Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve. The older I get, the more I have learned to appreciate and savor this one day out of the entire year. I don’t know what it is, but Christmas Eve now that I am married and a minister has so much more poignancy than it ever had as a child. As a child, I would wish the day to speed past so that I could get to the best part – the presents.
And yet, I cannot remember a sunny Christmas Eve. For some reason, I associate it with a cloudy, crisp day with a subtle sense of tension. It’s as if nature itself is bracing for some strange, mysterious event. I love getting out into the thick of Gunbarrel Road (the main road leading to the big mall in Chattanooga and many other retail stores) sometime during the day. Why, you ask? Well, most of my Christmas gifts are bought well before that day, so what might possess me? I guess a sense of curiosity, to go out and see if anyone else feels the strange tension, and the collective tension of an entire city scurrying to and fro preparing for a climactic event.
Christmas Eve, instead of being the peaceful day we sing about in songs and carols, seems to me a mad rush headlong into the unknown. Honestly, I think that holy night was very much the same way. An intense session of birthing labor burdened with a frustrating lack of adequate housing. Two people seemingly alone save for the Almighty God’s presence gathered around them and growing inside Mary. A town full of people, even family is booked and full. Humble acceptance of poverty mingled with the earthy smell of animal lodging. Finally, the climax, a scream from a newborn baby boy, the savior, the Earth suddenly stills itself in awe of this new thing: Deity and humanity wrapped into one tiny child.
Just like the past few years, I am looking forward to Christmas Eve. I am anticipating the energy, madness, and the calm, the underlying peace that weighs upon each soul as the reminder that God has shared our human burdens dawns with the morning.
Consider looking around you today at what needs may be met. Just because our Lord spent his first night in poverty does not mean that others need do the same. Give away this Christmas season, not just to family, but to others. We have a joy unmatched by mere human expectation, and it should overflow into our generosity! Anticipate the birth! Expect the unexpected! Have a wonderful Christmas! And most importantly, meet a need that you see!

*Edited from one of my articles originally published December 2013.

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Popping the Bubble for Good

If you haven’t read some of my past blogs, I have been reading through the Mark and Luke the past 6 months or so. If you haven’t read them recently, I’d recommend it.

So I’m in chapter 8 and felt some deja vu today as the story was a retelling of one in Luke: Jairus’ daughter and the woman with bleeding issues.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, a man in charge of the town synagogue comes and finds Jesus because his daughter is sick. (Quick Sidenote: for the leader of the synagogue to consult a revolutionary teacher like Jesus could have been seen as him signing on with Jesus which could put him in a bad spot with the government and religious leaders.) Jesus agrees to help and is walking among a huge crowd towards Jairus’ house when a woman who was destitute and internally bleeding (and had been for years) touches the tassel on Jesus’ cloak and is healed. Jesus stops (the tension mounts as the daughter is still sick and dying) and finds out who touched him because power had gone out of him. The woman admits, and Jesus sends her on her way as her faith had healed her. The news comes that the daughter has died, but Jesus reassures the father and heads to the house where he raises the little girl, lifting her up.

Ok, so, purity laws were a huge deal in the ancient world, mostly for health reasons. Someone seems sick, don’t touch them, so you don’t get sick. Or, wash your hands or your body, wait over night and then you can head out back into town. Dead bodies often carried disease, too, which comes as no surprise due to the Ebola situation in Africa. Notice, though, that Jesus is touched by or touches two different women here. In a way, he might have been considered “unclean” by doing this. Instead of being polluted, Jesus’ nature purifies the problem, making it disappear.

I wonder if this is how we as the church should be acting. Christians have insulated themselves, in a way, by creating their own culture and leaving the secular world to itself. We have our own music, movies, fiction novels, etc. And we look out from our bubble and wonder why things seems chaotic. The church has taken the mandate to keep itself pure to extreme levels.

But I see Jesus doing the opposite. I see Jesus facing the sickness, death, and pain of the world and working in it to create new life. Jesus’ mission, and therefore ours, is to spread this new life into the world. It’s a reverse infection. Instead of infecting people with a biological virus that causes damage, our infection is life, new life, and improved life.

I wonder what would happen if we stepped out of the bubble and began facing the culture around us with a mindset of healing, love, and compassion. What would it look like to see the local church begin to interact with the community around it?

