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?

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Christmas doesn’t have to be stressful

Nothing is more stressful than the holiday season. Don’t get me wrong. Christmas is my favorite time of year, but it’s also when a lot of stuff happens. A lot of things go wrong. A lot of people come to visit. A lot of things need to get done. And when you add all that up, it can amount to a heaping helping of stress and anxiety.

But the more Christmases I live through, the more I learn that my stress and anxiety during the holiday season doesn’t stem from family and friends visiting or expectations of others or needing to bake and cook and clean. No, anything negative I experience happens because I’ve got my focus in the wrong place.

christmas-xmas-santa-claus-adventToday’s verse is John 15:4.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

The world is complicated and stressful without the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and it’s always a temptation to step away from God’s way and do things ourselves. But when we try to accomplish anything in our own strength, we will ultimately fail.

Like a branch can’t produce fruit if it’s severed from the tree, a Christ-follower can’t accomplish much without God’s power in his or her life. And that relates to everything we do. At our jobs. In our homes. In our churches. Among our families.

So as you gather with family and friends today and tomorrow, don’t let stress dictate how you feel. Don’t let the craziness of the season tempt you away from remembering what it’s all about.

Christmas is about Jesus. It’s the day He came to save us from our sins. It’s the day God kept His promise. Who cares if the pie burns or if your in-laws are being rude? So what if you couldn’t get the exact present you wanted? Whatever is bothering you today, shelf it. Let it go. Instead, focus on what really matters, and find your strength and patience in Christ’s love and grace.

It’s a stressful time of year, but it doesn’t have to be. With God, anything is possible. And if you’re a Christ-follower, you have free access to His power, and God is just waiting for you to sit down at His table.

Loving each other is what makes us different

I decided early on that I wouldn’t comment on this ridiculous red-cup discussion that seems to be dominating all the social media feeds. I don’t know a single Christ-follower who is actually taking it seriously. Actually, what concerns me more about the whole mess is my first reaction to it.

I believed it.

When I read the reports on social media that Christians were upset about the design of Starbucks’s 2015 holiday coffee cups, it didn’t surprise me. I mean, heck, Christians have gotten really upset about a lot of really stupid things before, so why should this be any different?

But as the issue persisted, I started wondering if the whole thing is actually real. Are there actually any Christians out there who have a problem with these crazy red cups? Or was it just a few vocal people who caused a stir that simply went viral?

Regardless, I don’t think my initial reaction to the situation is what it should have been as a Christ-follower.

red-coffee-cup-mugToday’s verses are John 13:34-35.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

How often do you get irritated with other Christians? I probably shouldn’t admit this, but Christians really tick me off. They tick me off faster than non-Christians any day of the week because I have high expectations for Christ-followers. I expect that a Christ-follower is going to want to live like a Christ-follower. I don’t expect someone who has chosen not to follow Jesus to behave like a Christian. Why would they?

But one of the things Jesus said over and over again in Scripture is how we’re supposed to love each other, and He wasn’t talking about Christians loving non-Christians, which of course is true. We’re supposed to love everyone, but Christians are especially supposed to love each other. And part of loving each other is giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

Instead of jumping to conclusions about what other people say about Christians in general, let’s just take a step back for a moment. Just because Christians as a whole tend to be a little panicky and harsh doesn’t mean that they’re stupid and unreasonable and not worth your time. And just because a few media outlets report that Christians are doing/saying things, doesn’t mean they actually are.

Hey, Christian, guess what? You’ve got an enemy out there. Satan would love nothing more than to separate you from your family in Christ, to get you alone and isolated so he can pick you off more easily. That’s what all this antagonism toward other Christians will eventually lead to. We break away from each other. We fight each other. We hurt each other. We believe the worst about each other and keep our distance, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

We’re a family. We’re supposed to be united. Part of loving each other unconditionally is thinking the best about each other, not the worst.

That doesn’t mean that Christians always get it right. And, yes, we need to be aware of that. We each are responsible for what we believe, and that’s between us and God. But you don’t have to believe the same thing as the Christian sitting next to you in order for God to use you.

My first response to the red-cup crisis was ridicule, and I wondered what I would say when I ran into a Christian who was actually upset about the color of a coffee cup. And then, after time passed and I hadn’t met anyone, I started wondering if the person who was in the wrong was me–for assuming that other Christians would even get embroiled in something that’s such a waste of time and energy.

That’s not to say there aren’t antagonistic Christians. I’ve met quite a few of them. And generally, hanging around antagonistic people (Christian or not) isn’t a good idea. But if you’re thrown into a situation where you’ve got to hang around with another Christian, don’t automatically assume that he or she is less knowledgeable than you, less spiritual than you, or less favored than you. Listen to what he or she has to say, and if you agree, great. If you don’t, that’s great too.

