The Beauty of Christmas: Giving is Better than Receiving

I asked our church a question that I need to ask myself again and again. Do we browse the Christmas deals, door busters, or whatever scares the pants off you enough to get you to the store or to drop the item into the online cart before you miss out for our own wish list or for the others that we are shopping for? Hmmm, Kind of a question that puts into perspective our proclivity to selfishness, a little part of that dark underbelly to Christmas in the 21st Century, the not so beautiful side of Christmas. But there is a part to Christmas that is overwhelmingly beautiful–giving.

The beauty of giving is what I love about the times we can get out and serve or bless with no strings attached. We are not giving to a charity that is offering us coupons, or half-off at Knott’s Berry Farm. We are not giving to get but giving to give. And our church has learned over its short lifetime to give and give. One of our favorite traditions comes each Christmas as we give to our partner church to help those less fortunate have a little more love during Christmas. Getting overlooked at other times of the year might be bad enough, but being overlooked at Christmas can simply turn a joyful season into a hopeless time of year. May that never be.

This time of year can be the most impacting, memorable, heart pounding—simply beautiful space on the calendar when we slow down to make it about its real meaning and motivations of kindness, mercy and blessing. This season opens us to  life-changing moments as Christmas runs deep with the work of Jesus. But not just his work once done long, long ago…his ongoing work in us that manifests in goodness shared all around. At least that is what it should be as those who can bless those in who have need.

Christmas should draw us together, rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged, well off or underwhelmed, loved or unloved, difficult or easy, in similar ways that the cross levels the playing field. All are equal at the foot of the cross, and all are equally deserving of Christmas’ benefits as rich and poor gathered around the manger. The story of Jesus is for everyone from all backgrounds with no favorites, no secret codes that get us in early, no membership rewards, no extra benefits. Nope, we all share a common bond as humanity, a common identity as we share in that distinction we all carry as image bearers of our creator. Christmas should remind us to think of those like us but different than us, like us in that essence of humanity but different in background, heritage or story, like us in heart and soul, but different in social standing. Here we can help all have a little more equal footing as the baby born in that manger smiles bright on each of us with his love.

And hopefully reflected through us as we spread love to those in need of more love.

For me, I love the season of joy that Christmas brings. No matter what I might long for in this year, I love the opportunities where we get to be a blessing to others. One of my highlights of the year is how we can demonstrate our love for our partner church in a simple but profound way by giving toys to the children of their community, some in the church and some in the neighborhood.

About this time last year, our church, The Connection Churchpartnered with a struggling, inner-city, under-resourced church—Faith Community Church in South Central LA. The partnership emerged easily and wonderfully as God knit the hearts of two pastors together. Two churches led by pastors who look drastically different simultaneously share a common vision to love and serve their community with all the gusto that they can muster up.

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As we have aimed to come alongside a church that loves their neighborhood but lacks the resources to fulfill their vision, I love seeing the partnership develop over the year. And this Christmas has shown the fruit of a relationship forged in love. Last year, we were able to share a smidge over 50 toys for the church to pass out to their children and friends of their children. When we heard that some of these kids may not even get one gift for Christmas, our hearts simply broke. How could this be? We have not walked in their shoes, so we could not imagine what it must be like to wake up on Christmas morning to have no toys under the Christmas tree. Perhaps there is not even a Christmas tree at the front window.

50 toys were handed out to 50 children. We saw God use us as an instrument of blessing to those who needed it the most.

But we heard that more could have been done. When we first initiated conversations with Pastor Perades so close to Christmas, too close to do more last year, we asked how many toys would they want/need. He further explained that if they had 50 gifts, they would have 50 children there to receive the gifts, and if they had 100 gifts, they would have 100 children there. As the word would get out, they would see children from the poor neighborhood flood to the Christmas celebration.

Therefore, this year we redoubled our efforts wanting to see twice the number of kids receive a ray of love during their Christmas.  People from our little church plant spread out throughout the shopping center, box-stores, and malls to gather toys and gifts for those less-privileged. They carefully selected toys that could be enjoyed by toddlers, preschoolers, youngsters, boys, girls, tweeners and children of all ages. When the collection time came to an end, we were able to take 107 gifts, plus-or-minus one to South Central. Christmas would not skip these kids once again.

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In serving and partnering, I love how we get to play our role and no more. We deliver the gifts a couple of days ahead of Faith Community’s Christmas service with no strings attached. They get to do what is best for their people, for their community, and we do not have to be there to receive the glory. Faith Community gets to be the visible representation of God’s love to the children and their families.

