Gifts aren’t always what they seem

I love giving gifts. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. I don’t like to shop, really, but looking for just the right Christmas present is one of the highlights of my year. And the only thing better is wrapping it up and giving it away, anticipating how much joy the receiver will experience, the way their eyes light up and their faces lift.

In the past, I’ve always been able to find exactly what I wanted to give, mostly because I could afford it. But this year is a little different. This year, finances are much tighter than they have been in the past, and that’s to be expected. When you cut your income by more than 50%, you tighten the belt. And that includes Christmas presents.

The gifts I’m giving away this year are a far cry from what I gave away in past years. They’re certainly more personal because there’s so many more homemade gifts rather than purchased ones. But I always hear that niggling little voice in the back of my head that tells me they aren’t good enough. I mean, how could a cheap little hand-made present communicate how much I love someone?

But as I was arguing with my stupid inner-self a few days ago, I had a thought. Or maybe the Lord gave me a thought. See, Christmas is the time we celebrate that Jesus came to earth, and when He was born, shepherds and wise men and all sorts brought presents and had a great big party. And that party continued for like 30 years, because everyone was so excited that God had sent someone to save them from Rome.

Yeah. That’s the gift people were celebrating. But that wasn’t the gift God gave.

gift-present-christmas-xmasToday’s verses are Isaiah 9:6-7.

For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will make this happen!

See, the people of Israel believed that God had sent them a political Messiah. Someone who would toss the Romans out of the land and restore freedom to their people. But that wasn’t the reason Jesus came. Jesus came with salvation, yes, but salvation for our souls. Not salvation from a government people didn’t like.

We had to be saved from our own selves. That was the gift God gave us when Jesus came to Earth. But nobody saw that. Jesus came and that’s worth celebrating, but the most precious gift He brought wasn’t what everyone expected.

Don’t make the mistake of seeing a gift at face value. Don’t assume you know its worth. God gave His most precious gift to us when He gave us Jesus, but that gift isn’t what people wanted right at that moment. They wanted salvation from Rome immediately. They wanted a ruler to look impressive, sound impressive, be impressive, but God knew what they needed, just like He knows what we need now.

 

We should always be thankful for the gifts we receive, but even if you get a gift that you don’t understand or don’t know how to use, don’t automatically discount it in your mind. A gift isn’t always what it seems at first. After all, Israel thought Jesus had come to rescue them from Rome, but Jesus actually came to rescue them from sin. Which do you think is worth more?

Life’s too short to rush from one crisis to the next

Last week, I took some friends to the zoo to show off what Wichita has to offer in the way of tourism. We didn’t plan to pick a gorgeous day for walking around outside, but that’s what we got. It’s December, so we expected it to be cold and snowy or rainy and miserable, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful. Light jacket weather. Warm sun. Blue skies. And all the animals at the zoo were feeling it too, because they were all outside soaking it in.

Sometimes life throws us rare moments of joy or wonder. It’s not that life is altogether a horrible thing. Quite the opposite. But normal life can get tedious sometimes, and we can get so busy with the day-to-day stuff that we forget to rejoice when something rare and wondrous and incredible comes along.

A goat chilling in the rare December sun at the African Farm exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

A goat chilling in the rare December sun at the African Farm exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is Jeremiah 6:16.

This is what the Lord says:
“Stop at the crossroads and look around.
Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it.
Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.
But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m wired to work. I don’t stop. Even when I’m sitting down watching a TV show, my brain is going a million miles an hour in the background. I’m always running, running, running to get stuff done, and that’s great for productivity most of the time. That’s great for the everyday tasks that need to be done. But when you get into the habit of work, work, work, when the time comes to rest it’s hard to stop.

And you must. We have to be able to turn off the work, work, work part of our brains and learn how to rest, otherwise we’ll burn ourselves out. Rest doesn’t have to be complicated either. It can be a short moment that you just stop what you’re doing and do something else for five minutes. Take a walk. Spin around in circles. Laugh at the sky. Make a cup of tea and drink it. Whatever floats your boat. Whatever gets you out of your work-work-work focus and into a mindset of refreshment. It’s different for everyone.

God expects us to rest. Don’t just rush from one crisis to the next. Life’s too short for that. Look for the road you’re supposed to be on and walk it consistently, and the proper road will give you the opportunity to rest. The wrong road will suck the life out of you.

But whatever you do, don’t let the moments pass. Don’t let the rare times when the sun is shining go by without taking the time to enjoy it. When you see God do something awesome, stop what you’re doing and recognize it. Praise Him for what He’s doing. It doesn’t matter how bad a mood you’re in, if you start praising God, you’ll probably feel better when you’re done.

When things don’t go your way, get excited

You don’t always get what you want. It’s one of those life lessons we learn at an early age, usually when birthdays or Christmases come around. You know what I mean.