If you really are both Christians, you have one thing in common–faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior and your Lord, and that’s the one thing that actually matters. So start there and build on it.

Let’s love each other, Christians. That means let’s think the best of each other first, until we give each other a reason not to. And if we give each other a reason not to, address the problem with love and respect.

The only thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world is how we love each other. So is it any wonder that the world can’t really tell a difference in us anymore?

Beat the holiday blues before they get here

The holidays are fast approaching. Seems too soon to say it, but it’s true. On one hand, it’s exciting. Christmas is my favorite time of year. Sure the days are darker, and the weather is cold. But there are lights and decorations and presents and songs! But for some folks, that’s not enough to cheer them up. There’s a whole population of people who just can’t escape the winter blues.

A part of me understands that. Long cold stretches of time without sunlight can bring people down. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Maybe you lost a job. Maybe you can’t make Christmas what it was last year for whatever reason, and you just don’t see much to look forward to.

Well, this past weekend, I remembered something, and I thought I ought to pass it on.

The Christmas Tree at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

The Christmas Tree at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is 1 Corinthians 15:58.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

When the days are long and cold or dark and dreary, it can be easy to feel like nothing you do is actually accomplishing anything. It might feel like you’re just spinning your wheels, or it might feel like you never see any results from all your investments.

How can you be cheerful about doing anything if everything feels useless?

The problem with that mentality is that it keeps you in one place. That attitude is a paralytic. If you let yourself feel that way, you’ll never try to do anything. You’ll never crawl out of your shell. You’ll never take a risk on anything or anyone.

So instead of sitting around thinking about everything that’s going wrong, get up and go do something. And I don’t mean busywork. The world is full of busywork. I mean do something for someone else. Make cookies for someone who’s having a bad day. Make soup for someone who’s sick. Go clean house for an exhausted mom. Send an encouraging email or a funny card to a friend.

Do something that takes your eyes off your own trouble, and you might be surprised how your trouble looks when you come back to it. No, it probably won’t have disappeared, but it won’t look so dark and dire.

There’s something about serving others that always brightens my mood. And the beauty about serving is that it’s not complicated. Just show up. Be available. Someone will put you to work, and if you do that work for God, He’ll bless it and you.

Don’t get out and do something just for the sake of doing it. Do it in Jesus’ name. Love others in Jesus’ name. Serve people in Jesus’ name. And when you get back to your life inside your little shell, you won’t be satisfied there any more, because you will have seen the great big world outside your walls and all the awesome things God is doing.

You may be in a dark place in your life right now. I get that. Everyone has been there. But you don’t have to stay there. And getting out of it for a little while might actually help you see your situation clearer.

So get off the couch, friends. Your situation won’t fix itself. God will take care of it, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit still the whole time.

Go find someone to be kind to. It will revolutionize the way you look at your own problems. And if you get into the habit of serving others now, you might even find that you miss the holiday blues entirely. The Christmas spirit might find you in spite of yourself.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light

Isiah 9:1-7

dsc_5830Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.

Merry Christmas!

Make Christmas about why instead of what

I am not a parent, but I do know what it’s like to want to make someone I love happy. I love Christmas. I love the cold weather and the warm sweaters. I love the songs and the lights and the decorations, and I love the general emotion associated with the holiday season. Whether people realize or not, the whole world still stops to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

But more and more, things are started to edge Jesus out of Christmas. And contrary to what many religious people seem to think, it’s not Santa Claus’s fault. It’s ours.

I couldn’t help myself. I heard on the radio today that the Disney Frozen Castle Playset by Mattel was going for nearly $700 on eBay now, because most stores are sold out. I found it on Amazon for $250, in case you’re looking for one. Why would this cheap piece of hinged plastic be worth $700? Well, because we–the American public–are willing to pay $700 to get it for our kids.
frozen_toyset

Don’t get me wrong. I adored the movie Frozen, and I love giving Christmas presents. I love that sense of anticipation I feel when I get to give someone something I know they’ll love. I turn into a giggling idiot on Christmas morning because I’ve filled the underside of our Christmas tree with weird and wacky gifts for the people I love most.

But Christmas isn’t about the gifts you get. It’s honestly not even about the gifts you give. And I’m afraid we’re teaching the next generation that giving and getting is all that matters. Any rational, thinking person can agree that Christmas isn’t about getting. But isn’t about giving?

