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Christmas Gift for Disobedient Children

You better watch out…or you’ll get nothing for Christmas. Today’s kids understand better than mine did how in the world Santa Claus can know whether they’ve been bad or good. As I was told by some first graders last year, everyone has an elf that tells Santa about what goes on in their homes. I replied that I don’t have an elf, but they didn’t believe me. Then it happened. One sneaked into my house.

In August, I picked up a bag of Christmas ribbon at a garage sale. It was a bit messy and I couldn’t see what was in the bottom, but I handed the lady $1 and carried it home. Later, as I rewound the ribbons, going deeper into the bag, I found two surprises.

    This tiny little Santa figurine…

AND THIS CREEPY LITTLE ELF!

As I understand it, Santa’s Scout Elves can be very mischievous. In fact, it was quite surprising what some of the 1st graders told me about their elves’ activities. But that’s not the point of the elf. No that little fella’s job is to report to Santa each night whether the kid has been good or bad, so Christmas gifts can be doled out accordingly.

I had no need for an elf on the shelf, as our kids are grown up and my husband behaves very well. Still, my boys will be visiting before Christmas, so I’ll play the game for a bit.

According to the Elf on the Shelf website, no one is allowed to touch the elf. Moms enjoy photographing the funny things elves do so they can share them on Facebook, and some teachers like having an elf in the classroom to motivate good  behavior. By the way, I’ve just named our elf Grace.

Grace the elf will now help me explain the most amazing thing about Christmas. Long before the first Christmas (the time of the birth of Jesus) God chose a family to be different from the rest of the people on earth. They were supposed to follow the Ten Commandments and lots of other laws in order to stay in good standing with God. And they wanted to. They even promised to. But they couldn’t. They keep doing the things that were forbidden and not doing the things that were required. God still loved them, but bad things did happen to them because of their sins. All along, God kept hinting that things were going to change. Someone was going to come to save them.  Through his prophets, he said things like,

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)

and

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Immanuel means “God with us.” But how could the Holy God be with such disobedient children. Strange. Another puzzling prophecy told of the son’s death – and our peace.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Now there were some religious leaders who wanted to make sure that the people did what they were supposed to do. They didn’t want any more of the bad things to happen. So they made lots more rules and were very strict about them. It seems that they even spied on the people so they could catch them when they were bad.

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down

with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
 (Luke 11:46)

Keeping all of the laws was very hard. No one was perfect. Even the “good guys” like Noah and King David did wrong sometimes. The law that was given by God through Moses made the people aware of their failure – their sin.

But then something AMAZING happened! The son was born of a virgin in exactly the place where the prophets said it would happen. And the angels proclaimed peace to men on earth!

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,

whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

The baby Jesus grew up. Even though he was tempted to disobey God, he never sinned. He prayed to God and did only what his Father (God) told him to do, even when it was VERY HARD. After he became a man, taught the people about the Kingdom of Heaven, and even did miracles, Jesus did the hardest thing of all. Just as the prophet said, he was crucified (pierced) for our sins (transgressions) even though he had never sinned.

That was the plan all along. God’s “new thing” was to bring peace to us. Peace in our hearts because we could be right with God when we believed that Jesus paid our penalty. Jesus called it being born again. It is a gift from God. It’s grace.

Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God

and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:16-18)

Now we all know that God still wants us to be good. But it’s also true that no one is perfect, so no one is good enough to be with our Holy God. Except Jesus, who died so we could live with him. He couldn’t wait until we were already good enough, because that wasn’t going to happen. The Bible makes it clear that ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. (Romans 3:23) So we needed to be rescued from sin and death. That’s what Jesus did. That’s amazing grace.

That’s what Christmas is all about. Not Santa, who we’re told only gives good gifts when they’re deserved. Not the elf who spies on kids and gets them in trouble, but doesn’t do anything to help them. It’s about peace. When I think about peace in my own heart, I define it as knowing that I am right with God because of my faith in Jesus (not myself) and that God is working all things in my life (even the stressful things) together for my good. (Romans 8:28)

The men who knew Jesus and spent their lives teaching other people about Him often used the words GRACE and PEACE together. That makes sense to me. Because of God’s amazing grace we can have peace!

 

 

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Christmas Card P.P.S. – Peace

Oh, what peace we often forfeit! Oh, what needless pain we bear! 

All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

The nonreligious Christmas card we sent out to friends and family this year included a wish for love in every home and peace in every heart during a joyous Christmas season. Those are gifts I would  wrap up and give to many people if it were possible. Maybe the next best thing is to share what has brought love, peace, and joy to my heart and home. I began with love yesterday in Christmas Card Post Script  and continue today with some thoughts about peace.