Now, let me explain why this giving gesture and participation with the needy has quickly become one of my favorite days of the year. We get to be a blessing on their terms and not ours. And blessing really becomes the movement of this partnership. The blessing is mutual as we learn and receive from them as well.

To me, the gesture of generosity is nice, but when Pastor Perades receives our gift, he shows such incredible gratitude which profoundly moves me. I tell him that I come just for a chance to eat good food at his favorite restaurants, but really, I come to feel the joy he exudes when God answers prayers. I am always blown away by how touched he is that people would get up out of their comfortable world to enter his and join him on his level for a bit. He shares story after story of how God meets them in their hour of need, never growing to callous to be amazed. Yet, I know his struggle of ministering in South Central is real. But I get to hang out with a guy who shows sweet perseverance through the struggle. His heart is so big, and his joy so great; he knows how to express the beauty of Christmas.

When he grabbed the bags with me out of our car, he just lit up. When we placed the bags down on the table and he lingered to look the toys and unwrapped presents over, while we grabbed more out of the car, I knew he was touched. When he suddenly and joyfully blurted these are the good toys, these are not no dollar store toys. No, these are the primo ones! We get Build-A-Bear, skateboards, Disney dolls, games and on the list goes for all ages to be blessed. He tells me all I need to know to know we are in the middle of a good partnership.

Now, it would be cool to be there when the toys are actually received by the children, some more expressive and others more stoic, but this is not our day it is the children’s day. And St. Nick didn’t wait around to see the faces of people brighten; he gave to give knowing that was simply enough.

But in America, we like happy endings, so I needed to text Pastor Perades Sunday afternoon to catch his summation of how the event went for their church and community. I knew he was putting on the full-court press to get all the neighborhood’s kids there that were in need of a special Christmas treat, not just one more toy to add to their collection, but a real demonstration of love. He was grabbing people on our way out of the parking lot to lunch to make sure they knew what was up.

Thus, I anticipated a good report. But what I got really blew me away as I previously posted Pastor Perades thoughts of realism when it comes to giveaways. He has not found gimmicks to be as evangelistically fruitful as we often think. Yet giving away love should always be at the heart of how we live. After that, the rest is up to God. But when you tie together relationships, community, love, the story of Christmas and a bit extra in the gifts department and a few other factors I am sure I am unaware, you can get a great moment, a beautiful moment, a moment in which 16 people give their lives to Jesus. This is where the church lives out their mission on their own feet with a little nudge from their partners down the way in Orange County. Oh, imagine what could happen if more smaller churches partnered together. Hmm, sounds like a good post for the days between Christmas and New Year’s as we reflect on values for the coming year.

Christmas doesn’t get any better than when people accept the greatest gift into their heart, a gift that forever changes them. And Faith Community got to play a big part in helping see the gift of Jesus actualized in these people. And we played a part in that too, a small but essential part.

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What are your favorite memories of giving this Christmas?

The Season Of Giveaways

Good-Christmas-Gifts-For-Your-BoyfriendAs the holidays stretch around the corner, we often get the charity season revved up.  And this can cut many ways.

Prepare to be generous as charity workers come looking for support. Also: Look for ways that we can be Jesus to people, offering a drink, a meal, an extra coat, and more. Let’s be generous for the right reasons.

Often churches aim to leverage the holidays as an opportunity to draw people in if they give something out. It might be toys for Christmas, meals for Thanksgiving, clothes, shoes, backpacks at the beginning of school and many more ways to give things away in an attempt to win people to the faith. We end up mixing two aims into one—the aim to love and the aim to witness become seen as the goal to grow our church.

I was recently talking to the pastor of an inner-city church that our church, The Connection Church partners with on a regular basis to see both churches extend their reach and the mission of the Church with a capital C. We were talking about the plan to help them with a toy drive and giveaway over Christmas. The fact we are working toward a Christmas event that includes giving away toys should demonstrate that our perspective includes a value for giving and showing love.

Pastor Perades, a long-time veteran of serving in the inner-city of South Central LA, shared his straight talk with me. Let me pause to say, I appreciate straight talk, especially when it comes to partnering. We cannot have true partnership if one side is holding back. This straight talk helped articulate the problem with mixing goals.

Pastor wanted me to be aware that we can give toys away, and they would be glad to receive them for a Christmas event. He said we can fulfill the mandate to love our neighbor in this way. As he talks to his people, we must have an attitude of generosity, to give as we have been given so much. In this, however, he wanted to caution me, and I believe more than only me as we look toward being the church, filled with compassion, mercy, generosity and love at Christmas. Why are we doing what we do? There are plenty of good, Biblical, and laudable reasons to participate in charitable activities at Christmas. Let’s just stay within these reasons and not hope that what we do will also turn into new salvations.

