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.

I’m Excited

I’m Excited

nativity

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

I don’t need to tell you that life is tough right now. You know how much COVID has disrupted and destroyed so much. You have seen too many people ready to move on and not wrestle with issues of racial injustice. You struggle with the diagnosis of an illness that is debilitating, and may well take your life in the coming months. You watch people you care about deeply struggling on a daily basis with depression that zaps their joy until it dries up and blows away.

This deep pain causes many people to look at you in disbelief as you once again prepare to celebrate the coming of the One you believe changes everything about everything. They cannot comprehend how you can so naively believe God became human to give people what they absolutely need, but can never get on their own – a whole new life in God that begins now and lasts forevermore. They are convinced you have lost your mind because you believe the birth of a baby to two homeless parents temporarily finding refuge in a stable in a small town was a cosmic event that has fundamentally altered heaven and earth.

However, you don’t believe in God’s initiative at Christmas because you have seen enough evidence that conclusively proves it. You begin to see more and more clearly what God is up to because you choose to take a leap of faith to believe. And once you do, you discover how Jesus’ birth at Christmas blossoms into a sacred mystery that so defines your life it is to be cherished, nurtured and shared.

I have lived a long time and experienced a great deal; some of it on the mountain top and some of it deep in the valley. I am far from perfect; those who love me most know this best and yet still love me. I have diligently tried to be faithful with my mind and my spirit; I still fall far too short far too often. Here’s what I’ve discovered on my life’s journey. I need a Savior. The best decision I have ever made was to take that leap of faith to stake my life on Jesus Christ as my Savior who came, lived, and died to give life that is both abundant and eternal. This choice has changed what I see, know, understand, believe, and do fundamentally and forever. 

No wonder I’m excited about getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth – no wonder I hope you are excited, too!

Annie Lankford Shares the Light of Hope, Peace and Stability Found at Methodist Family Health

Annie Lankford Shares the Light of Hope, Peace and Stability Found at Methodist Family Health

By Kelli Reep

Director of Communications, Methodist Family Health

You most likely know Annie Lankford. She is the associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in North Little Rock; in fact, she is a fourth-generation United Methodist pastor. Or, you could know her from West Little Rock Rotary Club where she has been a longtime member and noted as Rotarian of the Year in 2019. Regardless of how you know her, you recognize Annie as accomplished, kind and friendly with a wonderful family. What you may not know is the deep grief, fear and uncertainty she faced just last year. On September 30, 2019, her son attempted suicide.

“I faced one of the most shattering and life-altering experiences any parent has to face,” Annie said. “My handsome, sensitive, precious son, thankfully, did not complete his attempt, and I am so grateful that my family didn’t have to face any of it alone. We had another family – our Methodist family – and being an Arkansas United Methodist, I knew the Methodist Behavioral Hospital was where I wanted my son to go.”

Methodist Behavioral Hospital is part of the Methodist Family Health complete continuum of care for Arkansas children and their families struggling with psychiatric, behavioral, emotional and spiritual issues. Children as young as three and as old as 17 can be admitted for acute care if they are a danger to themselves or someone else. The hospital’s goal for acute care is to stabilize the child’s behavior and to connect him or her with community services for future success. 

“I thought about saying nothing about my son’s attempt, and I thought about what I would tell our congregation and our friends,” Annie said. “But by saying nothing or sweeping it under the rug, the stigma is perpetuated. So, this is my story, and my son’s story.”

Annie’s son completed his treatment at Methodist Behavioral Hospital then went on to extended treatment at an equine therapy program. As a result of his care, Annie has become an advocate for suicide prevention through the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention as well as for the services of Methodist Family Health.

“We are on the right path,” Annie said. “I want parents and their children and anyone in the shadow of suicide to understand that suicide and suicide attempts are not selfish. The stigma needs to stop, and every suicide survivor needs to know he and she is loved and wanted. My son is a child of God, I am a child of God, and we needed God’s angels on this earth. This is why I’m telling our story. We can be uncomfortable and sad and broken together.”

If you or someone you know at home, church, school or community is contemplating suicide, reach out to Methodist Family Health. We are available 24 hours a day, every day of the year at 866-813-3388. To learn more about Annie’s story, watch her YouTube video at Methodist Family Health’s YouTube channel.

