The Gift We Need

The Gift We Need is a short story by Pastor Paul Goedert

It was a time like no other. Christmas. I was nine years old and the magic was still very real to me.  Santa, reindeer, chimneys and everything that goes with it. December was a month filled with family, love, joy, and presents.

OH THE PRESENTS! It seemed like Santa knew not just the things I had asked him for, but all of my secret desires for toys, games and candies! I believed, I wanted, and I got. Christmas was a time of receiving for me. But all of that changed the summer after I turned nine.

My Father was a very important man in our city. He served on the city council, was General Manager of our local bank, and he also taught Bible study at our church. But none of that mattered that summer.

Just like every other July my family went camping over the 4th of July. This year we camped at a state park that we had never been to before. We had a great time, spent nights around the campfire, except for the night that my Dad took us out on Lake Michigan in a boat to watch the fireworks from offshore. It was the best!

A few days after our return my Dad stayed home from work, he told us he had a nasty summer cold, he just needed rest. By the end of the week he was in the hospital, by the end of the month he was gone. The doctor’s told my Mother and older siblings what happened, I couldn’t make any sense of it. All I knew was that he was gone.

School started and things were tough. I missed him terribly, and it showed in my behavior and academics. If I could fight over it, I did. Many days I returned home from school with cuts, scrapes or a fresh black eye. I made sure the other kids did too.

Halloween came, I was uninterested. Thanksgiving came, I didn’t care. But December was approaching, and although I missed my Dad, the thought of all the lights, snow, and Christmas magic gave me a little hope.

Things weren’t just tough for me, my Mother had gone back to work to try and keep us afloat. My Dad’s life insurance had paid off the house, the car and had kept us able to survive for few months. Even I began to notice that things were changing, and not in a good way. Mom’s great meals were being replaced by frozen dinners and fast food. Trips to the movies or the mall got fewer and far between. I could feel the pinch, even as a nine year old boy.

After Thanksgiving my Mom sat me down, told me she needed to tell me something. She began to tell me about how tight our finances were, that we were spending most of what she was making on electricity, heat and groceries. She told me that Christmas would be different this year. She broke it to me that Santa wasn’t real, and that all those gifts had come from my parents. I was devastated, she cried with me. No Christmas this year.

My new reality hurt, and my Mom was trying to make things better. That Sunday we went to church for the first time since my Dad’s funeral. Except it wasn’t our church, we went to the little church down the street from our home, not the church I had always been in, my Mom called it a fresh start, whatever that means.

In our kids lesson that day we learned about Jesus being God’s gift to us. All I could think of was the gifts I wasn’t going to get that year. I knew my Mom would try, but I knew it would fall short of what I had in the past.

Than the hammer fell. Our furnace died two weeks before Christmas, during a record setting cold snap. The last of my Dad’s insurance money and part of what my Mom had saved went to pay for a new furnace. There went Christmas, although my Mom jokingly added that Christmas can’t be fun if you freeze.

Christmas Eve came, the meal was small and unsatisfying. My Mom explained there simply wasn’t enough to splurge on a big meal. The answer left me as empty as the meal. I yelled that I wish Dad was still here,  that he could fix anything, that we would’t be in this mess and Christmas wouldn’t have been ruined if he was alive. As I stomped off to my room for the night, I was the first of what I now know to be many tears that fell from her eyes that night.

My body woke me up at 6am, just like every other Christmas morning. I almost jumped out of bed to run downstairs. But reality flooded back to me and I rolled over. A good three hours later, I finally got out of bed and went down to have whatever breakfast I could find.

To my delight, there was a breakfast of thick french toast, bacon, eggs and strawberries put out for us. My brother who had arrived late had stopped and brought some groceries for us to celebrate. I ate the food hungrily and thought that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. Than I walked into the living room. Disappointment swept over me.

Under the tree, instead of wrapped presents, there were cans of vegetables, fruit, boxes of baking mix, and even some spaghetti noodles. I didn’t understand. My Mom was sitting in my Dad’s chair and she smiled at me, wished me a Merry Christmas, and asked me to sit with her. I sullenly complied.

My Mom opened her Bible and began to read the Christmas story from Luke to me. As I listened, it felt like every Christmas before. This was a tradition and I felt normal for the first time in months. When she finished, she handed me a small wrapped box. It was the only wrapped gift I received that year from her. She looked at me and said “I hope you like it, I know its your favorite.”

I tore into the box, and quickly confusion set in. It wasn’t a toy, a video game, or candy. It was a box of corn muffin mix. Jiffy corn muffin mix to be exact. She was right, it was my favorite, we always had it with chili, fried chicken, and with whatever I could convince my Mom to make it with. I loved corn muffins. But it wasn’t what I wanted.

My Mom looked down and saw my confusion, but she didn’t shed a tear, she simply said “Sometimes the gifts we want, aren’t the gifts we need. I know you want toys, and sports equipment and candy. But right now those are only wants. This box of corn muffin mix is something you need. Not just the food, but the memories, the goodness, the positive feelings that go along with it. I wanted to give you something you needed this Christmas.”

