what she’d given up to serve God and God’s kingdom. If her story weren’t as well-known, would it have the same impact? Definitely not. In this sense, to a degree don’t we all want to be martyrs? Don’t we all want someone to know even a bit of what we’re going through? There are good and honest reasons for sharing. We’re encouraged to share our burdens with another so that we don’t become overwhlemed by them. When shared, our challenges and frustrations can become teachable moments for others.

As these days drawing closer to Christmas become more packed, the nights become a bit shorter and we wonder how to accomplish the variety of things we feel compelled to do, don’t we all want someone to recognize what we’re all dealing with? Honestly, it’s not always during the month of December I feel this way. It’s hard for me to admit this. Humbleness is one of my “occasion” spiritual gifts. I don’t always practice it well every day.

Life has a way of smacking us down, even when we’re trying to do everything right. In the Christmas story, Joseph comes to mind. He simply wanted to marry a honorable Jewish girl, have a family, continue working hard and teach his family the proper Hebrew way to live. Instead, his fiance shows up pregnant, he has a wild dream that he should go ahead and marry this girl and call the baby his own. On top of it all, now he has to travel toBethlehemand be counted for a ridiculous census? Are you kidding?

In Matthew 1:19, Joseph is called a “righteous man.” “Righteous, smightous,” I’d be thinking if I were Joseph reading the story about himself from Matthew’s gospel. How I’d like to get inside of his head and hear his emotions. What was supposed to be a wonderful year of his life, was turning into an uncontrollable disaster.

We hear very little about Jesus’ earthly father. But we know he was righteous. Even when the going got tough, he followed God and God’s calling in his life. Even when it would have been eaiser to follow his own path, he hung in there. We know Paul didn’t give up either. Despite his frustrations in this letter to the church atCorinth, he continued his work as a church planter for the early Christian church. And even became a martyr for it.

None of us will probably ever become a Joseph, a Paul or a Mother Thersa. But their stories should inspire us. Without them, we’d never know how even they felt challenged by Christ’s message and call on their lives.

Dear God: Sometimes, we just want someone to recognize and appreciate what we do, especially for your Kingdom. Is this OK? Why do we feel this way? Thank goodness you’ve never stop doing for us even when we forgot to appreciate and say, “Thank you.”

Blessings –



When It Seems More Like a Blue Christmas


Dec. 6, 2011

James 1:17

Everything good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

For some people, Christmas isn’t holly and jolly. Christmas can be an awful reminder of the death of a loved one, a failed marriage, a fractured relationship, unfulfilled dreams.

While many people are excited to decorate their homes, put together the family Christmas letter and wrap presents, others want to skip the holidays altogether. They can’t wait for Jan. 2nd.

I clearly remember Christmas 2000. Not only was the December that southernWisconsinreceived the most snow on record. It was also the first December my husband Rick lived without his oldest son, Nate. Nate was killed in January 2000. As the one year anniversary loomed as well as the holidays, I remember Rick asking if we couldn’t just skip the entire holiday season.

Oh, so easy for a pastor! Never mind one that is going to seminary full-time, serving two small rural churches, having recently moved and trying to care for her grieving husband of just a few months. I’m trying to get ready for our Christmas Open House at the parsonage, unpack the boxes still sitting in the dining room and write final semester papers. And there are the church commitments: organize the church’s “Live Nativity” and Advent and Christmas worship services! I had more energy in those days!

I gently reminded him that Christmas was going to come no matter what. Yes, we could do things different this year. Long-standing traditions would be changed. We made time to go to the remembrance service the funeral home offered for families who had lost loved ones within the last year. When we got home, we carefuly put the snowflake ornament given to us at the service with Nate’s name on it on our own Christmas tree.

No matter what we did, we knew there would be an empty chair at the Vielhuber Christmas celebration. Going to the cemetary and hanging a wreath seemed like not the right kind of gift. But it was the only gift we could give.

