A Magical Christmas… Exorcism

Christmas morning is usually a time of magic, of romance, of joy and excitement. It’s a time when families connect around shared traditions and happiness. It’s usually a time when couples share tender glances over coffee and the delighted screams of children. A fire may be roaring in the fireplace, or gentle music playing in the background as the tree sparkles with all of the magic of Christmas.

I am a firm believer in the power of atmosphere to create a romantic mood. So, I wanted my wife and I’s first Christmas together to be perfect. The only downside was that we would have to get up much earlier to have a slow, romantic Christmas morning because we had church that morning. But I got to bed as early as possible after making sure all of Kristie’s gifts and stocking stuffers were tucked away in an easy-to-retrieve spot in my office. Anticipation made it hard to rest, but I tried my best.

Christmas morning arrived with a crack of light peeking through the darkness. I crept out of bed, threw on my soft gray robe and began setting the mood. I prepped for breakfast, which was going to be French toast royale. You should try it. It’s French toast covered with sliced bananas and doused with a cream cheese and maple syrup mixture that should only be legal on special occasions like this. I also, importantly, turned on the coffee pot. This was well before our Keurig ever became an integral part of our lives, so we had an old drip coffee maker that was on its last few legs and brewed quite slowly. But I added some special spices into the coffee to make the morning just that much more special while contributing a lovely rich smell to the house.

I rushed to my in-house office, which is really more a catch-all room, and grabbed the gifts and prepared them in a perfect balancing act of a heap in her usual spot on the couch. Once satisfied with this artistic feat of engineering, I turned on the tree, and placed our music into the stereo. Now, oddly enough, I have a very slow, gentle Celtic Christmas album that is quite soothing, followed by a slightly peppier instrumental album, and followed by Manheim Steamroller once things get rolling and everyone’s awake.

Now, the moment I have been waiting for. Like a prince in a Disney epic, I enter the room of the sleeping princess, and I tenderly place a kiss on her lips to awaken her from her rest. Her eyes flutter open, and I cheerfully say, “Merry Christmas!”

Now, in my preparation, I did not take into account whether or not to have a priest on standby for an emergency exorcism. I don’t know who responded to my, “Merry Christmas,” but it certainly wasn’t my beautiful, sweet, loving wife.

A deep, throaty growl summoned up from the bowels of hades itself roared out of my wife’s mouth, with a demanding, “What time is it?”

“A-about seven o’clock…” I stammered, endeavoring not to make any sudden movements for fear of retribution.

The voice replied with an aggressive growl, “Is the coffee ready?”

“Yes,” I said, keeping my tone and breathing level, making sure that this creature could sense no fear.

“I’ll be in there in a minute,” said the voice before my wife’s body rolled over under the covers. I backed away slowly, keeping my eyes on the small bundle of covers to make sure that no surprises would come from that quarter.

I sulked back into the living room, somewhat defeated, but still hopeful that the morning would be salvaged. After a few minutes, my wife stalked into the kitchen and prepared her coffee. She sipped it and the joined me in the living room, cradling the holy water that would banish the demon. She glanced at me and gave me a half-smile, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had escaped to live another day.

Moral of the story: Compromise and thoughtfulness are key to marriage. Another key is to be able to laugh together when things go slightly sideways and figure out a way to make things better. To be fair, the past four years I have come bearing prepared coffee to her night stand and have been much less energetically, obnoxiously cheerful in my Christmas greeting, and I have not heard the disturbing voice since.

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When Christmas Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas

some changes are less than enjoyable, at least at the outset. I say this because everyone has a moment when Christmas changes.

For the last twenty-some odd years, I have had a very predictable routine regarding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas Eve meant a strange, anxious day leading into a beautiful Christmas Eve service at church, followed by dinner at my grandfather’s house with our huge family. (Now, I also understand that my memory often betrays me, so this may have been going on for less time than I imagine.) Then, Christmas morning would arrive with Dolly Parton singing as we opened gifts and ate breakfast. We’d play most of the day, unless we had church, and then drive to my grandmother’s house for another meal with our huge family, and a few extras.

