Reflections on Christmas 2019

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(Note:  This is the six and final Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi , both written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017.  I wrote one on God’s presence at work during the holidays in November 2018 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.)

Christmas is over.  There are no cars in the driveway.  The toys, high chair, booster seats, and the pack-n-play are all packed up and put away.  It is way too quiet here.  The time with these loved ones went way too fast.  I miss them all terribly.

But what a Christmas it was!  Our daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren came home for several days and are now at their other grandparents’ house.  Our son, his wife, and grandson also celebrated with us and went home few days ago.  We spoke with our youngest child on a video chat, as he could not make it home this year.  Our nest may be empty, but our hearts are full and our heads are full of wonderful new memories.

The past week I had to temporarily put aside my calling as a writer and focus on my higher callings as a Christian, husband, father, and grandfather.  I had to find time to seek the Holy Infant Jesus in my own way.  I had to work together with my wife to prepare for a houseful of visitors and celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.  I had to serve my children and grandchildren in numerous ways, showing them love through cooking, gift-giving, playing, talking, wiping noses, and picking up toys.  In so doing, we experienced a completely unique Christmas this year, worthy of some reflection.

While the hole in my heart is still fresh, let me share a few things.  Having just watched our family favorite movie, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” a few nights ago when it was “one more sleep ‘til Christmas”, there is really only one way to organize my random thoughts.

Christmases past

So many thoughts of previous holidays popped in my head during this season.  On more than one occasion, I recalled Christmases with my siblings growing up.  I remembered our very first Christmas as a newlywed, one day after we returned from our honeymoon.  I remembered the one four years later when my wife was pregnant with our daughter and the next year with a cute nine-month-old.

I also often thought about the wonderful Christmases we had with our kids over the past three and a half decades.  Particularly memorable were the three beautiful Christmases we celebrated in Germany with the giant snowflakes, fancy ornaments, and fun times.  Since most of our holidays were spent far away from extended family, we developed our own traditions.  Even as fiancés and significant others began to show up, and later on bringing our grandchildren home, we continued those traditions.

More recently, I am grateful for the Christmas we celebrated two years ago, which was the last time all three kids, spouses/significant others, and our two grandsons were home. Last year, for the first time, none of our children were home on Christmas Day.  Our daughter and family were visiting her husband’s folks (the other grandparents), so they came home later.  Our oldest son and his wife could not travel, as they were about to deliver their first son, who was born on the 26th.  Our youngest was unable to come home, which was another first.  So, this year, we were grateful for all who came.

Christmas present

How do I begin to describe our fortieth Christmas as a family?  Our son and his family came home for two days; our daughter and her family stayed four days.  They overlapped for two days.  It had its challenges.  With all four of our grandkids under the age of five here for the first time together, it was a bit chaotic here and there.  My wife and I were not always on the same page.  There were a few squabbles and meltdowns.  And yet, it had so many more blessings.  Having all of our grandchildren here was the best present ever!

Highlights of the last six days included playing a board game that we had not played in a long time, enjoying one-on-one time with each grandchild, watching a handful of holiday movies (some old, some new), playing outside and writing my grandchildren’s names in the snow, decorating cookies, attending a Christmas Eve service, and going to two parks to play in the unseasonably warm weather.

I will probably never forget how I wept with joy when I received a coffee mug with pictures of our new granddaughter on it, how I was moved to tears when I said goodnight to our eldest grandson their last night here, and how I got choked up when the two-year-old sat on my lap so that I could read him a story that I used to read to his mother when she was a little girl not that long ago.

Christmases yet to come

We were so grateful that our daughter and her young family (who lives the farthest away) made the trip once again this year, as they have done every year in the nearly ten years they have been married.

However, I have said for the past few years, to prepare myself for this dreaded day, that there will come a time when our adult children will stop coming “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go”.  I know that packing everything up, spending three long days on the road, and living out of suitcases for over a week does not make for a restful Christmas vacation.  It is a sacrifice.  I would not blame them if they decided to stay home for Christmas starting next year.

They may choose, like her brother did this year, to develop their own family Christmas traditions and wake up in their own house with their new son on Christmas morning.  My son and daughter-in-law chose to come early and leave early.  It was a bit of an adjustment, but they just applied the biblical truths I had emphasized when they first got married – the responsibility of leaving and cleaving.

