Thursday, December 18, 2014

Earning the Gift

"Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!"

2 Corinthians 9:15

After yet another three-month hiatus, I am compelled to write this blog after speaking with several women lately regarding the, "Christmas crunch."  I can totally relate to their overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, panic, and rush regarding all the holiday shopping, unwrapped gifts and unfinished baking that still remain on the do-list amidst all the Christmas programs, parties, and ministries that demand our attention and drain our time and energy.  Most years I begin the Christmas season a solid two-weeks behind due to traveling to be with family the week of Thanksgiving and then spending the entire next at my husband's annual work convention.  This leaves me about two weeks to do it all.  Believe me, I get it.

Add to that, for the past 27-years of our marriage, our family has had between five and six Christmas gatherings within about seven days.  We still typically travel to five different houses during the week of Christmas.  It isn't that I don't enjoy each of those gatherings or seeing the people that we see.  But it is a lot within one week, (and for nearly 30 years), especially when you are carting gifts and food to most of those houses and trying to do so around a fair amount of luggage.  

I used to get completely stressed-out every year about Christmas.  Jesus being, "the reason for the season," seemed like an afterthought with all I had to accomplish in such a short time.  In recent years I have finally learned there is much of which I have to, "let go" in order to stay focused on the Person for which this holiday exists (and in order to actually enjoy CHRISTmas)!  Most of you know that I am a recovering perfectionist.  Well, Christmas is no exception.  I spent most of my twenties and thirties sleeping less during the month of December than any human should, trying to find the perfect gifts, wrap them perfectly, bake the perfect food (that can transport well, not need baked or reheated in someone else's oven, and be tasty upon arrival), decorate the perfect tree and house, maintain a perfectly clean home, attend ALL the Christmas parties to which I was invited (and take food to most of those), serve in a number of capacities and ministries at church, and on and on it went. By the time it was all over, I had typically done some or all of the following:  yelled unreasonably at Matt (typically for something stupid), yelled unreasonably at Allie (again for something stupid), cried (and I'm sorry, but there should be no crying at Christmas), failed to read my Bible and pray daily, felt undervalued or unappreciated for all the work I had killed myself doing, and ended the season ill from the lack of sleep and strain under which I had placed myself (or allowed others to place me).  Finally, I have seen the light and have said, "Stop the madness!"  If you have even once lashed-out at your family from Christmas stress, I would urge you, too:  "Get off the crazy Christmas train!"

Since I have had two weeks to prepare for Christmas again this year, I have attended far less Christmas parties.  I have served in only one capacity at church--leading worship a couple of Sundays.  I have bought a lot more gift cards this year versus spending days trudging through malls and stores looking for things that people will return later anyway (besides, people love to shop the after-Christmas sales, and they can usually get a lot more bang for their buck then anyway)!  I plan to use a lot of gift bags this year (no, my gifts aren't wrapped yet, and I'm not hyperventilating about it).  My house is dusty and I do not care.  We have not even put up the tree yet, and since we will be spending Christmas with our only child and her husband at my parents' house (in order to save time and simplify two Christmases into one), we probably won't bother.  But I have spent time serving others who genuinely need it and where I have felt called to do so these past two weeks.  I have enjoyed my life and spent time listening to friends and family members who have needed an ear.  I have plunged myself into private worship numerous times listening to all my favorite Christmas worship songs.  I have prayed hard for friends who are battling things much more heavy and crucial than holiday decorating and do-lists, like children with cancer and marriages that are falling apart.  I have spent time working to make a special day for my guy, T-bone, for his December birthday (since he feels it gets, "forgotten" in the Christmas craziness).   I have spent much time quietly listening to my T-bone talk about his work and the things he faces in his new position, and praying hard for him.  Nothing major in the eyes of most...but yet, important.

