Christmas in the Middle East and Africa

The churches in the Middle East celebrate Christmas much like we do.  They decorate, and they use some colored lights.  Christians in very strong Islamic areas do not do much outdoor decorating, however.  The churches have special services.  They do not have a lot of Christmas carols but they do have a few.

The children often do skits or small dramas to reenact the manger scene, etc.  And, there are gifts that are shared.  Our church in Jordan gives Christmas Boxes, furnished by Samaritan’s Purse, to refugee children.  So does our church in Iraq.  There is not much advertising for Christmas nor do you often see a Santa, as most countries have only a small minority of Christians and Christmas is not celebrated by Islam.  If you do see a Santa, they will call him Papa Noel.

The main Christmas activity is for families to visit the homes of their friends.  And each home has lots of cookies, cakes and candy available for their visitors along with tea and coffee.  We spent one Christmas in Jordan.  On Christmas eve day we visited homes all afternoon and then after a quick supper, visited until one in the morning.  We actually exchanged Christmas gifts with Blake and Lori Woods (Our missionaries at the time) and their family from 2-3 am.  Christmas day we slept in until about 10 am and after breakfast left to continue visiting until evening.  That is a lot of coffee and sweets per day.

We also lived in Africa for 30 years.  Christmas there is different!  For one thing, it is the hot season so there is no snow and all the Santa’s are thin!!  And, most of them are black.  They are called “Father Christmas” there.  There are lots of colored lights, especially in the cities.  In villages, there is often no electricity nor any other decorations.  The church usually has a special service on Christmas Day.  It is late morning and may last 3 hours or more.  Kids do dramas and they can really act!!!  Preachers preach.  People sing, dance, and celebrate.  Then they go outside and have a big feast.  In addition to the corn meal porridge, they also have boiled goat, and maybe a chicken or two.  One tradition is that everyone gets a loaf of bread for Christmas.  City people usually try to go to the home village for Christmas.

The main thing is that both in the Middle East and Africa, Christians celebrate Christmas because it is the birthday of the Savior, Jesus.  It is a time of great rejoicing and celebration.

For God LOVED the WORLD so much, He gave His only Son, and Christmas reminds us of that wherever we are.

Henry Church


All About Baby Jesus

Luke 2:4-7

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

As a Christian, Christmas is an amazing time for celebration. In our home we pull out the manger scene that includes all of the participants from the Biblical story (one year it also included a little superman that one of my grandkids had placed there).

When our kids lived at home we had fun using an advent calendar marking off the days until Christmas.  Then there was the Christmas Eve candle light service. Lots of music, a short devotion from Luke chapter 2, and then the room would come alive with light from the candles.

After the service we would go home to eat snacks, watch Christmas movies and everyone got to open at least one gift.

Lots of fun, lots of celebration, all about Baby Jesus.

A number of years ago an individual wrote an article that was printed in a newspaper in London, England. The article talked about people being open to adopt the baby in the cradle but wanting to stay away from the death on the cross. For us as Christians, you really can’t separate the two. That new born baby came to earth to give His life for you and me. We need the baby to have the incarnation (Jesus becomes human). We need the cross to have salvation.

As we move toward Christmas and all of the holiday traditions that go with it, let’s make sure we celebrate the whole message. Jesus was born to become our Savior. Born to die because of His love for us.

Pastor Paul


Are You the Thankful Half?

Employers Are 'Thankers' or "Thank-Nots'

As part of National Thank-You Week, research revealed that British businesses were split between “thankers” and “thank-nots.” The thankers were those workplace leaders who recognize the importance of appreciating and motivating their employees, and the thank-nots were leaders who neglect to do so. When asked whether they thought bosses were better or worse at saying thank-you now than ten years before, 22 percent of those surveyed thought they had improved but 37 percent felt they had grown worse. Although half (51 percent) of the working population receive a thank-you once a month or more, only slightly fewer—44 percent—receive a thank-you just once every few months or less frequently.

Moira Clark, a professor of strategic marketing, comments,

My own research [reveals] that in high-performing companies, that is, those with high customer retention levels, staff are frequently … thanked. However, in low-performing companies, employees are punished, e.g., ignored or reprimanded, more frequently than they are [thanked].

Robert A. Simmons, Gratitude Works (Jossey-Bass, 2013), pp. 63-64
How are you thanking people in your life? How about the people around your church?

