Lessons from A Christmas Carol

I love holiday entertainment. I love to watch Christmas specials on TV. I love Christmas music — even when it’s nowhere near Christmas.  And I feel that A Christmas Story is one of the best films ever made (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”).

This year, I decided to do something different. I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I have seen several versions of the movie, with Bill Murray’s Scrooged being my favorite. It’s old now but it is really hilarious.

The movies are great, but I wanted to experience the book. I wanted to experience Charles Dickens’ work. The book is always better, right? Of course, my time reading A Christmas Carol was well spent. I came away from this book with four important insights:

Invest in Relationships. Some of the most touching scenes in A Christmas Carol were from the Ghost of Christmas Future. The spirit showed Scrooge scenes from his death. Scrooge was really saddened by the fact that no one cared for him once he died. There was no tenderness or affection for him. The world seemed largely unaffected by his death. Scrooge seemed deeply affected by the fact that no one mourned his passing. His life seemed to count for very little.

There is joy in giving. Scrooge spent his lifetime amassing wealth. He was cheap and stingy. Before his encounter with the three ghosts Scrooge didn’t even want to use coal to keep his office warm. He hardly spent money on himself. He certainly didn’t spend money on others. When asked to give money to the poor, Scrooge nearly kicks the solicitors out of his office. After visiting with the three ghosts, Scrooge is much more generous, and he feels the joy that comes from helping someone else.

Money can’t buy happiness. When we struggle financially we often believe that if we only had more money we’d be happy. The truth is that money and happiness have nothing to do with each other. Too often, celebrities with lots of money commit suicide. Every year we hear about celebrities in rehab for substance abuse. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge was wealthy but miserable. His nephew was poor but happy.  Money does not ensure happiness. Nor does poverty ensure misery. Relationships and purpose make our lives rich, even when we have little money.

There are eternal consequences for how we treat people on Earth. Jacob Marley wore a heavy chain in the afterlife because he loved money more than people. He warned Scrooge that his chain would be just as long, if not longer. Marley adjured Scrooge to change his ways. This was part of a fictional story, but the idea is very biblical. Luke 16:19-13 tells the story of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate begging and the rich man took no notice of him. When both men died, the rich man went to Hades and the poor man was carried to Abraham’s bosom. Likewise, when Jesus judges the nations, he rewards or punished people based on how they treat others (Matthew 25:31-40).

A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, but it offers timeless truths to those with an open heart. This tale chronicles the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. As we prepare for Christmas, may we remember the lessons found in A Christmas Carol and carry them all year long. As we do this, we may find ourselves transformed as well.

Merry Christmas!

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Anticipation

Teavana tea is my guilty indulgence. I love tea. Teavana is my favorite so I ordered some on Cyber Monday. I carefully selected my teas (and got a great deal, by the way) and started dreaming about enjoying my tea once it arrived.

Well, it took Teavana two full days to process my order and another four days to ship it. During my time of waiting I had this excitement about my coming package. I waited with great anticipation of the arrival of my tea.

I stalked my email to see if I had received a notification that my order had shipped. When the notification finally came I started to track the package… several times a day. I wanted to know exactly where my tea was and when it would arrive.

On the estimated day of delivery I tracked my package first thing in the morning. I just couldn’t wait. When I got home from work the tea was sitting on my porch. I smiled as I took the package inside. I enjoyed every second of opening the box and looking through its contents.

I am glad to have my tea (it’s my favorite), but I miss that sense of eager anticipation. I miss the feeling of knowing that something good is coming. I miss having something to look forward to.

As I think about this Christmas season, I think about all the years that the people of Israel waited for the Messiah. The scriptures are full of prophecies about his coming. I’m sure that people looked everywhere to see if there were any signs of his arrival.

I think of Mary as she awaited the birth of Christ. The angel told her that she would bear a son, the savior. Still, she had to wait nine whole months for him to be born. I’m sure she dreamed of holding him and playing with him and raising him. Then she anticipated him growing into a man and saving his people.

When Jesus was being presented at the Temple, Mary and Joseph met a prophetess named Anna. This is what the scriptures say about Anna and her reaction to Jesus:

 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:38)

 She, like so many others, eagerly awaited the arrival of the Messiah. She lived in anticipation and she was full of thanksgiving when she saw her hopes come to fruition.

When I hear these stories I think about my own life. God has made some incredible promises to me about my life. He has spoken to me about calling and family and destiny. Though I really hate the waiting, I have to admit that I feel a great sense of anticipation about the things that God has promised. There is something about the anticipation of something good that really makes the time of waiting much more bearable. When I get weary in waiting, it is the anticipation of something good that sustains me.

As we experience this season of Advent, let us remember the anticipation of all who awaited the birth of Christ. Let us celebrate the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.

