It’s Over Too Soon

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)

December 26 is the most depressing day of the year. For that matter, the afternoon of December 25 doesn’t have much going for it, either.

If Christmas stinks so much, then why am I so sorry to see it go? Well, I have to admit… it does kind of grow on me. Yeah, a lot of it makes me nuts—Congress could outlaw that song about the Christmas Shoes and I wouldn’t shed a single tear—but some of it hooks my heart and I find myself putting away the cynicism and just soaking in the ambience of the season despite myself. For all its petty annoyances, the good parts of Christmas are really good. I may hate shopping and spending tons of cash, but I love giving gifts. Family quirks may irritate, but I love my family. And, for at least a few weeks, people are thinking about how the Son of God came to earth. It’s irresistible.

That’s why the real world feels a little grayer, colder, and emptier when it all wraps up and the ornaments and garland are packed away for another year. The neighborhood seems less friendly without lights hanging from eaves (except, of course, for that one family that always leaves them up until Memorial Day). Maybe it’s harder to get motivated to search for God when plastic replicas of his infant son aren’t in every yard?

God is as real, and as present, in January as he is in December. I can’t depend on a page of the calendar to fill my heart with good tidings of great joy, but time spent with the one who create time itself? That I can do anytime, and he longs for me to do so. Don’t let Christ slip away when Christmas is gone. Seek him, and find him, every day.

I need to feel your presence all year round, God. Make yourself real to me every day.

It Costs Too Much

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.”
Luke 12:15 (NLT)

Every year we set a “Christmas List Freeze” date of Thanksgiving Day. By the end of that day, as we all lie around in a torpid, turkey-stuffed state, the kids’ Christmas lists must be complete. No more changes. The Christmas List is set in stone, thus saith the father. I tend to relax those restrictions after I read said Christmas lists and discover I’m going to have to cash out my 401(k) just to pay for the stocking stuffers. I’ll say this for my kids: they may not ask for a lot, but the few precious items they request still make my wallet clench.

It’s a struggle. I really, really would love to give my kids everything they want, regardless of the cost. Money was tight when I was a kid, so we rarely got the latest and greatest must-have toy of the season. Don’t get me wrong, my parents made sure we had good Christmases, but still… a part of me always looked with not a little envy on those kids who seemed like they could just open up the Sears Wish Book, point to something, and be assured it would be under the tree Christmas morning. It’s only natural that I would want to spare my kids that experience.

But just because it’s “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for the best, because while stuff is cool, and plentiful Christmas gifts are awesome, they will all ultimately turn to dust. We are not made to put our faith and our hope in video game systems and mechanical hamsters; we’re made to find joy in a relationship with our Creator. That’s not to say Playstations and Zhu Zhu Pets are wrong! It’s just that I would be doing my kids a disservice if I didn’t teach them that there are more important things than Jeeps and big-screen plasma TVs and high-end audio equipment, even though those things are so cool and it certainly couldn’t hurt if I had those things, right?

This is going to be harder than I thought.

Lord, I need self-control. Help me to lead by example, to demonstrate with my life that contentment comes from you, not from material things.

It Forces Me to Spend Time with Family

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.
John 15:12 (NLT)

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need…
Colossians 1:11 (NLT)

If all those Hallmark commercials are to be believed, Christmas is all about family… sitting around an elegant tree, in front of a fireplace, singing “Good King Wenceslas” in pitch-perfect four-part harmony. Which is news to me. Based on my experience, I thought it involved screaming cousins breaking china and parents teasing you about humiliating things that happened 27 years ago. Oh, and heated arguments about casseroles.

But maybe that’s just me.

This is how I get to spend the most wonderful time of the year? With people that make me feel like an awkward 14-year-old again? Yep. They’re family. Whaddaya gonna do? You love ‘em… in the abstract. That love is a little harder to show once you’re in the midst of all the real-world drama and crises and everything else wrapped up in the concept of “family.”