Most people want peace. Interestingly, peace is often defined as the absence or lack of something or even freedom from something. World peace means a world without war. Peace of mind means freedom from anxiety, fear, confusion, frustration and worry.

Peace is often paired with quiet. During busy days of holiday preparations, moments of peace and quiet can be precious and few. Homes full of children,TVs and telephones are rarely quiet. Malls are crowded with people and filled with seasonal music, songs like Let it Snow, I’ll be Home for Christmas, Sleigh Ride, and Its a Marshmallow World. Maybe what our hearts long for is a Silent Night!

I am looking forward to a silent night on Christmas Eve. We will be sleeping at my mom’s house where I usually wear earplugs to quiet the frequent train whistles. On Christmas Eve, there are no trains. Ah, peace and quiet. Sometimes military leaders declare ceasefires for observance of Christmas. This year, the leader of the Philippines  is seeking to give the people a “stress-free” Christmas season by declaring a ten day ceasefire from guerilla warfare. Let there be peace on earth!

While most of us are not dealing with the horror of war, our lives are far from stress-free. Can we have peace in the midst of stress? Yes. Today a friend whose brother recently died and whose daughter has begun a battle with cancer told me that she still feels calm and peaceful. I have experienced peace in very difficult situations in my own life at times. At other times, I have been a wreck. What makes the difference?

Oh, what peace we often forfeit! Oh, what needless pain we bear! 

All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

These words from the hymn What a Friend we Have in Jesus ring true in my life. Centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the prophet Isaiah foretold, “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.” (Isaiah 9:6)  On the night of his birth, angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) With the coming of Jesus into the world, God was offering reconciliation of sinful people to himself. Friendship. Freedom from the fear of death. Peace.

God’s Word on Peace:

Psalm 29:11 – The Lord blesses his people with peace.

Isaiah 26:3 – You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.

John 14:27 – Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (Jesus to his disciples)

Romans 5:1 – Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Philippians 4:6,7 – Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps you have seen a bumper sticker that says NO JESUS – NO PEACE. KNOW JESUS – KNOW PEACE.

If you know Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and friend, you have the opportunity to take EVERYTHING to him in prayer and know peace. If you have been going through life wanting peace without knowing the Prince of Peace, as an ambassador for Christ, I implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.(2 Corinthians 5:20)

 

 

 

 

 

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The Most Emotional Time of the Year

Is this a First Christmas for you? Are you hanging a special ornament on your tree this year? One that celebrates becoming man and wife in 2017 or welcoming a baby to your family? If so, give thanks! For my younger son, this is the First Christmas when he has an apartment all to himself.  He began making his personal decorating plans in May and has a beautiful little tree of his own this year.

I remember my own First Christmas in an apartment where I put up my Christmas tree and made my bed on the couch so I could fall asleep enjoying it’s lights. In recent years, as an empty nester yet to have grandchildren, I’ve experienced a bit of ambivalence about putting up our tree. Our family’s holiday celebrations are usually held in my hometown, so we lack the excitement of having loved ones gathered around our Christmas tree. That’s why I tell everyone who asks about our plans that this year that we will have both our sons and our new daughter-in-law with us for a couple of days before Christmas. My heart feels happy and full of anticipation.

Still, I admit that even though this Christmas is shaping up to be merry and bright, I’ve found myself experiencing moments of melancholy. It’s tricky to determine what brings the sadness on. I tear up and hear myself saying to my husband, “I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s just that things are quite right.” At least not for many people. Not every First Christmas is celebrated with joy. Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I were preparing for the First Christmas in our home in North Dakota when he got the phone call about his dad’s sudden death. Travel plans were rearranged, children were taken out of school, and that Christmas was filled with grief. My First Christmas without my own dad was in 1979. Even after months, years, and decades have passed, the Christmas season can stir up memories of those who are gone or longings for the “good old days” when kids or parents were younger or times were simpler. I pray for friends who have lost someone this year.

That’s me with Dad’s hand on my head in 1968.

Many life situations can bring anxiety about Christmas. Situations that we don’t write about in Christmas cards or commemorate with an ornament. I empathize with people who are without employment, have separated from their spouse, or are dealing with illness. Some folks were hoping this would be a First Christmas and still have an unfulfilled dream. During this Advent Season, I’ve thought about the people who were waiting for God’s promised arrival of a King foretold through prophets of old. Life was dark and years, even centuries, were ticking by. When would he come?

