My Christmas Story

Several years ago, shortly after my wife and I were married, we had to do the traditional holiday travel. At this time we lived in Indiana where my family lived and wife’s family lived in Wisconsin. The plan was simple to us, Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas day with mine. Our house was in between the two and we could spend Christmas morning at our own home. So off we went, by Christmas Eve morning we were in Wisconsin. By the time we arrived, it had become unbearably cold. Yet, we were young and unwilling to waver from our plans. Shortly after dinner we loaded up the car and headed back toward our home on that cold Christmas Eve evening.
Our journey led us down to the city of Rockford, Illinois where we caught interstate 90 to Chicago. Shortly before we turned onto 90 we saw a sign in front of a bank showing the temperature to be a minus one-degree. My wife and I both agreed the wind chill must be substantially lower. We were just thankful we didn’t have to be out in it.
About two miles after taking the interstate highway we noticed a car on the right side of the road with its hazard lights blinking. A short distance from the car we saw a man walking. I quickly sped by wondering what was going on for this man. My wife, who is far more thoughtful than I am, shouted for us to turn the car around and help him out. Without thinking I was crossing the median and was headed back the other way.
Here I am on Christmas Eve at around ten at night in temperatures below zero driving to help someone I had never met. My wife and I agreed for someone to be out under these circumstances it must be a real emergency. Quickly we pulled over and picked him up.
He was a middle aged African American male from Chicago. He was also headed home for Christmas when his car died. Now just a two hour drive from home he was unsure what to do.
At first we took him to a nearby phone and let him make some calls. No one was home who could help and all those who were home could offer no valuable help. While he was on the phone my wife and I agreed to take him home. Although we were not sure what that would mean, we wanted to help. He accepted our offer and hopped back in the car.
For the next couple hours we told him about who we were and various boring details about our life. He quietly listened and then told us all about himself. I can’t remember his name or much of anything he told us. It was just simple random small talk.
After a while he said we could just drop him off at a store and someone could come get him. Nonsense. We have come this far; we are going all the way. And that is what we did. We took an exit unknown to me, then down a strange street into a dark neighborhood with rows and rows of houses. “Here it is,” he stated and we pulled the car over. I do remember it was 12:05 a.m. when I opened the car door. Without hesitation we all stepped out and said, “Merry Christmas.” We even began to hug one another. Then across the street he ran to the house with the lights on and a family waiting inside.
My wife and I got back in the car and drove a while without talking. If we did talk, I sure don’t remember it. The rest of the evening was spent driving the remaining two hours home – quietly thinking. I thought about it all that night and I still think about it today. To this day I have only told this story once. We didn’t do it for self-glorification. We did it because it was the right thing to do at Christmas.
My hope today, as I stare out on this cold world, is that we would all live like everyday was Christmas.

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Top 7 Christmas

Years ago I used have a Top 7 list every Sunday at a Church I served. I have kept them all in a file. Here are a couple to enjoy.

Top Ten Signs Christmas Will Be Here Soon
7. Pumpkin guts all over my porch.
6. Police investigate the season’s first sleigh jacking.
5. The summer line of swimsuits is out at the mall
4. One word, “bell ringers,” OK that’s two but you get the point
3. People say, “Merry Christmas!” before cursing at you.
2. The cranky old man next door starts putting out reindeer traps.
1. Because I am now just getting around to taking last years lights down.

Top Seven Least Popular Christmas Carols
7. Stalking in a Winter Wonderland
6. Jingle Bell Mosh
5. I Have An Irregular Heartbeat Pa-Rum-Pum-Pum-Pum
4. Rudolph, The Red Neck Reindeer
3. Joy to the world, their season’s done, the Chiefs can lose no more
2. Frothy, the Rabid Snowman
1. Elmo roasting on an open fire

Top 7 Signs You Might Be A Scrooge
7. You turn on the lawn sprinklers to keep Carolers away
6. You got your Christmas tree at a rest stop at night
5. Your favorite Christmas movie is Jurassic park
4. Your favorite pastime is putting defective bulbs in your neighbor’s Christmas lights
3. You bought all your Christmas gifts at a store that also sells gas
2. Your favorite Christmas tradition involves a fire and reindeer meat
1. Your only holiday decoration is a rotting pumpkin

A Pastor’s Christmas Card

This is not self-serving. I promise you – it is not. Last week I wrote a blog post about Christmas cards over HERE. I was a little surprised when I looked at my blog information on Monday about how many hits that post had accumulated. Then upon further research many of those hits had come from people searching the phrase, “what do I write in a Pastor’s Christmas card?” I guess people want to let their pastor know how much they care, but have no idea how to do it. With that in mind, I am writing this post. Not so that people in my congregation will write me a nice card, but so that all people in all congregations can give their pastor a nice card for Christmas.

So here are my thoughts on what I would like to hear as a pastor in my Christmas card.