So is family time something to be endured, a grueling experience to just muddle through until you can race home and forget about for another 364 days? That’s not how God sees it. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity. He can use the time with family—or, for that matter, with anyone that tried your patience—to grow you. To make you stronger. To develop traits in you that make the world see less of you and more of him. Lean on him. Love him, and love people.

(Yes, your family counts as “people.”)

Thank you, God, for my family. Pour out your love on me so that I can pour it out on them.

It Brings Out the Worst in People

Greed causes fighting; trusting the Lord leads to prosperity.
Proverbs 28:25 (NLT)

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
Matthew 5:9 (NLT)

My wife, the consummate bargain-hunter, loves diving headfirst every year into the riotous mess that is Black Friday. She is welcome to it. The crowds, the noise, the chaos, the tempers flaring… it’s more stress than I need at Christmas. Of course, anymore it’s looking like she’ll need to pack heat if I want her to actually make it home with that $4 foot massager.

Seriously, we’ve all seen the stories on the news. A worker is trampled to death as crazed shoppers stampede a discount store on Black Friday. Fists fly when one of them tries to snatch a bargain out of another shopper’s cart. Harried parents trade insults and threats of violence over a place in line… the line to visit Santa.

I mean, Christmas is about peace on earth, right? Good will toward men, and all that? Not anymore. These stories are the stuff of daily headlines during a typical Christmas season in 21st-century America. And if that’s how men are going to behave, then frankly, they don’t deserve good will. I guess it used to go without saying, but it’s worth repeating since it’s apparently been forgotten: it’s not supposed to be like this. Busted lips and black eyes over Elmo dolls are just a symptom. The real problem is sin, sin that has managed to corrupt everyone and everything in this world—Christmas included.

That’s where we come in. We don’t have to fall prey to this seasonal madness. If sin is the symptom, the peace of Christ within us is the cure. Tune out the Muzak carols while you shop this year, and listen to the Holy Spirit guide you toward real, practical actions that spread peace instead of consternation.

Help me to find peace in this chaotic season, Lord. Where peace cannot be found, work within me to spread it.

It’s a Huge Hassle

Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
Psalm 62:1-2 (NLT)

It’s become a tradition in our household… the weekend before Thanksgiving, we decorate the house for Christmas. (I know what you’re thinking: why so late?) It should be a gleeful time of family togetherness but in reality, I dread the whole affair. I have to lug innumerable dusty boxes of tinsel and snow globes up from the basement. I have to rearrange the living room to accommodate the tree, which I then have to painstakingly assemble, trying to remember which branch is mislabeled (if you’d think I’d just label it correctly so I wouldn’t have to go through that every year, you don’t know me very well). I have to dust the entertainment center so there’s a nice place to put the Nativity scene. And most importantly, I have to yell at the kids for putting 37 ornaments in a one-square-foot section of the tree.

All this, so I can take it down a few weeks later.

Sure, it’s pretty, and it does lend a festive air to the house, but by the end of it all I’m just exhausted. In fact, it’s not just the decorating that wears me down. It’s the constant Christmas activity. It seems like the whole season is a whirlwind of parties, visits to and from family, cooking, buying presents, wrapping presents, stressing out over whether or not they will like the presents… who needs it? Filling up every spare minute with pointless seasonal hustle-and-bustle means I have no time left to spend with the God who made the season possible. The constant ringing of jingle bells drowns out the still, small voice of my Creator. Not that it matters; I’m too exhausted to hear it anyway.

I’m not going to get out of putting up the Christmas tree. I may have to spending an entire afternoon baking Christmas cookies for the neighborhood. But those things can’t be the center of my life during the Christmas season; that place is taken. It’s up to me to make the time to remember that.

Help me find the time, Father, to slow down this Christmas season and to hear your voice. Help me to find rest in you.

