Candlelight

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by Hannah Comerford

You take a candle at the door of the dim church. You stick the candle through the paper circle and hold it underneath, the wax malleable if you grip tightly enough. You clasp it gently, just enough to feel the thinnest residue on your skin.

How hard it is to wait until the last song of the Christmas Eve service to light the wick.

You find a seat in the fourth row of the right section. You leave space on the other side of you for friends who may or may not come.

You don’t need the lyrics to the carols, but you look up at the projected words anyway as you sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” A cello adds an especially mournful note tonight. You sing quietly, your voice lost in the crowd of fifty or so voices.

 O come, O come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear

Your mind doesn’t think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Instead, you think of Elizabeth, her cousin. The one who spent decades of marriage childless, the pity of her village.

Suddenly the words aren’t about the Messiah anymore. In your heart, they’re about Elizabeth’s missing child who never was. The cries of the strings become her cries of mourning as she reaches middle age without conception.

They become the cries of Anna, the prophetess whose husband died in their first short years of happy marriage.

It becomes the cries of the shepherds, living outside with animals, never invited to celebrations, lonely and poor.

It becomes the cries of the Magi, the wise men who longed for a King who would not disappoint them like every person in whom they had trusted.

The song becomes the pain suffered by so many in this well-known story.

And the song becomes every heartbreak and loneliness you’ve known this last long year. 

Rejoice, rejoice
Emmanuel
shall come to thee O Israel
Emmanuel shall come to thee.

And in this you remember that their cries were not just for the missing child, the dead husband, the loneliness of being outcast, the disappointment of failed heroes. Whether or not they realized it, their cries were for a Savior, one who would make “everything sad come untrue.” A Savior who would come.

Rejoice, rejoice
Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel

Shall come.

The music ends not on the completion, but on the hope of completion. The last note feels dark and unsettled, begging for the lighter sounds of the refrain, like a fairy tale missing the “happily ever after.”

The song does not recall the end of the story. It does not meet you in the happiness of Christmas morning, but it meets you in the long waiting of Christmas Eve. Like Isaiah, it looks forward to the hope that is yet to be.

You grip your candle tightly as you wait for the chance to light it. You know the time will come. 

O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel

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A Bit for Good

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By Hannah Comerford

Last Sunday, Larry Short shared with us from James. One part he touched on was James’s description of the tongue:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. . . . So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. (3:3, 5, ESV)

Years spent working with horses have given me a special love for this passage, and I appreciated how Larry discussed how a bit guides a horse, using pressure to tell the animal where to go and when to stop. Yet this analogy goes much deeper than Larry had time to talk about in his sermon.

It’s easy to look at the metal rod we stick in a horse’s mouth and think of it as a form of punishment—a tool to annoy the horse when he misbehaves or doesn’t listen to our directions. With a rebellious horse, it can certainly be that. The more the horse fights its rider, the more pressure will be placed on its mouth from the bit as the rider pulls back. But with a well-trained horse, the bit becomes something so much better—a tool to communicate with its rider.

If you’ve ever watched horsemanship competitions on TV, whether while flipping through channels or during the Olympics, you may have come across something called dressage. You may have even seen forms of it at shows such as Medieval Times. To put it simply, dressage is like horse dancing. The goal is not to be the fastest horse and mount or to navigate obstacles; rather, the rider must show how smoothly her horse can follow her subtle cues, resulting in breathtakingly beautiful movements that often look as though the animal is floating through the arena. The rider uses the bit in communicating, but only with small gestures—the horse has learned to pick up on just the slightest touch.

Let’s go back to James. In 3:2, he says, “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” James is giving us a key to perfection—if we can control what we say, bridling ourselves, then we can be perfect! But there’s a problem: a horse can’t bridle itself, and neither can we. Even Paul said that he can’t keep himself from sinning, finding himself doing the very things he hates (Romans 7:15-20). Like the horse needs the rider, we need God to bridle us. With more “training,” we can use the bridle of His direction and laws to understand His commands and do what He says.

This all can seem kind of frustrating, can’t it? If we want to get anywhere near perfection, we need to be told what to do? We need to be subjected to another’s force? Our sinful selves hate feeling controlled, and the world tells us we should be free to do whatever we want.

But let’s take another look at the bit. If you watch a high-level dressage horse at work, its neck is elegantly arched, with the head making a straight line directly up from the ground. This isn’t just for looks, and it doesn’t mean the rider is pulling hard on the horse’s mouth. In the case of these well-trained animals, the horse is arcing its neck voluntarily, and there is very little tension between the mouth and the rider’s hand. This is a posture of obedience from an animal that knows it could yank itself free and bolt—this horse is allowing the rider to be in control. It is not a contest of wills, but rather a sort of dance in which the rider is leading. What’s more, when the horse is “on the bit,” as it’s called, it becomes easier for the horse to move, as the horse’s body is in better alignment and able to use its muscles more effectively. (Think of it like having good posture while lifting weights or running.) The horse’s humble obedience is doing good for its body.