Then, suddenly, unsuspecting shepherds were awakened to a sky full of angels! Christ the Savior was born!

The gospel of Matthew proclaims, “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:16,17)

These thoughts about the emotions of Christmas were triggered by today’s Advent devotional reading entitled Life and Death at Christmas. In it, John Piper says in part, “Each Advent I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was cut off in her 56th year in a bus accident in Israel. It was December16, 1974. Those events are incredibly real to me even today. If I allow myself, I can easily come to tears—for example, thinking that my sons never knew her. We buried her the day after Christmas… Many of you will feel your loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections both in life and death? But, O, do not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter.” Piper goes on to talk of homecoming, “Do you feel restless for home? I have family coming home for the holidays. It feels good. I think the bottom line reason for why it feels good is that they and I are destined in the depths of our being for an ultimate Homecoming. All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good. Unless they become substitutes. O, don’t let all the sweet things of this season become substitutes of the final great, all-satisfying Sweetness. Let every loss and every delight send your hearts a-homing after heaven.”

Perhaps my moments of melancholy come because I am restless for home. For now, our tree is trimmed, the gifts are wrapped, and I’m happy to be just one week away from having my “kids” under our roof for the night.

Yes, that’s a crown on the top in honor of Jesus, the King of kings.

 

 

 

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Come as You Are

When I looked in the mirror this morning, the thought crossed my mind that I might not go to church today. The last thing I wanted was to have people notice the big, ugly cold sore on my face. The tingling pain began on Wednesday, and this morning I faced the impossibility of hiding the raw sore. Still, I wanted to be in church and knew that I would regret missing the worship service.

I remembered a woman cancelling  a meeting with me because her face was swollen from a bee sting and she was embarrassed about being seen. I started thinking of reasons why someone might not come to church because of embarrassment. Perhaps they fear stares because of their clothes, or tattoos, or weight, or blood shot eyes. Maybe their name was in the newspaper or their mugshot on the TV screen. Or it could be that their child has gotten into trouble or their spouse has left them. Maybe they can’t read, or don’t drive a nice car. Perhaps they’re heartbroken and don’t want people to see them cry. The list goes on and on. And it makes me sad.

Here I am with unstyled hair, no makeup, and the cold sore.

I can’t deny that at times it does take courage to go to church. Some have experienced painful encounters in church. Others have the idea that the people there will judge them. I wish I could say that is never the case. Sadly, though, it is possible that an unloving word may be said or that no word will be said. I would be dishonest if I pretended that I’ve never witnessed conflict or unfairness within the church. Please consider, though, that it is very easy for us insecure human beings to assume that others are looking down on us or that we don’t fit in, when that is not the case.

Here’s an encouraging word! Christmas is the celebration of God’s love being demonstrated with the gift of his Son, Jesus, to the undeserving world. When I read the gospel books of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), I see that Jesus noticed the outcasts in society. He made a point to speak to and even eat with the ones who were looked down upon, including Zacchaeus.  When Jesus went to the temple, his compassionate attention fell on a poor widow (Luke 22:1-4), a man with a shriveled hand (Luke 6:6-11), and even the demon possessed (Luke 4:31-37). Think of the blessing each one would have missed if they had stayed away, fearing the opinions of the rich and powerful people there.

Today, I’m reminded of two points made in the Bible:

  1. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Jesus made this clear in a story he told about a religious man whose way of praying revealed his pride and a humble tax collector who received mercy.  (Luke 18:9-14)
  2. Every person who has ever lived, excepting Jesus, is sinful. We each have an ugly sore spot that we cannot heal. Unlike my cold sore, sin will not go away with time. By God’s amazing grace, those who believe in Jesus can be cleansed from sin and made acceptable to God. Even Christians sometimes feel like hiding when life gets painful, but the support of a church “family” is worth the risk of being known.

I have one last thought to share today. It is not the action of going to church, whether it be once or twice a year or every single Sunday, that saves us. Yes, you can find and commune with God in other settings, and, yes, you may encounter hypocrites at church. People do tend to look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. For me, church is a wonderful place to belong; to be encouraged, taught, and prayed for; and to participate in serving others.

Here is what I looked like after a shower, with blow-dried hair and makeup. I’m sure that folks I talked to did notice the cold sore. Still, I’m glad that I did not allow my embarrassment or pride to keep me from being there to sing Christmas carols, see people that I care about, and hear a wonderful message about the Holy Spirit. I hope that you’ll choose to come to church as you are. There is a song from Sidewalk Prophets that may encourage you. You can listen here.

 

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