ALPENA - Imagine yourself shopping today for last minute items. You've chosen a big-box store in Alpena, because of the advertised specials. After hours of battling crowds in the aisles, you're in last place at the check out line. People are grumbling, children crying and the cash register system crashes. Meanwhile, those Christmas jingles over the loud speaker have frayed your nerves.
So you decide to distract yourself by thinking about the real message of Christmas.
There is a kind of peace in it, because it's a quiet one. It's about love, area pastors say.
Jim Gulish is lead pastor at Shoreline Church, which operates out of a store front in downtown Alpena. From time to time, he also puts a bulletproof vest over his Michigan State Police uniform and serves as chaplain at the Alpena post.
"Our church reaches a demographic a lot of churches don't reach - the poor and underprivileged," said Gulish, who recently completed a master's degree in leadership from Indiana Wesley Seminary. "We welcome people from all different economic backgrounds, people with criminal backgrounds to drug addiction to alcoholism. You don't have to clean up before you come to our church."
The key message of the holidays is the same message year round.
"We should always be showing love for one another 365 days a year," he said. "Christmas is just a great reminder, yet unfortunately, society has turned a religious holiday into a time to buy Christmas gifts.
"Lots of times we can lose that focus of the true meaning of Christmas," Gulish said.
"I'm a pretty big family guy, and I've got a wife and four kids and we can get hung up on being so busy," he said. "We could be doing so many other things this time of year, but we etch out time to be with our kids and stay home and read books together, do some cooking in the kitchen. We turn the TV off.
"The message is to remember what God has done. That He sent his son Jesus to the earth. God became flesh and came down to the earth to be with us and show us and reveal Himself to us. He was a loving God, and died for us for our sins."
Pastor Kerry Clark of First Assembly of God also thinks about love when he preaches to his congregation this time of year.
"The message of Christmas is love," Clark said. "And the biggest example is found in John 3:16, 'for God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.'"
This love is demonstrated, he said, "when Jesus comes to the manger and God sends His son to humanity in the form of humanity.
"God sends His best as His demonstration of love for us," Clark said. "The value that we have toward our children, how much we love them and care for them is seen. As a parent I can identify with the love of the father for the son.
"Because of Jesus's sacrifice, we have a hope of an eternal life, which is powerful. But we also have hope in this life. We have hope that we can change. We have hope within the church. When we are bonded together though salvation that bond gives us hope for one another and for our world."
Rev. Linda Jo Powers is the pastor at three United Methodist churches - in Harrisville, Lincoln and Glennie. Her message also focuses on the birth of Jesus.
"Our God is a three-in-one God," she said. "He has three personas. God the father, God the son and God the holy spirit. The father is the creator, the son is the redeemer and the holy spirit is the sustainer. But it's all still one God."
Powers said her Christmas message isn't sanitized. She attempts to convey the reality of the times when she talks about the divine birth.
"I talk about Jesus being born in a barn. The inn was full so the barn was full also. It wasn't the nice clean stable we see on our Christmas cards," she said. "The real message of Christmas is that love came down on that day in the form of a baby. This baby was born, who would be fully human and fully divine at the same time, but a God living among us. He would have all of our trials, tribulations, fears and joys and love and temptations - everything that it means to be human.
"It's the greatest gift we were ever given. We cannot buy it, we cannot steal it. It is a gift that is freely given to us and what we do with it is freely up to us."
But there is another important message, Powers said.
"You'd be surprised how many people in this world do not believe anybody loves them," she said. "I'm talking about a Godly love, an accepting love, accepting sins and all and the forgiveness of our sins. That's what Jesus died for. He loved us enough to die for us."
Take some time to think about the religious foundation of the holiday, Pastor Jim Gulish said. He identifies three fundamental concepts:
* understand the relationship between people and God. "God wants to have a relationship with all of us through his son, Jesus. That should be our first priority."
* believe in and prepare for the second coming of Christ. "We need to prepare our lives now, living in a way that pleases God and honors Him. We need to make sure we are living according to the Bible and his word - loving others, staying clear of sin, making sure old habits haven't snuck in, making sure we're living right, according to his word."
* honor God and worship Him. "Just as the wise men and the shepherds came to worship Him and give Him gifts, we should be found to worship Him now - at home, reading the Bible, through prayer."
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.