Advent Is More Than Just a Holiday Tradition

Advent Is More Than Just a Holiday Tradition

advent bible

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Advent is a special time of year for many believers.

It’s a time when people who believe in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world take time to remember the weeks leading up to Christmas, where we traditionally celebrate his birth in a humble manger, thousands of years ago.

But for most of my upbringing, I didn’t know that Advent existed. Well, not in a way that would lead me to celebrate the religious meaning behind it in the same way that I celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

I came from an Evangelical Christian background that didn’t put as much emphasis on the Advent season as it did on the celebrated day of Christ’s birth. When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was the holiday that we would gather at the church to sing praises to Christ, listen to a choir Christmas play or children’s play, and probably enjoy a fellowship time with delicious cakes and snacks afterward.

Advent was a word that I would hear and see in popular culture, but not something I actively participated in. Lots of people outside of the church probably see Advent as an excuse to buy those fun calendars with different snacks or drinks experiences for each day prior to Christmas; or, in the case of my house, a different dog snack for your two furry, four-legged children.

That’s probably how I understood Advent, too. Not a religious experience but a cultural one.

Now, with more than two years of work for the Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church behind my belt, I’ve come to love and appreciate the Advent season.

According to Resource UMC, Advent, which in Latin means “coming” or “arrival,” actually started out as an alternative preparation time leading up to a new believer’s baptism ceremony. Over the years, the celebration of Advent became more and more associated with Christmas and the four weeks prior to the arrival of Christ, which is how we celebrate its meaning in modern times.

Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation for the coming of Christ, and remembrance of the longing of the ancient Jews for a Messiah. We remember our own need for forgiveness, salvation and a new beginning during Advent.

This is what I love the most about Advent. It’s not just a celebration of a day or two of the coming of Christ; it’s a month-long affair. 

And why shouldn’t it be that long? We are talking about the savior of the world who brought to us the ultimate payment for our sins. I think that deserves more than just a passing thought.

So now, Christmas has taken on a whole new purpose in my life. Advent has helped me to reflect on the blessings I have, and the hope I have for a new beginning in the new year. After the way that 2020 has gone, I think we all need some hope to hold on to.

Although Advent looks quite different this season, I hope that you find ways to safely celebrate with your friends, family, and church community during this holy time of the year.

Alternative AdventThis year's Advent is different, but here are safe ways you can still celebrate this joyful season

Alternative Advent
This year's Advent is different, but here are safe ways you can still celebrate this joyful season

First UMC Advent

Take home Advent kit from First UMC in Little Rock. Photo courtesy of Lesley Andrews.

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

This year, the season of Advent begins on Nov. 29 and goes through Dec. 24. Although churches are taking more precautions than ever before to keep their congregations safe from the coronavirus, that doesn’t mean that the joyous time of Advent can’t be celebrated in new and inspiring ways.

With cases continuing to rise in Arkansas, Bishop Mueller recently issued new safety guidelines that encouraged congregations to continue wearing masks, keeping a safe distance from each other, and sanitizing every surface.

These continued precautions mean that Advent services at your church will most likely not be as packed as they have in the past. Many churches are having to think back to what they did for Easter services to figure out an Advent service strategy.

At First UMC Little Rock, the church leadership decided the safest way for many in their congregation to celebrate Advent this year was through a take-home Advent kit.

Their take-home Advent kit includes everything you need to celebrate Advent at home, including candles to make your own Advent wreath. The wreath can be lit at home during the Advent worship service each Sunday.

There is also a daily devotional book written by the staff and pastors of First UMC, to ensure that you stay connected to the message and importance of the Advent season.

Instructions for making a craft Christmas ornament, activities for kids and special treats are also included in the kits, to continue the fun after the lessons are done.

Our hope is that these kits will help our community create an atmosphere of holy waiting in their homes, so that come Christmas morning they may experience the light of Christ in profound, world-changing ways,” said the Rev. Brittany Richardson Watson, associate pastor at First UMC.

In addition to the kits, First UMC will be holding various Advent-themed events throughout the month of December, leading up to Christmas Eve.

