THE CENTER CANDLE
The Advent Service was a Christian Celebration rather new to the Mennonite Brethren Church. It is a celebration of Jesus' birth carried out on the four Sunday’s leading up to Christmas. Advent is celebrated mostly in Liturgical churches, Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran and others of the sort. While practiced over the years, Advent was foreign to many Anabaptists. Many Mennonites didn’t have the closest relationships with people of these faiths and many were originally against observing Advent. As far as most Mennonites were concerned it was the faith of many of the Liturgical churches who had been responsible for the martyrdom over the years of thousands of their ancestors. The Martyrs Mirror and Foxes Book of Martyrs illustrated the stories of many Anabaptist Mennonites. While the Mennonites Anabaptist faith was a faith that displayed love to others; it was also a faith that knew its history.
Many faith groups had come a long ways over the course of centuries and the Mennonite and Liturgical churches had come to respect certain aspects about each others faith. As many Mennonites started understanding the importance of Christ commandment to love all people they had a better understanding of Advent and the focus on Christ during each Sunday leading up to Christmas. The focus on the prophesies about Jesus in the Old Testament, holiness, the respect, understanding and role of the angels, shepherds, Jesus birth, and the reverence shown to God during this season was something the church readily accepted and incorporated into their services.
Advent services in many Mennonite churches where not what rigidly religious. They often involved children and humor. They included anything that helped the congregation think about Christ birth. The Mennonite Church was much closer in theology and beliefs to their Baptist friends than those of the Liturgical faith groups. Mennonites see themselves as people of faith who believe that the most important things in their lives is loving God, accepting Christ, and showing others Jesus love through their examples and actions. It was for this reason and a time of reflection regarding the ultimate gift of God that many Mennonites started observing Advent.
This Christmas Eve was one where Santa was going to have difficulty getting his reindeer to land on the rooftop at Charlie and Tayra Hamm's house. It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs and the temperature was just cold enough to give you a cold chill. The hope for snow was there but the temperature was only supposed to get down into the low 40’s. This was unfortunately typical for the winter months of Northeast Oklahoma. There was the understanding that local native Will Rogers knew what he was talking about when he said; “if you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, just wait a minute.”
Charlie and Tayra had 3 children, Sammy a 16 year old high school sophomore at Owasso High School, his twin sister Brenda named after Charlie’s late mother and the newborn daughter Kari.
Sammy was a well built young man who enjoyed sports, especially football and wrestling. He stood 6 feet tall, weighed 180 pounds and it was obvious that he spent a lot of time in the weight room. He seldom carried more than 10% body fat. This was due to his participation in wrestling and trying to keep his weight at a comfortable weight while at the same time maintaining the benefits of training in the weight room. As far as many of the girls at school were concerned, he was a "hunk". His long blonde hair, reaching down just to the center crest of the top of his back was always clean and kept back in a pony tail. When it wasn’t in a pony tail it would come down to his shoulders around the slender curvature of his face. Of course this changed for Sammy during wrestling season when he kept his hair shorter so he wouldn’t have to wear a hair covering underneath his headgear. He tried the hair cover once but it kept getting pulled over his eyes. He eventually decided the length of his hair wasn’t worth the discomfort.
Sam’s’ hair seemed even brighter next to the contrast of his dark skin. His mom, of Cuban decent passed to him his dark complexion but he definitely got the blonde hair from his father's side of the family. This along with his dark brown eyes had him at the top of the popularity list at school. It wasn’t his features though that was responsible for him being at the top of the popularity list. He was a genuinely nice kid who studied hard and always going out of his way to be friendly with the new faces showing up at one of Oklahoma’s largest and fastest growing schools, Owasso High School.
Brenda, Sam's twin sister had many of the same features. She was shorter, only standing at 5 feet 8 inches tall and slender only weighing 115 pounds. She also had long blonde hair, a little longer than Sammy’s, especially during the winter months when Sammy was wrestling. He occasionally wrestle in the summer months but he didn’t have the restrictions during Freestyle and Greco wrestling that he did during High School folk-style wrestling. They were three different styles with different rules, one of which was hair restrictions.
Brenda’s face was a tad rounder than Sammy’s, she had green eyes instead of brown and was also physically active and involved with sports. Her sports of choice were soccer and anything having to do with running. She ran on the track and cross-country team at school and while not a superstar, was a valuable member of the teams she was on because she took the team concept seriously. While cross-country and track in particular always seemed like an individual sport, Brenda always appreciated the value of contributing to a team score which was a reflection not just on her but her teammates and school.
