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.

Decorative cross ornament from my Christmas tree, Haven, KS

Believing when Christmas is over

Christmas is my favorite time of year, and ringing in the New Year is always bittersweet for me because that means Christmas is over. That means vacation is done and I have to go back to the “real world” again. And we also have to take all our decorations down. That’s the part I dislike the most, mainly because taking decorations down is so much more difficult than putting them up in the first place. That’s what I did on New Year’s Day–took down Christmas decorations, packed up the lights and the ornaments and disassembled the trees. We stuffed everything in boxes and stuffed all the boxes in the basement where they’ll wait until the day after Thanksgiving in 2014 when we’ll put them all up again. I guess it’s a vicious cycle. So why keep doing it?

During the Christmas season, everyone talks about hope and dreams and being thankful for family and friends. Even people who don’t follow Christ do it. It’s just something amazing God does in people’s hearts at Christmastime, and part of that comes from the decorations, I think. Because if people who don’t even believe in Christ can set up a Christmas tree and decorate their homes and sing Christmas carols about the night of His birth, you have to admit that’s something special.

When it comes down to it, I think it’s easier to believe in God at Christmastime because the whole world stops, even if the world doesn’t understand why it’s stopping. It’s easier to remember that Christ brought us hope because we’re face to face with representations of that hope in every manger scene on every street corner. It’s easier for me to believe in general because I get a reminder of God’s goodness every time I see an ornament or a tree or a blinking light on a tree.

So what do we do when all the decorations are gone?

Decorative cross ornament from my Christmas tree, Haven, KS

Decorative cross ornament from my Christmas tree, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Psalm 27:11-14.

Teach me how to live, O Lord.
Lead me along the right path,
for my enemies are waiting for me.
Do not let me fall into their hands.
For they accuse me of things I’ve never done;
with every breath they threaten me with violence.
Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
while I am here in the land of the living.
Wait patiently for the Lord.
Be brave and courageous.
Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.

Christmas should be more than a time of year for Christ-followers; Christmas, or at least what Christmas means, should be a lifestyle. Maybe it’s more difficult to get through the ordinary everyday grind when Christmas isn’t coming, but just because we haven’t got the tree or the ornaments or the lights up doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate what Christmas is. And since we don’t have the reminders on every street corner and on every radio station, we have to make more of an effort to remind ourselves.

Life has bumps and valleys we have to get through. We face challenges and obstacles that are way bigger than we are, and sometimes it really does feel like life’s circumstances are laughing at us. Sometimes I feel like life is just looking for the next opportunity to screw with me. But whether that’s true or not, my responsibility as a Christ follower doesn’t change.

My attitude and my perspective is my responsibility. Tough times are coming, more than I know about, and I need to accept that so I can move on, so I can face those oncoming difficulties remembering who God is and what He’s done for me, in spite of the fact that it isn’t Christmas. It’s absolutely 100% possible to keep believing when it isn’t Christmas; it just takes an effort.

Experiencing God’s goodness doesn’t mean life is perfect. Life down here will never be perfect. That’s the point. But God is still here. God is present in our lives, and He never stops taking care of us, and if we look for Him, we’ll see Him. If we’re open to what He’s doing, He’ll become obvious.

You don’t need a Christmas tree to keep celebrating Christmas, sort of like you don’t need perfect circumstances to believe that God is still working. Just believe. Make the choice today, that no matter what happens in your life you’ll keep believing. It won’t be easy. Life is hard, but God is good.

One dove ornament from a matched set hanging on my tree, Haven, KS

The best gift you’ve ever received

What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received? Do you remember it? A friend asked me that this weekend, and the answer popped into my head almost immediately. It would have been Christmas of 1992 or 1993, and I remember coming down the stairs to see a beautiful wooden dollhouse, made by my grandparents. It was the coolest thing I ever got, one of those gifts that just means so much because of all the work and care that went into it. I still have it, and someday, if I’m fortunate enough to have a daughter of my own, I’d love to pass it on.

But sometimes the best gifts we’re given aren’t physical. They aren’t the gifts you find under the tree. They aren’t in the boxes you unwrap. They aren’t stuffed at the bottom of a stocking. And I guess if you want to be literal about it, what made that dollhouse so special to me (both then and now) isn’t the fact that it was a dollhouse; it was that my grandparents took the time and effort to make something so beautiful for me.

I honestly think the most amazing gifts we’ve can receive are intangible.

One dove ornament from a matched set hanging on my tree, Haven, KS

One dove ornament from a matched set hanging on my tree, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is 2 Corinthians 4:18.

So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

I know I’ve posted about this verse before, but it struck me today as I was sitting to write this post that the best gifts I’ve been given in my life are the irreplaceable moments with the people I love. Those moments aren’t tangible. They’re not something I can reach out and touch. I can’t grab it and put it in a box and wrap it up to give to someone else.