1. Tell the Truth. Be honest. Don’t exaggerate. Many people will write about how much they love their Church and their pastor and then only attend once a month. If you really loved me and my preaching you would be here more often. Your Pastor knows the truth, you do not have to lie and exaggerate your love for him and his ministry. Here is a line I like: “Every sermon I have heard is well done.” Or something like: “I can tell that you really do care about people.”

2. Be Specific. It honors me that some people “enjoy all my sermons.” But I would rather hear someone tell me that they understand grace better since I speak about it regularly. Tell me which sermon or sermon topic you really liked. Tell me what you have learned from me specifically. Tell me about the time I prayed with you. Tell me how much you appreciated that visit and I said that one thing. You get the idea.

3.Avoid Passive Aggressive Statements. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the things some people write. I have read things like, “I enjoyed that one time you visited with me and I wish you would do it again.” I know that people are well-intentioned but some cards are used as a backhanded way to tell me what they want. I once received a card with money inside as a gift and the card then proceeded to tell me how I could use the money to purchase some nicer clothes to wear on Sunday. I appreciate the thought, but it also hurt me.

4. Compliment My Wife. People often have nice things to say about me and are very complimentary. Well, my wife donates hundreds of hours to the Church each year just because I am the Pastor. It makes me feel like we are both loved when you mention her and her efforts in my ministry.

5. Mention Your Prayers. Several times in the New Testament Paul tells a Church or an individual that he is praying for them. Of those times, he often mentions specifically what he is praying for. He tells the Church that he is praying they will understand the fullness of Christ. He tells individuals that he is praying for their ministry. Obviously, do not lie (once again). But if you do regularly pray for your pastor, tell him. It is wonderfully empowering.

I know this is a short list and there are many more things that could be said. I beg you again not to think this is self-serving. You do not have to run out and get me a card and write all these things in them specifically. I hope that you will share this information with people in other Churches so that they can bless their Pastor’s life this Christmas. I also would say that many of these ideas apply to the elder or deacon you are sending a card. Any Church leader loves to hear about how they are appreciated for what they are doing for God. May your words be a blessing to those who serve in ministry.

Santa

I originally wrote this article about 6 years ago when my kids were smaller. It think it bears repeating —

A question that I always receive this time of year, especially with having kids, is, “What do you tell your kids about Santa?” I know it sounds simple, but I think there are some bigger issues underlying that question.
First, I personally tell my kids that Santa is a nice story that people like to tell. It is kind of like Larryboy, Superman, or even Huck Finn. Nice stories created by nice, well-intentioned people. The stories may have some roots in history, but primarily serve the purpose of communicating a truth. With Santa, I learn that giving is better than receiving.
Second, my objections are more biblical than personal. What does it benefit my kids to lie to them? If I act like some mythical person (or creature) is real like Santa, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy or whatever else is real, “How does that help them?” I tell them that mommy and daddy (along with grandma and grandpa) bought them their gifts. We did it because we love them and want them to enjoy the holiday. More than that, I tell them that God provided us with the money to purchase those gifts. God is the ultimate giver and that is the biggest lesson to learn. Then, I want them to understand that we are to be giving people – just like God.
The bigger problem I see is what happens when my kids find out Santa is not real. I think I lose some credibility with my children. “If my parents are lying to me about this, what else are they lying to me about?” My deepest fear is that they will question the existence of God. If I lied to them about Santa, whom they have never seen, maybe I lied to them about God, whom they have also never seen?
I have yet to have one parent give me a descent answer when I ask the question, “What does it benefit my children (or me) to lie to them about Santa?” There is no benefit that I can see. So, I spend Christmas telling my kids about the great God we serve who gave us his one and only Son.

Great Christian Gift Ideas

Through the years I have bemoaned the fact that most Christian “book stores” have become a place to buy religious trinkets. There you can get a plastic cross, an expensive picture, a Christian video and even “TestaMints.” Part of the reason this has happened is the simple law of supply and demand. People want to show off their faith and so we buy a Christian T-shirt instead of giving the money to the needy. The T-shirt industry is plenty happy enough to supply the shirts at an often ungodly mark up. This thinking reaches its peak at Christmas. Christians hit the Christian bookstore with the same enthusiasm as they do Wal-mart and buy lots of over-priced religious junk to give away. As a pastor I know this is true because I am often the recipient.

So today I want to suggest that there are better gifts that you can give.

1. Beneficial Gifts – Find a need and meet it. I highly recommend you ask a teacher or school administrator of a child in need. In bigger communities there may be some resistance but often if you tell them why you are asking they will help point you in the right direction. Ask around and I bet there is someone in your life who has a need. Find those people and give them something they need. Side note – shoes are getting very expensive ($80-$150 for sneakers) and my wife sees several students who only have one pair.

2. Personal Gifts – My wife likes to keep lists of what other people like. Do they like chocolate or peanut butter? What color do they like? How many kids do they have? And so on. Then when a gift is given it lines up with what the person really likes. It shows that you know that person and really do care about them. Through the years I have been enormously blessed by people who gave me something that I really liked far more than being given another Bible Verse in a frame.