While Brenda didn’t have the large biceps due to being a female she did had a solid muscular build, especially so in her legs. She often worked out with weights with Sammy and her dad but she did not spend as much time training her legs as her brother and father. Her legs where just as developed as Sammy’s and more so than her fathers due to all of the running and soccer. She preferred to participate in natural training methods for her legs since she was did so much running. She also trained her core abdominal muscles and upper body which gave her a solid and firm physique.
Brenda was a girl many of the boys at school talked about wanting to date because she was so attractive. They didn't know her dad wouldn't allow her to date most of them and she wouldn't consider dating them anyway. She knew some of the boys only wanted to date her because she was attractive or saw her as a challenge, almost like a game competition. A date with her would be something to talk about among their friends. Brenda was careful when she started dating. She only went out with people who either attended church or took their faith in Jesus seriously. Her faith, as it was for everyone in her family was important and she was committed to be an example of Christ to others by living as much as possible with a Christ like attitude. She believed that she should maintain a lasting love and perfect love in Jesus. She wasn’t interested in a dating relationship at this point in her life, a friendship, yes, but anything more; ‘no thank you!’
Brenda knew her witness to others was important enough that when in public she knew that as much as possible, she needed to exemplify and model Christ. This was prevalent in all areas of her life and she had been outspoken about it among her friends who did not always understand why she was so dedicated to being a Jesus Freak.
Brenda had taken a purity pledge that she would not have sex with anyone until married. She held the conviction that to remain a virgin prior to marriage was possible and while it may be hard, she still made a commitment to save herself for marriage. She believed that sex was a way of expressing the ultimate love towards another individual and that in God’s eyes sex constituted marriage and exemplified that perfect and ultimate love. Many of her friends, even her Christian friends did not understand this and many of them refused to practice what they had heard from the pulpits of their church and in scripture. Brenda was reassured because; almost every time one of her friends had sex and talked about it there was always the feeling of regret, if not in the moment, then certainly later when in some occasions pregnancy occurred, or in others when the relationship with the other person was over. Brenda knew there was nothing wrong with children but she also understood the difficulties of raising children those without full-time jobs had in providing for and caring for those children. In most cases, it was the grandparents who became the parents whether the children having children realized it or not. Brenda had seen first hand that far more times than not, the sexual escapades were spoken about in disrespectful ways and the relationships between teen lovers tended to be short instead of enduring. Brenda spoke to friends who had remained a virgin until married and knew from speaking to them that she was making the right decision. Not only was it possible, it was what was best.
Kari the youngest child of Charlie and Tayra was a miracle baby. She had a much different physical appearance than either Sammy or Brenda. Kari was a little girl, only 6 months old was petite when born and a pleasant surprise at the time. Charlie and Tayra where both in their late thirties and had not planed to have anymore children. They soon realized they didn’t have complete control over that decision. They weren't displeased with Kari, in many ways she brought everyone in the family much closer. Kari rekindled the joy of parenthood for Charlie and Tayra.
Kari’s birth brought back joyous memories of when Brenda and Sammy where babies. Charlie and Tayra were able to enjoy Kari a little more because there was only one baby as opposed to two. Kari was a bundle of joy to the Hamm’s and even Brenda and Sammy enjoyed the addition of a baby sister. It was hard for Sammy and Brenda to believe she was as different in appearance from her siblings as she was.
Kari weighed 7 pounds 6 ounces when born and was 20 inches long. She gained weight quickly and was now wearing 9 month sized clothes. She had dark hair, almost black with a little curl to it. She looked like her mother Tayra when she was that age. Kari was an exceptionally good baby. She slept through the night from the second week they brought her home from the hospital and she hardly ever cried or pitched fits. It was a joy to wake her and change her in the mornings because she always seemed to have an infectious smile on her face.
Charlie and Tayra were both in their late thirties. Charlie was 38 and Tayra 37. They met while in college and married when Charlie was 20 and Tayra was 19. While in college they both realized they were young and had a ways to go before finishing college but they also understood the love they had for each other and wanted to get married as soon as possible. They never regretted their marriage at an early age and the length of time they had been married and their children where evidence they made the right decision.
Charlie was a handsome man and looked younger than his age, primarily due to his almost fanatical efforts at taking care of himself. He enjoyed lifting weights with his son and daughter and playing soccer for the American Airlines soccer team which played in a Tulsa adult league. Charlie had blonde hair much like that of his twins and he stood six feet 1inch. Sammy, his son was about the same height was expected that he would grow at least three more inches, putting him at two inches taller than his father.
