Merry Christmas and Thank You

“And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

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At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

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The Shepherds and Angels

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

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They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

Merry Christmas, and a blessed New Year! I cannot express my gratitude for your willingness to follow this blog and to encourage me with the words you have sent in emails, commented here, or spoken in person. You are the reason God wakes me up every morning! May the words of the Christmas story give meaning to you today and every day. Glory to God in the highest.

Baby Christ Grew Up–Will We?

Jesus is born. Christmas is over. Some people are already posting pictures of their treeless living rooms and spotless kitchens, devoid of any remembrance of Christmas. Some people will not post a picture of their living rom for another three months because they know the garlands are still up and they do not want to deal with haters. Whatever works.
 
I’m not quite ready to give Christmas up yet. But I do wonder about the aftermath. Not mine, but His. I do imagine what happened after the stable was empty and the shepherds and magi had all gone home. What then?
 
The Bible gives us a few hints. Jesus was sought after—in order to kill him. Already, before he could walk, someone wanted him dead. His family ran to another country to be safe. That’s certainly a familiar story to anyone who pays attention to the news this year.
 
The glass bubble didn’t last long.

Jesus’ first five years were not the idyllic preschool romps through the countryside we imagine. They were filled with fear and danger. Within months, the world (and the devil) knew there was a new power in the world intent on turning our feeble ideas of power upside down and endangering our notions of what we deserve. Anyone intent on that becomes endangered himself.

 
Often, we ask ourselves the question, “What next after Christmas?” We remember the slightly depressed feeling we got as children, looking around at all the loot a week later, and wondering, “Is that it?” As adults, we do the same. We look around at all the carnage of wrapping paper, boxes that need to be refilled with decorations, and the reality check of our credit card bill, and we wonder, “Is that it?”
 
It is, if we never look beyond the baby in the manger. It’s time now to look at what happens next. It gives us an excellent clue as to what should happen next for us. 

Is this it? No—there is a whole lot more. But it involves danger and fear and confronting power that does not enjoy being confronted. It could get messy. Even messier than childbirth in a stable.
 

This is not comfortable to think about the week after Christmas. We prefer to keep the cuddly baby. Who wouldn’t?

 

But when we pack him away, don’t we want to know if it mattered at all? Doesn’t something nudge us to wonder if there’s a point beyond shiny paper and jingling bells? And even if we’re Christians who do believe there is, is there anything in our lives that demonstrates we know the grown up Jesus? That we’ve looked deeply at the aftermath for that baby and we’ve signed on to what it means?  

So let’s move into it in the coming year. What happens next? What does Christmas move into? Does what happens to baby Jesus have anything to say about what should happen to us? Let’s discover that together in 2016. I’d love to hear your discoveries.

The First Christmas Parade

 
 
If I had the funds and the electrical ingenuity, mine would be one of those houses that can be seen from outer space at Christmastime. I love the lights the most. The bigger and crazier the display, the more I want to drive by it. Light displays are my guilty Christmas pleasure.
 
But maybe it shouldn’t be so guilty. God doesn’t seem to find unsparing celebration problematic at all, when the celebration is about Him.
 
 
In 2 Samuel, David celebrates the return of the ark of the covenant. He celebrates jubilantly, making sacrifices and dancing in the streets before God’s ark. It’s a vibrant parade, and David is the grand marshall. His wife doesn’t appreciate the dance, and the Bible says she despises him in her heart for his undignified display. It’s a drama-filled story, but what does it have to do with Christmas? (Here is the story, if you would like to read it.)
 
The ark represented God’s presence with His people. It held His covenant to be their God and guide them. When Exodus says a mercy seat covers the ark, it literally means “atonement seat.” Here, God met his people to broker reconciliation. For the Israelites, being without the ark meant being without an approachable God. Now, they felt they were bringing God’s presence back. David had reason to celebrate.
 
Christmas celebrates the place where God met with His people to reconcile finally, completely, with full atonement. 
 
In His birth, Jesus provided a new and eternal mercy seat—Himself. Instead of an ark, a stable cradled a new covenant.

