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It’s possible that doing something for a second year in a row constitutes a tradition. If so, this collection of advent thoughts might possibly be a tradition. It’s the second set of daily Christmas thoughts shared on Twitter (and Facebook) to celebrate the year’s advent season. [I enjoyed sharing advent thoughts for the 2014 Christmas season, and decided to do it again in 2015!]

Advent is the season we spend celebrating the coming of the Son of God to this earth at Christmas. It usually lasts from the first day of December till Christmas Day. For me sharing a short, condensed thought each day during this season is a way to focus my thoughts on Christ, connect with loved ones, and prepare my heart for Christmas–mostly by seeing how the truths of Christmas connect to my life. This year, I was greatly blessed by those who responded to my thoughts and shared with me their own thoughts on God’s amazing gift to us.

Here is the collection of my own thoughts from this past Christmas, thoughts that connect to life as a whole, not just “Christmas.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“You know w/all your heart&soul that not one of all the good promises…God gave you has failed” ~Josh23.14b(niv) #adventthoughts (Dec01)

In the time of Judges, God used farmers, tiny armies, simple tools to deliver His people–is a baby that surprising? #adventthoughts (Dec02)

Is My hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver? ~God Isaiah 50.2b #adventthoughts (Dec02)

“Were you born in a barn?!”–Things Jesus’ mother could never say to him (even if she’d used American idioms) #adventthoughts (Dec03)

Bethlehem, City of David the king who demonstrated that God has the heart of a shepherd #adventthoughts (Dec04)

Generosity finds NO VACANCY in minds filled by obligations & needs. We give out of hearts that know there is enough. #adventthoughts (Dec05)

The gift tag reads, “I see you and know you, all you’ve done, all you’ll do. This highly-valuable gift is for you.” #adventthoughts (Dec06) . . . You know, how you see yourself really determines how you read the tag, doesn’t it?

When Eternity steps into time, every moment of history–past, present, future–changes forever. Even mine and yours. #adventthoughts (Dec07)

Travel–a Christmas tradition: Magi from afar, shepherds from fields, Mary&Joseph from Galilee, Son of God from Heaven #adventthoughts (Dec08)

Because God loves His Son, He has given Him everything. Because God loves us, He has given us His Son. #adventthoughts (Dec09)

“Expect the unexpected”–sound Christmas advice since the days of Caesar Augustus. #adventthoughts (Dec10)

A gift can only be truly received when it is valued. #adventthoughts (Dec12)

Our value of the giver affects our value of the gift. #adventthoughts (Dec13)

Christmas reminds us we are valued beyond our performance; treasured for ourselves, not our abilities. #adventthoughts (Dec14)

One small gift is enough for the whole world. #adventthoughts (Dec15)

The real gift is the heart of the giver, not the stuff. #adventthoughts (Dec16)

The best gifts are always bigger on the inside than on the outside. #adventthoughts (Dec17)

The good news of Jesus Christ–if we’ve experienced it for a long time–can become old news. ~Pastor Dana Chau #adventthoughts (Dec18)

The good news of Jesus Christ is like the Christmas tree that stays green&fresh amid even the snow&darkness of winter. #adventthoughts (Dec19)

We are Jesus’ gift to the Father. Those who long for children of their own understand the preciousness of this gift. #adventthoughts (Dec20)

When Jesus arrives, it really is “the beginning of the holidays” and of all things good and true and warm and lovely. #adventthoughts (Dec21)

At the 1st Christmas Wise men traveled to the Prince of Peace. Wise men today take Him with them wherever they go. #adventthoughts (Dec22)

Poverty, sickness, broken or tense relationships, losses & helplessness (of all kinds) make a Christmas heart elusive. #adventthoughts (Dec23)

The griefs & the sicknesses, the poor, captive, or broken places–Christ was born for this. Christ was born for this! #adventthoughts (Dec24)

“Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” ~Father Christmas (in Lewis’s Narnia) #adventthoughts (Dec25)

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” ~Julian of Norwich #adventthoughts (Dec27)

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“Thou hast giv’n so much to me
Give one thing more, a gratefull heart”
~George Herbert (“Gratefulnesse”)

“What is genuine Gratitude? 1. I receive a gift. (Grace) 2. I value the gift. (Humility) 3. I appreciate the good intent of the giver of the gift. (Love)”
~Pastor Steve Quen (message 11-22-2015: “Thanks”  http://bacbc.sermon.net/main/main/20543970)

Father,
I need the grace to receive the gifts I am given. Gifts are grace. Undeserved favors from someone else’s heart to mine. Give me the grace and courage to truly receive what is given.