Charlie was the type of man admired by his family. He made every effort to be the best father and husband he could. Even in difficult times Charlie found ways to take care of his family and keep them strong in their faith. Charlie had put on some weight since college, while in college he weighed 175 pounds but had gained 25 pounds since graduation. Much of the weight gain was due to working out so much and had gained muscle instead of fat. Charlie was into body building and was faithful in his workout regimen. He worked out at least 4 times a week and worked each body part at least twice a week except for legs which he worked once a week. He also alternated the types exercises for each body part at least twice monthly. He understood the concept of shocking the muscle with variety if it was to keep growing. His high protein diet and supplements helped. He had fallen in love with the supplements from a company called Advocare based out of Texas. He became familiar with them when his son started using the products during wrestling season.
With Charlie’s close cut, cropped blond hair, thick neck and 20 inch biceps he was a man that on first appearance one would not want to challenge in a fight. While he was well developed in a muscular perspective, he was also lean enough that he was quick and not muscle bound like many weight lifters he had worked out with in the gym. Even then though, Charlie understood that the myths of being muscle bound and not being agile were in fact, just that, myths. He knew that many of those in the gym had diligently worked on flexibility and many were in fact more flexible than he. Charlie’s only weak body part was his legs. His legs had the muscle mass but he was always jealous to some extent of his daughter Brenda’s muscle definition. He understood this was due to her large amount of aerobic activity. Charlie held down his aerobic activity to weekly soccer games and practice once a week and 30-45 minuets of aerobic activity for warm up or cool down purposes combined before and/or after his weight training work-outs.
Charlie’s high calorie intake from his meals enabled him to maintain muscle mass. He knew there was something about genetics when it came to body building and his legs where just a weak part of his genetic make up. He would never enter a body building contest, wouldn’t even desire to but Charlie had done all he could with what God gave him. He believed his body was a temple and others who saw him on the beach or at the local swimming pool saw that as well.
Charlie, originally from Wichita, Kansas realized his greatest asset was his wife Tayra. She was of Cuban descent and they met while in college at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Charlie’s mom wanted him to go to either Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas or Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas but Charlie was offered a scholarship to play football at Furman in Greenville and decided to go there. It was a larger school which had an excellent athletic and academic credentials. It was a school which gave Charlie the chance to play against larger schools including Clemson, Florida, Georgia Tech and Florida State among others. For a young man coming from Kansas this was an opportunity he didn't want to pass up. He gladly turned down the opportunities of two NAIA smaller colleges to compete on a NCAA Division 1 level where he would have the chance to compete against top NCAA Division 1 teams, plus have the opportunity to see another part of the country.
Furman was good for Charlie. It was during his freshman year when he turned his ankle during football practice when this seemingly bad event had him go to physical therapy where he first met his future wife, Tayra. She was an assistant athletic trainer. She caught Charlie’s attention immediately. She was an assistant trainer for the football team and seemed to always be helping one of the athletes with an injury. Charlie noticed her prior to his injury working on some of the athletes in the training room. She was beautiful with long, dark, almost black, wavy hair. Tayra was of medium height, standing five feet, five inches tall and weighing less than 120 pounds. She was small and petite next to Charlie with her dark skin and small physical. The two of them made a picture perfect couple.
The first thing Charlie noticed about her was her nose. It wasn't her most obvious feature, but as physical features go, Charlie had noticed that with beautiful girls it was always their nose or toes that showed some imperfections. This was not the case with Tayra, everything about her, including her nose was beautiful. To hear Charlie say it, "The only imperfection with my wife is that she has a few blemishes in her toes but now everything else, including her nose, is perfect."
While Tayra was of Cuban decent she had never lived there. Her parents where immigrants to America from Havana. They came to America prior to her birth and even though her parents still spoke in a thick Cuban accent they preferred to speak English as their language of choice after becoming Americans. It was the primary language Tayra had learned with the exception of 1 year of Spanish and French in high school and picking up a few words at home when her parents would slip back to their original language, especially when becoming angry about something. Her parents insisted, ‘We chose to come to America; we will speak and see to it that our children speak English. It is the only way we can assure they have an equal opportunity among other children.” Tayra was grateful for this approach as she never had to deal with the difficulties she had observed with many of her friends who didn't speak English.
Tayra’s family lived in Southern Florida not to far from Miami in a small city named Homestead when first coming to America. During her mothers’ pregnancy the family moved to Atlanta. Tayra was born in Atlanta, Georgia. She was the youngest child and she grew up in Atlanta and Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta until the completion of high school. Tayra would visit Homestead on occasion but mainly for family reunions and vacationing in Miami.