We have good reason to celebrate, and to celebrate wildly. David’s rapturous dance before the Ark poured from his adoration of God. It sprung out of his gratitude that God allowed his presence to be with His people.
 
Certainly our Christmas celebrations should be equally full of crazy, abundant gratitude. Our celebrations should “Make your faithfulness known through all generations” and “declare that your love stands firm forever” (Psalm 891-2). Letting something be known, making a declaration, dancing in the streets—these are all unabashed actions. It’s OK—it’s good—to make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus declared his presence among people with a cry in a manger.
 
There is no room in the season for a Michal who shakes her head at the joy and mutters, “Why so much?”
 
So how do we know when the big deal is about us and when is it about Jesus? We know the same way David did. When we are decorating trees or baking cookies out of the gratitude in our hearts that God is with us—we are celebrating like David. When we do it because we’re supposed to or we want to impress someone, we’re just having a holiday.
 
When we’re staring at the twinkling lights and reminding God (and ourselves) that we want to be all in in this new covenant, we’re celebrating like David. When we’re thinking instead about all the blacked-out spaces on our calendar, we’re enduring a season.
 
When we’re giving gladly to those we love, and to strangers who need it most, we’re celebrating like David. When we spend money we don’t have on people who don’t need it, we’re following customs rather than Jesus.
 
And when we’re judging other peoples’ celebrations— we’re being Michal. We’re pretending to enjoy the holiday, but we’re not celebrating Emmanuel. God with us.
 

 

Bright lights aren’t the point of Christmas; they’re a nice byproduct. When I can watch their colors arc across the darkness of a December night, I think of the Light of the World who arced across our darkness to bring His presence and mercy. I may even dance a little.

 

 

Five Hopes I Wish for You and Me

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I learned about mercy and hope this morning while watching my daughter prep for oral surgery.

I had not known, until the technician informed me, that the Pope had declared this next year, since December 8, a special jubilee of mercy. I’m not Catholic; I didn’t know what a special jubilee was, no did I know the pope could call one. But he has, and he has opened up the special bricked up door in St. Peter’s to symbolize it.

I saw that door when we visited St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember it. I didn’t realize it’s significance.

All I could say to her was, “I dearly hope he’s right.”

The Friday Five linkup at Mrs. Disciple is on Hope. Five things we hope. This morning, I can’t think of anything I hope for more than exactly this.

I hope and pray mercy on you. On me. On all of us.

I pray more than anything we learn to extend it beyond what we believe is possible in 2016.

“I am convinced that the whole Church — which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

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Is there anything more important, in this world of fear and confusion, than to hope for these words? So here are my five hopes for all of us in the Year of Jubilee (An unfulfilled celebration in the Old Testament that I find particularly beautiful and hopeful.) They are all hopes of mercy.

I hope for us the wisdom to listen and learn from those who are different.

Let’s learn the particular mercy of hearing others. We can give no greater gift, I’m convinced, than to see and hear another person. Would it be a beautiful mercy to go out of our way to hear those we may not normally listen to this year? Wouldn’t it mirror Jesus’ willingness to hear the people around him, really hear them, not assume he knew all about them? (Even though he did.)

I hope for us the patience to give second chances.

It’s the popular thing to give up on people as soon as they disappoint us. It’s easy to delete a friend. Easy to move on to the next honeymoon relationship, until the next crack appears. But what if we chose not to? Does it sound hopeful to think we could do the hard work of inviting the cracks, repairing them together, offering second, third, and fourth chances? We might need a few, too.

I hope for us the freedom of feeling forgiven.

The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
    nor remain angry forever.
 He does not punish us for all our sins;
    he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
 He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west.  Psalm 103

Completely, absolutely, unwaveringly forgiven. By God. And by ourselves. Nothing offers more hope than to know you are forgiven. Nothing prepares us more for the next hope.

IMG_4468I hope for us the release of forgiving others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Offer it in this year of mercy. Be liberal in your offering of forgiveness. You are the one who will feel the free release of hope fill your lungs.

I hope for us the joy of offering mercy to anyone, anywhere.

