Don't allow gift-giving expectations to put you deeper in debt and rob you of the true joy of the season
by Amie Streater
I know what you're thinking: Here they come. Christmas and New Year's; gifts to buy, meals to prepare, decorating, houseguests, parties to attend, church activities, neighborhood events, school productions—and a partridge in a pear tree.
It's exhausting, isn't it? Add the fact that the last few years have been financially disappointing for most of us, and it's no wonder we get a heavy feeling in the pit of our stomachs when the calendar page flips over to November.
Life is about to get a lot more expensive, as if it hasn't been bad enough this year already. As Christians, we tend to feel guilty just thinking about the price tag that comes along with the Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
After all, this is a time to be focused on gratitude for all God has blessed us with, especially the fact that He sent His Son so that we might be saved. It's just not very spiritual to think about money during this blessed time.
Actually, I think it is.
During the time of year when we celebrate the ultimate gift we have in Christ, I think it's healthy to explore why we feel like we're in bondage in so many other areas, such as our finances. It's OK to acknowledge that things don't look the way we would like them to. It's productive to take time to sit back and ask, "Why does my money—and my life—look and feel so yucky right now?"
You could plaster a plastic smile on your face and plow through the holiday season, and likely no one would be the wiser. But where, exactly, would that get you?
Mark 8:36 says, "For what will it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" What will you gain by having another plastic Christmas? How will that feed your spirit and connect you more deeply to God?
What will you really accomplish if you forge ahead with credit cards in hand, charging your way to what you hope will be a picture-perfect holiday season, yet on Jan. 2 face bills you can't pay and more levels of uncharted waters in your soul?
What if, instead of choosing to live out that candy-coated lie of the "perfect holiday season," you chose to lay hold of the abundant life Jesus told us He came to give us?
You can do just that if you will spend some time this season pressing in with God and asking the questions that, when answered, could really help heal your heart, and your finances.
As believers in Christ, most of the struggles we have are based on "counterfeit convictions," misconceptions about what the Bible says and what God's will for our lives really looks like. The tricky thing about counterfeit convictions is that they usually stem from some kind of truth. In most cases, a biblical truth gets polluted in our minds by lies we hear in the world or lies we choose to believe about ourselves, or both.
God promised us in Jer. 29:11 that He has amazing plans for each of our lives, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future. So when our lives don't line up with that promise, our human tendency is to ask God why.
It's a good question to ask, but it is coming from the wrong perspective. Instead of asking God why His promises don't seem to be true in our lives, we should be asking God what we're doing to keep those promises from coming to fruition, what counterfeit convictions we're living by that are holding them back.
Is there a hidden blessing amid the madness?
by the late Dennis Bennett
Does it bother you at Christmastime when carols are being played in shopping malls to the accompaniment of ringing cash registers? Does it upset you when the symbols of Christmas such as the Bethlehem star and the manger scene are used to sell merchandise and cards and decorations?
There's no doubt, the commercialization of Christmas has been overdone. It would be nice if Christmas tinsel wouldn't appear until at least after Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, I suggest we cool it on the complaining.
It's unfair to put down people who make their living in merchandising just because they like to do a brisk business at Christmastime, and because they use the Christmas symbols and themes to help them do it. Lie it or not, we are a "nation of shopkeepers"—we believe in and depend upon free business, which is a lot better than depending upon the government to feed us and tell us what to do.
When stores have a good Christmas season, we should be glad. Good sales means prosperity for the owners and the employees. I spent years in the business world before going into the ministry, and I remember how nice it was to have a Christmas season with some extra money to spend.