It was while working on Charlie’s ankle in the training room at Furman University that Tayra immediately noticed how polite he was. Furman University was noted for having athletes who where also honor students, not the typical jocks most schools had that played football. Even with this reputation, Charlie stood above many of the other athletes with his politeness and manners. He was, in every since of the word, a gentlemen. His handsome features and sense of humor got Tayra’s attention. It didn't take long for her and Charlie to hit it off. By the end of the football season they were sitting together on the plane or bus trips to the away games. Tayra was spending a lot of study time with Charlie and it wasn’t long before they realized their love for each other, of course they were so innocent their friends saw it long before they did.
One of the reasons Charlie and Tayra got along so well was that even prior to college they were committed to their Christian faith. They spent as much time going to church as to movies. They were both involved in Furman’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and were open to sharing their faith with others. They were also involved in Bible study groups together. Their faith and love not only grew for each other but also for their Lord, Jesus Christ. They weren’t like a lot of people who went to church. They didn’t just preach to others with words but like the quote from St. Francis of Assisi, they chose to “preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” They realized of course the importance of using words, but they also understood the importance of living their lives in such a way that others approached them with questions about spirituality.
Charlie and Tayra had been married for 18 years and they where just as much in love as ever. They seldom argued and made the effort to never go to bed angry even on the rare occasion they did argue. If there was ever a seemingly perfect couple in their love for each other, it was Charlie and Tayra. Many people wondered how they had such a wonderful relationship, always holding hands or sitting in church with Charlie’s arm around his wife. It wasn’t uncommon to even see Tayra reach up to give Charlie a kiss, maybe a little peck of gratitude, but on rare special occasions, a meaningful, loving, romantic kiss. It was clear, the opinions of others around them were not as important as their love for God and each other. They often said it was without a doubt their relationship and love for God that enabled them to love each other the way they did.
Charlie and Tayra were Christians who took their faith seriously and even before Charlie became involved with The Promise Keepers, a Christian organization for men; he had practiced the concept of loving his wife in the same way that Christ loved the Church. He was understanding, kind, and gentle in all regards concerning being a father and a husband, yet in some things related to his faith, he was firm and without compromise, especially in the loving of his family and training his children in the ways of the Lord. His living as an example of Christ was one of the many reasons his wife and children loved him so much and truly respected the decisions he made. The family often prayed about difficult decisions and sometimes Charlie had to make the bottom line decision but he always involved his family and did what was best for them. This was why, even when sometimes making the wrong decisions his family was willing to follow his lead and example. He wasn’t a ruthless leader. He sought advice from his family and with a great deal of prayer he was often submitted to the desires of his family and their wisdom in doing what was best for them, even to the point of sacrificing his own desires.
The Hamm family was happy living in Owasso, a bedroom community just north of Tulsa. One could easily see the Tulsa skyline from the city limits of Owasso and people were moving to Owasso to capture some of the small town feel. Unfortunately, it was growing so fast that it was hard to distinguish the difference at times. The Hamm’s had lived in Owasso for the last 10 years and enjoyed the church they attended. Discovery Bible Fellowship, formerly Westport Mennonite Brethren Church sat on the corner of Highway 20 and Old 169 approximately 18 miles north of Tulsa. While Tulsa had expanded in all directions including the north around Owasso and Collinsville, Discovery Bible Fellowship was approximately halfway between Owasso and Collinsville.
Owasso was one of the fasted growing communities in the state and the area around the church was blossoming with the development of new housing and commercial properties. While there were ample farms near by, Charlie anticipated it would only be a few years before most of them were memories. This growth was a good thing in many regards due to the development of jobs near Owasso, especially American Airlines and Whirlpool. Of course with the growing community and dependency on those jobs one would hope for and pray for a stability which would last. Anything to threaten that stability for new homeowners and families could be devastating. Some of the older manufacturing jobs that refused to keep up were already feeling the pressure. Some of them closed and others had cut back drastically creating for some, the inability to find jobs that could sustain their way of life. Of course there were disadvantages as well, along with the growth came the loss of a small town feel and many of the small town ways, where neighbors knew their neighbor and cared about all of the complexities that existed in their lives. A community that had a small town family feel, was quickly moving to a larger modern world where the individual was more important than the community and ones on concerns were based on self interest as opposed to community interest.
