Assign a 'primary' menu

Category Archives for Faith

granddaddy and beagle

Being Church: Loving Senior Adults

A decade ago when I was in divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, I completed an assignment for my Pastoral Care and Counseling class that was insightful at the time and continues to prove useful to me now. The task was to complete a systemic model for care in the church using Erikson's Stages of Development.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/forbesoste/

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about pastoral care for those in Erikson's last stage of development: Mature Adult, ages 65 +, Ego Integrity vs. Despair. I pulled up my project to review the thoughts I had back then when I was elbow deep in pastoral care textbooks. In my opinion, these ideas are helpful to anyone who desires to show love to people in this late-in-life stage.

I offer that portion of the project below with one caveat: it is more academic than what I usually post here. SO . . . If it's more than you want to read, would you just do this one thing: check in on my father-in-law a senior adult you know. For example, offer a ride to Tuesday morning Bible study at the church. Or plan a breakfast outing; maybe the senior adult you know loves to go out to breakfast. Talk to them. Find out what his or her interests are. Ask for help; it's so nice to be needed. Don't forget about him, whoever he is. I bet it's really hard on his family who aren't local. I bet those who live locally would really appreciate co-travelers in this grief journey. You know, whoever they are. My 97 year old friend Mary said it best: "Just don't forget about us. Remember us."

(Watch for an upcoming post with specific how-to ideas and feel free to comment and offer ways you would like to see the church meet the needs of senior adults or ways you've seen this kind of ministry done well.)

granddaddy and beagle
Isabella Beagle (with Granddaddy in the background)

PASTORAL CARE: A SYSTEMIC PLAN
(completed for Dr. Doug Dickens, PC&C, GWU, 2010)

Mature Adult, ages 65 +, Ego Integrity vs. Despair.

Mature adults need pastoral care to help them feel connected and valued. Pastoral care at this stage includes care for the children of the mature adults and often care for their aging parents as well. Mature adults must be cared for so that they do not despair.

  • Physical Care
    • Mature adults need an allotted space that is familiar and welcoming. This is particularly important to senior adults who are losing their vision or their mobility. Familiar space makes church attendance more feasible within their limited abilities.
    • Church transportation should be made available to mature adults who are unable to drive. (Or who may be hesitant to drive at night or long distances)
    • The church should be accessible to members who struggle with mobility issues. That is, elevators and ramps should be readily available. Restrooms should be adaptable for those with mobility impairment.
    • Bible study materials, church newsletters, and other church publications should be printed in large, easy-to-see print.
    • Hearing assistive devices should be available in worship spaces.
    • Leaders should be sensitive to hearing loss—a common problem in this population—and should attempt to speak clearly and directly to mature adults. (Look at people when you speak and be sure listener can see your lips move.)
  • Emotional Care
    • Church members should be sensitive to the needs of mature adults who are experiencing life changes such as retirement, illness, or loss.
    • Churches should offer topical studies on budgeting, aging, aging parents, grief, and other such topics that relate to mature adults.
    • Support groups and classes for grieving mature adults should be made available.
    • Mature adults should be paired with younger adults who they can mentor.
    • The church should celebrate milestone moments with mature adults. Moments such as marriage of children, becoming grandparents, or retirement all offer opportunities for celebration.
    • Weekend retreats to interesting locations should be offered to mature adults. These weekends away increase connectivity and provide opportunities for developing new relationships.
    • Entertainment opportunities of interest to this age group should be frequent and accessible. Church transportation should be provided.
  • Spiritual Care
    • It should not be assumed that mature adults have made decisions about their faith. Therefore, persons in this age group should also be invited and encouraged to make faith commitments.
    • Biblical instruction must not neglect the basics of the faith. Leaders should not assume that all Bible study participants know the old, old stories.
    • The church should provide assistance to those planning memorial services or funerals. The care should involve not just technical and logistics help, but also emotional support throughout the process.
    • Senior adults should participate in and volunteer for mission activities.
    • Mature adults who are also mature believers should be included in the church diaconate and on other committees within the church. They should be encouraged to lead Bible study classes also.
    • Mature adults should assist in worship leadership. By participating in church music, reading scripture, taking offering, or leading in other ways, mature adults can feel valuable to the congregation and therefore less likely to despair.
    • Members should be sensitive to particular needs of mature adults, offering encouragement to those who are dealing with parents growing old, their own physical limitations, loss, relocation, and retirement
    • Members should avoid using labels to refer to other church members. Stereotypes should also be avoided. Instead, the message of God’s love should be paramount.

