5 Meaningful Gifts to give this Christmas

5MeaningfulChristmasGifts We are all looking for the perfect gift for the people in our lives. Here's a list for you to consider while you contemplate.

1. Memories

While it's fun to unwrap a toy or new outfit, often the fun of the new item wanes within a day or two. Memories, on the other hand, are etched into our minds. Here are a few ways to give the gift of memories this Christmas:

The Christmas my fourth child was a baby I skipped the gift-giving in our immediate family because running around looking for the perfect gifts with an infant, a toddler and two other kids didn't sound too appealing. That year we took our children forty-five minutes away to an indoor water park for several hours of fun instead of buying gifts. On the way home the kids told my husband and me they never needed presents again.

Because we have four children we rarely go to a movie while it is in the theater. As part of their Christmas gift, sometimes their grandma has included an outing for the whole family to go see a new movie over Christmas break. We go with her and she buys popcorn, too!

Last summer our family planned a two week driving trip so I could speak at churches in the western United States. A family friend brought over an envelope the day before we left with specific instructions about when we could open it. Imagine our delight when we reached Keystone, S.D. and opened the envelope to find not only a letter with some encouragement, but a twenty dollar bill so our family could have a treat at Dairy Queen. Believe me, we all remember well our night watching the lighting ceremony at Mt. Rushmore, then going to the Dairy Queen in Keystone for ice cream.

That's the kind of mystery and delight that lingers. Opening an envelope with the promise of fun to come builds the excitement. When the day arrives it's like opening the present all over again.

2. Time

About a month ago I attended a mom's conference and heard Dr. Gary Chapman speak on his book, "The Five Love Languages." When I went home that night I asked our children which love language they preferred. My seven-year-old responded that she likes quality time, which broke my heart a little because as the youngest of four, she rarely receives quality time all by herself. A few weeks later while we were at the library she checked out several books by an author she really likes and told me, "I'm getting these so you can read them to me." Last Friday night I sat down with her and read four of them. It was a sweet time to cuddle next to her and read just to her.

This is an especially important gift if you have a widow in the family or a neighbor or a single or elderly person from your church you'd like to gift. An hour of your time visiting with them is so precious to them.

For nineteen years our family lived next to an elderly couple. This year the wife died and the husband was put in assisted living. Every Tuesday I go to see him. As I say good-bye I tell him to have a good day, and every week he responds the same. "I already have because you came to visit."

Perhaps you have a friend going through a particularly difficult time or because of family dynamics you haven't had much time to catch up. A coffee date is the perfect gift and usually blesses not only them, but you.

3. Food

At a recent mom's Christmas party we broke into groups to discuss the issues that came up in our devotion for the evening. In the process of discussing I found out that many of our called workers would, more than anything, enjoy the gift of being invited over to enjoy a meal together. The meal isn't so much the issue; in fact, I was told pizza would be more than adequate, or even just appetizers. It's the idea of being invited to your home to partake in a meal and spend time with your family that is appealing.

The preconceived notion many of us have that our houses are too small or not tidy enough for our pastors or our children's teachers may be keeping us from showing hospitality to people who would love to share our lives and be encouraged by our fellowship.

This isn't just a good gift for our called workers. My mother-in-law is a widow. Cooking for one is not always fun or easy. It's nice to come to our house for a piece of lasagna or meatloaf, since making those things on her own would mean leftovers for more nights than she cares to think about.

And if you are a widow, what a perfect gift to give a family! Make a pan of lasagna and keep a piece or two for yourself and send the rest home with a mom who would cherish a break from cooking. I give two older ladies a ride to Bible study. Very often they get into the car bearing gifts of muffins or baked goods. It's fun for them to make those things and they have the time, but don't need a whole batch for themselves. Rarely do the baked good last more than a day with my family!

And a gift card for a sandwich shop or fast food place is the perfect gift for a family with children in activities. That will cover dinner for at least one of those hectic nights in the car.

4. Encouragement

The writer of Hebrews tells us to "Encourage one another daily" (3:13) and yet it isn't always something we do. Encouragement can be such a blessing to anyone.

I had walking pneumonia when I was pregnant with my fourth child. As my due date approached and the pneumonia sapped my strength I started wondering how I was going to make it through my labor. My godly long-distance friend who had been part of the experience listened to my fears, then sent a care package complete with a necklace that had a cross on one side and the word "Believe" on the other. I wore that necklace every day, even when I went to the hospital to deliver my daughter, as a reminder that God was my hope. During a dark chapter in my life, that encouragement brought hope and shifted my focus from the situation to God.

