Photo by Brian Smith

Moffat County church leaders bring varying messages of hope, love and faith this holiday season

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With an assortment of churches and places of worship, Craig and Moffat County offers a diverse selection for people seeking to tend to matters of the soul.

The holiday season is a particularly popular time for people to connect with their spiritual side, and the messages offered to those seekers is wide and varying.

The Saturday Morning Press staff sought out some of the community’s local church leaders and asked them their opinions on the holiday season, their preparation and methods for tending to the masses, and about what the holidays mean to them.

‘Every day … is Christmas’

The theme of Christmas is the same consistent message Rev. John Turner, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, preaches throughout the year, he said.

“Every day in a Christian’s life is Christmas. Every day is Easter,” Turner said. “We also have His promise that He is with us always and we have His promise that He will come again.”

Turner said feeling God’s love is a daily occurrence.

“That is the theme of Christmas, that’s the theme of Easter, that’s our theme of our lives,” he said.

Turner said his congregation sees an increase in attendance during the holiday season, and he celebrates the larger audience without questioning it. He welcomes newcomers and visitors during his services.

“We pray the Holy Spirit ignites the faith in them so they want to come and hear more,” Turner said.

The reverend explained that church is where Jesus reaches His people, so there is no reason to keep anyone away, particularly during the holiday season.

“The real joy to the world that we sing about is this is God coming to us as one of us,” Turner said. “Without this baby, without Bethlehem, we’re lost.”

That understanding is the steady message he intended to deliver this weekend. While a message about the government, economy or other earthly troubles might be tempting, Turner said he stays the course.

“My king is not of this world,” Turner said. “Our real hope and our real salvation is not of this world. As Lutherans … our focus is really not on this world, but it’s always on Christ.”

Sure, he and his congregation pray that government leaders and law enforcement officers and others do what’s right and what’s best for “the weak and the innocent,” but “that’s every Sunday.”

On this revered holiday of his faith, Turner said there’s one key take-home message.

“The focus is always on Jesus,” Turner said. “At the end of the day, that’s all we have. If we don’t have Jesus, we have nothing else.”

— Reported and written by Michelle Balleck

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‘Finding those places of intersection’

As far as Rev. Ginger Taylor, interim pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ is concerned, there isn’t much variety when writing a Christmas sermon.

“The Scriptures are the same every year,” Taylor said. “It’s always the birth narrative of Luke.

“The message, of course, comes from the interaction of scripture with what’s happening right now.”

Taylor, who has been ordained for 25 years, joined First Congregational at the beginning of the month. She believes preaching is “sitting down with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other and finding those places of intersection.”

While the inspiration for the church’s Christmas Eve service included familiar topics like the country’s economic problems and the increasing unemployment rate, there was also the subject of change.

Change is something First Congregational has had to adapt to lately. As the interim pastor, it is Taylor’s job to work with the church in finding a full-time leader.

“In the context of an interim ministry, the congregation is really aware of the transience of pastoral leadership,” Taylor said. “It makes us, hopefully, consider that our true center and our true leader is not the pastor.”

Taylor relates the current journey of her church to that of the Holy Family — the child Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph.

“God works with us when we are in transition. God works unexpectedly in times of challenge,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the pieces of the story that is appropriate to lift up.”

Taylor also said that comfort can be found in the Holy Family’s story because of the circumstances in which the Christmas story happened. She said that the family Jesus was born into was not one of wealth, and Joseph wasn’t happy when he found out Mary was carrying a child that wasn’t his.

“That God would choose to manifest God’s self in such a fragile family constellation, in such a fragile economic situation, in a remote, kind of out-of-the-way place like Craig, Colo., rather than manifest himself in Washington, D.C., to the son of a senator and his wealthy wife who had a Ph.D. in economics, has a special word of hope,” Taylor said.

“It’s really good news for a little town like Craig where lots of people struggle.”

The church’s lone Christmas service took place Christmas Eve.

— Reported and written by Scott Schlaufman

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‘Greater than we are’

The Very Reverend Makarios Mannos contends we live in a society that denies, for the most part, the religious sense of that which surrounds us.

“This is the struggle that the church has always faced,” he said. “That is the meaningful aspect of a person’s belief system, in this case Christianity for us, is the struggle between what is spiritual and what is not.”

It is Mannos’ responsibility to lead the congregation of Saint John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Craig through that struggle and keep faith as a major point in their lives, he said.

“We struggle now with this notion of political correctness,” he said.

“For example, the trend these days is to wish people Happy Holidays or what have you and not even mention the name of Christ.”

Mannos, a Salt Lake City resident who has served the Craig church for about 12 years, said accomplishing the goal of leading his congregation to connect with the Lord is tough for both he and the congregation.

This time of year is a deeply spiritual journey and calls for Mannos and his congregation to focus on the meaning of the season, he said.

The church starts preparing for the nativity celebration in mid-November. As the season continues, the congregation enters a 40-day period of fasting and observing special dietary rules with several smaller commemorations.

On the eve of the nativity, the church has a night service with various hymns and readings relating to the celebration of the birth of Christ.

“We, as Orthodox Christians, try to emphasize the reality of the presence of God within the human race, the miracle surrounding his birth,” he said.

