Finding purpose during Advent

Advent is at hand. It is the season of anticipation as we draw an end to another tumultuous year on planet Earth.

I find that both ironic and a touch melancholy. As we approach the winter solstice, a celebratory light should brighten the darkness. Yet, for too many, the light is dim or nonexistent. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our western world is aglow and abuzz with glitzy television commercials, flashing, and sometimes gaudy light displays in keeping the season. But of what honor is gaudiness when so many among us are sad, tired, distraught, hungry, homeless, and helpless?

Enter Advent. It is the antithesis of the holiday commercialization that pounds our senses in nearly every aspect that the marketing Mad Men conspire to throw at us. We lust for gold, frankincense, and myrrh 21st-century style.

Perhaps we need an epiphany before Epiphany to set the holidays aright. We seem to have turned the once admired axiom, “It’s better to give than to receive” on its head. We need to right the ship before we sink.

Though an exclusive Christian tradition, Advent is an inclusive, active, intentional, iconic time for all. Advent is as much an action as it is a prelude to Christmas. In truth, Advent’s meaning far preceded any contemporary applications.

More than a preparation for “God is with us,” some biblical scholars believe that Advent was 40 days of fasting leading up to Epiphany. That shines a new perspective on an ancient holy day.

I apologize for the sermonette. I hope that with these few words, others will also catch Advent’s meaning of watchfulness, alertness, love, peace, and service.

There is no room in the inn during Advent for greed, power, position, wealth, riches, avarice, and hate. Contemplation, meditation, prayer, thoughtfulness, charity, humility, and assistance to those in desperate need purposely fulfill the Advent message and meaning.

So what’s my point? Back in our former home, Holmes Co., Ohio, Share-A-Christmas was always an excellent first start on the eve of this holiday season. The annual community goodwill effort of providing for the needy set the stage for even more opportunity to personally be kind and generous.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the wealthiest country in the world can do a world of good more for those among us who are truly low in spirit. Slow down. Take time to notice who they are and where they are. Opportunities abound all around.

Once aware, be bold, and take the next step. Do so in some personal way that satisfies an immediate need for others. It’s really not that difficult.

When it comes to charity and generosity, spontaneity seasons the gifts. Practicality wraps them, makes them intimate.

Here are a few starter suggestions: Visit the sick. Send a note or card to those in nursing homes. Honor the widows and widowers with nothing more than your listening ears. Meet people where they are.

Though too humble to say so, my good wife set a perfect example for us last Christmastime. As we drove our vehicle toward a red light in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia, on a cold and blustery night, we noticed a homeless woman holding a cardboard sign on the corner sidewalk.

I offered a bottle of water that I usually carry for such an occasion. When Neva saw that the young woman had no gloves, she instantly reacted. Without hesitation, my wife peeled off her own gloves, and I handed them to the woman.

Advent presented itself, and Neva responded. How can we likewise let our light shine in today’s darkness?


© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Patience is a virtue, especially at Christmastime

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The night before Christmas. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Patience is a virtue, especially at Christmastime.

Some people, however, just can’t wait for Christmas. I’m not talking about the giddy children anxiously anticipating what might lie beneath the festooned tree on Christmas morning.

Holiday commercials, promotions, and displays showered themselves upon us well before Halloween. Decorations and pre-holiday sale items sprouted in retail stores before autumn leaves had reached their peak.

Every year, the onslaught of Black Friday opens the floodgate to the Christmas shopping season. Besides profit, I wondered what the rush was all about. If there is a war on Christmas, surely this is it. The commercialization of a blessed, annual holiday demeans the true meaning of the season.

For me, Christmas is about waiting, not rushing. Life passes by in a flash the way it is. Why accelerate it all the more, especially at such a celebrative occasion? Let’s treasure this special time of year.

Christmas tree, Bruce Stambaugh
Christmas tree. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Christmas is about expectation. My childhood memories are filled with fondness for the days leading up to Christmas. Whether real or imagined, a certain inexplicable stir was in the air filling us with excited glee.

At school, crayon-colored paper ornaments, stars, wreaths, and candy canes replaced the finger painted turkeys on the classroom windows. We drew names for the gift exchange, one-dollar limit.

Children began combing through Sears catalogs to assist them in making their Christmas lists. Santa got them in plenty of time.

Those days between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed to just linger. Despite the hustle and bustle of the season, it was as if time ticked in slow motion.