Richardson Watson said the church has lots of virtual and at-home events planned, including a virtual Christmas choir special, virtual flower arranging classes, and baking classes. The baking class that she is hosting, “Tastes of Christmas,” will meet via Zoom to discuss the meaning of various traditional Christmas treats that Richardson Watson will deliver to homes before the meeting.

First UMC Little Rock has decided not to host an in-person Christmas Eve service this year, but between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, there will be a variety of different virtual events — like worship, music and communion — that anyone in the community can join.

Tanako Advent 1

Camp Tanako and Ferncliff’s Advent-In-A-Box kits. Photo courtesy of Kayla Hardage.

Tanako Advent 2

Inside the Camp Tanako and Ferncliff’s Advent-In-A-Box kit. Lots of lessons, crafts and games can be found inside. Photo courtesy of Kayla Hardage.

Camp Tanako, a United Methodist camp located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, partnered with Ferncliff, a non-profit camp and retreat organization located outside of Little Rock, for their own version of the Advent box.

Called the Advent-In-A-Box, this take-home kit has four sections of activities to participate in, one for each of the four weeks of Advent. There are two versions of the boxes, one for families and one for older adults, and each section in the box contains an advent scripture story, reflection questions, and a prayer. 

But it’s not all lessons and scriptures; there are also games, crafts and activities for each section that help to tie the message together.

Kayla Hardage, Executive Director of Camp Tanako, said the idea for the Ferncliff partnership came about after Ferncliff’s Executive Director Joel Gill reached out to her.

“Ferncliff had partnered with a camp in Texas for their Camp-In-A-Box this past summer, and that program was successful. Tanako (Methodist) and Ferncliff (Presbyterian) are both American Camp Association Accredited and through the years have worked together in staff sharing and training opportunities.

“Joel was one of the first people to reach out and introduce himself when I stared at Tanako. I am very excited about our relationship moving forward,” Hardage said.

Hardage said the idea for Advent-In-A-Box was developed by a staff member from Ferncliff. In addition to activities and games for each week, there is a special gift from Tanako and Ferncliff that should be opened on Christmas Day.

The goal for the event was for each camp to sell a combined 1,500 boxes, which Hardage said they were able to do. Money raised from the sale of boxes were used to benefit both camps, which lost a large portion of their revenue by not having overnight camps this summer.

Methodist Family Health, which offers counseling and grief services for children ages 3 to 17, were able to buy 100 of the Advent boxes for their kids, thanks to generous donations from the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas and others.

“We are very excited about our Methodist Family Health kids receiving boxes, as they were not able to come to camp this summer,” Hardage said.

For many, the most memorable part of the Advent season is their church’s Christmas Eve service. 

If your church plans to have a smaller service, or no in-person service at all this year, Resource UMC has some helpful ideas for alternative ways to celebrate Christmas Eve this year.

Some of the activities they suggest include hosting a drive-in Christmas movie by having people tune to an FM station in their cars, creating a drive-through or walk-through Christmas scene (with Christmas lights, music, a Nativity scene, etc.), and planning a socially distance Christmas carol event in your church’s parking lot.

You can also encourage people to stay home with their families and celebrate Christmas instead of traveling out. To help them feel connected to your church, even while home, send out care packages with fun activities and lessons so families can celebrate the Advent season with their loved ones.

Whatever you and your family choose to do this Advent season, remember that this time of the year is about celebrating the coming of Jesus, the need for all of us to receive forgiveness, and the remembrance of a new beginning.

While this entire year has been filled with heartbreaking challenges, continuing to socially distance as we approach the seasons of Advent and Christmas is especially difficult for our church family. However, at the end of the day, whether we gather or not, come Christmas Jesus is still born, Emmanuel, God with us,” Richardson Watson said.

The Church Has Left the BuildingEngland First UMC Serves Its Community With Heart, Dedication

The Church Has Left the Building
England First UMC Serves Its Community With Heart, Dedication

England FUMC

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

For many small towns, the church is the centerpiece of a thriving and connected community. That’s especially true for the small farming community of England, Arkansas.

