Unwrapping Christmas Presents

I don’t think there is any experience in childhood quite like unwrapping Christmas presents after emptying a loaded stocking. Ripping through wrapping paper was one of my favorite sounds as a child, especially when my hands were doing the ripping.

And what was inside was always a treat. Shiny see-through plastic packaging, revealing a beautifully displayed toy on the inside (tightly tied to the back of the cardboard scenery). A new doll in a yellow dress. Or a Barbie with a jacuzzi that really bubbled up the water. Or a My Little Pony with diapers and a bottle. Those were the days.

Somewhere along the line, presents just lose something. I don’t know why. But sometime in between being a child and becoming an adult, that certain holiday sparkle vanished from the present ceremony. Somewhere along the line gift cards took over. Somewhere along the line wrapping paper and big puffy bows and nostalgic Christmas tags stopped being necessary.

What happened? What caused the adventure to end?

In Revelation, Jesus indites a church that they “have left” their “first love” (see Revelation 2:4, NASB).

Somewhere along the way, we can lose our first love (or sweetest, richest love) for Christ. Much like how Christmas presents become old hat, so do God’s presents to us. Much like how we take shortcuts by buying gift cards or not wrapping presents, we begin to take shortcuts in our thank-you’s to God. Our soliloquies and poems and love songs become polite, obligatory, punctual, and brief, “Thank you’s”. Our extravagant love for the Savior who gives us forgiveness, mercy, grace, and spiritual gifts becomes small. We forget the sparkle we had every time we used to open a gift from Him. The remarkable becomes nice. The miraculous becomes all right. The stunning work within us becomes okay.

Let’s rewind our lives and remember who we used to be, and who we have become by the gifts of Jesus. And let’s get back to opening up the presents He gives us with positively superb glee.

Easter egg hunt

When I was not much more than a toddler, I participated in a local Easter egg hunt. There was a pink Easter bunny walking around and waving, and eggs scattered through a field. My parents put me on the starting line with the other children. I was ready to go.

Someone counted down, “On your mark . . get set . . go!” only for the little kids. And we were off. I toddled out.

About the time I discovered an egg, the announcer was saying, “Go!” again, only, this time, it was for the big kids.

I did not get that egg.

The big kids came racing out. One of them snatched the egg I was going to pick up. And they started picking the field clean of Easter eggs.

Slowly, slowly, I tried to go after eggs. But there was no hope of catching up to the big kids. Fortunately, they missed a few, and I found a few eggs for my basket. But it was hardly a grand success. There were some big prizes offered if your Easter egg had a certain slip of paper inside. I hadn’t collected hardly any and I didn’t get a single one of those big prizes.

Do you ever feel in life like you’re the little kid toddling around with big kids snapping up all the good stuff in life? This has been called a “dog-eat-dog” world. And sometimes, we just feel behind the 8-ball.

God’s Kingdom flips our world upside-down on its head. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland is Jesus’ beatitudes, if we really think about what He was saying in them.

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5, NASB)

Does that sound anything like what they teach us here on earth? If I’d been standing in the crowd that day, I might have wondered what planet Jesus came from.

But here Jesus is telling us about God. God blesses the gentle. The ones who toddle out and gingerly pick up what’s been left behind by others. The ones who make this world a little softer on the edges.

Who are you more like? If you’re the gentle one, take heart. There’s a part of your story that hasn’t been read yet. A surprise chapter waiting toward the end.

Published in: on October 24, 2014 at 7:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Zebra-Striped Gum

I was totally intolerant of bullies as a kindergartener.

One time we were on the bus, and a girl was handing out Zebra-Striped gum. Of course it was a huge hit. Kids flocked around her, pleading for a piece of gum. She had a whole pack, or nearly all of one, and it was more gum than I’d ever had in my possession.

Still, I didn’t like Zebra-Striped gum. But I watched with interest as she passed it out to the crowding children. One boy, however, she wouldn’t give a piece to no matter how he begged. I liked that boy. And that made me mad.

“Can I have a piece of gum?” I asked innocently.

She gave me a piece, and I immediately handed it over to the boy who hadn’t gotten one.

I haven’t yet forgotten that exchange.

The warmth in his smile. The glowing victory between the two of us. We were friends.

You know, what I did wasn’t that big of a deal . . but still, you don’t see it happen everyday. Lots of days, the left-out kid doesn’t get the Zebra-striped gum. And that goes right on into adulthood. Most of the time, the bullies win out.