Discovery Bible Fellowship was one of the oldest Mennonite Brethren churches in Oklahoma and had been at its present location since the late 1890’s. The church, a nice, attractive, plain brick building, with an attached large fellowship hall and community center had grown over the years both is its space and numerically. It had over 300 members each Sunday Morning and was still growing in numbers. The church changed its name to adapt to a more contemporary format in design and style of worship to reach the young families moving into the community. During the holidays, just as was the case in many churches, there was even more who attended. The only down time in regards to attendance was during the summer months, largely due to vacations but also because some members still operated farms and ranches in the area. During the summer the farms and ranches needed extra attention due to harvest and other reasons. The thing impacting the most during certain times of the year was the weather. One never knew if they were going to get rain, tornadoes, excessive heat, draught, strong winds, or any other weather extreme which could be devastating to the crops or herds, requiring immediate attention.
The Hamm’s arrived at church late due to Tayra having to change a diaper for Kari prior to leaving the house. The rain didn’t make getting to church any easier. It was raining hard, and at times in heavy sheets as was often the case in an Oklahoma thunderstorm. Normally during a hard rain one had to worry about possible tornadoes but the cold front over the Tulsa area was stationary and there was no threat of any severe weather other than rain and the dangers which came with lightening, which were at times, many. Most of the lightening was distant though so the weather was more of a nuisance than anything. The threat of tornadoes occurred more in the spring and fall months. During those times it was not unusual to have the winds, hail, and horizontal rain that concerned many that a tornado was eminent. This was just a regular Oklahoma storm that while harsh, wasn't dangerous.
As Charlie drove into the church parking lot he drove around to the front of the church to let Tayra and the kids out under the drive through covering. This way they wouldn’t get wet. There was an unusually large number of people at Church for the Christmas Eve Advent service, especially with the rain. Most everyone at the service was already in the Church. The service had started at 7:00 PM and it was now 7:12. Charlie finally found a parking space but it was a distance from the Church entrance. He would have used the umbrella they kept in the floorboard of the backseat but Brenda or Sammy got it when they got out with their mother. It started raining harder as Charlie got out of the car to go into the Church. All he could think of at the moment is how they got out at the covered entrance way and how they really didn't need the umbrella.
Tayra, Sammy, Brenda and Kari waited in the front vestibule for Charlie. As he walked in he just looked at Sammy standing there with the umbrella. Sammy was unfortunately all too familiar with, ‘the look.’ Sammy would be the first to tell you that his father had the look that said everything one wouldn't want to hear audibly but the message was still clear from his facial expression. Sammy had seen it many times while in wrestling tournaments doing some bone headed move that cost him a takedown, a point, or in a rare instance, a victory. It was the look Charlie gave Sammy after seeing the umbrella, dry as all get out. Sammy realized he had the umbrella and didn’t need it as much as his dad. Sammy was smart, he had learned from experience, that in times like this, it was best to say nothing. As Charlie drip dried in the vestibule, Sammy knew, he hadn't thought things through when getting out of the car.
After a brief stop at the restroom for Charlie to attempt to dry off with paper towels and a blow dryer and comb his hair, Tayra took Kari to the nursery. A few minutes later Charlie, Tayra, Sammy and Brenda walked into the church sanctuary. Upon entering the sanctuary, the Hamm’s waited briefly for Pastor Steve, to finish a prayer. They walked into the sanctuary as the Minister of Worship, Pastor Phil, was getting ready to lead the church in singing ‘O Little Child of Bethlehem.’ The congregation was standing so it didn’t bring as much attention to the Hamm’s arriving late as it could have otherwise.
The church was beautifully decorated with evergreen branches around the windows and pews. The evergreens, and decorations decorated the beautiful Oak window casings and eaves. There were candles in each window with a large, real Christmas tree up at the front of the church. It was at least 8 feet tall and beautifully decorated in green and red decorations. Over in a corner at the front of the church was a nativity scene. Above the nativity was a large banner with a golden star and the words written in candy apple red, ‘Unto us this day is born a Savior’.
Pastor Phil saw the Hamm’s standing at the back of the church waiting to come in. He realized they were late and Charlie was obviously wet from the rain. Pastor Phil didn’t want the Hamm’s any more embarrassed than they already were so he had the congregation stand so the Hamm’s could walk in and find their seats more comfortably and with less embarrassment. This helped because the only vacant seats where in the first three rows of the sanctuary and the first place with enough room for the family to sit together was on the second row. The Hamm’s had to walk in front of people in the row, thankfully stepping on fewer toes than they would have if everyone was sitting down to get to their seats but they were finally in their seats, including Charlie, with his still wet, blonde hair and all.