I need the humility to value the gift. Some gifts I can easily see how useful they may be or how immediately they enrich my life, but others are less obvious–or I am far slower to recognize them for what they truly are. I may not ever know what it cost to give the gift. Which is part of the grace in the gift. Give me wise eyes to see the value of each gift.

Give me the heart of a child to enjoy what I am given.

I need a heart of love. Love, shown through appreciation, completes the blessing of the gift. Please help me to see and trust the heart of the giver, for that is the true gift. Give me the love to respond to the giver with delight in who he is beyond his gift.

For all these things I ask in requesting this one thing I need most: a grateful heart.

My first year of teaching high school, I was faced with the question of why we read and teach the books we teach. What makes them worth reading?

Well, they’re classics, right? They’ve been around for a long time, lots of people have read them, so they must be worth reading, right?

But that can easily become a circle to get stuck in, can’t it? We read these classics because everybody always has. And they read them because everybody always has.

So. I began making a list of the qualities that give these books staying power.

Don’t worry. I won’t treat you to the whole list, but if you think of the movies that your family watches every year at Christmas time, you will most likely be able to figure out some of the qualities I discovered.

Unique characters–what is it about George Bailey that keeps us watching his wonderful life again and again, even though we could quote all his lines for him? Though no one will ever be able to breathe the life into those lines like Jimmy Stewart did. _It’s A Wonderful Life_ gives us two characters for the price of one!

Engaging characters–Elf, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Grinch and Cindy Loo Who, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, Tim Allen’s Santa Claus, Clarence Cloudbottom: they touch our hearts and lives because they are like us or like someone we know . . . or even wish we knew. Somewhere along the storyline, we find a person that we can connect to through our own lives and experiences. And as we grow and our life experiences broaden, we experience these stories in a new way.

Universal themes–How in the world did _The Sound of Music_ become a Christmas classic? There’s nothing remotely Christmas-y about it! But it’s been shown on tv at Christmas ever since I can remember . . . and I can remember watching it from a rather young age! Perhaps it’s because at Christmas time, families want to come together to watch something good and something filled with hope and joy and love and something worth believing in. And the story of the Von Trap family–both the true story and the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein version we all know so well [I’ll bet you’ve sung along with it at some point or another yourself!]–their story is full of those things. Something worth believing in so much that it’s worth risking one’s life and livelihood for. Hope and love: “A dream that will need all the love you can give/ Every day of your life for as long as you live.” And, of course, joy.

Timelessness–some stories can only be enjoyed once or twice through before they are put on the shelf and never really thought of again. Some are good again if you are experiencing them with someone to whom the story is new. But some. Those classic some. They are good again and again. There are new things to notice, new connections to make each time we experience them. They grow with us. We connect with the story and characters in different ways as our experiences follow the path of time that we all take. Scrooge today is a rounder character to me than he was when I was a middle-schooler reading _A Christmas Carol_ on my own for the first time. And though in the past I have been more touched by his own personal redemption story, my attention was caught this year (as Dickens would have had it, I’m sure) by the poor and the needy and by the way that Ebenezer did what he could to remedy the deficits. Timely story indeed.

Unique characters. Engaging characters. Universal themes. Timelessness.

Do these apply to THE Christmas story? The one that started it all?

You know what my answer should be, of course. The “Sunday School answer” that I should give as a good Christian.

But I hate giving answers just because they’re the expected answers. Not even the First Christmas story should be locked into a cycle of meaninglessness: “we read it every year because everyone reads it every year because it’s the classic Christmas story.”

Is it worth reading every year? Should not the Author of the Universe do work excellent enough to withstand scrutiny? Is the First Christmas story timeless enough to be heard again and again each year with ears both familiar and new at the same time?

This will, of course, depend on the other three qualities we have just mentioned. In this post I will leave you to ponder its universal themes while I take the briefest of looks at the characters.

We don’t know a lot about them. Some of the principal players are known only by their occupations and titles. And even those around whom the story swirls are sketched with minimalist lines. Yet it’s an old actor’s adage that character is action. And from the actions that make up the plot of the story we can derive the characters. What kind of a person kills all the babies in a town to try to get at the one he fears may one day grow to take a throne he will, by then, be too old to hold? What kind of men rush from fields to search a sleeping town for a little baby? And what kind of person sends his only son into a hostile world?

