The Greatness of Christmas

Dec. 24, 2011

Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Within church circles, there is something called “the lectionary.” This is a three-year plan of what passages of scripture can be used in worship for every Sunday and special worship days of the year. Each worship day lists four Biblical passages of scripture. This passage from Titus is listed for Dec. 24. I’m guessing this isn’t the most popular scripture passage that will be used in worship services today. Luke 2:1-20, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph going toBethlehemand the birth of Jesus, is the scripture I have used at Christmas Eve worship services ever since I’ve been serving as a pastor.

Look closely at this passage again. (OK – maybe look at it for the first time if you skipped over it and went right to the words I write. I understand. Quite often I do this myself!) The very last words speak about “doing what is good.” Most people want to do what is good. I hear this sentence all the time, especially when meeting with a family that has just lost a loved one, “He/She was such a good person.” Good is good. But should being good be all that we strive for?

Personally, I hope that if someone describes me and the way I’ve lived my life, I pray that he/she will think of a more descriptive word than “good.” Besides, is good really all that good?

When someone asks you, “How are you doing?” what is your normal response? I have this sliding scale. If I’m having a not so good day, I say, “OK.” “Fine” is one step above “OK,” and “Good,” is one step above “Fine.” If I’m really having a good (there it is again!) day, then I might say, “Great.” I have this running dialogue with an older gentleman fromMidlandnamed Irv. After worship on Sunday, he asks me how I’m doing. He has sort-of figured out my sliding scale and sometimes calls me on it. If my response is, “OK,” he’ll say, “Are you really OK?”

Quite honestly, I’m not sure God would desire for us to live simply “good” lives. I’m thinking that God has a deep desire for us to be on the “great” end of the spectrum. That’s why God offers salvation for all people through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. When we see what God has done for us, then we see how important it is to say “no” to worldly passions and choose to follow Jesus’ example of how to live our lives. It means choosing to do what is good, as described by Titus in this passage.

I’ve just finished spending 45 minutes with a couple that I have never met before. The man called yesterday looking for assistance. As a pastor, I get these kinds of requests more frequently than other folks. They are fromHouston,TX. His son and the son’s half-brother were living with their mother inEau Clairewith her boyfriend. The mother and boyfriend were arrested for dealing drugs. The boys are in foster care. The man who called me is trying to get the boys but needs employment to do so. He shared that yesterday he got a job. They needed $100 to cover the rest of their rent and wanted to know if I could help out.

As you read these words, what is your first reaction? Would you help this couple? What is the good thing to do? “It depends,” is what I’m guessing many would say.

I’ve heard many stories, some which I could classify as true; some which I think are embellished to pull at my heart strings. Rick and I have discussed this many times. There are people out there who are trying to take advantage of others. And seriously, there are folks who really need help. How do we tell the difference? One way Rick and I keep perspective of this is to recognize that we are called to do our part, to live upright and godly lives today. If someone is taking advantage of us, then that’s for them to ultimately make peace with and not us. We error on the side of helping more often than not, recognizing that maybe some receivers are trying to take advantage of us. Our hearts just need to be in the place where we are giving as a response to God’s love for us. We leave the rest up to God and not drive ourselves crazy trying to decide whether we did the right thing or not.

Honestly, do you want God to look at you and ponder whether or not you deserve the gift of salvation and have God respond, “It depends?” Thank goodness God doesn’t have a sliding scale. Every day for God is great. Now we choose whether or not to make everyday we can great for the little part of God’s kingdom we’ve been entrusted with.

My prayer for you this day is that we can all see the greatness which God desires for us. Otherwise, why would have God set God’s very own Son into the world? Please pause life for a few moments and see how this really is more important than any worldly pleasures. This is the true greatness of Christmas Eve.

Let us pray: The splendor of the King, clothed in majesty. Let all the earth rejoice, all the earth rejoice. He wraps Himself in light, and darkness tries to hide. And trembles at His voice, and trembles at His voice. How great is our God! Sing with me: How great is our God! And all will see how great, how great is our God. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

The Smells of Christmas

Dec. 23, 2011

Luke 2:7

And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

My nose is alive with the wonderful smells of Christmas. Foremost, I’m a real Christmas tree tsar. I love walking into the house and smelling the tree, even before I see it. I know there are lots of good reasons to have an artificial tree. I just haven’t bought into them yet because I do not want to give up the smell of the real deal.

