Christmas Shopping: “One for you and one…”

I was shopping at Target, when a dad entered the store with his two kids, pushing a big red cart.

The kids, who were very enthusiastic shoppers, darted over near me to look at some of the displays with bright-eyed expressions. You could tell that this dad had done a wonderful job of building up the moment.

The little girl looked like she was about six, and was very, very excited to buy a gift for her mom. She said, “Ooooh! Look, Daddy! We should get her these! Hot pink and leopard!” She held up a hat and glove set that was obviously meant for a little girl. I hid a small smile, and watched as discretely as I could from my spot over by the gloves.

The dad feigned enthusiasm and said, “Yea? You think Mommy would wear that?”

The girl looked thoughtfully back at the set she was holding up and said, “Well… would.”

“I know honey,” her dad said kindly, “but we need to think about what Mommy would like.”

A few seconds later the girl found a charm bracelet and said, “Oh, Daddy, look! It has little charms… There’s some tiny scissors! And an owl!”

Again the dad said, “But Mommy doesn’t really sew. And I’m not sure she’s into owls…”

The daughter said, “Well, it’s a nice owl. I like it.”

“Ok, let’s look over here..” said the dad, moving his eager shoppers to a different jewelry display. But a moment later, he was saying, “Uh… well… that one’s just a little loud for Mommy.”

Last thing I saw, before their cart rounded out of sight, was the little girl holding out a glittery tulle skirt from the girls’ section of the store. And the dad was saying, “Honey, that’s just a little small for Mommy.”

I had so much fun chuckling to myself over this little girl’s enthusiasm for the things that she liked. But then, as they drifted out of earshot, I realized what I had been doing the whole time: Looking at scarves and gloves and earrings that I liked. I was enjoying the pretty things and wondering if I should put a few in my basket–not for those on my list, but for me.

I had come in to the store to purchase some gloves for the homeless shelter our church is donating to, but how quickly I had deviated to my own wishlist. My sister and I laugh about the way we shop for others (and often each other) with our own tastes in mind, saying, “one for you, and one for me,” as we put duplicates into the cart.

It’s so easy to make Christmas about me–my wishes, my tastes, and my hopes and plans for our family. It irritates me that my husband just wants a nap. I irks me that my kids don’t want me to take their picture. And it bothers me that no one appreciates just how hard I’ve worked to make our Christmas celebration match the Pinterest images dancing through my head.

But these reactions of mine indicate how far I’ve drifted from Christmas. Christmas was the day our Lord Jesus veiled his glory and became a man. Christmas was the day he humbly emptied himself and took the form of a servant. Our servant.

How then, can I celebrate Christmas if I’m focusing on my own interests? How can I celebrate Jesus when I insist on my own agenda? These are the opposite of celebrating Christmas.

As we spend the next few days shopping and cooking and cleaning and wrapping, may we truly celebrate Christmas. May we reflect Jesus, our Lord, as we, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than myself…“, looking not to our “own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phillipians 2:4-7)

(an updated post from 2012)

I wanna be a nothin’.

I laughed as I read my friend Jocelyn’s Christmas letter. She described how her 8-year-old, Elsa, has solidified her life plans–where she’ll attend college, her field of study, and her career objectives after graduation.

Life is quite tidy for Elsa. Turning to her six-year-old brother, Elsa asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Ethan?”

“I wanna be a nothin’,” Ethan says in a grumbly voice. Read more

Their Jesus Stocking would be emptier this year.

Each year, our friends, the Gebhards, put up a ‘Jesus Stocking’ at their house in December. All month, they collect money, and then use the funds to buy a gift for someone in need. All month, they thumb through the Samaritan’s purse catalog, hoping to be able purchase a dairy goat, stock a fish pond, or give toward a fresh water well.
Often when people come to their home, the Gebhards get to explain what the stocking is for, and sometimes their friends and family even throw a few dollars in because they think it’s a neat idea.
In all the years past, Kevin and Angela promised to match the girls’ gifts, along with what they had planned to give. But this year was different. Kevin had lost his job, and so while they would be giving a little bit, they told the girls it wouldn’t be as much as last year.
Kevin and Angela didn’t expect this to be as disappointing to their girls as it was. They had always totaled the gift at the end of the month and showed enthusiasm over how the number had grown compared to previous years, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was to give—which they still planned to do.
Together, the girls came up with a different plan. They told all of their grandparents, aunts and uncles—anyone who would have ordinarily given them a Christmas gift—that this year, in lieu of a gift, they would love for them to contribute to the Jesus stocking.
Their family members were incredibly touched by the tender hearts of these sweet girls. Not wanting a Christmas gift? Wanting to give instead of receive? That was the kind of Christmas spirit they wanted to endorse. So these family members gave to the Jesus stocking—and they probably gave more than they would have spent on gifts!
When the Gebhards totaled the amount, they were astounded. $1,005.00!! It was the biggest amount they had ever been blessed to give! And the joy they might have experienced by unwrapping gifts was far exceeded by emptying their Jesus stocking, and giving to others.

