Everyday Christmas #7: Good Gifts

Like most of you, we’re in the midst of Christmas shopping right now. (If you have already finished your shopping, you can stop reading right now because you are clearly more advanced than the rest of us and have probably already finished your advent readings too.)

Figuring out gifts for six kids is not easy. We probably put too much pressure on ourselves to get the perfect gifts. We try to value experiences over material gifts, but still – you know your kids want to open fun stuff and you want to give them good gifts, so being the thoughtful parents that we are, we stress about it.

But when you get it right, it’s wonderful. You love to give your kids gifts they delight in, gifts they really wanted but didn’t know were coming, gifts that bring smiles and laughter and happy tears. It warms your heart and brings pleasure and joy when something turns out that way.

Now think about how God feels knowing that he gave us a gift in Jesus far beyond anything we could have dreamed. I know he planned to give us his Son, and I know he delights in giving us good gifts, but I never thought about it in quite this way before.

We get excited when our kids get excited with their presents. Now imagine God watching his children as we walk with Jesus. Imagine his delight in our delight.

The analogy breaks down at some point, as most analogies do, but the point remains – God is our Father, and every good and perfect gift comes from him. He loves to bless us just as we love to bless our kids.

Think on that truth today. The God who created the universe, who holds oceans in the palm of his hands, who inscribed circles on the face of the deep, this God is pleased to give you his own Son. He delights to do so – Merry Christmas, indeed.

Everyday Christmas #6: Death Was the Plan

Someone I knew died a couple of weeks ago. Someone who wasn’t supposed to die, at least not by human conventions. He was 56, with a wife and twin 10-year old sons. Because he and his wife had children later in life, he was super involved in everything the boys did. Football, Boy Scouts, Soap Box Derby – he did it all with enthusiasm. They were his life.

He went out to their garage one morning to work on a float for the city’s Christmas parade, and when he didn’t come in for lunch, his wife found him, a victim of a massive heart attack.

We weren’t close, but I knew him. I knew he loved his God and his family and his town. He was kind and humble and sincere, and he is gone far too soon.

Someone else I know died once too. He was 33, with no wife and no kids, and he was supposed to die. That was the plan from the beginning.

He was supposed to die because his death was the only way for us to have life. We were born sinners and we couldn’t keep God’s law on our own, so someone else doing it for us was the only option.

Jesus lived an absolutely perfect life. He obeyed the first time, he never lied or stole, he never had an impure thought, he never cheated or yelled in anger or got impatient or selfish – he never did a single thing wrong.

He did all that because he knew we couldn’t. He knew we had been estranged from God due to our sin, that because of God’s holiness we couldn’t be right with God on our own, that we were doomed to an eternity apart from him.

He knew we were broken beyond repair – that we were actually dead in sin – and there was only one way to bring us to life and make us whole again.

So when he was crucified and the curtain was torn in two and the earth shook, it wasn’t just the result of one man dying. That was the crushing effect of one man taking the punishment for the sins of the world, the punishment that we deserved.

And yet, it still wouldn’t have been enough if he hadn’t risen from the dead three days later, if his heart hadn’t started beating again, pumping real, actual blood through his veins. His resurrection meant death was defeated. It meant salvation was secured, God’s justice was satisfied and the great exchange – our sin for his righteousness – was complete.

All we have to do is repent of our sins and believe by faith that Jesus lived and died for us. When God looks at us now, he sees his children, family members who he has adopted. This is what Jesus’ death accomplished. Actual salvation for actual people.

But to die, he had to be born first.

He was fully God, but if he didn’t become fully man, if he didn’t become a boy like us who would run and play and skip rocks and scrape his knee, all the stories he heard about the saints of old, the saints who were pointing the way to him – well, they would have been just stories and not part of the greatest redemption plan of all time.

He became man because death was an essential part of the plan, but it wasn’t the end of the plan. From the cry of a baby in a manger to the agony of a man on a cross to the triumph of a resurrected King, the plan goes on, and we wait now until the final day when that King returns in glory to fulfill every hope, wipe every tear and right every wrong, praising the Father forever.

