Thursday, December 25, 2014

Watching for God’s Quiet Gifts This Holiday Season: The Gift of The Overcomer

Christmas Eve smelled of cigarette smoke, hard liquor, and stale, unwashed clothes. From bright red hats and shiny shoes to torn flannel shirts and dirty jeans, the crowd had one thing in common: life had hit them hard and they were in need this Christmas. 

Some needed a roof over their heads, some needed a coat. Others just needed to get warm for awhile. 

The long line of people stretched for more than a block around the building outside. They did not seem to mind the rain as they laughed and huddled together patiently, awaiting their turn to come inside and receive gifts of food, toys, and clothing.

My young son with the Tender Heart watched the crowd carefully, quickly noticing when someone needed help with a bag, or a child stared longingly at a toy. Immediately he sprang to their sides, offering assistance and gently taking a child’s hand as he procured the desired object and placed it in happy arms. 

When an old man humbly asked for a bottle of soda, he gave him a whole bag of them. Making sure everyone had a plate of warm food, Servant Heart bustled around the tables like a busy little waiter.

A few hours later as I tucked him into bed for Christmas Eve dreaming, I quietly said to him, “I saw your heart of compassion and service tonight. You are a very caring boy and you feel deeply for those who are hurting. You are very special.”

He looked up at me and said with sincerity, “That’s what bullies look for. They look for nice and caring people to hurt.”

I never have to wonder what is on this one’s mind.

2014 has been a painful year for him, for us. Bullying nearly devastated him with its cruelty and harm this summer, and we have been rebuilding our son’s self-esteem and taking measures to ensure safer boundaries for our family in the months since. 

Bullying is no distant reality; it is here, in our communities, in our schools, and its damage can be permanent. And nice and caring kids, the ones whose gifts and talents are not valued, seem to wear targets on their backs.

We must stand up to bullying.
We must stand up to bullying.
Our family has taken a costly stand, and our hearts have been wrenched as we have watched our son struggle to overcome the damage bullying caused. This journey has made us keenly aware of our own inability to mend our children’s hearts, to take away the hurt. Rather than feeling strong, we have often felt weak and helpless.  

But there is One who is able to mend the brokenness and hurt, one who can help us stand, One who is an Overcomer. 

His name is Jesus, and He overcame a bully on that first Christmas so long ago. 

There are innumerable stories of Christmas. 

  • The story of a young girl who trusted God and became the mother of the Savior. 
  • The story of the husband who chose honor. 
  • The shepherd who stepped out in faith. 
  • And many more. 

But this year, I was shown that Christmas is the story of an Overcomer. 

One who overcame the bully who targeted him even before he was born. A bully named King Herod. Herod had at his disposal all the wisdom of the wise counselors in his court, all the astronomers, all the soldiers. But he could not defeat the wisdom and protection of God the Father for His son Jesus. 

Jesus the Overcomer. He overcame all the bullies in His life, and defeated them permanently with His death and resurrection.  And He is with our children to defeat theirs. 

He said to his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

As I shared this Christmas story with my little boy, I watched in amazement as the words settled down like a soothing balm on his brow. Creases of anxious concern were smoothed away with peace and calm. Trust is so uncomplicated for children.

It was Christmas Eve. And all was calm, all was bright. And as I quietly prayed for him, I thanked our Father for sending the Overcomer, and asked Him to make my trust uncomplicated, too.

What is bullying you this holiday season? 

May you trust the Overcomer and be filled with courage and confidence. You are treasured by God, and I am praying for you dear reader. 

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Watching for God’s Quiet Gifts This Holiday Season: The Gift of Conversation

Some hearts are jammed shut by the collision of their hopes and dreams with disappointment and abandonment. Rusted by tears of bitterness, they don’t open right anymore. Conversation is almost impossible. Ever met anyone like that? Are you like that?

My uncle was like that. Heart broken years ago, he withdrew into a painful fortress of solitude and independence. He did not let anyone in. At least not often.  

I usually felt like I was talking to a fence-post when I tried to have a conversation with him. A fence post that grunted occasionally or said a bad word here and there, that is. When I hugged him, which I did regularly, the fence post didn’t usually give an inch.

However, he was famous for his quiet deeds of 

practical help and service to the people throughout the small mountain community where our old family farm sits, nestled by a creek. Affectionately nicknamed The Mayor, the whole community depended on him. 

Eccentric and anti social, he just couldn’t hide his good heart no matter how grumpy he acted on the outside. I always knew he was just hiding a broken heart under it all, and I loved him dearly. 

This year on a warm summer evening while fireflies blinked over the creek, I sat on the cabin porch listening to the calm water flow.  We were visiting the farm for a much-needed break from the city. My young son, the one with the gift of Compassion, came running up the steps with a clatter.  

Breathless, he asked, “Mom, can Uncle Dan come for dinner?” 

