My Most Unforgettable Christmas – A Reprise


California Sagebrush

California Sagebrush


Speaking of the trappings of Christmas as I did yesterday, I thought it might be fitting to do a look back to what I wrote in other years about the things that surround Christmas.

– – – – –

When I was seventeen, I lived with my family in Tanzania for a year. I’d never traveled much and really had no desire to live outside the US. But I didn’t feel particularly ready to launch out on my own, so I spent that last year “at home” in a country that gave no pretense to being a Christian nation.

It was an unusual feeling as the holiday season rolled around. No one was decorating for Christmas or playing carols. Not even Santa made an appearance.

We did our best to uphold our traditions. We conjured up a plant we called a Christmas tree–more like a large bit of sagebrush. We had no lights or ornaments or tinsel, so we imitated pioneers of old and made things to hang for decorations.

We started with strings of popcorn. This is not as homey and romantic as it first seemed. For one thing, the popcorn liked to break apart as much as it liked to have a string passed through it. For another, it was tedious work. But at last that poor, sad, drooping sorry excuse for a Christmas tree had something on it we could pretend to be decorations.

The best part truly was shopping. We had to travel the two hundred miles south from our town to the capital city of Dar es Salaam. We spent a day, maybe two prowling the stores to find gifts for each other–things that would be useful and memorable and beautiful. We wrapped our gifts in some paper I’m sure my mom found which came the closest to Christmas wrapping, then we piled them under the Sorriest Christmas Tree ever. I mean, ours made Charlie Brown’s tree look ritzy.

I don’t remember the details of that day. What I do remember is the love and laughter and joy we shared. The gifts weren’t about getting what we wanted. That was already out the window–we weren’t getting the latest or greatest or newest or most stylish. Rather, the gifts were an expression of the love and thoughtfulness each of us put into them. Like the tree, they were more on the sorry side–not ultimate treasures, not even diamonds in the rough. But getting stuff wasn’t the point. Exchanging expressions of love and being together was what we cared about.

I’m pretty sure we read the Christmas story—it was a bit of family tradition, and we probably opened up one present Christmas Eve. We may have awakened to the strains of Handel’s Messiah, too. There may have even been a church service that day. These things would be part of the norm, so I don’t remember them particularly.

But that tree was one of a kind, and I’ll never forget it. Nor will I forget living in a country that considered Christmas little more than another day of the year. For the first time, I got a glimpse of how a Christian heritage leaves an imprint on a culture.

Just like footprints, though, which wind or waves or time can erase, the impact of Christianity can fade unless one generation passes along to the next what Christianity is all about. Not hanging lights or singing carols at a certain time each year, mind you. In fact, the real impact of Christianity has much more to do with what happens before and after December 25 than it does on that particular day.

But it doesn’t hurt to create a memorable Christmas Day. Traditions are great, but what sets apart one Christmas from another is the unusual or different. Like a sad looking imitation of a Christmas tree. 😀

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Published in: on December 13, 2017 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Life-Changing, Life-Long Gift


It’s Christmas time! Well, almost. Here in the US, after our Thanksgiving Day, it seems most people turn their attention to Christmas. Music, decorations, and of course, gifts.

Interestingly, the best gift I ever received wasn’t really a gift—not in the sense of someone buying me something special and wrapping it in holiday paper or topping it with a bow. I didn’t receive it on December 25 either. In fact, it isn’t even something you receive. It’s something you do.

I imagine some people might be thinking of various giving activities that would be appropriate at Christmas time. Ways to help the needy, the less fortunate. Ways to bring Christmas to those in convalescent hospitals, to families of prisoners, to prisoners themselves.

These are all wonderful things, and they might well be life-changing to some degree, but the gift I received, or didn’t receive, wasn’t anything like that.

Rather, as I may have mentioned in this space before, I had a principal early in my teaching career at our Christian school, tell the entire staff that we ought to be spending time in the Bible every day since we were teaching the Bible.

Sure, yeah, of course. We all had Bible as our first subject of the day, and why wouldn’t we want to familiarize ourselves with the material we were teaching? It made perfect sense to me.

I also had a teacher friend who became a model for me. Some years earlier she had started the practice of reading through the Bible every year. By the time I discovered this, she’d been through the Bible, like ten times.

