On Christmas Trees and Seeking First the Kingdom…

I wanted to buy a Christmas tree this year.
Since I have now officially moved to Guatemala for the foreseeable future, I decided it was a good long-term investment.
And since my boxes finally arrived from the States (a whole other story), I have the ornaments for the tree.

But currently I am living in an apartment with one other teacher and the living room is a shared common area.
I don’t know where exactly I will be living next Christmas.
So I decided that “smaller would be better” and started looking for a tabletop tree.

The store I thought most likely to have such a thing did have trees – but they started at around five feet and went up from there.

I decided on the spot that I wouldn’t mind a medium tree if that was all I could find – but then I looked at the price of the smallest, a five-footer. It was more than I was willing to pay.

So the hunt was on for an affordable tree, somewhere between three and five feet tall.

I recruited my friend Jorge and we set off to go to various stores around town, searching for the right tree at the right price.
The second store we went into – one of the local grocery chains – had a selection of three different types of trees, all in the medium range. The trees were displayed above the shelves, way up high.
We checked the price and voila! They were on sale! This store wanted less than half of what they were charging across the mall.

So Jorge told the lady, she got the tag and went to the back. She returned carrying a plain brown box that was just about the right height. Jorge checked to make sure the stand was there – it was – and we took it to the checkout.

The next night my roommate and I decided to put it up. As we wrestled it out of the box, I was surprised to find that it was in three pieces! And as we put it up, I realized this was no five-foot tree!
When fully assembled, the top is way over my 5’5” frame and nearly touches the ceiling of our apartment, as you can see in the photo.

Now I am not sure what happened.
Did the display tree appear deceptively small since it was up high?
Did she give me a different box than she was supposed to?
Was the display like a floor model that was not to scale?
I have no idea!
All I know for sure is that my “tabletop tree” dream that morphed to a five-foot dream had suddenly grown into an even greater outcome!

And I thought, “Isn’t that just like God?!”
He took my miniature dreams and turned them into something colossal.
He took the desire of my heart and made it something grander than I had in mind.
And he did it for an amazing price.

Here’s what I know about the character of God:
He loves to give us surprises.
He delights in taking small things and making them grand.
And He knows our desires better than we do.

Does He always operate on my timetable? Certainly not!
Does He always multiply things the same way? Definitely not!
And do I always get my way, the things I think I want or even what I think I need? Never!

But I have learned that if I make Him my main concern,
if I walk in His footsteps and yield to His ways,
if I seek first HIS Kingdom instead of my own,
He pours out blessings.

Good gifts.
Surprising gifts.
Splendid gifts.
Better than I could think to desire.

Paul put it this way in Ephesians 3:
“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. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.”

A Christmas tree for Kathy seems like such a silly thing for God to be concerned about.
And yet, His concern for me, His provision for me, His exponential blessing is not silly at all.
It is a powerful reminder of who He is and how His Kingdom operates.

He has proven yet again that He is a good, good Father, granting good, good gifts to His daughter.
Not because I deserve them. I don’t.
But simply because I have yielded to His Kingship, placing myself under His authority.

Jesus told us it would work this way.
“Seek first the Kingdom”, He said, and God will take care of the rest.
Apparently, that doesn’t just apply to clothing lilies and feeding the birds of the air – it also applies to Christmas trees!

And now to purchase a few more ornaments to finish it off…

They Had Big Plans…

They had big plans, the two of them.
After a year-long engagement they would have the big day.
Friends and family would celebrate with them in grand style.
They weren’t the richest family in the village, but a wedding is a wedding!
The food and drink would be as abundant as they could make them.
There would be dancing and laughter and so much joy.
And everyone would rejoice with them.

Then, after the wedding, they would live at his house, which was also his place of business.
He had a reputation for quality craftsmanship.
She had a reputation for kindness, purity and godliness.
It was going to be an amazing life.

And someday, maybe a year or so after the wedding, they would welcome their first child.
She hoped it would be a boy with his father’s strong chin and kind eyes.
Everyone in the village would celebrate with them again.
And, of course, her mom would be right there to help her with everything – setting up the nursery, giving birth, and guiding her through all the firsts.

What a cozy, glorious future they had in front of them!

Until that day when the angel showed up out of nowhere and wrecked every plan.
Every dream.
Every “supposed to be”.

And after that moment, that “Yes, Lord, I am your servant; do whatever you want”, life imploded.
Plans shattered.
Hearts broke.
Life turned on end.

Joseph’s disbelief when she told him she was pregnant with God’s son.
The disappointment in the eyes of the kindest people in the village – and the outright scorn of the meanest.
The gossip.
The hasty wedding.
The whispers and glances and derision.

And even after God visited Joseph with the news of her innocence, the plans continued to explode, one right after another.