Christmas Stinks

“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Luke 2:8-14 (NLT)

It’s the season of year we celebrate the day human history changed forever, when the divine intersected with the mundane. God came to man, the fulfillment of a promise millennia in the making. It’s Christmas, the time of the year that by all rights should fill us with the most joy, glory, humility, and warmth… and yet some just want it to be over. As. Soon. As. Possible. That’s right… hard as it may be to believe, some people think Christmas just plain stinks.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m guilty of sometimes thinking that Christmas is more trouble than it’s worth. Depends on the year, really. One year I’ll revel in the hot-cocoa-and-evergreens-and-jingle-bell joy of it all, and the next, I’ll be tearing down the tinsel by noon on December 25. And to be fair, it’s not the Little Baby Jesus part of Christmas that tightens my jaw and leaves me cold. It’s all the other stuff that this world has piled on top of it—the constant rush, the endless pleas to buy buy BUY, the radio stations that start playing carols on Labor Day. Let’s just be honest: all that stuff? It stinks.

Deep down in your heart of hearts, whether or not you’ll openly admit it, you know you can relate. When you watch A Christmas Carol and you find yourself sympathizing with Ebenezer Scrooge—the scowling, “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge, not the grinning, Tiny-Tim-on-his-shoulder Scrooge—you know Christmas is starting to get to you. So for those of you who cringe at the sound of children’s choirs and get migraines from blinking lights, I offer this week of scriptural antidotes to the seasonal poison coursing through your veins.

All These Things and More

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.
Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)

Do you have a nativity scene somewhere in your house? Maybe just a small ceramic set sitting on the fireplace hearth? Or do you go all out, with a 3/4-scale wooden stable out in the yard, complete with glowing electric plastic Mary and Joseph? Even if you don’t have a miniature First Christmas tableau on your property, you probably know someone who does, and you no doubt pass a dozen of them every day. While they may cause controversy here and there when a city hall tries to put one up, the Nativity scene is a fixture of the season, and is generally loved even by those who care not one whit for the spiritual side of the holiday.

And that’s kind of a shame. Not because there’s anything wrong with Nativity scenes. (I hope not; I have one at the foot of the Christmas tree in my living room.) It’s just that Christmas is often the only time of the year that people are exposed to the Son of the Most High God, and the only image they see of him is that of a tiny, helpless baby in a straw-filled manger surrounded by smiling sheep and donkeys. And while that is one small aspect of him, my God is so much bigger than that.

Yes, our God was once a baby, resting in his mother’s arms. But he is so much more. Look at the aspects of God we’ve explored over the past week. Our God is the wise teacher who meets us in times of silence and solitude. He is a loving Comforter, showing compassion to any who call on him. He is a strong, stable shelter in times of trouble. He is the Savior beckoning to the lost to come to his side and be found.

He is all these things and more. He is bigger than Christmas. He is bigger than the year you just experienced, whether it went swimmingly or whether it was the darkest 365 days of your life. He is so much more than the Christmas baby that inspires an awwwww. Our God created the universe. He is a God that inspires awe.

Help me to see you for who you really are, Lord, not for who I want or expect you to be. More importantly, help me to show others just how awe-inspiring you are.

Choirs Singing Carols Right Outside My Door

Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.
1 Peter 3:15 (NLT)

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.
Revelation 3:20 (NLT)

The Christmas season gives rise to plenty of complaints—it’s a hassle, it’s a celebration of crass materialism, fruitcake is not very good, etc. That said, it’s got one huge thing going for it: it’s the one time of year when just about everyone is talking about Jesus. Take Christmas carols, for example. They’re played on radio stations, in stores, in school concerts… and people who haven’t set foot in church in decades gleefully and unselfconsciously sing along. They sing about a sinful world pining for a savior (“O Holy Night”), about the Word made flesh (“O Come All Ye Faithful”), and about the meek accepting Christ (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”). (Apparently “O” is the go-to opening for Christmas carol lyricists.) Choirs are singing carols right outside everyone’s door this season, essentially presenting the gospel to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

Of course, most people have heard these songs so many times over the years that they warble along mostly out of habit, rarely thinking about the meaning of the words. Most people, maybe, but not all. For some people, a particular lyric will get stuck in their head, and they’ll work it over in their heads, wondering what it might mean for real, and the Holy Spirit will gently tug at them to open a door. It’s a door to a new life, and it’s not just choirs outside that door. Christ stands there, as well, beckoning them forward.