A Church Ripe for the Picking



Looking at the sphere of the Christian church two extreme categories emerge. These two categories stand as polar opposites, each at the other end of the spectrum and neither fulfilling the biblical concept for a church. What are these two categories? What are the characteristics which define them? And how can a church avoid falling into their pitfalls, or, if it already has fallen, how does it get out?

The Trending Church

The first category is the trending church, the church whose sole focus is being hip, cool and relevant to the younger generation, bringing in visitors as fast as it can fill the seats and pulling in the biggest profit. Nothing else matters to this church except keeping up appearances and looking good on paper. If the numbers are up, the church is doing its job; if the guests are having fun, the show’s a success.

So what’s the problem with this? Many people flock to churches like this. After all, if they’re going to invest their time and money into a church, they might as well get the biggest bang for their buck; right? The problem with this kind of church is that its focus isn’t right; its mission is to put on a good show and be at the top of the conference leader board. Many people may enjoy a church like this, but what are they actually gaining from it spiritually? How is it helping them grow? How is it helping them in their walk with Christ? How is it bringing lost souls to the Lord? The limelight is the illumination of the trending church, and the True Light (Jesus) has been switched off.

I once went to what could be called a megachurch. It had a bookstore and a food court. Bookstores and food courts are all well and good unless commercialism is stealing the church’s focus.

When Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and found people buying and selling in the courts, righteous anger was kindled in His soul. “On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark 11:15-17).

The Unbending Church

The second category is the unbending church. The unbending church thrives on tradition. It has forgotten its mission and lost its zeal. It has settled down into a sedentary life and resists any kind of change with a will of iron, unyielding, unswerving and unbending. The top priorities in this church are upholding traditions and gathering every Sunday for a sermon reiterating things members have already heard and socializing with people they already know. This church is more like an exclusive country club than a church. Members don’t want any newcomers unless the new people fit in with themselves or can bring something to the church by either a pocketbook or prestige, and you could fit their community outreach into my great-grandmother’s thimble.

I once attended a church like this. Members staunchly resisted change, and when newcomers began coming to the church, they didn’t want “those kinds of people.”

One churchgoer even went so far as to drive a child away from the church with her cane when he did something she didn’t like. The majority of this congregation didn’t understand or embrace the true purpose of the Christian church. When Jesus and the disciples ate at Matthew’s home, the Pharisees asked the disciples, “‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:11-13).

Common Denominators

As vastly different as these two churches are, they share two similarities.

  1. They both lack genuine care and fellowship toward newcomers as individuals.

For many people, taking the initiative to form social connections can be difficult and entering a church whose members exhibit no concern for them personally or desire to get to know them as a person can turn them off to the church — perhaps even to Christianity as a whole.

  1. They both lack purpose and vision, which should be the driving force behind the church.

The Friending Church

So where is the medium between the two extremes? What defines the biblical concept of what a church should be?

Perhaps one of the best ways to become a fruitful church is to embrace the greatest commandment, which Jesus said was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

However, we should also keep in mind that Jesus gave two commandments. “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39).

In accordance with this commandment, we should warmly welcome all who come into our churches and earnestly desire and work toward bringing them to the Lord.

Finally, we come to the mission of the church. Yes, Jesus said that the healthy don’t need a doctor, but the church is for the believer as well as the nonbeliever. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

However, this is not the mission of the church. Matthew 28:19-20 gives us this: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

So to avoid being caught or to pull your church out of the pitfalls of the trending church or the unbending church, the perspective, purpose and vision of the church must be adjusted to meet the principles of the friending church as mentioned above. Then you can begin sowing the seeds of a fruitful church that will, God willing, become a church ripe for the picking.

“But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded’” (2 Chronicles 15:7).

Whitney Schwartz is a Michigan-based freelance writer and the author of the devotional book “Grace Like Rain.” Go to for more of her writings.


  1. If Jesus entered your church today, would He find it a “house of prayer” or a den of materialism and superficiality?
  2. If we love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds while earnestly striving to follow Him, how will our fruitfulness be affected?
This article originally appeared at the Light & Life Magazine wesbite.

What Does Your Tattoo Mean?



Many years ago, we had a friend whose 18-year-old daughter was going to get a tattoo. She was horrified and was sharing with a few of us at church how embarrassed she felt. An 85-year-old woman heard the mom talking. The next week, this spirited saint came back and showed the mother something. She was sporting a new butterfly tattoo on her left shoulder, demonstrating to the mom that it wouldn’t be the end of the world when her daughter got one.

