CHRISTMAS DEVOTIONALS

We asked our Church Venture folks and they opened up their hearts and told us their stories of a time they experienced God, God’s Presence, God’s Grace, God’s Direction, God’s Love. They even took it a step more and explained what they learned from these experiences. Enjoy their stories and feel free to check for more as we will post through the month of December.


DEVOTIONAL BY Suzy Beck

God will find you through the layers…

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Jake Baker, “Bake,” a name I will never forget, a smile that will never leave my memory, and a personality that will always bring a smile to my face, forever.

The text came to me about 7:00 AM on a Thursday morning during our summer youth mission trip.

“Hey, Mrs. Beck, I have some very sad news, one of your favorite students died last night.”  

Even typing the words today, a knot still fills the walls of my stomach and the hairs on my arm stand at attention.  As I steadied my shaking fingers enough to respond to Ashley, my heart was pumping blood at a marathon runner’s pace.  

“Ashley, oh my goodness, who?
She quickly replied with, “Jake.”  Jake was Ashley’s older cousin.

As I took attendance on the first day of school in 2013, Jake Baker was a student in my 10th grade English classroom.  He was never and will never be Jake to me for I always called him “Bake,” just like all of his friends, his many friends.  Bake and I had an “understanding” about our roles in my classroom. I knew that he needed me and his 10th grade English credit and I surely needed him, realizing that Jake’s first love wasn’t English.  As the year progressed, so did our relationship, and just like any relationship, we had our challenges, our nose to nose “sweet” hallway talks, and our celebrations. We made it through 10th grade English together, not by a lot, but “we” did it!  11th grade year, Baker went off to Scarlet Oaks Vocational School which left a small sadness in my heart, as I was not able to see that infectious smile of his each day as he passed my classroom, although he would visit often in the afternoons after school ended.  He always walked into my classroom with a smooth santer, a smile plastered on his face and a shout out, like he was selling popcorn at a Reds game, “MS. BECK!!!” LOL!!! Bake knew that I was not only his English teacher, but a mentor, a “school mom,” but mostly a lifelong friend.  

“Ashley, what happened?”

“Mrs. Beck, he was shot.”

“Oh, my gosh!”
This was my last text until days later, when I could think through life.  

I had decided that I would attend the viewing and Brian and I went.  What a powerful evening filled with love and warmth as former students and parents surrounded a parlor as Bake laid at rest in his ball cap with “Little Bake,” his younger brother, also a former student, by his side. When I approached “Little Bake,” going for a routine hug, he said to me, “He would be so glad you are here.” I melted a little farther into his hug as I told him I was so sorry for “our” loss.   After I left that evening, something was pulling at my heart to attend the funeral the next day. I had no intention of going, but the feeling was so strong that I made arrangements to attend. Sitting in the pew, I surveyed the congregation of people seeing so many familiar faces of former students and friends, but Lucy caught my eye. From a distance Lucy and I made eye contact, but in the moment, from across the room,  you just don’t get up from your seat at a funeral and ask her why she was here and how she knew Jake. As the funeral ended, people shuffled out in a procession and I never met up with Lucy until I saw her back at our “date night” restaurant where she served Brian and me almost every Wednesday night.

This Wednesday date night was one I will never forget. Lucy approached the table as she always does, except she had her phone open and ready to show.  As we quickly communicated or relation to Jake and our surprise to see each other at his funeral, she then said, I have something to show you. As she flashed her phone to me, I immediately recognized the picture that Bake and I took on the last day of school many years earlier.  Now, looking through my warm tears, Lucy encouraged me to read the caption that Bake had added to the picture that was posted on his Instagram and it read, “Favorite teacher throughout high school, didn’t really like any others…”

A smiled engulfed my face and my heart was completely filled with love.  

That night felt amazing, knowing that Bake and I once again had made a connection, but just with a new role for him...an “angel” of mine looking down with his big beautiful smile, encouraging me each and every day of my life to just love on my students, just like I did him.  What a powerful message he sent and what a powerful walk I will continue each day as I am so grateful and blessed for the lives I get to touch, just as Bake has touched mine, forever!