The excitement and anticipation of the holidays built with each passing day. Christmas was the mountaintop, and we started climbing the slope one step at a time only after Thanksgiving.

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Nativity. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Our father enjoyed the holiday season as much or more than his five offspring. On a frigid night, Dad loaded us up in the family sedan to welcome Santa’s arrival at the end of the annual Christmas parade in the downtown blue-collar Ohio city where we lived.

We visited city centers in Akron, Canton and Cleveland more to window shop than Christmas shop. Customer friendly department stores with familiar names like Higbee’s, Polsky’s, and Kobacker’s all decorated their display windows with exquisite Christmas scenes.

Those stores are no more. A lot has changed since then.

Amid all of today’s commercials, online ads, daily deluges of discounts on everything from candles to Cadillac’s, it’s easy to get caught up in the race to Christmas. Doesn’t all of that actually run counter to the Advent season itself?

Historically, Christmas was all about hope, waiting, and watching. When the actual event occurred, only a few people recognized what had happened. Even then, most didn’t seem to fully comprehend.

Shepherds and kings from afar were struck with glorious awe at the event we now call Christmas. Others never even noticed

advent candles, Christmas decorations
Advent candles. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
because of their preconceived notions. As that story has been retold year after year, generation after generation, the characters involved in that first Christmas became the icons of how we now celebrate the season, Santa not included of course.

Christmas is a couple of weeks away. Will we rush our way to it, or will we wait and watch, and anticipate all the precious joys the day and the season have to offer?

Maybe it’s just my age. But I’m going to do my best to savor this season one day at a time. How about you?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Christmastime is gathering time

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By Bruce Stambaugh

Christmastime is gathering time. The very origins of the holiday make it so.

Though we may not think about it, those who gather in celebration replicate the inexplicable cast of characters that assembled for the first Christmas. Paying homage for this special birth, their lot represented a cross-section of social, political and religious backgrounds, not unlike today.

nativityscenebybrucestambaughTo be sure, they were a motley bunch, unassuming, even unaware of the tradition being created. Of course, we have no way of knowing the exact date or even time of year for the birth of the Christ child. We can only follow the story as it has been transcribed and translated for us.

Over time, the traditions of Christmas have been handed down and culturally adjusted to fit the changing times. There’s no documentation for tinseled evergreen trees or a jolly St. Nick in Bethlehem that ancient night.

An angelic troupe serenaded stunned shepherds huddled in a field, watching over their flocks. Astute individuals, long on the lookout for a messiah, offered praise and prayer. A ruler trembled. Later, wise kings traveled from afar to worship the boy, and offered precious gifts.

Mary and Joseph themselves were among the throngs reassembling in their hometowns on governmental orders of the day. Harsh as their journey may have been, they complied. History wouldn’t be the same if they had not.

snowbuggybybrucestambaughCenturies later millions travel by modern means to celebrate Christmas, and not always on Dec. 25th either. That fits the Advent model as well. Perhaps, because of schedules or availability, you have already gathered for the holidays.

Here in the largest Amish population in the world, both traditional Christmas Day and the more reverent Old Christmas, always Jan. 6, will find families and friends gathering and sharing food, fellowship, and gifts. You might know Old Christmas as Epiphany or Three Kings Day.

Our own families will make merry on several occasions. Christmas Eve morning two kinships are blended into one for a festive breakfast, a holiday custom spanning three decades.

On Christmas Day, we’ll repeat the family ritual of enjoying a tasty holiday meal, and opening gifts. Those traditions have been toned down a bit from my childhood days when my good parents splurged beyond their means to make Christmas merry.

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Some of us will eat tofu instead of turkey or ham, and the gift giving has been reigned in as well. We set a reasonable spending limit, pick a name out of a hat, and that’s that. Of course Santa still fills the stockings hanging from the fireplace mantel.

Later, the five Stambaugh siblings and any available family members will met at our little sister’s home to honor the season and our folks. After all, Mom and Dad instilled in us a fervent love for Christmas.

Myriads of global families will mirror my own, each in their own traditions and styles. Others have already gathered to bake cookies, or attended school programs, or a holiday concert. Still others packed food and clothing for the needy or served meals to too many homeless peoples around the world.

A curious collection of peoples was drawn to that original anointed Nativity scene. Once the event’s date was arbitrarily fixed as Dec. 25, families have been assembling ever since.

