Today is Boxing Day. Some people will leave their Christmas decorations up for awhile longer; maybe even until after the New Year. Others will box up all the holiday trappings for next year. But the boxes and bags that held gifts yesterday are likely put away– some put aside; others in the trash. We laugh about toddlers and pets being more fascinated with the boxes than with the gifts inside, but most of us tear off the paper and rip open the boxes to get to the “good stuff” hidden inside. The ribbons and bows, the gift card holders and glittery greeting cards, while they delight us in the moment, pale in comparison to the gifts and the thoughts behind them.
What a shame it would be if all the wonderful gifts under the tree remained unopened– boxed away for another year, just to be placed back under a Christmas tree in 2023. What a useless tradition it would be to give gifts that were never opened or used, or even seen!
And yet…the Greatest gift of all–the very reason for the Christmas season– often remains boxed up and carefully preserved for another year. “Jesus is the reason for the Season,” as some people say. But have we RECEIVED Him? Have we opened up the gift of His coming; of His offer of salvation and reconciliation– or do we just enjoy the idea of the Baby in the Manger and the Wise Men coming from afar and offering gifts; the angels singing in the night sky, and the gentle animals in the stall?
The Gospel writer and Apostle John wrote that Jesus “came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” (John 1:11) God so Loved the world that He gave His son (John 3:16), but the gift remained unopened and ignored by those who should have welcomed Him. He grew up and lived among them– healed their diseases, spoke comfort and truth, laughed and shared sorrows with them– and they cried out, “Crucify Him!” God’s “one-size-fits-all” perfect gift– the “gift that keeps on giving” eternally!–was despised and rejected. And the Gift is still rejected, ignored, scorned, and unopened today.
All the splendor and glitter of the Christmas season will fade away– the decorations will go back in their boxes; the wrappings and trimmings will be forgotten. But the Gift! Let’s bring it out and use it– revel in it; wonder at it. God with Us. God reaching down and out and beyond to bring us Home–forever! And God giving us the privilege and the power to BE His hands and feet and eyes and lips as we minister to those around us! God holding us close as sons and daughters. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name..”(John 1:12) When we open this gift, we are not just recipients, not merely believers or followers– we are Children of God.
Lord, help me not make the grave mistake of taking your incredible gift and leaving it in a box, or worse, opening it up and putting it back in a box for later. Help me to live in the “present”– in every way– and to enjoy the privilege of being Your child forever. Amen!
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have problems with Advent Season. On the one hand, it’s a season of joy and wonder; a season of anticipation and expectation. But I find myself contemplating…and as the days get darker, earlier, and the snow falls, then melts, leaving everything brown and gray, I can’t seem to hang on to the joy. It slips through my fingers, leaving me thoughtful and even a little depressed.
I also find myself looking at the glitter and listening to the peppy music of the season and feeling as though all the “Merry” in Christmas is just a soap bubble, waiting to burst. I don’t watch much television, but it seems that every year the “holiday” specials and TV ads get more artificial and shallow. “Buy this!” “Turn up the Tunes!” “Wear THIS to the Holiday party!” “Eat this– Drink that!” “Get away from it all!” It’s more about escaping the ordinary, rather than celebrating the extraordinary gift of God’s Son. The more I try to get “into the Spirit” of the season, the more I seem to miss it…
It is important to remember that this extraordinary Joy came INTO and THROUGH the ordinary. The angels didn’t announce to the shepherds that they could escape their duties and run off to a vacation cruise; Mary and Joseph didn’t celebrate their first Christmas surrounded by lights and mugs of hot cocoa. The wise men didn’t have a brand new GPS device to help them find their destination, or tasty cookies and fruit baskets to make the journey more “fun.” This “good news of great joy” was the birth of a child– an ordinary event–except that THIS birth was the fulfillment of God’s Promise and the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
Many millions of people today will not have joyful circumstances to make the season “Merry and Bright.” But they can experience true Joy– the kind that comes from Knowing Jesus–and not just for a day or a season, but forever, in spite of difficulties, pain, and struggle. There IS joy in the journey, but it doesn’t always manifest as mirth and comfort.