Wow! That seemed so . . . formidable, but also desirable. So I started out. I wish I could say it was easy sailing, but it wasn’t. I had starts and stops, frustration, even some boredom where I had to bring my wandering mind back from all the other things on my plate. I had guilt and questions about my motives, but slowly, bit by bit, I had the roots of a habit–a life-long, life-changing habit.

Now, all these years later, I can’t think of one other thing that has made a greater difference in my life. God’s Word simply has revolutionized the way I view the world.

I don’t know that my principal realized what a great gift he was giving. After all, the reasoning behind his statement to us was utilitarian–you can’t teach what you don’t know. But there’s a greater truth there–you can’t live what you don’t know, either. And you also can’t love Who you don’t know.

Simply put, the Bible shows me God.

Day in and day out, I see how God interacted with people in history–how He formed them, loved them, warned them, redeemed them. And oh yes, I see that all those recorded relationships are meant to inform me about my own relationship with God.

No greater gift.

I was reminded of this some years ago as I was driving home from church. Joni Earkson Tada had a short radio spot that aired on Sunday here in the LA area, and that week she talked about how she and her husband had been reading through the Bible in a year. She challenged her listeners to do the same.

How cool, I thought. Someday someone else is going to look back and say, Joni changed their life because she gave them the greatest, most life-changing gift of all.

The gift, of course, isn’t really the challenge. The gift is the doing. And the continuing to do.

My friend who had read the Bible at least ten times? She’s still at it. She’ll change things up once in a while to keep looking at the text anew. Sometimes she’ll read back to front or in a different version from her norm. But she’s there, day in and day out, meeting with God in the pages of His book.

How could spending that much time with God NOT change a person? What a great gift!

Apart from some minor editing, this article first appeared here in November 2012.

Published in: on November 27, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Why Christmas Can Be Hard


Christmas presentsIn the best of times, Christmas can be hard. For me, when I was teaching, there were Christmas programs to rehearse and then to attend while “monitoring” a host of lovely junior highers. All in a day’s work. But so was practicing and coaching my team in a Christmas basketball tournament, buying and parceling out Christmas goodies to give to my homeroom, decorating the room and hanging Christmas bulletin boards.

Then there were Christmas church programs, gifts to buy and wrap for my family, decorations in my home, a church party, a school faculty party.

And that’s when times were the best. In truth, they weren’t always that good. There were occasional colds, progress reports that happened to fall the week before vacation, problems with travel plans, stormy weather.

In short, Christmas time is far from restful. Add in the fact that Christians often receive admonitions to “keep Christ in Christmas.” All the busy-ness and we are supposed to incorporate worship. In fact we are supposed to make all the other things serve worship.

It can be hard.

Worse yet is losing someone you care about, or relational problems, long distance moves, marriage break-ups.

In all this, I’m convinced that God doesn’t want the remembrance of His Son’s birth to be a source of despair or doubt or fatigue or sadness. He is a God who prescribed lavish celebrations for His chosen people as part of their worship of Him. He is a God who promises feasting and parties for those who come to Him. He is a God whose Holy Spirit produces, among other things, the fruit of joy and peace.

Add to this the fact that He gives the gift of grace and forgiveness, so we do not have to earn right standing with Him (as if we could anyway). Rather, what He wants is our joyful, grateful response—the pure exhilaration at finding ourselves unshackled from sin and the overflowing appreciation poured upon the One who broke our bonds.

Our exhilaration and appreciation can come out in all the things we do at Christmas time. We can decorate and do Christmas programs, shop and wrap, party and perform, all in light of God’s great gift. We love because He first loved us. We serve because He served us. We sacrifice because He first laid down His life for us.

If we are mindful of what God has done for us, if we do not look at Jesus as a perpetual baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, if we have responded and are responding to His greatest gift, then our Christmas may be hard, but it will be the kind of hard that has purpose. Like training for the Olympics, only better.