Finally, I have a little bit of theology to share.  (See previous article on parenting adult children, entitled, “Come when you can, and stay as long as you like”.)

This essential biblical truth comes out of Gen. 2:20-25, where God created Eve to be a suitable helper for and co-regent with Adam.  Jesus Himself quoted this Old Testament text in Matt. 19:3-6 to underscore the permanence of marriage.  As it was from the beginning, and is equally true today, a husband’s first priority is to his wife, not his family of origin.  My son left, which was right.  They cleft (producing a son), which was also right.  His new family comes first.  I totally respect that.

It may be that this was our last family Christmas celebration at this house with the sound of little children’s feet waking up grandma and grandpa.  That would be sad for us, but we would be okay.

Who knows?  We might just have a quiet Christmas morning like we did last year.  We may have to choose which family to visit.  We may have to be more flexible and have a combined Thanksgiving-Christmas get-together somewhere with whomever can come.  Either way, we will find a way to connect with all of our kids virtually if not physically, as challenging as that can be sometimes.  Either way, God’s presence will be with each one of us as we celebrate the birth of His Son.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

What does Ecclesiastes Teach us About Work?

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(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

In our Tuesday lunch Bible Study, our school chaplain has been taking us through an OT survey.  Two weeks ago, we were about to discuss Ecclesiastes.  Recalling that I had quoted it numerous times throughout my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, I prepared a one-page handout for the group containing a series of quotes I pulled from several chapters of my book.  I thought it might be valuable to others.

Regarding the doctrine of the Fall of mankind and our response to it

The book of Ecclesiastes often paints a bleak picture of work, highlighting what we know from Gen. 3:16-19 as the curse.  The preacher, possibly Solomon, emphasized in Eccl. 1:2 his theme, which he boiled down to one word—meaningless (NIV).  Other versions use the word vanity.  He says that everything is meaningless, especially work.  He asks, “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3).

Ecclesiastes 1:2–9 shows us that our work environment remains uncooperative and will be marked by futility.

Ecclesiastes 2:17–23 paints a vivid description of the effects of the curse on our work and how empty it can be.  “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (v. 17).  He continues, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless” (vv. 22–23).  Stevens offers this concise summary: “Work ‘under the sun’ is impermanent, unappreciated, without results, unfair and seductive.”

Ecclesiastes 7:20 indicates that people are always going to be sinful (including you).

Regarding finding a job that fits our purpose and leads to flourishing

In Eccl. 2:4–11, he (Solomon) outlines the kind of work that he pursued.  He “built houses,” “planted vineyards,” “made gardens,” and “made reservoirs.”  He also bought slaves, owned herds and flocks, accumulated silver and gold, and managed entertainers.  In Eccl. 2:11 and in later in Eccl. 2:17-23, he concludes that work is “grievous to me” and is a “chasing after the wind.”  He grew to hate the results of his labors.  He did not know what was going to happen to the investment of his time and energy after he was gone.  He was frustrated, and asked, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” (Eccl. 2:22).

Yet, in Eccl. 3:11, we find a curious admonition.  The writer asks us to consider that God is in control and has “made everything beautiful in its time.”  He then states that man should “be happy and do good while they live … eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God . . . there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot” (Eccl. 3:12–13, 22).  We learn here that it is indeed possible in the Lord to find satisfaction in our work.  It is a gift!

Regarding how Christians should work

Ecclesiastes 5:12 says that hard workers sleep well and that riches keep you up at night with worry.  We are reminded in Eccl. 5:15–19 that we cannot take anything that we earn with us when we die, which has implications on our priorities and how we view our compensation.  We are exhorted in Eccl. 9:10 to put our hearts into our work because there will come a day when our work on earth will cease.  I appreciate what is said in Eccl. 10:10, which tells us to keep our tools sharp or else we will work harder than is necessary.

Regarding the doctrine of eschatology (last things)

When Jesus returns, the wicked are judged, and the redeemed enter into the New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21 and 22), the hopeless message of vanity of Ecclesiastes will vanish.  There will be no more meaninglessness in life and work under the sun because we will all be under the Son.

I highly recommend that you read this interesting OT book of wisdom literature for yourself.  You may be surprised at what you find.  God will always speak to us when we seek Him.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.