101: Hope in Jesus brings light this Christmas with Commissioner Doug Riley

As we’re just a few days away from Christmas, allow me to, first things first, say: Merry Christmas!

This season, we’ve been talking a lot about hope in The Salvation Army.

Hope, by definition, is a feeling of optimism—it’s based on expecting a positive outcome.

That’s what Commissioner Doug Riley will tell you.

He’s the Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army in the western U.S.

He was commissioned as a Salvation Army officer—or pastor—alongside his wife Colleen in 1995. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine University and has now spent nearly three decades in pastoral leadership.

And he’ll also tell you, our hope is in Christ.

This is the time of year we celebrate the power of hope, the most wonderful time of the year—Christmas.

And just as there was great hope for those living in the time of Jesus’ birth, there is great hope for us today.

Commissioner Riley is on the show to share more about the hope we find in the Christmas story and its reminder that darkness will give way to the light.

Show highlights include:

  • Commissioner Doug Riley’s Christmas favorites.
  • What he loves about The Salvation Army at Christmastime.
  • Commissioner’s favorite stories of The Salvation Army’s Christmas impact.
  • What “Hope Marches On” means to him.
  • How he finds hope in Jesus’s birth.
  • The historical significance of God’s promises.
  • How Jesus’s birth fulfilled those promises.
  • What Jesus’s birth meant for Mary and Joseph.
  • What God’s promises mean for us today.
  • Commissioner Doug’s encouraging message of hope.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Christin Thieme: Commissioner Doug Riley, welcome to The Do Gooders Podcast here in studio, which is really fun for me, because usually I’m talking on the phone. So welcome.

Doug Riley: Yeah, thank you. It’s good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely, and we are just days away from Christmas now, so I have to know from you…what do you personally love about Christmas?

Doug Riley: Oh, you’re asking the wrong person because I love Christmas, everything about it.

Christin Thieme: Me, too, perfect.

Doug Riley: I love the decorations, the lights. I love the smells of Christmas. Oh, food and trees, pine trees. I love movies. I love the traditions of Christmas. I love it all. I love kettles, putting out Christmas kettles for The Salvation Army. I think it’s a wonderful time to just share the love of God with people at Christmastime.

Christin Thieme: Yes, the most wonderful time of year.

Doug Riley: Yep, it is.

Christin Thieme: So let’s do a few quick ones here: What is your favorite Christmas food?

Doug Riley: I have to say I categorize it by desserts.

Christin Thieme: Smart.

Doug Riley: I love pumpkin pie. I love cookies with those little jelly in the middle. The shortbread cookies.

Christin Thieme: Raspberry…

Doug Riley: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So desserts really get me at Christmas. I love the traditional meals, but I think desserts are what I really live for.

Christin Thieme: Yep, I’m with you. Favorite Christmas song?

Doug Riley: Well, I’m going to tell you. This is, I mean, everyone loves “Joy to the World,” probably the most sung song in the world.

But I like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” There’s one line in there that I like. It probably is the meaning of Christmas. It says, “Where God and sinners reconciled.” To me, that’s what Christmas is all about. So that’s become my new favorite, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

Christin Thieme: That’s a good one. I like that one. How about favorite Christmas movie?

Doug Riley: Oh, well, what else? The Christmas Story.

Christin Thieme: Okay, not one of the Hallmark ones?

Doug Riley: You could do any of those. I mean, they’re all so good. I think it’s just wonderful that you can sit back and look at these old-time movies and they’re so nostalgic. They bring about the Christmas feeling and put you in the mood. So I love them all, but I think probably that one and A Christmas Carol.

Christin Thieme: There’s something about that warm, fuzzy feeling when you’re watching a Christmas movie and have some raspberry, shortbread cookies just sitting by the fire…

Doug Riley: Yep, maybe a fire, yeah.

Christin Thieme: It’s the way to go.

Doug Riley: A blanket.

Christin Thieme: You’re set.

Doug Riley: So I’m ready.

Christin Thieme: Hot chocolate, we’re good. How about your favorite Christmas tradition with your family?

Doug Riley: So growing up, it used to be the night before Christmas. We would read the Scripture of the Christmas story and then we’d get to open gifts. Partly because I think my parents didn’t want to get up early in the morning.