The one who does not deserve it. The one who cannot hope for it. The one who doesn’t look like you. The one who looks disturbingly too much like you. The one who speaks another language. The one who lives and sleeps next to you. Everywhere. Without consideration of who is keeping score.

This — this is peace on earth. This is the only hope we have. This is the hope of Christmas.

Consumer Christianity

IMG_6426As during December we focus on the “less is more” theme, a friend blogged about an incredibly important aspect of that idea. Do we believe less is more in church? Or are we fatally treating our churches like our shopping malls–the more we can get in one place, the happier we are?
 
Today I have a guest post from a friend, Stacey Philpot. It’s an important message as we talk about Christmas, consuming, and faith.
 
 
Yesterday, I was sitting comfortably on my favorite spot on the couch, during one of those rare moments when Avery is otherwise occupied and there is no competition for the T.V.  I settled on one of the popular home-buying shows I’ve come to love but never have the time to watch. You know, the kind where they state their max budget and wish list and then end up with the home of their dreams within the hour. 
And it struck me how this has become our approach to life in general. Here’s what I’m willing to invest and here’s what I’m expecting to get in return. I’ll spend x amount of hours with my children each week, doing homework, playing games and in general edification. In return, I’m expecting children who excel in everything, graduate at the top of their class, marry someone who takes them on nice vacations, and obtain well paying jobs which afford them a standard suburban American life. 
 
I’ll spend 4-5 hours a week at the gym and 1-2 hours a week entering my meals into my app. As a result, I expect to be enviably fit, be healthy all of the days of my life, and to appear 10-20 years younger than I am at all times.
 
I am willing to drive 10-20 minutes to a church where I will spend 1-2 hours a week. I will place twenty bucks in the offering basket every other week. In return, I would like programs that make my children all-star Christians, people that become my best friends, a brand spanking new marriage (meaning, I expect to actually like my husband within six weeks or my money back), and free child care for my infant, on demand. 
 
Have you noticed this consumer Christianity in your churches? What about in your own faith journey? 
 
I’ve been to the mega churches where a mass spiritual meal is provided to everyone. As first, this really bothered me and I wondered, “What if you needed something different, something not on the prepackaged plate?” But then I thought maybe that’s what your Monday-Saturday walk with Christ is for. I’ve also been to the smaller churches where you could walk right up to the altar and join hands with your brother or sister and fight together for what you need. Some churches offer small groups or mid week bible studies for the more customized spiritual meals. 
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But I’ve also seen pastors who have 70-80 hour work weeks killing themselves trying to meet the demands of their consumers—I mean members. I’ve often wondered if over time, the members were becoming more dependent on Jesus or their pastor. 
 
In my mind, the local church body is a place where I am served and I serve. It’s a place where I have community and where I share what I have with those who don’t. It’s a place where I do life with others, worship side by side with others, and experience the miraculous grace of God with others. It’s a place where I use my gifts, a place where I grow and where I train up others behind me. It’s a training center and a hospital. 
 
It’s a place of beauty and laughter, living and loving. Imperfection and grace, power and anointing. But maybe not shopping?
 

Getting Friendship Backward--What Really Goes First?

So, I’m curious. What does church look like to you? Do you believe our modern churches are a reflection of Jesus? Are they effectively loving and revolutionizing the world for Christ? Are we playing the part we were created to play or still trying to decide if it’s worth the investment? How many amazing churches have we passed up because they didn’t have everything on our “wish list”?  Is it possible that we’re missing the point? Are we consumer Christians? 
 
Stacey blogs here at A Life Repaired. She is, as she says, “a wife, mom, step-mom, and proclaimer of the good news that no life is beyond repair.”
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Tech-free Christmas? (Slowing Down Electronically for the Holidays)

 
 

In a terrifying fascinating study recently, researchers asked people aged 18-77 to spend fifteen minutes alone. Completely alone. No cell phones, trivia crack, media, or sensory input of any kind. Over half the participants chose to give themselves electric shocks as a distraction, shocks they had previously said they would pay to avoid, rather than spend this period of time completely without outside input. 