Even if you’re overwhelmingly grateful for the gifts you receive, if someone has totally guessed wrong, it’s a little sad. One year, a relative gave my brother bedsheets for Christmas. And it’s not that he wasn’t thankful for the sheets. He needed them. But for Christmas? When you’re like 7 or 8?

It’s a good lesson to learn, though, to be thankful for what you’re given, even if it isn’t what you wanted. It’s good to learn it early because that’s a lesson that doesn’t change as you age. Most of the time, you aren’t going to get what you want out of life. So decide how you’re going to handle it now.

christmas-xmas-gifts-presentsToday’s verses are James 1:2-4.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.

I have a lot of plans. I want a lot of things. But what I want is rarely what I end up getting, and that’s okay with me. God isn’t keeping me from achieving my goals or hitting my deadlines because He wants to make me miserable. He isn’t holding back all the things I want because He’s mean. If He holds anything back, it’s because He’s got something better in mind. If He prevents me from hitting a deadline or making a goal that I think is important, it’s because He’s got something bigger planned.

God never intends for us to go without. He never wants us to have less than we need. But if we want to have all the things He’s promised for us, we’ve got to get on board with Him. We’ve got to follow His plan. We’ve got to get on His schedule, because He’s the one who can make things happen. So that means we have to start living life by His rules and seeing life through His eyes.

That means we rejoice when we don’t get our way. That means we get excited when we have to work harder to achieve something we thought would be easy. That means we leap for joy when someone makes like tough for us.

It goes against everything we feel, I know. When we hit tough times, it’s tempting to want to sulk, but don’t give into that mindset. That’s not an attitude God can bless.

So the next time you don’t get your way, thank God for it. It won’t feel natural, and that’s okay. It isn’t.

Praise God in the dark because He sees the light

When was the last time you told God how awesome He is? I mean, it’s easy to talk about how awesome God is when you’re around other people who think He’s awesome too. But there’s a big difference between joining into common conversation and initiating conversation with God.

Sure, we don’t have trouble asking Him for stuff when we need it. We can go before Him and fire request after request at Him, and He wants us to do that. But we need to remember who we’re talking to. We shouldn’t forget who God is.

sunset-summer-golden-hour-paul-filitchkinToday’s verse is Psalm 7:17.

I will thank the Lord because he is just;
    I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.

Praise and worship can easily attract a lot of attention. It’s one of the parts of following Jesus that can get flashy and showy pretty quickly. Hand raising and shouting and praying out loud–if you’ve got a performance-based mentality, it can get out of hand fast. And pretty soon it’s about you instead of about God, so you’ve always got to guard your heart.

But when it comes to worship, I think Christ-followers are too guarded. We get more excited about sports events than we do about what God is doing, and that’s just as bad as trying to garner attention for ourselves.

Regardless, something none of us do enough is telling God that He’s great. Maybe I’m generalizing. So maybe I should just say that I don’t do it often enough. When I pray, most of the time I launch into the requests, but that’s not where I need to start. I need to start by telling God that He’s amazing. I need to tell Him how incredible His creation is, how abundant His blessings are, and how grateful I am that He gave me this life.

But maybe you’re not in that position right now. Maybe you aren’t loving life very much. Maybe you’re in a tight spot, and you just don’t see how you could possible praise God in your current circumstances.

Well, that’s what I love about this particular verse. It doesn’t say that we should thank God because of all the great things He’s done for us. It doesn’t say that we should thank God for being powerful or all-knowing or wise. Sure, He’s all those things, and, yes, He’s done great things for us (whether we realize it or not). But this verse says we should praise God because He’s just.

Even if you’re in a place in your life right now where you feel like nothing is going right, that’s one truth you can hold onto. God is just. God is good. The Bible says it over and over again, and even if you can’t be thankful for your life right now, you can still be thankful that God is just, fair, and right. Because that means if you keep doing what He says is right and keep trusting Him, eventually your circumstances will work out all right too. And that’s worthy of praise.

We don’t praise God enough. We’re too stuck in our own heads. We’re trapped in our own little worlds, unable to see past the darkness to the light on the other side. But God can see. So instead of wasting time complaining about your situation, take some purposeful time to praise God. Turn on some music. Take a walk outside. Look for miracles. I promise, they’re everywhere.

Be intentional in looking for reasons to praise God, and I promise you’ll find them. Praise God in the darkness because you know He sees the light, even if you can’t.

My beautiful latte from Café Nero at Waverly Station, Edinburgh, Scotland

Waking up thankful and your outlook for today

I woke up Saturday morning with the most amazing sense of gratitude. I was just thankful. And it might have had something to do with the cool weather. It probably had more to do with getting about ten hours of sleep in a night, which only happened because of the cool weather.