If Jesus had been on the bus that day, I’m confident that He would have given away His piece of Zebra-Striped gum, too. Not because He didn’t want it, but because He saw someone else wanted it who didn’t get any.

Jesus came for the sick and the hurting. The forgotten and the broken-down.   The disheveled and the bullied. Jesus says about Himself that He “came to seek and to save the lost” (from Luke 19:10b, NIV).

That’s how I know He’d hand out His piece of Zebra-Striped gum, too.

Like a teddy bear on a courthouse awning

One stage I had as a kid was throwing my favorite Beanie Baby off a high place for my mom to catch down below. We played this game without problems . . until one day I got over ambitious. For a reason I don’t remember, we were at the courthouse. I was standing on the porch of the courthouse, a couple stories above my mom.

I threw Sniffy (my Beanie Baby) down to her, only she didn’t catch him. She couldn’t catch him. He landed on an awning.

My mom and I were so busted for playing this kind of game. She thought about what to do, then told me she was going back in the courthouse to get help. I waited up top, where I could see the whole thing unfold.

Fortunately, she came out with a maintenance worker and not a judge. The worker had long broom. He jostled the awning with the broom. With each bump, my Beanie Baby got closer to the edge. At last, he fell off. Mom picked him up, and he was safe once more.

Did you ever feel like you were a Beanie Baby on a courthouse awning? Worse, did you ever feel like God put you there, and you had no idea why He did?

I had this kind of uncomfortable experience this past year. My husband and I were casually stopping at a store to get caffeinated jelly beans (very helpful for waking up in the morning). I saw a man, probably homeless, with no good coat on, walking out in the rain.

I was already feeling uneasy. I did not want to get involved in this.

But God was feeling a different kind of unease, and He kept working on my heart.

At last, I gave in, and said something like, “Okay, God, if he’s still standing where I can see him when we come out of the store, I’ll . . have Ben offer him his coat.”

I sort of acted like I was “appeasing the gods”, rather than talking to my very personal Friend up in Heaven.

Not too surprising to me, when we left the shop with our caffeinated jelly beans, he was still there. I’d seen him go in and come out of a store, and I figured he was asking for money.

Ok. God wasn’t going to let me go on this one.

“Ben,” I said, “I think God wants us to help this man. Could you go offer him your coat?”

Ben is amazing in his faith. He agreed, got out of the car, and left.

That coat was expensive, but it was old. We could replace it. No big deal. Ben needed a new coat anyway.

Ben came back still wearing his coat. And with someone I did not expect to be seeing again. He came back with the stranger!

“He’s needing to get home,” Ben explained.

I was aghast. So he was needing to get home? How was this our problem? What happened to my plan of simply giving him a coat and leaving him out there in the rain and cold?

Before I could say “all I wanted was caffeinated jelly beans”, the man was in the backseat of our car. And, I began to hear his story.

He was grateful, very grateful, for the ride. He had just been released from the hospital, and found out he had no transportation back to his home. His friend he lived with worked at a Wal-mart up on the north side of our town (the other side from where we were) and he asked for us to take him there, where he could wait. He’d been going in and out of stores asking for taxi money.

I marveled at this. This man had just gotten out of the hospital, and here he was out in the cold, walking without proper clothes?

I heard God loud and clear: What if this was you?

I was still freaked out, but I was flooded with a desire to take this man to the Wal-Mart where he needed to go. And, after all, was it really any big deal?

But then I felt God prompting me again. Oh no. Not God again. (Have you ever thought this? Would you admit to it? Here I am, admitting to it!!)

“Ben,” I whispered as he drove, “I think we need to buy him lunch.”

Ben immediately agreed. We stopped at Chik-fil-A and got him a value meal. He was enormously thankful.

But then came the biggest hurtle of all. We were almost to the Wal-Mart, we were on the north side of town, everything seemed to be going smoothly, and I heard from God again.

I want you to buy him Andy’s.

WHAT?? Andy’s is a very popular frozen custard chain in our city. There was one right before we got to Wal-Mart.

Well, this was ridiculous, I rationalized. I was like Sniffy on that awning. What was God thinking?? I mean, this wasn’t logical. A man needs to get to shelter out of the rain, yes. A man needs to eat, yet. But does a man need frozen custard? Really, God?

But God wouldn’t let me off. So, finally, finally, I made a lukewarm agreement with God.

Okay, God. If we get stopped at this stoplight, I’ll tell Ben.

Guess what?

We got stopped at that stoplight.

“Ben,” I said, on edge and nervous and embarrassed. “I think we should buy him Andy’s.”