A week ago, a friend sent me a vase of Christmas flowers. I’ve had it on my home desk the last number of days and its fragrance fills my nostrils as I type on the laptop. Yum!

I broke down last night and made a batch of rosettes. These are little crispy fry cakes that we always made in December when I was growing up. I’m not especially fond of the frying oil smell that is left behind. But smelling the rosettes, prettily laid out on the kitchen counter, dusted with powered sugar this morning reminds me of the kitchen on the farm where I grew up.

Yesterday morning, I awoke to a beautiful painting of white snow outside. It was a picture-perfect scene. The snow hung on the branches all day. It was so crisp and clean and downright beautiful. Stepping outside and breathing deep to fill my lungs with the winter air, my nostrils received a symphony of snow smell. You didn’t think snow could smell, did you?  Try it the next time we have a fresh, new dusting.

Personally, nothing transports me back faster to another time and place than an appropriate smell. One of my all-time favorite smells is freshly brewed coffee. As a child, I couldn’t stand the taste. My Grandma Deaton would lovingly let me set on her lap and smell her coffee. She put cream and sugar in it, so as I stirred and wafted the aroma steaming off her cup, it also had a little sweet smell. When I want the house to smell great, I simply brew a pot of coffee. Hmm …

There were smells that first Christmas. Cow dung and wool. Fresh straw. Maybe the dampness that often accompanies a stable or animal cave. Who cannot appreciate the smell of a new baby?

Maybe Mary remembered these smells and she too was transported back to another time and place whenever she smelt them later on in her life. She didn’t have a camera or a camcorder to record the night’s events. But smells … this was something she could use to remember those special hours and minutes when the Messiah entered this world. I’m confident there were many smells that recalled those special moments for Mary and Joseph.

Let your nose help you celebrate and enjoy this special time of the year. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Be filled with the smells that abound. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit of God enliven your live and soul these next few days.

Let us pray: O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air; dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere. True man yet very God, from sin and death now saw us, and share our every load. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

Survey Says: The Most Important Holiday of the Year

Dec. 22, 2011

Romans 16:25-27

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to faith and obedience—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Americans believe Christmas is the most important holiday of the year, the 2011 American Holiday Study, commissioned by the United Methodist Communications, discovered. What are the top Christmas activities families enjoy? They include meals, gifts, decorations and parties. Here are few statistics:

  • 94% of us will share a meal
  • 76% will exchange gifts
  • 63% will decorate their homes
  • 58% will have a tree
  • 55% will attend a holiday party
  • 48% will attend a worship service
  • More people will buy a present for themselves than volunteer time
  • 42% will make a monetary donation
  • 36% will send Christmas emails, but 61 % will still send Christmas cards.
  • 60% percent think the holidays are too commercialized and 32% wish they were simpler.
  • Most Americans appear more practical about Christmas spending and will spend $250-$499 on presents this year.

The survey discovered that the most popular activities involve connecting with others. It discovered that people really prefer to connect with others at Christmas, rather than purchasing more things.  “What everyone seems to agree on is that is that the holidays should not be about consumerism, but about connection with others,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. “People want to be in touch with family and friends – to be part of a community, and that’s what the church is all about.”

What activity do people feel is most meaningful? Sharing a meal which 54% identified as most meaningful tradition. In contrast, 14% said attending a worship service as the most significant activity.

Last Sunday, I did a very informal, unscientific survey with our kids atMidlandto see what Christmas activity they enjoy the most. I wasn’t surprised when the first answer I received was “presents.” Several other kids agreed with this young boy. Decorating the tree, visiting Santa and going to Grandma’s also received votes.

Part of what all this information says to me is this: whatever a family places most emphasis on will often be what the kids will take forward as what is most important and significant for them in celebrating Christmas.

I see this in my own life. The events and things I remember most fondly (and have written about in this blog), are the things that my Mom felt were important and instilled in me and my siblings while growing up. I can’t imagine skipping church on Christmas Eve. Even when I was overseas, we found a place to worship. The crèche, the Advent wreath, Christmas dinner, decorating our often Charlie Brown Christmas tree, reading the Christmas story before eating Christmas dinner: these are all things my Mom impressed upon me and I feel are important.

