Christmas Eve at The River

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This year The River Church will be celebrating Christ’s birth with a Christmas Eve Service on Saturday, December 24th at 4:00 p.m.  We will not have our regular worship service on Christmas morning.  We will be back to our normal Sunday morning time of 9:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day with a time of sharing and communion.  

‘Cause We Need a Little Christmas…

I was thinking about taking down my Christmas lights today.  Here in Minnesota we have been hit with a very unseasonably warm winter. We are actually supposed to have a high of 48 on Saturday.  Imagine that!  Typically by now we have snow on the ground and the air is so cold that the last thing I want to do is to get outside on a ladder and take down the Christmas lights.

But here is my dilemma: typically once the snow falls it is here til Spring finally arrives.  That means that it is March or April before I can take down the lights.  So practically speaking, it makes sense for me to take the lights down now, while I still can, before the snow arrives.  However, it just doesn’t seem right to take down the Christmas lights on December 29th.  We usually stop turning the lights on once we get to New Year’s, but this just seems a little bit too early.

Yesterday, my son Jacob said that he wished that Christmas lasted for a whole week.  I agree with him.  It seems like Christmas doesn’t last quite long enough.  The anticipation and build up to Christmas takes so long, and then in one day, it’s over.  We were at the mall yesterday and the stores were already moving on to Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter.  I don’t know about you, but I want Christmas to last.

So this Sunday we are going to spend one more day on Christmas.  Actually, we are going to look at a piece that is typically included in the traditional nativity story, but is often misunderstood.  We will be looking at the visit of the Magi.  Were there really 3 of them?  Were they kings, wise men, or magicians?  Where did they come from and when did they arrive?  Those are just a few of the questions we will be asking as we take a look at their amazing story.  And then we will be asking the question, “so what can I learn and apply to my life from what I find in their story?”  Come on out to The River this Sunday to find out more.

Is It Christmas Yet?

Can you believe that Christmas is almost here?  It seems like the days leading up to Christmas just fly by.  That is not true for my little, three-year-old daughter.  Makenna is having trouble waiting for Christmas.  She has been asking, “is it Christmas yet?” for the the last month.  And when we tell her how many days are left until Christmas comes, her response is always, “Christmas is taking a long time.”

Of course, she has had nothing to do to get ready for Christmas.  She didn’t have the shopping, baking, planning and preparing responsibilities that her mom and I have had to deal with.  And she hasn’t been at school each day, like her brothers and sisters, counting down the days til Christmas arrives. She doesn’t even really understand the passing of time.  For her, Christmas is just someday in the future and she can’t quite grasp how far away it really is.

And she is so ready for it to come, right now!  She is excited for Christmas.  And that is something I can definitely understand.  Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of the year.  I have always enjoyed the different aspects of Christmas.  I enjoy giving and receiving gifts.  I enjoy the extra time to spend with family and friends.  I enjoy the decorations, and Christmas music, and the Christmas specials on TV.  And I enjoy the time of focusing on the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

When I was growing up, I loved Christmas too, but back then it was mostly about the gifts.  I couldn’t wait for Christmas morning to come so that I could get up and see what I got.  But over the years, my perspective on Christmas has changed and some of the other things have become more important.  Now don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy getting a gift as much as the next guy, but my enjoyment of the Christmas season is much more complete than when I was young.  And that is definitely a good thing.

I was talking with my children during devotions last night about, “what if we didn’t get any presents on Christmas.  Would we still celebrate?”  And we talked about how, even though we enjoy the games, toys, clothes, and other presents that we get on Christmas, ultimately none of those gifts even come close to the greatest gift that we have been given.  And that is the gift of Jesus Christ who came to earth to save us from our sins and bring us the hope of eternal life.  So, even if we received no other gifts at Christmas time, we would still have so much to celebrate.

This year Christmas is on Sunday.  That doesn’t happen too often.  And when it does, we can look at it like it puts a crimp in our plans to celebrate with our families.  Or we can embrace the opportunity to focus on what Christmas is all about and take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the greatest gift that we have ever received.  This Sunday at The River, we will be focusing on that great gift.  Consider joining us this Sunday, at 9:30 a.m., at 2510 Chaska Blvd., to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Nativity Wow Factor

It’s fun to see Christmas through the eyes of our children.  During this time of year as we drive around at night, my children constantly are yelling out, “Christmas lights!  Christmas lights!”  They point out the different beautiful displays that they see along the trip.  But while I still enjoy seeing the lights and other decorations that people have put up, the “wow factor” has kind of worn out for me.  So it’s nice to have the kids around, to help remind me of what it all looks like through their eyes.

