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Dear First Pres,

   Whew, anyone else taking a deep breath after the mad dash of Christmas festivities? While recovering from a sugar coma, I find myself reflecting on the past year and strategizing for the coming year. We are moving into a season of reflecting on New Beginnings. As 2017 comes to a close, there is almost a natural tendency to look forward to what new things 2018 holds. For some of us that means excitement for new challenges to face, while for others apathy has already set in. Are New Year resolutions appealing to you?

   A little secret for those who do not know me well: I am an achiever. Which means I most definitely make new year resolutions. This inner drive leads my reflections to center on the accomplishments from the past year, and even more importantly the areas where I need to work harder. New Year resolutions become a way of measuring my success and worthiness. I'm always amazed how something can start off as a good thing, but in excess quickly turn into an unhealthy thing. Not that a drive for success is a bad thing, but when I find my value solely in my achievements rather than in the unfailing undeserved love of Jesus there is a heart problem. 

   Receiving the beautiful gift of love and mercy from God becomes a tricky situation when achieving is my lifestyle. God is faithful to meet me in my need to feel worthy and continues to reveal to me how much I need him, especially in times when I have to sit in my failures or unmet expectations.

   This Sunday Lana is preaching on Matthew 8:26-29, "When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man.

   I love how Jesus heals this man! The man is outcast and laid to the margins of society to suffer. He is tormented and lonely, and Jesus meets this man in the mess. Jesus speaks truth and life over the demon-possessed man and provides freedom. He creates a New Beginning for this man. God is transforming lives and repurposing people's stories. God creates us as whole beings with emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational needs. And Jesus' story of healing addresses more than one area of life. We are complex people and have diverse needs, and still Jesus is faithful to meet those needs.

As you reflect on the past year and the year to come, here are some questions that I am asking myself. These questions have nothing to do with what I can achieve, but everything to do with what I can receive from my gracious savior and healer Jesus. 

  • What areas of life are you feeling hopeless about, where can Jesus provide hope? 
  • Where do you feel alone or abandoned, how can God meet you there?
  • What types of things are you hoping for in this coming year, how are you anticipating God showing up? 
  • Where does healing need to take place, how can Jesus meet you where you are in the mess?

Happy New Year,

Meagan Bergem
Director of Junior High Ministries

Dear First Pres,

   On Sunday night we will celebrate Christmas Eve, and it's going to be a great night. We have three wonderful services planned (remember the Sunday morning service at 9:30 is not a Christmas Eve service). And everyone is getting prepared ... dancers, singers, musicians, Scripture readers, ushers, sound techs, custodians, prayers, and preachers. Making these three Christmas Eve services happen is a massive team effort. Thank you to all the folks who do that work on the chancel and behind the scenes.
 
   So, why all the effort? What's the big deal? Well, just like every worship service, we want the First Pres family to engage with God in an authentic and powerful way through worship. When that happens, our lives change. But Christmas Eve has a little more hoopla that our regular Sunday services, doesn't it? That's because Christmas Eve is our biggest welcome event of the year.
 
   What is a welcome event? It's something that we do on our campus to welcome newcomers and introduce them to the Good News of Jesus. Some might think of that as outreach, but we now define outreach as the intentional work of building sustainable relationships with those outside the church. Outreach, then, is the work that precedes a welcome event like Christmas Eve.
 
   Here's what I'd love to see happen with our church: I'd love for every member of our church to prioritize participation in our Christmas Eve services. By participation, I don't just mean attendance. I mean participating in Christmas Eve as our biggest welcome event of the year. That means that every member is prayerfully considering who might benefit from hearing the Good News of Christmas. Every member is prayerfully inviting folks who don't have a church home to join us for one of the services. Every member is prayerfully anticipating the services and asking God to move in powerful ways for His glory to build His Church. Then, on Christmas Eve, it means that every member is in "host" mode, from the parking lot to the pew, leading the way in welcoming others to our services and demonstrating the awesome love of God.
 
   Can you imagine the power of an entire congregation prayerfully working together for our biggest welcome event of the year? I believe that is possible. And I believe God will use that prayerful effort in wonderful ways to grow our congregation deep and wide. May it be so.
 
   On Sunday we celebrate the way that our God, very intentionally, moved toward us that we might be saved. Now, may we intentionally move toward the people God puts around us so that they might also experience the joy of His salvation.

So grateful to celebrate Christmas with you,

Jeremy

P.S. Here's another reason to come on Sunday morning: we'll be celebrating the baptism of one of our little ones. See you then.

Jeremy Vaccaro
Senior Pastor

Beth Paz

I have just completed a year of ministry here at FPC and it has been a wonderful experience! One word to describe the activities of the year would be foundational. As FPC seeks to rebuild its outreach and discipleship to high school students, I have pressed into developing a foundation that will allow us to grow deep and wide. Our vision foundation strengthened as we prayed for a theme that we could build this ministry on – God confirmed Colossians 2:6-7: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness."  We then adopted the name Rooted with great excitement!

All that God has done this year sets us in anticipation for next! Our current projects include a new logo and a new room renovation! Children’s ministry generously allowed us to renovate the old “Kids Alive” room and turn its primary use into a high school space! In November, we started demolition of old cabinets and sinks. We give credit to the wonderful Joanie Martin for blessing us to release her nature and sheep mural into a new era. The new room has plans to host games including a ping pong and foosball tables, couches for lounging, and a kitchen nook for food! Updated technology and lighting will enhance our learning environment together. We are grateful for Ronnie Samuelian, David Swaim, Allan Knepper and Dave Parker and others donating their time and skills to transform the room.