Wanting to protect his tender heart from rejection, I replied, “You can ask him, son, but he won’t come. He doesn’t come to visit. He just won’t.” 

Big eyes wide with innocence, freckles dancing, he looked up at me and said, “Well I already asked him and he said maybe.” 

I sat back in my rocking chair and thought, miracles do sometimes happen I suppose. 

But I knew he wouldn’t come and I did not set a place for him at the table.

Awhile later, as we sat before our meal, the back door swung open. Silently and awkwardly, Uncle Dan came into the kitchen and stood. My husband and I exchanged looks of wonder as I clamored to Uncle Dan’s side, offering him a plate and some supper.

He pulled up a chair and sat down with us. For the next half hour we talked about chickens, the tomato harvest, and the prices of gasoline. Farm talk, mostly.  

But like farming, something was happening under the surface… another conversation, a silent one, a growing one, one that said, “I will trust you enough to let you in this time!” Hope and love pushing its way to the sunlight.  

And like farming, this small planting yielded a tremendous gift. 

This conversation was like the miracle of harvest emerging from the stubborn mountain soil.  

We could not perceive or imagine what the following weeks would hold for all of us. We could not have believed that our lives would be changed permanently, that tragedy would rip that quiet mountain farm community with pain and shock. 

We were living in the moment, savoring the gift of conversation with a dear one who had the courage to open his pain-shut heart to us over a meal.

On another summer night a few weeks later, thieves attacked my uncle on his doorstep and took his life. In our grief, we have shut our own hearts down now, and conversation comes hard.

As I made my Christmas gift list this year, I realized with another wave of pain that I did not have to puzzle over what creative gift I could make or find for Uncle Dan this year. And immediately it occurred to me that he had left his Christmas gift for us early. As if he knew time was limited.  

Uncle Dan never said the words “I love you” to us. But he showed us when he let his guard down and gave us the gift of conversation this summer.    

So as our family grieves this Christmas in the wake of senseless tragedy, I will remember this early Christmas gift given in June. And I will determine to be more intentional with the ones gathered around my table this season, to stop and look at them, listen, and give the gift of conversation.

Are you the shut-up one, 
or the one trying to pry another shut-up heart open this holiday? 

May you have the courage to take the risk, have the conversation, whether you are the fencepost, or the one hugging it.  

Won’t you share with me how you are finding comfort for a grieving heart this Christmas season? 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Watching for God's Quiet Gifts This Holiday Season: The Gift of Offering

She slowly hobbled forward, her bare feet making a sound like a stiff bush sweeping the dusty ground. The tiny infant on her back bounced gently, not seeming to mind the tightly bound cloth around his legs and shoulders as long as his mother’s warmth was close. 

A Simple Offering
On the cracked floor the woman laid her small offering.  It was a bundle of dried corn, partially gnawed by the rats that shared her mud hut.  But mostly, the cob was full.

Next walked, almost marched, a man of indiscernible age, but certain dignity, his head held chiefly high. He placed a shiny new green and yellow package of chai, or dried black tea leaves, reverently beside the corn.

The scuffling in the back of the tin-roofed church caused us all to whip our heads around to stare then. Pulling and straining was a young man, strong and lean, determined to bring his offering to add to the others. 

We gaped while he cajoled, clicked, and jerked as a young female goat stubbornly followed him down the middle of the crowd to the front. Small beads of sweat gleamed on his brow as he reached his destination, turning and smiling brilliantly.

He remained in place, not trusting his offering to stay on its altar without help.

We watched with more riveted attention than Sneak Preview Night at the local movie theater back home. 

The Pastor stepped forward and the bidding began. Holding the corn high above his head, he waited. A small woman with a wizened, wrinkled face held up five shillings. The crowd waited in silence. Sold! Lunch for five shillings, to the lady in blue!

Next went the chai. Two men and one woman squabbled, until it went for twenty shillings to a little boy standing in the shadows. We all knew he was the grandson of one of the bidders.

All the while goat man stood to the side smiling, shifting his weight occasionally as the animal tried to make a run for it. The pastor approached him, took the rope, and held it before us. The once-raucous room went silent.  

A goat is a status-symbol. It means not going hungry. It means wealth. It means power.  

A goat can give you cheese, milk, or meat. It can give you more goats, which in a poor African village, means money. And perhaps most sacred, it is thought to give you power with your ancestors. Sacrificed, it is believed to appease them so curses will be lifted and blessings will come to your family.

Every mind was thinking the same thing. This is surely the most valuable gift being given today.

So we sat in the silence, the only sound the shuffling of impatient goat hooves. Even the children remained still.

Startled, I jumped as my husband’s quiet voice beside me said, “300 shillings”. He smiled at me  mischievously, I stared at him shocked, and the crowd watched with anticipation. “What does a muzungu (white person) need a goat for?” they whispered to each other.