Teachers: Public School Ministers

(As the summer winds down, my teacher friends are gearing up for another school year. Over the next few weeks, I'll be rerunning some of my favorite posts about teachers as a reminder of how much educators do to make the world a better place. Let's all thank a teacher today; and let's vote for education reform that honors the good work that our teachers do and respects the value of every single student.)

First Baptist Church, Weaverville, NC (2014)

“What is a minister?” Zach* asked. (Zach always had a question, a comment, or--frequently--an outburst of some sort.)

It was Wednesday afternoon and seven-year-old Zach was one of about 12 kids in attendance at Kids for Christ (KFC). This program meets weekly after school and includes a variety of activities including Bible story time. The KFC’ers get off the school bus at the church and their parents come for them at 7:00 pm.

That afternoon I was helping Cozette, the Bible story teacher; we were focusing on Isaiah 66:13 and talking about mothers. (It was the Wednesday before Mother’s Day.) Both kids and leaders shared stories and talked about what we had learned from our moms. I showed them a picture of my mother and explained that she taught me a lot about ministry.

“When I was a little girl,” I told the kids, “My mother often cooked twice as much supper as we needed so that we could share a meal with another family. She also visited people, wrote notes, taught Sunday school, and did lots of other things that showed me how to be a minister.”

That’s when Zach’s hand shot up. “What is a minister?” he asked.

“Great question,” I told him. I wanted to answer accurately: the word itself could relate to positions outside a church. “A minister is someone who takes care of people and spends time with them. Like me, I work here at the church and I am the Minister with Youth and Children. So, I spend time with you guys and help take care of you.”

“And I’m a minister too,” Cozette, said. “I visit people in group homes and I help them with things they need.”

“Oh!” Zach said, nodding. “Like a teacher.”

Wow. What a response. See, Zach—a loveable and bright little guy who is eager to learn—is not the quietest fella you will ever meet. My guess is he does his share of squirming, speaking out of turn, and just generally pushing the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. And yet, the description of a minister, made him think of teachers.

Teachers.

Teachers. Overworked, underpaid, and up to their lanyards in standardized tests.
Teachers. Who stay after school for special events and come in early for conferences with parents or students.
Teachers. Who spend their own time and money because they love what they do and they want to do it well.
Teachers. Who take time to minister to a fidgety little boy who sometimes forgets the rules.

Teachers. Ministers.

“Yes,” I told Zach. “A minister is like a teacher.”

*Name changed for privacy.

the good samaritan

The Good Immigrant: A Parable Retold

A number of years ago, I led a youth retreat where I preached on the Good Samaritan eight times in four days. Having studied the text deep and wide, I wrote a modern version of the parable to share with the students in worship. It was a good exercise for me--and I thought you might find it helpful as well--to remember that compassion really can transcend any boundary.

imageThen the president of the Woman’s Missionary Alliance stood up to test Jesus. "Jesus," she said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (And everyone around got all quiet and listened because frankly, they were surprised that she had to ask such a question. Everyone knew that! For heaven’s sake, those words were printed on the city light poles, on banners at the local schools, and on the brand new welcome sign down at the local lake. It was so important, that they’d made it the town mission statement. What was she up to?)

And Jesus said to her (without any sarcasm in his voice at all), "Well, sister, what is our mission statement? How do you interpret it?"

She answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus responded, "Yep! That’s it! Just do that, and you will live a life that glorifies God not just now but for all eternity."

She had another question, though. "But Jesus. Exactly who would you say is my neighbor?"