Arduous travel instead of setting up the nursery.
Joseph attending instead of her mom.
Birth in stable instead of their own cozy home.
A manger instead of the cradle made by her carpenter husband.
Strangers, coarse and smelly shepherds, being the first ones to meet her son instead of family, instead of friends, instead of the familiar.

Then staying in Bethlehem instead of returning home.
Finding a house to rent.
Doing all of the firsts far from family, far from familiar, far from the plans.

Until the next cataclysmic event.
An entourage at the door. Camels, servants, richly robed court officials, strange language and darker skins, all bowing in worship.
Two-year old Jesus, reaching out to touch the shiny gold.
The wizened old magi kissing his hand and calling him Lord.

Joy. Wonder. Gratitude for the gifts.
And then Joseph, shaking her shoulder in the middle of the night.
“We have to flee! God warned me in a dream!”

Strangers on the road again, this time with a toddler in tow.
The long journey to Egypt.
To another strange place.
Stranger than Bethlehem.
New language, new foods, new faces, new places.
Strangers in a strange land.

And then finally, after the death of the wicked king who slaughtered babies out of jealousy, the return to Nazareth.
Picking up plans again.
Looking to the future.
Perhaps less outward disruption for a while.
But always with the prophet’s words in the back of her mind, “A sword will pierce your soul.”

I don’t know if every detail above happened exactly that way. Some of it I am imagining based on what the Bible says.
But I do know that Mary and Joseph’s life went nothing like it was “supposed to” in their culture.

I don’t know about you, but I like plans.
I dislike waiting.
I like to know.
And to be able to look ahead.
I get frustrated when things are unsure.
When the props get knocked out from under me once again.

But then I look in Scripture.
And I see how so many people – not just Mary – had their plans interrupted by God for a much higher, much greater purpose than they could ever imagine.

Abraham and Sarah never planned on infertility being the hallmark of their lives.
Abraham never planned on sacrificing his beloved son.
Jacob never planned on losing his favorite son “to wild animals”.
And Joseph never planned on being a slave in Egypt.
His brothers never planned on confessing to their father what they had done.
The whole family never planned on moving to Egypt.

Moses never planned on returning to Egypt after his botched attempt at saving his people.
And he never planned to walk THROUGH the Red Sea on the way back out.
Joshua never planned on defeating a city by walking around it.
Gideon never planned on being a hero of any kind.
David never planned on having to flee for his life after God anointed him king.
And Elijah never planned on being fed by unclean ravens and a heathen widow.
Daniel and his friends never planned on being captives in Babylon.
And Esther never planned to be queen.

Peter, Andrew, James and John never planned to quit the fishing-for-fish business.
And Matthew never planned to stop cheating the people when he taxed them.
Paul never planned to be blinded by truth that upended his life and his reputation.
And John never planned to be an exile the next time he saw Jesus face to face.

And that is just some of them. Moving on through history, there is story after story of others.

Like Jim Eliot, who never planned on being killed by the people he came to serve.
But out of his death and those of his friends, a new church was born, and a people group was saved.

And Amy Carmichael, who never planned to break her back by falling in a hole in the dark.
But the last 20 of her 56 years in ministry took place from her bed of suffering, where book after book was born.
And the ministry of rescuing India’s children that she started in 1901 continues to this day.

Or Corrie ten Boom, who never planned on saving Jews from Hitler nor watching her sister die in a concentration camp.
But out of those experiences came 50 years of ministry, forgiveness, writing and speaking, turning former camps into rehabilitation centers.

We make plans.
Plans for comfort.
Plans for safety.
Plans for security.
Expected outcomes.
Carefully calculated equations.

But then God steps in.
And often, His plans look like disasters from this side of heaven.
They are never, ever, ever what we would have chosen for ourselves.
They involve suffering.
Dying to self.
Laying down dreams.
And picking up crosses.

But in every single one of the examples above – from Mary of Nazareth to Corrie ten Boom – God has used those disrupted plans to change the world.
Accomplish His purpose.
Transform lives.
And bring beauty from brokenness.

He alone sees the big picture.
He alone has the Master Plan.

So when my plans implode, what do I do?
Do I trust that He is still on His throne, still in control, still working out “everything in conformity to the purpose of His will”? (Ephesians 1)
Or do I throw a pity party?
Do I allow doubt to flood my soul?
Do I decide He is not good and does not know what He is doing?

That is how Eve wrecked HIS plans for us.
But doubting His character.
Doubting His heart.
And deciding she knew best.

May my plans – and dreams – and hopes – and desires – be sketched in pencil on the tablet of my heart so that His plans can be accomplished however He chooses.

Because He is good. And everything He does is right.
Including His plans that feel like disasters from my point of view.
Oh for grace to trust Him more!