Let us also wait with great anticipation for the things God has spoken to us, looking forward to good things and the fulfillment of God’s promises.

When Christmas Isn’t Merry

The Christmas season has officially begun. This is a happy time for most. It used to be a happy time for me. I used to love shopping for gifts, wrapping them, and watching people open them. I used to love the time spent with family and the amazing food. Christmas used to be a lot of fun.

Since my mom passed away, Christmas has lost much of its appeal. My life changed, and not for the better. I miss her every day and all the memories associated with Christmas make it harder. My grandmother passed away last year and this made Christmas even more difficult.

All of this is complicated by the fact that I am in a very bad place in life right now, and every Christmas marks the passage of another year in this place. It’s a reminder of all that has not changed in the last year.

I know that Christmas is supposed to be happy. It’s supposed to be a time of joy and hope. Unfortunately, Christmas now represents loss. It is a shadow of what Christmas used to be. It brings up memories of better days gone by and serves a painful reminder of how difficult things are now.

I understand holiday depression. I experience it though I know that there are many that experience it to a greater degree. This time of year has become known as “Suicide Season” in the medical field. It can be a time of great joy and celebration or a time of sadness and stress. So how does a Christian (that should be celebrating) endure a difficult holiday season?

Find Beauty. Though this time of year can be extremely difficult, there is beauty to be found. Many neighborhoods are beautifully decorated. Go out for a ride or a walk and take in the beauty. If you live in a colder climate, there is often snow. Some people find a snowy scene beautiful. The night sky is beautiful. Appreciate the beauty around you.

Give. I am not necessarily referring to presents (though gift-giving is great). I am talking about giving to those in need. Giving money at a local church or other charitable organizations can make a huge difference in the life of someone struggling with hunger, medical issues, or other problems. There are many organizations that help people around the world, for example, WorldVision and Samaritan’s Purse. Knowing that you are helping someone can be rewarding.

Escape. We all have to take a break eventually. Sometimes it helps to get absorbed in a really good book or a fun project. Do you enjoy scrapbooking, knitting, or a reading? Perhaps you have a favorite movie. It can be good to take a break from your life and get lost in something you enjoy.

Try to stick as closely as possible to your routine. The holidays are unlike any other time. We are expected to shop, decorate, and attend several parties. This is enough to throw a person off their schedule. During the holidays it is important to try to continue doing the things that structure your life: exercise, sleep, church attendance, family time, and healthy eating. These things can serve as anchors so that you do not drift too far off course.

Lean. Ask God to help you get through this season. Pray and study. Spend some time with your journal. Take one day at a time.

Get help. This is crucial. Reach out to a doctor or counselor if you need help getting though this season.

Nurture. When I was in graduate school I saw a counselor every week. During one particularly difficult time she urged me to do what is life-giving. For me, that means journaling, reading, and doing creative work. It may mean something different for you. The main thing is to do what is life-giving for you. Enjoy simple pleasures as often as you can.

The Christmas season can be difficult, but like every other season, it will pass. Hopefully, we can all find little pockets of joy as we journey through it.

Hunting on Thanksgiving

This Thursday, millions of Americans will gather to give thanks. It is a time for reflection and quality time with family. It is a time of celebration and great food. It’s an opportunity to stop and acknowledge all our blessings.

This will be our first Thanksgiving without my Grandmother. It promises to be different. However, my family has survived the loss of my mother. We will also survive the loss of my grandmother. We will go on with our loved ones in our hearts.

This has been a difficult year for me. Of course, I have had financial trouble due to my lack of work. It’s been a tough year emotionally. It’s just been tough all around. Things are hard. Some days it’s hard to find things to be grateful for. Some days I can find something. Other days the mountain of problems is so high that I can’t see anything else. That is my reality right now. So how will I get through Thanksgiving?

For me, the best way to approach Thanksgiving is to go hunting, and I don’t mean hunting for bargains at the money-hungry retailers that will be open. I will approach Thanksgiving with a God Hunt. This is something that a friend recommended to me though she usually uses it with children. Simply put, a God Hunt is looking for ways that God is at work in your life. What good thing has happened to you today? How did God bless you today?

Though I am not a child, I find this exercise useful. When things go wrong it feels like God is on vacation while my life falls apart. When I am on the God hunt, I stop and evaluate each day. I look for the places that God is at work and I thank him for working in my life. Somehow, seeing God at work in my life (in even the smallest of ways) is extremely comforting. It lets me know that he hasn’t abandoned me. It gives me comfort to know that he is still there. More importantly, it gives me hope for the future. Seeing God work in my life today builds a sense of excitement for what he will do next. And sometimes you need that little bit of hope to get through the day.