(Disclaimers – I have nothing against Christian [insert art form here], and being Christian doesn’t make life’s challenges go away, it simply gives us a new way to approach them.)

Post Excitement Crash

My body has, without consulting me, decided that it is, in fact, high time I took a moment to sit, rest, and perhaps reflect. It has a habit of doing this… about four times a year. It alerts me to this fact by being sluggish, drowsy, uncooperative, and often times with a minor illness such as a sinus infection. Why four times? Well, because our Daddy-Daughter Dance, VBS, Fall Festival, and the Christmas Drama.

I wonder how many of you, parents or not, are experiencing or going to experience this as I write this. Mainly, because I don’t want to be the only one, you know? Regardless, I sit with a mug of hot tea, listening to Christmas music, and wondering if the program impacted anyone. (That’s the reflection part.)

Being a type-A personality has its perks (things get done) and its curses (constant worry and draining post-event blues). But I’m sure with family arriving in town, school performances, Christmas parties for kids and adults, braving mall traffic, and having to pick up the tree after the cat has knocked it over for the fifth time all take their toll, even on type-Bs. So what do we do?

Well, I try to find some time, even if it’s just a few minutes to rest and reflect. You all help me with that, since you’re reading this. Did I mention the mug of tea beside me? The sounds of Tchaikovsky ring gently in my ears. Your particular method might be different, but I’ve found quiet prayer and silence help me.

I wonder if Mary felt some of this post-excitement crash? Traveling to see extended family, government taxation, lodging issues, and pregnancy all compounded for a veritable cocktail of chaos. And yet, we all picture Mary as this calm, serene woman bearing each problem with grace and peace. Anyone able to deal with all of that mess is surely blessed among women. And on top of everything else the immense blessing and pressure of giving birth to the Son of God. Consider all of the things that mother’s today worry about and then add on that many children didn’t survive back in that era. Everything culminating with the birth of the promised Son and a strange visit from some ecstatic, smelly shepherds. She must’ve been exhausted for days after all of that, and yet we are told that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart.

What a gift! To come through frustrating circumstances and still be able to say that I treasure those situations in my heart. Maybe I should work on that this Christmas: taking the situation, refining it, and treasuring it like gold.

May you have a Christmas that you treasure in your heart.

Christmas Then and Now

Christmas has changed for me over the years. I used to have trouble sleeping, wondering what would be under the tree Christmas morning. Now, I collapse into bed after singing outside in winter, my fingers frozen on Christmas Eve. My introverted nature kicks in after an evening with church family and a family dinner afterwards.

Christmas morning brings more joy, though, because I look forward to seeing other faces open their gifts. Seeing a face light up in genuine smile at a surprise gift makes my heart truly glad.

I think back to the start of this whole Christmas thing. A miraculous baby born into a family sleeping on the floor of the animal room. Seemingly, the only ones aware of the meaning of this child are poor, ornery shepherds who arrive still smelling heavily of sheep and dirt. Up to two years later, magi (magical advisors to an Eastern ruler) show up with incredibly costly gifts. And to keep score, Matthew and Luke both describe this baby, Jesus, as inheriting the kingdom not only of Israel (a challenge to Herod and his family) but also inheriting a bigger kingdom the whole world (a direct challenge to Caesar himself.)

The baby seems so non-threatening, so peaceful, so unassuming. It seems often overlooked that this baby’s very existence threatens to shake the world of his day to the very core, the aftershocks reaching up to the modern day. The baby invites adoration, and demands faith, loyalty, and transformation.

I look around and the situation seems to have changed little over the years. Here we are, in the most commercial season of the year. Colors, decorations, songs, parties, food, and joy seem to be thrown around like cheap confetti. Yet, it seems in all the celebration, the grand majority seems to have missed the statement made by the child’s birth: the people are free!

A kingdom has come, one characterized by love, by service to one another, by joy, by a peace founded in reconciliation. A king has come who shares in his people’s pain, whose heart is broken at sickness, pain, and death – one who experienced these things and more on his way to triumphing over them.

Christmas is powerful, then and now.

Scaling Down

So a thing happened. You know those pre-lit trees that are so fantastic? You know the ones where you pull it out of the box and it just works without having to worry about stringing tangled lights unevenly throughout the artificial tree? Well, they’re great until the top 2/3 of your tree decides to go out. So we went out and got a new tree (also pre-lit, so expect another post in a few years) but we got one smaller.