Christin Thieme: Smart.

Doug Riley: We still do that as a family, with my family now, but they only get to open up one gift. I call it parental abuse because my wife lets them open up one gift and it’s always pajamas.

Christin Thieme: We had the same tradition in my family!

Doug Riley: Really?

Christin Thieme: New pajamas on Christmas Eve.

Doug Riley: Yeah. I think there’s something about coming down on Christmas morning with everybody matching and looking alike and wearing their Christmas pajamas. But I did like the night before when you can enjoy the lights and it’s kind of cold out and you can just sit and hear God’s word. My parents would always ask me, “What are you thankful for? What did this year mean to you?” So it was just that little time of reflection before we dug in.

Christin Thieme: Pause before all the unwrapping and fun.

Doug Riley: It’s funny that it wasn’t the unwrapping. It’s that little moment before with just our family talking that really is the biggest tradition for me and I love that.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, the meaningful part.

Doug Riley: Yep.

Christin Thieme: I like it. What do you love about The Salvation Army at Christmas?

Doug Riley: Oh, well, as I love Christmas, I love The Salvation Army at Christmas because…

Christin Thieme: They go together.

Doug Riley: Yeah. Well, quite honestly, what other time of year do we get to touch so many people’s lives? So I’m always excited about Christmas. As I said, even the Christmas kettles, which are a big headache in a lot of respects because there’s lots to be done at Christmastime and the kettles are on top of that, they’re important to The Salvation Army. Just getting to know people and touch their lives, seeing the people that get to receive the gifts at Christmas time. Because we give out thousands of food boxes and toys and gifts to families and I love watching their faces. In fact, I’ll tell you one.

We just finished doing 2,000 families and at the end of it, I was exhausted. I was done. I’m ready to go home. I’m tired. It’s cold out. It’s a little bit wet. I had some volunteers come up to me and said, “There’s a family out here who didn’t get anything and they just walked up.” I said, “We don’t have anything left. We’ve given it all out.” Well, the volunteers were so distraught that they actually started crying and they said, “We got to do something for this family.” Sure enough, they went and found stuff out of their own cars that they had bought for their families.

Christin Thieme: Wow.

Doug Riley: They gave it to this family so that they would have something. I just thought, “These are just volunteers. These are people that came to help us,” and here they are giving of themselves personally to help a family. You know, that’s a great reminder for me.

Another one that I love at Christmas is I used to play the trumpet at the corner as we call in The Salvation Army and we used to go caroling all the time. I used to love to go to the advisory board members of The Salvation Army. We would play outside their homes, just a Christmas carol or two just to lift up their spirits and get them in the Christmas atmosphere and spirit.

We played in front of one house. He opened up the door and as he was watching us, he started to cry. I’m going, “It’s really not that bad.” I thought we were pretty good, but he started to cry. So after we were done, I said to him, “You okay? Is there anything that I can help you out with?” He said, “Doug, when you started to play, it reminded me that my grandfather came to know the Lord at an open air, a Salvation Army open air with a big brass band.” So for that gentleman, that moment just reflected right back to his grandfather and how that moment for his grandfather changed generations.

So that’s another one that I just think about and realize that you just never know. You get a lot of opportunities at Christmas in The Salvation Army and I love them.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, and for every story like that, what’s so cool is that there are thousands of people in The Salvation Army who are having all of those same stories, all those little touchpoints of people and creating these meaningful moments. It’s really fun to be part of.

Doug Riley: What better time of year than a time of giving where we help people that are in most in need, so I love it. I think it’s a great time of year and more importantly because that’s what God’s called us to do.

So the celebration of his birth is very, very important to me and to our mission and certainly being able to share that through helping others is what it’s all about. So I love Christmas time, as tiring and exhausting as it is. Sometimes we get so busy with everything that we almost miss it, but I love the Christmas season. I love the reminder that Jesus came to earth for you and for me.

Christin Thieme: I’m with you. So this year at Christmas, The Salvation Army is talking a lot about hope. What does hope mean to you?

Doug Riley: Well, hope means to believe, to anticipate something, to anchor in on something that you can depend on, something that you can trust, something that will help you to build your life and go forward. So when I think of what hope means to me, it’s what God has done in my life and the experience that I have. The very essence of my hope is that I find it in Jesus. So that’s my hope. We can hope on a lot of things of this earth, the material things and they just won’t last. But for me to move forward, for me to believe in, to value, to anchor, it’s found in Jesus.

