When the Manger Feels Empty

But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
— Galatians 4:4-5

I have a secret. And it’s about Christmas. And it might be something you don’t want to hear.

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Christmas doesn’t depend on you.

If you didn’t do another thing between now and the 25th of December, Christmas would still be Christmas. Honestly.

Some times we feel a lot like Mary, going into labor in the middle of the street, don’t we? The days of December tick by so fast and we barely have time to catch our breath. Suddenly, just like that, Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day arrive. Ready or not, here it comes. And we feel so not ready. If only we had an extra couple of days. Or maybe a week.

The idea that what we do is what makes Christmas Christmas is a lie.

Because the truth of what makes Christmas what it is for us as Christians remains true regardless of how ready we feel or what we’ve done to prepare. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus, our God, Savior and King, came to earth as a baby; as a Christian this knowledge comes easy, right? But the part we often neglect to remember is that the entire reason He had to come in the first place was because we could not do what needed to be done.

Now I want you to read the Galatians passage again:

“When the time had fully come, God sent His Son…”

The Bible tells us that the time had fully come for Jesus to be born. But it sure wasn’t because Mary & Joseph were ready. It sure wasn’t because the most amazing inn had its best room available. And it surely wasn’t because the world was a safe place for Jesus to be. But still, Paul tells us that the time had fully come according to God’s plan.

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This Advent season, I’m using the letters in the word manger to help remind me that it’s not about what I’ve accomplished in my preparations that makes or breaks the holiday:

Motive

The Christmas cards are fun. The decorations are beautiful to look at. The cookies are oh-so delicious. But what’s the why behind your actions? Is it helping to prepare your heart for His coming or is it distracting your focus? Is it enriching the season for your family or is it stressing you (and therefore, the others in your home) out and causing arguments and exhaustion? Are you enjoying your preparations or are do you look at them with a feeling of obligation or dread?

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
— Galatians 1:10

Ability

Not everyone is Martha Stewart or Joanna Gaines. One of my friends has incredible patience to sit down with her kids each year and have them help her hand make every Christmas card they send. Another is an incredible host and absolutely loves having people over. Another makes the most delicious cookies with unbelievably intricate frosting decorations. Yet another is extremely generous and has the financial means to purchase great gifts for everyone and anyone. I am none of the above. But I’m learning to accept that. God made you YOU, with your own set of talents and abilities. It’s only an exercise in frustration (and a whole lot of debt!) if you try to magically become someone that you’re not. It’s ok to buy — and not make — the cookies. It’s ok to get Papa Murphy’s pizza on Christmas Eve. It’s ok to say “no” to sending cards. And it’s ok to spend ten meaningful dollars on a gift for someone who you know will spend way more than that on you.

Need

Consider the needs of you and your family this year. Has it been a rough one financially? Your family members don’t need grandiose gifts to know that you love them. Has it been an exhausting one with the addition of a baby? Maybe this year you don’t need to run around to all of the family events. Has work been more stressful than usual? You don’t need to make a half dozen different kinds of cookies simply because it’s what you always do. What about your spiritual needs? Do you need to connect with God and dig deeper into the Word before Christmas arrives? Let that be at the top of your to-do list.

‘Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’
— Luke 10:41-42

Grace

Oh, those troubled relationships. Things only get harder at the holidays, don’t they? The questions of who will host, when will we eat, what will we eat, when will we go to church, whose Christmas program will Gramma & Grampa attend this year…it goes on and on. Not to mention the idle chit-chat at the get-togethers themselves. It can be exhausting. (For tips on how to handle these relationships, be sure to read Lisa’s blog post from earlier this week if you missed it, “4 Ways to Nurture Challenging Relationships this Christmas”.) But even the healthiest, friendliest relationships can strain under the weight of the season. Let grace be your guide in these situations. Ask yourself, “Is this a battle worth fighting?” Maybe it is. Or maybe, it’s best to just move on and let it go.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
— Philippians 2:3-4

Expectations

I remember my first Christmas after becoming a mother. I had offered to host Christmas Eve, thinking it would be easier than packing up half the house and trying to get my girls to nap somewhere else. I had this picture perfect first Christmas with my babies in my mind. I got them adorable outfits with matching tights, I found a dress that didn’t show my still-pregnant-looking belly and I decked out the table like something in a Pottery Barn catalog. And the day came and one of the girls had a blow out in her tights and needed to be changed before anyone even arrived. I spent what felt like half of the evening in my bedroom nursing and barely sat at the table which I had so carefully decorated to eat. I went to bed crying that night — hormones were probably partly to blame but if I’m being honest, I was full of disappointment. It didn’t even feel like Christmas because life got in the way. I was expecting a magical day full of lighthearted laughter, great conversation and babies who followed their schedule perfectly. The celebration of the Savior’s birth, which doesn’t change, was happening right before my eyes and I refused to join in because it wasn’t like I had planned. Evaluate your expectations: are they realistic? Are you focused on the things of this world which disappoint us time and time again?