What’s all of this to say? Think about the Christmas traditions and events that are most important to you. Do you celebrate these things? Are they something you celebrated as a child or when did this tradition begin? If you have children and/or grandchildren, have you celebrated these things with them so they can develop this as a personal tradition?

The whole reason we celebrate Christmas is because people realized that there was a story about how Baby Jesus was born. Someone – the author of Luke’s gospel – felt it was important to share how it all happened. And so, this “tradition” of celebrating Jesus’ birth has been passed down from generation to generation. His birth and the implications of it are no longer a secret. The information is widely available for us to hear and choose whether or not to believe.

Personally, I think his birth is worth celebrating. Developing meaningful ways to recall, remember and celebrate Jesus’ birthday are important. I pray that you have special traditions that you will utilize and share with your family in the next few days. After all, we Americans have declared that Christmas is the most important holiday of the year.

Let us pray: Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all t he earth. Ye who sang creations’ story now proclaim Messiah’s birth. Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.  I pray that we will have meaningful ways to celebrate this great event this year. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

Caroling Our Way Through Christmas

Dec. 21, 2011

Psalm 96:1-4, 9

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

One of my more favorite memories with my husband Rick at the holidays involves singing Christmas carols. We were living in a parsonage and had just finished putting up the tree. It was a Monday and we were having a Christmas open house that coming Sunday. It was the only day we had to put the tree up, as I would be going back to seminary the following day and there the remainder of the week.

It had snowed significantly Sunday night into Monday morning and the area schools were closed. Basically, people weren’t out unless they had to. Rick and I needed a Christmas tree so we were one of the few people out and about. We went to a nearby tree farm, tromped through the fresh, powder-like snow until we found our perfect tree for that year. Rick cut it and we carefully tied it on top of the vehicle to haul it home.

With carols playing in the background and sipping with hot chocolate, we decorated the tree and the remainder of the house. Rick was a sport, doing his part in helping adorn our home with greens, flowers, ornaments and such. A Martha Stewart, he is not. But he was doing his very best.

I had finals that week and knew I needed to hit the books. But I sat down at the piano to run through some music for church on Sunday. Rick sat down on the bench next to me, and soon we were flipping through the pages of the Reader’s Digest Christmas Song Book, singing our hearts away. Mind you, the only thing Rick is normally allowed to play is a radio. He can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It didn’t matter. As dusk came over the house and the recently arranged lights on the tree brightened, singing carols capped off a full yet fun day.

Do you have a favorite Christmas carol? A favorite Christmas CD? Do you start playing Christmas carols in early November … or do you not really care for music?

I think Christmas carols are an important part of Christmas celebrations. I love music. I work hard to have fun, meaningful and good music during Advent, Christmas, Lent and Holy Week in worship. In the last few weeks, sometimes I’ve seemingly spent as much time selecting, preparing and practicing music for worship as I have preparing the weekly message. Music can truly shape a worship service, an experience, a day.

One of the reasons I think music is so important is because it helps tell the story. Whether it’s a long-standing carol or a newer contemporary song, music is an expression of the writer’s beliefs, understanding and feelings about the holiday. Many of the traditional Christmas carols provide theology and insights into the birth of Jesus. Yes, there’s lots of lore in the hymns also. But what child doesn’t learn “Away in the Manger” at a young age?

Each year we come to the familiar Christmas story with wonder at God’s great love in giving God’s Son. Every familiar Christmas carol reminds us that this is a story of joy … a joy we experience every time we sing about our Savior. Yes, sometimes the carols make the birth of Jesus seem like a Thomas Kincaid card: beautiful and absolutely perfect. Ultimately, I hope we know better. But we still enjoy recalling the beautiful words to our favorite carols

Last Saturday night, we attended four-year-old grandson Waylan’s Christmas program. He attends a parochial preschool a few days a week. On Saturday, the entire 4K through 8th grade school had a Christmas program. Because it is a parochial school, it was fine for Christian Christmas carols to be included. Missing were the songs about Santa coming down the chimney or reindeer on the roof. Instead, we heard about the manger full of hay and wise men going to Bethlehem.