So this week we pause to thank God for our many blessings. We stop to corporately acknowledge the ways that God is working in our lives. However, Thanksgiving has the added, and often under-appreciated, value of giving us a bit of hope for the future. I hope that this week’s celebration does that for you and those that you love.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Greetings From Green Lake

Greetings from Green Lake, Wisconsin!

I am here at the Midwest-North Regional Vineyard Conference. This is the first night and I am really enjoying myself. I have high hopes for the remaining sessions.
This is a time for leaders of Midwestern Vineyard churches to pull back and focus on what God has for us. The organizers have built in time for reflection and have given us questions to aid in our reflection.
The structure of this conference is differtent from any conference I have ever been to. Usually, conferences are times of rushing from one session to another with hardly a minute in between.  Usually, conferences leave me exhausted.
This one is different. Each session ends with time for reflection. We have a nice break tomorrow. The organizers stress the importance of stillness. I am learning that taking time to spend with God away from the frantic activity of life is key.
Jesus knew this well. Luke 5:16 say a that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” We know that Jesus did this and that he had a thriving ministry and a close connection with the Father. We see how Jesus benefitted from pulling away.
Somehow, we have forgotten the importance of solitude and reflection. Many of us recognize that this was important, even essential, for Jesus. However, two thousand years later many of us fail to see their relevance in our harried lives and overcrowded schedules. Jesus needed solitude and reflection. We need them just as badly.
Take time to get alone with God. See what happens. The heavens may not split for you (but then again, they may) but it will be surprisingly restorative. Try it. I think you’ll come back for more.

Influence and Inspiration

It’s half-past midnight. My mind is buzzing with excitement and inspiration. Maybe I’m too excited: I can’t sleep.

I am feeling so inspired because I spent time with my friend, Lisa, who has always been a positive influence. Actually, my day has been good overall. It started with some reading and journaling while sipping on a salted caramel mocha (fabulous). After a great writing session, lunch at my favorite restaurant, and some inspiring reading, I spent the evening with Lisa.

We took a walk and talked about her upcoming move to Texas. We started talking about the things that Lisa has learned and I feel like her enthusiasm has rubbed off on me. I’m not moving to Texas (unfortunately) but I am really excited about what’s happening in my own life.

After floundering for a very long time, I now feel like I have some direction in my life. I feel like I have some guidance about how to live the life I want. I feel that God has given me a sense of how to get there. I just need to act on what he has shown me. I feel like the next phase of my life is beginning.

Sometimes when transitioning from one phase to another changes have to be made. In this case, I need to shed three things:

I need to part with some of my belongings. I have some clothes that need to go to Goodwill, shoes that need to go in the garbage, and jewelry that needs to be given away. My life is simpler than it was but it needs to be simpler still. A full purge is in my future.

I need to let go of old ways of thinking. Or perhaps I should say that I need to change old ways of not thinking. I still seem to have some mindless activity in my life — mindless eating, spending, and TV watching. I must trade these mindless activities for meaningful activity. My goals must be in the forefront of my mind.

I need to eliminate things that waste time.  There can’t be hours playing online games and hours in front of the TV. Minimalism is about choices. I must choose to do things that matter.  For example, it is more important that I write than it is for me to catch all my friends’ Facebook statuses.

While I am making some changes to my life during this transitional period, I hesitate to say that I am taking control of my life. I prefer for God to take control of my life. I believe fully in his Lordship and control of my life. But what I am doing is making a space for him to work. I am acting on things he has already instructed me to do and watching to see how he works.

One short evening with a friend getting ready to enter her next phase of life has inspired me to get ready for the next phase of mine. It’s amazing how we are influenced by those around us. Who inspires you? How do you prepare for change?

9.11

I remember exactly where I was. I was in school in Carbondale, Illinois. I walked into into the room where my study group met only to find it empty. There seemed to be a crowd gathering in the student lounge, though. Just as I was walking in, a classmate was walking out. Tears filled his eyes. I asked what was wrong. He responded that the Pentagon had been bombed. His father worked at the Pentagon, and as of that moment, he did not know if his father was okay.

I went into the student lounge and watched in horror along with my classmates. While my friend didn’t have the details exactly right, he gave me the gist. Terrorists had attacked our country and people were dying. Our country would never be the same.

Every year, there are blog posts and facebook posts, and business signs that remember and honor those who died and those who served. I want to add my voice to theirs. I want to remember those who lost their lives and those who saved others. I am praying for those who lost loved ones on that day twelve years ago. I know that the pain never goes away. We surround the surviving families with love and empathy.

This country is not perfect. We are fractured and divided, and at times, misguided. But I love the fact that we can put aside our differences to mourn and give honor where it is due.

So as we pause twelve years later to mourn the loss of nearly 3,000 lives, we do so with compassion. We pray. We honor. We remember.