Rest

I don’t care what you have to do, but find time to rest during this Advent and Christmas season. Schedule it if you have to. Say no to that one last commitment which is going to put you over the edge and steal more time from connecting with your heavenly Father. Literally set a timer for 5 minutes and sit in a chair, eyes closed, reflecting on what Christmas means to you as a child of God and soaking up just how much the Creator of the world loves you.

You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
— Psalm 4:7-8

I’m praying for you this Advent, my friend. Praying that the devil’s lies about Christmas are replaced with truth: The truth about Christmas, the fact that the King of the world came as a tiny babe at just the right time to do what we were unable to do for ourselves.

No, Christmas doesn’t depend on us. And for that, my friend, we can be eternally grateful.

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Looking Past the Dirty Window

It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.
— Charles Spurgeon

I've never been great at mornings.

In fact, I'm quite certain my husband spent the first several months of our marriage leaving the house convinced I was mad at him because I barely uttered two words to him while we both prepared ourselves for the day.

So these colder months bring about an even bigger challenge for those of us who find it tough to get going. The below freezing temperatures makes the bed feel that much more comfortable and the lack of daylight makes it even more difficult to convince our brains that it's time to get up.

But as with most aspects of life, having kids has caused the mornings to take on a whole new “struggle”, as it were. For there is no mercy for this brain and body which like to ease in to the day when there are four little ones (two of which take after my husband in their ability to rise-and-shine) needing to get to school.

For those of you in the Midwest, you know that last week got cooooold. I'm talking morning temperatures in the teens. So when my alarm went off and it was barely light out, I was anything but excited to crawl out of the cozy warmth of my bed. As I drudged to the bathroom and then back to my nightstand, fumbling for my glasses, I could see the small sliver of sunlight coming through around the shades, beckoning me to start the day and let the morning in.

As is my custom, I gave myself a few extra minutes to mentally prepare for the go-go-go hour to follow by pulling back the drapes, drawing the shades and putting my bed back together. As I moved to my husband's side of the bed, I sighed as I reminded myself that he not only got up before the sunrise even during the summer months but that he had also already been at work for over an hour (there's a reason God made him the morning person in our relationship ;). I pulled the shade up which covered his window and finally stood up straight for the first time that morning.

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I took my first breath in and marveled. The sun, that glorious, golden beacon was peering out just over the house across the street. The slight dusting of frost made everything glisten, almost sparkle with light, calling for the day to begin. I reached for my phone to capture the scene – after all, this was an experience I rarely have when the sun makes its appearance any earlier.

Maybe this is just the perfectionist/photographer in me, but have you ever noticed how perfect you thought a scene looked until you put it through some sort of lens? As I tried to set up the shot, I noticed how absolutely filthy those panes were. I must've adjusted my angle at least a dozen times, attempting to find one that wouldn't show the endless dust and smudges which covered the glass. Remembering that I needed to get on with the day, I surrended to that imperfect scene, snapped one last shot and said “good enough”.

Such an insignificant part of the day. Or was it?

I have thought of that window so many times over this past week (notice I said thought of, not cleaned!). On a morning, like many, when all I wanted to do was go back to bed, God saw fit to create an amazing masterpiece which I would've missed had I not taken the time to notice it or simply focused on the filthy glass.

But how many times do we look past the gifts in our lives because we're focused on the imperfections which surround us? How often do we only see the bad and miss the good? And it's hard not to, isn't it?

Because the truth is, this life, this world, will always fall short. It will always disappoint. There is not a single aspect of this journey which has not be affected by sin. As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, the devil is going to be working overtime on all of our hearts. Feelings of frustration, discontentment and “why me” are going to well up in us and threaten to ruin any and all gratitude and joy. The devil wants us to focus on the dirty window.

If God really loved you, why wouldn’t He take the illness away?

If God really wanted to bless you, why wouldn’t He allow you to get pregnant?

If God really was who He says He is, why hasn't He provided the job your family so desperately needs?

If God really cared, why is parenting such an uphill battle?

If God really knew your heart, why wouldn’t He lead you to “the one” so you could stop being so lonely?