As they walked in several people in the church made comment of them coming into the service late. Not to complain or make them feel bad but to mention how they had obviously had a rough time prior to getting there. The family was well respected among those in the church who knew them and the comments, some out loud was kind of making fun of in a respectful way as well as kidding the family, especially Charlie. Discovery was a church where people genuinely cared for each other. It was obvious that Charlie had a rough time that evening but there he was, still smiling and taking time to stop and say hi to people as he walked past them despite some of them kidding him. The look and emotion displayed towards Sammy was gone and no one knew he had been even a little upset over the umbrella incident. Sammy using wisdom left the umbrella at the coat rack at the church entrance.
Sammy and Brenda were sometimes embarrassed by their father's outgoing attitude but tonight wasn’t one of those times. After all, it was Christmas Eve and tomorrow was the big day. Sammy and Brenda didn’t know exactly what they were getting for Christmas because their parents always went out of their way to disguise the gifts when wrapping them. The kids did know they would have a nice Christmas because of past history. They had also forgone the mistake of looking for presents early in the past. They had done that once, opened up the presents and tried to rewrap them only to be discovered. That particular Christmas, the presents had been donated to charity and while some of them were replaced, the children had learned a valuable lesson. Out of that experience though, they also started a tradition of taking some of their toys and clothes and donating them to local charities and homeless programs which served the less fortunate each Christmas.
Christmas was Charlie’s favorite holiday and he went out of his way to see to it that his wife and children had a Merry Christmas. The motivating factor for this was when he was a child, times were tough. Despite the tough times, Christmas was still special for Charlie as a child. It was a time when the simplest of gifts was appreciated. His attitude and simplicity was passed on to his wife and children because his attitude was so contagious.
"For our next hymn lets continue standing and sing ‘Away in a Manger,’ and as we sing lets reflect on the baby Jesus and what He gave up in coming to earth for us. He left His Father in Heaven due to His love for each of us. He was born into a poor family so that He could relate to all people on earth and offer each of us salvation. Let’s worship the Lord as we reflect on this, on this Christmas Eve." Pastor Phil instructed the congregation as the guitars and piano started in the playing of the song ‘Away in a Manger’.
While singing the song some in the church raised their hands as a sign of gratitude and thanks as they reflected on the gift God had given to humanity. Charlie sang without much reflection on worship because as kind, polite and reflective as he was, he was still trying to get dry and at the same time dry his hair without making it any messier than it was. Fixing his hair was a loosing battle. He finally gave up on it when he saw Tayra raising her hands in worship while at the same time being distracted by Charlie as she gave him one of her looks. "Sorry Honey." Charlie whispered as he straightened his hair one last time and winked at her.
"Thanks." Tayra said, with a smile showing love and compassion as she accepted the apology; at the same time once again, closing her eyes and raising both hands in worship.
After the song Pastor Phil prayed, "Father in Heaven we thank You for giving us Your Son. Thank you Lord, you gave the ultimate gift for our salvation and the hope and purpose in living this life. Father, please forgive us for the sins we have committed which made it necessary for Your Son to come to earth as that babe. Jesus we thank you for your willingness to come and give yourself up for us. Be with us now as we go into a time of reflection and teaching on this the anniversary of your birth. In Your name we pray, amen."
Pastor Steve was a rather large man. He stood six feet tall and weighed 260 pounds. His salt and pepper short cropped hair cut needed a little length to cover some of the thinning spots but his jolly round face, complete with his light complexion and green eyes always seemed to compliment his impressive smile, complete with the squared and dimpled chin. Despite having a double chin the dimple still showed and there was that special glimmer to his eyes. He was kind and gentle and always went out of his way to help others. He often spent time with Charlie and his family having lunch, dinner, and on occasion visiting Charlie and Tayra’s small group Bible study. While Pastor Steve grew up in a Christian family, gone to college and then seminary, he came across as a regular guy who worked hard at getting to know people in the congregation. Charlie had met many pastors who seemed to have never lived in the real world and never tried to understand those living in the real world. Pastor Steve wasn’t one of those pastors. Charlie and others in the congregation appreciated his honesty, even during the times that he may confront them about something they had done wrong. Because he had gone out of his way to love those he came into contact with, he had earned the right to confront those when things were wrong. Pastor Steve was truly, one of the good guys.