But a far more vital reason beckons us not to complain about the commercialization: Christmas songs and symbols are fast being removed from the public schools and municipal, state and federal property. Suddenly the right to display nativity scenes and other biblical figures is being challenged. Shopping malls and department stores are rapidly becoming the only public places left where it's legal to sing songs about Jesus or display Christian symbols.
by Steve Sjogren
During the holiday season, people in neighborhoods, stores, malls and elsewhere can get a taste of God's love through "giving" outreaches. At little cost, your church group can plan to stock up and give away items such as:
>Christmas cards, candy canes, poinsettias or wreaths
>Hot chocolate or cookies
>Firewood, kindling or pinecone fire starters
>Gift boxes, bows, transparent tape or tissue paper
>Large shopping bags with handles
>Free photos taken with an instant-picture camera
>Christmas tree disposal bags
>Batteries for smoke detectors, remote controls and toys
A pastor shares how his congregation takes the true meaning of Christmas to their community every December
by Steve Sjogren
Christmas is a loaded word for most of us. For followers of Jesus, of course, the deepest sense of the word has to do with God coming to earth in the form of a baby: "Immanuel," as the prophet Isaiah put it, "God with us." Many other pleasant images also come to mind when we say Christmas. A word-association quiz might come up with such thoughts as family dinners, candlelit services, firesides or carols. But let's face it: Christmas does have its other moments.
A second quiz might call to mind different images-things like crowded malls, traffic gridlock or irritating relatives.
Despite all the glorious aspects of the celebration of Christ's birth, there also is a tension in most of our lives about the Christmas season. Many of us suffer with a sense of guilt-brought on, I believe, by the selfish focus that has been built around the holiday season.
I'm not just talking about all the attention that's given to greed, gifts and gorging. There's also the less obvious inclination we have to think the Christmas story is just "for us."
The church's pure and joyous call, "Rejoice! Christ has come to us!"-while it is wonderful news to be celebrated-is only part of the message of Christmas. Immanuel, "God with us," means God also wants to be "with them"—through us.
A New Tradition
For several years, people from the Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, which I pastor, have built a new tradition into their hearts. They have explored creative ways to take small deeds of love to the people in our city during the holidays.
We have continued to seek creative ways to gain an audience with the unchurched by serving our way into their lives year-round. We call this approach to sharing Christ servant evangelism.
At Christmastime, when people seem to be particularly vulnerable to thinking about spiritual issues, much can be done to build bridges to the unchurched. We stared when one of our members, a housewife, got eh idea that everybody needs their gifts wrapped at Christmas. "We could go to the mall and wrap presents for free!" she challenged.
We approached mall management about our gift-wrap "outreach." At first they were skeptical. "Tell us again," they asked. "Why do you want to do this for free?" We had several meetings before they finally gave us the nod. We invested about $3,000 in paper, tape, scissors, and bows and were enthusiastically on our way.
To the management's surprise, the project was a smashing success. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we wrapped presents for more than 10,000 customers. The mall received good publicity, and we were able to talk to a lot of people about when we were wrapping for free: to show God's love in a practical way!
For six holiday seasons, we have wrapped presents at that mall. Our credibility with the management has slowly risen each year.
Last Christmas season, when we wrapped 25,000 presents, the mall insisted on paying for the wrapping supplies. Now it pays for the materials—and we share with shoppers about God's love for them. What a deal!
by Nancy Justice
Paul and Betty Neff know a lot about surviving the Christmas holidays with painful memories of happier times. In 1983, they lost four of their five young children when their home was destroyed by fire five days before Christmas. Seven years later, Jon, their sole surviving child, was killed in a tractor accident.
"There's not a day goes by that we don't think about this," Betty told Charisma. "You learn to live with it. It becomes part of your life."
The Neffs found it was too painful celebrating Christmas with the same cherished family traditions, but they didn't want to ignore the holiday. "It would have been very wrong of us," Betty says, "after teaching our children all those years to celebrate Jesus' birthday."
The couple discovered it was best to find new "normals" in their daily life, and at Christmastime that meant finding new traditions. So come Dec. 25 they'll do again what they've done in recent years-share Christmas dinner with a family in need and provide presents for any children.
Paul and Betty resolved their grief and now counsel people who have lost loved ones through illness, accidents or catastrophes. Their ministry started when they heard a news report of a deadly house fire in Florida and traveled there to minister to the surviving parents. Now, upon hearing other such news stories, the Neffs visit or try to at least contact the survivors.
The couple shares how crucial it is for survivors to discuss what happened. "I had been very secretive about how I felt," Betty says. "I thought I was protecting Paul and Jon. I was hurting and didn't want to hurt them."