No. Christmas isn’t about what we can give. It’s about what God gave–His Son. His only Son. So we could be free from sin, confident in the face of death, and live in peace with God.

1174394_46904993Today’s verses are John 3:16-17.

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

We give to celebrate that God gave His Son. But we live in a world that tells us to buy everything our children want, and if we don’t, we’re bad parents. We live in a world of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, where people trample each other to get the last Tickle Me Elmo off the shelf (so creepy, by the way).

What message are we sending to our children? Heck, I don’t even have children, and I’m afraid of the self-centered nightmare of a world that is their inheritance.

How do you rise above it? How do you keep the focus where it needs to be? How do you do Christmas right, in a way that honors God and helps our children understand the sacrifice that Jesus made for them?

I don’t know. I can’t even claim to know the answer.

Is it wrong to give gifts to your children? No. Absolutely not. Give tons of gifts to your kids. Give them the things they ask for. Give them the But you can celebrate Christmas without being drawn into the materialism of our culture.

Kids learn by example. So if you place a lot of value on the things you buy, so will they. If you don’t appreciate the things you are given, neither will they. And if you make your Christmas all about the things you get or the things you give, they will too.

Instead, in your own heart, make Christmas about Jesus. Care more about what Jesus says and thinks about Christmas and giving and getting than what the world says. And even if you get your kid a crazy expensive hinged chunk of plastic with stickers on it, that’s great! That’s fine! But don’t make Christmas about the gifts. Make it about why you gave the gifts.

The fancy Christmas tree at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Christmas isn’t what we do, it’s what Jesus did

I was listening to a Christian station on the way to work yesterday morning and heard them say that Christmas is smiling at someone on the street. They must really believe it too because it was an ad that played a few more times before the day was out. And I stopped for a minute to think about that.

But honestly, no matter how I slice it, I don’t see how Christmas can be defined as smiling at someone. That’s how the world sees Christmas, smiling at someone you don’t know, offering kindness to a stranger. And I’m not saying that those things are bad. Heavens, no, smile at people. Do kind things for people. Yes! But those are things we should do all the time as Christ-followers. Not just during the Christmas season.

Christmas is so much more than that.

The fancy Christmas tree at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

The fancy Christmas tree at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Colossians 1:12-14.

He [God] has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.

Okay, Christ-followers, let’s get real here for a minute. I love Christmas. It’s my favorite time of year, hands down. I’m the crazy one who buys all the silly, superfluous gifts that serve no practical purpose other than making people smile. I just LOVE to give gifts. But Christmas isn’t about gifts.

I also love serving. I love being able to give my time and my talent and my resources to other people. I love making meals for people. I love hosting parties at my house. I love helping people. But Christmas isn’t about serving others or helping others.

It’s not about the songs or the decorations or the festivities. It’s not about any of that.

Christmas is the time we stop everything and remember that Jesus gave up His throne, His life in heaven, to come here, knowing full well that He would die a horrible death. The manger scene we’re all familiar with is cute and filled with precious moments figurines. But if you know anything about farms and barns and livestock, you know there was nothing cute happening in that stable where Christ was born.

Jesus didn’t leave his glorious home to come down here to be part of a quaint little manger scene. He gave up heaven itself to live in the squalor and the dirt and the cruelty of our broken world, and He did it for one reason: Me. And you. And your neighbor. And your best friend. And that really annoying guy you work with.

Before Jesus, I was lost. Before Jesus, I had no hope. I was wandering around in darkness with no security, no future, no reason to keep going. But because Jesus came to rescue us, we have hope. Jesus rescued us from the darkness, and through Him, God has brought us into the light. Jesus purchased our freedom with His own blood, and because of Him we are made right with God. And that’s what Christmas is about.

Not the cuteness and the presents and the Black Friday shopping and the decorations. Christmas was a rescue mission where the hero would lose His life to save the enemy.

You get that, right? We were God’s enemies. We were Christ’s enemies because we had fallen short of God’s glorious standard. There’s no gray with God. You’re either righteous or you’re not, and our first parents screwed that up for us. But God loved us anyway–so much He sent His Only Son to Earth to die so we could live.

Christmas is about Jesus. Our hero. Our savior. Our rescuer.

Because of Him, I am free, I have a future, and I have hope.  That’s what we celebrate. Don’t forget, Christ-follower. No matter how nice smiling at someone or helping someone may sound, that’s not Christmas.

So, sure, smile at people all you want. And serve people all day long. Those are wonderful, admirable things. And doing those things, especially for the unlovable, does make God happy. But don’t make the mistake of calling them Christmas, because Christmas goes beyond just what we do for other people. It’s about remember what Christ did for us.