This year my routine was thrown off. Events conspired to make our Christmas Eve dinner disappear, for the most part. I saw a theater movie that day, which I wasn’t used to. I didn’t spend time outside drinking in the anticipation, and spent a good chunk of the day inside baking. None of this is a complaint, but rather a thinking-through of my own mental state. We still had a lovely service, which did help.

For some reason Christmas felt… strange this year. As if Christmases going forward would be different. New traditions would have to be forged and old ones set aside on a cherished shelf. I’m sure everyone has the moment where time seems to suddenly shudder forward as if it had been holding its place for long enough. This was that year for me.

I’m beginning to understand now the trepidation with which many adults, and some younger people, approach Christmas every year. It seems like some unstoppable titan stomping into an already busy time of life bringing with it all of the bittersweet-ness of hope, excitement, nostalgia, and memory in its overflowing bag of gifts.

I wonder if this is how Jesus’ closest friends felt near Passover each year. When the year would turn a corner and suddenly they would be faced with both the troubling memory of loss and the stunning glory of hope. I wonder if their preparations were slow, deliberate, instead of the frantic arrangements made just before that terrible night. What would they think as they ate that meal together, remembering and looking ahead?

I guess I’m writing this to give voice to a feeling I’m sure others have had. It’s perfectly ok to reflect, to feel a sense of solemnity when change happens. Sure, accepting the change and moving ahead comes in its own time, but it is necessary to sit with the feeling and allow it to run its course.

May you all have a blessed new year.

(We’ll have a more lighthearted post on Thursday.)

Christmas Eve

Saturday is Christmas Eve. In case you didn’t know, it’s the best day of the year. There’s a hushed quality around it that is as if the world is holding its breath waiting for something. And, in a way, it is.

We celebrate the birth of the King. We await the full arrival of His kingdom for justice, peace, joy, and love. Creation longs for the day when all will be created anew, all set to rights when the King arrives in the fullness of glory and power and every knee bows and tongues confess His rule.

I’ve been a little Scroogey this year. I’ve been wanting Christmas to come more quickly and be done with. The busy-ness around Christmas really is a shame. There are so many things to do and people to celebrate with, but with each new item attached to our schedules, I find myself reaching deeper and deeper to be able to find the joy.

If you can, in the next two days, take some time to rest, to find peace. Sit in the hushed stillness of Creation’s anticipation and make it your own. Feel the pull of hope and joy as you find yourself at once at the foot of an empty manger, and empty cross, and an empty tomb. Know that the throne is not empty, and feel your soul nearly wanting to burst with the desire to shout, “The King lives! He is alive! And He is coming” And when you’ve reached that moment, open your eyes and look again on the bare trees and gray skies and think, “How beautiful and wonderful are the works of God.” And then, once you’ve appreciated that, turn and look at your gloriously messy, fabulously chaotic, and oppressively lovable family and feel your heart say, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

I think, at that moment, you will have found the joy of Christmas, and of every day following.

Photo Credit: Landscape, Winter, Cold, Cloudy Weather, Weather via Pixabay

Egg Nog, Hawaiian Bread, and Underwear

Every family grows up with a certain Christmas process. Whether yours begins Christmas Eve or as soon as the Thanksgiving meal has been put away, you know when your Christmas season starts.

Our Christmas season always started on Thanksgiving day and the next. Thanksgiving day was the earliest anyone in our house could drink egg nog. I still find it somewhat sacrilegious when egg nog finds its way onto store shelves at the end of October. But while having that first thick, sweet, spiced glass of Christmas spirit we would begin the process of finding Christmas. We had boxes and boxes of decorations, ornaments, and assorted plates and other nick-nacs. My dad has always had a great eye for spacial reasoning, which made him an expert decorator. My mother, though, would often state once the house were sufficiently full of Christmas, “Well, Christmas has thrown up in this house.” Which, of course, has remained our way of saying, “The house is fully decorated for the festive season.”

For a while, my dad did the 12 days of Christmas with us. Now, the church calendar has these after Christmas, but my dad did 12 days leading up to Christmas. (Which means it starts on the 13th, because I suggested it should start on the 12th, and it ended on the 23rd. I learned a valuable math lesson that year.) He and mom didn’t have many ornaments their first year of marriage, so my dad made sure that my brother and I would have plenty when we had houses of our own. We would get either an ornament, a CD, a book, or something else each morning signed from “YTL.” (Your True Love, if you haven’t heard the song lately.) And I can say that I have about two trees worth of ornaments, but that means that each year my Christmas tree is wildly different, but for all the right reasons.