If you would like to donate to Methodist Family Health to continue programs and services like Methodist Behavioral Hospital, here are easy ways to give:

  • Text GIVE to 501-881-2258.
  • Donate online using our secure online donation form.
  • Visit https://www.paypal.com/fundraiser/hub and search for Methodist Family Health Foundation.
  • Call 501-906-4201 to make a secure contribution with your debit or credit card.
  • Mail your cash or check donation to:
    Methodist Family Health Foundation
    P.O. Box 56050
    Little Rock, AR 72215-6050.
  • Make a contribution at church. Note MFH on your check or offering envelope and place in the offering plate. 
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.

Beyond 2021 Moves OnlineConference Will Focus on Dismantling Racism

Beyond 2021 Moves Online
Conference Will Focus on Dismantling Racism

By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

Next year’s Beyond Conference will take place entirely online, Jan. 22 – 23, 2021. The two-day event will focus on the Arkansas Conference’s mission of dismantling racism in our church and society, with the Bible verse Micah 6:8 as the main biblical focus.

The Beyond Conference is unique to the Arkansas Children’s Ministry. Very few UMC conferences offer professional development for faith formation staff and volunteers. Even fewer have a conference coordinator dedicated only to the ministry to children and their families. ARUMC has a history of investing in early faith formation.

More than eight years ago, a group of children’s ministers wanted to combine the two-state locations with limited training and pool their resources. They wanted to bring everyone together and share ideas and learn new tools for ministering to children and their families. I was not living in this state eight years ago, so I had to go back to one of the original planning team members, Karen Swales. 

Karen currently sits on our Conference Children’s Ministry team. She shared with me that they did a lot of research and found that there were few to no workshops for Children’s Ministers at the end of January, so they quickly chose what has become the traditional date. It also worked out to be a slower time for people to step away from church work for two days since it was after Christmas and before Lent.

The first four Beyond conferences were alternately held retreat-style at Tanako and Mt. Sequoyah, but in 2018 it was brought to Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Bringing Beyond into Little Rock allowed for it to become more of a professional training rather than a getaway.  Bringing children’s ministers to the Conference office connected them with ARUMC staff as well letting them see what the city had to offer in entertainment during their stay. No matter the location of the Beyond Conference the planning team has always looked for keynote speakers that shed new light on how we can best minister to children. Faith formation training is the continual focus at every Beyond training.

Beyond 2021 is no different, except of course the location has changed once again. Planning quality keynote speakers for Beyond usually takes six months to a year to book. In June of 2020, the CCM planning team had to decide if we would be able to plan for an in-person conference. We looked at the Bishop’s Task Force guidelines and thought about how we could hold in-person within the safety guidelines.

We have 10 members of our team plus special speakers, so under the guidelines for in-person, we would be able to have less than 35 attendees. In January of 2020, we had 90 attendees with five different states represented. We couldn’t plan a conference that would leave out half of our attendees in 2021!

I had Zoom conferences with our chosen keynote speakers to ask if they felt comfortable adapting their presentations to a webinar/Zoom format. They overwhelmingly agreed to the new format. I put in a webinar request with our award-winning ARUMC Communications director to see if Director Amy Ezell could supply the technical support we would need to go to an all-virtual format. Director Amy Ezell was in full agreement that Beyond 2021 could be offered in a virtual format with her team’s expertise in bringing it together.

If you have been to Beyond in the past you will note that the format has changed to two half-days of learning. In our research, we have found that all-day webinars/Zooms do not allow for the best learning. However, our theme for this year follows the Bishop’s proclamation that this would be a year of study and reflection for Dismantling Racism across our Arkansas UMC Conference. 

The CCM team chose our focus verse to be Micah 6:8 with a focus on Justice, Mercy and Humility. Our keynote speaker is the Rev. Dr. Y. Joy Harris from New York who just co-authored the book the ABC’s of Diversity. Click here to take a closer look at the speaker and break-out sessions. The virtual option allowed for more authors in our break-out sessions. 

Join us on both days or just one. Beyond 2021 is an affordable training for all in the comfort of your own home. Arkansas Conference attendees will also receive books and materials in the mail the last week of January, so please register before the deadlines. We hope to see you and your pastor on January 22-23, 2021!