Christmas devotionals: Keeping it real (and simple)

My dad always insisted on a real tree.  Sometime in December, we wandered around the Christmas tree lot, everyone searching for the one perfect tree full of pine needles and vibrant green.

Somehow we always chose trees that were fat and wide and typically too tall for our ceiling.  When we hauled the tree home, my dad had to lop off the bottom until it fit in the stand.  christmas11Some years, we still couldn’t top it off with the angel or star.

There was always the lingering suggestion that perhaps it would be easier and cheaper and neater to tuck an artificial tree away in the garage and just pull it out of the box each December.

But for my dad, this suggestion would destroy Christmas.  There are no substitutes for a real tree, he’d say, despite my mom’s suggestion to burn pine-scented candles or potpourri.

This, after all, was his only contention—that no matter how good an artificial tree looked, it would never smell the same as a real tree.

Christmas smelled like pine.

I think about my dad and how he made us all trek every year to choose the real Christmas tree.  Mostly, I think about him while I’m pulling the various wired limbs of my own artificial tree out of the box.

I’ve never been a convert, per se, to the need for a real live tree that smells like real live pine. I’m more of a sucker for convenience and control and a bargain.

Yet, as I hunkered down inside my wool coat and pushed through the wind into the Wal-Mart the other day, I lightly brushed the branches of a Christmas tree leaned against the front of the store.

And there it was…the scent of pine carried on cold air.

It was real.

All of those years growing up with sticky sap-covered branches, pine needles scattered on the carpet and my parents crawling under the tree to water it, I never truly “got it.”  I never once smelled the scent of pine that my dad loved so much.

It took the incidental brushing against a tree on the Wal-Mart sidewalk for me to understand the appeal…and to breathe deep the air and think of the beauty and feel newly reminded that Christmas is here.

Perhaps we need reminders because it’s so easy to forget.

In fact, sometimes we’re so busy trying to “remember” that we bury ourselves deep in endless tradition-making, busyness, activity, have-to’s and must-do’s that suck the life and energy right out of us.

Oh, I understand the feeling like it just can’t be Christmas without….

For me, it’s not so much the scent of the pine tree as the sound of the Christmas music.  We played it all season when I was a child.  But every time I flick on the radio for the “all-Christmas all-the-time,” my own kids protest.  They balk and whine.  Why can’t we just listen to the same ten songs we like and listen to every other time of the year?

My daughter complains for an entire half-hour drive, slumps herself in the back seat of the mini-van and announces, “Well, I won’t sing to it.”

Kind of sucks the joy right out of the carols.

And I understand the desire to make Christmas powerful and lasting.  For many of us, we’re just trying to stay Christ-focused and giving-centered.  But we set ourselves up for failure at times by trying to heap on so much to make it “really” Christmas.

Why not make this new tradition and that….read this devotional, light these candles, do these acts of kindness, bake these goodies, sing these songs, visit these places, take these pictures, make these crafts…..all in one year.

All of that effort to make Christmas seem real, to infuse it with magic and memories.

Yet, truly it’s just a simple thing.  So, we can breathe in and breathe out and relax into the celebration.

The angels said it simply: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

What more is needed?

All the rest we can do or not do.  We can enjoy, but not stress about.  We can choose the live tree or pull out the fake one in the Rubbermaid container.  We can sing.  We can bake.  We can light the candle and make the gift.  We can pop the popcorn and watch Rudolph or Snoopy or the Grinch.

Or not.

It doesn’t change Christmas.  Christ is all we really need for that.

Are you finding ways to keep Christmas simple this year?

Heather King is a wife, mom, Bible Study teacher, writer and worship leader.  Most importantly, she is a Christ follower with a desire to help others apply the Bible to everyday life with all its mess, noise, and busyness.  Her book, Ask Me Anything, Lord: Opening Our Hearts to God’s Questions, is available now!  To read more devotionals by Heather King, click here.

