Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Focusing on the "Reason for the Season"

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.   -   Isaiah 9:6

After almost freezing to death in the winter of 1983 (see previous post), you would think that I would have come to a quick realization that Christmas must not be all about the presents under the tree.  After all, who would celebrate a holiday each year which puts its participants at that kind of high risk?  But, I am a slow learner who needs to be prodded over and over until I understand life's valuable lessons. 

When I think about Christmas past, there are blurs of memory about the toys, games, gadgets and such that I received as gifts.  But, by and large, I have no vivid memory of any Christmas present my parents ever bought me (sorry mom!).  So, as I watch parents literally fighting with other parents at Walmart over the latest new Christmas toy, I wonder what purpose this holiday carries.  In other words, if my goal each Christmas is making my kids temporarily thrilled about something they will eternally forget, then we are just spinning wheels each year.  But, if the plan is to instill values and memories for a lifetime, then the Holiday is certainly worth the effort.

Since I have decided to write on this subject, I took it upon myself to list the things that really stand out when I look back on my childhood Christmases. 
1.  The first thing I always think about is the little nativity set that my mom pulled out of the attic each year.  She still uses it today with the grandkids.  It had a wooden stable with a grass roof, and included all the ceramic participants in the Christmas story.  There was also a tiny booklet retelling the gospel accounts from Luke and Matthew.  Mom would have her three boys gather in the living room by the tree, where we set the manger, and then she began to read the story.  As she read, we would grab Joseph and Mary, put them on a donkey and ride them to the stable, followed by the shepherds, animals, and wise men.  We even pulled the lowest hanging light from the tree into the stable, so that it illuminated the manger, like the star of Bethlehem. 
I think this is the exact set we used.  Ahh, the internet!

As a young boy, I loved this tradition.  There is no doubt that a few years later, as an adolescent with younger siblings, I was rolling my eyes during this annual ritual, and yet there is nothing that captures my nostalgia of the holiday more than this.  Most importantly, the manger was the center of Christmas morning.  We had wrapped gifts and stockings, but they were always tucked away behind baby Jesus.  He was in the forefront.
2.  The Christmas Eve party at my grandmother's house.  This is the party where you see all these strange people that your grandmother tells you are your family, but whom you are certain you have never seen before.  In attendance are 3rd cousins, great-aunts, and somebody's new boyfriend who definitely looks like he won't be back next year.  What I remember about this annual reunion is the tiny artificial tree that sat by the front door (which was never opened during my lifetime).  Her tree looked like a set of giant dark green pipe cleaners, and was decorated with ornaments made with love by grandchildren.  Every year, grandma gave me a pair of socks.  At the time, I remember thinking that she was holding back on us grandkids, but now I understand that for a woman who grew up during the Great Depression, and who was still living off the land (chickens and everything), this was a very intentional, thoughtful, and practical gift.
3.  Candlelight services at church.  The old hymns, the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the occasion, singing "Silent Night" under the glow of hundreds of candles.  Mostly, though, I remember being a young boy excited about holding an open flame in church without getting in trouble, and dipping my fingers in the hot wax to make shapes with my brothers.
I challenge you to think back to your childhood Christmases as well.  If you did not grow up in a Christian home, then this may not directly apply to your upbringing.  But for those of you who had Christian parents who tried to celebrate the real Reason for the Season, my guess is that your primary memories, like mine, are not of the gifts, but of the traditions of the celebration.  If this is true, then doesn't it make sense for us, as Christian parents today, to raise our children on traditions that focus on the Savior, and to let go the stress of buying the "perfect" gift?  Like you, we will purchase presents for our children this year.  I am excited to give them things because I love my kids so much, but I am convinced that whatever gift-wrapped items they receive under the tree on December 25, 2012 will be completely forgotten within a few years, and certainly by the time they are parents themselves.  However, if they are like me, the family traditions will last a lifetime in their minds and hearts, and they will be able to pass them on to their children. 