His caution came to limit our expectations. We can be a people that loves our neighbor or those less-advantaged. We can aim to bless others, but let’s not see this as an evangelistic opportunity. He went on and on to say he hasn’t seen these giveaways as evangelistically fruitful. He just hasn’t seen people come to Jesus because of a freebee. Maybe that happens, but more as a consequence of the church being the church, and the Holy Spirit doing his work.

Why?

In today’s society, He explained, people are sophisticated enough to find the giveaways and show up for the free stuff. People know how to get what they want and not stick around for more than that. People know how to see through the façade that the giveaway is the carrot at the end of the stick. They know how to go through the motions to come away with what they want. Pastor shared his conviction that he has not seen these acts of charity to double as an evangelistic tool. The savvy person sees easily through ulterior motives. It is sad to put it in these terms, as a person who wants everyone to know the love of God and finds it hard to see that as a negative. But we can be clear with love and don’t have to be sneaky about evangelism.

Yes, we should love, we should be generous to those less fortunate, we should give. If I could say it in my own words. Let us be loving and giving people with no strings attached.

Maybe this can be a good reminder as the season of giving comes. Let’s give not to feel good about who we are. Let’s give without an expectation that our giving will translate into new converts or new members into our church. Let’s give and give sacrificially simply to be an extension of God’s love to this broken and desperate world.

Have you seen this kind of giving? Where have you seen it done well?

Blessed To Be A Blessing

As a child, I hated hearing the saying, ‘It is better to give than to receive’. I pressed my imagination as far as I could, and I could never figure how it might be better to give than to receive. When Christmas came, all I wanted was to receive presents. As a youngster, I could not see farther than my own two hands could reach.

But when I grew up and had a child of my own, I began to understand more profoundly than ever why it is better to give than to receive. We catch a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said it is better to give than to receive when our children enthusiastically rip into their Christmas presents. Their giddiness, anticipation, and unfettered joy makes what we receive pale in comparison to what we so gladly give. Recently, I had the privilege to experience the joy of giving at a whole new level. Our church, The Connection  has been looking to find a sister church we can partner with. Long before we joined the team, they wanted to find an inner-city church, under resourced but working hard to impact their community. We hoped that our experience working cross-culturally might help us connect with a multicultural church in the inner city. We wanted to serve the “other”—people different from us. I made some phone calls to find churches that might fit our desired outcome, and the Greater LA District of Foursquare churches suggested a pastor slugging it away in South Central LA. I excitedly called the name I was given, Pastor Terry Perades of Faith Community Church. I shared the heart of our church to be a blessing and serve this church. We looked for a true partnership where we could receive from them what they had and give what we had. Soon it was clear this church fit perfectly to what we were looking for. It was like a match made in heaven. Pastor Terry and this church making a difference in their community had been praying for years as we had for a partnership like this.

I knew we connected with the right church when I heard how Pastor Terry cared for his community. As an African-American pastor, he ministers to kids coming from broken homes. He has made it his aim to be a father figure to the kids in his church, and he does. He shows up at their schools regularly to find ways to help the kids succeed. Furthermore, he loves on the children of the neighborhood. They put up a portable basketball hoop in the church parking lot and saw kids flock to play some ball. He thought, I could cook them food at one of their houses and have a few kids, or I could cook food here and serve a lot of kids. So Pastor Terry offered the kids dinner. He invited some of the youngsters to help him cook. The kids came in and helped enthusiastically. Pastor Terry did not talk about Jesus but simply exampled Jesus to these kids. At the end of the day and without any prompting, the children asked if he had any Bibles. As any good pastor would, Pastor Terry ran in and grabbed as many Bibles as he had on hand. These children from the neighborhood began coming to the church and more than that, they gave their lives to Jesus. I quickly learned the heart of a pastor in the inner city.

The beginning of a partnership took place as we talked on the phone. We then hoped to collect toys from our people at the Connection Church to bless the children of South Central LA for Christmas. Our church asked if our people could buy new toys to donate to children they had never met. As a little, upstart church, we hoped to get 50 toys for these disadvantaged children. All this happened so fast as we started the whole process the first week of December. We only began our assignment at the Connection Dec. 1. But God was in this, and the church resonated with the vision.

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By the time we came to our first in person meeting with Pastor Terry the Thursday before Christmas, we had 50 toys to bring with us. Pastor Clayton and I piled the gifts in the back of his truck and drove up to LA. When Terry and Clayton met, they hit it off immediately. Pastor Terry began sharing stories of the children they were reaching. He told one story of transformation that blows your mind. Often kids come to their church unable to read, which as he said is not uncommon in these neighborhoods. He explained that as their parents work so long each day that no one has the time to help the children with their school work and reading. Pastor Terry told us how the church embraced these children who were illiterate. They helped tutor them and give them hope to excel in school. Now, some of these kids are thriving and in college. We loved listening to Pastor Terry’s passion. We could have listened to his stories for hours, but we had gifts to deliver.