May God grant your family a season of great giving and great joy. 

The Gebhards

When the Coach is Yelling Your Name

silence is worstDuring one particular sports season, my son Cole complained that his coach screamed more at him than anyone else on the team. And from what I was hearing on the sidelines, I decided he might be right! I constantly heard my son’s name being screamed across the field, followed with comments like, “What are you doing??!”

 Once, the coach even screamed, “Cole, where are you??!” when Cole was behind him on the bench. No wonder he hadn’t been in position, right?

Read more

The ‘Good’ in Good Friday

When we moved, a few years ago, one of our kids was especially distraught. He said, “But I prayed that God would bring a friend to live on our street, and he did! So I think that means we’re supposed to stay on our street.”

Basically, his theology went like this: Prayer is asking God for the the things you want. You decide what would be good for you, and then you pray for it. And sometimes, God grants your request. God would never want to give you a bad thing, or have a good thing taken away–especially after he just answered your prayer! He gives good gifts to his children, after his children decide what ‘good’ is, and ask for it.

Unfortunately, my son may have caught his theology from me. But he didn’t get it from Jesus.

As Jesus teaches us how to pray using the Lord’s Prayer as an example, before he ever asks God for anything, he begins with,

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus not only taught this, but he lived it. Just before he was betrayed, and then crucified, he prayed, saying, 
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.
Yet not my will, but yours be done.

Prayer is surrender. It’s giving up control. It’s not trying to leverage God. It’s not trying to get what you want. It’s laying down your hopes and dreams and plans, kneeling before God, and yielding your will to be enveloped in his will. There are often tears when you pray like Jesus did. 
What troubles you today? What are you afraid might happen? What do you fear losing?

Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done,”–not because he calls us only to a life of sorrow. No, it is for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame. (Hebrews 12:12) 

This joy is what we anticipate, also! Christians are the people whose hearts have been flooded with light, so that they see the rich and glorious inheritance that will one day be theirs. They anticipate the immeasurably great power that God will use to raise them from the dead–the same way he raised Jesus! (Eph. 1:18-19) 
This hope, and this joy that is set before us, is the ‘Good’ in Good Friday. It’s what causes us to pray, “Your will be done.” 

A Second Grader’s Resolution

My son’s second grade New Year’s Resolution went like this:

I will not refuse to eat granola bars all year long.

Wow. Now, that would take some gumption, eh? 
Looking back, I’m confident he made his goal. After all, a granola bar is just a cookie that has been reshaped into a rectangle and repackaged to seem healthy. Cade’s pretty good at eating cookies. Especially when you take away the options of cake or candy.
Whenever I buy the humongous box of assorted granola bars from Costco, the ‘oatmeal raisin’ flavor are the last to go, since they aren’t my kids’ favorite kind of cookie granola bar. So I have been known to say, “Nobody gets any peanut butter chocolate chip ones till the oatmeal raisin are gone.” Which may have prompted Cade’s resolution. (It’s the only explanation I can come up with. And of course, he has no idea why he wrote that two years ago.)
Left to themselves, most little kids will choose ‘granola bar’ type resolutions. They will rationalize away any great need for change, and make minimal attempts at improvement. They need loving parents to help them see their weaknesses and set up a strategy for growth.
And in this way, I’m rather like a little kid. It’s so very hard for me to see my sin patterns. I minimize my faults and enlarge my strengths to the point that my whole picture of myself is distorted beyond recognition. But I have a loving Father who sees me with perfect clarity. He knows what needs to change, and he is willing to point it out. All I have to do is open his Word, and open my heart to his voice.
As 2014 kicks off, let’s find some quiet time to spend with the Father, and resolve to change what needs improvement from his perspective.

Consumers Gathering Around the Christmas Tree?

When Lindsay was five, I took her shopping and let her choose a Christmas gift for each family member. For Mamaw (my mom), she chose a figurine of a little girl. You can imagine how lovely it was, since it was from the Dollar Store.

