The Advent that almost wasn’t

It’s the third day of December.

Usually by this time of the year, I’ve posted my annual “Make Christmas Count” appeal, and detailed how families can really invest in their children by planting the Gospel message deep in their hearts during Advent.

It’s the third day of December, and I have no well-thought out posts or programs to share with you.

Since my kids were very little, my husband and I have made it a priority to countdown the days to Christmas and spend quality time together as a family focusing on Christ’s story every day in December. We have made precious memories each year, and it’s become a tradition all of us anticipate.

Yet since October this year, when I’ve thought about what we were going to do for December, my only reaction was stress.

Our Christmas season is action-packed, with barely any breathing room. How are we supposed to squeeze in an Advent family experience amidst school music programs, Nutcracker ballet performances and church activities? Stress, with a capital S.

Thanksgiving hit, and I knew it was make or break time. None of our previous plans really fit where we are a family this year, and especially our schedule for this December. So, were we going to do Advent or not?

As I scrambled, trying to draw up plans for an abridged program to work around our chaotic schedule, I finally just stopped. I looked up at my kids, my family, my home. I saw the sparkle in my son’s eye as he worked to hang ornaments on the tree in just the right places, and heard my daughter’s delightful glee as the Christmas lights came on.

Advent calendar boxEach child arranged, and rearranged, our many Nativity scenes that particular day. While I was looking over their progress, I noticed Jesus was missing from one of the groupings.

“Lauren, where is baby Jesus?” I asked, beginning to look around on the floor and behind the entertainment system.

My five-year-old came running over, with an excited grin.

“Don’t worry Mom! I put Jesus in the Advent calendar.”

She had tenderly placed Jesus in our Advent calendar’s Day 25 box, as the gift for us on Christmas Day.

All the planning and stress of the holiday season doesn’t make Christmas more special or bring Jesus into our celebrations. He is already there.

Advent isn’t a program to squeeze into Christmas. Advent reminds us to slow down and treasure our Savior, to celebrate that Jesus came and He is coming again.

For our family, focusing on Jesus this Christmas will be our priority. If that means adjusting some of our plans, fine. But, we are each committed to enjoying each day as it is, even if our schedules are crazy, because it’s a day to lift up Jesus together.

Family Book of AdventAfter all my stress, God reminded me of a little book my father-in-law had given me a few Christmases ago called The Family Book of Advent by Carol Garborg. Last Saturday, I picked it up and read it in one sitting, immediately knowing this simple book, with it’s applicable Biblical devotions and optional activities, was just what our family needed.

So, December 1, we all woke up early, and snuggling together under the covers we began our Christmas Countdown. When we finished our short Bible story, we went out to the living room in our pjs, put up the number of days until December 25, and jumped up and down in anticipation of Christmas and what God had in store this month for each of us. Later that night, after a full evening of dance lessons and errands, we carved out time to create Christmas wreaths. Just like a circle never ends, we can know that Jesus is always King.

The kids hold up their Advent wreaths, where we will add different names of Jesus from Scripture during the month.

The kids hold up their Advent wreaths, where we will add different names of Jesus from Scripture during the month. Of course, they wanted ribbon infused with glitter, which we will also have all over our floors the entire Christmas season!

Yesterday, Dec. 2, we had another early morning Bible study, this time curled up on the couch in our pajamas. We considered God’s promises in the Old Testament, and how God always keeps His Word. After AWANA, we wrapped a present and placed colored pictures of leaves, an angel, food and hearts inside. They remind us of the promises that God never leaves us, God sends His angels to watch overĀ us, God feeds the birds of the air and He will take care of us too, and that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.

Jackson and Lauren open our present filled with God's promises.

Jackson and Lauren open our present filled with God’s promises.

Today, we will have our family time this evening. No day this Advent season will be the same. I’m also not sure how blog-worthy our Christmas Countdown will be this month, though I will try to share some of our experiences. But, that’s not the point.

When we look back on these years, we aren’t going to recall the specific activities, ornate art projects or detailed decorations.

We will remember that we were together, and Jesus was there.

The love of Jesus wrapped up in a shoebox

Lauren and Jackson sit under our Thankful Tree with the shoeboxes they packed for Operation Christmas Child.

What if we could send Jesus’ love directly to a child on the other side of the world who desperately needs to know God is real and He deeply cares for them? What if through one simple gift, we could be a part in introducing a young person to the life-changing Gospel?

Missions is personal, just like God’s grace. When God gave us the Great Commission, He didn’t intend for us to just give money and let other people do the work. God wants us to get our hands dirty, to be directly involved in sharing His message of hope with people all over the globe who Jesus died on the cross to save.

That’s why my family has wholeheartedly taken on the ministry of Operation Christmas Child.

OCC_logoThe world’s largest Christmas project of its kind, Operation Christmas Child, uses gift-filled shoeboxes to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to children in need around the world. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered gift-filled shoeboxes to more than 124 million children affected by war, poverty, natural disasters, and other crises in more than 150 countries and territories. They then partner with local churches to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those who receive shoebox gifts and help them understand what it means to follow the Lord and share their faith with others. This nondenominational ministry is part of Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin Graham. For more on this amazing mission endeavor, visit www.samaritanspurse.com/occ.

I remember packing shoeboxes when I was a kid with my family, but as an adult, I didn’t continue my participation in the ministry. I had been praying this fall about how my husband and I could do missions with our kids, when God arranged for me to reconnect with an amazing woman of God who really mentored me in ministry when Matt and I were first married. She is a regional coordinator for Operation Christmas Child (OCC), and invited me to revisit OCC’s vision. My heart beats for evangelism and international missions, and God swung the door open wide for me to join in and be a part of impacting children around the world. God brought together an amazing team from my church to serve alongside, and our church has refreshed our involvement in OCC and is a drop-off location for shoeboxes in our community, the first here in our town!

When I was reviewing promotional videos for OCC at home trying to decide which ones to show at church, my son Jackson began to watch with me. At one point, I turned around to see if he was still interested, and he was crying. God had touched his heart with the thought that our shoebox gifts could introduce these children to Jesus, and how the gifts could make a difference in their lives. He bought into the vision.

Lauren loved shopping for the gifts to fill our shoeboxes. She went with me several times to pick up items, and thought about what they would mean to the child who would receive them. In fact, over the course of the last few months as I have been involved in the organizational planning for OCC locally, she shared her excitement with her teacher at school, and her Kindergarten class is packing two special boxes.

I love this ministry because our family can be hands-on with missions. We can know our boxes will impact lives. That children somewhere else in the world, perhaps hurting, hungry, alone and in difficult situations, will know that there is a family out there who loves them and wanted to share a shoebox full of gifts with them. And if someone loved them enough to do that, maybe, just maybe, there is a God out there who loves them, too.

Operation Christmas Child is praying for 11 million boxes to send to children in need around the world in 2015. This morning, my church family came together and brought our boxes forward to dedicate them and pray over them. I just wanted to cry out in praise to see people of all ages, from young to old, bring their gifts to the altar asking God to use these boxes and to use them personally to bring God glory. Each box represents a life that we pray will be impacted for eternity.

National Collection Week for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes is Nov. 16-23. It’s not too late to pack a box and drop it off at collection centers around the country (find one closest to you)!! You can also go online and build a shoebox – an easy way to be a part of this ministry.

We can bring good news and great joy to children around the world. As we join in the ministry of Operation Christmas Child, we are sending the love of Jesus wrapped up in a shoebox to a child who needs to experience Him.