Is there something in your life which causes you to want to hit the pause button before Christmas … or want to fast-forward to January? I spoke of our unperfect Christmases in church on Sunday. As I spoke, I knew that many people’s minds were still trying to get their mind around the loss of one of Midland UMC’s own, Danna Dee Turk. Danna Dee was one of Midland’s regular piano players. In fact, I’ve pretty much resigned to the fact that I’ll be playing on Christmas Eve because we haven’t been able to secure someone else to play. Danna Dee was 64-years-old and died completely unexpected in mid-November. While any death within a congregation is a moment for reflection, her death has touched much of the congregation because her fingerprints were all over Midland.

As I spoke about missing loved ones this Christmas, I had a hard time not looking at Louise, Danna Dee’s best friend. Louise was trying to keep a strong smile on her face. But I noticed that she gripped her great-grandaughter a bit stronger as she held the three-month-old baby in her arms. And I saw her husband’s hand gently hold her shoulder. I saw knowing looks between people and hands gently glide into the hand of the person sitting next to him or her.

It’s very difficult to think of these situations as a “good and perfect gift from above.” What we really want to know is,  “Why?” I’m not going to begin to answer this for Danna Dee or anyone else. What I can encourage you is this: Jesus is the light of the season, who comes to us from the Father of the heavenly lights. This very same Jesus will be with you this Christmas season. He wants to journey with you through the tough days, the sad days, the disappointing days. Don’t worry. Jesus can handle your emotions.

If the context of this devotion describes you, determine a way to celebrate the missing loved one’s life. Whatever your grief maybe this holiday, plan a way to change up your celebration to allow you to celebrate the Christ child’s birth within your limits. Every year as we decorate our tree, we pause, smile and a tear creeps into Rick’s eye as we hang Nate’s ornament. And this is OK.

For those who might not be faced with this situation this Advent, think of someone who is. Make an extra phone call this week. Invite them for a cup of coffee or to a movie. Do something fun and silly with them for no apparent reason. And remind them that Jesus is the light of the season, the one who journies with them in this season of darkness. May the Christ child bring a little brightness to their days.

Blessings –


PS – If there is someone who you think would enjoy these Advent Devotionals, please pass along the link and encourage them to sign-up for the daily devotional! Happy Advent!

Dreaming of the Perfect Christmas


Dec. 5, 2011

2 Corinthians 12:7b-9

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a throne in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away form me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

For some crazy reason, we think that it is necessary to have a perfect Christmas; that somehow in this imperfect world, we will create one perfect day. So, we go to great lenghs to shop for just the right gift, have the perfect meal, create the perfect sitting, wishing for 2.5 inches of newly fallen snow with no ice.

Then, Christmas arrives. Someone doesn’t get the gift they really wanted. A toy is broken before noon. Grandpa drinks too much punch and Dad calls Grandma a naughty word.

This week, we’ll look at how imperfect that first Christmas was and how this truly speaks to how we should view Christmas. One thing Christ’s birth should teach us is that perfect wasn’t how it all started.

Luke’s gospel tells us that the baby was placed in a manger after he was born because there was no room for them in the inn. This has lead us to believe that Jesus was born in a stable. More apporpriately, it might have been a cave. Nonetheless, it was a place where cattle lived. Having grown up on a farm, I know whereever there are cattle, this is manure. Stinky, smelly manure. And if it’s the right time of the year, flies aren’t far behind.

Let’s think about this. There was no hand sanitizer at the door. No stainless steal equipment to help deliver the Son of God. No one to make sure lots of warm, clean water was available. No clean gowns to make sure the chance of infection was limited.

Instead, the “nursing” staff might have included a cow, a donkey and maybe some sheep. Probably the only person there to help Mary was Joseph. And her bed might have been soft hay or straw.