Of course, Rick and I thought Waylan’s class, who sang with the kindergartners, did the best job. We chucked as Waylan’s motions were sometimes a beat or two behind the other kids. If he couldn’t quite remember the words, he’d wrinkle his nose. Later, in the car, I asked him to sing a jazzy song that began, “Let’s go toBethlehem!” I wanted to hear the words again. Waylan told me that he could only sing “those songs if the music is playing.” So, I’m still dying to know the exact words to this catchy little song.

As Christmas gets closer, turn up your car radio a little louder and make sure it’s on a Christmas songs all the time station. Wear out your favorite Christmas CD, listening to it over and over. Prepare to sing joyfully your favorite carols at worship on Saturday. Maybe we won’t be singing many new songs, as the psalmist wrote, but you will definitely be worshiping the Lord in holy splendor. Watch the candles burn brightly when the lights are turned down low and we gently sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright.”

Let us pray: As we sing or hear, “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth,” may our hearts swell with emotion as we hear and sing the carols that help us recall your Son’s birth. May we know that our musical abilities are not nearly as important to you, Almighty God, as a joyful heart being moved by touching words.  Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

Jesus Birthday Wish List

Dec. 20, 2011

Matthew 25:31-36

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

As I was at the Post Office this morning and writing a check for my purchase, I contemplated what day it was. When I realized it was Dec. 20, I thought, “Wow! Christmas is really close!”

This Advent, I’ve been trying to encourage myself and others to not get so caught up in the business of Christmas preparations. Doing a daily devotional has forced me to pause at least for an hour each day and contemplate. But here’s the catch: it’s easier to write about something than actually live it in your life.

Isn’t this one of the great challenges of life? We can know and believe something. But living it on a daily basis really is a lot more challenging. I know exercise is good for me. I know that I’m more creative when I take time to exercise. Over time, my body responds. But when I get busy and feel stretched, what is the first good thing for me that I skip? Yep, you guessed it: exercise.

How easy it is for us to do this with our spiritual journeys also. I rarely fail to feed my physical body but too often I fail to adequately feed myself spiritually. Preparing for worship and planning how to present the Nativity story creatively once again doesn’t really allow me to spiritually feed myself. Sometimes it does. But honestly, it’s another thing on my “to-do” list that I just want to get crossed off.

Yesterday, I spoke about what Jesus would want on Jesus’ birthday wish list. The all-to-easy answer is to say, “I’m not really sure.” I disagree. In these verses from Matthew, which Jesus says very near the end of his earthly life, I think Jesus makes it very clear what would be on his birthday wish list. The best gift you could ever give me, he says, is to feed the hungry, get a drink for someone who is thirsty, help provide housing for the homeless, visit your sick neighbor, don’t turn away the stranger and yes, even visit those in prison.

It’s pretty clear what Jesus would most want us to do this week. As a pastor, there are two times of the year when I make an intentional effort to visitMidland’s shut-ins and those who aren’t able to get out very much. I do it right before Christmas and right before Easter. I know this is crazy because it’s also in those periods that my responsibilities for worship and special projects are also the greatest. Yet, I feel these times are important to bring God’s love to those who aren’t able to worship with us on a regular basis. I often share communion with these folks and bring along a small plate of candy or cookies. I’m trying to squeeze in the last number of visits I want to make yet this week, not quite sure when they will all get done. I just take it one visit at a time, in any available hour that I find.

Because in the end, I really believe these are the visits that bring joy to Jesus and the folks I visit. I’ve discovered that I can either view these visits as “work” or as a great opportunity to bring a small ray of God’s love into this person’s life.

At times, I’ve taken my niece or nephews or a grandchild or two with me on these visits. Every time I’ve done so, the person we are visiting has thoroughly enjoyed the younger person I’ve got tagging along. When I first brought one of these younger family members along, they asked why we were doing this. I explained that sometimes it’s important to stop and see folks who aren’t able to get out. It’s a way to bring some joy to their life. When it works out, Rick also has gone on these visits with me.

Can you find an hour this week to visit someone you wouldn’t normally visit? If there are younger people in your life, maybe see if they want to join you. I pray this won’t be “work” for you, but a great way to bring a little ray of sunshine to someone else’s life.

Let us pray: What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart. May we give of ourselves and allow others to see your glory through our actions. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

Picking out a Present for Jesus

Dec. 19, 2011

Isaiah 61:1-2

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.