From birth came death, which led to life, now and forevermore. Amen.

Everyday Christmas #5: Do Not Fear

Fears seem worse at night.

You’re lying in bed at night, and sleep won’t come. In the absence of sleep, your imagination – the same kind of imagination that is so powerful it gave us worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth – runs wild, and not in a good way. You don’t spend time in a snowy wonderland with incredible talking animals on a quest to save the kingdom. No, in the night, things get much darker in your mind. Fears you thought were banished come rushing back. Scenarios that are ridiculous in the light of day seem all too real.

You forget what you know is true, and your feelings take over, the panic rising.

Joseph and Mary must have had nights like this. When you find out your fiancee is pregnant, and you know the child isn’t yours, your mind must conjure up all sorts of scenarios. When you’re told you’re going to conceive while you’re still a virgin, well, that information is its own special kind of mysterious.

Neither end of the situation is normal, and the reasons they are given – by an angel of the Lord, no less – are not exactly small potatoes either. They are told the child will save his people from their sins, that he is the son of the Most High, that he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, that there will be no end of his kingdom.

How do you sleep when you’re given this kind of news? It seems exciting, but it’s also overwhelming and fearful. Joseph and Mary must have wondered why God chose them, what Jesus was going to be like, how they were going to parent the one who created the universe. They probably felt unequal to the task, unworthy and scared.

Their fears must have been very real. We know Mary was “greatly troubled.”

But you know what else they were told by the angel of the Lord? 

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.”

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Do not fear. Don’t be afraid. God knew their fears, knew where their minds would go, knew the tendency of their hearts, and he spoke directly to them, reassuring them that he was in control, that they just needed to trust him.

It was a big ask, but he is a big God, so they trusted him with their hearts and their lives. They did as he said, and the Savior of the world was born to human parents.

We can trust him too. One of the most repeated commands in the Bible is God telling us: “Do not fear.” So the next time you’re lying awake at night, with fears that want to take over your heart and mind, remind yourself what God tells you: 

“Do not fear … I will strengthen you and help you.” (Is. 41:10)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Is. 43:1)

And if the fears still seem insurmountable, remember one last thing the angel told Mary:

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Everyday Christmas #4: Small Among Judah

Every year, our son’s middle school basketball team plays a team from a small Catholic school about twenty minutes away. 

Deep in southern Indiana, on the banks of the Ohio River, the town looks forgotten. In the flat light of a gray, rainy day, houses are small and close together, paint is peeling, and the Dollar General store has driven the Family Dollar store down the road out of business – the faded letters on the sign are mute testament to the battle it lost.

Sadness settles in your soul just from driving through the town. The local “high rise” (as it says on the sign) is a four-story apartment building with a blue metal roof that looks like it was built as a nuclear fallout shelter.

This town looks depressing more than charming, and yet, I’m not being fair. There is life. Two thousand residents live and raise their kids and work there. Several churches are located in a few block radius, and while their buildings are old, people are still gathering. The Catholic church with the school still conducts their Saturday evening Mass – the priest sits on the stage while the tournament is going on right next door.

On the way out of town, we pass a carryout pizza place and a Mexican restaurant that boasts a caboose as part of its charm. We just want to get home as soon as we can.

It’s not really a nice place to visit, and yet, another small town just a few miles from Jerusalem once didn’t have much going for it until the Savior of the world was born there.

Sometimes, we judge too quickly because big things can come out of small places.

David had been annointed the future king in Bethlehem, but other than that moment, the town didn’t have much reason to be known for anything. But there it is, right there in Micah 5:2 – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.”

Really? Bethlehem?

Yep, Bethlehem, and now a town that would have otherwise been consigned to the dustbin of history is the most well-known birthplace ever.

There’s a lesson here. Jesus came from a town and a place no one else would have chosen. He didn’t make his grand entrance in the formal temples of Jerusalem with all the proper tradition and finery. He picked a dirty stable on the backside of nowhere.

Are we like Jesus? Do we look for the weak and lowly places and people, or are we obsessed with the strong and powerful?