For instance, every year, our kids dress in pajamas, and we load in the Suburban, turn up the heat and the Christmas music and drive all over Catawba County looking at Christmas lights.  The total cost of this runs around $5.00 for gas, but our kids always excitedly ask when we are going.  Every year, on Christmas Eve, we gather in the living room, read the Christmas Story, and then watch a Christmas movie together.  Then everyone sleeps on the floor, on couches, in chairs, etc. so that we will all wake up in the same room next to the tree on Christmas morning (OK, I will admit that Gayle and I usually end up in our bed because our backs can't take the floor anymore).  This tradition costs nothing, but again, our kids would not hear of doing Christmas any other way.  Most years, Gayle and the younger kids bake a cake on Christmas Day and decorate it with "Happy Birthday Jesus".  Again, this is a very inexpensive tradition, but something our family cherishes. 

While modern Christmas is largely celebrated by giving gifts, ultimately, our focus must be on God's gift to us.  After all, why do we celebrate this season each year?  Regardless of what the ACLU might say, the fact that the United States of America chooses to shut down the country on December 25th each year should be evidence that our lawmakers at the time were Christians (or at least honored Christianity).  Why else would they do it?  And, further, if we are moving toward becoming a nation where it is illegal to place nativity scenes in public places, or to sing Christmas carols in school, or even to call a Christmas tree a "Christmas" tree (instead of Holiday tree), then wouldn't it stand to reason that we should also just go to work on December 25th?  Why does a nation legally celebrate a holiday whose instrisic symbols are not allowed to be on display? You can't have it both ways.  Obviously, Christmas will not disappear from the calendar in America because of the incredible revenue generated each December for the US economy, but make no mistake about it, we are in a war to preserve truth, and our children and grandchildren will be the recipients of the outcome of the battle.

This morning, our HCA grammar school children sang "Happy Birthday Jesus" by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir during their Christmas presentation.  The song begins with these lyrics...

Happy Birthday Jesus.  I'm so glad its Christmas.  All the tinsel and lights, and the presents are nice, but the real gift is You.

Jesus is the real gift from the Father.  Without Him, I am lost without hope.  Without Him, eternity is terrifyingly uncertain.  Without Him, life has no purpose.  We just live, interact with other evolved finite beings, make money, and die.  But in Christ, hope springs forth eternal.  Life has crystal clear purpose.  My miraculous rescue from sin by the very God against whom I have rebelled cannot be explained except through words like:


If you had an incurable disease, and were close to death, when someone you didn't know showed up with a cure that no one thought to exist, and chose to save your life, you would celebrate with great enthusiasm and gratitude, right?  Would you tell your kids (in great detail) what had happened?  Well the fact is that you do have an incurable disease in sin, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ in the manger provides the only cure.  God has offered you the most precious gift possible, the life of His Only Son, so that you may have a cure that will not only get you through your earthly life, but provide eons of eternity in the glorious presence of your loving Creator.  An eternity that you can spend with your family in celebration.

So, when you give gifts this Christmas, give them in celebration of Jesus, the real gift of Christmas.  He really is the Reason for the Season.  Really!  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My most memorable Christmas present.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  -  Matthew 6:19-21

Think back on your past Christmases.  Which one stands out the most?  Why?

On December 24, 1983, I did one of the single most foolish things of my life.  Of course, I was 14 years old, and probably the top 80% of my life's foolish things happened during that year, but this is the one that sticks out in my mind the most. 

For those of you who are over 40 years old, you can remember a time without computers, and the great excitement in the early 80's surrounding the introduction of the PC, along with video games, "car phones", and other electronic stuff.  At the time, we didn't know that every computer device would be outdated within six months of purchase over and over again for the rest of our lives.  Instead, we thought once you bought a computer, like a television, you would keep it forever (by the way, we just acquired a Black Friday TV at Walmart to replace our original "marriage" television, which was second-hand when we received it.  I think it was nearly 30 years old!). 

Two years previous, my parents had given my brother and me an Atari 2600, which could play video games through our home television - a big console TV with knobs and no remote.  We got 4 stations (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS) until I left to go to college (go figure!).  So, a video game option was a big deal, when Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk were the only things to watch on Saturday evening.  We played the 2600 to death, until the Atari 5200 replaced it later.  All of a sudden, it seemed the sky was the limit on home-based computerized gadgets, and I got wind of another unit you could hook up to your TV that would allow actual computer programming.  I wanted it! 