DEVOTIONAL BY JIMMY CLARK

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Blessings

My grandmother, Frances Clark, was a woman of great detail. You could have called her a Master Conductor of Order. There was always a plan and everything had its place. And just to make sure that everyone was on the same page, she wrote it down and there was never a question of clarity. Everything had a place - and a label just in case you forgot. The joke often told was if you stood still long enough she would label you. Not even a stroke could stand in the way of communicating her wishes - her plan for that glorious day when she made that final journey home to be with her maker. Why - because of course she already had a plan - and that plan had been written down. Every detail. From which newspapers we could publish the obituary, to the number of chairs to be made available at graveside and everything in between - even the option for her grandson to sing.

Yes, I was to sing at my Grandmother’s graveside just as I had done many years prior for my Grandfather’s service. Having had that experience did not make it any easier that day. You literally have to shove every memory and emotion in a closet and just hand it over to God. And once that song is over, get ready because all that stuff you just jammed in the closet is coming back out in spades.

It did not take me long to select “Blessings” by Laura Story as the way to honor her. It was through this song that my heart was open to the Blessing of my Grandmother’s life and the abundant blessings in my own life through the path to her journey home.

'Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You're near?
What if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst
This world can't satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise

It can be much easier at times to identify the blessings of this life during the good times - through the sunshine, the rainbows, the accomplishments of our children, a promotion at work. It is through the trials of this life that we can truly see the richness and depth of our blessings.

Isaiah 41:10

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous hand.

God is with you in the darkest of moments. He holds you up when you are at your weakest. The passing of Mema served as a clarifying lens on the previous years, months, weeks and days leading up to her passing. Whether through the quiet nights sitting with my Grandmother feeding her ice chips or reading the King James bible at the same table my Grandfather once did or sharing old memories with families and friends, it became clear that each moment was a gift, a blessing from God. God used his angel, Frances Clark, to bless us once more.


DEVOTIONAL BY TODD OVERTURF

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In my life, I have had so many things to be thankful for and so many things that have brought joy to my life.  It wasn't until Ann and I were married and had kids that we became regular church-goers.  I had attended church some as a child and young adult, but not on a consistent basis.  I went to a few youth groups meetings and even participated in Christmas pageants and Children's Choir rehearsals.  (Yes, I did wear one of those corny Children's Choir robes with a big white collar).  But . . . all of those things actually helped to build a foundation for my faith.  

You see, I have always believed in Jesus.  I have always felt like celebrating his birth at Christmas was the least that we could do!  I have always felt like there were greater things that Jesus has called us to do.  For me, I believe those things are to serve others and to love others in all that I do.  Nothing brings more joy to me than being able to help someone in need or to love on someone when they least expect it. 

So, try it.  Try loving on someone just like Jesus has loved you.  I promise that you won't be disappointed!

You are loved,
Todd Overturf

John 13:34-35 
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.


DEVOTIONAL BY ERIC KUNKEL

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It was a dreary winter evening.  A small group of friends decided to gather to pray for our friend, Sam, who was in the hospital with a critical heart condition.  Sam’s sudden hospitalization had been a shock to everyone, and the severity of the situation was terrifying to those who loved him.

Christians pray regularly for all sorts of things.  It’s what we do to acknowledge God’s power and authority and mercy and goodness.  Prayer opens our hearts to our God, who we know loves us unconditionally.  Prayer opens ourselves to the will of our loving and holy God.

I really struggle with prayer.  Whether I am praying silently or aloud, it always seems to be about the words for me.  I get caught up in how I think or say things and whether I am doing it correctly.  Prayer becomes more of a head thing than a heart thing.  My brain makes so much noise that I cannot hear the quiet whisper of God’s Spirit in me or others with whom I am praying.

That is why I know that God was present among us that night in late January.  The four of us started praying, only knowing that we had been called to gather and pour our hearts out to God on behalf of Sam and his family.  As we prayed, people silently joined our group—all members of Sam’s faith community.  We were people who loved Sam and knew that God’s love for us would bring peace to extinguish our fear.  We also knew God would wrap Sam up in eternal love and comfort.