This season, it is our privilege as Christians to offer a different level of Joy to the World–the Joy of forgiveness; the joy of belonging; the joy of eternal Hope and Peace. It may not be in laughter or singing. It may be in holding a hand at the side of a hospital bed. It may be in sharing tears with those who are suffering. It may be sharing a crust of bread with real thankfulness, instead of a feast with stress. Joy doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require wrapping paper sugar sprinkles. The best gifts we can give this season don’t have to be filled with merriment and laughter. They don’t have to be expensive or even filled with thoughtful intent. They should be the spontaneous response of love and compassion for those around us. Let’s give lots of hugs, smiles, and small tokens of respect and appreciation this year. After all, God’s great gift– the greatest of all– began as a tiny, wailing infant, hidden away in a spare stable, wrapped in rags. But “Behold!” It is still bringing great joy all over the world. (Luke 2:10)
Let’s not trade certain Joy for temporary mirth this season. Reflect on the Reason, and not just the Season!
Christmas is a joyful season– for most people. And it is a giving season; a busy season; a bright and noisy season. But for most of us, it is NOT a peaceful season. Our small city had a lighted parade the other night. It was festive and bright; there were a lot of happy people cheering on marching bands, floats, dancers, decorated fire engines and tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and other entries. People were eating, drinking hot cocoa, enjoying the entertainment, and even singing carols. The whole downtown was decorated with brilliant lights and banners and festive plants. But before the parade started, and after it ended, there were angry drivers trying to find (or leave) parking spots, bawling toddlers, rowdy people who had more to drink than just the cocoa, and several others who were just tired, and cold, and overstimulated.
While parades and festivities, parties and pageants have become part of the seasonal celebrations in many parts of the world, they are not what Christmas is really about. Jesus did not come to the world to bring “fun.” He did not come to bring toys or games, parties or feasts. He did not come to bring cheerful songs and fragrant holiday decorations, or hot cocoa and cookies. The angels who announced His arrival did not bring good tidings of candy canes, flying reindeer, or twinkle lights.
We sing about “Peace on Earth.” We talk about it, send greeting cards about it, and pray for it. But what do we MEAN when we talk about Peace on Earth, Good will to Men (Humankind)? For many, it is a wish or a prayer that wars would end, or that the petty differences between rival political factions or even rival churches would end. We speak of global peace or universal peace– peace between men (and women). And it is good that we should want such peace. But is that really the kind of peace Jesus brought with Him? He didn’t put an end to wars and disagreements during His ministry here. He didn’t “settle the score” for those who experienced oppression– the Roman Empire remained; the tax collectors still took more than their fair share; there was still slavery and abuse; greed and adultery and murder did not cease. And the world has been noisy, and messy, and angry and depressed in the two millennia since. And yet…
There IS peace on earth–it is the profound peace that comes with “Good will to Men.” God’s good will found its ultimate expression in the gift of the Savior. There may still be wars and pestilence, angry drivers, bad hair days, injustice, confusion, grief, and pain among people. But there is power to be at peace in the midst of it all– the power of a Peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7); the power of Peace with God (Romans 5:1).
Jesus came to a world that knew only the rumor of such peace. Even King David– a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who wrote songs about peace and safety and joy in God’s presence–knew this kind of peace as something that had been promised. David could know the immediate peace of God’s forgiveness; he could know the blessings of obedience and the restoration of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the everlasting Peace that has been accomplished by the Advent of the Christ– David, Moses, Abraham, and all the prophets had longed to know it; to experience it from within.
And THIS Peace we can experience– not just during the Advent and Christmas Season, but throughout our lives. Chaos, loneliness, grief, separation, injustice– it HAS BEEN defeated. It has no power to separate us from God’s Good Will or from His Loving embrace! The noise and anger and clutter and abuse is still real. We should not ignore it, and we certainly must not contribute to it or sanction it. But we no longer have to live without hope; we no longer have to fret and live in constant fear or defeat.
There is no parade tonight as I write this– there are still lights and occasional noises downtown– a door closing, a dog barking, a car passing. But there is Peace within– no matter how loud or bright, how festive or even forlorn things seem.
We’re coming up to Thanksgiving in the U.S. next week. Many families will sit down to sumptuous meals–turkey with dressing/stuffing (depending on what region you live in), pumpkin pies, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rolls or muffins, salads, mac and cheese, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and more. Some will settle in front of big screen televisions to watch American football, and parades crowded with giant balloons and marching bands. Some will have modest gatherings with family and friends.
And the following day– Black Friday– they will rush to malls and giant box stores to take advantage of the spectacular sales. People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, all with the satisfaction that they might have spent a lot more if they had not braved the crowds and the 4 a.m. opening times (some will begin shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the “head start.” Others will stay comfortably and safely indoors and spend their money shopping on-line).