Jesus said, “Let me put it to you like this:

"A business man was in the habit of exercising after work. At the office, he’d change from business attire to gym clothes, place his valuables in his backpack, and walk over to the downtown YMCA for a work-out before going home. One night, as he headed back to his car over near his office, he was jumped from behind and mugged. They stole all his credit cards, his iPhone, and his laptop. Then, they beat him and left him--broken, bloody, and unconscious--to die.

“Now by chance, the senior pastor of World’s Biggest Church was leaving a ministry meeting in the city and happened to walk right by the unconscious man. The thing was though, he still needed to update WBC’s website and Facebook page before he could go home; he hurried on to his office, asking Siri to remind him to look into the matter later.

“Likewise, the leader of the homeless ministry happened upon the injured man; of course, any other time, she would have stopped. (She would have!) But that night, she was on her way to B-SUB (Bible Study Under the Bridge), and she knew there would be a big crowd waiting on her. She kept walking.

“Then, an Afghan immigrant came along. When he saw the man, his eyes filled with tears, and he knelt beside the man. He noticed the guy’s t-shirt: torn and bloodied, it’s graphic and slogan spewed hate. No matter, the Afghani carefully removed his own head scarf, folded it, and used it as a pillow for the man’s head; then he took off his cloak and carefully draped it over him. The immigrant called 911, remained with the man while awaiting the EMT’s, then followed the ambulance to the hospital. Once they arrived and he saw that the man was getting the appropriate care, the Afghan immigrant stopped by the front desk. He gave them his credit card information to cover the man’s medical expenses and his cell phone number just in case there were any additional needs he might address.”

So, Jesus asked the woman, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who was mugged?”

And the woman said, “Um, well, in that story, I guess it would be the . . . uh . . . the one who showed him mercy."

Jesus said to her, "Mercy. That’s it. Mercy.”

karl barth quote

Ministry Matters: EMTs in the Sanctuary

I learned this past Sunday that my friend Dave Miller passed away after a brief illness. Dave was a long-time member of First Baptist Church of Weaverville where I served as Minister with Youth and Children before accepting the call to pastor Ecclesia Baptist in Asheville. The incident I've described in the original blogpost (below) happened four years ago.

Wait--that can't be right . . . It was in February. 2015. So that's only . . . oh. So, yeah, four years.

The interesting thing about the story below is that it's actually the first of at least two similar occurrences when Dave had some sort of minor episode while I was preaching. This odd coincidence led to a running joke.

"I see you're preaching Sunday, Aileen," Dave would say on a Wednesday night at Bible study. (He was never just a Sunday morning church goer.) Eyes sparkling, grin hiding just behind his straight face, he'd quip, "I believe I'll play it safe and just stay home."

Or, "Hey Dave, how are you feeling today? I'm preaching so I just thought I'd check!"

"Well, I'm a little tired, but I'll get a nap during your sermon."

The last time I saw Dave Miller was my last Sunday at First Baptist Weaverville. "You be careful preaching every Sunday! Don't put them to sleep, you hear?" He laughed at his joke and I laughed at him laughing. Then, getting serious, he added, "We're going to miss you honey. We're really going to miss you."

I miss you too Dave. Give my love to Glory, and I'll see you in the sweet by and by.


ministry altar bible

February 5, 2015, Weaverville, NC

I've only been in the vocational ministry for five years, but if you count my nearly 50 years as a preacher's kid, that's a good bit of ministry--or at least church--experience. So I know of what I speak when I tell you that on Sunday, February 1, I came as close to speaking in tongues as I ever have.

I was in the middle of my sermon when an older member of the church who was sitting down to my right, slumped over in the pew. (I told him later that if he didn't want to hear me preach he could just say so and not cause such a stir.) As it turns out, he had a spell related to heart troubles and once the EMT's got things straightened out he was fine.

Anyway, there I was preaching on the weekly lectionary text like a good little girl when Dave keels over. It took me a minute to clue into what was happening but when I did, I turned back to the choir and asked a member who is a nurse to attend to Dave. She got up immediately as did another member in the congregation who is a medical professional. Our pastor, who by God's providence was seated one pew over, went to comfort Dave and his sweet wife of about 60 years.