Years later, this mother unburied some deep trauma from her childhood — trauma that had ransacked her life for years. After years of counseling, deep healing prayer and a difficult journey of recovery, she decided she needed some kind of permanent and visible indication of the change God had brought in her. That’s right; she decided to get a tattoo!

It wasn’t for show or flash or to be a rebel, but rather a tattoo over her heart that was a permanent and visible reminder to her that she was a beautiful child of God and that her heart and life were made and marked by God Himself. Like Communion, it was a visible sign that there was no situation in life that could undo what God had done in her.

In the same way that many cultures use clothing styles or patterns to indicate social position or rank, for thousands of years, Pacific Island culture has used body art as a means to do the same. One is marked as part of a certain tribe or family by a particular pattern, and the patterns are thought to have both spiritual strength and connection to family and tribal stories.

Regardless of what we think and how we feel about tattoos, we all carry markings on our spirits that identify us. These marks may have been left by growing up around an abusive adult in our life, or being surrounded by addictions and dependencies in our families of origin. Sometimes our markings are so obvious that people we meet can see them coming before they can see us. Some of us “wear” those markings like a badge of pride and as a warning that says “don’t mess with me or you’ll get the full blast of what I’m carrying.”

On the other extreme, some of us try very hard to hide the markings we carry. Whether the chip on our shoulder makes us walk with a limp, or our baggage is invisible, they are indicators of our story, our pain or our progress. Sometimes we like to pretend that we have no markings, but it is impossible to grow up in this world and not have our lives marked by our experiences and our environment. These marks are part of what makes us who we are.

As followers of Jesus, we are all marked. The Holy Spirit is a sign and a seal on us, a deposit guaranteeing God’s presence now and in the future, and our identity in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5, God promises to mark us by putting His law in our minds and writing it on our hearts because we are His people (Jeremiah 31:33). In Deuteronomy 6 and 11, God instructs God-followers to fix His words on their hearts, minds and bodies, literally tying them as symbols on hands and foreheads, steering wheels and screensavers (OK, gates and doors — you get the idea though). We are to impress His Word on our children at home and on the road. Jewish tradition even included wearing these passages on tiny scrolls in bracelets and headbands — a constant reminder of who they worshipped and how they lived.

In addition to job training, Homeboy Industries ( in Los Angeles has a clinic for tattoo removal for ex-gang members. Sometimes, if the tattoos are unable to be completely removed, volunteers are able to change them into something different than a gang-related sign, such as a Christian symbol or word. They are putting into practice on the body what God does on our spirit. God is in the business of changing tattoos. God is in the business of re-creating the identity of anyone who asks to be made whole, to be marked as His beloved daughter and beloved son.

A pastor I know has a tattoo on his forearm, which reads “Leviticus 19:28.” He gets asked regularly what verse that is. In the verse, God says, “Do not … put tattoo marks on yourself.” As you might imagine, he has very interesting conversations with Christians and pre-Christians alike about God’s plan to mark us, our freedom in Jesus and biblical interpretation.

“If my parents find out, I’m dead!” A student we coach recently refused to remove his shirt at athletic practice because he didn’t want his parents to know he had a tattoo. May he and each of us be openly marked by God’s Spirit, bringing joy to the Father.

Julie Gray is the senior pastor of Aldersgate Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Marvin Gray is Aldersgate’s associate pastor for outreach and youth while also serving as Light + Life Communications’ business sales associate.


  1. What tattoo(s) do I wear today? What parts of my story mark me? Is it really what I want to be known by?
  2. In what ways has God marked my life? Do I get asked about my tattoos — about the ways God has marked me? If I did, what would I say?
This post originally appeared on The Light & Life Magazine website.