And in the end, we’ll be preoccupied with looking to God and will forget to check to see how hard things are for us today.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the fnstrength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:21-31)

Published in: on December 16, 2015 at 6:53 pm  Comments (3)  
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Why Christmas Can Be Hard


eagle-1132464-mIn the best of times, Christmas can be hard. For me, there were Christmas programs to rehearse and then to attend while “monitoring” a host of lovely junior highers. All in a day’s work. But so was practicing and coaching my team in a Christmas basketball tournament, buying and parceling out Christmas goodies to give to my homeroom, decorating the room and hanging Christmas bulletin boards.

Then there was the Christmas church program, gifts to buy and wrap for my family, decorations in my home, a church party, a school faculty party.

Of course, times weren’t always the best. There was the occasional cold, progress reports that happened to fall the week before vacation, travel plans, stormy weather.

In short, Christmas time is far from restful. Add in the fact that Christians often receive admonitions to “keep Christ in Christmas.” All the busy-ness and we are supposed to incorporate worship. In fact we are supposed to make all the other things serve worship.

It can be hard.

I mentioned in “Christmas And The Hope Of Heaven” that losing someone you care about can make Christmas hard, but so can relational problems, long distance moves, marriage break-ups.

In all this, I’m convinced that God doesn’t want the remembrance of His Son’s birth to be a source of despair or doubt of fatigue or sadness. He is a God who prescribed lavish celebrations for His chosen people as part of their worship of Him. He is a God who promises feasting and parties for those who come to Him. He is a God whose Holy Spirit produces, among other things, the fruit of joy and peace.

Add to this the fact that He gives the gift of grace and forgiveness so we do not have to earn right standing with Him–as if we could anyway. Rather, what He wants is our joyful, grateful response–the pure exhilaration at finding ourselves unshackled and the overflowing appreciation poured upon the One who broke our bonds.

Our exhilaration and appreciation can come out in all the things we do at Christmas time. We can decorate and do Christmas programs, shop and wrap, party and perform all in light of God’s great gift. We love because He first loved us. We serve because He served us. We sacrifice because He first laid down His life for us.

If we are mindful of what God has done for us, if we do not look at Jesus as a perpetual baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, if we have responded and are responding to His greatest gift, then our Christmas may be hard, but it will be the kind of hard that has purpose. Like training for the Olympics, only better.

And in the end, we’ll be preoccupied with looking to God and will forget to check to see how hard things are for us today.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the fnstrength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:21-31)

Published in: on December 12, 2013 at 5:30 pm  Comments Off on Why Christmas Can Be Hard  
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My Most Unforgettable Christmas


California Sagebrush

California Sagebrush


When I was seventeen, I lived with my family in Tanzania for a year. I’d never traveled much and really had no desire to live outside the US. But I didn’t feel particularly ready to launch out on my own, so I spent that last year “at home” in a country that gave no pretense to being a Christian nation.

It was an unusual feeling as the holiday season rolled around. No one was decorating for Christmas or playing carols. Not even Santa made an appearance.

We did our best to uphold our traditions. We conjured up a plant we called a Christmas tree–more like a large bit of sagebrush. We had no lights or ornaments or tinsel, so we imitated pioneers of old and made things to hang for decorations.

We started with strings of popcorn. This is not as homey and romantic as it first seemed. For one thing, the popcorn liked to break apart as much as it liked to have a string passed through it. For another, it was tedious work. But at last that poor, sad, drooping sorry excuse for a Christmas tree had something on it we could pretend to be decorations.

The best part truly was shopping. We had to travel the two hundred miles south from our town to the capital city of Dar es Salaam. We spent a day, maybe two prowling the stores to find gifts for each other–things that would be useful and memorable and beautiful. We wrapped our gifts in some paper I’m sure my mom found which came the closest to Christmas wrapping, then we piled them under the Sorriest Christmas Tree ever. I mean, ours made Charlie Brown’s tree look ritzy.

I don’t remember the details of that day. What I do remember is the love and laughter and joy we shared. The gifts weren’t about getting what we wanted. That was already out the window–we weren’t getting the latest or greatest or newest or most stylish. Rather, the gifts were an expression of the love and thoughtfulness each of us put into them. Like the tree, they were more on the sorry side–not ultimate treasures, not even diamonds in the rough. But getting stuff wasn’t the point. Exchanging expressions of love and being together was what we cared about.