A few years ago, I traveled to the Holy Lands. On Jan. 6, when the western church celebrates Ephiphany (the arrival of the magi) and the day the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas, we traveled toBethlehem. We visited the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the supposed site of Jesus’ birth. Above the cave is a church, or actually four churches that move from one into another, built hundreds of years ago. As you enter the cave that symbolizes where Jesus was born, you have to stoop down and enter through a small door. Even for someone like me who isn’t very tall, you have to bend over to enter! Then, we went down a stairway and into the cave: a small, two room area. We were told that owners of the cave probably lived in the larger of the two areas (which is about the size of my home office). The animals were kept in the smaller of the two rooms. This might have been where Jesus was born. It’s even smaller than my home office.

A star on the ground represents where Jesus might have been born. As I knelt and laid my hand on the star, I prayed for the Christ child to continue to change my life.

While the cave is covered in marble and cloths and incense burners today, that’s not how it would have been when Jesus was born. It was a place where animals lived. Mary didn’t have an excellent team of caregivers lined up to catch the Son of Man as he entered the world. As a 12-15 year-old girl, imagine the freight and anxiety that was probably more likely a part of her delivery. And Joseph … do we think he had ever delivered a baby before? More than likely, not.

The Apostle Paul wrote these words from 2 Corinthians to the church atCorinth. We don’t know exactly what his ailment was that he speaks of in this passage. People have lots of guesses but no conclussions. What we do know is that this thorn in his flesh was something that kept him from being completely healthy, from living life as he wished. While he repeatedly ask God to remove this imperfectness, it continued to challenge him.

The perfect Son of God came into an imperfect world to help us with our imperfectness. When we have physical ails, Jesus’ grace is sufficient for us. As our lives get thrown into turmoil by challenges and unforseen things, the perfect Jesus will be journeying with us if we look for him. When our personal lives are invaded by things we can’t control, let us not fret or fear or worry. Let us turn to the imperfect barn and imagine the perfect baby that still called it home.

As much as I’d love for perfect Advent and Christmas worship services, celebrations and interactions, I know they won’t be. May God’s grace be more than enough. Ultimately, this is more important than one perfect day.

Blessings –


Creative Gift-Giving

Dec. 4, 2011

Matthew 2:11

On coming to the house, the Magi saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The concept of gift-giving at Christmas is biblically rooted. When the Magi arrived inBethlehemafter their very long journey, they were prepared to give King Jesus gifts. And so, they presented him with three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We don’t really know how many wise men visited Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Traditionally, we show three wise men in a nativity scene because of the three gifts given to the baby.

The gifts each represented something for the baby:

  • Gold was used by kings to recognize their royalty. In giving gold, the magi acknowledge that Jesus is the King of Kings.
  • An aromic resin from the Boswwellia tree, Frankincense was used in rituals in the synagogue by the rabbis, the priests. In giving this gift to Jesus, he is recognized as the Highest Priest.
  • Myrrh was used to annoit a body after a person died. It was also given to Jesus as he hung on the cross. This gift recognizes Jesus’ future sacrifice for all humanity.

Like the magi, we continue the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas. Quite often, there maybe someone on your Christmas list that is hard to buy for. Someone who doesn’t really need anything but you’d like to remember them in someway. May I give a suggestion?

Give them a “Happy Birthday Jesus” gift certificate. I’m including a sample certificate with the blog. It allows the person to choose (or you can choose for them) a non-profit or special organization or family that you will give a gift in honor of them.

A few years ago, Rick’s sister, Linda, gave us such a certificate a Christmas. She had made a donation to the Dane County Food Pantry in honor of us. We thought this was a wonderful gift and appreciated her creativity.

I mentioned in another post that Rick and I choose various families, groups and organizations to support rather than giving each other presents. A couple people have mentioned how your family has thought creativly about gifts. I thank you for these comments and thoughts. I pray that these ways will allow us to all be a bit more creative this Christmas. Gifts are good. Personally, I’m encouraged to give gifts to folks who need them much more than I do.