All of this costs money, of course. But for many Americans, it is not a real pinch to celebrate Thanksgiving. And we will say “Thanks,” and count our many blessings. We will also give. Charities and organizations are already taking donations. We can give $10 at the store to help buy meals for the hungry. We can buy small gifts to be sent overseas or to be given to the children of those in prison, or those who are homeless. We can buy coats (or hats or mittens, etc.) for those who have none. These efforts cost some money, too.
But how much of these efforts comes from true “thankfulness” and how much from other sources– pride or guilt or a sense of duty? For what am I truly grateful at Thanksgiving? Thankful that I have so much? Thankful that I have the power to help others? Thankful that I have the day off to go shopping?
It is easy for some of us to be thankful and generous–in our own eyes. I can give with the click of a button, and money I barely know I have is taken from my bank account and deposited in the account of a charity I may know very little about. I never have to see the people who are helped, and I never have to see what they have suffered or how my gift makes a difference. In fact, I don’t really have to see whether my gift even arrives where I imagine or does what the charity has promised. Some organizations are more transparent than others, and more reputable or honest than others, but I can feel good just by giving. In some cases, I can “make a difference” without any cost at all– just “like” a certain site, or fill out a survey. I can “give” without even giving!
In recent years, however, I have been surprised by those who have tried to make me feel bad about giving. They are not angry because I have not given, or have given very little, or given to dishonest charities. No. One lady was outraged that I should give to an organization that sends toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to needy children in countries around the world. What caused her outrage? Three things–the toys were “too American”–the instructions were printed in English, or they were “frivolous” toys like jump ropes and “matchbox” sized cars and trucks. Also, some of the boxes and wrapping were printed with cartoon-like children, which she felt were “racist” in their depiction. Finally, the spokesperson for the organization had been portrayed by the media as narrow-minded and “hateful” toward the issue of gay marriage. Her solution: she was never going to give to such an organization. She was urging people to give to groups that were providing livestock, instead. Here, she felt, was a useful gift. Chickens, goats, cows–these were gifts that would truly make a difference. And such gifts can and do make a difference– in rural areas, where there is space and enough grass or other food to sustain such animals. Her gift will have little impact on a child living in Nairobi, or Tegucigalpa, or Kosovo. I am glad she has the means and the desire to give and to help. And the organizations who provide such gifts are worthy–I mean no disrespect to any of them. But giving should be a joyous outpouring of love and thankfulness, of compassion and humility. If that means helping a rural community get milk and meat, that’s wonderful. If it means sending a stuffed animal, some silly socks, and some soap and washcloths to Lebanon, that’s great, too. Even if I don’t like the wrapping paper…
My point is that a lot of our “giving” has become more about virtue signaling than joyously sharing with others to meet their needs. It costs a lot more in money to send a goat to Peru. But it may cost a lot more in time and energy to spend a day serving meals at a homeless shelter, or volunteer to rebuild in a community hit by a tornado or hurricane. And even though there may be a monetary cost to some of our gifts, in some ways, our “giving” costs us nothing. Not just little or nothing in dollars and cents, but little in emotion or thought or effort. There is nothing personal, or heartfelt, or sacrificial about some of our giving.
And if that is true of our giving to strangers, what does that say about what we “give” to our families, our neighbors, and to God?
During the reign of King David, there are many instances of celebration and thanksgiving. But there are also stories of heartbreak, loss, and repentance. In one of these incidents, King David angered God by taking a census. His conscience caused him to ask God’s forgiveness and ask what could be done to take away the guilt. God sent the prophet Gad to give David three choices, but David left it in God’s hands. God sent a vicious plague that swept toward Jerusalem. When the angel of death reached the threshing floor of a man named Araunah the Jebusite, God told him to stop. David could actually see where God had stopped the plague, and immediately went to buy the threshing floor, so he could build an alter and sacrifice to the Lord in repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.
King David had plenty of money. He also had authority, and the respect of his people. Araunah offered to give David not only the field, but the oxen to make the sacrifice. As the king, David could have taken the land and oxen– he could even have demanded them of Araunah. But David paid for it all, saying that he would not give to God that which had cost him nothing.
In this season of giving, it can be tempting to measure the value of our gift by the monetary cost, or by the value WE receive from giving. But true giving should involve a willing and joyful sacrifice of our pride and our time. Sometimes, this may mean NOT giving a toy or a goat–it may mean giving an apology, or a second chance, or being willing to give up a turkey dinner or a shopping trip, in order to visit a shut-in, or spend some much needed time on our knees.
