Look Beneath the Glitter

Look Beneath the Glitter


By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

The contrast is striking. 

On the one hand, there is the glitter of Christmas, which often goes up early in November (sometimes even in October!) and starts coming down the day after Christmas because people are ready to move on. Sadly, however, no amount of glitter can change what’s beneath it: beautifully decorated houses filled with addictions, dysfunctional families, life-threatening illnesses, depression, meaningless jobs, hopelessness and mean-spirited character. 

On the other hand, there is the birth of a child to an unmarried woman almost unnoticed in a dirty stable far away from her family. The stable is filled with the mess and muck of animals, yet glows with divine love. The child’s birth does not try to cover up real life, but rather fundamentally transforms it. This event is not just another holiday party, but the incarnation of the Christ child who has come to save us with the gift of abundant and eternal life. 

We are inextricably tied to both the Christmas of glitter and incarnation. Yet all too often, the Christmas glitter sparkles so brightly that it’s hard to see into the stable and all it means. The point is not to get rid of all the things that make Christmas wonderful, although I am annually tempted to do just that when we have to take down, pack up and store it all. Rather, it is to look beneath the glitter of Christmas and see the most beautiful sight in the world: God who is so passionately in love with us that he became one of us to give us what we have to have, but can never get on our own.

The words of Luke 2 speak this reality so simply and profoundly,

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Yes, the contrast is striking. The Christmas glitter always fades, falls off and blows away. The Incarnation is eternal, beautiful and our ultimate hope.

Merry Christmas!


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.

What is Advent? And why do we celebrate it?

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, – for 2018, that’s Dec. 2 – Advent is a December celebration rooted in deep Christian traditions.

Unlike the more widely-celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day holidays, Advent is about far more than gift giving, hot cocoa and the night of Jesus Christ’s birth.

Advent – which comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming” or “visit” – is traditionally a time of remembrance and anticipation for the coming of Christ. It is also the beginning of the liturgical year for followers of the Christian faith, meaning that it is the beginning of six distinct periods of Christian observance throughout the year; beginning with Advent and ending each year with Pentecost Sunday

According to UMC.org’s “What We Believe” article on Advent, during this time “We remember the longing of Jews for a Messiah and our own longing for, and need of, forgiveness, salvation and a new beginning. Even as we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus in a humble stable in Bethlehem, we also look forward anticipating the second coming of Christ as the fulfillment of all that was promised by his first coming.”

For United Methodists, the Advent season is full of rich traditions, celebrated in church buildings all over the United States and abroad.

Judy White, a United Methodist member, remembers some of those traditions growing up in one United Methodist Church from her past.

“Advent season not only included the lighting of a new candle each Sunday but also a new feature of Christmas decor to the sanctuary,” White said. “One Sunday, the Christmon tree appeared; another week the wreaths in the altar area; another the poinsettia tree. The growing anticipation was palatable.”

Some of these traditions include the vibrant and elegant decorations used to adorn church sanctuaries.

The Advent Wreath is one such decoration that adds rich greenery and color to United Methodist sanctuaries. The wreath, which is comprised of an evergreen wreath and four candles, is much more than just decoration; it also holds deep symbolic meaning.

Thought to have originated in the time of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the wreath — which is shaped into a perfect circle — is meant to symbolize the eternity of God. The four candles placed in the middle of the wreath are purple; this symbolizes both the royalty of Christ the King but also the four weeks that make up the Advent season. A larger white candle is usually placed in the middle and is known as the Christ candle.

The order in which the candles are lit – and what each candle represents – varies from church to church. Traditionally, the candles are lit each week of Advent, and the Christ candle is lit last – on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day – as a way to remind Christians that Jesus is the light of the world.

Another traditional Advent decoration found in many churches is the Chrismon Tree.

The word “Chrismon” is a contraction between the two word “Christ” and “monograms.” It is a Christmas tree that is decorated not with the traditional Christmas ornaments, but with ornaments that represent various Christian symbols found throughout history.

The Chrismon Tree was originated in the 1940s by a lady named Frances Spencer, a member of Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia. She trademarked the Chrismon name in 1957 and began the Chrismon ministry around the same time.

Many of the symbols used on the Chrismon Tree, such as The Chi Rho – a Christogram symbol formed from the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ” – place their origins in the earliest days of Christianity, when Constantine the Great ruled the Roman Empire.

Advent is a time to reflect on the most crucial time in the history of our Christian faith; when God arrived in human form to live amongst his creation and create a way for all of us to escape the sin of the world into which we were born.

Remember the rich symbolism found within your church walls this season and celebrate the season of Advent with friends, family, and fellow believers in Christ.