Today I Saw God

What God Would Want for the Christmas?

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What is the first Christmas you remember?

The first Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. It was also the first time I went to church after being invited by my childhood best friend and her family. I think it was a Christmas Eve event for children, complete with a children's pageant and nativity scene. I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Amazingly, I also remember what we sang that night: "Silent Night". And of course, I remember getting gifts and goodies.

Going to a church on Christmas Eve wasn't a tradition for my family at that time. Even though there were tons of churches around us in Seoul, South Korea, my dad and his family were strong Buddhists. My mom was a Christian, but she couldn't go to church or even tell anyone that she wanted to go. The culture was male dominant and the father's religion was the primary one to be observed by the family. However, I was able to attend church with my friends during my early childhood, although I didn't know much about faith until later, when I was in upper elementary school. I remember I started praying for my family's salvation around that time, especially for my dad and grandma. My mom started sneaking out to the early-morning prayer service each day and because I was an early riser from a very young age, I started following her to the service. As Christmas approached, we would often see beautiful morning stars on very cold, clear winter mornings. I used to ask my mom which star was the one directing the Magi to baby Jesus. She always pointed to the brightest star in the sky and told me that one must have been it.

I still regularly go to the early-morning prayer service and look up at the sky as soon as I get out of the house, just like I remember doing in my childhood. Especially this time of year, the memory becomes more alive when I see bright morning stars.

As we have been learning more about the God of Surprises through this Advent, the idea of God as Emmanuel fills me with wonder. It's amazing that God would even think of coming down to earth as a baby and being born in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem through a virgin named Mary. But this surprising story doesn't end with an unexpected birth. As we all know, it leads to the Cross and the even more surprising resurrection. However, I think there is one more surprise that came just before Jesus ascended into heaven. He reminded his disciples that he came to save the world and told them what they needed to do. If I had been one of his disciples, I would have panicked at hearing the great commission: "Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Because the disciples were all Jews who didn't associate much with gentiles and because they also grew up in local, small towns, they must have been shocked and maybe even a little frightened at the thought of doing what Jesus was asking. What would the great commission mean for them? What exactly was Jesus talking about when he said "all nations"? They didn't have a globe or map of the world. But they all accepted the great commission, as evidenced in the book of Acts. And because the disciples obeyed, the Holy Spirit opened doors and expanded their vision and understanding of all nations. What if they hadn't obeyed Jesus? Perhaps I would have never heard about Jesus in Seoul, South Korea.

Between today's media and the Internet, we live in the most connected era of all time. Our physical view of all nations is truly global. However, I feel that our hearts' view of all nations has rather shrunk. Even though I get news from all over the world from my tiny laptop, I hardly feel for any of the people I hear about, even those in my own country. Especially in the busy hustle and bustle of Christmas, I hardly think of anything other than my church, family and friends (and if there is any wiggle room, maybe my neighbors).

When I was preparing last summer for this year's Christmas cantata, God strongly reminded me what truly needs to be celebrated. Jesus came to earth to save the world. John 3:16 clearly tells us that, "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life." Have you thought about what God really wants for Christmas? I have, and I truly believe that he wants all of us who live on earth to have a relationship with him, calling him Father through the salvation in Christ Jesus.

I pray that this year's Christmas cantata worship services will help open our hearts to receive the meaning of Christ's humble birth. You will hear carols from all over the world. I would like to invite you all to be a part of this celebration and to invite your neighbors, particularly those from countries where Christianity is not the primary religion. I also want to encourage you to go beyond the invitation and open your eyes to see who they really are. Who knows if there is another Yoon for whom this could be the first Christmas experience and who will grow in faith through this simple invitation? This could be our first step in following the Great Commission.

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When You Need a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace

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On the first Sunday of Advent in 2008, we received a call that my father had finally lost his battle with alcoholism.The next week or so, as we drove back and forth to North Carolina to make funeral arrangements, I struggled with the swirl of emotions: grief, loss and sadness mixed with anger and regret.Here I was in the midst of this fresh loss right smack in the middle of the Christmas season, and everything felt raw.