At this, Pastor Terry directed us to a side room where the gifts could be safely stored until their Sunday Christmas celebration. When Pastor Terry saw all the gifts laid on the table, he began getting choked up. As a father figure to many of these kids, he knew intimately how much these gifts would impact them. He couldn’t put into words what this would mean to these kids. As he spoke from his heart, we knew we were simply walking in the steps God was guiding us into. I am so excited to be part of a church that thinks beyond themselves—a church that sees giving as better than receiving. I’ll never forget my 2013 Christmas as we began a partnership with a church doing an incredible work in LA. I am reminded once again; we are blessed in order to be a blessing.

Do you have any examples of when it was better for you to give than to receive?

Advent Is For Hope

adventAdvent is for hope. Now, let me substitute the word anticipation for hope. See what I am doing there. It’s that feeling we get on Christmas Eve as we wonder about what is in that neatly wrapped box under the tree. I love Christmas for all the longing, yearning, and anticipation this season brings. But what happens when our anticipation dissipates into thin air. Our hopes are no longer on the back burner. No, they are not even simmering any longer.

I feel that is how it got with my two baseball teams. Anticipation fizzled. But I loved my teams and believed as an eternal optimist that baseball glory was around the corner. Growing up in Chicago and Orange County I had the luxury of two teams. Two teams with losing reputations. One team hadn’t appeared in a World Series since 1945 much less won one since 1908. The other team from Orange County had never even appeared in one until I was a college graduate. This team has now won a championship in my lifetime, the other still lives in that mythical place of maybe next year. In fact, it is so bad for the Cubs that they are saying maybe in 2016.

As for the Angels of Anaheim in Orange County of the greater Los Angeles area, I fell in love with them as a kid only to have my heart broken in 1986. If you don’t know what I am talking about, we can tell that story in another place. After that fateful year, their chances for glory were few and far between. Gene Autry’s dream of bringing a championship faded fast as he neared the end of his life and ownership of the team for 30+ years. He sold the team to Disney who at least improved the fan experience. I still think Angel Stadium is one of the best places to see a game.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2002. I am in my final year of Bible College. I loved my team. I went more than a handful of times which without a car or much money that is a pretty big feat in and of itself. Thus in my senior year, the Angels got my phone number, one way or another, this happened. Their marketing team called me to ask if I wanted season tickets. A full plan was out the window. However, I said, tell me more about these mini plans.

The bottom line was that they would end up costing me more money as I would buy two tickets (one for my friend who drove me or went with me depending on your perspective) and I would no longer get the half price deals I got game by game. I pushed back. They said, but this will get you priority when it comes to playoff games. Playoff games, I laughed. Oh yes, they made some big off season acquisitions. I laughed again. Now, mind you, as previously noted, I am an eternal optimist and believed that Darren Erstad, Troy Glos, Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon along with some young kids like David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy and Benji Molina would do some damage. However, I could not believe that a trade for Kevin Appier and free agent signing of Aaron Sele would bring home the bacon.

I don’t think their magical line about priority for the playoffs was grabbing too many other people’s attention, but it got me to laugh. The games that year like every other year were mostly played to half empty stadiums. I say half empty as a half full kind of optimist, because the less people in the stands meant the more options for me to sit closer as the game wore on. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a great salesperson to convince someone to buy what they want. I ended up buying tickets as I wanted to insure seats against the Yankees and Dodgers. There you have it. I went all in for my team but with little to no expectations that my tickets would pay off for playoff priority. I knew my eternal sunshine of optimism was rarely rooted in reality. I looked forward to a fun year.

However, a magical, Disney-like magical year ensued. The team started slow, but turned it on later. The Rally Monkey , in his third year on the jumbo tron did his magic. Comebacks became the norm. The bullpen gelled and a powerful offense carried the Angels to baseball heaven. Oh, and because I had playoff priority, I spent my life savings on all the playoff games I could get. I sat in the bleachers and banged my thunder sticks to play a part in the Series run.

I even remember when my loss of anticipation turned to expectation. When the Angels pulled off the improbable in defeating the Yankees with some great come from behind wins, I said, they can beat anyone. And they did. My hopes waned from belief to wish but back again to palpable anticipation as the World Series ring came into grasp. Only a series against the Twins and whoever the lowly NL presented stood in the way. All those years of hoping would finally culminate with a championship. It wouldn’t go down as incredible as the Red Sox beating the curse of the Bambino or one day when the Cubs finally win one again. Nope. But it did in my books go down as amazing. Most amazing was this play that turned the fortunes of a World Series from the Giants to the Angels. And Anticipation grew tangible.