Go to YouTube and search for videos of dressage horses. Watch the beautiful, amazing work they can do because they eagerly listen to and trust their riders.

When we humbly accept God’s leadership, He doesn’t need to use negative reinforcement. He can move us with the smallest touch, because we’re waiting to hear from Him. We’re in a position that is healthiest for us, because He knows exactly what we need. I pray that we would learn what this humble obedience means, to be willingly bridled by our God.

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It’s Not Fair!

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Elim is a very blessed community with many gifted, wise, and insightful people. Hannah (and her husband Jason) Comerford is one of those people. I have invited her to share her humorous and insightful experience from a few weeks ago, I’m sure you will enjoy it as much as I did.

~ Pastor Martin

By Hannah Comerford

Well, this is my life now. Cold forever. That’s what I get for complaining about the heat last summer.

My husband Jason and I had arrived at Puyallup’s new Chick-fil-A at 5:45 a.m. Everyone who stayed until 6:00 AM the next day would get a t-shirt and, most importantly, a gift card pre-loaded with 52 chicken sandwich meals.

When we first arrived, we happily — though a bit sleepily — put up our borrowed tent, set up a couple cots, and brought in our supplies: snacks we would never eat, games that we would never have enough dry room to play, sleeping bags that wouldn’t be warm enough, flashlights we wouldn’t need because of the streetlights’ glare. Once we finished setting up, we weren’t allowed off the premises. No trips to the car, no quick ride home to get more socks, only short bathroom breaks in the building.

The rain never let up for more than a half hour or so. It eventually soaked through my wool hat, my ski jacket, my double layer of pants, and my gloves. After several hours of damp chill, the only thing keeping me from complaining or giving up was the reminder that this was only one night, and some people have to endure much worse than this every night of their lives.

It wasn’t all terrible, though. We had activities to take our minds off the cold: Simon Says, lip-sync battles, Name that Tune, etc., all with fun prizes. It kept my spirits up for several hours. We made friends with the other crazy people camping out with us. Four times during the day Chick-fil-A employees lined up for roll call, then sent us past the drive-through window to pick up hot food. Once we even went inside to assemble food packs for local food banks — a fun activity with the benefit of giving us coveted shelter!

A couple hours into our stay, I made small talk with one of the employees.

“So, how many spots are left?” I asked.

“There are still spots left,” she said cryptically.

“So, if it doesn’t fill up until tomorrow … can someone just come in at 5:00 a.m. and claim the prize?”

“Yes, they can do that.”

A couple nearby participants said some choice words. After we had endured the rain and the cold for hours and hours, they could just waltz in and claim the same prize?

It didn’t seem fair.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a story about a man who hires laborers to work in his vineyard all day. After a couple hours, the man finds some other people hanging out around the marketplace. He tells them to come over to his place, promising to pay them what he thinks is fair. Three more times he does this. Then, when the work day is over, the man pays his workers.

This is where the story gets frustrating. The workers who started in the morning receive the same pay as those who came in at the end of the day.

I’ve always wanted to chime in with the all-day workers: “These people only worked one hour, yet you’ve made us equal after we’ve worked all day in the hot weather.”

But the master says, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15).

It isn’t fair, is it?

When Jason and I arrived at Chick-fil-A, we filled out the same contract as everyone else. We agreed to the same terms: once we brought our belongings to the property, we would stay until 6:00 a.m.

Chick-fil-A didn’t need to give us the contract. They had every right to say, “We appreciate your zeal, but we decided we didn’t want to lose money on this grand opening.” We didn’t inherently deserve free food. Moreover, I would venture to say that none of us needed free food. We didn’t really work for that gift card (unless you count shivering as work). And, like I said earlier, what we went through wasn’t any worse than what thousands do every night — except we could go home the next day.

Chick-fil-A had the right to do whatever they wanted with their gift cards, and they chose to give the same prize to us as they did to the hundredth guest who arrived at 10:45 p.m.

The master of Jesus’s story had the right to give his workers whatever he wanted. It was his money.

God has the right to give His people whatever reward He deems appropriate. He has the right to offer forgiveness and grace to the ninety-year-old who accepted Christ at three years old as well as to the death-row inmate hours before his execution. It is not our inherent right to receive anything from God, because we did nothing to deserve it. Christ was the one who paid for it. He is the one who decides what’s fair. (Ephesian 2:8-9)

While we did “suffer” longer than the hundredth guest, we were able to benefit from the fun activities provided, the prizes we won, and the free hot meals Chick-fil-A provided. The hundredth guest didn’t.

Likewise, the workers in the parable enjoyed the benefits of working. The late workers said they didn’t join earlier because no one had asked them to — they wanted to work, just like most of us want the opportunity to do something with our days.

The lifelong Christian has the blessing of spending a lifetime receiving mercy from the Lord. The last-minute convert has not lived with the mercy, grace, and goodness that comes with a personal relationship with God.

If you’re still waiting to accept God’s offer, don’t wait any longer. Enjoy a relationship with God now.

If you’ve been working for God your whole life, celebrate with Him when he receives new workers. Thank Him for being the One to decide what is fair.

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