Mom, of course, gave Lindsay a big hug and told her how much she loved it. But some years later, I noticed the little figurine, still proudly displayed among all of the beautiful things in Mom’s bedroom. When I asked about it, Mom said warmly, “Oh, yes. Lindsay picked that out for me.” 
When Cole was eight, he picked out a Spy Kids 3D baseball hat for ‘Papaw’ (my dad) at Santa’s Secret Shop. Many-a-time, I’ve seen Dad out working in the yard, wearing his hat. If I comment on it with a chuckle, Dad always says with a big grin, “Cole got me this hat!”
Some gifts are valued because of how much the gift itself, cost. Other gifts may or may not be costly, but are treasured because of the sweet relationship which gives the gift its context. 
Christmas is all about relationships. Jesus came from Heaven to be born on Christmas for one reason: relationships. His death on the cross made it possible for our relationship with God, the Father, to be healed. But Jesus also had our healed relationships with others in mind, when he came to save us. He said that our love for each other would be the tell-tale sign that we are his followers. (John 13:35).  
Without the sweet context of relationship, a Dollar store figurine or a Spy Kids hat has very little significance or meaning. Without relationships, the Christmas gift-giving tradition is reduced to a group of consumers gathering around a Christmas tree!

As women who are gifted for relationship, we can and should create a home environment where savored relationships give Christmas gifts their significance. Let’s plan ahead. What can we do to give the shedding of wrapping paper and bows around the tree the correct  context? How can we help our families to gather, not just as consumers, but as brothers, sisters, fathers, daughters, moms and dads? 

The savoring of healed relationships is what prompted the first Christmas. Let’s keep that tradition in our homes this year!
For more thoughts on Christmas Gifts, check out these posts:

Shopping for Ms. Hard-to-Please

Some women are hard to shop for. They just are. You weave through the store, muttering, “Nope. She won’t like that. Probably not that, either. Or that.”

Last Christmas, you spent far more than you budgeted on something that you had no idea whether she’d like. Then you held your breath and cringed as she lifted the lid, hoping…. praying….

But, no. Another swing-and-a-miss.

You could tell by her plastic smile and measured, “Thank you,” that she didn’t really like it. At least not enough to warrant the time, money, and thought you put into trying to please her. Again.

Perhaps the earth doesn’t even contain a gift that would please her! And after the futility of the past eighteen Christmas gift ‘fails’, why are you once again rambling through the crowded mall, biting your nails and pulling your hair out?

I can tell you this much: It’s probably not because you are just overcome with goodwill and generosity toward Ms. Hard-to-please. In fact, I’ll bet there will come a moment when you get good and mad at her. Maybe around the time you enter store #14?

Here’s the thing. Ms. Hard-to-Please most likely struggles (as I obviously do) with control. She has a deep desire to make things turn out well, and a very narrow grid for acceptable outcomes. Her expectations are high, and her tolerance is low.

Ordinarily, she’s overseeing every detail of her life, making sure everything turns out right. She knows exactly what she wants, and how to get it. So, the problem with this gift you’re placing in her lap, is that you don’t know exactly what she wants, and you don’t know if you got it!

But let’s relieve some of the pressure. Ms. Hard-to-Please didn’t get this way in a day, and no gift from your hand is going to magically melt any tension. So why become a frantic, fretty mess over her gift? Maybe she does have control issues, but you caving into her problem won’t help anything.

So, do this: Walk into a store, pick out something nice, wrap it up with a bow, and hand it to her.

Then, turn your focus onto your own heart.

Gifts are a way to bless others. We buy them–and even sacrifice to give them–because we want to be a blessing. But blessings can’t be forced. We can’t pressure someone to be delighted with our gift.

Sure, everybody loves to give the toy that is still being played with by January 1; or the new favorite sweater. And nobody loves to give the gift that almost gets discarded in a pile of wrapping paper. But when gift-giving becomes a source of anxiety, I need to ask myself, “What am I trying to control?”

God is the perfect example of a gift-giver. He gave his Son, his only Son, on Christmas. He longs for us to delight in his gift–to see the vast worth and value of his Son. But God doesn’t force himself on us. Instead, he draws us with his kindness.

This Christmas, let’s be godly gift-givers. Rather than obsessing over hard-to-please people, let’s be women who give generously–not just gifts, but ourselves. Let’s be the kind of wives and daughters  who laugh when the plans get mixed up, and the kind of moms and sisters who are gracious about interruptions.

Let’s not try to control Christmas. Rather than insisting on our way, or on certain outcomes, let’s do what Jesus did, and empty ourselves on Christmas.

For more thoughts on Christmas Gifts and the Control Girl, check out these posts:

I Returned His Christmas Gift

I was a new wife. He was my new husband. And I returned his Christmas gift.

It was a jewelry box–one of those big wooden ones–and he spent a fortune on it. But he encouraged me to take it back if I didn’t really like it.

I thought I was being reasonable when I took him for his word, and exchanged it for something I ‘needed’. But now I think I was being foolish.

If I could go back and whisper into the ear of my twenty-six-year-old self, on Christmas morning, here’s what I’d say:

Sure, you like to shop for deals. You only buy things on sale. Scratch that. You only buy things when they are on the lowest possible clearance price. You feel good when you prove that money has elastic in it.