Christmas was hard that year.

That year, I found particular comfort in the familiar words from Isaiah 9 we read and sing so often during the Christmas season. That year, I clung to these words like never before.

"The people walking in darknesshave seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darknessa light has dawnedFor to us a child is born,to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

Wonderful Counselor
While professional counselors can be an important part of our support system during difficult times in our life, this version of the word "counselor" means much more. In this context, the word counselor would be better translated as "extraordinary strategist," more like someone with the capacity for planning a winning military strategy than a therapist.

Jesus is a strategist that is more wonderful than we can comprehend or understand because he sees the big picture that I cannot. Those times in my life when I don't know where to turn, when I am confused, troubled or looking for answers, I can experience Jesus as my wonderful counselor.As I seek his wisdom, the answer may come as that still small voice in my spirit, in the wise words of a friend, in the discovery of the perfect scripture or maybe in the strength to endure a situation in which the answer is still unknown to me.With that wisdom, comes the incomprehensible realization that I am never alone.

Almighty God
There are times in our lives when our circumstances are just too big, too scary or too overwhelming to face.For me, it is the mightiness of God that is the antidote to fear. God's power, strength and influence mean that we can rest in his embrace and turn our worry, fear and uncertainty over to him.Even when we don't understand why something is happening, we can rest assured that he is ultimately in control and that we are never alone in the midst of our struggles. We can retire as the general manager of the universe because he is on the job. When life doesn't make sense, I need a Mighty God who is bigger than even the most difficult circumstances I face.

Everlasting Father
Everlasting Father is the perfect picture of God's eternal, personal and intimate love for each of us. God loves us. He created us to love us. This love is personal and intimate; like a parent and child.When my youngest was a toddler, there was a period of time when she was learning to talk that I was the only one who could understand her.Because I knew her so well, I could anticipate her needs and understand her in ways that others couldn't.Our heavenly father knows us and loves us even more than the best earthly parent.He created us and knows our every thought.He knows our hurts and knows how to comfort us.He loves us so much that he even knows the numbers of tears we have cried.When life feels like more than I can handle, I cling to the promise of a father who sees my tears and loves me so much that he will never leave me or forsake me.

Prince of Peace
During difficult seasons, peace might be the most elusive thing of all.When we are dealing with a season of loss or despair in our lives, there are many conflicting emotions: sadness, anger, regret, anxiety and maybe even relief or guilt in some circumstances.The year my dad died, I struggled with every single one of those emotions.I was sad that he was gone. I was angry with him for continuing to drink when he knew that it would likely end his life.I was devastated that when he called on Thanksgiving Day, I was too busy to talk to him and said I would call him back, and now I would never get that chance.And, if I was completely honest, I was relieved that this battle we had waged for 30 years with his alcoholism was finally over, while I simultaneously felt guilt for being relieved.

Grief, fear, sadness and despair are messy, complicated and inconvenient any time of the year.At Christmas, difficult feelings are magnified by the contrast to the joy and celebration around us.That Christmas, I particularly needed to know this Wonderful Counselor,Mighty Godand Everlasting Father on a personal level. And that Christmas, like no other before, I desperately needed a Prince of Peace. There is no earthly peace to be found in much of what life throws at us, yet Jesus promises us his peace, which is altogether different.

"And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

Originally published on Grace Notes.

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A Quieter Christmas

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The Sears' catalog was already marked and dog-eared by the time it got to the youngest child. With a sheet of notebook paper I would make my list for Santa, carefully offering page and item number along with a brief description. I was unusually attentive to the task. No need for Santa to blow the one shot a year he had to make Christmas special for me because of poor penmanship or insufficient information. I'm not sure what I did with those lists or how I thought Santa would get them. I recall putting one in an envelope and using a red crayon to write "Santa Claus" and on the next line, "North Pole."