A new room is more than just a project, or an asset on the church campus. Most importantly, we look forward to meeting Jesus in this space and growing in community. A new room is a new opportunity. We sense God is preparing us for new things in 2018; just recently the youth leaders decided together with the leadership of Teen Night (the Lowell neighborhood-based youth group sponsored by Bethany Inner-City Church) that the ministry of Teen Night is joining Wednesday night youth group in 2018! We sense God is bringing new people to our new space to do a new thing in and through our youth ministry! Pray with us for God’s blessing on this space and ministry in 2018!

Anonymous

Dear First Pres,

   What marks the presence of the Christmas season to you? Christmas Tree Lane has become one of my favorite traditions here in Fresno. The most amazing part of the experience is seeing and hearing the excited little ones. There is curiosity, wonder, and joy in their squeals, pointing and sudden stopping. Walking the lane provides ample opportunity for a treasured hobby of mine - that's right: PEOPLE WATCHING. I love witnessing the diversity of people who enjoy walking the lane in their various ages, cultures and intentions, from families to couples, to groups of students enjoying their independence. 
 
   And what is with these Christmas lights that so captivate our attention? We are drawn to the light in the midst of darkness. We are enthralled by the sparkling and creativity of these lights that bring about a sweet sense of beauty and mystery. There is even comfort in the light. As someone who was scared of the dark even into my twenties, I can testify to the sense of peace that comes from being in the presence of light. 
 
   And yet my heart becomes heavy as I wonder which of these people has fully experienced the true joy and hope of knowing Jesus, the real reason for celebration. My heart breaks with those who are grieving in the midst of this holiday season. I'm reminded of my own childhood in which my single mom worked long hours in hopes of a good Christmas, and how often we didn't fully appreciate the effort. There are people who are separated from their loved ones whether physically, such as those who are in prison, geographically, or emotionally by depression, anxiety, or broken relationships. How can there be such joy and excitement and hurt and brokenness all wrapped up in this season? 
 
   Then I am reminded of the great hope found in John 8:12, "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
 
   Jesus' mystery is revealed as the true light that captivates, reconciles, transforms and provides life. Jesus is the very present light in the midst of darkness and pain. He is not distant or far off, but instead close and near to all. As we follow after Jesus, he expunges the darkness, the fear, the loneliness, the guilt, the shame, the brokenness. Not that we are free from the very reality of pain and death today, but there is an everlasting hope and joy knowing that we are not facing it alone.
 
   My prayer is that you know this: Love has come down and there is joy in seeking after the light of Jesus. As you enjoy the sparkle of Christmas lights may you be reminded of God's goodness and may God meet you where you are today, in the joys and the pains. May we experience and receive the great love and grace of Jesus. And may we be lights who are present in the midst of darkness to our families, friends, co-workers, and neighbors

May Our Light Shine,
 

Meagan Bergem
Director of Junior High Ministries

Dear First Pres, 

   It's that time again. It's time to start talking to your coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family about what they're doing on Christmas Eve. And, if they don't have a church home, it's time to start inviting them to one of our Christmas Eve services.
 
   This year, Christmas Eve is on a Sunday. So, we're going to have one service that morning at 9:30. It'll be our celebration of the fourth Sunday of Advent. That means that it will be a completely different service than our evening services to celebrate Christmas Eve. I really hope you come to enjoy this morning service with the whole congregation in one service.
 
   Then, in the evening we will host three worship services: 4:00; 5:30; & 7:00pm. The 4:00pm service will be our most family friendly service. Our kids choirs are singing, kids will be involved in worship leadership, there will be a special kids' activity, and the sermon will be condensed. The 5:30 & 7:00pm services will include the full orchestra and Christmas Choir, but the 5:30 service will still have a special activity for the kids (and the rest of us).
 
   For the last few years, the 5:30 service has been the most crowded. So, I encourage you to consider the 4:00 or 7:00pm service. And remember, all of us who call First Pres our church home are hosts on Christmas Eve. That means we act like hosts to everyone we encounter in the parking lot, the Sanctuary entry, the pew, or the lawn. When we do that, we help all of those who are newcomers feel like welcomed friends.
 
   At this year's Messiah Sing-Along, I was sitting in the balcony while Julie Carter gave an announcement about our Christmas Eve services. Sitting in front of me was a family that had no idea I was the Senior Pastor of the church. When Julie made the announcement, mom and dad (of the family in front of me) turned to each other and started talking about whether or not they should come. I've been praying for them ever since.
 
   Remember, Beloved, we don't always know who the Spirit has been prompting about coming to church. So, don't be afraid to sow the seed (or to invite) generously. So many more would come if they were simply and personally invited. Maybe God will use your invitation to spark a wonderful work of redeeming transformation in the life of another. There is no better gift you could give than that.
 
   So, is your Christmas Eve lawn sign up? Do you know who you're going to invite? Have you prayed about it? Have you grabbed an invitation card in the Sanctuary Entry? Do you have a plan? I hope this reminder helps you get started on each of those, and I pray that God prepares the hearts of each one you courageously invite.

Blessings,
Jeremy

Jeremy Vaccaro
Senior Pastor

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