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Trash Talk  

As the new year swallows up the last of this year’s Christmas memories, one story lingers.

Like many pragmatic folks, Emma's parents' stuff Christmas presents into empty household boxes: detergent, cereal, Amazon boxes, whatever happens to be around. It makes wrapping gifts like stuffed animals or plush slippers a bit easier. To the young, though, it can be confusing.

We watched three-year-old Emma tear the wrapping off one gift, revealing a box of trash can liners. Not fully understanding, she shouted, “Hey, Dad. I get my own trash can!” As she spoke, she had the nicest smile on her face. Emma was genuinely grateful for a gift she probably hadn’t expected—a garbage can.

After all the chuckles subsided—and the true gift was revealed—a question jabbed at me. Are we as grateful when God sends us gifts that don't look like the blessings we expected? Are we as apt to smile and be gracious when the gift doesn't feel like much of a gift?

Some of God's most awesome gifts come wrapped in packages we don't recognize.

When the distracted driver of a 66-passenger school bus slammed into the back of Diana's car, it didn't appear like much of a gift. The kids were in shock, Diana was in pain, and the car was totaled. Worst of all was the shoulder surgery Diana underwent. It temporarily immobilized Diana's arm, forcing her to change our baby boy's diapers using her teeth.

But many years later, we learned God used the drama of that experience to turn the bus driver's heart to Christ. She might never have come to faith apart from her implacable guilt.

I'm guessing someone reading this has come into their own "unexpected gift." Something you wish you could return or undo. Life looks grim, and the future seems dark. But Scripture promises, "Every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights."

I dare you to be like Emma. Smile—and thank God for your "trash can."  I promise you. There's a gift inside. 

 

 
With Christ in the School of Self-Denial  

Imagine if Jesus opened a “School of Self Denial” right in your neighborhood—and He invited you to enroll. At what grade level would He place you?

Self-denial is not exactly trending these days. Self-actualization or self-assertiveness—there, you'll get some clicks. But self-denial? My Amazon search revealed only three book titles—all written by Puritans more than 500 years ago.

Apparently, today’s Christians don’t care much for self-denial. Odd. Because this was Jesus’ sweet spot, His thing.

  • At the Incarnation, He denied Himself the majesty of heaven.
  • In a prayer life that often began “while it was still dark,” He denied Himself sleep.
  • In a 40-day wilderness odyssey, He denied Himself food.
  • In the never-ending throngs that hounded Him for a miracle, He denied Himself alone time.
  • In the repeated attacks of religious skeptics, He denied Himself the right to His divine reputation.
  • In the ridicule of the Calvary crowd, He denied Himself personal peace.
  • On the cross, He denied Himself comfort, relief—and life itself—trading them all for agony and atonement.

And now, He has enrolled us in His School of Self-Denial. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

But honestly, I struggle just to give up one meal a week to pray. What's with us and our discomfort with self-denial?

How is it we can applaud the self-denial of Christ but avoid it ourselves?

  • Why can't we deny ourselves just one TV show a week—and invest that time in encouraging people who are hurting?
  • Why can’t we reduce our daily phone time just enough to memorize a verse of Scripture?
  • Why can’t we skip one meal a week and invest it in focused alone time with God?

From these small sacrifices, we can move on to larger ones. But—only if we take seriously Christ’s welcome into His School of Self Denial. Class is in session. Are you ready?

 
Our Advent Problem  

Houston, we have an (Advent) problem.

We love celebrating Christ's coming with carols, candles, crèches, and cookies, not to mention cash. And we are right to celebrate so joyously. God came to dwell among us! But there’s another Advent that gets comparatively little enthusiasm. I refer to Christ’s second coming.

Curiously, those who claim to know Christ best often show much more enthusiasm for the babe in the manger than the King on His throne.

Think I’m being too harsh? Ponder all we’ve just experienced with Christmas, the First Advent, and then ask yourself:

  • Where are all the songs about Christ’s second coming?
  • Where are all the creative sermon series about His return?
  • Where are all the special concerts and community outreach events based on the Second Advent?
  • Where is all that excitement and enthusiasm we happily funnel into Christmas?