Centuries later, Christmas is still for gathering. The modes and means of doing so may have changed, but the reason has not.
In that, let us all rejoice and be glad that we can gather together indeed.

friendsgatherbybrucestambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Appreciating the daily gifts we are given

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A beautiful sunrise greeted these birders in search of a Snowy Owl.

By Bruce Stambaugh

For much too long already we’ve been enduring an avalanche of cutesy commercials and gimmicky advertisements foisting an assortment of products from A to Z on us. Each one is pitched as the perfect Christmas gift to give.

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Snowy Owl.
Catalogues, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, even emails push various products for us to purchase for our loved ones. I do my best to ignore them. It’s a bold statement from someone who spent part of his career in marketing.

I understand why all the product promotions are done. Retailers often need productive holiday sales to ensure a profit for the year. I certainly don’t begrudge them for trying.

At my stage in life, I find greater joy in a brilliant but brief sunrise than a glitzy ad. Sometimes on the coldest rural Ohio mornings, the pinks and blues that quickly morph into warm oranges, reds and yellows stir me more than any new car wrapped in a big red bow could.

Joy comes in many packages if we just take the time to notice them, even on the grayest of days. Amid this entire holiday hullabaloo, I have to remind myself to stop and take a deep breath.

Advent is the perfect time to slow down our lives, not speed them up, rushing around trying to find just the proper gift. It might already be right in front of us.

I speak from experience.

When our daughter, now a mother with young children of her own, was two-years old, she would stand on the kitchen counter at our home in Killbuck, Ohio. Together we would watch the birds devour the birdseed we had put out for them. Young as she was, Carrie could correctly identify each species.

Teetering on the rim of the Grand Canyon is an awesome feeling. Sharing that incredible vista with a person who is viewing it for the first time is even better. When it’s your son, seeing his smile is priceless.

When my wife and I braved a frigid winter’s night with a dear couple to search the dark sky for a rare comet, I was cold but hopeful. We rejoiced when we found it, quietly celebrating the event together. No words were needed.

When you go in search of a Snowy Owl, a rare avian visitor to our area, your hopes are high. Even when the bird can’t be located, the camaraderie of other birders on the same search makes up for the whiff. There are no wild goose chases in birding.

When you receive a hand-made card that includes drawings of a cardinal, an eagle and a blue jay, all appropriately colored by your grandchild, you know you are loved. You keep and display that precious gift where you can see it daily.

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The gifts of life are all around us. We just have to look for them.
When a long-lost relative unexpectedly contacts you, you rejoice and reconnect with someone you may have only ever met once or maybe never. Surprise gifts rule.

When you stand in line for an hour or more to offer your condolences to the family of someone you have never met, you are blessed by the grace and appreciation shown to you by the mourners. Even in grief, great gifts are exchanged.

Advent is a time for reflection, renewing, remembering. It is a holy gift, freely given, gladly embraced.

The din of commercials not withstanding, Christmastime models what it means to give and to receive. I wonder what gifts will unwrap themselves for you and me today.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Gifts come in all kinds of packages

raysofbeautybybrucestambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the gift-giving season again. I think the TV commercials started just after Labor Day.

If you follow their lead, it’s spend, spend, spend to please your loved one with just the right gift. That certainly might help the economy, but not your budget. It doesn’t have to be that way. Gifts don’t need to be expensive to be appreciated. In fact, they don’t even need to be purchased. Please note I am not endorsing shoplifting as an option.

Gifts come in all kinds of packages. The most precious don’t need to be unwrapped. We just need to be alert enough to recognize them when they surreptitiously present themselves.

smilesallaroundbybrucestambaugh
Pick your smile.

A friend recently shared that she smiled at a stranger in a store. The man, who could have qualified in age as her grandfather, walked away, stopped and returned to her. He told my friend that her smile had made his day, and he wanted to thank her for her thoughtfulness. He said he seldom sees people smile any more. I thought that a perfect example of the kind of gift giving that really counts. The young woman was so impressed with the man’s comments that she eagerly shared the encounter with others. I hope the man passed his gratitude on with a smile of his own.

If we listen to the seasonal marketing hype, Advent is more corporate than celestial. Of course, if we take my friend’s approach, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The gifts enjoyed most happen freely everyday.

A recent sunrise was a thing to behold. Thick clouds covered the rising sun, yet bands of rays somehow squeezed through and fanning out to create an incredible heavenly display.

redbreastednuthatchbybrucestambaughLater that morning a Red-breasted Nuthatch snatched seeds precision like from pinecones my wife had gathered and placed in a bowl to decorate an old wash bench on the back porch. The little bird was too quick for my camera.

