Dear Friends,

Christian greetings and peace be upon you and all your loved ones. We are almost getting to the end of 2012 and before we know it the busy season will be upon us driving us into many different directions.
The tragedy of this is that often times the real reason for this season, the birth of the Christ child, is crowded out, and in most situations, somewhat unconsciously or unintentionally. Deep in our hearts and minds we know that our Christmas celebrations ought to be about Christ, it’s just that other things keep getting in the way.

It is for this reason that I like Advent which is part and parcel of our Christian liturgical calendar. It is a time in which we wait and prepare for the Lord’s coming. Most of our churches light candles, read scripture passages and offer prayers related to the anticipation of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. So before the rush begins it is important to stop, reflect and listen for the voice of God. It is this quiet reflection which (re)directs us into a place of sanity and security as we ponder on salvation, grace, forgiveness and love. We suddenly come to that profound awareness that if God did not choose to come to the world in his Son we would not be here. This holy moment leads us into a place and spirit of thankfulness and gratitude.

As this year draws to a close I stopped to ask about what I am thankful for in the UPCSA. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the things on my list:
– My family for kindly and sacrificially releasing me into the service of God and the UPCSA.
– All my many colleagues and friends who have supported me with prayer and encouragement through the past year.
– The staff at the Central Office for their dedication and devotion in spite of having to contend with the fraud situation and the need to rise above that experience.
– All the processes we have put in place to ensure good management and accountability structures within the Church.
– All our ministers, elders and leaders in congregations in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
– All our retired ministers who continue to serve God in various places as they are able to.
– A very successful 2012 General Assembly which addressed a number of significant issues.
– The new Vision, Mission, Values and Mission Priorities we have adopted at the 2012 General Assembly.
– The fresh energy and life we are experiencing in our new Assembly committees which has been reduced from 66 to 14 to ensure effectiveness, efficiency and cost reduction.
– The new life and functionality of Presbyteries as they implement the Presbytery Empowerment Plan. As someone as said we are “moving from maintenance to mission.

We are now an outcomes – based church seeking to make a difference in the world.”
– There are wonderful signs of spiritual growth in the midst of challenges and struggles.
– Recently I conducted workshops with a few of our Presbyteries facing huge challenges. I was deeply amazed by how God’s Spirit was at work bringing us into a new place of hope and restoration.
– There are some congregations engaging some really fascinating mission and ministry into their community and context and bringing about transformation and life – changing experiences for many.

My list can go on but let me stop to ask: “What are some of the things you are thankful for in your life? As you consider your local congregation and the UPCSA at large, what are some of the things you are able to express gratitude and thanksgiving for? How is your congregation blessing those within your church and outside? How are you blessing your minister and how is your minister blessing you? Are you taking time to count your blessings?

At the start of this “silly” season it is most appropriate to stop and reflect on your blessings and to give proper thanks to both God and the people around you. Too many people today conclude rather quickly that they don’t have anything to be thankful for, and that is mostly because they allow their minds to be dominated by that which has been a discouraging or negative experience. In any case, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 5: 18 that we must “in everything give thanks.” We need to be thankful in all things, to recognize the presence of God in sorrow as well as joy, in the good experiences and even in the not so good ones. Are you thankful? Can you look up and thank God every day and all the way, even sometimes through tears?
Christmas is a time for reconciliation, peace and hope. It is a time to know that no matter what we face and in spite of what is happening in our countries and the world, God is in control: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end…”

Our thanks then must appropriately begin with what God has done, is doing and what we hope God will do. We need to acknowledge God as the source of our blessings and hope. This time of Advent reminds us that we must patiently wait on God to heal, restore and save us. We need to take time to listen to God’s voice, trust and act upon God’s Word, and receive God’s peace. When we receive God’s peace we will also realize that we are called to be agents of God’s peace and hope in the world. Are you an agent of God’s peace and hope at home, in your church and in the world?
I remain thankful for the Church with all her imperfections, failures and struggles. Do you? Advent and Christmas is a time to be hopeful and to expect the unexpected blessing from God. May you be surprised by grace and hope this Christmas.
Have a blessed Christmas and a Happy and prosperous New Year in the Lord, Jesus Christ.