And sure; you don’t buy things that you don’t need. Money is tight right now, and it’s good to be conscientious about spending.

But here’s the thing. You weren’t the one spending. It wasn’t your purchase. You didn’t shop for the jewelry box. He did.

And yes, of course he said that you could take it back. He did that because he’s a great guy. But did you see that little searching look in his eye, when you opened his gift? Did you see how he watched you, carefully measuring your reaction, as you pulled the paper away from the box? He wasn’t looking at the price tag. He was looking at you. He was loving you, and trying to please you.

Now, you don’t know something about yourself that I do. You’re a Control Girl. You naturally gravitate toward wanting to control. And gifts are one of those things in life that you can’t totally control. You don’t know what will be under the paper. You aren’t there at the check out. 

Oh, you can try to control. And sadly, you will. In the coming years, you will return so many gifts that your sweet husband will lose heart and quit trying so hard. He’ll just go to the store and buy the exact thing you circled in the sale ad, wrap it up, and hope to see you smile. But by reducing him to a circled-ad gift buyer, you stamp out some of the glowing embers of Christmas. 

My advice to you is this: Keep the jewelry box. Keep the sparkle in his eye. Enjoy his choice, and let him choose how much to spend on it. Don’t be a Control Girl on Christmas morning! Be a cheerful, grateful wife, and let yourself delight in your husband’s gift! By doing so, you’ll be a delight to him–both on Christmas Day and the days following, as well.

If you’re a Control Girl like me, the only way to conquer our control problem is to do the opposite of taking control: surrender. Gifts are a beautiful way to practice surrendering control. When you open a gift from a loved one this Christmas, why not surrender to their preferences? Wear the scarf, read the book, or plug in the appliance. Delight in both the gift, and the giver. Surrender yourself to the joy of others, and you’ll find more joy for yourself, too!

I should know; I’ve tried it both ways.

For more thoughts on Christmas Gifts and the Control Girl, check out these posts:

A ‘Breakable’ for His Grandma

When I arrived at our elementary school’s Santa’s Secret Shop, my son had already been assigned to shop with another mom. So, I rushed over and said, “I’m here! Sorry I’m late…” After she handed him off to me, he confided, “I’m so glad you’re here. I want to get Mamaw a breakable, because I know she likes breakables, but that lady kept saying, ‘Well, let’s look over here instead…'”

“Oh, Buddy…” I said sympathetically. Then I suggested we go check out those ‘breakables’. (Otherwise know as fragile Christmas decor.)

You must understand that our school has a ‘Mrs. Clause’ who spends the entire year stocking our shop with stuff that you’d actually like to receive on Christmas morning! So it’s not surprising that as my son lingered over a crystal-looking Santa, there was something else that caught my eye.

I said, “Oh, look at these! Aren’t they so cute?! I think Mamaw would looooove them!” They were cute metallic reindeer with bendable legs, designed to sit on a shelf. Following my lead, my son put one of the darling reindeer in his shopping bag, and we continued shopping.

The next morning, as I was making my son breakfast, I said, “That’s too bad about the lady at Santa’s Secret Shop. I mean, you’re the one who’s supposed to do the shopping, not her, right?”

He nodded and said, “Yeah… I just wish I could have gotten Mamaw a breakable.”

That’s when it dawned on me. I had done the same thing as the other mom! I had influenced my son to choose a gift based on my (non-breakable) preferences, instead of his. Sure, I know my mom’s taste, but I was forgetting that what she loves most is seeing what the kids have chosen for her.

As a ‘Control Girl‘, I struggle with the whole gift thing. I want to control what I give, what others give, how my gifts are received, what I receive, etc.!!! When I try to control all of this, I completely mess up the tradition of giving.

I plan to share some posts between now and Christmas on the topic of Control Girls and gifts. (If you have a story on the subject, I’d love hear it. My email is shanpopkin@gmail.com.) But for today, I’m going to take my son shopping. I plan to seal my lips, stuff my hands in my pockets, and pay for whatever ‘breakable’ he chooses for his grandma (as long as it doesn’t break me!). And she’ll love it, because it’s from him.

Gifts illustrate the relationship between two people. The giver is reflected in what he loves to give.

Jesus, who was God’s gift to us, perfectly reflects what God values. Think of Jesus, who tucked his glory into a fragile baby, then allowed his flesh to be pierced with the nails and sword of the mocking world. Jesus was the ‘breakable’ gift of God, given so that he could reach us! Jesus reveals a Giver who values humility and sacrifice and selflessness.

Lord, help me to be like Jesus who gave his life up. Help me, like Jesus, to be a gift that reflects you.