I’ve been known to embody Charlie Brown in my life, but this tree fits perfectly in our small home. It’s not too bulky or unwieldy. To me, it’s perfect.

On an unrelated note, I just read a passage in Luke where Jesus goes through an clears out the Temple. I started thinking, though… How would Jesus approach us in our own churches? (Pulling out entirely the fact that we celebrate the birth, the Incarnation, only once per year) how would Jesus look on our decorations in our churches and homes during this season?

Again, I enjoy decorations, and have my house decorated as we speak. But there is an idea we can use – simplicity. It seems to me as a culture we continue to add more and more to Christmas every year – starting the season earlier and earlier, trying to add a new “classic” song, etc.

I love this season because, if you look for it, there’s a peace, a calm, an anticipation that is hidden just under the surface. I find it in music and in the cloudy days my part of the country has this time of year. The grey skies signal that colder weather is coming, and time for reflection and a new start are around the bend. And music. I love Christmas music. Just not the pre-packaged pop flavor that gets played on the soft rock station.

I find that Christmas really hits for me when listening to songs like “Personent Hodie”, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, “O Magnum Mysterium”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, and others like them. (There is another song between my mother and I, but it’s kind of an inside the family thing.) But these songs trigger a sense of calm, of peace, of anticipation.

I guess I say all of that to say this: simplify your Christmas. There is more joy in one night at home sipping egg nog, listening to a Christmas album, and snuggling with the family decorating a tree or reading “Twas the Night” together than in any number of events, parties, or other distractions.

I hope your Advent season is full of joy, peace, and anticipation of the celebration of Jesus’ birth!

Teachers

Again, reading through Luke for personal time and for preparing lessons these past couple of weeks has been fascinating. There’s just something wonderful about spending this much time with Jesus.

I read a passage today that I had read a hundred times if I’ve read it once. “A student cannot surpass his teacher, but when fully trained will be like his teacher.” This hit me like a ton of bricks today, for some odd reason.

Many of our pop culture stories are about people surpassing their teachers and going on to accomplish great things. But is that what generally happens? Sure, the skills passed on may be able to improve from generation to generation, but what about the character of that person. Does character improve over time, or is that what Jesus is referring to?

I am, in many ways, very much a child of my parents. They have been my teachers for the greater part of my life. I have also picked up traits and ideas from teachers, mentors, and other respected figures over time. But think about who your children’s teachers are. Consider that who your children spend time with could very well be the person they become.

There’s also a really encouraging aspect to this. Think about your child spending time with Jesus. And then becoming more like Jesus. Sure, we can’t be better than Jesus, but just to be like him would be enough.

Teachers are so important. I appreciate all of the teachers I’ve had in my life – those that challenged me, and those that might not have. Those that I grew close to, and even those with whom I had a strained relationship. Regardless, those men and women helped shape me, whether I admit it or not. And in a way, my character and ideas carry little pieces of them. Thank your children’s teachers, and get to know them.

Filling Up Empty

I find it sadly ironic that the season (Thanksgiving to Christmas) that is most about fullness is often the emptiest. At Thanksgiving houses are full, bellies are full, mouths are full of conversation and laughter. At Christmas, gift wrapping is full, bellies are full, houses are still full, and mouths are full of song.

And yet, this time of year is known for its rise in cases of depression. This season reminds some of losses felt in the past year. This season feels so empty for so many. And that emptiness is painful.

At the end of our church Christmas play this year, the manger will be empty. When we made that decision, it seemed almost artistic, but then I’ve been coming back to that thought over and over. I think about all the empty things in the story of Jesus. An empty manger, an empty cross, an empty tomb. And yet, in all of that emptiness, there is a mysterious, glorious fullness that goes along with it.

The manger was empty, but a man walked the earth filling it with love. The cross was empty, but a debt had been filled to overflowing. The tomb was empty, but a Presence filled the earth that continues to fill empty hearts.

There’s the age-old question: is the glass half full or half empty? Reading and living in God’s story shows me that the glass is always half-full, because God is continually pouring love, wisdom, peace, and courage into His family.

May you be blessed with the fullness of God’s presence this season. No matter what emptiness you feel, may the God of peace fill up your cup to overflowing.