That left me, mid-sermon, standing at the pulpit in front of a congregation of confusion, fear, and anxiety. I had absolutely no idea what to do.

But the Spirit did. It's a good thing that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26) In truth, I remember very little of what I said or did. All of it was Spirit led.

Now, it's true, I was raised in the church and have experienced tense situations before this. I've seen my Preacher Daddy deal with emergencies from the pulpit a time or two and have been in other situations where difficulties arose in unfortunate surroundings.

I've also had classes on crisis management and read books on the same topic. I've studied group dynamics and crowd behavior.

But I'ma tell you right now. The Holy Spirit scooped up all that life experience and book learning and molded it into something far greater than anything I could have accomplished. In the midst of that human crisis, the Spirit interceded and brought Peace to the turmoil.

Hallelujah and to God be the Glory!

Evangelism According to Me

Back in the 70's and 80's, religious tracts were printed by the truckload for eager evangelists--many of them Baptists--itching to bring the masses to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Back then, we followed a sort of scare-them-out-of-hell methodology that led to high numbers of front porch conversions, if not long-term transformation.

religious tract

In time, many practitioners realized that this eternal damnation avoidance strategy wasn't exactly life-giving. This understanding led to an opposite mentality: best not to mention Jesus at all than to scare people into false faith. (All or nothing thinking. It's caused its share of problems.)

Here the good news: there is a middle ground. Think about it: we aren't scared of sharing good news in general. For example, I think everyone should try the restaurant Nine Mile. I don't try to find out if they like Caribbean food before I recommend it either. It's a fantastic restaurant in my opinion, and I want everyone to enjoy it as much as I have. I feel that way about the Biltmore Estate too. And also Disney World. And the movie Finding Nemo. I realize that some of these things are quite pricey and will require some sacrifice for people to enjoy them, but that doesn't keep me from encouraging people to try experiences that have given me joy.

Even so, I don't go through the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, and asking people if they've ever been to Nine Mile. I don't stop people in Aldi and suggest they make a plan now to get to Biltmore Estate during this lifetime. And I don't foist free copies of Finding Nemo on perfect strangers, promising them that this movie will make their lives better (it would of course, but still . . . ). However, if I'm in a relationship with you, I'm eventually going to mention my favorite restaurants, vacation spots, and movies. And if we are really close, I'll do my best to see that you get to enjoy those things at some point, preferably with me. 

To me, evangelism is like that. Because I love church, I want everyone to experience it. Because I love Bible study, I want others to study with me. And because I have found meaning, truth, hope, and joy through my faith in the triune God--Creator, Son, Holy Spirit--I want people I know and love to join me on this faith journey: not because they are scared they will burn in hell, but because they are drawn into the sacred Love of God.  

canoe and mountain

CBFNC 2019: Canoeing the Mountains

On March 28, I joined other leaders in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) as we listened to Dr. Tod Bolsinger share wisdom he presented in his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (IVP Books, 2015).

Bolsinger’s book had been recommended to me by many when I began my ministry with Ecclesia Baptist in August 2018. I downloaded the audio version and listened to it right away, finding it both insightful and compelling. In Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger uses the metaphor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (in search of a northwest water route in the 19th century) to explore church leadership in the 21st century.*

For today’s church, our “canoes” are practices that have brought us success in the past; our “mountains” are the conditions that were not present at all in earlier seasons of the church. The current frustration of attracting young people to church serves as a great example. Back in the 1970’s, for many of us, church was THE only activity; in 2019, the buffet of extracurriculars is endless. When I was a teen, a church could get a new ping-pong table and attract a crowd of students instantly; today, churches are giving freebies to kids and youth to entice them to go on a free trip to an indoor trampoline park—and even these tactics fail to impact weekly attendance.

So how do we change this? That’s exactly what Dr. Bolsinger discussed at last week’s meeting. First, he noted what does not bring about change.

