Tolivar’s Story: A God Who Is For Us

By Tolivar Wills

Growing up poor, black, in an all white town, and single parent home, I developed several misinterpretations about my place in the world. In particular, my general comparison of myself to other families in the neighborhood was that of always being the one from “the other-side of the tracks;” that certain aspects of life were for “those people,” but not for me. The latest version of Nike’s Jordans? Nope. Name brand clothes? Nope. The amenities of two-parent homes, like nice cars, houses, and extra lunch money? Not even close. These experiences during my developmental years, as I have learned through The Soul of Shame class, shaped much of my perception of how others, God, and even myself were and are postured towards me; namely, that I am unwanted and uncared for in the world.

A deep sense of abandonment had colored much of my world and thus helped shape the self-driven means I would use to try to justify myself to God, others, and myself. I would use anything to try and prove that I was worth caring for: sports, humor, grades, people pleasing, and entertaining were all continuously employed to gain the favor and acceptance of others. The ironic flaw in these attempts, however, was that my efforts to show myself worthy were really only masks to hide my deep sense of shame. Everything looked good on the outside, but deep down I was filled with pain, fear, and sadness.

As you might imagine, over the course of nearly 30 years of walking with the Lord and serving in His Church, this seemingly never-ending spinning wheel of achievement has at times burned this pastor out.

It is in these broken moments that one can no longer hide the sad reality of what is occurring within one’s soul. The sadness brims over the fake smiles, and the tears supernaturally break through the vaults of our facades that we portray to God and others.

I can tell you from experience that this is not a fun or comfortable place to be as a Pastor. Thoughts have run through my head like “You are supposed to feel like this; you are doing all the right things,” and worse yet,  “If I am in this horrible place of despair, then where is God? Doesn’t he know I am doing all of this stuff for Him?” And then, following several fist slams of the table or verbal cursings of God, the tears begin to flow. I’ve  realized that no amount of anger could  make these horrible feelings go away; I was left alone with only myself. No amount of performing or hiding would cover up the deep shame that I’d  been working so hard, for so long, to hide.

It is here, when God and others felt a million miles away from the deepest part of me that the Lord made  Himself present and known. Recently, this truth has come to the forefront of my life as I have been slowly meditating upon Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

In Nouwen’s meditation upon the Luke 15 parable, he points out the stark observation that regardless of the behavior of both the younger and older son, the Father is shown to be ‘for’ His children; whether in their wanton rebellion or self- righteous indignation, the Lord is really ‘for us’.

In fact, as we consider just a few of His precious promises to us we see that in many ways the children of God are really not warranted to have such a ‘glass is half-empty’ mindset. Whether in this world or in the next, these beautiful anchors of the soul pull us deeper and closer to our ultimate and unique flourishing in Christ.

For instance, in Romans 8:27-39 we find the creme-de la-creme of this theology:

“In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,We were considered as ‘sheep to be slaughtered.’

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is only one of many examples of the depth of God’s commitment to His children. A commitment that has no end, and results in both ours and the whole world’s reaching its fully intended purpose. As we head into the Christmas  holiday, it is this beautiful truth that I am most thankful for; that my story and my interpretation of it are not the ultimate author; that God the Father is intimately involved in each of our journey’s, working to take them to a place and quality that I could never have imagined or directed myself or others to. I am thankful that our Father is committed; He is in it to win it for us and through us for the sake of His church and world. Thanks be to God!



5 Underrated Christmas Songs Worth Checking Out


Song can be an amazing way to worship during  the holidays. Some Christmas songs we have heard so many times we don’t even realize how profound the lyrics are. Try giving a few of these a listen. They may draw your mind and heart to the Lord in a new way this season.

Thanks to Katelyn DiGioia, Mark Yang, Martin Davis, and Hannah Scheidt for contributing to this list.

1.) Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson

This isn’t just one song, but one of my (Hannah’s) favorite Christmas albums is Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson. Over the course of the album it tells the story of Christ’s coming, starting in Genesis and ending with His birth. It beautifully illustrates how all of creation was longing for a savior, and how Christ’s birth met that need. It’s a great album to listen to with the whole family. (I’ve noticed kids tend to really like it too.)

2.) “Little Drummer Boy” (A familiar song but the lyrics are underrated)

3.) “Winter Snow Song” by Audrey Assad with Chris Tomlin

4.) “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Mandy Ihrig; A unique take on a classic

5.) Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Album (for people who don’t think they like Christmas music).


Re-thinking Christmas Giving

By The Deacons

WATCH THIS VIDEO (It’s Short!): 

Take 2 minutes and watch this video from Bob Lupton (author of Toxic Charity) & Marvin Cannon (former Executive Director of FCS Ministries)

We are called to care for others, give generously, and pursue satisfying the needs of the poor. But what does that look like practically? If you’re like us, we can sometimes “give,” just so we can check the box. Yet, in so doing, we miss the opportunity to do this WELL.

As discussed in this video, our “giving to the poor” can sometimes end up insulting the recipient or robbing them of their dignity.  So when you give, take the time to put yourself in their shoes and think how you would want to be served.

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Prov 11:25)

Here are some ideas and opportunities to REFRESH others over the next month:

  • Invite a person or family over for dinner
  • Volunteer at an event at Hope-Hill Elementary in December (contact Katelyn DiGioia or Tessa Pickren)
  • Donate children’s books to Hope-Hill Elementary (contact Katelyn DiGioia or Tessa Pickren)
  • Volunteer for Pride for Parents (the organization featured in the video) throughout December Their Sign Up List
  • Give a higher end toy to Pride for Parents (like a toy found at Rhen’s Nest Toy Store in Grant Park)

St. Paul’s Members Share Their Holiday Traditions



“We have three children: Kristen, Erica and Matthew, all adults now.  When they were young we used to pick names out of a hat with all our names in it a few days before Christmas dinner.  We would then pick out a bible verse that we thought was appropriate for that person.  We wrote them out and put them under their placemat at the table, and they couldn’t read it until they sat down to dinner.  Our kids seemed to really enjoy selecting the verse, and of course we were all interested what verse the other family member selected for us.  Pretty sure this was my wife’s idea as a way to help encourage one another and lean meaningful bible lessons while enjoying the many blessings of Christmas.”