3. Unexpected Gifts – I bet the janitor at your work does not expect a gift. Neither does your neighbor. Neither does your boss or co-worker. Who in your life gets overlooked for Christmas gifts? Surprise them with something small … and maybe you do not even tell them who it is from.

4. Unreciprocated Gifts – Jesus spoke about giving without expecting repayment. Often we give to someone because we want them to do something in return. Something like, “I will give something to my boss this Christmas, and then he will remember that when it is time for a raise.” I just read of a couple in a Church who paid for a year of a Bible College student’s tuition. They know he can’t repay it, and that’s the point.

5. Timely Gifts – Take the older couple a meal the day after Christmas. Tell that young couple that you will watch their kids for free so they can have a night out. Look at the stage of life someone is in and ask, “What would be the most beneficial to them right now?” Parents are often looking for a break. Seniors are often looking for company.

I know this is a generic list. I know this is not a complete list. I have just been thinking about what I want to do for other people this Christmas and I use these ideas to guide me. Maybe they are helpful to you. I hope you have the most wonderful Christmas ever. I pray that your life is a blessing to others in every way, especially through the gifts that you give.

Christmas Movies

I believe Christmas has some of the best movies to watch over and over again. They give us simple lessons in stories we can all identify with. I watch them myself, I enjoy them with my wife and I have used them to teach my kids. Here are my top 5 favorite Christmas movies and why.

5. Elf – I generally don’t like Santa Claus movies but this is the exception for me. I love Buddy’s joy in life and his desire to have a family, especially a father. The movie makes me smile and feel good about the holiday season.

4. A Christmas Carol – This is a timeless classic that has been redone thousands of time. The heart of the story is a transformation of character in light of death. What a powerful truth to reexamine every year.

3. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas – The idea that Christmas might be more than gifts. The idea that a heart can be changed inside of anyone. This is a classic transformation story that is done in a catchy and memorable way.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life – Do I need to say more? When the people are pouring their money out for George Bailey at the end I get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye every time – even after 20 viewings.

1. Charlie Brown Christmas – Nothing beats Charlie Brown stopping in the middle of the movie to read the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. The funny looking tree and the garbled voice teacher add to the fun, but it is the animated reminder of the true meaning of Christmas that makes this my favorite.

What would you add to the list and why? I know there are other funny and cute movies that I like, but these are my favorites for their spiritually redeeming qualities. I hope you enjoy the holiday and make time to sit down and watch one good movie as a family.

Blaze Your Own Holiday Trail

My wife and I tried to do it. We tried to make everyone else happy. When we first got married we would celebrate with my wife’s family on Christmas Eve and then have a Church Christmas Eve program. Then we would have our own personal Christmas late at night before going to bed. Finally we would get up early and head to my parents on Christmas morning. It was two days of run and visit and then run and visit and then run and visit. We continued this routine even while our children were young. It was exhausting and not really that enjoyable.

As a young couple and as young parents we felt like we had to make everyone else happy. Our families would be disappointed if we didn’t come – after all, we were their favorite:-) In an effort to visit everyone we left little room for ourselves. Our holidays were a blessing and a curse all rolled into one.

Then something happened. One year Christmas fell on Sunday. What were we going to do? I needed to preach and be with my Church and we had no time for travel. With a heavy guilt ridden heart I told my family that we would not be coming home for Christmas. My wife then told her family. We braced ourselves for the blow back and everyone was very understanding. Finally, Christmas came and something happened that we had never experienced. We woke up a little later, opened gifts, we went to worship and then came home for a nice quiet meal as a family. Without much planning we had the best Christmas ever.

With one good year under our belts we informed our families that we would not be able to do get together the next year. Again, they were disappointed, but very understanding. We immediately started planning an exciting Christmas experience with our boys. Instead of giving toys we purchased a night at a hotel with a water park and set out on a Christmas adventure. Since that time we have tried to make our own special Christmas each year. And it has been a wonderful undertaking.

We have gone to water parks, eaten pizza, rented movies, slept in, enjoyed small gift items, and done anything we wanted to do. Yes, we still enjoy getting together with our family but we try to do that on days other than the holidays. We have made Christmas a time we celebrate the birth of Jesus and spend time together as a family. In the last 10 years I have had moments where it would have been nice to see my parents but I have felt no regrets over blazing our own holiday trail.

So let me ask you: What are your holidays like? Do you spend all of your time trying to make everyone else happy? Do you feel miserable because of an overloaded schedule? What would happen if you scrapped everything you are suppose to do and started doing what you want to do?

My advice to any young couple is to create an experience that brings you closer together with God, each other and with your children. Family means well, but the road that runs from your house also runs to your house. If they want to be a part of my experience they can come to me as easily as I can go to them. Don’t be afraid to blaze your own trail, in the end it will often lead to a much happier place. I know it did for us.