Gift-Giving Guidelines for Christmas

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It’s almost Christmas! It’s a wonderful time of year for many, but it can also be a time that puts a huge strain on your finances. We want to everything that our family and friends put on their wish lists- we may even feel compelled to do so – but doing so comes at a huge cost.

A Gallup survey estimated that adults in the U.S. will spend about $885 on Christmas gifts this year.

  • 33% expect to spend at least $1000 on gifts.
  • 22% expect to spend between $500 and $999.
  • 29% expect gift spending to be between $100 and $499.
  • 3% plan to spend less than $100. (https://goo.gl/sf4Tqq)

And we need to keep in mind that actual spending tends to be higher than the forecasts. Holiday sales are expected to increase over 2017. Spending will likely exceed $700 billion.

Another item worth noting is that many of the gifts that make it onto wish lists are bigger ticket items – smart phones, tablets, laptops, video games systems, etc. In our desire to give our families a merrier Christmas, we can get ourselves into some seriously bad financial situations – or we simply feel guilty because our kids can’t get the latest and greatest like all their classmates seem to have.

It’s easy to fall into this trap, so you need a plan for safe spending this Christmas season. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Set a budget. It sounds so easy, right? Even so, many people refuse to set a realistic spending budget for holiday gifts. They’d rather just go with the Christmas flow. Caution – Don’t begin with the wish list. Begin with a spending limit for each person.

Set expectations. If money is tight this year, then tell your family so. Don’t pretend you’re better off than you actually are. Might your kids (or spouse) be disappointed? Sure…but you can’t let guilt be the driving factor in your finances.

Be careful with credit cards. Credit offers a false sense of prosperity. You can get what you want now, but the bill comes due a bit later. The wise of use of credit can be a good thing, but too many get stuck with having to making minimum payments on credit cards and getting hammered by interest charges. Limit the amount you put on credit cards.

Be careful about spending on yourself. I have to confess that this is one area where I struggle. When looking for gifts for others, I inevitably find stuff I want. After all, it’s on sale, I could really use it, and no one is likely to get it for me. This is especially true when I wander the aisles of stores like Home Depot or Lowes.

Remember that you’re not in competition with other families. TV commercials make it seem like you should give our husband a pricey car with a big red bow or give your wife a sparkling diamond necklace. Somehow we have been convinced that our children are being deprived if they don’t have the latest iPhone or gaming system. The truth is, some families can afford a Christmas like that, but most can’t. Do the best you can with what you have, but don’t try to compete.

Plan ahead for next year. This year is what it is, but to avoid getting caught in the same Christmas trap next year, begin planning early. Put a little money aside each month in an account just for Christmas. In fact, living on a budget in 2019 will help in a lot of areas.

Have a Merry Christmas!

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Advent at Home

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Growing up, the celebration of Advent wasn’t part of our Christmas experience. It was only when I started pastoring that I gained an appreciation of Advent – what it could mean in the church and what it could mean in the home. In a time when Christmas has been virtually stripped of its Christian meaning, it may be more important than ever to ground our celebration in the anticipation of Advent.