A huge part of Christmas and birthdays is giving presents. Normally, the person whose birthday it is receives the presents on his or her birthday. So, have we remembered whose birthday we’re celebrating this week? Christmas is Jesus’ birthday; not our birthday. Isn’t interesting that on Christmas, we focus much more on giving presents to other people than giving a present to him whose birthday we celebrate?

What would Jesus want as a present for his birthday? I asked this question in church yesterday and received a variety of very good answers. Here’s what I heard:

  • Compassion
  • Love
  • Belief
  • Peace
  • Justice

And then I asked the question: “Can any of these things be wrapped up and placed under the tree?” I think we can quickly discover the answer.

Jesus was in his hometown ofNazarethwhen he boldly proclaimed his personal mission statement. He quoted the words from Isaiah 61, posted at the top. If we read this closely, Jesus wasn’t about making us comfortable, making sure we are “good” people, or guaranteeing that bad things won’t happen to us. What did Jesus personally plan to do in his lifetime? Go talk with the poor, explore how those held in captivity of something could be released from what holds them captive, bring people out from the darkness in their lives, grant us God’s favor and comfort us when we mourn. Once again, these things can’t really be wrapped and placed under a tree.

When Jesus quoted these words, he reminds us that our actions most often define what kind of people we are. It’s how we treat those around us, how we reach out to those who don’t have their basic needs met, how we choose to respond to needs we’re aware of.

When we think of the poverty, we often think of economic limitation. In the deepest biblical sense, poverty is any kind of brokenness, whether it is in a personal or cultural context that restricts people from living in the fullness of humanity that God intends. For those of us who were born into a first-world economy with many blessings, we are often blinded by our own spiritual poverty. This allows us to become lukewarm in our faith and in our actions. Quite often, materialism allows us to feel comfortable and not have to depend upon God for the very existence of our lives.

Last night, I met with some ofMidland’s teens in what we call Confirmation. It’s a time for teens to discover and explore faith for themselves. We talked about why God doesn’t remove and take care of the bad things that happen in our world. I believe one of the great hang-ups for people and belief and committing themselves to God is because folks believe that if there really was a God, Immanuel – God with us – in this world, then why is there so much sorrow, suffering and evil. Why doesn’t God just eliminate all of this heartache? I explained to the teens that I can’t answer the “Why?” question. What I can do is put before people the “Who?” question. Who will journey with you through this challenging time?  When it comes to how we deal with all the crabby stuff in this world, we are the “something” that God is sending to combat evil in the world. We can become God’s presence, God’s hands, feet and treasure which can be someone’s present. This is exactly what Jesus would want on his Christmas and birthday wish list.

I received such a present this morning. After Midland’s Christmas Eve worship, we’re going to have a “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” party with cake and candles. It’s a way for us to remember whose birthday we’re actually celebrating. A very giving woman from church called me this morning, inquiring whether she could take care of getting Jesus’ birthday cake. No, she wasn’t going to bake one, but she would be happy to arrange for a bakery to make it. I know she’ll pick up the cake and get it to church on Christmas Eve.

I’m sure part of the reason she wants to do this is to help me out, to take one thing off of my to-do list this week. I also think she really wants to provide Jesus’ birthday cake for Jesus and all of us. It’s not probably a big deal to her, but it’s a big deal to me. Not only does it help me out, but I know that she gets how important it is for us to remember whose birthday it is. This is the true spirit of gift-giving that I hope we can all find this Christmas.

What can you do for the birthday King this week? Let’s not get so caught up in our preparations that we forget whose birthday it really is.

Let us pray: Baby Jesus – it seems rather difficult for us to figure out what to get you for your birthday. The little drummer boy decided that playing his drum was what he could do. I pray that you’ll help me see what I can do to make sure Jesus is honored through a present of his choosing that I freely give this Christmas. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

Peace in a Busy Week

Dec. 17, 2011

Following is a poem written by one of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Dave Dickson. For many Christmases, Dr. Dave wrote a Christmas poem, incorporating something relating to the dairy industry, the dairy cow or being a dairy farmer. This poem relates in a different way his thoughts about the Christmas season:

 

There’s no time like Christmas

And nothing like friends

To brighten our lives

As another year ends;

 

A year marked so well

By Man’s steps on the moon

But marred by man’s anger,

And over too soon.