The story of the First Christmas is a story of many different reactions to the same gift. Were we in their shoes, what response would have been ours? In whose company would you find yourself?

Steven Curtis Chapman was exploring that question himself one Christmas, using those thoughts to write his song “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us).” And on this Christmas Day, I leave you with that question: where are you in the Classic Christmas story this year?

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)”

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)” lyrics

My Grandma (the one I live with) has a wonderful theory about cinnamon: she heard somewhere that it is very beneficial to our health, so she tries to find things that contain cinnamon to eat or drink or else she adds a little extra cinnamon to thing that already have cinnamon in them. It’s a joke at our house that we can eat sweet things (such as pie or cookies or candy) because they have cinnamon in them and cinnamon is good for us.

One of the things that cinnamon is supposed to do for us it to stop the sniffles. My first reaction to this news was one of slight disbelief; but if Grandma’s theory is correct, I have the “cure for the common sniffles”: snickerdoodles, lots and lots of snickerdoodles! Snickerdoodles are such fun cookies! Even the name sounds fun. And making them is fun: take small balls of dough (containing cinnamon, of course), roll them around in a cinnamon and sugar mixture to coat them really well, and then put them in the oven to bake. When they come out and are done to perfection, these cookies are a little crunchy on the outside and a little soft on the inside. So good! They REALLY keep me coming back for more. And if Grandma’s theory is correct, they will keep away the sniffles, too. Grandma has tried taking extra cinnamon when she has the sniffles, and she has found that it works. Why not give cinnamon cookies a try when the common cold comes your way? (I know, the sugar content would probably conflict with the medicinal properties of the cinnamon, but still . . . )

There are few things more annoying that getting the sniffles: being in the middle of something and suddenly needing to dive for the box of tissues does not help productivity very much. Looking at life, it seems that sniffles plague us more than just in the cold season. O. Henry, the famous short-story writer, made this comment about life in his story “The Gift of the Magi” when his female character collapses into tears over something: “Which [action] instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” I agree that life seems to bring sniffles up an awful lot; sometimes even when we are laughing, we are hiding a sniffle or two. Not that we spend our lives blubbering about the hard lot we have been given; no, we try to face things as bravely as we can, knowing that life is not fair and that we should not expect it to be. Still, we can’t really help the sniffles.

But what is there for solving the sniffles of everyday life? If–as O. Henry suggests–sniffles lead the statistics of our lives, eating cinnamon cookies for such a frequent amount of sniffles will add weight problems to the woes of the heart. Is there a balm for them?

There is. It’s an unlikely one–as unlikely as eating cinnamon for common sniffles. But it gives promise of truly working.

A King.

Now THAT sounds preposterous. Any American can tell you that a king is not necessary for a nation to work properly. And gone are the days of Britain’s autocratic kings. Who needs a king? Not us. We don’t need a dictator to run our lives, and we don’t need a figurehead to take all the credit. So the words of this Christmas carol have a hard time making sense to us.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders of His love.

~Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts is not describing a weak figurehead king here. His king has power–power to bring about changes. Look at the things He can do: send His blessings on everyone, reverse the effects of the curse, rule the entire world (notice there’s no mention of bureaucracy here–He is the One ruling, not His government), and prove His love to the world through the way He treats the nations. That’s power! And, to be honest, sometimes we long for that power to be seen in our lives. Having the curse reversed would be wonderful; and if blessings are being served out, pass me a generous helping! Also, I agree that it would be nice for the world to be full of love rather than hatred. Maybe I do need a king. I certainly wish for someone sometimes who will step in and make the decisions that seem impossible for me to make, someone who will pull out the necessary resources when mine are running dry, someone who has influence over others when I am getting a raw deal or do not know how to communicate with them. Yes, a king would be nice. A king looking out for my interests would definitely cure the sniffles.

But does it have to be a king? Giving someone else the reins of power is more than a little disconcerting! Put this thought in everyday shoes: we want advice from people, but we hate it when they step in to try to run our lives–we want to make the ultimate decisions (esp. since we are responsible to live with those decisions once they’re made); we want others to listen to our troubles, but we are terrified of what they might do about those problems–we want their help and we don’t want their intereference all at the same time. We have a relative amount of control over our own lives; we know what we are thinking before we do it; we know how we hope that things turn out. We don’t know these things about others. We have no control over them, well, very little. We may do our best to manipulate others or dominate them in order to get what we think we want, but those who refuse to be dominated or manipulated scare us. In our experience, a loss of personal control can lead to MORE sniffling rather than less. Is it worth giving up control just to have what a king can do for us? ummmm . . . pass the Kleenex, please!