Pastor Steve stood in the pulpit, looking over the congregation, smiling at many of the members in a personal, pleasant way as he made eye contact. He walked down to the front of the pulpit stage area to give his advent message. Pastor Steve held to many of the traditions of the earlier Mennonite History, realizing that coming down off of the stage put him on the same level as the congregation, and not one to per say look up to. Pastor Steve was not a stationary speaker, he moved around the congregation, keeping the people awake, never knowing what he was going to do next the people kept their focus on him. As he walked towards the congregation he smiled at Charlie and asked him in a loud amplified voice as amplified by the microphone for the congregation to hear. "So Charlie how’s the weather?" Pastor Steve asked as everyone responded with laughter due to Charlie still showing obvious signs of being out in the rain during the worst part of the storm.
While some may have found it unusual, Pastor Steve had led the church in such a way that when he asked a question, people responded. "Wet" was all Charlie said, in a loud enough voice for the congregation to hear. It was good that Charlie was up front in the church as the rest of the congregation couldn't see his red face from the embarrassment. Charlie handled it well though as he ruffled his wet hair while answering the question. The congregation laughed again. Charlie and Steve had a great relationship with each other and Steve knew Charlie would take the joke well and respond even better.
"Yea it does look like it is wet out there but you know it's a good thing we have shelter to come into, dry off and get warm.” Charlie didn’t know where this was going, but it was clear that Pastor Steve was getting ready to use the situation to get his point across. It didn’t take long to see what the Pastor intended as he continued. “You know, I know we have all heard the story of Jesus birth but did anyone ever stop to think what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph on that the night? I mean what was the weather like? What were their feelings? What emotions were they experiencing? We often think of the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men and all of that but put yourself in their shoes. What were they going through? The mother of Jesus had been told she was pregnant, even though she was a virgin and then the man Joseph who was engaged to her and knew he had never had intercourse with her. How could he not have some doubts? Imagine their thoughts on this night, the night of the birth of the Savior of the World.”
For the next 15 minuets Pastor Steve spoke about that first Christmas. He drew comparisons many in the church could relate to. What it must have been like having a baby in conditions that were not the best. He also spoke of how God made the effort to relate to each of us, especially those having rough and difficult times. “As we go through those rough times we can look back on what Jesus and his family went through. We can relate to Him better if we understand and are honest with Him. Jesus and his family went through situations as hard if not harder than those we might be going through. He wasn't just the Savior from our sins, He offered Himself to be the Savior of our situation. No matter what we have gone through, this King of the Universe left the glories of Heaven to come and be born in a manger, a nice word for a feeding troth so He could relate to us. Jesus chose to become one of us so we could better understand Him and He in return better understand us.”
Near the end of the message Pastor Steve had a small boy come up to the front of the church. Charlie had seen the boy before but didn't know his name. Pastor Steve spoke in a calm voice as he approached the advent wreath. The wreath had four white candles on the outside burning for the duration of the service but the center purple candle had not been lit. The lighting in the church was much dimmer than usual and the light reflecting off the Advent wreath and the greenery surrounding it was beautiful. This was especially so with the evergreen draped around the church and the candles in each of the stained glass windows around the sanctuary lit.
The little boy with Pastor Steve was no more than 4 years old and he had obviously not been paying attention to the activities of the evening. This was evident from the box of crayons he was holding in his little hands. The little boy was standing next to Pastor Steve trying to put the loose crayons back in the box.
"This young man represents each of us here tonight." Pastor Steve said as he walked the boy to the Advent wreath holding his hand. The small, boy, with his red curly hair, looked up at Pastor Steve as he spoke. It was clear the little guy was all boy by the worn and torn jeans and the unlaced shoe on his right foot. The grass stains on his jeans showed that he enjoyed playing outside, just like most little boys his age.
"He is young and at times will end up getting into some trouble throughout his life, especially in the next few years. We can also be certain that he has probably already been in trouble. Is that right Jake?" The pastor asked while looking down. Jake did not answer verbally, he just stood there looking up at the big bear of a man, Pastor Steve as he shook his head yes. This brought a laugh from many in the congregation.
Pastor Steve reached down and picked up Jake, who had now put the box of crayons in his front pants pocket. As Pastor Steve reached down, Jake reached out his arms in response. Pastor Steve had picked him and virtually every other kid in the church up and played with them in the past, it was instinctive for them to come to them. The children weren’t reluctant to be picked up by Pastor Jake and their love for him mirrored the love children must have had for Jesus. This was a part of Pastor Steve’s efforts when spending time with the children in the church. He wanted them to know and feel the love he had for them, mirroring as best as possible, Jesus love for them. He also realized it was a way to make sure that the parents knew they had a responsibility to also mirror that love.