Several days after the nativity, the church observes Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan, which is a “much more significant event than his birth,” Mannos said.

“It is only one occasion amongst many that helps us reinforce the understanding that … the power of something greater than ourselves is playing a part in lives of all of us in this world,” he said. “To draw meaning from that as best as we can … that is a daily challenge for me.”

For Mannos, Christmas fosters an overwhelming feeling of joy to be recognizing the day for the miracle it signifies and to bring his congregation into that mindset.

“The fact that we have these commemorations or these observances simply reinforces all of the sense that we’re not responsible for all of the things that take place in our lives on a daily basis,” he said. “There is a power, a force if you will, far greater than we are.”

— Reported and written by Brian Smith

‘The ultimate sacrifice’

Kent Nielson said people often carry misconceptions about his religion.

“In the Mormon faith — or, as we’re officially called, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — we definitely are Christians,” Nielson said. “A lot of people don’t think we are. They don’t think we believe in Christ, but we do.”

Nielson, who serves as bishop for the Craig First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he has already hosted its Christmas service.

“We had our Christmas service last week, so we’re not doing anything special this week,” said Nielson, 50. “We wanted to do it the Sunday before Christmas to try to get people into the spirit of Christmas.”

However, Nielson said his Sunday service will still honor the holiday.

“This Sunday will probably have something to do with Christmas,” he said. “Most of our services do talk about Jesus Christ, because he is the cornerstone of our church.

“So, almost every service we have involves Jesus Christ in one way or another.”

Nielson said the congregation at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Craig has been divided into three wards, and a different bishop presides over each ward.

J.R. Crookston is bishop for the Second Ward, and Forrest Luke is bishop for the Third Ward.

As such, Nielson said the church hosts three separate services every Sunday.

“We have three different time slots,” he said. “The First Ward meets from 9 a.m. to noon. The Second Ward is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Third Ward meets from 1 to 4 p.m.”

Nielson said he hopes people keep Jesus in their hearts and minds this season.

“I guess what I would like people to be thinking about is the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave to us,” he said. “And, I would like to invite people to be more like Christ. I think if all of us have the desire and goal to become more like our savior Jesus Christ, the world would be a lot better place.”

Being Christ-like, Nielson said, means giving love and charity to others.

— Reported and written by Ben McCanna

‘Special for me every day’

For Rev. Dale Martin, a Craig Mennonite pastor, Christmas doesn’t hold much more significance than any other day of the year.

But, that doesn’t mean the significance of Christ becoming a man is lost on the leader of the Craig Mennonite Church.

“It does something special for me everyday, but I don’t know that on Christmas that it really means a lot more to me than it does every other day of the year,” Martin said. “I spend time reading the Bible and praying every day.

“The whole theme of the Bible is centered around Christ and his work, so it is very central in my life, but not more at Christmas than any other time.”

Martin said his church would not host any special services on Christmas, but rather allow the several area Mennonite families to celebrate how they choose. Often times, families will read passages from the Bible outlining Christ’s birth, Martin said.

“It is probably more low key than most churches do,” he said. “We actually place more emphasis on remembering Christ’s suffering and death because that is what the Bible tells us to remember more than his birthday.”

Where as most reverends of other churches see Christmas as their day to shine, Martin said his is Good Friday and Easter.

“I would say that there are few sermons that I would rather preach than about the suffering and the death of Christ and the resurrection,” he said. “Those are very special to me — I love to bring those messages.”

Martin said Mennonites don’t celebrate Christmas the way others do because the Bible doesn’t teach them to do so.

“The history of Christmas is actually pagan — the roots of that celebration aren’t in the Bible, really,” he said. “Most of us don’t really give gifts, we feel like the whole thing, with the commercialization of it, is more distracting than helpful. That is not to pass judgment on the people that feel that’s the way to do it.”

— Reported and written by Brian Smith

Holiday season chance to give

In this time of giving, Rev. Jason Haskell of New Creation Church of Craig said the church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service is about reminding people of the importance of the holiday.

“We want people to know the joy and freedom Jesus provides for the world,” Haskell said. “We want to refresh people’s minds.”

New Creation Church of Craig, 520 Westridge Road, hosted its Christmas service Friday night.

Haskell said he has changed his message up slightly every Christmas, but this year he wanted to get back to the basics.

“This year I am going to talk about the Christmas story of Jesus being born,” he said. “I will talk about the purpose of Christmas and why God sent us Jesus.

“I just remind people that there is good news in the world.”

Along with the message, the New Creation congregation sang Christmas carols, including “This Little Child,” by Haskell and his wife, Tracey.

The size of the congregation that Haskell preaches to varies every year, he said.

“Sometimes people travel for the holidays and leave the area, and other times families come to Craig, so we have a bigger group,” Haskell said. “We usually have around 100 people at our Christmas Eve service.”

No matter the size, Haskell said he prepares for Christmas service like every Sunday service — through prayer.

“Leading up to Friday, I will do a lot of prayer and I will study the Scriptures,” he said. “Prayer is a big part every week.”

While families all over will wake up Christmas morning to open gifts, Haskell wants to give people an opportunity to give to God first.

“God should be the first priority in this holiday, and I want to give people the chance to praise Him,” he said. “Give to God, then give to your family and friends.”

— Reported and written by Joshua Gordon

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