Christin Thieme: Those listening may have seen on TV some of our ads that feature this idea that Hope Marches On. What do you think of when you hear that phrase?

Doug Riley: Well, when you first think “hope marches on,” you think of a band or soldiers. I think of it as a movement forward, a step forward in a movement that allows you to go beyond yourself and go in a direction hopefully. So hope for me, by definition, it’s the feeling of optimism. It’s wonderful. It’s based on that positive expectancy of an outcome that you want. True hope that, as I said before, I think is found in Jesus.

Psalm 130:5 says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I have hope.” So for me, it’s a movement forward, something that you can depend upon and something that you can rely on and it helps you to move in that direction to help you to march forward. I think we get really busy and sometimes we can’t remember to even think about what’s the most celebrated power of Christmastime, which is the hope that we find in Jesus.

So it’s the most wonderful time of year. It’s also sometimes the most trying time of the year, because people just get diluted with distractions and they’re often trying to recreate that magic, the nostalgia that we talked about that happens at Christmas. I really feel for some, because they’re longing for something deeper and I don’t think they know where to find it.

Christin Thieme: Well, the reason we celebrate is, as you’ve already mentioned, the birth of Jesus. So can you share a little bit about the hope that we do find in the birth of Jesus?

Doug Riley: Well, in Luke 2, it tells us about the whole picture of the manger and the baby Jesus lying there, small and humble as he is. But I need you to just stop a second and go just to the verses right before it. Because the verses right before it introduced us to the emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth that was Caesar Augustus. He was the first Roman emperor and his reign initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana. But he created a facade of a free republic while still retaining autocratic authority. Really, he led by fear. So he creates the census and it’s simply not as we would maybe fill out a census by checking the boxes or filling in the bubbles and sending it in. His purpose was to effectively tax everybody in the empire and to keep them under his rule.

So it was actually a pretty dangerous time. It was a time when people raised questions about who would be in charge, who’s going to profit from this and who wouldn’t. And as I read these lines right before, you realize the wariness of the people, that fear that they were going through. The Jewish people who studied the Scripture, they knew the promises. They waited on these prophecies of hope to be fulfilled. So I think you got to just put it all in perspective and realize what was happening at the time when Caesar Augustus was taxing all the people and putting that fear that controlled and ruled in their lives.

Christin Thieme: That’s an important point you bring up too, is that the people of that day when Jesus was born, to them his birth wasn’t just out of nowhere, right?

Doug Riley: No.

Christin Thieme: I mean, they would’ve been well familiar with the coming savior and had been waiting for it for years and years and years. So maybe can you share a little bit about what are some of those promises in the scripture? What would they have meant at that time for the people?

Doug Riley: Well, that they would’ve known the Old Testament and they would’ve had those like in Micah 5:2-5. It talks about Bethlehem as a source of a new king and one who will be our peace. Then in Isaiah 7:14, it talks about that he would be born of a virgin. Then again, later in Isaiah 9:1-2 and 6-7, it says that those walking in darkness would see the light in a child who would reign with justice and righteousness and of the greatness of his government and peace there would be no end.

The people knew these promises that God would become flesh. They knew it. They’d studied it. They were familiar with it and the coming peace of that never-ending salvation. So they were hoping for and expecting this comfort and joy like no other.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, absolutely. Now that I’m a mom myself, I think at Christmastime a lot about Mary and what that experience must have been like, especially considering she was so much younger. What do you think Mary and Joseph would’ve been thinking at that time?

Doug Riley: I don’t know. Actually, I can’t imagine it. Here, they were very young under Roman rule, the oppression of Rome, very much uneducated, perhaps very poor, but they knew the promises of the coming king. They knew that and they were waiting for those things to take place in their lives. I actually think about that trip that they took to Bethlehem on a dirt dusty road. There were no rest stops there. There are people passing by them on a mule. It must have been just a horrifying experience to go and very difficult and dirty and dusty and hungry.

Christin Thieme: Not to mention nine months pregnant.