Stonehenge: Questions Raised

by Bishop David Roller

Not sure what they were thinking when they stuck these stones in the ground. But it’s clear that the folks who erected the bluestones at Stonehenge were trying to connect somehow beyond themselves. This wasn’t about feeding their families or punching the clock. This was a massive cry for attention; a statement to say, WE EXIST!
In this setting I tell the story about a cousin, sitting in jail, asking Jesus if he’s the One, or if they should keep waiting.

or on Vimeo at:

When Exiles Sing Zion’s Song

by Bishop David Kendall

The ancient people of God experienced Exile as world-crushing and hope-ending.  All God’s promises seemed 20120503-captive_israelites1 blueletterbible.orgdashed by their own persistent rebellion and disobedience.  They had been warned and now they tasted the bitter fruit of their own undoing.  We understand why they wouldn’t be in the mood to sing the songs made famous in their glorious Temple.  We understand how galling it was to have their enemies demand mirthful celebration.  We understand why they would cry out to the God who seemed to have rejected them.   But in their anguish they lust for vengeance, crying out for blood.  We can even understand that.  But when vengeance leads them to long for babies to be smashed into the rocks and cites this as cause for happiness, we do not understand.  Or perhaps we do, but we do not feel so good about that and wonder what place it has in the Bible Jesus read.  Here’s a response.

In Exile—literal or not—you weep until there are no more tears; you scream at your oppressors; you vow never to forget; you swear to get even; and you phantasize the satisfaction of the oppressor’s suffering. This range of options stick out like sore thumbs in the song of Lament God’s people sang in Babylon


1 Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.

2 We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.

3 For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”

4 But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a pagan land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp.

6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

7 O LORD, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem. “Destroy it!” they yelled. “Level it to the ground!”

8 O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us.

9 Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!

(Ps. 137:1-9 NLT)

For Israel’s forebears in Exile, weeping came reflexively and convulsively.  Their suffering and loss had seemed sudden, total, and irreparable.  Persons most dear, places most revered, experiences most sacred—all vanished leaving nothing but pain.  What were they to do?  (Indeed, what are today’s displaced persons to do?)  What are their options beyond the weeping?  Or is there nothing beyond thisweeping?

The captor-tormentors urge them to sing one the songs of Zion.  Not because they loved music.  Not because they loved Zion.  No, they hated Zion and the people of Zion, and only wanted to drive their captives deeper into despair.

Their ill will did not escape notice.  The faithful cranked their courage and stiffened their resolve.  It would be unthinkable to sing the Lord’s song here!  Not here and not now, and not for those people.  In fact, it would be sacrilege to sing the Lord’ssong here.  We will remember the songs at the risk of everything, and dream of the day when we sing them there again, to the accompaniment of our captor’s wailing as they hear the dull thudding of our revenge visited on their little ones.

Today’s Holy Lands witness the same vengeful resolves of captors envisioning the torture of their tormentors.  Today’s exiles follow ancient paths and thus chart new courses for future miseries.  And, sadly, among them some of Zion’s daughters dwell.

But these are not the only ways possible.  The tormentors taunted with insincere prompting to sing one of the songs of Zion, the city of the great King, the city of Yahweh-God.  If it should be one of Yahweh’s songs sung, however it began—whether in lament, dirge, taunt, torment—eventually Yahweh’s song becomes a song of worship.  For Yahweh’s song turns out to be the song of Another, the song of an altogether Other One, whose ways also are “other.”  In time, the song of a Lamb.

If it is Yahweh’s song they sing, where is Yahweh God?  Is it only somewhere else, where they no longer are?  Or is Yahweh God there too, and everywhere?

If Yahweh is Goo there too … then can’t his song be sung?  Even there?  Wouldn’t the song be more about Yahweh than them or us, more about what the Lord has done and will do, or might do, than what the Lord didn’t do and hasn’t done?  And if Yahweh is God, shouldn’t his song be sung anyway?  Can a place or a people nullify this Lordship and prevent his songs from being sung and heard?  If Yahweh is God, is any place irreparably pagan?  Any place where his songs would be out of place?

Imagine what could happen if exiles longing for “Zion” chose to sing the song of the Lord, especially the song of the Lamb, if they allowed their memories to expand to include all of the past to anticipate all the possibilities of the future, a future not just informed but transformed by the song.

Imagine the Lord reclaiming the place of highest joy, replacing memories of other places and times.  Then … the Lord in power and sovereignty turns exile into “home,” so that some exiles remain as resident aliens, and then become ambassadors of another Place.  Then … rivers of Babylon become streams of living water, tormentors demanding mirth from the Lord’s songs become curious inquirers when they hear such unnaturally joyful songs.  Then … memories of atrocity become doors of awareness and the heinous in us all finds hope for a better way.