Here are a few suggestions for you and your family –

  1. Make church a priority. The Christmas season is busy and can be hectic. Staying connected in your local church in regular worship, small group involvement, and participation in special events helps ground you and your family in the real meaning of Christmas. This is the season to see church as essential not optional. (If you are not currently connected in a local church, consider being involved this Christmas season. You never know – it might be the start of a beautiful relationship!)
  2. Listen to sacred music. Admittedly, I’m not much on listening to Christmas music too early. Once past Thanksgiving, I’m ready to start listening in small doses. There is a lot of good music you can pick from. Some of it is secular (referring to Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, etc.) and some of it is sacred (focusing on the birth of Jesus). Make sure you and your children are getting a good dose of Christ-centered Christmas music. Since music tends to stick to the soul, this is a great way to make the story of Bethlehem stay with us during the season.
  3. Celebrate Advent at home. Along with putting up the tree, wreaths, candles, and other decorations, consider having a “countdown” to Christmas that is focus on the birth of Jesus (not just the arrival of Saint Nick). Our children grew up with an advent “calendar” where each day had a small pocket containing a puffy piece of a manger setting. Our kids alternated putting one in place piece each day (they stuck in place with velcro) until Jesus was put in the manger on Christmas day. There are lots of options, so find one that works for you.
  4. Read an Advent devotional. Advent devotionals can be found at online marketers and in Christian bookstores. You can also get them on your mobile device. In other words, they are easy to get your hands on and helpful to keep you centered on the meaning of Christmas. Many times, your home church will recommend or provide an advent devotional, so look for that. You can find an Advent devotional for singles, couples, children, families, students – the list is nearly endless!
  5. Make the manger central. Putting up the Christmas tree is usually the most time-consuming aspect of decorating. It is often the central focus of the room. Consider making the manger scene more central. Give it a higher priority in decorating. If you have children, let them help put the pieces into place. I have heard of families that wait to put baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas morning. You don’t have to be overly creative, just make the manger a bigger deal.
  6. Cook together. In a fast-food generation, think about how the kitchen can bring the family together. Many families make candy or cookies or bread together around the Christmas season. This can be a great opportunity for children and teens to help roll out dough or use the cookie cutters. Think about how you can use the cookie cutters to talk about Christmas. Consider taking the wait time while the goodies are in the oven to talk about waiting for Jesus.
  7. Think about your neighbors. What can you do to show the love of Jesus to your neighbors? You could bake cookies and take to them. You can rake the leaves of an elderly neighbor. You could volunteer to watch the neighbor’s children to allow them to go to dinner or do their Christmas shopping. You could make Christmas cards and walk through your neighborhood to deliver them. Whatever you do, use Christmas as an opportunity to show the love of Christ.
  8. Help the poor. If you have the ability, consider teaching your children the value of every person by finding a way to help those who have less. There are lots of charities that help, and you could certainly contribute to this. If you have children, let them know what you’re doing. If there is a way, let them participate – even if it is applying a stamp or sealing an envelope. You could pick up items at the grocery store for the local food pantry. You could donate coats to a coat drive. You could find a needy family to whom you could give food or gifts. The options are nearly limitless, just do it to show love in Jesus’ name.
  9. Tip well. Servers at restaurants work hard and often for lower pay. If you’re able, tip generously. If you have children, let them leave the tip and talk to them about giving to others in the same way that God gave to us. If you can, leave a handwritten note wishing you serve a Merry Christmas.
  10. Make an Advent prayer chain. With some construction paper, scissors, tape, and a maker, you can create a prayer chain to help you and your family more prayerful during December. Each day, think about who you can pray for and/or ask your children who they should pray for, then write that name on a strip of construction paper, pray together for that person or ministry, and tape the strip into a circle. Each day, add a new name and link it to the previous day. Consider finding a prominent place to display the chain as a reminder to pray.

Are there more ways to celebrate Advent at home? Sure! Feel free to add your idea or practice below…

17 Years Ago…

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17 years ago, the World Trade Center towers fell taking with it thousands of lives and dispelling the notion that America was safely at a distance from the reach of terrorists.

17 years ago, Americans sat in stunned silence watching those massive towers burn and fall, watching men and women desperately racing away from a wave of dust and debris racing down Lower Manhattan streets, watching brave men and women running toward danger in an attempt to save those that they could, watching with tears and a sense of helpless at the senseless evil unfolding live on our televisions.

17 years ago, people who had not prayed in years, in their helplessness, turned their eyes heavenward to God once again, all the while asking why that very same God might allow such horrific acts to happen.

17 years ago, those things which divided us momentarily disappeared as we were united in our horror at the devastation in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, as we were united in our sorrow over the loss of so many men, women, and even children who believed it was just another day, and as we were united in our commitment to find and bring to justice those who committed these unimaginable acts of cruelty.

17 years ago, our world changed. Time has eased the pain, but it has not erased the memories. Life did not go back to normal, we simply learned to redefine normal. We added phrases like “war on terror” to our vocabularies, and from that point, kept adding phrases like “al Qaeda” and “ISIS” and “Boko Haran.” Countless people have died on both sides of this unholy war, and most of those have been noncombatants. Families in America, as in so many other nations, will have empty places at their dinner table because moms and dads went to fight this war and never came home.

17 years ago… it seems like yesterday, and yet it seems like a thousand years have passed.
Today we remember. We stir up the embers of our grief. We say a prayer for those lost and those who still fight and those who suffer because the fighting still goes on. Perhaps we dig out that flag lapel pin or rehang that flag that has been unceremoniously folded in the back of the closet. It is not that we have forgotten – we cannot forget – it is that we have adjusted, adapted, found a way to live in this strange new world. But we do so with a haunting uneasiness.