We had our favorite movies that we would watch at least once each season. “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “The Santa Clause,” and, of course, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Another glass of egg nog would accompany these annual re-watches as we snuggled into another time of family and warmth.

Christmas Eve usually found us at church, enjoying a candlelight service with our church family and extended family. Then, we’d all head over to Bear’s house – Bear being my mother’s father. He’d have King’s Hawaiian bread and ham with tomatoes and lettuce and chips and a box of pastries from a local bakery. Our whole huge family would eat together, swapping stories and news while we ate far too many sandwiches. Then, we’d cram into one of the rooms of his house and the gifts would begin. Each child would receive something, and every year was a surprise. Then, we’d watch Bear receive his gifts, and he would undoubtedly receive several containers of brown mustard, which he hated, and we’d all have a good laugh.

I remember lying awake, staring at the ceiling for hours after these family visits. Strung out on anticipation and sugary soda, I would wait for what seemed like hours for Christmas morning to arrive. And when I finally fell asleep, my parents had the hardest time getting me out of bed. I have, more than once, suggested that the presents just be brought to my room. That would never do, however, and my brother and I would make our way, pajama clad into the living room. For the record, my family never seemed one for wearing bathrobes. But on Christmas morning, we all had one most years, which I’m sure is an odd detail for some of you, but it stands out for me. With Dolly Parton singing sweetly from the speakers, my family would settled into unwrapping gifts, with “oos” and “aahs” and “wows!” Our stockings were always entertaining, with tiny things we never knew we needed, and yet once we saw them instantly realized the hole that they filled. And most years our stockings would contain “panties and socks,” by which my mother meant underwear and socks, but it always made my brother and I cringe, which made her laugh, so it stuck.

Finally, dad would make a filling special Christmas breakfast for us, which varied some years, but was always delicious. We’d sit and watch the Christmas day parade on the TV while we ate our tasty meal.

These are the things that made Christmas past fun and memorable. I am making new memories each year. I learned that real trees are deadly and cause my allergies to flare up and make for a long Christmas season. I learned that cats really enjoy nibbling on fake tree bristles. I learned that waking up my wife early on Christmas morning without a cup of coffee already in my hand is a grave mistake.

Regardless, Christmas still means family, still means Christ, still means a warmth that takes the edge off of the cold of winter.

What traditions do you have with your kids? What small things mean Christmas to you?

What Do You Do With One?

Continuing with our Advent theme, I’ve been thinking about the angels involved. Many depictions of angels have them as these very sleek, stylish young surfer dudes with impeccable hair instead of the intimidating, fear-inducing, warrior messengers that would have merited a “Do not be afraid” when they entered the room. These messengers were the bold scouts that were willing to jump through into enemy territory to deliver messages of utmost importance, “Don’t lay a hand on the boy,” “Your boy will lead Israel and be a Nazarite,” “Walk around the city seven times,” “Your child will prepare the way for the Messiah,” “Your child will be the Messiah.”

In a way, we are like the angels in that Jesus, our King, has charged us with being ambassadors, messengers, to the world around us announcing that the King is on His throne and is now ruling. We have been told to “go,” but have we?

Our church has been practicing something called “Pray for One.” It’s a simple concept where every day each member of our congregation prays “God, give me one person to share your love with today.” And then, we keep our eyes open and spring into action when the person presents themselves. Sometimes it’s as simple as a friendly greeting to a cashier, or as big as inviting that cashier’s family to dinner at your house. Regardless, it’s about being given a charge and taking responsibility for our attitude all the time, because we can never be sure when this person will arrive.

This reminds me of a parable Jesus told in Matthew 25:14-30. He told of a master who gave differing amounts of money to several servants. He gave them different amounts, based on what he felt they could handle. In the end, two of the servants had invested and come back with more than they had been given. The last servant, however, had buried his share and returned it, slightly scuffed, to his master. This last servant was rebuked and sent away. I wonder if we can’t see this as applying to the people in our lives. If we are praying for one, what do we do when that one appears? What if it’s a close friend, or a passing acquaintance? What fears, insecurities, and questions paralyze us and cause us to put off the interaction? Do we bury the opportunity, or do we invest?