Good things can come from unexpected places because God specializes in confounding the wisdom of this world with his own plan, born from before the beginning of time. Don’t despise the day of small things, for in the end, the big things are made up of lots of little things.

Everyday Christmas #3: You Wouldn’t Know

From the outside, all appears normal. The small house with the addition on the back and a fenced yard looks like any other on the street. Bikes are scattered on the patio, and a rabbit hops from his cage and disappears under the shed.

Inside, the house is neat and clean. There’s not a lot of room, but everything has its place. The couple who live in the house just brought home their second child together, and they’re still adjusting to his middle-of-the-night feedings. His big brother is proud and happy.

Watching them come and go, you would never know this is his second chance at a family, and he’s making the most of it. You wouldn’t know that he also has two girls with another woman, two children who no longer live with him because of a time in his life when he and his girlfriend did not make the kinds of choices that would let them continue to be parents.

You would not be able to see the long road he has traveled through rehab and mending relationships, and how fatherhood the second time around has changed him, reminded him of the man he needs to be. If you passed him in the street, you wouldn’t be able to compare what used to be to what now is – how he stands straighter, his eyes clear and his heart resolute.

If you met this man in the days after he lost his girls, his prospects would have been grim indeed. If you met him today, things would be looking up. You never know someone’s story or what battle they may be fighting, and the mere fact of that statement should give us pause to consider our words every time we meet someone new.

You wouldn’t have known, for instance, if you were traveling from Bethlehem to Nazareth, that the pregnant girl on the donkey headed the opposite way with a young, sober-faced man were about to become parents to a child who would cause the sky to split open with praises.

You wouldn’t know the wondrous mystery behind his conception. You wouldn’t see the nobleness of his father or the courage of his mother. You wouldn’t know that this child had been foretold by prophets and anticipated for centuries.

If you were the innkeeper, you would see the girl was in desperate need of a bed, but you wouldn’t see that by giving her a place to lay her head, you were fulfilling the very words angels had spoken minutes before.

You wouldn’t know the manger in which the child was born would lead to a cross on which he would die.

We all have a story, and Christmas tends to bring people’s stories out more than usual. If you have a minute when you meet someone this Christmas season, take a second, speak kindly and ask what their story is. Their words might be just what you need to hear.

Everyday Christmas #2: Joy

Luke 2 tells us that a multitude of the heavenly host suddenly joined the angel of the Lord who had appeared to the shepherds. I wonder what that was like – did they just appear out of nowhere in the sky, stars twinkling behind them?

However they got there, they started praising God immediately, a noise that must have filled the heavens and flowed down from the night sky over the sheep who probably just wanted to go back to sleep.

Later, after those same shepherds had gone to Bethlehem to see the promised baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger – it was true! – and were returning home, it was their turn to glorify and praise God.

I wonder if either angels or shepherds were constrained by what other people thought about them or if they just let the good news of great joy spill out with no regret or remorse (and possibly, no rhythm). I suspect the latter, because when you have just found out that the long-awaited Messiah has come, well, that’s the time to let loose.

How much of this joy do we have? How much do we let show?

I’ll go ahead and answer for you and me both – not enough, not nearly enough.

You know who we need to be like? We need to follow the example of my son’s middle school basketball team. They’re a young team, but they’re well-coached, so they have potential. I don’t know how they do it where you live, but in these small-school games we play, the coaches of both teams sometimes plan for a fifth quarter with a running clock to allow the kids who don’t get to play much a chance to actually get on the court.

These fifth quarters are filled with excitement and nervous energy and a lot of, um, creative basketball plays that are definitely not what the coach drew up. (To be fair, a lot of the regular game is like that too.)

But you know what warms my heart? When a kid scores who doesn’t normally get much playing time – the ball goes up, is it going in, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon …. yes! – the players on the bench explode in cheers for him. When the team creates a turnover, they go nuts. And if someone hits a three? Forget about it – the guys on the bench will lose their minds. They jump out of their seats, they raise their hands, they cheer and scream, they celebrate with each other.