Do you know someone who has grown weary of what Christmas has become, and is searching for something real? If they come to you with questions about the hope that Christ has freely given you, would you know the answers? How can you prepare yourself?

Father, give me eyes to see and ears to hear when seekers cross my path. Help me to point them toward you with my words and actions.

Lots of Snow and Ice Everywhere We Go

…You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.
Isaiah 25:4b (NLT)

The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you.
Deuteronomy 33:27 (NLT)

We think of Christmas as a winter holiday. And it is, technically, but just barely. Christmas Day rolls in at the very beginning of winter, which means that it’s the gateway to three months of bitter cold, shoveling the driveway, icy roads, and having to rearrange your life because the kids are having another snow day. The most wonderful time of the year leads into the least wonderful. Children pray for a white Christmas, but trust me: their parents want all that white gone by December 26.

A few years ago, a Christmas day packed with “lots of snow and ice” was responsible for one of my most terrifying nights ever. We awoke on Christmas morn to a world blanketed in white. All was right with the world, until we later drove to a dinner party at a friend’s house—a house at the bottom of a steep, icy hill. When it was over, we couldn’t make it back up that hill, and thus had to take the back way out. White-knuckled, we eased down an even steeper hill coated in deep snow and ice, slipping and sliding toward a frozen pond and certain death. Yes, we survived, but fearing for one’s life does not a Merry Christmas make. Never were we so happy to get back to the warm, protected confines of a house.

Such is winter. It is cold, it is snowy, it is icy, it is dangerous. We may curl up indoors with hot cocoa by roaring fires, but a remarkably unpleasant reality lurks just outside our windows. Likewise, such is the nature of life in our fallen creation: it is cold and dangerous, and unless we are given shelter from its predations, it will destroy us. And shelter—a warm, inviting shelter of the spirit—is just what our Savior has provided us. Life’s bitter storms may rage outside, but we have been given an incredible Christmas gift: refuge.

What storms are raging in your life today? How has God provided protection from those storms?

Thank you, God, for the refuge you provide from the storms of this life.

Lots of Mistletoe

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.
John 15:12 (NLT)

Just to be clear: when I reference “loving each other,” I do not mean the kind of love that normally manifests underneath the mistletoe. This ain’t that kind of church. Still, those green sprigs hanging over doorways are inescapable this time of year, especially at the innumerable parties that seem to pop up every weekend. Secret Santa Parties, Ugly Sweater Parties, White Elephant Parties, even the dreaded Office Party that requires you act like you like your coworkers outside of working hours… they all have something in common: they require interaction with other people. Yuck.

Wouldn’t Christmas be so much easier without other people? You wouldn’t have to fight anyone for that last must-have item at the store on Christmas Eve. You wouldn’t have to buy presents that are just going to get returned at the first opportunity. Christmas might actually be enjoyable for a change! These people are just so difficult, yet God wants us to love them. But what does that mean, exactly?

Think about what happens under the mistletoe. Two people in love demonstrate that love publicly by exchanging a kiss where everyone can see it and know their love is real. That is the message represented by “lots of mistletoe”: it is not enough to simply love one another with sentimental feelings that are locked up in our hearts and never see the light of day. Real love is love you can see, love that is exhibited through real actions that affect real people’s lives. It’s the kind of love that Jesus lived every hour of his life. We’re all difficult people, hard to tolerate on our best days, yet our God loved us enough to sacrifice his heavenly existence and come to live—and die—among us. Love like Jesus? Love like that.

How can you love sacrificially this Christmas? What are some concrete, real-world steps you can take to show Christ-like love to someone in your life who desperately needs it?

Give me a renewed love for people this Christmas season, Lord.

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