England, population approximately 2,750, is located about 30 miles southeast of Little Rock. It’s a town with a healthy variety of churches, and according to the Rev. Diane Hughes, pastor of England First UMC since 2018, “it’s a very Christian community that loves the Lord.”

“The people are very friendly and, for the most part, are very compassionate and dedicated to their town. The town stands behind the people who live here and is very supportive of those in need,” Hughes said.

The community also struggles with poverty and food insecurity, according to Hughes. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, many families were struggling to make ends meet and provide a decent living for their household.

But that’s where the strong Christian community of England has stepped up to help, said Hughes.

One of the ways that England FUMC has helped provide meals for families is through the Christ Corner food pantry. Although the food pantry is an ecumenical effort — many area churches maintain the pantry — it was started by England FUMC.

“They serve more than 200 families a month and for many, this is the only food they have access to,” Hughes said.

One of the newest ways the church is serving the England community is through an idea that popped up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hughes said whenever the pandemic arrived in Arkansas, many local businesses were forced to shut down, and many people lost the only income for their families.

So the church sprung into action and opened up their very own drive-thru market, called the Haywood St. Market. The market provides baked goods, casseroles, fresh produce, flowers, masks, and other items to the public, and is open every Saturday from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m.

The drive-thru nature of the market ensures that the community is provided for, while still practicing safe distancing practices to keep everyone healthy.

“The community has rallied around the businesses and we have assisted in keeping them afloat. It has also brought people closer together because we have all shared the pain and helped each other to survive,” Hughes said. “The market has continued even after the businesses were able to re-open and it has been a true blessing.”

Thrift Store

England First UMC’s thrift store, 2nd Time Around. The church continues to operate the store during the pandemic to help out the community. Items can be purchased for a flat price of $1, no matter the original cost of the item.

Hughes said they have also continued to operate their store, 2nd Time Around, during the pandemic. The store sells donated, used clothing and household items to the public. All of the items sold in the store are sold for $1 per item, no matter the original price of the item.

They also have occasional specials where customers are encouraged to fill a grocery sack with as many items as they can stuff in it for only $3. All of the money made in the store is donated back to the community, Hughes said, making it a truly cyclical community business.

The Rev. Blake Bradford, District Superintendent of the Central District, said that he is consistently inspired by the work that England FUMC and Rev. Hughes have been able to do in their small town.

“I rejoice in how England UMC is reaching new people for Christ, encouraging community connections, and supporting those in need. Churches of any size can be fruitful, missional, and energized,” Bradford said. “The entire congregation is working together to support the mission.”

As far as the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ, England has been successful in that mission field as well, gaining about eight to 10 new regular attendees since the doors of the church reopened to in-person worship.

They have also performed two baptisms and a wedding recently. Hughes said they even have new people coming to the church who are interested in becoming members.

“They have stated that this is the first church that they have attended where they feel welcome and a part of a family,” Hughes said.

“I am incredibly grateful for the tireless labor of Rev Diane Hughes and the dedicated lay leadership of England UMC for discerning a vision and then saying, ‘God’s got this — let’s follow Him!’ Their fruit from these efforts has been baptisms, nurturing of new disciples of Jesus, caring for people in need, and a stronger England,” Bradford added.

For Rev. Hughes, this is all part of the work of serving the community where you live, and making the church a part of the everyday lives of the people living in that community.

“I love this church and the people in it and those in the community. The support to me has been overwhelming and I continue to be blessed on a daily basis. Our church believes in the power of prayer and many miracles have occurred through that prayer. 

“We are growing and I think that having the excitement and folks participating in the many things that go on continues to show the community that we are real, and that we truly care for all of those we come in contact with,” Hughes said.

St. Paul Pastor Publishes Humorous Advent Play, Magi in Advent

St. Paul Pastor Publishes Humorous Advent Play, Magi in Advent

magi in advent

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

The Rev. Mark Waynick, a deacon at St. Paul UMC in Fort Smith who has served his church for more than 30 years, can now add another accomplishment to his list: published author.