 

Through the Holiday Season

As friends come and go,

Let warmth, love and kindness

Set your heart aglow.

 

And as you reflect

On that Christmas Day birth

Pray, “Love among Mankind

And Peace on our Earth.”

A week from today is Christmas Day. This week can be filled with lots of things. In the spirit of Advent, slow down this week. Close your eyes. Stare at your Christmas tree. Concentrate how God came into this world so create opportunities for peace within our earth. Remember how we can find favor with God. Remember that God considers us as worthy as a simple teenaged woman who accepted the responsibility, trusted and believed that she could carry the Savior of the world. As the first Christian missionary, she discovered how important it was for her to share Jesus with the rest of the world. May we be willing to take risks this week and share Christ with the rest of the world in some simple, small way. May peace be underneath our Christmas celebrations.

Let us pray: Dear God: As we approach Christmas, may we be encouraged to not get caught up in business. Let’s keep the true spirit of the season a part of our daily activities. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

When the Subject of Santa Comes Up

Dec. 17, 2011

1 John 4:7-12

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

I was at the Children’s Christmas Program practice this morning. One of the Dad’s shared how he had a tough Dad moment this week. His 9-year-old daughter came, looked him in the eye and asked him if Santa is real. She used a line that he often says to her, “Tell me the real truth.”

He felt very much on the spot and decided that developing long-term trust with his daughter was the most important thing to teach at that moment. So, he told her the real truth, “No.” This was followed by disappointment and crying. He tried to explain how he was trying to develop this circle of trust with her, that he would tell her the truth and vice versa. While I’m not really sure, I’m guessing she heard very little after, “No.”

Dad proceeded to tell me that he wanted her to understand is that Santa is based on the tradition of St. Nicholas, which is a great way to re-direct this question. Tradition says a man name Nicholas came from a wealthy family. As soon as he received his inheritance, Nicholas began to give it away to the poor and needy. He loved giving gifts to children, which he did in secret. He also helped families who were unable to financially provide for their daughter’s dowries.

Of course, the 9-year-old daughter wasn’t ready to hear about this either. The story started a conversation with a few parents about whether their kids still believe and how we discovered there wasn’t a real Santa.

I know that I can’t buck secular culture and pull less emphasis away from Santa. That’s impossible. So, how can Christians leverage Santa to help us explore the real reason for the season?

Let’s rediscover some of the original traditions involving Santa Clause. In some cultures, Santa is called Kris Kringle, which comes from the Dutch word Christkindl, meaning “Christ child.” While Kris Kringle is often used interchangeable with Santa Claus, it was originally created in an attempt to refocus people’s attention on Jesus as the real gift-giver. Likewise, the tradition of St. Nicholas is rooted in honest, Christian values: love, helping the less fortunate, giving rather than getting, generosity, etc.

Yes, Gift-giving is rooted in the gifts from the magi. But ultimately, gift-giving goes back to what God gave for each of us in Jesus Christ. If we love the gift Jesus gives us, then we are mandated to express that love to others, especially at Christmas. One Dad shared today how their family downplays the gifts received from Santa and focuses more on gifts from family.

Here are a couple other suggestions for how gift-giving can be less about material purchases and more on the true understanding of why gifts are given at Christmas:

  • Make it a family activity to make homemade items for emotionally needed folks. Make things like homemade bread, cookies, cards and crafts. Then, deliver them to a local nursing home (check in advance with them about whether or not food is accepted), shut-ins, elderly folks, people who aren’t able to get out very much. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to be very much. A few cookies and couple pieces of candy on a small Christmas paper plate are greatly appreciated!
  • Help at a situation which serves underprivileged people. Examples would be a local giving tree, food pantry, etc. Or put together a shoe box of small items and mysteriously deliver and leave it at the door of a family that you know will be challenged for presents this year.
  • Focus on relational giving. Give a friend or family member a couple of mugs and a pound of coffee with a note that says, “This coffee is for when we sit down and talk because I what I want to do this year is spend more time with you.” Or give a baseball glove and a ball with a note indicating your desire to play catch once a week with your child or grandchild.
  • Skip the family gift and give the money to a family who needs heat this winter.