 
Fifteen minutes. I wish I had read this in the Onion, but I did not.
This is incomprehensible to an introvert like me.
 
The average teen spends as much time in front of a screen as he would at a full time job.
 
So by now perhaps you’re thinking what I’m about to say–December is an ideal time to release your family from this technological tyranny. This Christmas, how about a technology black out? Or at least, a grey out. Close enough.
 
Something so wrong but so right about this.


Don’t worry–no way I am going to tell you not to shop online. That’s just crazy talk. I could not survive Christmas without shopping online. It is the best invention ever in the history of history. This is a sanity-saver, so go ahead and take it. In moderation.

 
But maybe December is a month for taking an electronic break, if not a fast. During our 7 experiment this summer, we were supposed to eliminate seven forms of media from our lives for a month. I chose facebook, online puzzles and trivia games, non-work-related articles, pinterest, snapchat, and movies. While I missed those things, I found it restful. I found it peaceful. I found I got a lot more work done. And, I have carried some of those habits into the following months.
 
Christmastime is the ideal time to revisit slowing down electronically. Tweeting, buzzing, and whirring are not sounds you want to hear while roasting chestnuts by the open fire, anyway. It’s a time we want to talk about peace on earth, so why not talk about peace inside our own heads, peace from the incessant feeling that we need to be available, accessible, responding at all times to every input? 
 

It’s a time we want to talk about peace on earth, so why not talk about peace inside our own heads? 

 
Peace that we could use to connect more closely with our people and our God. That’s a peace on earth we all could use.
 
So what can we do to take back our digital lives during December? And, can these habits carry through? Here are some options if you, too, think this sounds appealing.

Create Some Limits

Did you know most Silicon Valley parents strictly limit their kids’ time on technology? That Steve Jobs was a low tech parent? They know better than anyone the talent tech has for sucking us in and draining us dry. They use safeguards. Why shouldn’t we? 
 
Create some zones that are going to be tech free for the month of December. Mealtimes. An hour before bedtime. Homework time. An hour after school. The car. (Hey, we’ve had our best discussion in the car. This does not happen when Angry Birds and videos are playing in the backseat.) Whatever works for your family. Agree that the phones, tablets, etc go down for that time. On penalty of death by battery drain. Parents—this applies to you. Tech addiction is not confined to the young.

Declare a Fast

Determine some media that is going to be put down for the entire month. Trust me—you will feel freer. You will find time where you didn’t know it existed. Choose some of the ones I mentioned above or choose something that works better for yourself. Choose something that’s going to be felt. (Ex: I don’t watch TV, so giving that up would not have been a challenge.) Let family members choose what will make them the most free. 
 
Make a competition out of it, if that’s the way you roll. Anyone caught cheating has to put a dollar in the jar. At the end of the month, donate the money or let the “winner” for the month choose a fun thing to spend it on.
 
Just don’t choose to eliminate Christmas movies. Because Charlie Brown Christmas.

Plan Alternatives

 

Keep a list of things you can do instead of going on Facebook or Youtube. Snowball fight. Library trip. Reading. Volunteering. Have a real discussion, bake Christmas cookies, address cards. Have board games, puzzles, or art supplies set up in a central location. If there are choices that are ready to go, the mindless electronic siren call won’t be as alluring.

Make a New Habit

Create a go-to choice for those times you feel yourself moving toward that Facebook tab. Pray for the person you wanted to check on instead. Think of a kind act to do for someone. Text someone something encouraging. Do something to be the hands and feet of Jesus during his holiday season. (Don’t go eat a Christmas cookie. Bad new habit. Trust me on this one.)
 

And have a wonderfully quiet December.

Spending Ourselves: Slowing Down the Holiday Spending Train

A few Christmases ago, we ate coconut, spaghetti, and pineapple for Christmas dinner. It was a mission trip to Costa Rica, so that should also explain the Christmas morning kayak trip through mangroves. (And the Christmas Eve trip to the turtle sanctuary.) We left Christmas gifts at home under the tree, with three cats wondering if perhaps they should do the job of unwrapping.
 