Christmas was louder in those days. It didn't take long to figure out which knob in the polished maple stereo cabinet would increase the volume of our Christmas albums. The Christmas parade in our town included fire engines, and often the driver would sound the siren if you cheered loud enough. I recall the noise of the Salvation Army bell banging away as my dad and I walked on Main Street. The sidewalks were not very wide. I was a little boy swimming in a sea of kneecaps and boots; my dad's hand was a lifeline. Unlike the brightly lit, temperature-controlled shopping malls of today, it was a cold night as we moved from shop to shop, looking for the perfect gifts. That was part of the joy of it. The cold, the dark, keeping up with my father's long strides and entering stores that were warm and well-lit where he seemed to know everyone was all part of the joy of Christmas. All those memories are special to me, even as I have found that life as an adult requires different pursuits to discover a Christmas that has meaning and joy.

Tonight at Floris UMC we will enjoy our first service of Christmas at 7:30 p.m. Darkness to Light is a more subdued space than the services we offer on December 23 and 24. The lighting is dimmed, and the noise is soft. There will be no brass section to accompany the carols, no wiggly children's choir full of anticipation or large crowd to pack the sanctuary. Often those who come are people looking for a holy space that is also a still space, or people for whom Christmas feels awkward this year because of a death of a loved one or a difficult or tragic circumstance they have endured. At this service we sing familiar songs of Christmas, but we also find comfort in silence. The reading of scripture is clear and distinct, and prayer is a space of refuge. We don't need lots of light overhead. The candles before us are just enough.

Don't get me wrong, I love the other services and even the commotion that comes with them. Few things bring me more gladness of heart than singing, "Joy to the World" in a full sanctuary. But I find this service to be meaningful because of its simplicity. In that space I am able to take the hand of God in the way a slightly overwhelmed child reaches out for a parent's hand on a hectic and crowed street. It is in embracing that hand, and hearing that light shines in the darkness, that I find the peace of Christ that brings calm in the midst of all the noise, anxiety and worry of keeping up with this life.

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Being Christian at Christmas

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It's already Decemberhow did that happen?! Just a minute ago, I was packing a U-Haul to take my son to his new apartment at college, and now I have to finalize my plans for Christmas before it's too late!

As my calendar slowly fills for the month (company holiday party, nonprofit fundraiser, professional networking events, holiday celebration nights out with friends, dinner parties), and I save a few late nights for shopping, wrapping and baking, I wonder, when can I fit in Jesus? Despite attempts to try and simplify the celebrations that come with the weeks leading up to Christmas, the joyful, festive sights and sounds in the air make it difficult to be still and focus on what the whole world is celebrating.

Any nonbeliever can tell you that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus this season, but some may wonder what our cherished traditions around carols, extravagant decorations and Santa have to do with this mysterious holiday that is so grand that even the department stores get in on the act.

A few years ago, I took the time to consider whether my deep love of family Christmas traditions, beautiful decorations, Christmas carols and festive gatherings of friends and family were just part of a meaningless lifelong routine or if they were in any way connected to my equally deep passion to honor the amazing gift to mankind, the Savior of my soulthe birth of Jesus, the Christ. The good news is I see the connection as clear as if the Star was shining over my head, and I hope that I am able to express the connection to all I encounter during this, my most favorite time of year.

When I decorate my tree, each ornament tells a story, and I am reminded of the rich blessings I have through my family. As I trim the banister, I always take extra care to make sure my guests are greeted with enough sparkle to make them smile but also with a balance of serious sophistication to speak to the awe and humility I feel at the magnitude of this holiday.

We have at least eight nativity scenes spread around the house to ensure a constant reminder of the big event. When I entertain over the Christmas season, it is to extend warm, joyful hospitality in hopes that my guests feel as loved as I do just because of Christmas. When I sing, I sing as loud as I can because I can't contain the joy that fills me with the familiar tunes and cherished words. When I shop, I take forever, because I want the recipient to see the personal touch behind the gift just like God, choosing an adorable baby to capture our attention. Christmas meals are served on the finest linens and china I have because I feel the presence of Jesus at the table with us.