“All of these cans and boxes under the tree, these are my gifts to you this year. Just like God gave us Jesus, to show us love and light, to bring us hope. That is why all this is under the tree. What we need is always greater than what we want.”

I looked around, what I had discounted before became clear to me now. These just weren’t cans of vegetables and fruit. There were cans of sweet corn and green beans, my favorite vegetables. I saw peaches and pears! My favorite cereal was there too, as well as my favorite meal, spaghetti! My Mom had gotten me all of my favorite foods for Christmas. I looked at her with a new understanding.

That Christmas I learned something, it’s not the gift we want that brings us joy or peace or even love. It’s the gift we need. With this new understanding of Christmas and God, I soon gave my life to Jesus. All because of that box of corn muffin mix.

Every Christmas after that, even now as I have children of my own, there is one small box for each. There are still toys, game, and candy. But one box for each gets opened before all the rest, that box is always corn muffin mix. To remind us of the gift we need, family, love, hope, the gift of Jesus.

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Ever Thankful

Thanksgiving is different this year. 2016 has been a rollercoaster both personally and professionally for me. It has seen amazing things happen in God’s church, teens step up on missions trips, in their personal growth with God. It’s also been a year of great heartache and personal loss for myself, but it has seen me lean on God in ways I have never had to before.

With the loss of livelihood, relationships, separated from friends by distance and circumstances, it has been very difficult at times to be thankful for anything. But, I am ever thankful. In the midst of everything, I can hold on to this beautiful truth from the Psalms;

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!

I’m not even sure how many times this phrase appears in Psalms, but it’s a lot, a constant and steady reminder. God is good, His love is steady, there in times of need and plenty. Times of great happiness and deep sorrow. When life is going according to plan, His love is there. When life goes off the rails, His love is there. His steadfast love endures forever.

That is why even now, I can be ever thankful. But I still have to be intentional for what I am thankful for, so here it is, a short list of things I am thankful for. I already mentioned God, so here is the rest of the list.

FAMILY. Specifically, my Father. I have been far from a perfect son, but when I needed him the most in my life, he has been there. Despite our differences and difficulties in personalities,  I am ever thankful for my Father.

FRIENDS. I am thankful for friends, I have needed space, you have given it to me. I have needed encouragement, you have given it to me. I have needed love, you have given it to me. I am ever thankful for my friends, both old and new.

COFFEE. Working wonky shifts, staying up late, getting up early. Coffee… you are my only hope. I am ever thankful for coffee.

WORK. I have not had an ideal work situation in the past few months, but I have been able to pay my bills, live life, and have the distraction of everyday life. For the 4am closes to all the crazy drunks I have to deal with, I am ever thankful.

TRADITIONS. I have been able to continue on with traditions in my own life. Reclaiming some, restarting some, and continuing on with some. Thank you JRR Tolkien for always being there in October when its time to read the Hobbit. Thank you Northern Michigan for being blustery and unpredictable as always in October, and thank you Silver Bells in the City for almost happening (not thankful for the thunderstorm). I am ever thankful for life and the parts that make it worth living.

CHURCH. I have been silent, I have been almost invisible. But I am thankful for my church. It has been a safe space to corporately engage in worship, to hear the Word of God preached, and to feel loved. I am ever thankful for my church.

It’s not a long list. But it’s what I have today. I am ever thankful, because His steadfast love endures forever.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Suffering & The Christian Response

A couple weeks ago in response to fellow workers recent loss, a co-worker said to me and those within earshot, “Humor equals tragedy plus time.”, a statement that I told him was probably one of the most ignorant things I had ever heard. I know that he was quoting Mark Twain, that doesn’t change the way it made me feel about what he said. Days after a co-worker lost a grandparent it was tasteless and rude to say. What bothered me the most is how un-shocked and desensitized he seemed to have become to other peoples sufferings.

Last Sunday I spoke about Nehemiah, specifically Nehemiah’s response to the destruction and ongoing state of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been in a state of ruin for hundreds of years, but time didn’t separate the grief that Nehemiah felt when presented with the truth of it’s ruin. In Nehemiah 1:4 (ESV) it says

As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah was deeply affected by the tragedy of the city of his fathers, he wept, fasted and prayed for many days. He was wrecked by the grief and sadness. But his sadness would not fix anything in Nehemiah 2:5 he dresses the king and says

“If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.”

Nehemiah didn’t stop at sadness, he took action. He asked the king if he could go and do something about it, and even asked for all the materials needed to complete the task. Nehemiah saw a need, was moved to grief by it, and moved into action about it.

Sorrow, tragedy and suffering are parts of everyday life, some more poignant than others, but all weigh heavy on God’s heart.

In his 1943 novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis writes of a mans journey to Venus, where he finds a perfect Eden like environment, no death, no evil, no sin. It is all interrupted when another visitor comes with the express purpose of introducing sin and corrupting the Queen of this innocent world. The main character, Ransom, humble upon a horrifying sight. A frog, brutally injured and left to suffer. The first evil done in a sinless, innocent world, Lewis writes this of Ransom’s thoughts at the time:

“It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened.”