We also decided to do Christmas differently when we got home. In light of the fact that we were going to work with Nicaraguan immigrants who didn’t have the means to buy uniforms so their kids could go to school, we wondered how we would feel about coming home and opening a room full of gifts we didn’t need. Wisely, we figured we would not feel so great about that. So we planned an alternative.
 

For that year, we agreed that all presents had to be made, not bought. I

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Christmas Eve. I wasn’t kidding. Beats Chicago.

made photo albums for everyone. Found groupons for classes to take together. Even finished those T-shirt quilts I’d been saving T-shirts for for approximately twenty years. (OK, I did not technically finish them. Some of them may have actually been a wrapped up box of fabric squares that were going to be a quilt someday when they grew up. But at least I got started.)

 
You know what? Our kids loved them. They spent more time poring over those photo albums than they had ever spent fascinated by a new device or game. They appreciated the time and love that went into those gifts. Every year since then I’ve thought, maybe we should do that again. And maybe we will.
 
One of the biggest ways we can slow down our holidays is to slow down financially. Slow down by rethinking what needs to be bought and who needs to be impressed. I know, making gifts can take time. Feeling we have to make Pinterest-level gifts for everyone on our list does not induce feelings of peace but rather heart palpitations.
 
But we don’t have to. “Not bought” does not equal intricately hand crafted marvels. It means creativity on another level entirely.
 
Here are a few easy ideas to get that creativity flowing.

Cut the List

I’m not kidding on this. Who told you you had to give gifts to your mail carrier, the person three cubicles down at work, your great-niece, and your best friend’s dog? There are no rules here unless you make them. A sincere note of appreciation is enough. (Although the dog will probably eat a note, so maybe not.) 

 
A card mentioning something you’ve noticed about that person. A list of reasons you’re glad you know her. A Bible verse that makes you think of him.
Really, affirming words, if they’re sincere, last longer than any gift. (Except fruitcake and tacky knick-knacks. Those lasts forever.) 
 
Exchange names among family members rather than trying to buy for everyone. Agree to make a charitable donation instead of give gifts. Minimize your list and take it from there.

Mass Produce

Can fifteen people on your list all receive the same loaf of homemade bread and a jar of jam? Yes, they can. Done. Stop stressing over making each one different. No one will remember. Believe me on this. (And if you still have fifteen non-family members on your list, see tip #1.)

Go with Your Gifts

 

A handmade gift I greatly appreciated 🙂

I can scrapbook. Maybe the thought would give you a migraine. Maybe, though, you’d be a whiz at uploading those same photos to Walgreens and making a quick photo album. Totally counts as homemade. Go for it. Go with whatever God-given abilities and passions were assigned to you. What do you love to do or create? How can that translate into giving? God gave us passions and gifts so we could bless others. Yours included, whatever they are.

Gift Someone with Time

A lunch together. A class together. A road trip together. Anything that ends with together. T-I-M-E spells love in our culture. Gift it lavishly. It will be the most treasured thing under the tree.
 
So take this as a challenge. A Don’t-Step-Foot-in-a-Store challenge. Slow down financially this year by making gifts, creating memories, appreciating tangibly, and gifting with time. Forget Black Friday. Seriously, Black Friday is like an abusive relationship anyway. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep going back. Break it off now.
 

Black Friday is an abusive relationship anyway. Break it off now.

 
If you find you need to do something else with all the money you save, there are some good options listed below.* Buy something someone else desperately needs given in the name of someone who doesn’t really need anything. Because nothing says “I love you,” like “I bought a goat in your name.” I’m serious, actually. It’s true.
 
We’re celebrating the One who had everything and gave everything so we could have anything. He didn’t spend money to woo us–he spent himself. Want to slow down financially this Christmas and stop the spending crazy train? Give of yourself. Simply, not in a “I can make cuter and more personal handmade gifts than you can buy” sort of giving. Because we all know those people, and they are annoying.
 
In small steps or big ways, start spending yourself this year rather than your credit cards.
 
In what ways do you try to focus on people rather than presents? Do you have great go-to’s for simple gifts? Please share!
 
Prison Fellowship/Project Angel Tree