Here’s what I think. When it comes to Jesus, we love His first coming, but merely like His second coming. Many of us are so comfortable in the here, and now, we don't look for—let alone long for—the return of Jesus.

We love baby Jesus, but Warrior Jesus—Judge Jesus—we don’t know what to make of Him. So, we end up making very little of Him.

Ironically, it is only at His second coming that we enjoy the fulfillment of the promise of His first coming. Only after Christ’s second coming will we finally and forever know “peace and good will toward men.”

In 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul testifies,

In the future, there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

So, I ask. Do you love His appearing—or merely like it?

Joy to the world! The Lord is come—and IS coming!

 
Move Me Closer  

What’s on your Christmas playlist?

We enjoy an eclectic mix of childhood favorites like the Carpenters, Living Strings, and the Rudolph TV soundtrack. We also have most of the Mannheim Steamroller albums, with a nod to country artists Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, and many others, in a digitized set of Shell Oil country Christmas cassettes (circa 1989). Natalie Cole's Hallmark album is a must, as are Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, John Tesh, Mariah Carey, and Michael Bublé. Then there’s Andy Griffith’s delightful collection of Christmas carols and stories.

But one album and one alone is reserved for the moment we decorate our Christmas tree—Evie’s “Christmas Memories.”  The CD, which came out in 2006, features her trademark performance of “Come on Ring Those Bells.”

There’s a lesser-known song on the album written by Evie herself that we particularly love. It's called "Move Me Closer."  Intended to portray the shepherds' reaction to seeing the infant Jesus, the chorus goes,

Move me closer, move me closer.
Move me closer to the Child.
Let me see Him
Let me hold His Hand.
Move me closer to the Child.

Having seen Jesus for a brief moment from a distance, those shepherds wanted to see more. And they wanted to see Him closer. Is that our reaction?

Honestly, I suspect many of us are more preoccupied with surviving Christmas than seeing the Christ of Christmas. Rather than draw closer, we move faster—and in the end, feel further. Further from the Christ who came to us.

Our cookies are baked, our cards are sent, our gifts are wrapped, our sermons are preached, but our hearts are cold. If that be so, the fault is none but ours.

Do you want to see Him?

Do you want to see Him closer?

Close enough that you can hold His hand?

It’s your move!

Move me closer, move me closer.
Move me closer to the Child.
Let me see Him
Let me hold His Hand.
Move me closer to the Child.

 

(C) Evelyn Tornquist Karlsson
 
Lessons from a Christmas Concert  

Imagine sitting in the middle of a 41-piece orchestra clutching your french horn while just a few feet away, a large choir brings favorite Christmas carols to life. After a zillion rehearsals and two performances, I walk away with four lessons from our Community Christmas concerts.

Lesson #1

True satisfaction doesn’t come from hearing your own instrument but from hearing the sound of others. While I like my French horn, being immersed in the string section is a magic I would almost pay for. Reminds me of Philippians 2:4: “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”

Lesson #2

Knowing WHEN to play your part is as important as knowing WHAT to play. Almost every rehearsal, I came in a bar too early or half a bar too late. Proverbs 15:23 underscores, “How good is a timely word. “

Lesson #3

We never outgrow our need to follow the Conductor.

For the most part, our carefully rehearsed repertoire went off without a hitch. Still, there were moments when the rhythm got just a bit out of sync. But following our fearless conductor, Dennis Criser, immediately solved the problem. Pretty sure you can guess the spiritual lesson here.

Lesson #4

Listen to the lyrics!

Christmas carols are classics for a reason. I was arrested by this invitation from Verse four of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”:

 

O rest beside the weary road

And hear the angels sing.

 

We’re all on the road.

We’re all a bit weary.

But only some will hear the angels sing.

 

Take a moment and listen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Jon GaugerJon Gauger

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