They are together. They are a team. They rise and fall as one, and when something good happens to one, they all rejoice. They’re not thinking about how cool or uncool they look. They’re not looking around to see who’s watching. They’re not Instagramming every pose. They’re excited, and there’s still enough little kid in them to not care what others think.

That’s the kind of joy we need. So this Christmas, when you’re at church and the congregation’s voices are raised as one in praise, find the joy of the angels, the joy of the shepherds, the joy of the teammates who are celebrating the fantastic shot by their buddy. Let the rest fade away, and worship with joy.

P.S. (If you’re at church, maybe leave out the part where you start jumping up on the chairs and screaming.) 

Everyday Christmas #1: Foolishness

You’re crazy.

You’re nuts.

It’s like having another kid.

You know how much work it is, right?

Don’t you have enough living things to keep track of already?

We got a dog recently after months of begging from the kids, and these are just a few of the responses that come out of people’s mouths when we tell them about Griffin. (Adding a puppy to the mix of six kids is apparently not a wise decision to most people, many of whom are probably still stuck on the six kids part.)

To which I cheerfully reply: yep, we’re most likely crazy. Yes, we know it’s a lot of work. Yes, we’re aware that we don’t have to do this. Yes, I know we brought it on ourselves. 

But hey, when you already have barely-contained chaos, what’s a little more? Plus, this is where the advantage of having six kids comes in – there are a lot more hands to divvy up the workload.

Although as I held dear sweet Griffin, our 9-week old mini-goldendoodle, over the toilet so he could vomit into it less than a week after we got him, I had to admit the naysayers had a point.

Really? I’m helping a dog throw up into the toilet?

And now I’m holding him in the van on the way to the vet and he’s throwing up into a plastic container in my lap?

And the vet bill cost how many hundreds of dollars?

So, to repeat – yes, we’re most likely crazy. Yes, it’s hard and ridiculous and most people don’t understand it. Yes, we have cleaned up pee and poop in the house. We’re probably pretty foolish.

But you know what? It’s worth it to see how much our kids love him. It’s heartening to watch them grow in responsibility and consistency, and it’s just fun to watch them run to him when they get home from school. I think he’s going to be a good thing for them, and it’s funny how the little bugger has already burrowed his way into our hearts.

A puppy was a good gift we could give our kids. If that means I’m foolish, so be it – I’ll be foolish for them any day.

Our foolishness pales in comparison to a greater foolishness that was set into motion more than 2,000 years ago, when the God who created the universe came to this particular planet as a screaming baby.

From power to weakness, from heights to depths, from splendor to squalor. Where’s the sense in that?

The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah to lead them. Instead, they got a pair of teenagers who weren’t even sure what part they were playing, but all they knew was they had to obey the voice that had told them what to do and where to go.

The people wanted strength and might and force. Instead, they got a baby who couldn’t even get dressed by himself.

They wanted redemption right now. Instead, they got to witness a few moments on the long arc of history, which was turning this foolish beginning into the greatest redemption story the world has ever seen.

The story seems foolish on the face of it, but to God it wasn’t foolish for a moment. It was his plan all along, and when the fullness of time came, he deliberately sent his son to be born as a human baby, live a full, perfect life, and die a painful, sacrificial death before rising again.

This was his intended blueprint. The day after Jesus was born, God didn’t stomp around in a cranky mood because he didn’t really want the birth to happen. His plan was in motion, and although it seemed foolish to the watching world, it proceeded exactly as he designed.

So yes, we might be foolish for getting a dog. But this Christmas, as we settle beside the fire with a sweet bundle of fur curled up beside us, I’m reminded of the first Christmas, when foolishness seemed to be in even greater supply.

I’m glad for foolishness. Without it, we would have no hope. With it, we have eternity.

Everyday Christmas is a series of Advent meditations designed to connect the everyday happenings of our lives to the coming of Christ to Earth as a baby. Find links to the entire series here.

Everyday Christmas: Intro

So another Christmas season is upon us. The Christmas machine seemed to crank up earlier than ever this year – Christmas decorations, movies, trees and ads started bombarding us before the leaves even changed color.