So as we reflect on Advent, the “coming,” let’s also reflect on our role as messengers. The angels braved enemy territory to deliver their messages of hope, of joy, of deliverance. Are we willing to risk the same? Are we willing to boldly share God’s love to one person each and every day? Are we willing to pray that prayer knowing that God will answer it?

Photo Credit: Parable of the Talents. Mironov.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

My Top and Bottom Christmas Songs

Ok, so for a silly post this season, since things have been a bit on the drab, gray, slightly more challenging side, I am going to air some grievances against some well known Christmas songs, and also list my favorites.

First, my list of slightly creepy Christmas songs:

“Santa Baby” is only allowed one play a year, and it must be the Eartha Kitt version. This song has always bothered me a little, not just for the blatant materialism, but also for the not-so-implied sexuality of the song. He’s a married man! All he wants in return for his generosity is cookies and milk, not some sugar. (See what I did there?) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Let It Snow” both have some weird, “You’re trapped here with me now” villain type feels to them. I don’t know that I caught this vibe until I got older and heard the woman ask “What’s in this drink?” Say what!? Why are we playing this on the radio, guys? Think of the children!

(But in all honesty, I’m not gonna judge you for liking these songs. I will judge you for drinking egg nog before Thanksgiving, but not for these songs.)

Second, my list of depressing Christmas songs:

If you are the kind of person who enjoys the song “Christmas Shoes” you may want to look into some therapy. Christmas is a time of year that cause some to experience feelings of loneliness and depression. So why in the name of all that is jolly would people write thoroughly depressing Christmas songs!? It’s Christmas! “Christmas Shoes” starts off well enough, but then takes a sharp turn into Sadville when the kid is shown to be buying some shoes for his dying mother. Did these songwriters go to the Disney school of plot development? “Ok, class. First thing about a good plot, at least one parent has to die early, preferably the mom, but the dad will do in a pinch. If you can kill off both of them, extra points.” Along these same lines is “Coventry Carol,” which, if you haven’t heard, includes an entire stanza about Herod killing all of the baby boys after Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus escaped to Egypt. I’m not even joking on that one. The melody, once probably a lullaby, suddenly takes on this dark, threatening tone implying to all who hear it “You’re next!” Technically, that piece of the story comes several years after the birth of Jesus proper, so why even include it!? “Oh yeah, in case you’re having too much fun and sleeping too soundly, just remember that king who killed a bunch of children. Sleep tight!” Depending on who you are, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” can be a real tear-jerker, especially Josh Groban’s recording that includes messages from soldiers who were overseas at the time and would miss Christmas. (Cue uncontrollable sobs.)

Third, a song that has always confused me: “I Saw Three Ships.” It’s a catchy melody that will get stuck in your head, and I have looked up the answer to my question every year and forget in the intervening months, but why are Mary, Jesus, and Joseph on a boat? Here’s the Wikipedia entry on the song, in case you are curious. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Saw_Three_Ships

 

Fourth, songs that I have to hear for it to be Christmas:

There are several of these, so bear with me. The most recent additions to this list are several that I sang in college: “Personent Hodie,” “O Magnum Mysterium” (Robert Shaw), “All is Well,” and “Bogoroditse Devo.” Each of these pieces are glorious pieces that capture the wonder and beauty of Christmas in voice, and I highly recommend them to you. Even without training in Latin or Russian (yes, Russian) you can get lost in the almost tangible texture of these songs, which seems appropriate as we’re celebrating the Word made flesh in the incarnation. I don’t enjoy everything Trans-Siberian Orchestra has to offer, but “Christmas Canon,” “Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24,” and “Dreams of Fireflies” are staples of my listening this time of year. “Dreams of Fireflies” is a modern arrangement of Vivaldi, which makes my heart happy. “O Holy Night” is a must, if for no other reason than my parents have sung it so many times that I will probably never forget that song. For the longest time, I didn’t trust anyone else to sing this song. One, my parents did it best, in my opinion. Second, it’s a deceptively difficult song to sing well. (Also, did you know it was French originally?)