If the Stephanie from Christmas past met the Stephanie from Christmas present, she might think an alien has taken-up residency in my body!  The old me is tempted to say, "Gosh...have I gotten lazy?  Am I depressed?" But the new me says, "No!  Stop it, girl!  The reality is:  Finally!  I am happy at Christmas! I am living the abundant life He desires for me instead of the perfectionist nightmare I lived for years!"  As you fellow perfectionists know, you beat yourself up for miserably over-extending yourself and then likewise, do the same when you under-extend.  I'm 44-years old and I'm done with the whole, beating-myself-up-thing.  My heart has moved from feeling urged to do the expected to doing only those ministries and tending to those people to which God has truly called me.  My heart has moved from falling prey to the appearance of, "having and doing it all" at Christmas to a quiet, contented, still heart that seeks to worship the King alone and serve Him with gladness in areas that to many would seem small.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas decorations and trees at my church and everywhere else I've gone...and they didn't require stress or loss of sleep!  I guess one could say I have had a humbling Christmas.  But isn't that the real point of Christmas?  To quiet and humble our hearts before Him Who came into this world and humbled Himself for us?  I am grateful I serve a God Who doesn't require or demand glitz, flare, or perfection in my worship and celebration of Him and His birth.

Why do we put ourselves through so much striving during this sacred time of year?  In our defense, I do believe a lot of it is our honest desire to create a special celebration for our very special Savior.  I think we very much want to show God that we HONOR His Son.  But on the flip side, I think it is very easy for us to move from that onto the slippery slope of appearances and show.  We want to prove we are a great wife.  We want to prove we are a diversely creative and caring mom, daughter, sister, grand-daughter, aunt, cousin, neighbor, or everyone else we know and see on Facebook, right?!  We want to prove we are an avid believer and devout Christian by our good deeds and holiday spirit.  But what good do any of the good deeds and appearances really do if our hearts are stinky after killing ourselves doing it all?  Some of the problem lies in the fact that we very much want to, earn the gift, or "prove" we appreciate the free gift of salvation we have through Jesus.  It is important and good to show God we love Him by serving Him cheerfully and by giving generously to the needy and others this time of year.  We know from the book of James, Chapter 2 that our faith is dead without actions or works to back it up.  But we also know that our good deeds must flow out of our faith--not out of a desire to earn our salvation, brag on ourselves, prove a point, win, or in a pious attempt to, "be the Holy Spirit" to others who we think need conviction toward our same callings.  We should only do good works out of a heart full of love for God, for His glory, as a testimony of our faith, and in grateful response to His precious gift to us--Jesus.  We can do many things in His name but we can never earn that gift (Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast).  So doing good works in reciprocation of God's great love and free gift of salvation to us requires caution.  Our motives and hearts must be pure.  In Matthew 6: 1-4 we read, "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."  God is not a God of appearances (1 Samuel 16:7)--He doesn't care that my house is dusty and that I have not decorated like Martha Stewart this year.  He just wants my heart and wants to see me give it away to others in the ways He urges.  If out of our competitive and comparative natures we seek to appear to have it all but our hearts are too burdened and busy to offer up genuine love, friendship, and kindness to those in our own sphere of influence we actually have nothing.  All our work is in vain.

I am glad I serve a God Who says we cannot earn His free gift of salvation through Jesus.  Not only because I would be in serious trouble if I had to earn or prove my way into Heaven, but also because what kind of Christmas would it really be if everyone of us had to work for the gifts we are about to receive from our loved ones next week?!  God is far more gracious, compassionate, merciful, and giving than our loved ones, and even they aren't expecting us to work in return for our gifts from them!  God's attributes provoke me to worship Him.  They beckon me to serve Him humbly, give Him the glory for all good, and praise Him for His gift of Jesus.  In response to God's great gift, He doesn't expect grandeur and show, and I praise Him for that, too.  I'm fresh out of that--it is an endless vacuum of emptiness to me, sucking our lives dry of all the really good stuff.  He just desires for our hearts to be pure before Him and others.  He wants us to willingly offer up our honest worship to Him and lavishly give gifts to our families and friends that are timeless--like genuine love, a selfless attitude, and a caring heart.  I wish you all a truly blessed Christmas and a happy New Year!

Simple Living at Christmas and Always!:
Micah 6:8, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."