Everyone needs encouragement. Taking the time to write a letter or send someone encouragement for their situation in life can speak to them for a long time. To the elderly or a widow the encouragement may come in the form of a daily devotion book. To a parent it may be a note reminding them of the important work they are doing raising the next generation to know the Lord. To a called worker it may be an email letting them know just how much their work has impacted you. Or if you have an elderly family member in a care facility, a note and something to eat for the staff is a wonderful way to thank them for their effort and encourage them to keep doing a difficult job.

5. Prayer

In Philippians the apostle Paul writes: "I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (1:4-6).

What an honor for the Philippian congregation that the apostle Paul remembered them in his prayers! I'm not sure there is a better gift than this. My closest friends routinely ask how they can pray for my family or send me a note letting me know they are praying about an issue I've told them about. It's a great comfort to find someone else is praying for my children or my marriage or my ministry.

Take the time to pray for a family, specifically for areas you know they have, and then let them know that you have done that. Send your called workers or your friends an email letting them know that you are going to gift them this Christmas with prayer and ask what specifically you can pray for. Then, as you keep them in prayer, follow up. Ask them how the Lord has answered those specific prayers. It is more personal and time consuming than picking up a gift card or a box of candy, but it is meaningful and has both earthly and eternal rewards!

My prayer for you is that Advent and Christmas doesn't send you over the edge scurrying for the perfect gift. It's already been given with the birth of Jesus! Instead, I pray God works a good work in all of our lives so that we make the most of this opportunity to encourage, lift up and bless those around us.

AmberSwenson Amber Albee Swenson is a forgiven child of God, and that's what she writes and speaks about. She has written four books. "Bible Moms: Life Lessons from Mothers in the Bible" and "The Whisper Theory" are in print. "The Bread of Angels" and "Ladies of Legacy" are currently in publication, hopefully to be released at the end of the year.



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Since 1993, more than 100 million boys and girls in over 130 countries have experienced God’s love through the power of simple shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse works with local churches and ministry partners to deliver the gifts and share the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ. ~Operation Christmas Child

My little one and I stroll through the store aisles, carefully choosing small gifts for a friend across the world we've never met. Josiah happily throws small cars and colorful band-aides and ring pops into the cart.  I have to remind him a few times that we're only buying things for another little boy today. With disappointed eyes, he sets the package of airplanes back on the rack. The candy is put back in the box.

Josiah is learning the hard, life-long lesson that the world does not revolve around him. That there are others truly in need. That selfishness is wrong and ugly. That sharing is beautiful. That giving is fun. That putting others before ourselves is necessary. That the Lord wants and commands us to be a cheerful givers. That Jesus is our example and our motivation. That we must give and not hold back.

So we wrap up those goodies in blue Tow Mater paper and pray for the boy who will receive our box. We tuck in extra Sunday School materials and a small Bible and send it off with lots of love and hope. Because it's not just about the toys and the notebooks and colored pencils. It's about something more. Something priceless.

One thing we never want Josiah to hold back on is sharing is the gift of Jesus.

But to seek out those who so desperately need to know Him. To not keep that Hope to himself, but let it go again and again and again.

Whether it's a shoebox for a little boy or an invitation for a friend or kindness to a stranger. There is a need for Love around every turn. There is no room for selfishness.

Share. share. share.

A lesson we are all learning over and over and over.

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Interested in packing up a shoebox? Operation Christmas Child is collecting boxes until November 25th, so there is still plenty of time! Go here to read the details and to find a drop-off location near you. This is the 5th year my family has gotten involved and we love it! We know you will, too.




Making Room, part 5: Finances



If you’re just joining us, this is the final post in a series discussing Making Room for God in our lives. You can catch up on parts one, two, three, and four here. 

It’s Sunday, we’re sitting in church, and the offering basket is coming our way. I nudge my husband and pointedly suggest with my eyes: “The offering basket is coming! Get the offering money out of your wallet!” He raises one eyebrow and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Whoa, now! That was my job this morning?” I give him a blank stare. “REALLY?!?!” my eyes scream at him. “AGAIN?!” Sighing as dramatically as one can manage to sigh in absolute silence, I dig through my purse and rummage up a quarter, three pennies, and a stick of chewing gum. I hope God likes Juicy Fruit.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who occasionally (ok, frequently) gives to God only as an afterthought. What can I say? I live a busy life! I have three young children. Making it to church on time with all three of them wearing some type of clothing is an accomplishment. Bonus points if I’m able to comb my hair before walking out the door! Remembering to add offering money to my diaper bag is frankly the last thing on my mind Sunday morning. So sometimes I forget! God won’t hold it against me. I’ll remember next week. Not the biggest deal in the world, am I right?