Imagine if enemies became friends, all lands became the Lord’s, and the most alluring songs sung were the Lord’s.  Imagine if even Edomites became family, if no children anywhere were ever again smashed against rocks, but were everywhere welcomed as kingdom-mentors of a Zion made new.


by Bishop Matthew Thomas

Everything about the gospel is oriented to our being made complete or whole – to be completely restored to God’s intention as he created us to be, to be completely whole and delivered from sin, to be completely able to live out the life that God wants us to live completely using his gifts and in complete physical, emotional, spiritual, mental and relational health.  Jesus was always doing something bigger than a physical touch.  He was making people whole.  He touched the whole of them.  We was concerned about the whole of them.  He was simultaneously doing something to make them whole in not only physical but spiritual ways- bringing a fuller miracle than mere physical restoration.  In feeding 5,000 he did so following healing many and with the compassion of a shepherd looking over people who were like sheep without a shepherd, helping his disciples become more whole in the process (Matthew 14:13-21).  Looking at the paralytic, Jesus provided forgiveness and physical healing (Mark 2:1-12).  He did something to one of the healed lepers beyond what he did for the others.  He pronounced him more complete than the simple restoration of his flesh (Luke 17:11-19).

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus expanded living within the law to living as God fully intends us to live in heart and mind as well as in action.  His aim seemed to be more about us being whole than being merely right.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said something similar.  “By salvation I mean not barely according to the vulgar notion of deliverance from hell or going to heaven but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health and its original purity, a recovery of the divine nature and the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness in justice, mercy and truth.”  To him, being plucked from heaven and having a spot reserved in heaven was not a complete enough aim.

Our lives should be in pursuit of more than physical health, financial gain, or even emotional wellness.  God has something far bigger in store for us.  His grace is powerful enough to work complex and thorough healing in every area of life.  He desires for us to be complete.  And, our message to and prayer for others should follow suit.  When I pray for the sick, I cannot stop the prayer at the border of physical wellness.  When I pray for the emotionally troubled, I dare not stop praying at the border of emotional balance.  When I pray for the spiritually depraved, I must continue praying not only for their salvation but for healing in their relationships and their ability to overcome the wounds and consequences of their troubled past by the deep grace of God that is not restricted by boundaries.  That is the gospel.  Pursue wholeness in Christ.   Don’t stop short of that.  Seek grace for wholeness.  Proclaim the possibility of wholeness to others.

Kiddie Korner

October was a busy month for our preschool!  We shared donuts with our dads, learned some moves from a dance instructor, went on nature walks, walked to the Winona Lake Fire Department, explored Anderson’s nursery, and had fall parties.

On November 3, we are inviting grandparents to our school to participate in fun activities.  If you are available that morning, we would love to have church family that can adopt a child who may not have a grandparent able to attend.  The fun will begin at 10:30 and end at 11:30.
November 2015 1



You could call this a portion of a book review, or you could call this my attempt to bring something more scholarly to this space. Either way, it is likely best described as my acknowledgement that I am not the first, such as Sir Isaac Newton recognized when he said “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

See, though I know it was not original with me, I began my youth ministry career by repeating that what I do is not about a religion, but about a relationship. At times I imagined it seeped into my brain from some of my youth ministry mentors. But I have been reading In Search of Adolescence: A New Look at an Old Idea by Crystal Kirgiss. Now I see the idea goes back much further.

In this book, Crystal battles the idea that adolescence is a modern day construct. Showing how previous generations dealt with the people we know as teenagers, she proves her point well. At one point she quotes John Greene and Solomon Stoddard, a couple of preachers from the early 1700’s.

“God will have no respect at all to any service that you offer up to him, as long as you withhold your hearts from him…For this, as has been hinted, is the foundation of all religious practice…For while this is neglected, the doing of other things will be to no purpose.” Youth were encouraged not just to attend Sunday services but to live a life of obedience all week long because God is “not only their father’s God, but their God also.” If they learned to worship faithfully now, not because they had to but because they wanted to – because “God has given rational souls to you that you might understandingly praise the Lord” – then it was believed they would continue in the faith and fulfill their spiritual purpose: to glorify God.

(In Search of Adolescence: A New Look at an Old Idea, pgs. 105-106)


I’m hoping that my teens not only recognize this idea, but are encouraged, as I am, by the idea that we are not the first generations enjoying a struggle of seeking out God in a relationship that matters.