Ultimately, our goal in sharing presents is to help focus on the giving and not the getting. It’s returning to the original meaning of giving presents, which are a reminder of the love God gave to us through Jesus Christ.

What everyone really wants is to be loved and to have time with the people they love. As I’ve been at the deathbed of various people, no one has ever said to me, “I wish I’d had more material possessions.” What people say is that they hope their family members know how much they love them.

So, how do we deal with the challenge and lure of Santa in our culture? I’m confident we can’t eradicate Santa. I’m not sure it’s even a good idea to. What we can do is remember how the tradition of Santa began and that it is far more blessed to give than to receive. We give back the best gifts possible to Jesus when we give to others. May this be the spirit of our Christmas gift-giving this year.

Let us pray: Dear God: The finest gift you’ve ever given was your Son, Jesus. It’s the kind of gift we can’t ever fully appreciate. May our gift-giving this season be less about getting and more about giving. Help us to creatively ponder the gifts we give, who receives them and how we can instill the spirit of God’s love through the gifts we give. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

The Unbreakable Relationship

Dec. 16, 2011

Hosea 1:2-3

When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the LORD.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

Hosea 3:1-3

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekelsof silver and about a homer and a lethekof barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

There is a little book in the Old Testament called Hosea that is often overlooked. It’s an important book as it provides a metaphor for how intensely God loves us.

Hosea was a prophet. He lived at a time when the Israelites had become very lukewarm in their faith. It’s after the people have been lead out ofEgyptand back to the Promised Land. God has established a covenant with the Israelites as God’s chosen people. But the Israelites have strayed away from God. They haven’t kept up their half of the covenant.

The Lord comes to Hosea and tells him to knowingly marry a promiscuous woman named Gomer. He is to have children with her and love her fully. This is challenging. Hosea is asked to knowingly marry a spouse who will not be faithful to him. He is told to have children with her and raise them, not knowing fully if these children are biologically his children or not.

After marriage, Gomer continues to be unfaithful to Hosea. In chapter 3, Hosea has to go and purchase her back from her pimp! Even though she has been unfaithful, has committed adultery and sold herself into sexual slavery, Hosea is to love her unconditionally and reclaim her as his wife. When he gets Gomer back to their home, he promises to love her fully and make her his wife in every sense of the word.

This is in the Bible? Yep! Who needs an afternoon soap opera? Simply read Hosea!

Why is this story important for us to recall during Advent? This metaphor gets to the very heart of why God sent God’s son into the world. Think of God taking Hosea’s spot in the story. Think of the Israelites, God’s chosen people, as being Gomer. The Jewish people have knowingly turned away from God, prostituted their special relationship with God and given up the most serious of covenants casually, with little thought or understanding of the gravity of their sin. As awful as Hosea feels about his failed relationship with this wife, it is akin to how od feels about God’s failed relationship with God’s chosen people.

While it makes logical and emotional sense for Hosea to let his marriage fail and move away from this relationship, God coaches Hosea to take his wife back and re-establish his marriage covenant. While it makes logical and emotional sense for God to give up on the Jews – to declare that it’s no longer worth investing in – God doesn’t. The relationship between God and humanity is more important to God than the relationship between a husband and a wife. Even when it may not make sense, God doesn’t give up on humanity.

God determined there was one way to solve this problem: God coming as a human being. The way God decides to re-establish an eternal relationship with all of humanity is through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Want to know how much God wants to be in relationship with you? Look at the baby in the manger scene.

Rick and I believe that God had a hand in bringing the two of us together. How else would have it been orchestrated that I would become a student pastor at the only church Rick had ever been affiliated with? Sometimes we have rocky days in our marriage. But I am confident that there is nothing that we will let tear our marriage covenant apart.

God’s commitment to each of us is even stronger than my commitment to my husband. When Rick does something that disappoints me, I am reminded to remember how often I let my Savior down. What am I to do when I feel let down by Rick? Love him even more and re-commit to him at a deeper level, just as Hosea re-committed himself to his prostitute wife.

God promises never to give up on us. Now if we can only remember not to give up on God and give up on each other! The relationship with God is unbreakable because of God’s perfect love for us. We can’t love perfectly but we can esteem to do so. Most importantly, may we see how much God desires us to be in relationship with God every day of the year.