I know that you expect a pastor to write something uplifting and encouraging on a day like this. I could. We have many blessings and many people to bring about thankfulness. But today the gravity of day 17 years ago hangs heavy on me, like a cold, iron chain on my shoulders. I can close my eyes and see the smoke rising from those towers, from the Pentagon, and from that Pennsylvania field. I feel the echoes from that initial shock and from the lingering sorrow. On this day, I simply say with the Apostle John, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

The Importance of Our Greeting Ministry (part 4)

This is the final part of this mini-series, and I hope you’ll find it important. It’s not rocket science, but it can be helpful.

If you’re serving in any area of our Greeting Ministry, you are doing a great service to both members and guests. Never underestimate your value to the overall ministry of the church. Whether you’re opening the door for someone, serving guests at the Welcome Center, guiding a parent to the preschool area, or joyfully providing a bulletin to a member; it is all important. Thank you!

My final word of encouragement is this: Keep your eyes open.

Keep your eyes open to the environment around you.
In the rush to get things done, it can be easy to overlook napkins, cups, or other trash that may have been left on or around the campus. This is true both inside and outside the building. Since cleanliness is one of the issues that impact a guest’s impression of the church, it’s important for every member and especially those serving in any area of greeting to be aware of litter or clutter. Beyond this, if there are issues with carpet, tile, paint, etc., bring those issues to the attention of the staff or chairperson of the appropriate team. And many churches have display racks for brochures or other literature. If you notice empty displays, pass that information along to the responsible person.

Keep your eyes open for new faces.
We have mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating that guests often feel a little awkward or out of place when they come to a new church. If you don’t recognize the face, the person is likely a guest. Give them a bit of extra attention, and help them connect with others.

Keep your eyes open for confused looks.
If you notice someone who seems to be looking around for someone or something, take the initiate to help them or ask someone to do so. They may have been invited by someone and are trying to find them, or they may be wondering where a certain small group meets. Asking “How may I help you?” shows you care.

Keep your eyes open for suspicious or unusual behavior. 
It’s a sad truth, but it is true nonetheless – the church is not immune to violent acts. Our church has taken steps to form a trained security team who maintains an alert presence before, during, and after our services, but they cannot do it alone. If you’re serving in our  greeting ministry (or present while not actively serving), pay attention to anyone acting suspiciously, anyone that seems overly agitated, anyone who appears to be in distress, or anyone acting recklessly. If your church has a security team or security personnel, inform them immediately of any suspicious or unusual behaviors you notice. If your church does not have an active security plan, ask your church leadership to begin planning to establish one.

I hope that some of the comments and observations on a church’s welcoming ministry have been helpful. And, once again, a huge Thank You to all of you who serve in any aspect of the greeting and welcoming ministry of your church.

Bravery, Sacrifice and Honor

Memorial Day is a time to remember. It is a day on the calendar that is set aside to honor those who have given their lives in service to their country. Many of these men and women volunteered to place themselves in harm’s way in order to save lives, protect their fellow Americans and others who were endangered, and to preserve and extend human freedom and dignity. Others who died in service to this nation were drafted, yet their sacrifice was no less honorable that those who went to the recruiting station and signed up. The shedding of blood for one’s country is truly worth remembering.

ImageA number of years ago I traveled with a group of students to Arlington National Cemetery to witness the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At one point prior to the changing ceremony some of those sitting and watching became a little boisterous (I’m glad to say it wasn’t our group). Abruptly one of the Guards of Honor stopped his pacing and turned to speak toward the noisy group. With words that were firm and direct, he reminded the assembled group of the solemnness of that place and the proper respect that is to be shown. It was a startling but effective and necessary act.

As I sit and think of that day and of the untold sacrifices made on behalf of this nation by so many, I fear the attitude of those few disruptive children may be a sad reflection of the attitude of many toward our national celebration of Memorial Day. It is not that we shouldn’t have a cook-out, go to Grandma’s house, or take our first dip in the pool for the season. One of the reasons that our service men and women died for was that we might have the freedom and ability to have enjoyment in life. I hope that you enjoyed your Memorial Day, but I hope you also remembered why it is on the calendar in the first place.

As I close, three words come to my mind as I reflect on Memorial Day: Bravery, Sacrifice and Honor. These are the words that best reflect the vast majority of those who served or have served in the United States Armed Services. I am grateful for those who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves, and I pray their families might find peace. I am grateful for those who served and came home to their families and friends. Some of them returned and were able to readjust and get on with life. Others have struggled because of the physical or emotional traumas they experienced. I pray that we as a nation will honor their sacrifices and support them and their families as they continue to fight battles on a different front.