Looking back now, it was a cheesy little machine that really couldn't do anything.  You could enter in a few commands, and it would take text (>, / , - , +) to make a rocket ship that would blast off the screen, or some other equally lame thing.  But, for a 14 year old boy in the dawning age of computers, it was all I had on my wish list for Christmas. 

Now, I have two younger brothers, one of whom is 9 years younger than I.  So, at 5 years old, my parents were still playing the Santa game with him, and we all had to go to bed early to participate in the charade.  In our home, we had hardwood flooring in our main hallway (carpet everywhere else) that would creak when you stepped on certain planks.  My bedroom was the last room on the right, so you had to walk the entire length of the creaky floor to get there.

I stayed awake in anticipation of my new computer, and could hear mom and dad rustling around the living room, placing gifts under the tree for the three boys.  Then, around 11:00, they creaked up the hallway, and into their bedroom for a long winter's nap.  The house sat quiet for about 30 minutes, and I figured my parents were asleep.  It was time to check the loot!  But dad was a notoriously light sleeper, and the creaky hallway would give me away if I tried to sneak a peek at the presents.  So, I came up with the brilliant idea of sneaking out the window, running around the house to the back door, and using the hidden key in the garage to get in the house.  It was a foolproof plan. 

One item of interest here is that on December 24, 1983, Catawba County (I grew up in the eastern part of the county) set a record for cold.  The temperature got down to 3 degrees farenheit that morning (I just went online and checked to be sure I am telling the truth), and 2 degrees that night.  So, as I slipped out the window, it was probably around 8 degrees outside.  I was only wearing sweatpants.  No shirt.  No socks.  I figured I would only be outside for 15 seconds or so, and I was in too big a hurry to get dressed.  I shut the window behind me so that no cold air would get inside.

I ran around the house in the excitement that my plan was working, when I got to the garage door.  For the only time I can remember in my whole 10 years of living in this house, the outside garage door was locked!  We always left it open in case someone got locked out, because the hidden key was inside the garage.  My flesh was quickly hardening out in the elements, and I sprinted back to my window, which wouldn't open from the outside.  It was one of those old, wooden windows that you had to hit with a mallet to get it unstuck, and even worse, from the outside, there was nowhere to grab to put any pressure on it. 

So, I decided that my only chance of survival was to go into our tool shed and wrap up in the old mattress we kept up in the loft.  I did this for about 10 minutes, but my feet became painfully tingly, so I needed another option.  Since I was in a toolshed, I decided to look for something that could pry open the window.  I know you are thinking, "Why didn't you just ring the doorbell?"  Are you crazy!?!?  My parents could not know, under any circumstance.  Death was the better option.  Remember, I was 14 years old.   As a matter of fact, I didn't tell my mom about this until about five years ago.

After some searching, I found a big, thick flathead screwdriver.  By now, it was painful to walk on my bare feet, but I made it back to the window, and started prying.  Slowly, I was able to get the window open, and crawled back in.  The air in my bedroom felt like Miami Beach after being outside for 30 minutes.  I had left a little black and white television on in my room to muffle the sound of opening windows, and when I came back inside, the Pope was ushering in Christmas day over in the Vatican.  For what seemed an eternity, I rolled up in my bedsheets shivered.  My feet ached with intense pain as they thawed out.  But, in the end, I survived this ordeal to be able to tell it today.

The next morning, I woke up, having no idea whether my present had arrived or not.  I was just happy to be alive.  The ice on my window was a clear reminder of how close to my doom I had been.  I could barely hear the creaks as I walked down the hallway, since the rest of the family was already awake (I was 14).  As I rounded the corner to enter the room, there it was.  My most memorable Christmas present ever.  Not so much because it was great, but more because of what I went through the previous eight hours because of it. 

Looking back now, I quickly think of how dumb I was to act so foolishly over such a silly thing.  I only remember playing on it a few times.  It really wasn't much fun.  Funny how I totally remember almost dying of hypothermia, but have virtually no memory of the object of that suffering.  But, it is a good indicator that I really had little grasp on the reality of Christmas.  My treasure was not laid up in heaven.  Instead, it was laid under a tree in the living room, which literally left me out in the cold. 

To be continued next week...