Hope diminished but was reborn in anticipation as winning became realistic. That’s my story in sports.

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Isn’t that what the hopes of God’s people must have been like? But times a million. For more than a thousand years, they looked for the Messiah. They waited generation after generation through good king and bad, through exile and more exile, through the remnant and the dispersion they waited. I am sure patient longing turned into diminished hope, especially during those silent years.

But I bet when God started speaking again and again, the anticipation built like it did for me. The exciting thing about Christmas this year for me is the reminder of hope/anticipation. God is at work, and I anticipate him doing incredible things in my life. I look forward to the promises in our life being fulfilled as the promise of Jesus was fulfilled on Christmas.

Will you hope with me?

Traditions in Family

If we are not intentional, as family grows us, we all go our separate way. Family needs to work intentionally for those spaces when we can just kick back and have fun together. Sometimes that means they need to invent excuses to get together. These excuses can grow into traditions.

My wife’s  family did just that as Christina and her sister were getting married. They wanted to insure the family had an excuse in the summer to come together no matter where in the world they lived. Therefore, they created Halfway to Christmas. They pull out a tree with Christmas lights and Santa on the beach. We listen to Caribbean Christmas music, and give out gifts. The gifts consist of practical items that we all need for the summer. I remember the first time I joined in with the annual party. I got a nice big beach towel and a fold up beach chair. I was set for beaching it with my fiancé. What started about 10 years ago in order to get the kids together has grown to include son-in-law’s and now two granddaughters. This year we celebrated on Friday, when all the kids have a day off.


What family traditions do you have to get the extended family together?

Christmas Away from Home

How do you know that Christmas is near? Is it the cold winter weather? The festive Christmas decorations everywhere you look? Or is it the crowded malls, with Santa taking pictures, Christmas music in the air, and great deals on potential gifts?

When you live in a tropical country, the weather is warm. Top that off by living in a country where they don’t celebrate Christmas (I think they are just trying to help out Santa as he races around the world delivering presents…), and you can’t tell December apart from November or January.

When we first moved to Thailand, I really struggled with it not feeling like Christmas. I decorated my home and we played lots of Christmas music, but we still wore summer clothing and preferred iced drinks or hot chocolate or cider. This is our fourth Christmas in Thailand (we spent one in the US), and I realized that it feels like Christmas this year. The weather and outside things haven’t changed, but it feels like Christmas.

Why? I have been asking myself that question for a few days, and I think I just figured it out. Traditions. It was as I went about our normal Christmas traditions that made it feel like Christmas. Some are from when I was younger, like baking cookies and making peanut brittle. But others are distinctly here in Thailand, like going to take pictures of the Christmas decorations at one of the big malls.

When we first moved, I did the traditions that I could, but missed many others (big Christmas parties, snuggling in front of the fireplace while sipping hot cider, etc.). Christmas has different traditions when we are in Thailand, and I have come to look forward to them. They are also what helps me know that Christmas is coming.

What traditions do you have that make it feel like Christmas to you? Would it be Christmas if you didn’t do them this year?

The Baby Jesus

I was talking to my daughter, as we like to do at the dinner table. Mind you she is only 9-months, so the conversations are pretty one-sided at this time. But sometimes she looks at me and makes sounds her baby language. Today’s conversation centered around the Christmas story. As a new dad celebrating Christmas with his daughter for the first time, I wondered what she thought about the Baby Jesus.

She is so close to walking on her own now, and determined to figure out how to get moving and on her own. She has places to go and especially people to see. I asked her when she thought Jesus took his first steps. We wondered together if Mary had a book like Ellie’s mommy has to keep track of all of Jesus’ firsts.

When did Jesus get his first tooth?

When did Jesus begin to sit up?

When did Jesus start crawling?

What was Jesus first word?

We took the conversation a bit further too as Ellie does a compromised version of Elimination Communication (or click here). We look for her cues and then take her to go poopy. I asked my daughter if she thought Jesus gave the perfect cues to Mary to let her know when he needed to go.

We were blown away just thinking about how the Son of God, the almighty who was here at the beginning of the universe playing a role in creation also sat on the floor and played like our daughter does. The king of the universe allowed himself to go through all the same processes as any other baby. Talking with my daughter about Christmas helped me get a new perspective of Jesus’ humanity.

How does thinking of Jesus as a baby change how you picture him?