You know what I don’t forget though? The credit card when I’m headed out the door on my way to Starbucks. No way would I forget money when my enjoyment of a Grande Iced Mocha is on the line! When those much needed shoes for my kids go on sale, I’m on it. If I owe a friend twenty bucks, you can bet I’ll have cash in hand the next time I see them. Date night with my husband? THAT’s important. We can’t skimp on that because our very relationship depends on our enjoyment of our alone time together. The car needs a crucial repair again and I’m headed to the mechanic, checkbook in hand. This piece of furniture is an investment, right? The tickets to the baseball game were practically free so may as well indulge in some overpriced hot dogs! Library fines, student loan payments, rent, groceries, gas, zoo pass renewal, a frugal vacation, utilities, clothing, shoes, Internet, Netflix, fast food, paint for the bedroom, farmer’s market, kids' activities, a new rug, savings, thrifting, Dr. bills, vet bills, car insurance, haircut, and suddenly it’s the end of the month and we have no money left over to give to God.

Sometimes we as Christians get caught up in the details when it comes to giving to God. We want to know exactly “how much” is expected of us, so that we can give just enough to feel good about ourselves without giving more than we have to give. What exactly do you want from us, God? Isn't ten percent of our income the magical required amount? Is that before taxes or after taxes? If I give nine percent am I still going to heaven? Is it justifiable to give less if I volunteer at church a lot? Can I just do nice things for people and call it good for now? I kind of have a lot of debt I’m trying to pay off here, God.

I feel like in all this reluctant mental bargaining we do with God when it comes to tithing, we’re kind of missing the point of giving to God entirely. God doesn’t want our begrudging guilt money packaged in an even 10 percent with an extra .5% to spare any more than he wants the change from the bottom of our purses presented as an afterthought. The money itself isn’t important to God.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

What God wants is the FIRST and BEST of us.

Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (proverbs 3:9-10)

He wants us to give to him FIRST. He wants our BEST. Most of us no longer have choice cows or sheep to sacrifice to the Lord as they did in Old Testament times, so it can be tricky to define what our first and best is, exactly. In the modern era, giving God our first and best may mean deciding at the beginning of a pay period what to give to God. God ought to be the most important line item in our budget. Every other item should be weighed in light of that importance. If I sit down with my budget, reflect, and pray over how I’ve been spending my money, it’s usually pretty clear to my conscience which spending habits I have been prioritizing over giving. A month that ends with no money left over for God probably did not need to include quite so many iced mochas.

When attempting to make room for God in your budget, don’t start by listing everything you’d like to spend your money on for the month and giving to God only what is left over at the end of that list. Instead, try listing first what your heart feels called to give to God, and see if you can make sacrifices in other areas of your budget in order to make that happen. Had I prioritized giving to God this month, I might have made a thousand different spending choices in order to make that gift possible. (Fewer mochas, no new rug, a cheaper date night, a stricter grocery budget, no vacation, to name a few). Instead, I intentionally used that money to glorify only myself and my family instead of God.

God doesn’t just want our first fruits. He wants us to give them to him cheerfully.

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Believe it or not, as easy as it is to place giving to God on the proverbial back burner, it’s just as easy to employ a reluctant over-diligence. Maybe you’re someone who prefers to pay several months worth of tithing at a time, just so you don’t have to think about doing so for awhile. Or maybe you’ve set your giving to an auto-withdrawal system and it’s so simple that you don’t think a single thought about those gifts until tax time. While this type of auto pilot giving is not a bad thing in and of itself, it can reduce the opportunities we are given to come before God presenting our gifts with joy in our hearts. Scheduling advance payments just so we don’t have to think about them isn’t a fantastic motive for doing so. We should think about the gifts we are giving the Lord and should rejoice often in our God-given ability to give them! If you have an auto-withdrawal system in place, consider setting an alarm on your phone or writing a reminder on your calendar to stop, reflect, and pray to the Lord with joyful gratitude whenever that payment goes through.

This joyful gratitude business--it isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have months (or years!) when our budget is absolutely stretched to its limits, and that’s only including the costs of the most basic of human needs. In difficult financial times, giving to God can feel like an unnecessary chore. How can we possibly make room for giving when we feel He isn’t providing?

Yet God promises He will take care of us. In fact, He challenges us to “test (him) in this.” Give freely, and stand in awe at the capacity of his ability to bless us.

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:8-12)

This week’s challenge: 1. If you haven’t already, sit down and plan your budget with giving to God your FIRST and BEST at the top of your priorities this month. Then stick to that plan. What else can you eliminate or reduce in your budget in order to meet your desired giving goal this month?

2. When you bring a gift to God (or when your auto-payment goes through), take a moment to say a silent prayer of joyful Thanksgiving for the blessings God has given you. Ask God to accept your gift and pray that it will be used to his glory.