Let us pray: Love came down at Christmas, Love divine. Love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign. Love shall be our token; love be yours and love be mine. Love to God and all humankind. Love for plea and gift and sign. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne

A Perspective on Buyer’s Remorse

Dec. 15, 2011

John 3:16-17

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

The news media shared this morning that Christmas shopping revenue since Black Friday is higher this year than last year. But there’s a catch. Returns are also higher. Why? Folks who track this kind of thing call it buyer’s remorse. After the purchase is made, the buyer regrets the purchase and returns it. Sometimes the return is made because the purchaser discovered the item could be bought somewhere else cheaper. Or the person decided that they really didn’t need the purchase.

There are times when I buy items and know that at least part of the purchase will be returned. I want to check an item of clothing with what’s in my closet at home. What seemed like a good deal in the store later feels unnecessary or extravagant.

Retailers have used a variety of gimmicks to lure folks into stores this shopping season. The news media agree that overall, these tactics have worked. Yet, the media also confirms that there are a lot of people who have not yet done their Christmas shopping. A huge sprint to the finish line is still expected. With less than 10 shopping days remaining, the gimmicks will continue, the media reported.

I wonder if God ever gets buyer’s remorse. Does God ever look at humanity, ponder the price God paid through God’s Son, Jesus, and think, “Hmm. I overspent when I tried to save humanity. Did I really need to invest as much into redeeming the world as I have? Could have I done it cheaper?”

Let me be clear. By no means am I trying to equate God’s grace to purchasing a flat-screen TV, a laptop or the newest version of a DS. This is comparing apples to oranges. God’s grace isn’t cheap at all because it involved the blood and flesh of an actual person, God’s Son.

Deep down, I believe God looks at humanity and doesn’t experience buyer’s remorse. Instead, God graciously looks at us and says, “What else can I do to help these folks understand just how much I really, really love them?”

A few years ago, the Christian music group, “Go Fish” came out with a song called, “It’s About the Cross.” Here are the words:

It’s not just about the manger, where the baby lay
It’s not all about the angels, who sang for him that day
It’s not just about the shepherds, or the bright and shining star
It’s not all about the wise men, who travelled from afar

It’s about the cross, It’s about my sin
It’s about how Jesus came to be born once, so that we could be born again
It’s about the stone that was rolled away
So that you and I could have real life someday
It’s about the cross; It’s about the cross

It’s not just about the presents underneath the tree
It’s not all about the feeling that the season brings to me

It’s not just about coming home to be with those you love
It’s not all about the beauty in the snow I’m dreaming of

It’s about the cross, It’s about my sin
It’s about how Jesus came to be born once so that we could be born again
It’s about the stone that was rolled away
So that you and I could have real life someday
It’s about the cross; It’s about the cross

The beginning of the story is wonderful and great
But it’s the ending that can save you and that’s why we celebrate

It’s about the cross, It’s about my sin
It’s about how Jesus came to be born once so that we could be born again
It’s about God’s love nailed to a tree
It’s about every drop of blood that flowed from Him when it should have been me

It’s about the stone that was rolled away
So that you and I could have real life someday
So that you and I could have real life someday
It’s about the cross; it’s about the cross.

Someone asked me once if this was a Christmas song or if it is an Easter song. I think it is both. It gets to the important fact that Christmas cannot be separated from Easter, just as Easter cannot be separated from Christmas. To understand the full meaning of either, they must be connected. The full depth and width of the Christmas gift gets lost unless it is held in tension with the cross. At the cross, we see God’s deep love for humanity when Jesus, the Son of God, hangs on a cross and dies for you, for me, for all of humanity. Because Jesus came into the world as an innocent, helpless baby, he can absorb all of our sin and wrong doings. This is grace which Jesus extends to us freely, without any gimmicks.

When we see how expensive Good Friday is, there can be no doubt in our minds. God never experiences buyer’s remorse. God chose the most expensive route possible and has never regretted it. I pray that we chose not to give up on God because God certainly will never give up on us.

Let us pray: How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in. Thanks for giving this gift, Almighty God. I pray we will catch a glimpse of just how much you were willing to pay to purchase our lives. Amen.  

Blessings –

Dianne