I’m pretty sure we read the Christmas story–it was a bit of family tradition, and we probably opened up one present Christmas Eve. We may have awakened to the strains of Handel’s Messiah, too. There may have even been a church service that day. These things would be part of the norm, so I don’t remember them particularly.

But that tree was one of a kind, and I’ll never forget it. Nor will I forget living in a country that considered Christmas little more than another day of the year. For the first time, I got a glimpse of how a Christian heritage leaves an imprint on a culture.

Just like footprints, though, which wind or waves or time can erase, the impact of Christianity can fade unless one generation passes along to the next what Christianity is all about. Not hanging lights or singing carols at a certain time each year, mind you. In fact, the real impact of Christianity has much more to do with what happens before and after December 25 than it does on that particular day.

But it doesn’t hurt to create a memorable Christmas Day. Traditions are great, but what sets apart one Christmas from another is the unusual or different. Like a sad looking imitation of a Christmas tree. 😀

Published in: on December 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Life-Changing, Life-Long Gift


It’s Christmas time! Well, almost. Here in the US, after our Thanksgiving Day, it seems most people turn their attention to Christmas. Music, decorations, and of course, gifts.

Interestingly, the best gift I ever received wasn’t really a gift–not in the sense of someone buying me something special and wrapping it in holiday paper or topping it with a bow. I didn’t receive it on December 25 either. In fact, it isn’t even something you receive. It’s something you do.

I imagine some people might be thinking of various giving activities that would be appropriate at Christmas time. Ways to help the needy, the less fortunate. Ways to bring Christmas to those in convalescent hospitals, to families of prisoners, to prisoners themselves.

These are all wonderful things, and they might well be life-changing to some degree, but the gift I received, or didn’t receive, wasn’t anything like that.

Rather, as I may have mentioned in this space before, I had a principal early in my teaching career at our Christian school, tell the entire staff that we ought to be spending time in the Bible every day since we were teaching the Bible.

Sure, yeah, of course. We all had Bible as our first subject of the day, and why wouldn’t we want to familiarize ourselves with the material we were teaching? It made perfect sense to me.

I also had a teacher friend who became a model for me. Some years earlier she had started the practice of reading through the Bible every year. By the time I discovered this, she’d been through the Bible, like ten times.

Wow! That seemed so . . . formidable, but also desirable. So I started out. I wish I could say it was easy sailing, but it wasn’t. I had starts and stops, frustration, even some boredom where I had to bring my wandering mind back from all the other things on my plate. I had guilt and questions about my motives, but slowly, bit by bit, I had the roots of a habit–a life-long, life-changing habit.

Now, all these years later, I can’t think of one other thing that has made a greater difference in my life. God’s Word simply has revolutionized the way I view the world.

I don’t know that my principal realized what a great gift he was giving. After all, the reasoning behind his statement to us was utilitarian–you can’t teach what you don’t know. But there’s a greater truth there–you can’t live what you don’t know, either. And you also can’t love Who you don’t know.

Simply put, the Bible shows me God.

Day in and day out, I see how God interacted with people in history–how He formed them, loved them, warned them, redeemed them. And oh yes, I see that all those recorded relationships are meant to inform me about my own relationship with God.

No greater gift.

I was reminded of this on Sunday as I was driving home from church. Joni Earkson Tada has a short radio spot that airs on Sunday here in the LA area, and this week she talked about how she and her husband have been reading through the Bible in a year. She challenged her listeners to do the same.

How cool, I thought. Someday someone else is going to look back and say, Joni changed their life because she gave them the greatest, most life-changing gift of all.

The gift, of course, isn’t really the challenge. The gift is the doing. And the continuing to do.

My friend who had read the Bible at least ten times? She’s still at it. She’ll change things up once in a while to keep looking at the text anew. Sometimes she’ll read back to front or in a different version from her norm. But she’s there, day in and day out, meeting with God in the pages of His book.

How could spending that much time with God NOT change a person? What a great gift!

Published in: on November 28, 2012 at 6:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Merry Christmas, All


Image courtesy of christmas-clipart.com

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:


    6 ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH,
    ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH;
    FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER
    WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

– Matthew 2:1-12

Published in: on December 25, 2011 at 9:14 am  Comments (4)  
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