Later that evening, we sat around the dining room table exchanging touching stories with trusted and trusting friends. We lamented and laughed at our common situations. Unwavering, lifetime friendship is a priceless gift.

The perfect gift also could be something as simple as discovering your driver’s license is about to expire. The startling realization turned out to be a rich blessing. I rushed to the license bureau where the employees had just dealt with a pretty crusty customer. Not to be distracted from their normal good humor, they treated me like a king, and I walked away with a new license and an uplifted spirit.

At the doctor’s office, I meet an acquaintance I only see on occasion. We talked until I was called in for my appointment. Good thing, too, or we’d still be talking. You know how men are.

sunsetflyoverbybrucestambaughI received a card with a hand written note of appreciation from a friend. It was given for the sole purpose of expressing gratitude for our friendship. I placed the note where I can see it every morning.

A day ended with the sun showing its artistic ability. As a flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, a palette of pastels filled the evening sky. It was another fleeting and inspiring gift that cost only the time to notice.

At this special time of year, what are some of the gifts that you have received that you didn’t have to unwrap? Better still, what are some that you will give?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

Churches ready for another candlelight walk

musicatmillersburgbybrucesgambaugh
Brooke Hershberger entertained participants of last year’s church walk at Millersburg Mennonite Church.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The event has such a straightforward name. Yet, participating in the annual Millersburg Candlelight Church Walk is so much more than that.

Yes, it is a walk, unless you choose to drive from church to church. This year six churches within walking distance in and close to Historical Downtown Millersburg, Ohio are set to host visitors on Friday, December 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. Millersburg is located 35 miles southwest of Canton, 75 miles south of Cleveland or 80 miles northeast of Columbus.

The churches are chosen for the proximity as well as their historical significance, according to Kate Findley, who is the volunteer coordinator for the event, now in its third year.

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Kate Findley (left), coordinator for the church walk, shared about the Presbyterian Church at last year’s church walk.
“We want those who can do so to be able to walk from church to church,” Findley said. “Those who cannot walk are welcome to drive to each church.”

Besides the physical exercise, people who participate in the tour will also learn about the history of each church. Findley said representatives from each congregation would be available to share about their church and answer any questions. For example, some of the church buildings have housed different denominations over the years.

In addition, the various churches in the walk have unique architectural features that people should find interesting. From ornate bell towers to stained glass windows to intricate pulpits, each church has its own structural story.

“This is an opportunity for people who might drive by these churches frequently without ever being inside them to see what they look like,” Findley said.

specialtreebybrucestambaugh
Participants in the church walk can view special Christmas decorations and traditions at each of the participating churches.

The six churches included in the candlelight walk include Faith Lutheran Church, 187 S. Clay St.; First Presbyterian Church, 90 S. Clay St.; Grace Pointe Community Church, 164 N. Washington St.; Millersburg Christian Church, 125 N. Clay St.; Millersburg Mennonite Church, 288 E. Jackson St., and St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 379 S. Crawford St.

“The walk committee is really excited to have Grace Pointe Community Church join the walk this year,” Findley said. The building formerly housed the United Methodist Church. Findley emphasized that participants can visit the churches in any order they choose. Maps of church locations will be available at each church.

“There is no starting or ending place,” Findley said. “We are encouraging people to participate in the special music and Christmas carol singing after the walk.”

A special music presentation and singing of carols at Millersburg Mennonite Church will begin at 8:15 p.m. Members of Millersburg Mennonite will perform vocal and instrumental pieces as well.

Each church will be decorated for the holidays according to the particular traditions of each congregation, Findley said. Luminaries will decorate the path to each church. Participants are also invited to relax at each church and enjoy the music presented. Participants will also have a chance to taste the culinary skills of the various church parishioners. Refreshments, including homemade Christmas cookies, will be available at each church building.

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“The Millersburg Candlelight Church Walk is an excellent time for families to get in the holiday spirit,” Findley said. “It’s fun for everyone.” During the first two years of the church tour, participants represented several generations. Findley said that the church walk gained such notoriety in its first two years that people from other counties contacted her about starting one in their communities.

“I think that says a lot about the quality of the Millersburg Church Walk,” she said.

Findley noted that participants should be aware that the Grace Pointe Church is not handicapped accessible, and that parking is across the street from the church.

The walk is free and open to the public. Besides county residents, several persons from outside the Holmes County area attended the previous two walks.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012