Having said that, there are plenty of things we can give that cost us “nothing”–smiles, a warm welcome, a listening ear, reaching out for reconciliation, and most of all, a heart-felt “Thank You.” Sometimes, these gestures cost us nothing– sometimes, they are a sacrifice. But they are gifts that really make a difference.
I love flipping through old photo albums. I’m reminded of special times and special people. Sometimes, the memories make me a little sad, as I see familiar faces of those who have passed away, or times of struggle or stress. But most of the time, memories fill my heart with gladness and comfort, strength and resolve.
I’ve been reading through the Psalms lately, and many of them speak of remembering. When God’s people faced struggles, they were told to remember the great stories of the past– the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the conquest of the Promised Land, and many other times when God gave miraculous provision, restoration, and victory. These songs were not just a matter of recapturing the “glory days” of old– they were part of God’s command to remember and pass along God’s deeds and His laws to each new generation.
In the Psalms, we are also encouraged to remember our own past actions– both righteous and rebellious– and God’s faithfulness in spite of our failures. We are to remember God’s correction and discipline; God’s forgiveness, and His Mercy– not just in our own lives, but over many generations and throughout the years.
God instituted festivals, and rites, and Holy Days of remembrance– special times set aside for remembrance and meditation, because it is important to Him that we never lose our focus. We can get so wrapped up in the present (or worrying about the future) that we forget God’s timeless and eternal nature.
Even Jesus, before He went to Calvary, instituted a new rite of remembrance– Communion– in which He called His disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.”
Today, I want to pray a prayer of remembrance. I want to spend time in worship and gratitude for who God IS, but also for who He always HAS BEEN. Thank you for your eternal faithfulness, and for your eternal plan of Salvation. Thank you for the ways you have provided in my life, in the lives of those who came before, and in the lives of generations of faithful saints. May I remember your Great Love and Power as I face uncertainties in the day ahead. May the remembrance of you lead me to trust you completely, follow you boldly, and share you with those I meet.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And it was a good day. It started out cold and wet, but I got to spend time with my mother, my mother-in-law, several other family members, and some dear friends from childhood. It was a happy day, and it ended with sunshine breaking through the late afternoon clouds, birds singing, and a full heart of memories and gratitude.
But Mother’s Day wasn’t always like that for me. For many years, it was one of the worst days of my year. No matter the weather or the company, there was always a shadow of barrenness and emptiness. Yes, I was grateful for my mother; for my grandmothers and aunts and other relatives; for my friends and their adorable children. But I felt shut out– I was not a mother. I would never be a mother. I was always on the outside looking in.
My circumstances are slightly different now, but I am still not a “natural” mother. No one calls me “mama” or even “grandma.” But Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be a day of sorrow and emptiness, and after years of prayer and letting go of expectations, God is showing me how to enjoy and embrace the circumstances in which He has placed me.
I am not alone in this struggle– far from it. For the past few weeks, I have heard from heartbroken people who dread Mother’s Day. Those who have lost their mothers face the reminder of their grief and loss. It is particularly hard on those who were unable to spend precious days with a dying mother due to COVID restrictions, or lost their mother to COVID. Some mothers are reminded of the wrenching loss of a child– still birth, drug overdoses, suicide, auto accidents, childhood cancer– gut-churning emptiness where once there was a promise of joyful life, grandchildren, shared memories, and so much more. Other mothers (and their children) face the pain of separation and severed relationships. Many, like me, face the reminder that they are NOT a mother– not a “real” mother–even if their circumstances or careers are filled with children “not their own.” And some people face multiple circumstances that cause grief, bitterness, alienation, anger, and despair.
These feelings of sadness and loss are natural, but they do not have to weigh us down or control how we face each day. God wants to share these burdens; He wants to carry the weight of our brokenness and free us to experience joy and peace– even in the midst of our pain! And on those days when our circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, God is never more than a prayer away. He doesn’t make our grief disappear; He doesn’t erase our memories. But He can redeem them with a changed perspective and new hope.
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.– each can bring bitterness and heartbreak, as well as joy. We do well to pay attention to those around us who dread such holidays, and offer the comfort, hope, and encouragement of a listening ear, a loving heart, and, most of all, a loving God who longs for us to pray in and through our heartbreak.
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” It’s a quirky movie, based on a novel by William Goldman. It’s part fairy-tale, part satire, part warm and funny love story. In it, one of the characters, Inigo Montoya, is impatiently trying to track down his father’s killer, the vicious Count Rugen. Ironically, to fund his quest for revenge, he takes a job working as a mercenary for Rugen’s mentor, Prince Humperdinck. Part of his job is to kidnap Humperdinck’s fiancee, Princess Buttercup, and kill the mysterious man who is trying to rescue her. When the mysterious masked man climbs the perilous Cliffs of Despair, Inigo waits at the top to challenge him to a duel.