After a long minute, everyone breathed a collective sigh as the pastor said, “It’s sold! To David’s wife! She is now a (respected, honored, worthy) goat owner!”

I approached Pastor uncertainly and took the rope he offered to me, placing the promised shillings in the offering basket. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I promptly turned, faced my smiling audience, and walked my goat the two miles home to my own mud hut.  

All along the way, villagers shouted the news: “Chizi has a goat! She is a real woman now!” The crowd of children following me grew into a parade of celebration by the time I reached my door.  

That Christmas in a small village in Kenya, I learned about the gift of offering. At Christmas time and around the year, we have the gift of being able to bring an offering to Him. 

We are no different from the African Aduruma in our giving, really. We bring what we have, shabby, small, and stubborn. 

We judge the value of others’ offerings and estimate their worth to God.  We deem some gifts to be better than others. And sometimes we have to drag our offerings kicking to the altar, standing guard to make sure they don’t run off.  

School Savings Account
When I left Kenya two years later, I gave my goat, who I had named Petunia, to my best friend Fatuma as a parting gift.  Petunia’s milk and babies paid for Fatuma’s youngest daughter to go to school. 

The stubborn goat became a school savings account, as it were.  I was very satisfied with the way that Christmas offering turned out.

But I suspect that in her little mud hut, bent over her cooking fire on the floor, the young mother who gave her corn was satisfied too.  Her humble gift opened her heart to the love of Christ that Christmas, and I saw a change in her. 

He took her gift of love and loved her back with a love so big she began to walk in joy instead of sadness, confidence instead of fear.

Regardless of the value of the gift, it is not the object that draws us near to Him. It’s the bringing. 

  • The Drummer boy in the famous Christmas carol had only a song to offer. 
  • The widow had only a mite. 
  • King David had shame and repentance.
  • Thomas had doubt. 
  • All received more than they gave.

What offering will you bring to God this Christmas? 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Watching for God's Quiet Gifts This Holiday Season: The Gift of Real

Sometimes God’s gifts, the Genuine, come after a long stewardship of Less-Than, Silver-Plated, and just plain Plastic.

Growing up my family did not have much money for extra luxuries, but my best friend’s did. She was often displaying her latest piece of genuine gold jewelry, much to my admiration and secret envy. Rings with sparkling diamonds, delicate herringbone gold chain necklaces, small shining sapphire earrings. 

I longed for something real with which to impress her and prove my beauty and value.

One Christmas, my mother presented to me a special gift. She was a factory worker, and her money was hard-earned. A friend was selling jewelry that year, just in time for the holidays. The price was affordable and my gift was carefully wrapped and placed under the tree.

On Christmas morning, I gasped as I opened this unexpected treasure. Inside the small box nestled a beautiful gold ring. Upon its delicate prongs sat a ring of diamonds, encircling a smaller ring of rubies, with an iridescent opal taking center stage. It was perfect.

That afternoon, I headed straight to my best friend’s house to show her my Real ring.

After the initial oohs and aahs, my friend asked to try the ring on herself. Smug that I had inspired admiration and envy of my own now, I handed it to her and stepped out of the room for a moment. As I returned, I heard her discussing my ring.  

“I’m sure it’s fake,” she said to her older brother. 

“Give it to me,” he replied.  

I walked in just as they were rubbing it wildly on her cheek. Everyone knows that real gold makes a mark on makeup. I held my breath and watched as a black line appeared on her face. Phew! It passed the test, I thought to myself. 

That is, until they looked up and saw me, and handed the ring back sheepishly. The “real gold” had rubbed off due to their efforts. Now a dull grey shone beneath.

I don’t remember what I did next. What I do know is that my pursuit of the Real became more determined, more desperate, that day. In my search over the years since, I have tested many things that were no more than cheap metal rings with fake stones, posing as Genuine.

After so many of those disappointments, one learns to be more cautious, more patient, more discerning. I have learned how to choose my friends more wisely now, identifying the difference between Real friendship and selfishness. 

I have learned to look beyond the token in the pretty Christmas box to see the loving heart of the one who gave it as the Real gift. I did, after all, receive a very Real gift that Christmas day, the gift of my mother’s sacrifice and love.

When my husband asked me to marry him, he placed a diamond ring on my finger whose diamond was originally given to his mother by his father upon their engagement. I have learned from him and his family that Real value and worth is passed down by loving hearts from generation to generation.

Most of all, I have learned that there is a Real part of Christmas that cannot be tarnished, and will never fade. It is the gift of a Real God with a Real love for the Real me, just as I am. And He really did come to us as a baby on a silent night so long ago.

It would seem that I have reached my goal in pursuit of the Real.

As you prepare for Christmas this year, won’t you take a minute to share with me the gift of Real in your life?