Ben is remarkable. He just simply stopped at Andy’s, and we bought him a treat, I think it was a large vanilla milkshake.

We dropped the man off at Wal-Mart. Ben walked in with him. He found out the man needed like 6 or 8 dollars for his prescription from the hospital. I wasn’t the only one whose heart was being reached by God. Ben went to the ATM and got him the money.

Sometimes, sometimes we feel like teddy bears on awnings where we are certainly not supposed to be.

And sometimes God uses us most while we’re there.

Disguised hearts

I wanted to be a spy when I grew up.

I loved to dress up in old clothes of my parents and costumes I’d acquired over the years. I had a whole box full of disguises. And I even carried around an orange, plastic case of quick-change disguises for emergency circumstances. One of my disguises included a puppet dog, who I guess was supposed to make me look like a different person!

As I grew, I learned that being a spy wasn’t the only time a disguise came in handy. After painful rejection experiences, I began putting on a costume around friends and sometimes family. As a quick change artist, I could hide my woundedness behind a plastic smile and happy tone of voice. But on the inside, I still hurt.

There’s one place I was most inclined to wear my disguise, and that was when I approached Heaven’s throne. To talk to God was surely to need a costume of some sort. A costume to make myself more appealing, more likeable . . less cumbersome, less frail.

For years my prayers to God were often no more than repeated mantras said over and over again to try to gain favor. The more mindless, the better. My face before God was one that hid my deepest problems and most scary questions. Though I didn’t have an orange case to carry with me, I had plenty of ways to deflect God from exploring my real heart—or so I thought.

What I’ve found, though, is that God isn’t looking for quick change artists who always say “fine” when He asks how they are and never carry their troubles to Him. Rather, He’s looking for real people who want a real relationship with Him. He is ready and able to pick up our burdens for us, and labor with them all the way to Golgotha. And even though He already knows all things, He longs for us to trust Him enough to share our true hearts with Him.

God showed His preference for the real in the story of Job. Even though Job’s friends were full of beautiful-sounding, daintily-gilded sayings about God, it was Job’s hard questions that God found honest. Even though Job asked some fierce questions of God, God directed Job to make a sacrifice of atonement for his friends, not for himself.

The next time you’re tempted to come before God with a disguise, remember this: God already knows who you are and He wants you to show Him the real you. Not only can He handle all the dark parts of you, but He can even bring light to them and transform you into the son or daughter He dreams of you becoming.

O Lord, you have examined my heart

and know everything about me. (Psalm 139:1, NLT)

Retaining grace

I wore a retainer of one kind or another most of my childhood. One of the ones I wore was cemented to my teeth. Later I was placed with a removable retainer. ADHD kid that I was, I got in the habit of popping it in and out. That was fine and good for a while, but then came time for a more exciting feat. I started poking the tip of my tongue in and out of the narrow gap between the plastic and the wire as I popped the retainer in and out.

You can probably guess this didn’t end well. One day, whilst sticking my tongue in the gap, my tongue didn’t come out. Now this is not only upsetting, but pretty ridiculous and embarrassing, too. I either had to show my mom what I’d done—there was no denying how I got myself in this mess—or I would have to hide in my bedroom for the rest of my life.

I went to show my mom and tried to explain, which is no easy thing to do when a) there is no rational explanation and b) you have a retainer stuck on your tongue. I remember my mom’s immediate concern. She took me on her lap and began prying the retainer off my tongue. I started bawling because it hurt and I was scared. But at last she got it off and I was free.

She didn’t say much of anything to me about it, except for a quiet, “Don’t stick your tongue in your retainer anymore.”

Sometimes (okay, most of the time) we’re afraid to go to God when we mess up in a stupid way. Sometimes we’re afraid God will use our vulnerability to harass us even more than what we’re already feeling from the world and from ourselves. So many of us hide away from Him, retainer trapped on our tongue, not sure at all of what to do next.

One of my favorite verses is a prophesy from Hosea 3:5b (NIV) about God’s people who have rebelled: “They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.”

I was insecure to show my mom what I’d done, and I went to her as humble as could be. I totally needed her help and I totally had no excuse for myself. But instead of using the opportunity for a victory speech to smear more guilt on me, she simply pried the retainer off my tongue.

I kinda think about my retainer story when I read the verse above. God’s disobedient people will see that God is so good that they come back shaking like a cold, wet stray dog. And what does God do? Pick them up, wrap a warm blanket around them, and cuddle them.

There’s no need to fear coming back to God. Come trembling and find His awesome goodness.