Waynick’s new skit series has been published by Christian Publishers, a publishing company that has been a source of Christian plays and musicals since 1967.

His play, Magi in Advent, is about three traveling friends, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior, who pop up throughout the story of Advent to offer humor, fun, and a strong Christian message.

The play consists of four weeks (a call to worship, sermon introduction, offertory, and children’s story) that lead up to Christmas Eve, where The Wise Men present their gifts to the child savior.

We asked Rev. Waynick about his play and why Arkansas United Methodist congregations would want to add this story to their 2020 Advent celebrations.

Where did the idea for Magi in Advent come from?

Actually, the first skit in the series was written years ago. We had a youth group at the time that had presented several musicals and skits, and if I remember correctly, we had three young men that I knew would excel in wisecracking one-liners.

How were you able to get your skit published?

We had bought several skits from Christian Publishers so I decided why not give it a chance. I submitted that first skit and the publisher wrote back and said she really liked it but they don’t publish single short skits. She challenged me to come up with a series – one that would perhaps serve as a sermon intro, a children’s moment, “call to worship,” etc.

Is this your first time writing something like this for churches?

Yes, this is the first time.

Why should churches look into purchasing and performing this skit for their Advent services?

Originally, the first skit was written as a creative way to collect the offering. The editor wrote in the description of the Magi in Advent that “the congregation will delight in these recurring characters, anticipating how and when they’ll show up next.” I’ve always been interested in trying to find ways to keep the traditional acts of worship fresh and engaging. Hopefully, these skits will fit the bill for churches interested in creating a winsome worship experience while maintaining Scriptural meaning and relevance.

Do you have any plans to write future skits for Advent, or perhaps a different celebration?

I have a new set of skits in the works now. They’re not seasonal but will work well as sermon intros or fun youth group activities and conversation starters. Even though they’re fun and humorous, they also contain serious thought-provoking spiritual lessons.

To purchase Magi in Advent for your congregation, visit https://bit.ly/magi-in-advent.

Nurturing Growth

Nurturing Growth

indoor plants

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

I’ve recently gotten into gardening and taking care of indoor plants.

It was sort of something that happened by accident — as I’m sure every person who develops this hobby can relate — where my wife and I were given plants by friends and family or casually shopped for new ones every time we went to a nursery, and pretty soon, we had 10, 20, 30 plants in the span of only a few months.

What were we going to do with all of these new responsibilities and living things to take care of? Were we placing them in the right spot for optimal sunlight? Was the temperature okay? Were we watering them too much? Too little? Or sometimes, if we were really busy with other things, not at all?

Make no mistake, we have successfully killed many plants over the past year. Some plants require very precise care; you do one thing wrong and the beautiful leafy green plant you picked up at the nursery quickly finds a new home in the compost bin. Others seem to be doing well for a while with minimal care, and then one day you wake up and find it browned and decayed, with no explanation for what happened to it.

Nurturing plants is a lot like nurturing your faith. It takes time and effort to maintain a strong faith and a good relationship with God.

It’s often difficult to make time for the many ways we grow our faith: studying scripture, praying, fellowshipping with our church family, serving our community. I’m not ashamed to admit I struggle with these things.

But as with nurturing a plant, nurturing your faith will often lead to a fuller and healthier life.

Making time for prayer each day, even for just a few minutes before you start your day, can bring peace and comfort to your life.

Studying scripture — again, just a few minutes each day or a few times a week — is key to growing closer to your faith.

It’s not just praying and reading that nurtures faith, it’s also doing. James, the brother of Jesus, lays out pretty clearly that faith without works is dead in James 2:14 – 26.

In the same way, you can’t just believe your plants will grow tall and healthy without watering, giving them nutrient-rich soil, and placing them in sunlight. You have to work to produce good results.

I’ve learned a lot about taking care of plants from the mistakes I’ve made in the past. I’m now happy to say that I have many strong, thriving plants in my garden. But it wasn’t by accident that they grew strong; it was because I made a point to make sure they were nurtured.

The Christian faith is not an easy one. It takes work. But that work is necessary to produce a fruitful, healthy, and strong faith.