Every year our local botanical garden hosts a celebration of Christmas around the world. My favorite display is a French nativity. Instead of the traditional scene showing shepherds and wise men with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh gathered around the manger, it shows French villagers bringing their gifts to baby Jesus. They bring bread, wine, cheese, flowers, and other items that God has given them the ability to produce. This reminds me of the Old Testament command to bring the firstfruits of our labor to the house of the Lord (Ex. 23:16-19). This depiction of the nativity illustrates that everything we have comes from God, so the only thing we have to give is something that God has given us.
When Paul instructed the Romans to present themselves as a living sacrifice, he was telling them to give back to God what God had given them—their own selves (Rom. 12:1). This includes the gifts He gave them, even their ability to earn a living. We know that God gives people special abilities. Some, like David, were skilled in music (1 Sam. 16:18). Some, like Bezalel and Oholiab, were skilled in artistic works (Ex. 35:30-35). Others have skill in writing, teaching, gardening, and many other things.
When we give back to God what He has first given to us, we give Him the perfect gift—ourselves.
In her autobiography, Corrie ten Boom described her and her sister Betsie’s horrific time in a Nazi concentration camp in the early 1940s. On one occasion they were forced to take off their clothes during an inspection. Corrie stood in line feeling defiled and forsaken. Suddenly, she remembered that Jesus had hung naked on the cross. Struck with wonder and worship, Corrie whispered to her sister, “Betsie, they took His clothes too.” Betsie gasped and said, “Oh, Corrie, . . . and I never thanked Him.”
It is easy for us to live thanklessly in a world that is full of trouble, struggles, and woes. On any given day we can find many reasons to complain. However, Psalm 100 exhorts God’s people to be glad, joyful, and thankful for “it is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (v. 3). As we remember who we are, we can respond in thanksgiving. For even in the worst of times, we can remember Christ’s love and sacrifice for us.
Don’t let the brutality of the world take away your thankful heart. Remember you are God’s child, and He has shown you His goodness and mercy through His work on the cross.
My friend Ed was telling me a story about his little son. He was standing in a mud puddle, so Ed told him to get out. But instead, his son began running through the puddle. “No running through it either,” he said. So the boy began walking through the water. When Ed told him, “No walking!” the boy stood with just his toes in the water, looking defiantly at his dad. The child knew what his father wanted, but he didn’t want to do it.
The corkscrew willow tree stood vigil over our backyard for more than 20 years. It shaded all four of our children as they played in the yard, and it provided shelter for the neighborhood squirrels. But when springtime came and the tree didn’t awaken from its winter slumber, it was time to bring it down.
Noise. Vibration. Pressure. Fireball. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield used these words to describe being launched into space. As the rocket raced toward the International Space Station, the weight of gravity increased and breathing became difficult. Just when he thought he would pass out, the rocket made a fiery breakthrough into weightlessness. Instead of lapsing into unconsciousness, he broke into laughter.
I asked several friends what their most difficult, painful experience in life had been. Their answers included war, divorce, surgery, and the loss of a loved one. My wife’s reply was, “The birth of our first child.” It was a long and difficult labor in a lonely army hospital. But looking back, she said she considers it joyful “because the pain had a big purpose.”
In recent years, my daughter has become fascinated with the history of the indigenous people in northern Michigan where she lives. One summer afternoon when I was visiting, she showed me a road that had a sign designating “Trail Trees.” She explained to me that it’s believed that long ago the Native Americans bent young trees to point the way to specific destinations and that they continued to grow in an unusual shape.
On Christmas Eve 1914, during the First World War, the guns fell silent along a 30-mile stretch of the Western Front. Soldiers peered cautiously over the tops of trenches while a few emerged to repair their positions and bury the dead. As darkness fell, some German troops set out lanterns and sang Christmas carols. Men on the British side applauded and shouted greetings.
When Deng Jinjie saw people struggling in the water of the Sunshui River in the Hunan province of China, he didn’t just walk by. In an act of heroism, he jumped into the water and helped save four members of a family. Unfortunately, the family left the area while he was still in the water. Sadly, Jinjie, exhausted from his rescue efforts, was overwhelmed and swept away by the river current and drowned.