Faith Matters: A modern day Christmas story

  • Rev. Dr. Candace Ashenden stands in the United Congregational Church of Conway, which is still closed from the tornado damage suffered last February. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Rev. Candi Ashenden in the The United Congregational Church of Conway which is still closed from the tornado damage. December 11, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The United Congregational Church of Conway is still closed from the tornado damage. December 11, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Pastor, United Congregational Church of Conway and Family and Outreach Pastor, Athol Congregational Church
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)

Most of us have heard this story: Around 2,000 years ago, Mary and Joseph arrive in the sleepy town of Bethlehem as the result of a census calling them to return there to be counted. A very pregnant Mary anxiously waits in the street on a donkey while Joseph frantically searches for a place for them to spend the night. Finding no room in an inn, he ends up asking an innkeeper if there is any place at all for them to stay. Finally, the man takes pity on the couple and offers them a corner of a humble stable filled with animals. Once settled inside, Mary gives birth to a son and names him Jesus, as an angel had told her to do in an unexpected visit. Later, three wise men journeyed to greet this holy baby and to bring their gifts and their wisdom. This is how Christ was born … in an unlikely place, involving a motley cast of characters and supported by strangers bearing gifts and advice. And Mary and Joseph? They followed their hearts and their God into the unknown future of their faith.

This biblically-based story of the birth of Jesus and the beginning of what was later to become Christianity is now known the world over. Our local, modern-day Christmas story is a little less well known, but its themes are the same.

The setting for this vignette is the Conway Grammar School library on a Sunday morning. Tables are pushed to the side of the room, chairs are lined up in rows, a portable keyboard sits in one corner and a music stands perches in another. Into this unlikely place arrive a small group of faithful folk. Called together by a shared sense of mission and purpose … not to be counted, but to be inspired … so that they can then go out into the world to serve, a variety of people amble in. A middle-aged woman comes in with her daughter, home from college for the weekend; a little boy scampers in with his big brother and sister in tow; several older folks arrive, laughing and joking with one another; and all greet each other warmly and with great affection. This motley cast of characters is the United Congregational Church of Conway.

Each Sunday morning they gather in the school library for worship. Why is that? Is it because there is no room for them at the inn? Not exactly. It is because their beautiful sanctuary has been destroyed by the winds of last February’s tornado. Their traditional and “expected” place of worship is not available, but they have found a warm and inviting shelter in which to gather. The library is their humble stable and, although not filled with animals, there is one friendly chipmunk who frequently perches atop a branch just outside the window, intently listening to the sermon and enjoying the music.

Though no angel appeared to foretell the disaster that befell this church, there was clear evidence of God preparing us for the future. Already, we had two “wise men” on speed dial — our beloved contractor and cherished architect from a previous project. These men showed up in a moment’s notice to comfort and offer advice and their gifts. Many others have also blessed this community in the past and continue to today. Donations of time and money, of baked goods and of services, continue to enrich and move this small church forward.

So this Christmas story from so long ago, the story of Jesus’ birth that began a faith that would change the face of the world, is not merely an ancient story. It is a story that is relived as often as it is retold. The places vary, the motley cast of characters changes, the “wise men” bring different gifts, but God is still moving through our world, offering light and hope to all. UCC Conway is striving to follow our hearts and God’s leading into the unknown future of our faith, and we pray that during this Christmas season, you will all find the blessings within your particular story, and whatever the “details” are, that you will journey forward into the unknown future with faith.

About The United Congregational Church of Conway

The United Congregational Church of Conway is a welcoming Christian community bringing generations together to celebrate God’s presence and to learn to grow in our faith. We humbly strive to offer hope, encouragement and love to each other, the Conway community, and the world through our actions and with our resources. This faith community has been going strong since 1768 and intends to continue its mission well into the future. Sunday morning services are 9:30 a.m. at the Conway Grammar School and all are welcome. The pastor can always be reached at revcandi@gmail.com or at 978-544-2801.