Monday, November 30, 2015

Receiving the Undeserved Gift

I scrambled up to the first couch cushion and dutifully obeyed my mother’s little rhyme:

“Open your hands and close your eyes and I will give you a big surprise.”

Meanwhile on the middle couch cushion, long after I had settled myself, my little sister wriggled off the couch and then climbed back up again. I didn’t dare open my eyes to see the spectacle, but I could feel it.  And without looking, I knew she hadn’t even closed her eyes!

Now I use that little rhyme on my couch.
Which of these little monkeys
do you suppose deserved a gift?
I was irritated by her unrestrained glee, because she wasn’t doing it right. And I didn’t think she really deserved a gift.

I, on the other hand, was doing it right. And I wasn't going to merely receive a gift. I was going to deserve it.

And yet, every time our mother said the little rhyme, we both received a gift simply because it was our mother’s great pleasure to give.

Last December I had big plans to celebrate Advent right. To get quiet. To lead my kids through their Advent calendar. To read my Christmas devotional. To prepare.

I started strong, and for a while I did Advent “right.” Then we added to our Advent celebration by worshiping Christ at programs, performances, and parties all over town.

But all our celebrating led to a string of late bedtimes. I fell behind on my reading. My kids fought about whose turn it was to open the Advent calendar, and I worried I wouldn’t experience Christ’s presence during “the most wonderful time of the year” because I wasn’t doing Advent right!

But the Gift of Christ’s coming was never based on our performance.

God gave us the gift of Christ because He wanted to.

 “His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by sending Jesus Christ to die for us. And he did this because he wanted to!” {Ephesians 1:5, TLB}

It was His pleasure to rescue us from having to earn a place in His family, and to this day He is still rescuing performers from working to earn His gifts.

“Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” {Romans 4:4-5, NIV}

His gifts cannot be earned. And incredibly our shameless, open-handed receiving is counted as righteousness!

So if the Christmas craft--which looked far easier in the video--reminds you that Christmas cheer isn’t dependent on your decorations, receive it as a gift of His presence.

When the company Christmas party, which you’d rather skip, presents a natural opportunity to bring Christ into conversation, receive it as a gift of His presence.

And if you find yourself wiping tears at another Christmas program where tender little voices sing Away in a Manger, receive it as a gift of His presence.

These undeserved gifts are indications of His presence. Reminders that in the hush and in the hustle, He is still Immanuel.

God with us.

The grandest surprise of all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Growing Gratitude

Back in the day when the boys were 2, 3, and 4 years old, it was a little rugged around our house. 

I was plagued by my inability to mother like I thought I should--you know, teaching my toddlers to use their manners, say thank you, and always obey. But since that rarely went planned, I almost always opted to stay home and relish nap time rather than go anywhere. 

Occasionally we ventured to the grocery store where the boys, bit through the hot dog packages, chewed on a bag of chocolate chips until melted chocolate oozed out of a little hole in the bag, and also tipped over the cart.

Needless to say, we didn’t get out much. 
Artwork by Julie Chen of Live Verse Design.
Order prints here

So when the postman brought a package from the outside world—from Grandma no less-- expectations were high. 

They each ripped open a little present and sat silent for a moment.

With a budding sarcasm I didn’t even know was growing in him, Zach finally said, “Another Hotwheels car. Big surprise.”

The incident prompted the first of many conversations about being grateful when you receive a gift. The same pep talk we will be having again in a couple of weeks: “Whenever you get a gift--regardless of what it is--you should SAY, ‘Thank you. Thank you for thinking of me.’”

And with a few more years of practice we might be able to pull off a convincing gratitude act.

Beyond being polite, it’s the way we remind ourselves that someone spent time, effort, and money with me in mind. This kind of gratitude is rehearsed, polite, and necessary.

Gratitude starts here, but this is not its end.

Contrast that experience with the long suffering experience of hearing the boys plead and beg year after year for a Nintendo Wii. In 2010 on Christmas morning, when they opened two Wii remotes and an empty box, they were confused and breathlessly hopeful.

In a rare moment of parental readiness, I got it on video. 

After a few minutes of urgently explaining to mom and dad that “you need a Wii machine, not just remotes,” we sent them downstairs where the “Wii machine” was ready to be enjoyed.

Elated and excited, Zach and Levi took control of the remotes and Spencer sat down, began smacking his head and said, “I think I’m dreaming!”

Now I realize the cost and anticipation level for a Hotwheels car and a Wii are different. The analogy breaks down here because the Wii is no longer the fulfillment of all our entertainment cravings.

But I use the example to propose that sincere gratitude is born out of the recognition of what we lack. A need. A longing.

It is a strange dichotomy.

A fragile connection exists between pain and pleasure, hunger and fullness, need and thanksgiving. Without the first, it is nearly impossible to explain or experience the other.