You see, it’s easy for us to forget the “wow factor” of the Christmas season, because we have experienced it all so many times before.  And I think we have the same problem with the story of the Nativity from Scripture.  We have already read, or listened to it hundreds of times over the years.  We know it so well that we don’t really even pay attention anymore.  It has lost a little bit of it’s “wow factor” for us, because we already know the story so well.  But in reality it is no less incredible, just because we have heard it before.  And knowing how it all works out from the perspective of the rest of Scripture should cause us to be all the more impressed with what is happening.

Do you ever find yourself underwhelmed at the idea of Christmas?  Do you find yourself unamazed by the story of the Nativity?  If so, then I want to encourage you to come to The River this Sunday.  I will be looking at the Nativity once again, and trying to help us consider just how amazing it really was.  But then we are going to move beyond the “wow factor” and talk about what we can apply to our lives from what we hear.

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Chaska Valley Family Theater production of White Christmas.  It was a very enjoyable evening.  For anyone interested, they have 5 more shows coming up this weekend.  You can find more information at www.cvft.org.

The show follows the tale of a couple of army buddies who, after returning home from the war, find themselves helping out their old commanding officer who is struggling to make ends meet at an inn up in Vermont.  They pull in some help from their Broadway pals and put on a Christmas show that packs in a crowd.  The story has some great, memorable musical numbers, including the famous “White Christmas” song from the title.

Julie and I wound up getting to the event a little early and spent some time talking with one of the patrons of the theater.  He talked about how this show will help many people get into the Christmas mood, because he speculated that a lot of people were not focusing on Christmas yet.

I am not sure if that was a correct assessment or not, but even those who may be in the Christmas spirit, might not be focusing on the right things. It is actually pretty easy to get into the traditional Christmas mindset.  It is easy for us to find ourselves dreaming of a white Christmas or thinking about a jolly, overweight man in a red suit climbing down our chimney to bring us gifts.  It’s easy because everywhere we turn at this time of year we find ourselves bombarded with Christmas carols, television specials, and deocrations galore that constantly turn our eyes toward the holiday season.

But if we want to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, that doesn’t happen naturally.   If we are not careful, our entire Christmas season can get eaten up focusing only on the materialistic celebration of the holiday instead of on the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.

So, how do we get ourselves dreaming about the celebration of the birth of Christ instead of just a winter wonderland?  That’s a good question.  I believe the key is being intentional about putting Christ in the forefront during this time of year.  There is nothing wrong with Christmas shopping, decorating the house, baking Christmas cookies, listening to carols, and watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.   But if that is all that we do, then Christ will fade into the background.

One of the things that we do as a family is to spend some time each evening reading an advent focused devotional storybook.  The one we are reading this year is entitled “Jotham’s Journey.”  We have done it before, but whenever we read it again, the children enjoy it.  The story follows the journey of a young boy named Jotham who has been separated from his family and as he gets closer and closer to finding them, he also gets closer and closer to finding the Messiah.  It is a great story that helps us focus our minds and hearts on the birth of Christ.

Another way to help ourselves focus on the true meaning of Christmas is by making Church a priority.  Over the next several weeks we will be focusing on the Christmas message on Sunday mornings.  And this Sunday evening, at 5:30, we will be having a special Christmas party at the church with a focus on the message of Christmas.  If you are free, come on out and join us for a Christmas focus along with food and fellowship.  Let’s make it a priority to focus on the true meaning of Christmas this holiday season!

Twas’ the Night…

Here is my take on an old Christmas classic…

Twas’ the night before Christmas, and down at the store,

All the people were hurrying to get through the door.

And there I was with them joining the fray,

Just a few short hours before Christmas day.

“This is crazy” I said with my eyes turned toward Heaven.

My list is too long and it’s almost eleven.

It’s good that the store is open this late,

For those people like me who just wait, wait, wait, wait!

You see, I was shopping late into the night,

And I’m sure that I really was an interesting sight.

My arms full of packages, my feet moving fast,

Because I had saved Christmas shopping for last.

So there I was, impatiently scanning the shelves.

Wishing there really were such things as elves.

I had quite a list that I still needed to find,

And it was nearly driving me out of my mind.

A new dolly for Jenny and a puzzle for Bill,

A book for Freddy, and a necklace for Jill.

Those are the things that I had to buy,

Oh, why did I wait so long, why, why, why, why?

The shelves were picked over, and yet still full of stuff,

But the other shoppers were being quite rough.

I had been bumped, bruised, jostled and jarred,

And I still needed to find a new shirt for Bernard

Kelly wanted a sweater for winter of course,

Bobby was hoping for a plastic play horse.

Sally, my secretary wanted a raise,

But instead I was hoping to buy her a vase.

The company Christmas party had gone really late,

And I was feeling kind of sick from the food that I ate.

My back was still sore from putting up our big tree,

And the lights on my house numbered 4 thousand and three.

And now here I was in this ridiculous store,

Full of Santas and snowflakes and reindeers galore.