The questions are endless. And the devil wants nothing more than to steal your joy.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
— John 10:10

What gifts in your life are you missing? Maybe things are really tough right now. Maybe the light at the end of the tunnel of whatever you're facing is so dim that you're starting to lose hope. God has not abandoned you, my friend. He is standing there, arms open wide, waiting for you to stand up straight and take that first breath in. He's bestowing grace, mercy, gifts upon you every day, even though they may not be the ones you think you need. For He works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). It just may be that the “gift” in this moment is the struggle. How's that for a paradox?

Don't believe the lie that God has forgotten you or that you deserve more than He has seen fit to give you in this moment. For we are all sinners, in desperate need of His forgiveness and grace. And that is already yours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This life is but a blink compared to the eternity that awaits us.

He is faithful. He does not change.

So this holiday season, pray for peace. Pray for joy. Pray for forgiveness for the times you've believed the lie and lost sight of the gifts. And then pray that God gives you the wisdom to look past the dirty window. Because sometimes, the sin makes the gift that much more beautiful.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
— James 2:16-17
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How Was Your Day?

On my drive home from work, I’m usually thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner, or what needs to get accomplished that night, or better yet, I allow my mind to drift in the blissful quiet of the car before the business of the night begins. But on one particular night a couple of weeks ago, my mind was troubled as I packed my bags into the car, fumbled around for my sunglasses and got out of the humid air and into my sweltering car. Just moments before I had been taking the elevator down and was joined by a man from the seventh floor who I greeted with a fleeting smile driven far more by habit than politeness. In a casual attempt to fill seven floors-worth of impending silence, he glanced over and asked, “How was your day?”

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For a brief moment, I considered responding with the “correct” response: “Pretty good, how was yours?” So easy to say, it’s almost automatic. The same way we’re programed to follow up a classic, “How are you?” with a “Good, how are you?” But I didn’t, in fact I was in such a foul mood that I responded with a sigh and a “Actually, pretty sh**ty.” That’s right, broke out the word that rhymes with pity, as in it’s pretty pitiful that that was my answer. My cheeks reddened the moment I said it, because as honest as my response was in relation to how I was feeling, it wasn’t the “correct” one in any way. My fellow passenger who clearly got more than he bargained for looked surprised albeit sympathetic and replied with “We’ve all been there.”

And what he said rings true, we’ve all had really bad days. The ones where you come home and think, “today was just _____” start to finish. (I’ll let you all fill in that blank in hopes that you can do better than that word that rhymes with pity.) But as I sat in the car that afternoon on the way home from work, I reflected on the day that moments ago I had portrayed as just plain, old awful. What was so bad about that day? Fresh in my mind during those elevator pleasantries gone wrong was the project I had been working on right before I left the office. It was hard. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I’d have to work on it again tomorrow. So the project that took up two to three hours of my day had me treating the whole day as a wash. And what was so horrible about the project? It was harder than I wanted it to be. Something challenging and outside of my comfort zone had me throwing in the towel.

I had completely forgotten how good it had felt to finally figure out the project that I had worked on in the morning, how easily everything fell into place. I had not allowed my coworker’s offers to help me the next day pierce through the barrier of my foul mood. As I retraced my steps, the degree of “bad” in my day was so obviously minimal in hindsight. So why had I let a few hours taint it? Why had I let my frustrations bubble over?

Because in my mind I hadn’t had a good day. A good day is a day when everything goes your way, when you’re successful in everything you do, right? Except God didn’t give us example after example of his people having “good days” in the Bible. In fact, instead of saying, “Have a good day!” God tells us to prepare for our day as if we are preparing for war.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
— Ephesians 6:11-13

In this sinful world, “bad days” have been and always will be a normal occurrence. Just when things seem to be going smoothly, Satan worms his way into our lives and if our armor isn’t strapped on tight or has sat abandoned for a time, sin strikes us like a blow to the gut. God doesn’t allow Satan to challenge us to a fight because he wants us to have “bad days” or because he wants to see us lose. God allows us to face challenges because time and again we have to learn to look past ourselves to Him.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, them I am strong.”
— 2 Corinthians 12:8-10

My weakness as a sinner brought me to me knees on that “bad” day. It also lead me to realize that good days aren’t reserved just for days filled with happiness and comfort and ease. Every day that I’m shown my sin and my desperate need for a Savior is truly a good day. Every day that my children come home after a “bad day” is actually a great opportunity for me to help point them to Jesus. No matter what battle they’re going through or I’m going through or you’re going through, Jesus has already won the war. He’s won for us a place in Heaven when we leave this world. And with that knowledge, no matter what life might throw at you once you walk out the door, you can be assured that it’ll be a good day.

I pray that one day soon, my elevator might just stop on the seventh floor and that I can talk with the same friendly man I met last week about the great day we both had.

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