I don’t remember the last time I rolled out of bed and the first thought I had was gratitude. And that bothers me. Not that I woke up thankful–but that I can’t remember the last time I woke up thankful before then.

My beautiful latte from Café Nero at Waverly Station, Edinburgh, Scotland

My beautiful latte from Café Nero at Waverly Station, Edinburgh, Scotland

Today’s verse is Ephesians 5:20.

And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I get so buried in life sometimes that I forget to focus on the things that matter. It’s good to be engaged in life, that’s true. God has given us our lives and our talents and our abilities for a reason, but we shouldn’t become so absorbed in the petty things of life that we forget the important things.

The important things are the things that will matter when life is over.

How often do I roll out of bed and thank God I’m still breathing? As someone who grew up with a fairly severe respiratory problem, breathing means something a little different to me than it does to other people. But when was the last time I thanked God for my breath?

When was the last time I thanked God for my coffee? That sounds small and insignificant, but you know what? God made coffee. He created coffee plants, He created brilliant people who thought up the idea to grind up beans and boil them in water, and He gave me the financial stability to buy a pound of it at the store. So God gives me my coffee in the morning. But how often do I remember to thank Him for it?

I focus on the day-to-day goals I need to accomplish. I focus on the problems I need to overcome. I focus on what has to be done, what shouldn’t be done, and how I’m going to get it done. And I usually ask God for help, but at the same time, I neglect to thank Him for what He’s already done.

And that’s not how we’re supposed to live.

We are to be thankful for everything. Thankful for the big things. Thankful for the small things. Thankful for the good things. And, yes, thankful for the bad things. Thankful for everything.

How different would our lives be if we woke up every morning thankful? How different would our perspectives be if–instead of waking up and immediately thinking about all of our problems–we thanked God for everything we’ve seen Him do already?

True, I think it’s far easier to be thankful first thing in the morning after I’ve slept well and had a nice, strong cup of coffee and stood outside in the cool morning air. It’s easy to be thankful for that.

But can I be thankful after a night of only four hours of sleep? When I’ve run out of coffee filters and have to improvise with paper towels? When the air is so thick you can wear it and you can’t stop sweating? It’s those days I don’t want to be thankful. Those days I don’t want to focus on the good things that God has done because for some reason it’s just easier to be miserable.

But easier is rarely better.

Life is too short, too precious, and too important to waste it by focusing on everything that’s wrong. Because once you start focusing on everything that’s wrong, you’ll never stop. There’s no end to wrong in this world. There’s no end to the brokenness. But thanks to Jesus, broken doesn’t have to stay broken.

No matter what’s wrong in your life, if you know Jesus, you have something good you can focus on. No matter how broken your life may be, if you know Jesus, you don’t have to focus on all the things that you’ve done wrong or that people have done to hurt you.

You can watch the sun rise and know that God did that. You can feel the wind blow and know that God made it. You can watch birds fly or listen to music or smell flowers blooming and know that none of it is an accident.

And if He’s big enough to do all that, He’s enough to walk beside you and take care of your problems. So stop focusing on them, and pay attention to what He’s doing. He’s always up to something, and He never stops working.

Wake up. Get your thoughts out of the darkness. Grab your wonderful cup of coffee and take a few moments just to think about what God’s already done for you this morning. It just might improve your entire day.

Awesome fried chicken given to me for lunch, San Miguel, Peten, Guatemala

If it doesn’t cost money, does that make it free?

My random desk calendar shared a bit of wisdom with me yesterday that I don’t really agree with. The best things in life are free.

Are they really? I mean, I understand what it means. It means that the best parts of life can’t be purchased with money. But just because something doesn’t cost money doesn’t make it free. Everything costs something.

Awesome fried chicken given to me for lunch, San Miguel, Peten, Guatemala

Awesome fried chicken given to me for lunch, San Miguel, Peten, Guatemala

Today’s verses are Joshua 24:11-15.

When you crossed the Jordan River and came to Jericho, the men of Jericho fought against you, as did the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. But I gave you victory over them. And I sent terror ahead of you to drive out the two kings of the Amorites. It was not your swords or bows that brought you victory. I gave you land you had not worked on, and I gave you towns you did not build—the towns where you are now living. I gave you vineyards and olive groves for food, though you did not plant them. “So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve.

It’s easy sometimes to forget all that God has done for us. I’m guilty of it. I get to thinking about how hard I’ve worked and what a good person I’ve been, and then I almost convince myself that I deserve the good things in my life because I’ve worked so hard to achieve them.

And I’m not knocking hard work. Hard work is essential. And when you work hard, it’s natural to reap the benefits of your work. But there’s a fine line between earning a reward and deserving a reward, and we should never forget that we don’t deserve God’s grace. We can’t work for God’s grace. We can’t earn it. It’s a gift, pure and simple.