Our prayer was a beautiful tapestry of praise, sadness, gratitude, Scripture, music, and stories.  Sam was a legendary storyteller, so how can you pray for Sam without telling stories?  Not once did anyone stop and ask if we were praying correctly.  We were baring our hearts to our God and God was pouring the Holy Spirit into us.  Time stood still, as we opened our spirits to God’s awesome goodness and power.

I can’t say how long we prayed.  It was probably at least an hour and a half.  When we had finished, we were exhausted and didn’t want to leave the space where we had gathered.  We knew that we had been in the presence of the sacred.  We gathered to meet with God and God showed up.

John 14: 15-17
“If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.  The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” 


DEVOTIONAL BY KIMBERLY NELSON

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This summer Victor and I went to Spirit Song like we do most summers. A large church group sits down in front of us. The music starts and the young man in front of us is so into the group and he would tell the woman next to him things about the song or group. Next to him was another young man who was not into the band at all, holding his head down most of the time.  After the first set the second young man and some of the other teenagers left to go ride a ride. The next set starts and I  notice the woman looking to see if the boys were back, this continues threw two more bands. During one of the breaks I ask where they are from,  she said the name of a Baptist church in Kentucky.  Finally the boys return and it had become apparent to me these two boys were the ladies sons. During this set as she would look towards the second son I could feel her pain, hopefulness even fear. I began to pray for this young man.  It was like someone was talking inside my head/heart. I knew I couldn't leave without telling her what God was telling me.  But what if I am wrong,  I couldn't take the chance.  I knew the show was almost over and we were slipping out to beat the crowd but first I  leaned over patted her on her shoulder and said: God hears your prayers and  he has him in his hands, God is working on him and he is so close to letting God in, just have faith.  She turns to hug me tears pouring down her face. Thank you was all she could or needed to say.  I am not sure of the situation nor do I need to, but the peace it gave her was worth a  million dollars to me. 

As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you. Isaiah 66:13


DEVOTIONAL BY JOHN HISE

One of my favorite mountains in Vermont, Mount Mansfield, which I climbed multiple times.

One of my favorite mountains in Vermont, Mount Mansfield, which I climbed multiple times.

God's presence and God's help were with me at my Dad's funeral.

It was truly a weird funeral. No eulogy, no officiant, just two friends from NYC reading scripture. It was also overwhelming for the family. Dad had been a State Rep in Vermont for 20 years, so the funeral was huge 1000+. Mom nominated me to open the funeral with welcome, thanks and telling folks the logistics of the day.  Simple task one would think. 

From the time I was 10 I had spent my summers in Vermont, my folks bought the farm there when I was  a freshman  in HS.  I loved the mountains, the power of them, how they highlighted the seasons with their colors. Truly I always saw God in those mountains. My salvation in this funeral moment was repeating over and over the first two versus of Psalms 121" I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth"

I truly do not even remember speaking, but folks said it was good, either it was or they were being kind.


DEVOTIONAL BY ANN OVERTURF

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When I was growing up, church was not a part of our lives.  I vaguely remember wearing little white gloves and a cute hat one Easter as a preschooler, but other than that, we did not attend the Methodist church to which we supposedly belonged.  It wasn't that my parents didn't believe in Jesus.  It's that we spent our weekends at a house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, about 70 miles from our permanent home in Aurora, Illinois.  I suppose that once my parents got out of the habit of going to church, it wasn't hard to put it on the back burner. Needless to say, my biblical knowledge was at zero. And our family didn't discuss religion, the bible, or Jesus.    

Now, I was always a fan of Christmas - what kid isn't?  However, I was aware at a young age that Christmas spirit was definitely a real thing.  Yes, I was excited about the possibility of new toys and lots of treats, but I also felt an abundance of joy, peace and love during the holiday season.  One day, I asked my mom about it.  What is this Christmas thing all about?  She told me very matter-of-factly that we celebrate Christmas because it is Jesus' birthday and that Jesus was God's gift to us.  I can't remember her exact words, but I do vividly remember standing in our groovy harvest gold kitchen looking out the sliding glass window at the snow in the backyard and thinking, "Of course!  This makes perfect sense now."  Jesus.  Joy. Peace. Love.  I get it.