Fifth, whole albums that will be played:

And here are the collections that must be played in their entirety in my house. In a tie for first place are Dolly Parton’s Home for the Holidays and John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas. Dolly’s album was what my dad played every Christmas morning as my brother and I crawled out of bed on Christmas morning and opened gifts with my parents. The sounds of that album just give me a warm feeling of being home. My mother would have John Denver’s album on most times when I rode with her around Christmas time. We would practice harmonies against his melody and I gained an appreciation for a mostly unadorned melody performed well and simply. My dad also enjoyed Harry Connick, Jr’s “When My Heart Finds Christmas” which I also play during this season. I never watched the show, but the Downton Abby Christmas Album is full of wonderful classical renditions of many of the traditional carols. And for those more adventurous among you, try out “Sing We Noel” by the Boston Camerata – it’s a trip down the pre-industrial memory lane of England and Early America. (It is not for everyone, though.)

And getting the last slot and very little thought are the songs that annoy me:

“All I Want for Christmas is You,” could disappear and I would not bat an eye. “The Little Drummer Boy” has always puzzled me as to its popularity – pa rum pa pum pum. I think “Santa Baby” and “Christmas Shoes” would also fall nicely into this category, as well. And “My Favorite Things.” Why is this played at Christmas? It’s from a musical that has next to nothing to do with Christmas, especially in context.

So What’s your favorite Christmas song or album? What Christmas song has you continually confused, depressed, or angry?

Photo Credit: Christmas, Music, Piano, Holiday, Christmas Music via pixabay.com

Blessed Are the People You Don’t Like

It’s Advent, which means that it’s a time for thinking through the amazing gift God gave through Jesus. About the coming of the King that we have both experienced and hope for. We are joyful, yet solemn as we ponder the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life.

I have always, for some reason, focused on the Shepherds in Luke’s account. After all the bombast, tension, and drama of the announcement of the birth, Caesar’s outlandish (to us) demand, and the cathartic sigh of relief as the child is born; we find ourselves face to face with the 1st century equivalent of a migrant worker. Shepherds had a stigma around them, of being smelly, unclean, and unfit for civilized society. They were asked, maybe not so politely, to make sure they stayed outside town with their sheep unless needed. Migrant workers today are paid little, work like crazy, and are still stigmatized as being a problem for modern society.

I wonder if Jesus thought about those shepherds who came to visit his family when he scanned the crowd before he began his famous Sermon on the Mount which begins in Matthew 5. As he scans the crowd, he notices faces that are hopeful, yet realistic in their expectations of whether or not this new teacher would except them. He had healed many but would he present them with something more than standing outside the Temple, with something better than the label of “sinner”, with something freer than the Roman oppression, or greater still the oppression of sin and death?

I imagine Jesus making eye contact with people whose stories he had heard from their own mouths as he began, “Blessed are the poor in spirit[…] the mourners[…] the meek[…] people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice[…] the merciful[…] the pure in heart[…] the peacemakers[…]!” Suddenly, those “outside the fold” were welcomed into a group, a family, and in a way, the Temple itself. Jesus, the place where heaven and earth meet that the temple could only foreshadow, was welcoming all who heard him into the Kingdom, into the presence of God. Did he promise an easy journey or that they would remain the same? No. Jesus showed clearly in the teachings that follow this welcome that the Kingdom requires all who enter to undergo radical change, above and against the wisdom of the world.

What would the beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) look like if after every “Blessed are” you put a person or group you disagreed with or disliked? What would they look like if you were honest and put those you despised and feared in them? How much would your outlook change if instead of seeing others as outsiders, as enemies, you saw them as having received the same welcome from Jesus that you received?

How do you answer the cliffhanger at the end of the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32)? Does the older son come in and celebrate with the father, or sulk outside and refuse to welcome his younger brother? We have a choice every day to celebrate with God, to welcome into His Kingdom, or to sulk outside in the cold and the rain.

So what do you choose during this season of generosity and hope and joy? Do you choose welcome, hospitality, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness, or a cold, bitter, sulk outside?

Photo Credit: Shepherds’ Field | by Seetheholyland.net via Flickr