It’s all so … much. If you sense some weariness in those words, you’re right. The Christmas industry gets bigger and broader with every passing year, and every year it becomes harder and harder to focus on what the Advent (or “coming”) of Jesus really means.

God became man. So much significance lies behind those three words. And yet the meaning often gets obscured with present lists and parties and decorations and hustle hustle hustle.

To combat this, we try to think about Christ’s birth with Advent calendars and books and devotionals, and there are many wonderful versions available. Carving out the time every day to stop for a few minutes and turn our family’s minds toward the meaning behind the craziness is doable but difficult, and many of us probably fail more than we succeed.

So here’s another attempt with a slightly different take.

Everyday Christmas is a series of 25 meditations designed to connect the everyday happenings of our lives to the coming of Christ to Earth as a baby. The plan is to start on December 1 and post one entry each day until Christmas, but don’t just read each piece and then go on your merry way until you see the next link the next day – start making the connections in your own life.

Maybe you read these pieces to your family, or maybe they’re just a starting point to talk about the events of your day with your kids and help them draw a line to why Christ came. The Advent season isn’t about taking separate time every day to think about Jesus – it’s about realizing that all of your life should point to him because in Him we live and move and have our being.

Deuteronomy 6 says we should speak of these truths in every situation with our kids. I don’t do a good job of this, and I need reminders to do better, so this is for me more than anyone.

So when you open that beautiful Christmas card or when you can’t seem to get your own Christmas card together, when you find the perfect present or when nothing is working out, when you have to be four places at once or when you didn’t get invited, when everything feels like a Hallmark movie or when nothing goes right, when the chaos overwhelms you or when the chaos fades and you’re looking across a dinner table at the ones you love the most – remember, these are all signposts showing the way to a greater reality.

Christmas is here, but it’s not just for December. Jesus was born as a baby so he could grow to be a man who would die on a cross, making atonement for our sins before rising again to defeat death once and for all. We need that story – (it’s true, by the way) – every day of our lives.

We’ll start on December 1 – see you then.

Everyday Christmas is a series of Advent meditations designed to connect the everyday happenings of our lives to the coming of Christ to Earth as a baby. Find links to the entire series here.

Naptime and Suffering

Putting Ellie to bed these days (she’s two and a half) is one of the highlights of my life. She has a knack for curing what ails you. If Democrats and Republicans each took turns putting her down for her nap on consecutive days, they would peacefully resolve their differences. You think I’m kidding, but something about a two-year old’s earnest sweetness strips away everything extra so you focus on what really matters.

She holds your hand as you walk her down the stairs to her bedroom. She stops two steps from the bottom (“wanna jump”) and leaps the rest of the way, landing perfectly, her curly hair flying behind her. She wants to sleep in her older sister’s bed instead of her crib, so you snuggle her down with her pillow and blanket and then lie beside her, a supply of books ready, because one story is never enough. (“‘Nother one”).

You read to her and she squeals with happiness when she sees the moon or mama llama or an ice cream cone in the pictures. She rubs her small hand over the soft sheep and the hairy lion and the sticky frog tongue. She leans into you, and all is well.

You tell her you love her and she says back, just as natural as you please, “I wuv you tooo,” and your heart is a puddle.

She wants a hug and a kiss, and then when you get up from the bed, she says, “one more big hug” and stretches her tiny arms up and you reach down to squeeze her tight, and then she says, “Night night, daddy” and the puddle turns into a lake.

You come out of the room deliriously happy, almost weak-kneed at the realization that this little person’s whole world is wrapped up in you. She trusts you utterly and completely. Without you, she falls apart. With you, she’s secure and content.

It takes so little to make her light up with happiness, those big expressive eyes gleaming with delight or maybe mischief. When her chubby hands grab your cheeks and pull your face right in front of hers, well, nothing else matters.

We need more of these moments. We’re so divided. We scream at each other in public and online because our politics are different. We can’t even conceive of basic decency because we are right and they are not and we must tell them, loudly and repeatedly.