But Christians can grow big heads about grace, which is ironic because nobody can earn it. But we think we can. We live a good life, so we think we deserve it. Maybe we’d never say it out loud, but deep down in our hearts, that’s what we think sometimes.

Loosen that halo up, brothers and sisters. I can’t be the only one guilty of this. Maybe I am, but I don’t think so.

It’s that tiny little voice that whispers to you, reminding you of all the good things you’ve done and that you have a right to expect good things and that if God is who He says He is He won’t let anything bad happen to you because you’re such a good Christian.

I think everyone hears that voice, but it’s up to us whether or not to listen to it.

See that’s what happened to the children of Israel after God delivered them from Egypt. I think they got comfortable. They got used to the luxury of living in the Promised Land, and they forgot to be thankful. They forgot who it was who had provided for them.

God brought them victory. It wasn’t their soldiers or their battle tactics or their generals. They weren’t particularly fearsome. They weren’t particularly bright. But they triumphed because God was on their side. And then God gave them homes they didn’t build and crops they hadn’t planted, provided everything they needed, and they didn’t have to do anything to get it.

But that didn’t make it free. Someone had to build those homes. Someone had to work the land. And I’m betting the Israelites appreciated what God had given them a few years down the road when they lost everything.

The best things in life don’t cost money, but that doesn’t make them free. We should never forget that, and we should never take it for granted when someone does something for us. Never take grace or mercy for granted.

If we ever get used to mercy, if we ever forget the cost of grace, God may have to remind us. And when God has to remind us of something we already know, it’s never fun.

So take a moment today and just be thankful for all that God has given you in your life. Everything that matters that you didn’t have to pay for. All the things you could never replace that God simply gave you because of His great love.

Don’t take them for granted, and never forget that you could never pay the price for them. That’s why God had to do it for us.

Sunrise at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Late miracles are miracles still

I’ve posted about perspective before, but I’m really needing a good reminder about it this morning. Having the right perspective is vital to following God. Granted, it’s not necessarily required to follow Him, but it certainly helps your attitude because God doesn’t do things the way you want Him to.

Sunrise at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Sunrise at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Isaiah 25:1.

O Lord, I will honor and praise your name, for you are my God. You do such wonderful things! You planned them long ago, and now you have accomplished them.

My parents and I arrived at the Mayo Clinic on Sunday morning this week. It’s now Thursday, and we still haven’t gotten to see the specialist we wanted to see. And it’s looking like we may have to wait until next Wednesday.

It’s easy to get discouraged about this, honestly, because God opened all sorts of doors for us to be able to come up here in the first place. So I had expected Him to keep opening doors. So what does it mean when He opens a door and then shuts it just before you walk through?

When you hit those moments, you need to take a step back and calm down, first of all. You can’t make wise decisions when you’re upset. And then you need to take some time and think about who God is.  I think that’s the key we forget often because we think God has to be bound to our schedule. We expect God to work the way we want Him to, and He doesn’t. He’s not bound to do what we want. God is sovereign. He works according to His plan, in His time, and He has the right to do what He wants, when He wants. Because He’s God.

But the Bible tells us something really important about God that we shouldn’t ever forget: God is good.

Over and over and over again. God is good. God is good. No one else is good but God. If there’s one thing you can know for sure about God, it’s the fact that God is good. So when He does work, even if it’s not according to what we want, we can still trust that what He’s doing is good.

I thought saving my vacation to use on myself would be good. I thought spending my time off with friends instead of my parents would be good. But do I know what’s good? Do I really know what’s good for me? I don’t. But God does.

It all comes down to trust. Do I trust God enough to turn over the tiny little things I’ve convinced myself I own? Like my vacation time?

Once you establish that you trust God with everything, your perspective changes too. Because there’s nothing you hold back from Him. He can do whatever He wants with everything you have and everything you are, and then you don’t waste time worrying about things you can’t control. You just enjoy being where you are, being around the people you’re with.

How many miracles does God have to do in our lives before we trust Him completely? Just because it’s not the miracle you wanted doesn’t make the impossible any less miraculous.

God does awesome things. He does amazing, impossible things every day. By all rights, we shouldn’t even be up here. We shouldn’t have gotten an appointment in the first place. That’s a miracle. And what we’ve learned so far has already been helpful.

So what if we have to stay another week? So what if we have to leave and come back? We’re here now. We have the opportunity to meet with a specialist. That’s more than we had two weeks ago.

Perspective. Don’t miss the miracles. God has planned great things in our lives, and He won’t stop working until they are all accomplished. No, He may not accomplish them when we want Him to, but He’ll still make it happen because He has promised. And we can trust Him because He’s good.