And God showed up and tugged at the heartstrings of a grade school girl.

Isaiah 9:6 New International Version (NIV)

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 Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.


DEVOTIONAL BY BEV MASSEY

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While driving down I-71 late one morning, I received a phone call.  Something told me to pull off and listen to the message, and I think I could take you to the exact spot in the big parking lot where I heard the message from the nursing home where my Dad was, “Please call as soon as possible.”  I had been on the way to a meeting, after which I was going to meet my Mom and have lunch with her and my Dad at the nursing home.  When I called the nursing home, I was told in a matter of fact way that, “I’m sorry to tell you that your Dad died this morning.”

I rushed to the nursing home and went with my mom to the crummy closet of a room at the end of the nursing home hallway.  You see, we hadn’t been able to get Dad into his normal home for another of his many rehabilitation stays, and I hated leaving him where he was, but had no choice.

There he lay, and while we waited for the funeral home to arrive, Mom went to sign paperwork.  I sat there all alone with Dad, feeling guilty for having to leave him the night before to get our son to his music lesson.  Who would have thought he’d be gone the next morning.  It was a grey, cloudy, misty day which mirrored how I was feeling.  Do you ever think you’ve done enough?  I prayed that God would tell Dad how much I loved him, and how much I missed him.  How I wished I could have done more!  There was a thick cloud cover all over the sky, and the sun hadn’t been out all day. All of a sudden, a clear, warm beam of sunlight came through the window and shone on my Dad’s quiet body.  I felt the room warm and brighten, and as quickly as it came, it disappeared.  Was it God telling me that Dad was finally able to walk again, and talk again, be out of pain, and at peace?  I don’t know, but I can tell you my soul was warmed in an inexplicable way.    


Isaiah 42:16 New International Version (NIV)

16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
    and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;

I will not forsake them.


DEVOTIONAL BY LISA BUSH

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In the Fall of 1989, my brother Sam suffered Cardiac Arrest while riding in a car with one of my other brothers.  They were going furniture shopping… an ordinary day.  He was 39 years old at the time.  Thankfully, it happened near a Highway Patrol barracks.  They performed CPR and transported him to a nearby hospital.  He was in a coma for several days.  He was then transported to Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.  Several weeks in ICU.  My family spent countless hours staying at the hospital, often taking turns spending the night.  After being released from ICU to a step down room, it was determined that Sam had suffered extensive heart damage, as well as brain damage due to lack of oxygen…  Doctors gave him less than a year to live and said he would never be able to function on his own again.  He was an “infant”.  He couldn’t walk, talk, feed himself, bathe himself or go to the bathroom on his own.  My mom rallied the troops & prayed every single day.  Through years of physical & mental rehab, a defibrillator being implanted,  and countless hours spent by his family members taking turns caring for him, Sam eventually learned how to walk, talk, eat, and go to the bathroom on his own. 

Prior to that fateful day, Sam wasn’t taking great care of himself (obviously).  He smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and battled an addiction to prescription painkillers after a severe back injury.  He also had not attended church in many years.  After the cardiac arrest and brain damage, most of his memory was wiped away… Including his addiction and vices.  God spoke, and for the first time in many years, Sam heard him.  He started attending church with family.  He developed such a love for Jesus, that he would tell anyone that would listen to him about his miracle.  He also developed a love for walking.  Almost every day, rain or shine, he would walk for miles & miles all over the little town of Sabina.  Local residents & business owners knew him and watched over him like family.  When he wasn’t walking, he was sitting on the front porch, with his radio on – listening to gospel or old country….  Sam passed away in January 2009… 19 ½ years later.

I learned the power of prayer!  Sam’s life after that day was anything but rainbows & butterflies, but it was nothing short of a miracle.  He touched many lives during that 19 years… even indirectly teaching his 8 siblings about patience, kindness, and selfless & unconditional love.

Matthew 19:26  (NIV)

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”