But the price is joy.

And we don’t really have much of it. We find our hearts getting hardened and numb, and we walk through life in a half-fog, just trying to survive. We are more than fully aware of the curse, seeing its blight on our lives everywhere we look, especially when we look inside. It’s scary to realize the evil we are capable of and overwhelming to see the wounds we suffer from. And the worst part is knowing that really there’s little we can do about the problems within us anymore than we can control the circumstances around us. Our small measure of control is just that: small. Maybe we do need a king after all. We don’t want one, but we need one. We need one badly.

And to have Him, we are going to have to trust Him. Even though we don’t know what He’s going to do, even though we can’t control Him, we are going to have to open our hearts to allow Him to come in. As Watts wrote, we must “prepare Him room” in our hearts. We can’t keep Him relegated to the stable of our hearts, we have to allow Him to have the throne if He is going to do us the good we so long for Him to do. Watts was writing this song not about the first coming of Jesus–when He came as a baby to be born obscurely, live humbly, and die sacrificially–but about the second coming when He will come to rule the world and to make all things right. The Bible contains many prophesies of what He will do when He rules. All wonderful, all badly longed for, all in the future. But His rule in our hearts does not have to wait that long: it can begin now. And what He wil do for the world someday He promises to do within our hearts today: weed out the thorns and weeds of sin, heal the wounds, make us new. We find it easier to trust someone when we know towards what goal he is heading; has the King not showed us enough of His goal to inspire our trust?

Interesting thing about snickerdoodles: they get hard after a while. As they sit in the cookie jar, the moisture leaves them and they lose their softness. They’re still tasty, but not quite as addicting. Unless they’re dunked in milk. Dipped and held there until the milk has soaked into them through and through. Then they’re delicious. A joyful taste if ever there was one. Preparing our hard hearts for receiving the King is as simple as milk and cookies: it involves soaking in Him, bringing our hearts to His moisture and soaking in it until our hearts are saturated with it. Just soaking.

Happy soaking this holiday season!

When I was at home in California for Thanksgiving this year, I ate a gingerbread cookie at my friends’ house. Mamie showed me pictures of her husband Stephen making them. I was impressed. The cookie was good, too.

Somehow I don’t usually reach for the gingerbread cookies right away when I am hungry for something sweet. Perhaps it has something to do with the stigma of the title “gingerbread man” in my mind: I think of the story of the arrogant little guy who led everyone on a merry chase until he trusted the wrong person and was caught anyway. “Run! Run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!” More likely, I just don’t reach for gingerbread because ginger is not my favorite spice (Grandma, on the other hand, would rank gingery cookies among her favorites).

The Gingerbread Man gets me thinking, though: I usually enjoy irony, but the story of the Gingerbread Man has always bothered me a little. At an age when obedience to parents and other adults was stressed, the defiance of the little cookie shocked me (so did Tom Sawyer when I first read his adventures). But inside me I see a little of his desire to do his own thing–who wants to be eaten anyway, even if that was the purpose for which one was made? I never knew with whom to sympathize: the old lady who made him for eating and was so rudely disobeyed and deprived of her treat? or the disobedient cookie who ran out of a sense of gleeful self-preservation and ended up being eaten for his troubles?

I suspect that deep down inside, my disobedience stems from my lack of trust. In my sophomore year of college, the knowledge of God’s sovereignty began to frighten me, especially as the terrible meaning of the fact that He does all things for His own glory began to sink into my soul. God began to seem like the lady who made the Gingerbread Man: He seemed to care about me merely as a means to further His own ends. And, like the main character in the story, I found myself stuck between a God who would consume me for His own glory and a dreaded enemy who would pretend to help me and then devour me mercilessly. We learn early that anyone who is out to get his own glory really does not care about us. A God like that is frightening. How could a God who made us–like gingerbread men–for His own pleasure still have our best interests in mind? Could God’s best interests and our best interests really be one and the same thing? Life usually feels more like a frantic dash away from everything and everyone that would devour us, that would take from us what they want and then fling out the unusable parts of us. And I have found it easy to “fear” God as my Creator and Master, running from Him rather than to Him when I feel the predators of life at my heels. I don’t want to be eaten!