I secretly wonder sometimes why there is so much talk about the stress people find during the Christmas season because I approach it as if I am preparing to have the Son of God come to my house. And although I want everything to be perfect, I know that once the guest of honor arrives, I can just sit at his feet and soak in his presence.

The last people that should be miserable at Christmas are Christians. If friends and family ask why you do so much to prepare for Christmas, consider telling them it's because the King of Glory is coming in a few days, and you want him to know how grateful you are that he choose you to come and save. We should be shining as brightly as the famous Star of Wonder, so that we too can lead others to the sweet baby Jesus, the greatest gift of all.

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Seven Creative Christmas Activities for Parents

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As you may have noticed, Christmas is right around the corner. For those who have children or grandchildren, the holidays can be a great season of frenetic activity, parties, lights, decorations, shopping and more. But sometimes you want to spend quality time together that doesn't involve leaving the house and won't break the bank. What's a parent to do?

Below are seven activities you can do with your children when you have an afternoon free or when you've cleaned up from dinner and want to do something different to celebrate this joyous season. Some take more time than others, and some take a few more materials than others, but they are all fairly easy to do with children of all ages. Enjoy!

  1. Use a large sheet of green paper to make a Christmas tree shape. This can be a simple triangle, or it can be as elaborate as you'd like. Don't have a large sheet of green paper? Tape several sheets of green construction paper or scrapbook paper to give yourself one large shape. Let your kids decorate homemade ornaments from construction paper, string, crayons, glitter (if you're brave!) or any other found materials. Hang the paper tree on a wall of your house at kid level and let your kids decorate the tree. Christmas stickers or even round mailing seals make great ornaments as well.
  2. Make cinnamon Christmas ornaments! Mix cup applesauce and about four ounces ground cinnamon in a small bowl until a smooth ball of dough is formed. Roll dough to 1/3-inch thickness. Cut dough into shapes with small cookie cutters. Make a hole at the top of each ornament with a drinking straw or skewer. Bake 2 hours in a preheated 200 F oven or let ornaments air dry for 1-2 days on a wire rack. Insert ribbon in the holes and hang the ornaments around your house.
  3. Make orange and clove ornaments (for older children). Insert whole cloves (purchased in the spice aisle of your grocery store) into the skin of an orange. Place them randomly or create a pattern with the cloves. Wrap a ribbon around the orange and hang it in an open part of your house or place them in a bowl on a table. The orange and cloves will give your house a wonderful scent!
  4. Attach a long rope, twine or heavy string to a wall in your house. The rope can be hung horizontally or vertically. Attach clothespins (paint them if you'd like) to the rope and hang Christmas cards as they arrive in the mail. Don't receive Christmas cards in the mail? Display small miniature "masterpieces" your kids have drawn!
  5. Have a personalized pancake dinner. Make pancakes as usual, but instead of putting butter and syrup on them, let everyone experiment with different toppings. Some suggestions to try include chocolate syrup, any flavor of jelly, honey, agave, chocolate chips, coconut, fruit, brown sugar or whipped creamthe choices are endless! If you're feeling especially creative, use the toppings to create Christmas ornaments using the round pancakes as the ornament base. See who can create the most unusual ornament.
  6. Have a snowball fight! Crumple up recyclable white paper sheets into tight balls. You'll need about 20 snowballs or more depending on how many people are in your family. Have fun snowball "fights" or play this game with them. Divide your living room (or other room of your house) into two halves. Use a piece of rope, string or tape, or find some other way to divide the room. Form teams. At the "go" signal, each team can try to get as many snowballs onto the other teams' side of the room before a timer goes off. The team that has the least snowballs on their side is the winning team.
  7. Make pasta snowflake ornaments! Use different shaped pasta (tubes and wagon wheels work especially well), and glue them together on waxed paper to form snowflake shapes. After the ornaments are dry, paint them with white paint or white shoe polish (using a dauber), sprinkle with glitter while wet and then let them dry. Hang up when finished.

Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

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