Can I truly be thankful for my health when I have not walked through the valley of chronic pain or illness?

Can I truly be thankful for my meal when food has been available every day of my life?

Can I truly be thankful for peace and freedom when I have only read of war?

Can I truly be thankful for God’s forgiveness if I do not accurately understand the extent of my sin?

For all these things I can be--and am--politely thankful in the way I have rehearsed with my boys.

But there are things which illicit that squealing, head-smacking, “I think I’m dreaming!” sort of response, and I doubt it’s your new Wii.

It might be the baby you waited a decade or more to conceive or adopt.

It might be one day of feeling good in the middle of a long stretch of feeling horrible.

It might be a resurrected marriage.

Maybe it’s a fresh understanding of God’s gracious rescue in Christ.

Even this degree of gratitude isn’t the end. Just as need produced the head-smacking gratitude, the fruit of gratitude is unbridled generosity.

Those who have seen war willingly give their lives to ensure their families can enjoy peace.

Those who have suffered through chronic pain willingly give time and effort to relieve the suffering of another.

Those who have witnessed a resurrected marriage willingly give counsel to anyone suffocating in a dying marriage.

Need presupposes gratitude.

Gratitude produces generosity.

Generosity meets the needs of another, and the cycle repeats.

Over time, we might be surprised to find ourselves genuinely grateful even for our need, because it is the fertile soil where gratitude takes root and generosity blossoms.

You may even find yourself smacking your head and saying, “Thankful for my need?! I think I’m dreaming!”

But I assure you, Friend, you’re not.

Monday, November 2, 2015

When Trick-or-Treaters Make You Think of Jesus

I counted about 27 princesses and nearly as many ninja warriors. Not to mention a walking vending machine, and a few pixelated Minecraft characters. There were little girls who felt perfectly secure as princesses and insecure teenagers who were “too old” to dress up, but still young enough to be lured by candy.

There were also the scary and gross costumes. Downright disgusting stuff that made me want to rush and cover the eyes of every tiny trick-or-treater on the street.

Hordes of people trickling down sidewalks and streets stumbling over cumbersome costumes, running door to door, and some limping and growling.

I stepped back for the wide view.

Eeeeks! Such a strange scene!

It occurred to me at that moment that Jesus’s earthly ministry was probably a little more like Halloween than I like to imagine.

I thought of Jesus and his disciples who were mooring their boat when they were startled by a mad man running and screaming at them. Broken chains dangled from his limbs, and his naked body bore a web of scars and scabs from a hundred self-inflicted wounds (Mark 5:1-8).


Another time, after a horrific night at sea when his disciples mistook him for a ghost, Jesus stepped ashore at a place called Gennesaret. When the people there recognized him as the one who had fed a multitude on the other side of the lake, they brought all their sick friends, family, and neighbors to him.

People with hacking coughs, oozing sores, deformed limbs and faces. People crying, moaning, hollering to be first. Mothers carrying lethargic babies and fathers cradling skeleton-like children. People on the verge of physical and spiritual death. (Mark 6:45-56)


They came in hordes from all over the surrounding country begging him. (Matthew 4:23-25)

And what did Jesus do when the helpless and harassed came running down the streets and shores to him?

He wasn’t disgusted.

He had compassion on them.

To him they were like sheep without a shepherd, and as The Good Shepherd, he welcomed them.

But he wasn’t content to simply welcome and feed them. He also taught them, spoke about the kingdom of God, healed their sick and changed them. (Mt. 9:35-36)

I don’t know if Jesus would have had a bowl of candy at his house or not. He never claimed a permanent earthly address. But I know that if he had, the line at his place would have been long because Jesus drew a crowd everywhere he went.

The line wouldn’t have been moving fast either. It was his life’s work to address physical and spiritual needs, and that takes time.

I suppose His disciples would try to hurry the line or disperse the children. Perhaps parents would urge their children to “skip that house.” But I just bet Jesus would tell them all, 
"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me." (Mark 9:37) “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14). 
Artwork by Julie Chen of Life Verse Design.Prints available here.

Jesus was never one to miss a teachable moment.

Whether we admit it or not, without Christ we are the spiritually helpless and harassed. It’s just that in the 21st century we’ve figured out how dress it up and rename it so we don’t have to be thought beggars--people unable to earn what we desperately need. 

But the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like that.

Our best hope is to come to Jesus with empty hands, offering him nothing as payment for what we need and cannot buy.


And to everyone who receives him, to those who believe on his name, he GIVES the right to become Children of God (John 1:12). No matter how you’re dressed. No matter how sick you’ve been, or how pretty you feel. He gives to everyone willing to receive what he is handing out.

Come empty. Leave full. Be changed.

For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.