But just because I can’t touch it or see it necessarily doesn’t mean it’s not real. On the contrary, it’s more real than the presents currently under my tree.

I try to be thankful for those moments. I try to appreciate them. But I don’t think I can do a good enough job of it.

This weekend my best friend who’s been in England since January came out to my place with her sister. We ended up getting snowed in for a bit longer than we planned, but that was okay. We just made more hot tea and watched more movies and talked more. And I couldn’t help but be absolutely astonished how nothing had changed. A year of separation ocean and it felt like we had just been in the same room a few days ago, like no time had passed at all.

That kind of friendship is priceless. That kind of relationship where someone knows you so well that you don’t have to explain what your heart is feeling–that’s beyond amazing. That’s a gift.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have so many people who I love so dearly, people who have changed me, people who have helped me keep my head on straight, people who’ve pointed me in the right direction over and over again. Parents and friends and teachers and pastors. And no thing wrapped up in a bow with pretty paper could ever mean more to me than a moment with any of them.

Christmas is almost here. People are going to be gathering together soon to spend time as a family or as a group of friends. And believe me, I know the stress of the holidays can be overwhelming, but let me encourage you to take a moment–just a moment–and be thankful for the people in your life. Think what your life would look like without them. Think who you would be without them. And do yourself a favor? Tell them.

Outside of our salvation through Christ, I don’t think there’s any greater gift in our lives than time with the people we love. Make the most of it this Christmas. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the gift your loved ones this year.

Old glass Christmas orb full of shredded garland, Haven, KS

Putting pieces back together with hope

It would have been the day after Thanksgiving in 1992 or 1993 when I watched my dad pull an old clear glass ornament out of the ancient, dusty box we stored our decorations in. I’m not sure what possessed him to do it, but we had a bunch of old garland just lying in the box. And he magically got the top off the ornament (it seemed like magic to me) and stuffed it full of garland. Then, he put it all back together, and what had been a blank, empty ornament ball had become a brand new ornament.

I snapped this photo in 2013, 20 years later, and that ornament is still hanging there. On the same tree. Yes, I tend to be a bit sentimental about my ornaments, but this one was special, mostly just because my dad made it out of scraps. The old ornament wasn’t worth much; it was just an empty globe. And the garland wasn’t anything special either. It was heading for the trash can probably. But my dad saw what it could be.

Old glass Christmas orb full of shredded garland, Haven, KS

Old glass Christmas orb full of shredded garland, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Proverbs 24:14.

In the same way, wisdom is sweet to your soul.
If you find it, you will have a bright future,
and your hopes will not be cut short.

Like no other time of year, Christmas is a time of hope. We sing about it, and we send Christmas cards with little sayings about hope and such all scribbled inside. But what is hope really? And where does it come from? And why does it matter?

I posted yesterday about fools and mentioned the book of Proverbs. Well, we’re back there again today, but the point of this verse is wisdom–finding wisdom means you find a bright future where hope never dies. The writer here is actually continuing from a previous sentence where he’s talking about how eating honey is good. Like honey, wisdom is sweet.

Wisdom is one of those priceless things you can’t buy, and you won’t discover it by accident either. It’s something you have to ask for many times. And the rest of the time, it’s something you have to learn. You don’t get wisdom overnight. Kind of like eating a honeycomb. Have you ever tried to get enough honey out of eating honeycomb? I always ended up with more wax then honey. The honey was great, but it took some effort to reach it.

Wisdom is like that. And once you have it, wisdom changes your entire perspective on life, on yourself, on God, on others.

So where do you get it? Well, the best place is from God. That’s the best place to get wisdom. Ask God for it. Read it in the Bible. Listen to the Spirit when you’re praying. Take God at His word, and wisdom will just come.

When you accept God’s perspective on things, it’s not that you ignore the world’s brokenness. Following Christ isn’t about living in denial about where we live and what our purpose here is. It’s that you have so much grace in your life that you can’t help but extend it to others around you. It’s that you can see yourself in other people, your sins and the consequences you had to face in the lives of people around you.

Your life might be a wreck, a shattered pile of splinters and glass shards and good intentions gone wrong, but that doesn’t mean your life is over. It just means you need some glue. You may have made every mistake in the book, you may have let everyone you know down, or you may have committed what you consider an unpardonable sin, but there’s nothing that you have done or that you could ever do that would make God love you more or less than He already does.

Wisdom is seeing the broken pieces and putting them back together anyway, trusting that God is going to do something with it.

That’s what this verse means to me. If you have wisdom, your hope never dies. Your hope never stops because God doesn’t. Even if all you have to work with are broken pieces, God can still make something beautiful out of it, something that lasts, something that changes other people.

Remember that, this Christmas. Wherever you are and whatever you’re going through, find God’s wisdom, and once you find it, you can start putting the pieces back together with hope.