Doug Riley: Oh, exactly. I can’t imagine it. We don’t take car rides. But they knew the promises that were to come and that they were told. I’m sure they were in shock, especially when they got there and they found no place but a barn and that God would bind himself through the birth of a baby in a manger.

So they went and they did. They were exhausted. I’m sure they were just uncertain of what the future held. But I think there was this edge of anticipation and hope. They were probably excited but exhausted when they got in this so-called lowly manger. He wasn’t born to any so-called society order. His reign began in humility, not prestige, and yet they still would have seen him as a king inaugurating his kingdom.

So that’s—wow. When you put all that together, that’s pretty impressive to think that they persevered through all this, maybe not knowing what tomorrow would bring or the next step would bring. That’s a pretty powerful story when you really think about it.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, absolutely. I just picture them sitting there next to that manger thinking like what now. The king had been born, what do we do now? So what do you think all of this, His birth, this coming hope, what does all of it mean for us today?

Doug Riley: Well, I think especially today when so much chaos and confusion is surrounding us, every day we’re getting different messages and different stimuli from various sources and it can get dark very fast. I think we need to remember that darkness will be overcome. No matter how dark it may seem, the darkness will be broken by dawn. By the slimmest of light, just the smallest factor of light will overcome darkness. I believe that that light is in a child as the Scripture said earlier and that’s our hope.

We know that the king is near. We’re not in the days that we’re unaware of his presence. But we’re surrounded by this darkness and we know that God longs to be close to us. I think he brings peace and love and hope to whatever you’re facing. So I would just say knowing that we can look forward to whatever comes and we live with the promise of a king who is coming and is coming again, Jesus may not always arrive like we expect him to. Obviously, to Joseph and Mary, he didn’t. But the darkness will give way to the light.

I always said that discouragement is the devil’s work to try to get you to a place right before he rips out your heart. So even when it doesn’t feel like it, and you’re in those dark places, God is with you. You have a promised hope for the future that is marked by peace in his presence.

Christin Thieme: This Christmas especially, what would you say to someone who maybe needs a little bit of hope today?

Doug Riley: I would say don’t get discouraged. God loves you. He knows you. He knows where you’re at and he wants to get close to you. Find your hope in him and then that hope will lead to faith. It’s where we can let go of our circumstances and trying to rely on our own selves. But we can rely on God where we can believe that he will fulfill his promises and all of them by the way have come true.

There are over 700 promises in the Bible and I believe that God can’t do three things, Christin: He can’t lie; he can’t do anything wrong; and he can’t break a promise. He hasn’t even today and the promises yet to come true, he will not break those promises.

So I think if you’re struggling today, look at people that have hope, people who are full of an abundance of joy. I bet you if you ask them that hope would come from them knowing Jesus Christ as our savior and knowing God and his purpose in their life. He’s our hope. He’s our mission. He’s our way to enjoy Christmas like we’ve never enjoyed it before and the way he wants you to enjoy it, the way he intended. It’s the gift of Christmas and it’s for you and for me.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Well, Commissioner, merry Christmas, and thank you so much for joining in with us here on the podcast.

Doug Riley: It’s great to be with you. I just pray that everybody listening knows that there’s a gift waiting for you. Know there’s a gift of hope and joy that is right there and that you can have it anytime you want it. You just have to ask him and he’ll let you unwrap that gift. It’s the hope that you can trust in, depend on and it’ll fill your life and it’ll drive the darkness away.

You quoted Desmond Tutu once. He said, “It’s being able to see that there is a light despite all the darkness.” That’s hope. That’s Jesus.

Additional resources:

  • You’ve probably seen the red kettles and thrift stores, and while we’re rightfully well known for both…The Salvation Army is so much more than red kettles and thrift stores. So who are we? What do we do? Where? Right this way for Salvation Army 101.
  • It’s because of people like you that The Salvation Army can serve more than 31 million Americans in need each year. (That’s almost one person every second, every day.) Your gift helps The Salvation Army fight for good all year in your community. It’s an effort to build well-being for all of us, so together we rise. And that good starts with you. Give to spread hope with a donation of funds, goods or time today.
  • Get inside the Caring Magazine Scripture Study Collection and find a suite of free, downloadable Bible studies to guide you through topics from New Beginnings Through Forgiveness, to Understanding our Imago Dei or Life Hacks From David.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.

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