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?

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.

Your light can only shine in one of two directions

I live in an old house, and sometimes we have power outages. Not because of a storm or anything. Sometimes the power just goes out. That’s why we keep a stash of candles readily available in case the power goes out at night time, because until you’ve lived in the country, you don’t know pitch black.

On one hand, it’s incredible because you can see every star in the sky. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting because you can’t see that hand in front of your face–or the skunk in your driveway that’s feeling threatened by you because you’re out watching stars. You get the picture.

In a dark room, it’s incredible the amount of light a single candle can put out. It’s incredible how far light can travel. So just imagine being in a completely pitch black room with a candle burning. How would you react if somebody put a basket over that candle to block the light? Would that relieve you? Probably not.

DSC_1667Today’s verses are Matthew 5:14-16.

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

Jesus compared His followers to candles shining in the darkness. Bright, burning flames that shine and are visible for miles and miles, all pointing to God. There are a couple of different ways to take this set of verses, and mainly the one I hear most frequently is for living a Christ-like life. And that’s so true. But I think there’s more to being the light of the world than WWJD. God made us each individuals, specifically gifted and specially designed to do something awesome for God.

Jesus wanted His followers to shine for God. That meant taking their talents and gifts and using them for God’s glory. Not hiding them out of fear of rejection.

In my experience, most people think that following God and having fun can’t happen at the same time. There’s this idea that if God wants you to do it, you should be miserable, that following God should be a lifelong sacrifice that requires you to never have fun and never enjoy life. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth!

God created us to have specific talents and abilities, and that means He wants us to use those talents and abilities. Why else would we have them? Otherwise what’s the point? You have a special talent or skill and you hide it in a basket so nobody can see it? What sense does that make?

But a word of caution. Jesus didn’t say to use our gifts so that we could become rich and famous. No, we’re to use our gifts to bring glory and honor to God. That means if you have a gift, don’t forget Who gave it to you.

So does that make famous people bad or wrong because they used their gifts to obtain wealth? Not at all! There’s nothing wrong with being compensated for something you’ve achieved, but as a Christ-follower, the spotlight shouldn’t be your goal–shining the spotlight on God should be your goal.

The light you shine with your gifts and talents can only go one of two directions–either pointing people toward God or pointing people toward yourself.

Jesus wanted God to get the glory for His life, and we should want the same thing. We should want our accomplishments and our talents to reflect God’s creativity and His grace and love and power, and everything we do should point to Him in a way that other people want to know Him.

So don’t hold back. Do your best. Shine as bright as you can and be loud about it. But remember Who gets the credit.

Different pieces of the same puzzle

I got to do something cool yesterday. I got to meet the people my best friend works with at OMNIvision, the video and media ministry of Operation Mobilsation. I’d met a few of them when I was here in 2013, but I got to meet most of them yesterday. Such amazing people!

It reminded me again of how awesome it is that God provides opportunities for His children to use their gifts and talents to help other people. We’re not all made the same. You know that, right?

(Photo from Omnivision Facebook Stream)

(Photo from Omnivision Facebook Stream)

Today’s verses are 1 Peter 4:10-11.

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen.

God has given each one of us unique gifts and talents, but it’s up to us to choose how we’ll use them. We can use them for ourselves or to further our own agenda, or we can use our gifts to do what God would have us accomplish for Him. Maybe that means serving in your local church. Maybe that means packing up everything you own and moving to England because you can write, like my best friend did.

We’re all different, and we’re supposed to be that way. So don’t sit back and be jealous of someone who has a different gift or talent than you do. No, instead look for a way to use your gift or talent to make a difference. We’re all just different pieces of the same puzzle that God is putting together around the world.

Your talent doesn’t have to be awe-inspiring. It doesn’t have to stop people in their tracks. It’s actually better if it’s not, because then the awe-inspiring moments can be attributed to God working through you.

So what are you good at? It doesn’t have to be impressive. But if you let God use your talents for His glory, you might be able to change the world. He’ll certainly change you.

Flamingos at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Define yourself

Are you good at something? Have you got a talent for something, or do you look at it like God has gifted you with certain abilities? Everyone has those gifts. Everyone has talent. Those things in life that come easy to you may not be easy for someone else. So it’s only natural to build a life on those talents. It’s a smart decision to choose a career doing what you’re good at, and if you enjoy doing it that’s an even bigger plus. Talents and gifts are wonderful, but there’s a downside to them too.

The problem with talent is that sometimes I think we let it define us. And if you’re a very talented person, you can get kind of lazy about it. If everything comes easily to you, you don’t really have to work to achieve anything. I was one of those kids in high school who never had to study, so when I got to college and had to start, it threw me for a loop. I’d gotten used to school coming easy, so when I had to work for my education, I learned a couple of things about life in general. Because life is that way too.

No matter how talented you are, you can always increase your skills. No matter how gifted you are, you aren’t going to be perfect. And if you let your talents or your gifts define you, when you encounter those moments where you could learn something, you won’t want to. Instead, you’ll just get discouraged because it feels less like learning and more like a personal attack.