But Inigo is impatient. He calls down to the struggling masked man. “I do not suppose you can hurry things up a bit,” he suggests. He even offers to help the man–“though I do not think you will accept my help, since I am only waiting to kill you..”
Inigo is not cut out to be a vicious mercenary– clearly– because he befriends the masked man before their deadly duel (which doesn’t result in anyone’s death). He even waits–yes, WAITS– for his opponent to get rested and prepared before the duel begins. Inigo may hate to wait, but he has developed the gift of waiting for others when it really counts. (A skill he demonstrates elsewhere in the tale.)
What does any of this have to do with prayer? We are entering a season of Advent. It is a reminder that the whole world waited impatiently for the coming of the Messiah. Centuries of impatience; centuries of expectation, centuries of waiting for a coming Hope.
We will spend a few weeks waiting– and it may be made more anxious because of COVID–waiting for presents, or to reunite with family. And we all hate waiting. We are uncomfortable with delayed expectations, and uncertainty in our immediate future. Even with the joyous anticipation that Christmas brings, the period of Advent can be nerve-wracking.
Inigo Montoya spent years anticipating and “waiting” to exact revenge for his father’s death. He hated waiting. But he used that time wisely. In the waiting, he prepared. He studied the art of sword-fighting. He searched far and wide for his quarry. His life revolved around this less-than-holy goal. And, though he “hated” waiting, he waited for decades, never giving up, and finally, achieving his goal. Along the way, he made many mistakes, but he also made friends, and avenged his father’s honor.
This Advent, we “await” the coming of the Christ child. And, as followers of that same Christ, we await His victorious second coming. This is so much better than waiting for revenge. We wait for reconciliation, for restoration, and for renewed life! We have a great hope– the anticipation of Eternal Victory and Joy! How are we preparing? Do we spend our time complaining? Do we give up? Or do we seek diligently, not for a six-fingered man to kill, but for opportunities to spread the Joy and Hope we have found?!
We just celebrated Memorial Day in the United States–a day when we remember all those who have given their lives in service to their fellow countrymen and women. People decorate the gravestones of soldiers who were killed in action, they march in patriotic parades, and they hold memorial services, with military rites, prayers, and speeches.
Not everyone celebrates in the same way. Some just use the day as an excuse to have a pre-summer cookout or swim-party. Some don’t commemorate the day at all. Some people use the day to honor veterans of the armed forces, or even those who risk their lives in emergency services– EMT’s, Firefighters, Police officers, and others. Others use the day to honor their ancestors, regardless of whether they served in the military.
My husband and I fall on this end of the spectrum. We like to pay tribute to those who came before us– to those who left everything behind to start a new life as “pioneers”; those who lived through wars and diseases and struggles; those who left a legacy to our grandparents and parents–a legacy we hope to pass on. But we don’t worship our ancestors; we don’t worship the soldiers who died. We honor them, we remember their sacrifice, but we recognize that they were human, just like us. They may have died in battle or as the result of battle, but they died, just as we will. Their sacrifices may have been heroic; their efforts may have preserved freedom for us, or brought freedom to those who were oppressed. And that is what we honor. That is what we remember.
Jesus Christ was not a soldier. Yet He sacrificed His life for a purpose much greater than the honor of a nation, or the freedom of family and friends. His sacrifice opened a way for us to be reconciled with God– to be declared righteous and Holy, in spite of what we have done (or failed to do). Our best efforts may end in tragic death on a battlefield– or in a hospital bed fighting cancer or AIDS. But our best efforts end in death. His best efforts destroyed the power of Death, and offered hope to all the world.
Memorial Day comes once a year in my country. Other nations have similar days. It is important to remember those who have come before– those who have made sacrifices, and paved the way for future generations to live free. But around the world, Christians have reason to celebrate every day– to remember the death AND resurrection of our Savior that gives us eternal freedom from the sting of Sin and Death.
Before His death, Jesus gave his disciples a rite– a ceremony– to remember His death, and what it would mean in light of His resurrection. We call it Communion or Eucharist– the “body” and “blood” of Christ–consumed and memorialized each time we take it. We don’t hold parades or play Taps or plant flowers. We don’t have pool parties and barbecues. But we reflect with solemnity and gratitude on the sacrifice that conquered the grave once and for all!