  • Fear. On the Sunday following the tragedy of September 11, 2001 U.S. churches were overflowing. Just one year later, church attendance was at an all-time low.
  • Facts. Raise your hand if you know how to eat right and exercise. Now keep your hand up if you always do all those things. Exactly. (Same is true for any unhealthy habit. The knowledge that it is unhealthy does not usually bring about lasting change.)
  • Force. Bolsinger shared a fascinating statistic: when told by doctors to change their behaviors or die, 90% of patients do not make the necessary changes. Doctors can’t force us to make healthy choices, no matter how much they threaten us.

Bolsinger then talked about what does bring about change.

  • Relate. Hearing each other’s stories helps us to understand one another and thereby change our approaches accordingly.  (For example, take a person who is highly critical of those who come into the country without legal documentation. Pair them with a person who has traveled that path. As they share their stories, understanding can result, which could lead to a change in behavior.)
  • Repeat. Facts may not bring about change, but they do make us aware of what we might need to do to change. The way to achieve permanent change is to repeat a new behavior until it is a habit. (For example, think of the person who goes to class but does not understand the subject matter. The student keeps going, keeps doing the assignments, keeps asking questions. In time, the student learns the content thanks to repeating it in a variety of ways over time.)
  • Reframe. When we think of things in a new way, we can bring about change. (For example, imagine the church that thinks the only way to grow is to draw people into its building. They decide that maybe they could, instead, go where people are already gathering. By relating to these communities and repeatedly visiting them in their own settings, the church begins to experience new growth.)

Bolsinger reminded us that change typically does not come about quickly. That is, it is more akin to the slow-cooker simmer than to the microwave zip and zap. In that same vein, he said that effective church leadership grows from a mindset that causes us to “Stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”

Bolsinger’s presentation—and his book—contained much more insight than the bits I’ve highlighted here. And, I think all leaders facing unfamiliar circumstances (whether in the church or elsewhere) will find helpful guidance here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

*Lewis and Clark sought a water route through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and were therefore equipped with canoes and the necessary tools for a water journey; instead, they encountered the Rocky Mountains and had to form new plans in order to progress.

lenten season

Some thoughts on Lenten disciplines

I grew up Southern Baptist, so if it weren't for my Lutheran best friend giving up sweets every year around this time, I'd probably not have thought too much about the Lenten Season. I mean, I'm sure my Dad mentioned something about it in his sermons along the way, and he even held Maundy Thursday services way back in the seventies (radical for the time). Still, I didn't really practice Lent until about a decade ago when we joined a Baptist church that had reached back to its early Christian roots and resurrected the practice of Lent.

There are lots of different reasons that observance of Lent is important to all who follow Christ. One reason I've heard is that Lent can be a sort of New Year's Resolutions re-boot, a time to get back on track with the life goals you set for yourself a couple of months ago. While I definitely agree that Lent is a time to reflect on our own brokeness, I don't actually think we should use this ancient practice as a self-improvement exercise. Not that Lent doesn't actually have that outcome, because naturally we do become more fully alive when we are more focused on God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But, in my opinion, self-improvement should not be the ultimate objective.

According to the liturgical (church) calendar, Lent marks the weeks leading up to the church's observance of Easter. Thus, it is a time of contemplation, a time to renew the commitment to follow Christ into the difficult spaces where darkness reigns and light is rare. Thus, for my Lenten discipline, I try to select something to add or eliminate that will remind me frequently of Christ's deep love for all of creation and my responsibility to reflect that love in my daily life. Want some examples? Here you go.

  1. Daily exercise of 30 minutes or more. Walk the dog, stretch, ride a bike, dance. Just move! And be grateful to God for the amazing capablities of the human body.
  2. Daily quality reading of 30 minutes or more. Ahh. Let's just sit for a minute and think of that bliss. Sigh. Read something that matters though. Not just your news app.
  3. Daily writing. Now would be a great time to start a gratitude journal or a journal of reflections.
  4. Eliminate negativity. I try to remember that we are all broken in different ways, but too often I forget and become critical and nasty. When I do forget that all God's children are beloved and precious, I can act ugly (or at least think ugly thoughts). I need to quit that.
  5. Eliminate certain aspects of social media. Oh man what a time-sucker. Do you, like me, find that sometimes you think about your Twitter or Facebook feed more than you think about the love of God? Yeah, we need to break that habit, don't you think?
  6. Eliminate purchases that do not support local, free-trade, or living wage businesses. I don't know about you, but I get sloppy with my shopping. That needs to stop.