Creating Space in Your Life

I am a firm believer in journaling and I try to write as often as I can. I was journaling last night about how I seem to have gotten off track lately. I haven’t been eating well enough or exercising enough. I haven’t been writing enough. I have been to busy with facebook and texting and watching TV. I want to see change, but in order to to see it I have to make room. I have to create a space.

This phrase came to me last night as I journaled, and it seemed to resonate within me. I need to create a space for the things I would like to see in my life. How can we create space in our lives for the things that are important?

We can create a space for God to work in our lives. This may look different for each of us. For some it will mean taking on leadership at church. For others, it may look like  finding a new job or starting a new business. It may look like applying for graduate school. It might be as simple as asking someone out for coffee. The idea is to see what God might want to do and then take a step in that direction.

We can create a space for God to speak. This is so important. But for me, it is also the most frustrating part of being a Christian. What does God want? In some cases, I know. For example, he didn’t want me to harm my former employer (though I really wanted to). But does he want me to go back to school? Or relocate to Fort Lauderdale (please, please, please)? Or run for public office? Do you need to seek guidance? Create a space for God to speak. That might mean spending more time in the bible. It might mean seeking godly counsel. It might mean spending some time with some good music, your prayer journal, and a steaming cup of tea. Create a time and a space to hear from God.

We can create a space for fitness. Is it your goal to exercise five days a week? Be sure to put that time in your schedule. Trying to eat healthier? Have you allotted time  to buy groceries and prepare your meals? The main thing is to set aside time for health.

We can create room to grow. Do you want to be a better painter? Writer? Pianist? Prestidigitator? Hone your craft. Put in some practice. In this case, my writing seems off. Maybe it will right itself if I create a space. For me, that will look like getting up a little earlier and spending more time writing. What will it look like for you?

Life gets busy. If we’re not careful we can lose sight of our goals and our dreams. What would you like to see in your life? How can you create space for that to happen?

 

Rest

This is the last day of my vacation here in Playa del Carmen. I spent the last three hours or so in a chaise on the beach. I had a nice conversation with a gentleman from Denver. I wrote in my journal. My main activity, however, was sitting and looking at the water and the passersby. No running around. No shopping. Just rest.

As I lay on my chaise, I was struck by the importance of rest. I live a busy life. We all do. The ever-growing To Do lists and the demands of work and family are enough to keep us going for days. This is precisely the reason that we should make rest a priority.

Rest is so important that God himself set aside a day to rest. He also commanded his people to rest on the Sabbath. This time is needed to rest from our physical labors, but also to take a break from all of the things that consume our mental energy. We need time to relax and also to reflect and plan.

Sometimes things get so busy that it seems that I have no time for rest. The opposite is true. If I try to go too long without resting then I am less efficient. I get irritable. I am easily distracted. Adequate rest enables me to produce quality work; usually in less time.

The key for me is to do things that are truly restful. Activities like checking Facebook, playing games on my iPad, and watching TV are not restful for me. These things consume time but they are not restorative. For me, resting is reading, sipping a cup of tea, talking with family, or journaling. These are the things that fill me up so that I can give attention to my work.

I used to have a teacher that would always thank God for rest and refreshment over the weekend. And I now thank God for times that rest and refresh me. This vacation has been a wonderful respite for me and my family. I am grateful for every minute.

Simple Pleasures

Life can get crazy. Our To Do lists are too long and our stress levels are too high. For me, life is difficult right now. I have a lot of unanswered questions and there are a lot of things I’d like to see happen in my life. Sometimes, I can get caught up in the stress, frustration, and uncertainty I feel about the future.

Then I bring myself back to the present moment. All I have is right now. I can’t control the future. There is no sense in getting worked up about it. All I can do is make my best effort to enjoy right now.

For the minimalist, pleasures abound. I don’t need an elaborate scheme and a whole bunch of stuff to enjoy the moment. Today, I’d like to share a few of life’s simple pleasures that you can experience right now:

 

  • A steaming cup of good tea
  • Perfume
  • A good dinner
  • A hot shower
  • Writing in a journal
  • A nice walk outside
  • A long nap
  • Reading a good book
  • Talking with a good friend
  • Reading your favorite blog
  • A cool drink (Especially if that drink is a margarita)
  • Time with family
  • Holding a baby
  • Listening to your favorite artist
  • Learning something new
  • Polishing your fingernails
  • Going to bed early
  • Making a fruit smoothie
  • Doing yoga

 

There are a thousand ways to enjoy the moment. Many are free and don’t require anything special. When I focus my time on doing what I can to enjoy my life right now, it makes a huge difference. My mood is better. I am more productive. I am more hopeful.

These are some of the things I turn to when I need a pick-me-up. What are your favorite simple pleasures?