Pastor Steve continued his teaching, "Just as Jake’s parents are to be there to help guide and direct Jake as he gets older. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to save us and help us in times of trouble. This candle tonight represents the gift God gave us and as I help Jake light the candle I want us to reflect on how that just as a child goes to his parents for help and guidance, that if we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, our Forgiver and Leader, then we can go to Him and get loving guidance with the understanding that God is perfect and gives us His perfect love. The guidance Jesus gives us through his Holy Spirit and the Holy Bible is so much more perfect than what we can give each other. The love God gives is rooted in the gift of Jesus; it is a perfect love and a perfect gift." Many in the church could relate to what Pastor Steve was saying and him using little Jake had the example hitting home.
"Jake would you mind helping me light this candle?" Pastor Steve asked. Jake didn’t say a word but looked at Pastor Steve with a big smile on his face shaking his head no. “Please Jake?” Pastor Steve asked again. Reluctantly, with a smile, Jake shook his head yes.
Pastor Steve took one of the lit candles from the Advent wreath and used Jake’s hands to help hold it. While lighting the center candle, Pastor Steve said, "This candle represents the ultimate gift of love from God, His son Jesus Christ. As the candle burns tonight let us think of the times we can go to Christ whether in need or not. While Jesus wants us to go to Him in times of need, He also wants us to go to Him in times of thanks and worship. Let's be reminded that it was Jesus that came to be with us as a human while at the same time He was the Son of God. Jesus knows our needs and He knows how to relate to us. It is up to us as to what we will with the gift He gave each of us." Pastor Steve took a few minutes to expound on what he had said and its meaning, he wanted the congregation to think about the simple concepts he had presented while holding Jake.
When done, Pastor Steve asked the congregation to bow their heads. “Father, thank you for the gift you gave each of us in your son. Jesus, thank you for relating to each of us in a way we can understand. The gift is the best we could ever receive. We thank you that we have the opportunity for eternal life through You.” Pastor Steve changed his tone, now addressing those in the congregation. “Now to those in the congregation, I ask you to pray silently where you are. Thank God for something specific in your life.” After a few minuets of reflection and meditation for the congregation, Pastor Steve simply said, "In Christ name, amen." Pastor Steve then put down Jake and Jake ran into the arms of his mother.
After the message by Pastor Steve it was still early so many of those at church stayed around for the next hour celebrating Christmas Eve with refreshments in the fellowship hall. The Hamm’s stayed around after everything was over to help clean the church and fellowship hall after everyone else left. There were tables and chairs to be wiped down and the Hamm's wanted the janitorial staff to get out of church early so they could spend time with their families. They always took into consideration those who were less fortunate, it was a part of the Mennonite tradition they held on to and the values implemented and reaffirmed from Furman University. After everything was cleaned up Pastor Steve came over to the Hamm’s, "It’s getting close to 9:30 guys, you all go on home and get ready for tomorrow."
Sammy was there with his dad and didn’t say anything but it was obvious from his body movements and nonverbal communication that he was in agreement with Pastor Steve. Sammy was even happier when he heard his dad say, "Yea I guess we do need to get home and see if Ol’ Saint Nick is coming tonight." While Sammy was getting older, he loved Christmas and knew how much his family went out of their way to provide for the celebration.
Charlie, ignoring Sammy in a more serious tone responded to Pastor Steve, "I appreciate your message tonight Steve."
"Thanks, but get this family of yours home!" Pastor Steve responded again in a joking tone.
"OK, but thanks again and have a Merry Christmas." Charlie responded while sticking out his hand for a hand shake.
"Merry Christmas to you and your family as well Charlie." Pastor Steve said as the Hamm’s put on their jackets. They took their time getting Kari wrapped up prior to giving Steve a hug and a “Merry Christmas!” as they walked out of the church. They noticed it was still raining cats and dogs. Charlie looked at Sammy, handing him the car keys, "go bring the car around son," Charlie said with a smile on his face.
Sammy asked if he could have the umbrella as Charlie stood there holding it. Charlie just gave him the look and Sammy knew, he was going to get wet as Charlie just stood there, shaking his head no. Sammy took off running to get the car. Charlie cracked a smile as Tayra looked at him with one of her looks and the rain started to come down even harder.
Sammy asked if he could have the umbrella as Charlie stood there holding it. Charlie just gave him the look and Sammy knew, he was going to get wet as Charlie just stood there, shaking his head no. Sammy took off running to get the car. Charlie cracked a smile as Tayra looked at him with one of her looks and the rain started to come down even harder.
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