Whatever you choose for your Lenten discipline, my prayer is that you will remember daily that you are beloved beyond measure.

What about you? What Lenten commitments have you made?

interracial couple older adults

Beyond Tolerance

When Jack was born, Booker T. Washington was still the principal at Tuskegee Institute. Bernice & Corrine came along later; by the time of their births, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been elected to the House of Representatives. Carrie is the youngster of the group: she was born just as Rosa Parks became active in the NAACP.

None of these senior adults grew up around people who looked much different than they did. And, even if Bernice & Corrine had lived closed together, it’s unlikely that they would have become lifelong friends. There were too many obstacles, too many barriers. Well. It just wasn’t done.

But today things are a little different. Every Thursday at the Senior Opportunity Center in Asheville these folk and others join my exercise class: Jack, a 97 year old white guy who walks with two canes;  Bernice and Carrie, African American grandmothers; and Corrine, a cheerful white lady who lives with her kids.

Really, they should not get along. They should not be friends. Their not-so-shared histories should demand a certain distance.

And believe me: it wasn’t easy at first. A senior center in West Asheville closed. Participants who chose to continue in the program had to go to the downtown location, taking the bus further than they had travelled previously.  These West Asheville members, almost to a person, are white. Downtown participants come from lots of different backgrounds; many are African American. In the beginning, when I would come to teach fitness, the West Asheville folk would sit on one side of the semi-circle and the downtown folk on the other: divided by a visible color line that would have made Jim Crow proud.

But then one day Carrie happened to be sitting beside a white woman named Mae, each on their own side of course, but right next to each other. Carrie said something funny and Mae laughed. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But they laughed. Together. So the next week, they made a point to sit beside each other again.

And the line began to fade.

They’ve been together three years now, those two groups. In a recent class, Jack sat beside Bernice who sat beside Carrie. Yao—a Chinese lady who speaks only scant English—sat on his other side, next to Corrine. No one seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to be friends, these relics from a different time. No one seemed to remember that they had once been on opposite sides—and not just in my class either. In fact, no one seemed to notice race, creed, or heritage at all.

“Arms up reaching side to side,” I instructed the class. “Now reach over and give your neighbor a pat on the back.”

And they did. Without hesitation.

May God Almighty bless you . . .
until you become a community of peoples.
Genesis 28:3

(One of my favorite posts of all time, this one was first published in 2011.)

advent bird in tree

Advent Devotional: Where's Your Head?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:15-20

Recently, I saw perhaps the weirdest video I’ve ever seen. It begins with a woman preparing fresh fish for supper. On the screen we see her hands: one holding a kitchen knife, the other holding a raw fish fillet on a cutting board over a sink. All she has left to do is cleaning off a few more scales and the fish will be ready to cook. But (here’s the weird thing), every time she touches her knife to the headless fillet, it spontaneously bends up towards her. She shrieks, “This fish is trying to bite me and it doesn’t even have a head!” Crazy, right?

You know what’s even crazier, though? The fact that fish aren’t the only ones guilty of acting as if they can operate without a rightful head in place. Too often we followers of Christ do the same thing. We flop around and can’t figure out why we feel distant from God. In our churches, we wonder why we can’t form community, why there’s so little harmony and so much discord. Could it be that we are trying to live godly lives and form meaningful connections without our Head?

Paul says that in Jesus “all things hold together.” Let’s keep Christ at the head of our lives not just at Advent, but always. We just aren’t made to function any other way.

Thank you God for Jesus! Help us always to make Christ first place in everything. Amen.

 

Away in a Grotto: an Advent Devotion

“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”

The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.

So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.

Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.

True? Hard to say.

To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!

So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 
Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
1 2 3 13