Flamingos at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Flamingos at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are Ephesians 2:13-19.

But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.

It’s very easy to use your talents and gifts to identify yourself. If you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you I’m a writer. That’s what I do. Constantly. As in all the time. I never stop writing, even when I’m not writing things down, I’m still writing in my head. But writing is my job–it’s not who I am. It’s just hard to distinguish sometimes, but I’m trying to learn how. Because I don’t want to take something that I do and turn it into who I am as a person. That cheapens who I am because a job has a description and a job can change and a job is subject to other people’s opinions, but I shouldn’t be. As a person, I am who God made me.

Paul sort of touches on this in the passage today. Jews and Gentiles, two people groups who were constantly at odds with each other, came together to become one people through Christ. Because that’s what Christ does. He reconciles us to God, and in being reconciled to God, we reconcile with each other in spite of our differences. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Thanks to Christ, it doesn’t matter where you were born or what your family looked like or what kind of job you have. If you believe in Him, you are part of His family, citizens of God’s kingdom. That’s where your identity should come from. If you’re a Christ-follower, you’re a child of God.

But I’m kind of a practical person. So what does that mean practically?

Well, that means you’re loved and accepted unconditionally. That means there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more or less than He already does. It means you’re never alone, you’re always welcome to speak to Him, and you’ve got someone on your side who is your biggest fan. And it doesn’t matter if you succeed and make it big or fail and fall flat on your face, God will never ever let you go.

Personally, I find that identity more appealing than Writer. Because a writer is bound by the limitations of his/her craft. Writing is subjective. Writing is entertainment and entertainment is fickle, just like people. And if I find my identity in my writing, what will I do when people stop liking it. If my writing identifies me and people don’t like it, that means people don’t like me. See where this is going?

Whatever you’re using to define yourself today, stop. Just take a moment and ask yourself who you are. And if God isn’t the source of that definition, something’s wrong. Your religion shouldn’t define you. Your job shouldn’t define you. Your family shouldn’t define you. Your personality shouldn’t even define you. The only person who has the right to define who you are is God.

So if you don’t know who you are, ask Him.

He’ll tell you that you are loved. And once you know that, you can do anything. You can face any challenge, any discouragement, any problem, and they don’t have to touch you because your identity comes from Someone who never changes.

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.

Hand-painted ornament given to me by a Sunday School teacher, Haven, KS

A gift worth more than it costs

Christmas is one of those holidays that everybody can celebrate, regardless of wealth or status. Growing up, I knew a number of kids my age whose families were much wealthier than we were, financially speaking. All of those families were extremely generous and opened their homes to my brother and me on more than one occasion. But I remember even as a kid wondering about how nice and orderly and symmetrical their Christmas trees looked.

If you come to my house and look at one of my Christmas trees, the first thing you’ll notice is that there’s nothing symmetrical about it. The ornaments don’t match. They don’t follow a color scheme or a particular theme. Most of the ornaments on my tree are handmade and all of them have sentimental value of some kind, probably because I’m a sentimental person. One of the ornaments I love putting up every year is the one in the photograph today. It was given to me by one of my beloved Sunday School teachers. I was in sixth grade at the time, and it’s one of those gifts that I have cherished for years. And I’ll continue to cherish it because of the relationship it represents.

Those are the best kind of gifts, the ones that represent something. They may not be the most expensive gifts on the shelf, but they mean something deeper than a price tag can communicate.

Hand-painted ornament given to me by a Sunday School teacher, Haven, KS

Hand-painted ornament given to me by a Sunday School teacher, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Mark 12:41-44.

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.”

Our culture would love for everyone to get caught up in the financial strain that is the Christmas shopping season, but I have learned that the gifts people love the most are ones that come directly from the heart. At least, that’s how it is with me. It’s those gifts that people spend time creating or gifts that people expend effort to make possible that stand out to me, that touch my heart in a way that nothing else does. Time is such a precious thing that to use it up for my sake means a lot to me.

When it comes to giving gifts, we need to learn to look beyond the price tag. Like the story recorded in Mark’s Gospel about the widow’s gift. This is one of my favorite stories from the life of Christ. Not everyone would notice a lowly widow dropping worthless coins into an offering box. Such an action would be lost amid the hustle and bustle of the big givers. But the widow in the story gave more than the religious crowd because she gave everything she had. It wasn’t about cost with her; it was about worth. And she believed that giving her all to God was worth it.

How often do we live like that? When was the last time we focused on worth rather than on cost? So many times we talk about counting the cost of following Christ, but do we ever think about what it’s worth to follow Him? My little wooden ornament made by Mrs. Reid probably didn’t cost much, but to me it’s worth more than a whole box of expensive ornaments.

Following Christ can either cost your life or it can be worth your life. There’s a big difference between those two perspectives, and the one you choose will determine how you see God.