Copyright © 2013 Heather King

Christmas Devotionals: Elizabeth, Candy Land, and a lesson in humility

“Congratulations.”

That’s the word we taught our daughters to say when they lost at Candy Land.

Maybe around 2 years old when they could first maneuver those colored gingerbread men around that candy-covered game board, we taught them this massive word.

Mastering the vocabulary came difficult.  They lisped out ‘congratulations’ and we’d smile over the cuteness of a tiny person tackling the syllables.

But more difficult than that, harder than the language itself, was the heart uprising at having to spill out “congratulations” to someone else.

Because we all want to win…all the time.  And when someone else’s gingerbread man landed on that last rainbow square right at the candy castle, that wrecked little hearts in all their innate selfishness and self-centered ways.

Oh, how the wrestling match with our enemy pride begins so young and does it ever actually end?  Will we ever slam that opponent down on that mat and claim victory over such a foe?

If Christmas is about anything, though, it’s about God coming low.

Paul writes:

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!  (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV).

He made himself nothing.  Our God chose to be man, born all bloody and small in a stable of dust and grime, straw, animal feed, and manure.christmas8

“Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” that’s what Paul wrote.

Yet, still pride and envy destroy us, destroy our churches, our friendships, and our ministries because we scramble and shove for the spotlight, the glory and the prize.

We may no longer be counting the squares on a Candy Land board, and yet saying that word, ‘congratulations’ with genuine joy at another’s success may come difficult.

When their ministry takes off….
When they buy that huge new house….
When they book that dream vacation…
When their kids bring home that report card….

I marvel at John the Baptist.

Before Jesus came along preaching and healing, John gathered crowds by the river and baptized them into repentance and renewal.  He was the long-awaited prophet, the voice crying out in the wilderness.

So, John’s followers didn’t appreciate the attention the upstart Jesus was stealing away from John’s long-term ministry. But John wasn’t bothered at all, saying, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30 NIV).

In that familiar old Christmas story, I see where this began.

I see how John learned young to step aside humbly and worship the One who is greater.  I see how he didn’t strive for his own glory or stake his own claim to attention and praise.

His mama taught him.

Elizabeth was about six months pregnant with her own miracle baby when Mary came for a surprise visit.

For six months, Elizabeth treasured the joy of a son-to-be, a prophecy spoken over her very own baby.  How she had longed for a child during those years of barrenness, and now she was truly expectant.  And not just any baby.  But the forerunner of the Messiah in her very own womb.

Yet, when Mary walked into Elizabeth’s house unexpectedly, Elizabeth didn’t give way to jealousy or territorial cattyness.  She didn’t rush to tell her own story or pridefully demand any attention for herself

She stepped aside.

She extended a joyful and genuine ‘Congratulations’ to the young woman before her.

And she worshiped.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”  (Luke 1:41-45 NIV).

Pride chains us down to a captivity of our own creation.

It’s freeing, though, to look past our own lives and choose instead to reach out to others.

It’s freeing to rejoice with those who rejoice.

It’s freeing to listen more than we talk.

It’s the freedom of making this life less about us and all about Him and serving others.

And the lesson begins here at Christmas as Elizabeth humbly congratulates and blesses the teenage girl before her.

As Elizabeth’s own unborn son becomes the first person to worship the still unborn Savior.

And as God Himself grew within the confines of a womb, our God of light couched for a time in darkness waiting to be born.

Heather King is a wife, mom, Bible Study teacher, writer and worship leader.  Most importantly, she is a Christ follower with a desire to help others apply the Bible to everyday life with all its mess, noise, and busyness.  Her book, Ask Me Anything, Lord: Opening Our Hearts to God’s Questions, is available now!  To read more devotionals by Heather King, click here.

Copyright © 2013 Heather King

Devotions for Christmas: Joseph teaches me to pause, count to ten, pray and pray again

I’ve been hit in the face with a hockey puck.

A basketball bounced off my head a few times in elementary school and broke my glasses at least once.

A softball came hurtling at me when I was about 13 or so and slammed into my side.