Yes, there are people to give actual presents to. On Friday, Rick and I did most of our Christmas shopping, basically for the grandkis, plus the local giving tree. For those who you struggle in knowing what to give them or maybe someone who might really enjoy a “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” certificate, consider how you might honor them this Christmas.

Blessings –


I’ve put together a sample certificate that you can use. Click on this link for a certificate that you can print. Please change as you would like.

Happy Birthday Jesus card



The ADVENTure of Christmas

Dec. 3, 2011

Isaiah 60:13

The Glory of Lebanon shall come unto you, the fir tree, the pine tree and the box together, to beautify the place of your sanctuary.

A tradition I enjoy using to kick-off Advent is a Hanging of the Greens worship service on the first Sunday of Advent. In this service, we remember the meaning behind the decorations used to festively adorn our churches and our homes. They are symbols of life, joy and hope.

What do the various decorations symbolize and represent? Let’s remember.

The most universal Christmas symbol is evergreens. Early Christians placed them in their windows to indicate that Christ had entered the home. They are called evergreens because they never change color. They are ever-green, ever-alive, even in the midst of winter. For Christians, they symbolize the unchanging nature of our God, and they remind us of everlasting life in Christ Jesus. Various evergreens represent something of Christ:

  • In ancient times, cedar was known as the tree of royalty.  The cedar branch represents Christ’s everlasting reign.
  • Because the needles of pine and fir trees do not die each season, they are signs of eternity and something that lasts forever. They symbolize how the faithful experience eternal life in Jesus Christ.
  • The round wreath, with no beginning and no end, fulfills Isaiah’s message that there will be no end to the Messiah’s reign.
  • Holly and ivy bear berries in the dark, cold winter months. They remind us of Christ’s passion even in the Christmas season. Their prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, which Christ wore at his crucifixion. The red berries represent the Savior’s blood that he shed for us. The bitter bark represents the sour drink offered to Jesus on the cross.
  • Glittering with lights and ornaments, the Christmas tree is the center of most Christmas homes. Lighted Christmas trees help us call to mind the One who brings light to our darkness, healing to our brokenness and peace to all who receive him.

The flower of Christmas, the poinsettia, is the symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. The star-shaped red leaves remind us of the star that shone on the first Christmas. The red flower reminds us of the blood of Jesus our Savior upon the cross.

While Advent comes during the darkest time of the year, for the church, it is the season of light. With the Advent Wreath, we light a candle each Sunday to eliminate the world’s darkness and to witness to the Light of the World – Jesus Christ. As another Advent candle is lit each week, the sanctuary becomes a bit brighter. Darkness retreats as hope moves forward. The flame of each new candle reminds us that something is happening. There is more to come.

One of the most heart-warming expressions of Christmas is the scene in Bethlehemwhere the birth took place. The Nativity scene, also known as the crèche, is THE symbol of Christmas. It illustrates the night of Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his story. Many people were in town, registering for the census. A stable was filled with animals and the sounds of the night. Shepherds, angels, wise men and town’s people came to find the Christ Child.

Since the first Christmas, gift giving has been a part of the season. The Wise Men gave treasures; the Shepherds gave of themselves. Both express the Gift of God in giving Christ as the Savior of the World.

The first Christmas caroling was first done by the Choir of Angels who sang, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace and good will to all people.”

However, the greatest Gift of Christmas is the Gift of God in Christ Jesus. All that we do during this Holy Season points to the expression of God’s Holy Love. Christ came as a babe inBethlehem and is God’s Christmas gift. As Christians, we seek to pass on our Christian heritage to our children and to those who, by faith in Christ, become part of God’s family. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in your and my life, the Christmas Gift continues.

As you decorate your home, your office, your church and other places, remember how these various symbols direct us back to Christ. The ADVENTure of Christmas is not just doing; it’s remembering why and how we have incorporated all of these aspects into Christmas. It also helps us be directed back to the WHO of the season.

Blessings –