The season of Advent –beginning four Sundays before Christmas – is upon us. It’s one of the most important periods of the Christian calendar, leading up to the celebration of the Christ Child. It’s a time for all of us – clergy and laity – to reflect on God’s ultimate gift.
To get a feel for how laypeople can make every day during Advent something special, we talked with several people across the Kentucky Annual Conference, including members of the Board of Lay Ministry and Lay Servant Ministries. They offered several ways that everyone can participate and reflect on this wondrous time of year. Hanging of the greens
When churches do their “hanging of the greens” ceremony at the start of Advent, it often provides a chance for lay people to be heavily involved in the service.
Prestonsburg First UMC has been doing its annual ceremony for 38 years, said Rebecca Haywood, the church’s music director. The church’s worship committee puts it together, and although it is heavily lay-oriented, Pastor Jerri Williams is on the committee and is involved in planning and approving the service, Ms. Haywood said.
This year’s service will be held at 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3. It traditionally involves “loads and loads” of people in the church, she said. Children walk in holding candles, representing Christ as the light of the world. The men bring in the garland, and the women bring in candles for the windows.
The choir sings and the handbell choir plays. Children read Scripture. The service will be tweaked this year to include Advent readings, Ms. Haywood said.
The ceremony has been a popular event in Prestonsburg for years – so much so that many other churches now do a service of their own, she said.
An Advent of Gratitude (and more)
“I love Advent,” said Linda Gayheart, associate conference lay leader and member of Hindman UMC.
One idea she suggested is An Advent of Gratitude, which is making the rounds on Facebook. The list includes an entry for each day of Advent, with a small monetary donation each day for various conveniences and blessings we often take for granted. At the end of Advent, participants donate their pool of money to a charity of their choice.
Ms. Gayheart also suggested setting aside a box and each day putting something in it such as toothpaste, soap, and other toiletries. Once Advent is done, donate the box to a homeless shelter.
She also noted that the United Methodist website www.rethinkchurch.org features an “Advent Photo a Day” based on a different word, such as “glory” or “joy.” People try to find a photo or share a poem or simple thought that matches the word.
Ms. Gayheart loves sharing this activity, and a similar one during Lent, with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Ally Slone. It’s a “wonderful way” to mark this special time, Ms. Gayheart said. “It makes you think about Advent every single day.”
Advent Conspiracy study
Pastor Jim Nichols of Lexington First UMC says that congregants there and his two previous assignments know that he is keen on something known as the Advent Conspiracy worship study.
The idea behind Advent Conspiracy is to get away from the consumerism and commercialism of Christmas and back to the idea of selfless giving. It has four tenants: “worship fully,” “spend less,” “give more” and “love all.”
The website introduction reads: “Christmas can still change the world and you can be part of it. By celebrating Christmas differently, you’ll join brothers and sisters around the world in finding our way back to the real reason for the season.”
Pastor Nichols takes a multiyear approach to Advent Conspiracy. The first year, he teaches the concepts. Then in subsequent years, congregants are encouraged to fully live into the philosophy of giving.
Pastor Nichols practices what he preaches. He and his wife, Joy, and their children, ages 15, 13 and 18 months, are strong adherents to Advent Conspiracy.
‘Want’ vs. ‘need’
A similar spirit of giving has become an Advent tradition at Christ Church UMC in Louisville, said Patty Groot, the church’s director of outreach. Members are urged to distinguish between what they want vs. what they actually need, recognizing that Jesus is the ultimate gift, said Ms. Groot, who also serves as the conference’s associate lay leader.
For instance, rather than buying 10 gifts, a family might buy one nice gift and then use the money from the nine unpurchased gifts to help people in need, Ms. Groot said.
Traditionally on Christmas Eve, the church takes up a substantial offering to donate. Over the years, this has been around $30,000, she said. Each year the children in the church help decide which organization will receive the donation.
“Our Christmases are less under the tree and more intentionally giving. And that serves the Kingdom,” Ms. Groot said. That idea also extends to her three grandchildren, with a focus on “who can we bless” with homemade cookies or other acts of sharing, she said.
This spirit of giving ties into her personal reflections during Advent. Her focus is on the prophet Isaiah and the king the Israelites were expecting vs. the king they actually received. It’s a special season when we give thanks for the ultimate gift: Jesus.
Taking a class a few years ago from Gerald Chafin, associate professor music at Lindsey Wilson College, forever changed how Gina Lyon, the conference coordinator for lay service ministry, regards Advent.
She recalled that one assignment involved incorporating readings and reflections on the Christmas story into a worship format. And although deep reflection on Advent wasn’t necessarily the primary goal of the assignment, it forced her to look inward and rediscover the blessing of this time of year.
“For me, that brought a whole new perspective on the Advent season” and “forced me to look at Advent from a Gina perspective,” said Ms. Lyon, of Cave City.
“It forced me to step outside my box a little bit,” she said.
A final word of thanks
John Denham of Maysville, who as conference lay leader is heavily involved in how we’re worshiping, wrote these personal reflections on Advent:
I’m thankful through Advent that God sent Jesus to this world to be born in a simple manger. To walk this Earth and teach us more about the love of God. To die for my sins on the cross and show the eternal promise at Easter. I’m thankful for my family, my wife and my children and my grandchildren and every family member. I’m thankful for my country, freedom of religion and that my family is growing up in the church. I’m thankful for good health. In spite of heart attacks, two replacement hips, asthma and allergies, I am still blessed. I’m thankful for my church, and those called to serve the church. I’m thankful for my extended church family, and my brothers and sisters in the faith that show their love daily and keep me grounded in Christ. I rejoice that Christ came to Earth for me and for you. I rejoice that we can have this time of joy and celebration each year. I rejoice that we can still prepare, for Christ will come again.