Most people, you know, see balls zooming through the air straight toward their face and do smart things like step aside or jump out of the way or duck.christmas3

Not me.

Given the choice between fright or flight, I just choose freeze.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that if forced to make a decision in a moment of pressure, I’ll choose the most stupid thing you can possibly do.

Now you know not to pick me for your kickball team.

I need time, lots of time, to ponder and consider a response to any situation, question, or problem.  I can’t just hit that reply on the email message and I generally avoid the phone which requires instant feedback.  A comfortable phone conversation for me would look like this:

“Heather, what do you think about _______?”

“I don’t know.  Let me think about it and I’ll email you back later.”

That, of course, defeats the whole purpose of the initial phone call, which was to handle the problem quickly.

But I don’t do quickly.  Quickly for me results in broken glasses, a hockey puck in the face and a sore back where the softball slammed into me.

Quickly results in foolish decisions, words I wish I hadn’t said, poor judgment, and costly mistakes.

The world, though, is in a rush and I feel the pushing and the pressure like everyone else to respond, decide, make things happen, be a mover and a shaker and a go-getter!

Yet, I read this Christmas story and consider anew what God can teach me from a carpenter and a teenage girl called out by God to participate in this miracle of God-in-human-flesh.

God chose a simple hard-working man named Joseph, maybe one who knew so well not to rush the measuring, or the cutting, or smoothing over of the splintered surface.

Choose your wood wisely.  Go with the grain.  Etch out the plan before carving.

Perhaps those are the lessons Joseph knew from years as a carpenter.

In Scripture, he doesn’t talk, not once.  We never hear him fret to God about the news that his fiancee was pregnant and not by him….or ask Mary to explain herself ….or welcome shepherds and kings to the Savior’s birth…or even spill out words of wisdom to the little boy named Jesus.

He takes his time, this Joseph, doesn’t spit out words right away and apologize for them later.

He’s the strong, silent type.

And when he hears the news of Mary’s pregnancy, he doesn’t rush to accuse or punish.  Instead,

 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:19-20 NIV).

In The Women of Christmas, Liz Curtis Higgs writes:

“Joseph did not act in haste.  He thought things through.  Prayed things through.  He ‘contemplated’ (NET); he ‘pondered’ (MOUNCE).  When at last Joseph decided to sleep on it, ‘God graciously directed him what to do'” (The Women of Christmas, p. 105).

Joseph considered, contemplated, pondered.Wreath of Snow_cvr.indd

May we do the same.

And, while I fail and fail again at making quick decisions, still I balk when God asks me to wait and whine about the uncertainty of next steps and needed direction.

I hate to be pushed and pressured, and yet I push and pressure God.

Quickly, Lord, faster, faster.  Show me, move me, use me, deliver me….now, now, now!

Pause.

Count to ten.

Pray and pray again.

Ponder, consider, contemplate….choose the wood wisely, go with the grain, measure and plan before cutting and shaping.

That’s what He says to me as I tap my foot impatiently.

He is, after all, a Master Carpenter:

For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything (Hebrews 3:4).

The Nazarene carpenter named Joseph teaches me more about the Heavenly Carpenter who builds and shapes my very own life into the masterpiece of His own choosing and planning.  And it requires patience, so much patience.

I must take my time to respond to others, breathe in before answering, consider before replying.

and

I must trust the timing of my God, trust His touch, the way He sands down my roughness and slices off those unwieldy edges with patient care.

Heather King is a wife, mom, Bible Study teacher, writer and worship leader.  Most importantly, she is a Christ follower with a desire to help others apply the Bible to everyday life with all its mess, noise, and busyness.  Her book, Ask Me Anything, Lord: Opening Our Hearts to God’s Questions, is available now!  To read more devotionals by Heather King, click here.

Copyright © 2013 Heather King

Once in a Lifetime

“The soul is nurtured by beauty.  What food is to the body . . . pleasing images are to the soul” (Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul)

I grew up not far outside of Washington, DC.  At the time, a $5 Metro fare and a 20 minute train ride opened up a world of free museums and monuments.