Christmas music was playing from the ceiling above,

Saying something about peace, joy, and love.

But I had no time, to listen to carols,

I was on my way to find some apparel.

My wife wanted a skirt, something in red.

And my son really wanted a fast racing sled.

The list just kept going, I was beginning to tire,

But it was my fault that things were getting down to the wire.

Why are the holidays always like this?

What happened to having a merry Christmas?

Could there be more to this time of year?

Something with joy or real Christmas cheer?

“What if I’m missing something?” I thought to myself?

As I reached for a toy from off of the shelf.

My hand stopped in mid air as I continued to reason,

And I remembered something else regarding this season.

A story from church back when I was a child

Something about a virgin, who was tender and mild?

Then I saw something that made my heart skip a beat,

It was in my same aisle, just down a few feet.

A nativity scene was sitting next to a toy railroad track,

And then the whole story came flooding on back.

I remembered the virgin, whose name was Mary,

And the trip to Bethlehem that must have been scary.

No room in the inn so they stayed in a stable,

Like out of a nursery rhyme or a long ago fable.

When the baby was born, he did not have a bed,

So they placed him in a manger, where animals were fed.

As I stared at that nativity scene I remembered some more,

Some shepherds in fields with a sheepherding chore.

And an angel appeared in the middle of the night,

It must have been a frightening sight.

But the message was good and he spoke of joy,

And not the kind that comes from getting a toy.

He spoke of true joy and peace and of love,

Coming down to us from the heavens above.

A Savior was born in Bethlehem,

That is what the angel told unto them.

And I remembered also that some wise men arrived,

Could this story be true, or was it contrived?

And at that moment in the middle of the store,

I bent down and knelt right there on the floor.

I realized that the nativity scene at the end of my aisle,

Was not a coincidence, not by a mile.

God put it there so that I would recall,

That Christmas is not something you find in a mall.

He reminded me what Christmas is really about,

And now I just wanted to stand up and shout,

At the top of my lungs, with all of my might,

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Christmas Carols – Minnesota Style!

Just for fun I thought I would put together a top 10 list of Minnesota versions of popular Christmas Carols.  You will probably recognize most of these songs, and if you live in Minnesota you will hopefully enjoy the little Minnesota twist.  Christmas is a time of joy, so I hope you enjoy this…

10) It’s Beginning to Lutefisk Like Christmas

9) Zygi Bells

8) We Wish You a Mauer Christmas

7) Brett Favre Got Run Over By a Reindeer

6) Deck the Halls with Bowls of Hotdish

5) O Come All Ye Lutherans

4) Rudolph the Red Nosed Viking

3) O Holey Metrodome

2) It’s the Most Uff Da Time of the Year

1) You Betcha! The Herald Angels Sing

Rejoice!

Earlier this week I was reading in my devotions from Philippians 4 and came across verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord alway.  I will say it again: Rejoice!”

That’s a great verse and a great reminder, but how often would that be a word we would use to describe ourselves?  How often do we actually rejoice?  When I think of rejoicing I get the picture of someone singing and dancing, laughing and shouting about how wonderful things are.  Kind of like we see Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” dancing and singing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” as she glides across the Austrian mountainside.  Or like Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain” dancing in the streets and swinging on lightposts while whistling and crooning, “Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo-dloo-doo.” 

Now I know that I am not an overly emotional guy.  Is that redundant?  But how often do I rejoice?  I have been known to get pretty excited and even jump up and down when the Redskins or Colts win a big football game.  But that doesn’t last very long and I am not really rejoicing in the Lord so much at that time, just celebrating a win. 

So I think this is a valid question.  How often do I really rejoice?  Paul tells us in I Thessalonians to be joyful always and that seems a little more doable.  He also tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, which is difficult because of the parameter of “all circumstances,” but the idea of being thankful is something we can deal with.  However, if I picture rejoicing like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” and Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain;” then I have a little bit of a problem, because I don’t ever really act like that. 

I even decided to take a look at the word rejoice in Scripture and sure enough I found singing, shouting, playing instruments, celebrating and even leaping, as well as waving palm fronds and leafy branches referred to in conjunction with rejoicing.  When Solomon is crowned as king after David we even see the ground shaking with the sound of their rejoicing.  And in Nehemiah at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, we see that the rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

So what do I do with that?  Paul is challenging me to rejoice in the Lord always, but my life is not a Broadway musical and I feel a little silly dancing up the stairs, twirling around lightposts, and singing at the top of my lungs.  How about you?  Well, maybe that’s our problem.

You know in the early church we see a contagious Christianity.  We see people being added to their number daily.  It was like people saw these early Christians and said to them, “I want whatever it is that you’ve got.”  And Christianity spread like wildfire.  But eventually that victorious rejoicing gave way to traditional practice and we as Christians became much more refined and proper.  We do church well, but how often does the world really see us rejoicing?