(Reprinted from 2014)

The Importance of Our Greeting Ministry (part 3)

smileNever underestimate the value of a smile! One of the most important things that greeters bring to their ministry is a welcoming smile. Sure, there are days when we don’t feel much like smiling because we all have challenges in life – physical, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual. But it is exactly because we have troubles that we should smile!

Our smiles show that joy is not found in the stuff of life but in the Lord of life!

Our smiles show that struggling people are welcome here!

Because we know that many of those who enter our doors are having a tough time, our warm smiles in their direction can be a ray of sunshine on their cloudy day.

Dale Carnegie’s most famous books is How to Win Friends and Influence People. In it, he writes the following:

It costs nothing but creates much.
It enriches those who receive, and the memory of it sometimes lasts forever.
None are so rich they can get along without it, and none so poor but are richer for its benefits.
It creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in a business, and is the countersign of friends.
It is rest to the weary, daylight to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and Nature’s best antidote for trouble.
Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is no earthly good to anybody till it is given away!

Whether your greeting at the door, staffing the Welcome Center, ushering, guiding people to the children’s check-in, helping people in the parking lot, working on the security team, or just having a cup of coffee in the Gathering Space – Bring your smile and freely give it away!

The Importance of Our Greeting Ministry (part 2)

Before launching into this week’s post, I wanted to share a touching response to the last week’s post:

We were blessed to be able to get my dad out to church on that Sunday. He commented about how helpful the greeters were. As we pulled up to the building, we were met by that red umbrella and 4 greeters assisted us with his transfer from vehicle to wheelchair, holding his portable oxygen and covered us with umbrellas. Daddy’s comment was that there are lots of caring, loving people at Grace Fellowship. I agree and I’m so very thankful that he attended his last church service at Grace Fellowship! ❤️

I didn’t see this when it happened, but hearing it brought me a lot of joy!

The point of the first post was that good greeters create a welcoming atmosphere. This week, let’s consider another issue in the greeting ministry –

Good Greeters Are Alert to the Needs of All but especially to our Guests

I’m no longer a subscriber to DirecTV, but I was for about a decade. When I watched, I would often see DirecTV commercials offering incredible deals for new subscribers. Looking at my bill, I was paying w-a-y more than the newbies. I even called DirecTV, enduring really bad music while on hold, to ask if I could get the same deal I just saw advertised. The answer was always the same – “That’s only for new subscribers.”

I would remind the person on the other end of the line that I had been a faithful, paying customer for years. A few times, I had even paid extra to get the NFL Sunday Ticket. If anyone deserved a price break it was me. For all the good it did me, I may as well have had the conversation with a cat. The only offer they made was to add additional programming for a discounted price AND for a limited time. Note: I am not a DirecTV customer anymore.

When I refer to being especially attentive to guests on Sunday morning, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that we should ignore our faithful members. In fact, we need to celebrate their faithfulness and consistency! Greeters should warmly welcome everyone who comes to each service and seek to meet their needs. This may mean helping people in and out of cars, offering to carry something if a person is weighed down, or any other reasonable service we can do. A greeting ministry should actively seek to extend service to each member and regular attendee, but I’d like to share some reasons why focusing on guests must be a priority.

  1. Guests don’t know what to expect. They may be new to our church. They could be new to church period. For long-time members, we’re already comfy here. We know the ropes. We have established relationships. Guests are just that – guests. They need extra attention to help them feel more at ease.
  2. Guests don’t know where to go. A family shows up for the first time looking for a small group. They have a teenager and a four-year-old… and they have no idea what is offered or where to go. This is where a good greeter comes in. He or she asks to assist, knows where to find the classes, and is willing to take them there or have someone do so. This is especially important when the family has a baby or preschool children!
  3. Guests may become future members. Every member was a first-time guest before becoming a member. Everyone who drives on to our property should be viewed as a potential member. Beyond this, the guest may or may not be a follower of Jesus. This may be THE day that they respond to the pull of the Holy Spirit and come to faith in Jesus. Warmly welcoming that person or family may go a long way toward breaking down any walls that might hinder their decision.

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We want everyone in our church to be alert to new faces, but we need our greeters, welcome center hosts, and ushers to be acutely aware of those who may be visiting with us. It makes a difference.