Steve Lynott

“One of our favorite Christmas traditions with the boys is telling the Christmas story to them each night in December. Noel Piper wrote a fantastic story that builds upon itself each night, and it makes my heart so happy to hear them telling the story because they’ve heard it so many times over the month!”

Lauren Ellen

“As a preteen, I would help my mother in the kitchen during the day on Christmas Eve by prepping various dishes, including chopping onions, celery, and green peppers for her legendary dressing (stuffing). I loved the smell of these vegetables, however the challenge for me would be to use enough fresh lemon to scrub my hands so I would not smell like an onion medley when singing in the youth choir later that evening at Midnight Mass!”

Caroline Davis

“One tradition we have is to read through our Christmas Advent calendar and devotional book and sing christmas carols together. We try and do it at least a few nights a week at dinner. Also we started going caroling to our neighbors and friends houses a few years ago when the kids got bigger. The kids really love it!!”

Emily Truong

“I grew up going to Catholic Mass every Christmas morning and Jonathan and I have continued this tradition with my family, either going Christmas Eve or morning to worship. I didn’t realize until recently that not everyone goes to church on Christmas day! I’m excited that this year Christmas is on a Sunday and that we’ll get to worship together at St. Paul’s.”

Katelyn Digoia

“If you are like my family, you grew up having special family traditions. Some of the traditions in my family growing up included making gingerbread houses (and no kits here! My mom made all the pieces of the house!!), attending our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service and reading the Christmas story before bed on Christmas Eve. It was what the Bell family did every year!

When we got married and Pat and I began a family of our own, I was intent on starting family traditions. Due to the importance in my home growing up, I wanted my children to have those special things as well for my family during the Christmas season. One of those traditions, which started early, was a family outing with our good friends and neighbors, the Gordons, for to visit Santa and have dinner together. We had kids the same age and this was something we valued each year. It was so much fun. In the last two years, I’m sad to say that this tradition has not happened. As kids grow up and life gets busier this time of year with school work, school concerts and just life, this event has just been hard to make happen. I have lamented this until Pat reminded me that this was a wonderful tradition for many years but traditions can change. Now we look for ways to come together with the Gordons in a less busy time of year!

But some traditions will never change in our household. I want to make it ever present in the minds and hearts of my kids why we are celebrating Christmas. We are celebrating and waiting on the coming Savior! Having Advent readings and devotions leading up to Christmas have been a treasure for our family and something my children have come to expect each year. These few minutes we come together to read, reflect and pray can often be chaotic with kids fighting or running around; however, we push through and trust that seeds are being planted and one day they will take this family tradition into their own families.”

Tessa Pickren

A Christmas Poem

By Ashley Brittingham



the week of flying paper and rolls of tape.

hidden presents surfacing from cupboard depths–

littering areas

falling deeper and deeper into

the tumult of traditions.

the giving effort

more like an exhausting marathon

of colors and things.

standing in pews singing carols–

hymns i grew up with

the words fall from my mouth effortlessly

the meaning lost–stunted

amid the jumble of traditions and mindless repetition.

the reason for this time is close

but surrounded by already full

hearts and minds.

it lays listlessly by our swollen organs.

the purpose of the celebration:

a birth of one whom angels announced.

lights dressing the trees

angels sitting magnificently from up top

garlands and boughs adoring hearth and rail

numerous lists and to-dos and shopping–

these hardly seem relative

to a story upon which we base

the fury and arranged decor.

but what about our “joyous strains” (1)

and our “jubilee” (1)?

how are we to

“come and adore on bended knee/Christ the Lord the newborn king” (2)?

the “incarnate deity” (2)?

to give thanks for “sinners reconciled” (1)?



coming together for a common theme:

praising the “Lord descending”(3) this season

and worshiping the Lord or Lords–

our Emmanuel.

  1. hark the herald angels sing
  2. angels we have heard on high
  3. angels from the realms of glory

Life In The Dead of Winter

By Troy Thomas


I’m one of those people that love the warm, even hot, weather of Spring and Summer.  One of life’s greatly under-appreciated pleasures is feeling the sun on my face for the first time each spring after a long, cold Winter.  There is something infinitely exciting about the promise of Spring that excites the soul.  Yet, in God’s economy, there is also an equal importance in Fall —and ultimately the dead of Winter.

Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 NKJ

  1. To everything there is a season,

   A time for every purpose under heaven:

  1. A time to be born,

      And a time to die;

   A time to plant,

      And a time to pluck what is planted…

Each Fall, as I think about the seasonal death that we see all around us, I am reminded of the teachings of Christ.

John 12:24-25 NKJ

  1. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.
  2. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Even though Fall and Winter are not my favorite seasons, I have learned to enjoy them as a metaphor for eternal life.  I am again drawn to the paradoxical words of Christ.


If I die to myself, only then will I truly experience life.  If I give away my life, only then will I gain life that cannot be taken away.

Paul echoes the teaching of Christ in I Corinthians 15:35-36 NKJ

  1. But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up?  And with what body do they come?”
  2. Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies.

Finally, as I wonder about this death and life paradox, I realize that each rebirth is granted from God Himself.  Just as dead leaves do not choose life, they are granted life from the Giver of Life.

John 15:16 NKJ

  1. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, and whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.img_4162