I could easily Metro in just to see one exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library or spend a day slowly walking the halls of the National Gallery of Art or meandering through the presidential portraits in the National Portrait Gallery.

We could day-trip in for the Cherry Blossom Festival exactly when the cherry trees around the Jefferson Memorial were in full bloom.

And I did all those things.

Everything was simply so accessible, so convenient, so inexpensive, and perfect for someone like me who finds these experiences to be spiritual and a refreshing deep breath for my soul.

Our Creator God designed beauty and placed in human hearts the longing to create beauty ourselves.  So, I worship God amidst art and architecture.

Yes, I had access to a spiritual retreat with little effort or cost and I didn’t even know it.

Then in middle school, we watched an episode of one of our favorite shows, Saved By the Bell.  The show’s heartthrob, Zack, desperately wanted to win a contest with a fabulous grand prize— a week-long trip to Washington, DC.

This was unimpressive to me.

Who chooses a grand prize that is just 20 minutes away from my house?  Why not Disney World?  Hawaii?  London?

Of course, we don’t often appreciate what we have, not until it’s gone anyway.

Now, I live just far enough away for a trip to DC to be inconvenient and easily deterred by a busy life and tired children.  A week-long trip to the city would be fabulous!

When we live close to something, when it’s easy, when it’s inexpensive and effortless, it’s easy to overlook it’s value, becoming complacent and unappreciative.

That’s true about time in God’s presence, too.

For us, being with God is as simple as a one-sentence prayer while driving or singing praise songs while washing dishes.  When I’m worried, I pray about 100 times a day over one particular problem.

But it used to be far more complicated and rare than that.  In Luke 1, a priest named Zechariah was chosen by lottery to burn incense in the temple.

He won the grand prize.

Priests were the only ones who could perform this job, the only ones allowed beyond the outer area into the holy places before God Most High.

Even Zechariah, who God declares was “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6) would only burn incense before the Lord once in his entire life.

One chance to be in God’s Holy presence.
One opportunity to stand before Almighty.
One moment of intimate communion with Him.

Beth Moore writes:

“The responsibility of the priest on duty was to offer a corporate prayer.  Furthermore, the priest’s intercession for the nation undoubtedly included a petition for the Messiah, Israel’s promised Deliverer and King” (Jesus, the One and Only, p. 4)

Zechariah prayed for the nation, prayed for a Messiah, and maybe, just maybe took his one and only chance before God and prayed for his own family’s brokenness.

He and his wife Elizabeth were childless and “very old” (Luke 1:7).  Their dreams for a family seemed hopeless now.

But an angel appeared in that private moment between God and this aging priest.  The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 7:12).

Which prayer?  The one for the nation?  For the Messiah?  For himself?

Yes to all of them.

He and Elizabeth became parents to John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, the hope of the nation.

One powerful moment in the Lord’s presence brought Zechariah the answer to all he had sought for so long.

If we only had one brief opportunity to be in God’s presence, how would we act and what would we do?  How would we worship and what would we request?

David knew exactly what he desired:

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple (Psalm 27:4).

God’s presence was his “one thing,” the deep longing in his heart.

Praise God that because of Jesus we aren’t limited to one single moment in God’s presence!

We have access to the throne of grace at all times and anywhere we go.  We have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, communing, comforting, counseling, teaching, convicting and bringing peace.

But let’s not let easy access breed complacency.  Let’s treat our times with God as precious as they really are, remembering that it is only because of Christ that we can come before God at all.  Let’s thank Him for the that.

Heather King is a wife, mom, Bible Study teacher, writer for www.myfrienddebbie.com and worship leader.  Most importantly, she is a Christ follower with a desire to help others apply the Bible to everyday life with all its mess, noise, and busyness.  To read more devotionals by Heather King, click here.

Copyright © 2012 Heather King