And that’s why Christmas is so important: God did create us for His pleasure, yet He loves us completely, through and through, intimately. He will not devour us, smack His lips, and pat Himself on the back for having made such a delicious cookie. And so He came at Christmas to show us that He wants us for us. A little song from a children’s Christmas musical says it far better than I will ever be able to:

“Close to Him”
by Kathie Hill and Janet McMahan [punctuation and some other mechanics my own]

He wants to be close to His children,
So He’ll become a child–
A helpless little baby,
A Savior meek and mild.
He’ll leave His home in Heaven
To prove His love is real,
And be born as a baby
Just so man can feel

Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.
Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.

He’ll know what it’s like to be lonely
And how it feels to cry,
To love His friends and family
Then have to say goodbye.
This baby in a manger
Will be God’s pure love revealed:
Love living among them
Just so man can feel

Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.
Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.

He came to earth to be like us. He came to earth to show us that He loves us. He came to earth to be closer to us so that we could understand Him better and dare to draw near to Him. Unafraid to be His.

“We love Him because He first loved us.” I John 4:19

Every year at Christmas when I was a kid, Mom and Dad or Grandpa and Grandma would get my family an advent calendar. Starting on the first of December, we would open one box or door each day, revealing either a piece of the Christmas story or a piece of candy. Since moving out of the house, I no longer take part with them in this Christmas tradition, but the wonder of it still fascinates me.

This year, I wanted to send everyone an advent calendar of sorts. Of course, December 1st is long gone. And I don’t have any candy to send–at least, not very easily and not to everyone. So I came up with this half-baked idea: twelve sets of thoughts about Christmas that have occur to me this year. I will post them on Facebook and also on this blog. I would love to read your comments on them in either spot (or via e-mail!).

These notes truly will be “half-baked,” merely the beginnings of thoughts about Christmas, but things that have blessed me and will hopefully bless you. Mix them with your own thoughts about Christmas, and giving them a decent baking. And may they be as refreshing and fun as Christmas candy or Christmas cookies . . . minus the fat content.

Merry Christmas everyone. May you be more aware of God’s love for you this Christmas than you were last Christmas. I love you all!

Live long and prosper!
~Joy =)

It’s late. I should be in bed. But before I go to bed, I need to touch base with HIM, and I don’t feel ready to talk to HIM just yet.

[On a side note, talking with Jesus is just like talking with others who know and love me in that sometimes I don’t want to do it because I’m trying to be ok and don’t want to deal with not really being ok at the moment because then I won’t be ok. On the other hand, talking with Jesus is not like talking with anyone else because He already knows that and already knows what is bothering me and knows exactly what to do or say to make me comfortable in His presence.]

So here I sit at my computer, hoping for something . . . hopeful? Not that everything is depressing, just a drab shade of dreary.

And then I run across her blog and her account of nannying her “small fry” as she calls them. She writes so simply that it’s like being there and like being part of a children’s story–you know the kind? the ones that tell about a day at the park or a day of shopping. And suddenly, I remember just a little of the wonder of being a little kid. I smile. The sun comes out (yes, even at midnight). That was part of my something.

And I can thank Him for things again: thanking Him is like re-enjoying the things that have happened today; it’s like going back to exclaim over the gifts He gave me that I already unwrapped and got excited over. It’s a little like having Christmas or a birthday party in a quiet way.

“Thanks,” my heart says, “for a foot massage today–I didn’t know how much I needed it.
“for Langston Hughes’ poem about rainbows.
“for a piano and the desire to play it.
“for getting things done.
“for the chance to discuss literature–to actually TALK about it and about what it says and means and about the people in it and what we learn from them . . . I love literature!
“for giving me a love for literature. =)
“for extra hours at work and the chance to learn more job skills.
“for the chance to discuss my grading policy–sorta. and for someone taking the time to give and take reasons rather than getting frustrated and not wanting to listen. and for the clarity that came because of the discussion.
“for my car.
“for a tank of gas.
“for another time of sorta getting lost to smile about.
“for someone carrying my HEAVY backpack.
“for someone else remembering that we’d talked about exercising together.
“for blessing someone I have prayed for.
“for replies to e-mails sent long ago and forgotten about.
“for Charles Dickens and A TALE OF TWO CITIES.
“for Grandma’s wonderful cooking.
“for family Bible-sharing time.
“for working unseen by me to do wonderful things that You will show me later.
“for stories about small fry and how much fun they are.
Thanks.”

Now I think I can finish getting ready for bed.

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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