When you stop and think about it, we have a lot to rejoice about don’t we?  Just even think about what we are celebrating this month.  We are celebrating the birth of our Savior who came to earth to die for the sins of the world.  That is worth some singing, dancing and shouting isn’t it?

How much more effective witnesses would we be if the world saw us walking through this life rejoicing?  We would be much more contagious.  I guess that is my challenge for us this Christmas season.  Let’s really rejoice.  Let’s treat the Christmas message like we used to treat waking up on Christmas morning and running down to see the presents.  Let’s let the world see in our faces the wonderful message of the Gospel.  Let’s “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice!”

We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore!

I don’t like November 1.  Why?  Because it reminds me of the consumer spin that we have put on Christmas.  You know what I am talking about.  The day after that “trick or treating” holiday, while the kids are still nursing tummy aches from eating too much candy, all the stores begin to tear down the pumpkins, costumes and candy from their seasonal shelves and begin to put up their Christmas decorations. 

I don’t like this day, but it isn’t because I miss the pumpkins and other treats that that have been up on the shelves for the past month.  The reason I don’t like this day is because once the Christmas decorations go up, we begin a fast paced slide toward Christmas that is anything but the peaceful journey it is meant to be.

Between November 1 and the end of the year we have two holidays that are meant to turn our eyes toward our Heavenly Father with thanks and praise.  But instead of peacefully and joyfully celebrating this time of year, we have filled it with a flurry of gift-buying, party-going, card-sending, house-decorating, consumer-driven madness, that leaves Thanksgiving and the real meaning of Christmas wallowing in the carnage.

In just a little while we will be standing in the early stages of 2011 and looking back with dazed confusion at the blur that was supposed to be the holiday season.   It happens every year.  It seems like we go to bed on October 31 and wake up on January 2 and an entire two months have passed and we hardly had time to enjoy any of it.

I guess that is why I don’t like November 1.  The stores all rush ahead to try and be the first to get out their Christmas stuff and begin this feeding frenzy that we call the holiday season.  They push it by so fast that all we can do is reach out, grab hold and hang on for dear life. 

So my challenge for all of us this year is to get off the carousel.  This year, let’s stand up and say, in the immortal words of Twisted Sister, “We’re not gonna take it anymore!”  I’m not generally a big fan of quoting Twisted Sister, but this phrase fit so well that I just had to use it.  Anyway, we need to be intentional about getting off this crazy carousel of Christmas confusion.  We need to decide that we aren’t going to get taken for a ride anymore by what the stores and the media and the world in general have done with this time of year.

I encourage you to take your time this holiday season.  Walk a little slower.  Don’t rush.  Enjoy this time.  And make it a point to reflect on what it’s all about.  Take time to give thanks between now and Thanksgiving.  Count your blessings.  Remember what God has done for you.  And then turn your sights on the birth of the Savior.  Take time to consider this Jesus who came to earth as a little baby to become the sacrifice for all our sins. 

This is a special time of the year.  Let’s not miss it just because we are too busy.  Take your time and peacefully enjoy this Christmas season.

Focus and Follow Through

Let’s stop and consider the Magi one more time. The story of the Magi, contained for us in Matthew 2:1-12, is a wonderful and interesting story. We don’t know exactly who they were, what they were, how many there were, or even where exactly they came from. But for some reason, they travel a long distance, at what must have been great expense, to come and worship the newborn King.

Why do I bring this up? Specifically to bring up a challenge for us as we head into the new year. Consider the Magi. They saw this star and knew that they were supposed to follow it, so they set their sights on it and set off on their journey with purpose and determination and followed it until they arrived at Jesus where they bowed down to worship Him and present Him with gifts.

It was probably not an easy decision to set out and follow that star. It meant leaving their homes and family and friends and traveling a great distance, during a time when it was not so easy to travel so far. I would imagine they had difficulties along the way. At times they may have questioned whether or not to continue. There were even times when they apparently lost sight of the star and didn’t know exactly where they were supposed to go. For instance, we see them stop in Jerusalem to ask for directions. It is an interesting journey and one that probably took much time and great expense to make. But they knew this was what they were supposed to do, they so they focused on the star and followed through on their journey.

My challenge for us is to do the same in this new year. Not that we should set our sights on a star, but rather on the Lord. Let’s begin this new year right, recognizing that we are on a journey with the Lord. Let’s commit ourselves to staying focused on Him, letting Him guide our steps throughout this year. And let’s recognize that just because we determine to follow the Lord, does not mean that everything will be easy. We may lose our way at times like the Magi did. It may even cost us greatly to follow the Lord. But let us determine today that following the Lord is our goal this year. My challenge is for us in 2010 is to focus on the Lord and follow through on our journey.

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