Ransom was so devastated by the brutality and suffering he sees, that he wishes that nothing had ever been created, if it meant that this heinous act could have been avoided.

Sometimes, I think the same thing. Sin has brought such pain and suffering into our world, sometimes it seems it would be better if God had never even created us.

In 2015, there were for 14 recognized military conflicts, and 396 recognized terrorist attacks. 783 million people on this planet do not have access to clean water. 795 million people do not have access to food to maintain proper nourishment. Sin has brutalized this world, sin that mankind brought into it.

As Christian’s we have two possible responses to this. First, we can be sad and bemoan the state of the world and its godlessness, casting all blame on those who don’t believe, Satan, or even the government. Secondly, we can do our part.

In Perelandra, Ransom doesn’t stop and sit in a quiet puddle of his tears. He gets up and moves on, finding more and more of the same brutal work, until he finds the man responsible talking to the Queen, trying to convince her that his ways are better. Ransom steps in, and does what he can to remind the Queen that the innocence of life, and the wishes of her Creator are far better.

You don’t have to go around the world to know people are suffering and have it break your heart. Nehemiah had never even been to Jerusalem, yet he mourned over it. People are hurting in your nation, your city, your church, even in your own homes. What is your response going to be?

#day2: Response

  
What’s your response? When you approach the King how do you respond? The wise men were filled with joy as they drew near to Jesus, joy that turned to worshipful adoration. As we approach Jesus daily do we do it in joy? Do we fall down in adoration? The presence of Jesus brought rejoicing and worship from many. Our response should be equal to His presence.

#day1: A Gift

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A child is born, a son is given… a gift. Jesus was exactly that, a gift from the Father to all of humanity. The perfect King to rule and reign over an imperfect world. The prophecy that Isaiah wrote was meant to show us all that God wants for us, fairness, peace, to be our Father, for all eternity. How exciting to think that this one little baby, unremarkable, just a normal human baby, would hold such power,  majesty and mercy in it’s tiny body. God was showing us that you don’t have to be mighty, don’t have to be of proud state, that even the greatest gifts can come from lowly, small beginnings. A baby, wrapped in clothes, the fulfillment of a promise God made… a gift to us.

 

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Red Cup Heart

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

Two things you need to know about me. One, I love coffee. Like really love coffee. I used to drive 35 minutes in traffic to get the best cup of coffee I could find. LOVE coffee. 

Second, I have worked my entire adult life, 18 years, in the retail and service industry. I have seen some pretty rough Christmas shopping seasons. But I still love Christmas, and coffee.

At the beginning of November an alarming thing started creeping across my social media feeds. The Starbucks holiday red cup had come out, and to much dismay it was exactly that… red.

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No snowmen, no snowflakes, not even a cheery holiday phrase. Just red. The Christian twitter-verse exploded. People were upset at the lack of holiday cheer, some people were upset at people being upset at the lack of holiday cheer.

It made me stop and think for a moment. Do we as Christians truly display a spirit of thanksgiving? Even if the red cup controversy didn’t upset you, think about how many day to day trivial things we get fired up about. I would daresay that many of us have had our spirit of thanksgiving replaced by a spirit of offense and worry.

I am guilty of this too. As I enjoyed my latest Starbucks skinny peppermint mocha, in all of its offensive redness, I made a choice not to be offended. Not to be upset over things that don’t matter for eternity. To not be upset when lost people act lost.My worry, angst and graceless response to things needs to change and be gone.

Thanksgiving cannot just be a holiday, it has to reflect in the condition of our hearts.

The Apostle Paul says to us,

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again – rejoice!

It says in The Message for to “revel in Him”. That tells me we should be singing, dancing and shouting for joy! But we can’t revel if we are too busy worrying. This is not just Paul’s suggestion for a holiday. He is telling us to live a joy filled life;  so full of the joy of the Lord, that it splashes out and touches those around us.

But how? Rejoice? In a world full of violence, anger and fear. We should rejoice?

Yes. Even in the midst of fear, hatred and sorrow. Rejoice. Why?

Because it is NOT rejoice in the fear. Its NOT rejoice in everything. We are not to rejoice in the positive, or in spite of the negative. BUT we are to rejoice in the Lord, because He is the unwavering constant love in a world full of fear and hate and worry.

Back to those red cups. My local Starbucks gave me a few to play with. And I got a great idea. How we respond depends how our problems and offenses look to us. Check this out.

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View things through a lens of love. Our offenses, our troubles our issues. A few cheap stickers on a cup added some Christmas flair. But when we look at things through the joy of God, our problems also appear smaller, not gone, but under His control.

I want to challenge us all this season of joy and everyday after, to rejoice in the Lord. Choose to respond in the Spirit, in love. Let all fear and worry go, rejoice in the unwavering love of God.