And if we’re not fighting, we’re suffering. It seems like there is so much these days that makes you wonder what God is doing and how any of it can possibly be good. Pregnancies end far too early, while others don’t even get started, despite years of yearning. Icons you looked up to for years reveal they are not who you thought, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. Women and children are abused and tossed aside, their dignity and humanity in shreds. Kids are ripped away from their parents and stashed in tents in the desert – maybe they’ll be reunited and maybe they won’t. Addiction takes over. A teenager fights for his life, healthy one day, gripped with infection the next. Parents worry about their kids: will they pass that test, will they make friends, will they get made fun of, will they learn, will they be okay?

These days are hard. There aren’t any easy answers.

But as my daughter puts her hand in mine to walk down the stairs to bed, as she rests her head on me while I read a story, as she hugs and kisses me, as she trusts me with everything in her – even when she doesn’t understand, even when it’s dark, even when she’s upset and scared – I’m reminded that we have Someone to trust too.

He will take our hands and whisper peace in the midst of the storm because he knows what the storm is like. He was human. He suffered. He knows, and he cares. He won’t take it all away, but he will be with you. Sometimes, that’s all the answer we get.

Though we may walk in valleys and shadows, we follow the One who spoke light into existence.

Oh, and if you get a chance, put a two-year old down for a nap – you will feel much better about life.

The Far Country

Moving is, to put it mildly, a royal pain in the rear. You attempt to pack all your belongings, many of which fit in boxes and many of which don’t. You end up with tons of boxes, a bunch of furniture and a few awkward piles that you don’t know what to do with until they finally just get thrown on the moving truck and then unloaded into new awkward piles that may or may not be put away in the next several months.

You also realize how much stuff you actually have. How did this happen? We got rid of so much as we packed, and it still overwhelms. Do all our kids really need beds? Most of them still get excited about sleeping on the floor. Maybe we should make that permanent.

This is not meant to complain – in this case, moving means a bigger house with more room for the growing munchkins. (Growing up, not growing in number. That ship has sailed.) This is just the way the process works. Every stage seems impossible – you really think you might not make it through – until you reach the next impossible stage: finding a house, selling your house, packing, loading, unloading, unpacking.

And when you move in while you are still doing renovations, things get even hairier. You’re trying to only live in a few rooms, and nothing is in its right place. How am I supposed to know where your clean underwear is, kid? I don’t even know where the dirty ones are. I don’t know where food and silverware and last night’s homework are hiding. I don’t know where you’re supposed to put that Lego creation you somehow just made. No, the wi-fi is not working yet. The tv isn’t hooked up either. Don’t step in that paint can! I know you’re tired. I know you’re frustrated. Me too, kid, me too.

When every waking moment is harried and you don’t know where to turn and your baby is screaming and you can’t find the box with your pants (because you really should wear pants to work) and you’ve just snapped at your kids (again) because they happened to voice the same frustration you’re battling, it’s hard.

Being unsettled is, well, unsettling.

Maybe home is more important than we think it is. The normal, everyday grind of living can sometimes wear on us and make us tired and whiny. The truth is that this normal everydayness is our life, and we don’t realize it until we don’t have it. I just want to know where to set my keys when I walk in the door. I want to not have to dig through boxes to find a pan or the iron (still not located) or paper towels. I want to know where my kids’ toothbrushes are. I want to cook a regular dinner and sit around the table with my family. I want to be home.

God created us with a sense of belonging. When that need is not fulfilled, we struggle. I cannot wait until we are settled in this house – and right now, it’s just a house. It’s not our home yet, although I can see glimpses that it will be a wonderful place we will fill with memories and joy.

This world is not our home either, and while we can make a place here, something tells us it’s not quite right. There’s too much sin, too much pain, too much evil, too much mess. Deep down, we are unsettled because we are made for more. The far country beckons, a world that is beyond imagining and yet somehow closer and more real than we know. The longer we live, the more it calls to us. We are welcome there, if we come by faith in the One who left his eternal home for this world where he did not have a home.

While we wait, let’s make our homes on Earth full of light and love and hope so that those who visit them will feel the winds of heaven on their face and want to know more about the place where morning will gather forever as we gaze upon the King in his beauty.

Our family will get right on that – as soon as we find our light bulbs.