"It's actually a trick of the enemy," Paul explains. "You hold it inside, and it builds up. Ultimately you go after each other. That's why the divorce rate is so incredibly high among couples who suffer a multiple-loss trauma such as ours."
Paul also says survivors who know Christ must realize they will be attacked by the enemy, maybe even daily.
"Anyone who survives this type of situation is used of the Lord," he says. "The enemy will use every means to draw you down."
And don't be surprised, he adds, if those closest to you cause the most heartache-a common occurrence among survivors they've talked to.
"Close loved ones are grieving, too, and may not know how to deal with it, especially if they aren't Christians. The survivor overcomes it, and when those loved ones see you, they're reminded of their own unresolved grief," he says.
The Neffs' ministry isn't limited to trauma survivors. Once, after reading about a comatose woman in Pennsylvania, the couple traveled to her hospital and prayed for her, as well as for other patients. The woman came out of the coma months later and told Paul and Betty that she remembered praying with them to accept Christ.
"It brings us so much joy to bless others like that," Betty says.
Nancy Justice is the former news editor for Charisma.
How do you minister to people grieving during the holidays?
In 1983, Paul and Betty Neff lost four of their five children when a fire destroyed their home just days before Christmas. Six years later their only remaining son was killed. Through it all, the Neffs learned how Jesus can take our grief and make something beautiful.
by Nancy Justice
Betty Neff was 23 and a first-time mother when she dreamed she visited heaven:
"I was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress, running barefoot through a soft grassy meadow. Flowers were everywhere, in bright, radiant colors.
"I came to a small hill and immediately recognized Jesus standing at the top. He wore a long, white robe with a blue sash draped over one shoulder and wrapped around His waist. I couldn't see their faces, but there were four children on Jesus' right side and a person the size of an adult on His left.
"I'll never forget Jesus' eyes—they seemed bottomless, as if they enveloped me. I kept running but started to trip several times. Each time Jesus was able to help me up without ever leaving the youngsters. And then ... I couldn't see Him anymore ... ."
It was a week before Christmas 1983. "Please, Daddy, oh, please! It just won't be the same without you there," Paul and Betty Neff's youngsters pleaded, hammering away at their dad's refusal to attend their Christmas play at church that afternoon. Paul, a 37-year-old, 222-pound ex-Marine who had fought some pretty tough battles in Vietnam, realized that in this case it would be easier to surrender.
"OK, I'll go," he announced.
Standing nearby, Betty, 36, watched and smiled. Her children—Gabrielle, 7; Amanda, 8; Christiana, 10; Jon, 11; and David, 13—were special; people around their small town of Grove City, Ohio, often said so. Each had accepted Christ and been filled with the Holy Spirit at an early age.
But Betty's pride was tinged with sadness. In recent weeks she had had difficulty explaining to the children why Daddy wasn't going to church. Her own understanding was wearing thin.
Just two weeks ago Paul had been out drinking again—this time coming home with his forearm in a cast from busting out a car window during an argument. Yet he remained a loving father. His favorite time of day was when he came home from work to play with his kids.
That Sunday afternoon, he and Betty sat in the back of the small country church and watched their youngsters help portray the Christmas story. Paul's fatherly pride was soon replaced with an overwhelming sense of conviction. There, amid little shepherds in bedsheets and wise
men in bathrobes, he found himself weeping silently and asking for God's forgiveness.
At home that night, Betty handed out homemade cookies and mugs of hot cocoa while Paul strung up lights on the Christmas tree and led the kids in Christmas carols. Betty couldn't decide which were brighter: the lights on the tree or the sparkles in her children's eyes. They were so delighted—Daddy was back in church!
After they had been sent upstairs to bed, the girls sneaked into their brothers' room. They listened to Christmas stories on the radio until they all fell asleep lying across the big double bed.
Paul and Betty had decided to live in the country so their children "would be one another's best friends." Their two-story, five-bedroom farmhouse, about 15 miles outside Columbus, sat on three acres of farmland and had a barn for the animals.